I had booked my train tickets a few months earlier in a moment of spontaneity, and it was a few weeks later that I started thinking about what I would do once I got to Darwin. To the west there appeared to be more or less nothing until you get to Perth, to the east is Cairns and the well-worn backpacker route of the east coast. I had heard good things about the east coast, but at the same time it sounded a bit hectic, a bit Gap Yah for me, and I quite wanted to do something different. But as I didn’t want to fly and couldn’t afford one-way car hire, transport through the all but uninhabited north west was looking problematic. I almost resigned myself to splashing out on an Intrepid tour, when I came across the idea of rental relocations.
The layout of the Australian road system lends itself to long-distance road trips, and because of the distances involved, many people will do a point-to-point rather than a round trip. This means there are cars and campervans that a returned in one place that need to somehow get back to their origin, and there are websites, like imoova and coseats, where you can find them. The fees are nominal and companies often reimburse some of your fuel, so the only costs are insurance, living costs, and petrol. The caveat is that you have a limited time frame to return the vehicle, and a mileage limit so you can’t take a roundabout route, and you put down a fairly hefty deposit to encourage you not to go AWOL.
Discovering this when I was still in Melbourne, I booked a two-seater kitted-out campervan to drive from Darwin to Broome, in Western Australia, over four days. I reasoned that I could either go on my own and see how I fared mentally with only myself for company, or if I met anyone on the way heading in that direction I could take them with me and share costs. I wasn’t sure which I option preferred (are you more likely to get murdered a) by a random stranger when you’re driving alone in the middle of nowhere or b) by a secretly psychotic almost-stranger while you’re driving with them in the middle nowhere?), but on the train to Darwin I met Cat, a youth worker from Leeds who was interested in heading in that direction and displayed no psychotic tendencies whatsoever. And so, after a few days in Darwin, we hit the road on my second Australian road trip.
Despite being more than twice the size of France, the Northern Territory has a population of just over 210,000. This is the smallest population of any Australian state or territory, including the tiny ACT (Australian Capital Territory) which is basically just Canberra. Around two thirds of this number live in Darwin, so the rest of the Territory is quite spectacularly empty on a scale that I can’t quite get my head around. For this reason, I was expecting our 1278 mile drive to be quite dull without anything much of interest to look at, and that was partly true. I hadn’t appreciated though how long distance driving changes the way you look at things. After an hour or so of driving through the bush, you find yourself noticing the smallest changes in the landscape, and pointing out things that under other circumstances would not be at all noteworthy. Aren’t the patterns on those rocks cool! Isn’t it weird how these bushes are different from those bushes before! Hey look, another termite mount! Cows! It’s weirdly therapeutic, to start noticing and appreciating the differences from one patch of emptiness to another.
The route from Darwin took us south at first, following the Stuart Highway alongside the train line back to Katherine, and we stopped at the hot springs for lunch. I’ve had disappointing experiences with hot springs before, like in Banff where it was basically an overcrowded outdoor pool – nice views, but the turquoise tiles and chrome steps detracted from the naturalness a bit – but Katherine was lovely. From the car park you wouldn’t know there was anything there, there’s barely even a sign, but as we walked down the steps into the valley, we found a stream, interspersed with pools and small waterfalls, shaded by tropical leafy trees. It was really nicely done, with enough subtle handrails and sympathetic landscaping to feel natural and very relaxing.
Carrying on into the afternoon, we headed west along the Victoria Highway passing through the (relatively) dramatic Gregory National Park. We stopped for fuel at the Victoria River Roadhouse, a remote, tiny place where the pump isn’t connected to the tills and they trust you to tell them how much you owe. One of the campervan rental conditions is that we were not allowed to drive between dusk and dawn, primarily because kangaroos have a habit of bounding into the road at sunrise and sunset, so we stopped for the night in Timber Creek, a settlement of 200 people centred around a hotel/roadhouse/caravan park on the highway. The creek itself, which runs along one end of the caravan park, is home to crocodiles (the hotel holds a croc feeding session for visitors every couple of days) and the surrounding tree contain the biggest bats I’ve ever seen in my life. Needless to say we picked a camping spot nice and far away from the creek.
Keen to get on, we got up bright and early the next morning, and after a couple of hours arrived at the Western Australian border at around 10:00am. Or at least, 10:00am Northern Territory time, as in the excitement of having to surrender all the fruit and veg we’d bought the previous day, we forgot about the 90 minute time change between the states. We didn’t notice until that evening, and spent the whole day living an hour and a half ahead of everyone else. Should’ve had a lie in.