Story by Kim Wildman
"Which way?" Rob asks looking at the four-way intersection in bewilderment.
"Straight." Doug answers with some hesitation.
I'm sitting in the back seat of a four-wheel drive on my first road trip through the Northern Territory, travelling in a four-car convoy along the Savannah Highway. In the driver's hot-seat is Robert Upe, a writer from the Melbourne Age
, and alongside him is Douglas Daly, a public relations coordinator with Tourism NT who's also doubling as our guide and fearless leader for the week. We've just pulled out of Top Springs Roadhouse, a lonely pit-stop about 290km from Katherine which sits at the junction of the Buchanan and Buntine Highways and already our journey ahead seems unclear.
"What? That way?" Rob says incredulously, scrutinising the thin strip of tar ahead of us that apparently acts as the Buchanan Highway.
"Yes," I hold up the map, relishing my role of back-seat driver. "The road that least looks like a road!"
Having spent the previous day being tossed around like a sack of potatoes as we tackled the Humbert Track, an old stock route that winds its way through Gregory National Park, I'm thinking that at this point even a thin strip of tar looks enticing. My excitement however is short-lived, as the narrow band of sealed road quickly gives way to a deeply rutted red gravel road.
With my head bouncing around almost uncontrollably as we speed across the bone-jarring corrugations, I try to focus my eyes on the horizon apparently it works like a charm for seasickness!
Through the nauseating lurking, I suddenly notice a swirling cloud of red dust covering the road ahead. "What's that?" I blink in confusion.
Leaning forward, the three of us stare in amazement at the ominous dust storm blocking our path. Then without warning a helicopter swoops down from behind the car and swings around low to the right of the dust cloud.
With his eyes growing wide, Doug quickly reaches for the two-way radio and excitedly announces to the three cars pulling up the rear of our four-wheel drive procession, "It looks like we have a real live muster!"
"Yeeeee Ha!" comes the fast, wise-cracking response.
As Rob draws the car closer, a large herd of cows slowly emerges from the thick red dust. With nowhere to go, we stop and watch in awe as ringers on motorbikes and horseback work with the helicopter to round up the herd and urge it onwards down the road.
Suddenly there's a loud thwack
! The next thing we know a ringer on horseback swinging a whip high above his head comes charging in front of the car chasing a small calf that has unwisely broken away from the herd.
Excitedly I grab my camera and fumble with the door, eager to get closer to the action. While taking to the road on foot in the middle of a cattle muster is probably not the wisest of decisions, several of my companions have already emerged from the cars behind and I'm willing to take my chances. Besides, there's safety in numbers I foolishly tell myself.
With a tight day's schedule to follow, however, it's not long before Doug begins rounding us up. Like the cattle, we slowly mosey back into the cars and negotiate our way around the herd. Despite the interruption we make excellent time, flashing past wide expanses of savannah broken only by sparse thickets of spindly brown trees and towering termite mounds of varying shape and size.
Our first stop is Daly Waters, a tiny settlement seven kilometres off the Stuart Highway that has provided Outback travellers with legendary hospitality for more than a century. Once a popular drover's rest, the pub gained fame as a stopover for pilots and passengers arriving on the new Qantas airline in 1934.
While the planes no longer drop by, today Daly Waters is best known as a pit-stop for thirsty tourists travelling this stretch of the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin. After the long, dusty drive, we certainly enjoyed the break.
Sitting in the shady beer garden we hungrily tuck into a large plate of the pub's famous beef and barra barbecue as we await the arrival of the lunch-time entertainment. A musician who we're told is renowned right around Australia.
Finally, Frank "The Crank" Turton appears. Wearing a dirty and tattered blue singlet teamed with an equally grubby pair of stubbies and an old pair of thongs, he's carrying two large black chickens.
Making his way to the stage, Frank places the chickens on a roost and turns to us and winks. He then dons a strange house-shaped hat and proceeds to put one of the chickens on the top. Taking his seat he says with a crooked smile, "It's hard work being bloody stupid!"
A bit of a local legend in these parts, Frank, who hails from Renmark in South Australia, has spent much of his life travelling around Australia introducing unsuspecting audiences to his offbeat musical talents. With a repertoire of songs like 'When The Paper's Wet With Dew' lamenting the woes of soggy toilet paper, you can understand why he's yet to win a Golden Guitar!
Later, as we pull out of Daly Waters, I spy Frank wandering across the road still wearing his hat. I smile as I notice a hand-painted sign at the side of the road: "Drive Slow! Chooks Xing".
Our next stop is Mataranka, on the upper reaches of the Roper River. About an hour's drive south-east of Katherine, the town's greatest claim to fame is that it was the setting of We of the Never Never, the celebrated Australian historical novel written by Jeannie Gunn.
Eager to wash the thick film of dust from our bodies, we immediately head for Elsey National Park and the Outback oasis that is the Mataranka thermal pools. Once used by American officers during WWII, today we find its waters bobbing with the heads of a large group of grey nomads. As our group wades in and joins their number, visions of the cattle muster from this morning come quickly to mind.
Later that night, sitting on the veranda of Coodardie Brahman Station just outside of Mataranka, watching the sun slowly set splashing shades of pink and gold across the house, I muse over the events of our Outback journey so far. It's been an action-packed, gruelling couple of days. But with Darwin still two days off and work a distant memory, I'm happy knowing that whatever direction we take, the surprises that await us on the road ahead will always remain unclear.
For more information on the Northern Territory and the Savannah Way visit: www.travelnt.com and www.savannahway.com.au
Daly Waters Pub: www.dalywaterspub.com
The Savannah Way
The Savannah Way, a series of highways and dirt tracks that span the 3700km from Cairns on the east coast to Broome on the west, is one of Australia's ultimate driving adventures. While it is possible to drive the route along a sealed highway, we followed the alternative Savannah Way track in an NS Pajero 4WD supplied by Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd. This tour was sponsored by Tourism NT.