Cairns to Darwin – Day 3 (2850km later)

*SPLAT*

*SPLAT*

Time for the final stint. I woke and had a simple breakfast of very bad cereal. What country would allow Sugar Puffs without the sugar onto the market? It’s like grains of polystyrene only more tasteless. And I bought it by accident.

Orienting myself again using the sun, shadow positions, bird flight patterns, and the road signs I began the long trip north. I remembered the details from my bus trip a couple of years ago. There are really only two directions to go from here and one of them’s the wrong one.

The road up to Darwin is incredilby straight in places. Actually, the east/west Flinders Highway is the same. It’s especially bizarre at night. In the distance you see some headlights so you dip yours. The other vehicle reciprocates. Then sometime around the following Tuesday you finally pass each others.

These roads are long. And straight. A bend is a major event to be celebrated with fanfares and – in extreme cases – waking the driver up. Especially so when you’re in an automatic with cruise control.

This is the first time I’ve ever had a use for cruise control. I had it on one of my old Golfs but it’d just pointless in the UK as there’s too much traffic. As soon as you get your speed level, someone cuts you up or you hit a queue. Here, however, there’s knack all traffic. Two cars in five minutes is gridlock.

Thankfully, the day passed quickly enough. I stopped for lunch at Newcastle Waters, fuel in more places than I can remember and at Daly Waters‘ wonderful pub for a (light) beer where I talked to a couple of holidaymakers from the UK.

Quick stop

Quick stop

I did make one other stop to fill up from the large canisters I’d had stored in the van. In a bid to ensure I didn’t run out somewhere in the middle of nowhere – and also to save cash in case I hit the $750 limit – I’d filled these up in Cairns. Moving the fuel from the canisters to the tank in the van proved to be fiddly for a one-person job and only a small amount of the diesel want on my clothes.

It is a useful idea if you’re going to drive around here to get a large canister like this and fill it at each cheap place. Use it to top up before you resort to the expensive fuel pumps. The fuel price can be as much as 40c per litre dearer (maybe more) at the roadhouses than in larger cities. For the record, Katherine has cheap fuel, as do Darwin and Mt Isa. Filling up in Katherine should get you to Darwin.

So finally I came within sight of Darwin. I contacted Katie and she told me she lived just south of the city – just off the exit I was about to reach, as luck would have it. I met her at McD‘s and followed her back to her house where I met her other half, the neighbours and – as the night went on – a handful of her friends.

Beers were drunk, plans made, food eaten, puppies played with and – eventually – blog posts typed up.

Great watering hole

Great watering hole

As Katie’s moving house very shortly, she’s cancelled their home internet so I don’t have full-time access. However, I know I’ve got a lost of things to sort before I go and they’re all in my to-do list!

It’s now approaching midnight. I have a comfy fold-down bed and I’ve enjoyed a nice hot shower. I’m looking forward to a decent snooze and a relaxing day out tomorrow.

And someone else is doing the driving.

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Cairns to Darwin – Day 2

Breakfast on the go

Breakfast on the go

I woke, packed up the van and headed south to the first picnic spot I could find. Here I parked up again and prepared breakfast: sausage sandwiches and HP sauce. Yummy. It was stinking hot and not even 9am when I put all the food stuff away and headed south.

I’d have preferred to have continued west along the Developmental Road but as it’s unpaved in parts I wasn’t allowed. So south it was to Cloncurry and through Mt Isa again. Legend has it that once you cross the river in Mt Isa then you’re bound by supernatural laws to return to the city. Well, I crossed the river a few days ago and I was indeed back again! This time, though, my stay was barely an hour.

I filled up (twice), had a McFlurry so I could get some free wi-fi and bought some beers for later. The reason I filled up twice was due to a problem with the van. When it was hot (pretty much after it had been running for more than an hour) it would make any fuel squirted into it “froth” and spill back out. As such, filling it was a very slow and tedious process. At some times I was lucky to get 1l of diesel per minute into the tank. The first time I stopped, I thought I had filled it but when I got in I found I’d only made it to the 3/4 mark. Hence a second stop to put another 10l in.

Another border crossing

Another border crossing

West it was. I passed the border into the Northern Territory at around 6pm and duly put my watch back half an hour to cater for the time difference. As duck fell, the insects arrived in their droves and made little “tak” noises as they squirted their innards all over my windscreen (which now sported an impressive chip courtesy of a road train and a piece of gravel).

Some of these insects were the size of small birds, although the effect when they hit the windscreen were different. Birds made more of a “whump” sound before whipping over the top of the van and not leaving a mark.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t aim for birds. The opposite, I tried to swerve and slow to avoid them but the smaller ones in particular were just intent (it seemed) on bouncing off the van. Maybe it’s some weird avian version of “dare” but they’d fly into the path of the van, often flutter away and then cut back in again at the last second in a bid to make me duck pointlessly behind the steering wheel as they “whump”-ed harmlessly (for me) overhead.

Oh, I think I got a snake as well. Although it could have been a bit of old tyre rubber. I couldn’t avoid it as there was a car coming in the opposite lane at the same time so there was no swerve space.

Anyway, after driving through the dark for some time I made it off the westbound road and up onto the Stuart Highway which connects Adelaide with Darwin. I’d been up here before, but there was little other choice. I had toyed with the Tableland route, but the distance between roadhouses was too far.

Food, drink, expensive diesel

Food, drink, expensive diesel

I hit the 3-Ways roadhouse for some fuel and a leg-stretch, pushed north a bit and pulled into a picnic/rest area. Amazingly – and wonderfully – a lot of these are clearly marked as allowing 24-hour camping. So if you’re not bothered about showers or electricity then they make for a great place to pitch for the night. Many have toilets and barbequeues as well as seating areas and information posters. The one I stopped at already had about six vehicles parked up, the occupants – I assumed – already in the land of Nod.

After prepping the van so I’d not concuss myself should I roll over in bed, I joined them.

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Cairns to Darwin – Day 1

Pretty view

Pretty view

I walked up to Apollo’s office early doors to collect the camper van. After filling in a gazillion bits of paperwork and watching a DVD on its operation, I was handed the keys and sent on my way. There were various provisos: I couldn’t take it off unsealed road except to get to campsites and the like; I had 2950km allotted for free; $750 fuel allowance. This restricted the route I wanted to take slightly, but hey-ho. At $1 per day I wasn’t going to complain.

The van I was relocating turned out to be a 3l Toyota Hilux with a small house stapled to the back of it. The inside had basic furnishings and the roof was raised and lowered for camping to give more headroom. Nice enough. I checked everything was OK and set off into town.

First stop was Woolies to get some food, then I tried to find somewhere to get a cable to connect my MP3 player to the van stereo. A simple 2-ended stereo jack lead was going to cost me $20 in the places I found them so I decided not to bother and just listen with my headphones instead.

As I headed back to the van after my third stop, I suddenly realised my head was a day out. I thought it was Sunday and therefore free parking all over Cairns. But it wasn’t. It was Monday. And if I hadn’t paid, I risked a ticket. Oops. Fortunately, nothing awaited my return so I got away with it. I don’t think parking wardens care about “honest mistakes”.

Nothing to do with beans

Nothing to do with beans

And so the journey began. With the fridge and food box laden, I headed south as far as Ingham then tweaked west along one of the lesser-used roads. Rather than driving all the way south back to Townsville, I thought I’d go for variety.

My first rest stop was at Crawford’s Lookout, over the Johnstone River. I hopped out here to enjoy the view and decided to walk down the 1.7km trail to the next viewpoint. Around 100m in I encountered my first ever wild snake. Thankfully he/she wasn’t that wild, and slithered off into the undergrowth when I stomped nearby. I have no idea what kind of snake it was – just black and about a metre long.

The view from what turned out to be the emergency helicopter landing pad was quite impressive. I could have walked down to the river itself, but I didn’t feel that I had the time. Instead I walked back to the van and drove further down the road to a picnic spot where I used the free stove they provided to make myself some soup for lunch.

High up

High up

Following the windy road to Normanton – which I aimed to reach before sleeping – I passed an enormous amount of nice countryside. It was lush to start with but as I progressed west, the greenery gave way to scraggy dry bush. Windy Hill was the last green place I stopped – an area with 20 wind turbines which proclaims itself happy to serve the community. Rather than the usual case in the UK where these things are built and then ignored by everyone except the people who complain that they make too much noise and spoil the view. Deal with it – it’s clean energy and they’re better than burning coal. Oh, and they don’t make much noise. I was stood 20m from one and it was quieter than a ceiling fan.

Welcome!

Welcome!

I passed briefly through Ravenshoe – Queensland’s Highest Town at 920m above sea level – and them just ploughed on until I finally reached Normanton, the “Home of the Gulflander” (one of the main train routes in Oz). It was closed. The town, that is. All of it. I was hoping to find a bar where I could share a drink with the locals before sleeping, but it wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, I parked up on a verge, extended my roof and went to sleep. No point in paying for a caravan park even though there was at least one nearby.

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Townsville to Cairns

One big issue with Townsville – the public buses run fairly small routes and virtually none run at all on a Sunday. This means I had a hell of a walk out to the edge of town towards the highway and Cairns.

An hour took me to a McDonald’s a few kilometres out where I stopped for breakfast and internet access. Around half an hour later a very attractive young lady accompanied by her son (about 8 years old, I’d guess) stopped and drove me out of town to a petrol station. Certainly not the demographic you expect to be picking up hitchhikers and I’m very glad they did so!

Within twenty minutes, a minibus pulled up and two guys and a young girl from the Pacific Islands ushered me on board. They’d just been to a funeral in Townsville and were heading north of Cairns. They shared drinks with me as there was no aircon (other than the open windows) and they dropped me off on the Esplanade at around 3:15. If I’d caught the bus, I’d have been on the road for less than half an hour at that point.

I checked two hostels before I settled on the Esplanade Backpackers (I think one of the Nomad chain) as it was only $15 for the night, including free dinner at the Rhino Bar downtown.

McDonalds was required for free-wifi, and despite buying a meal I was harassed by the manager after some time to pack up and move out. The restaurant was near-empty, nobody was waiting for a seat and the internet policy online states that the time limit is only as long as your laptop battery lasts.

Had they been busy I’d have fully understood, but it just seemed like someone taking their own personal “20 minutes” rule at face value. This is for all customers, not just internet use. So even if the place is dead and you’re enjoying a massive meal and spending a fortune you’re only allowed a short time to eat it. I’ve seen this branch during the busy season and at that point, I’d agree – you need to shuffle people around. But right now, Cairns is dead. All they’ve succeeded in doing is annoying someone who’d not going to pay for food next time. I’ll just sit outside and leach.

Whinge over. I sat on the grass over the road and listened to two very talented musicians play some incredibly relaxing cover versions and ploughed through a couple more chapters of my book. It’s pushing 7pm now, from which time the free dinner is served, so I’m about to pack up and head over to The Rhino.

Hopefully, I’ll get this post online before I leave. Either way, I won’t be online until I get into Darwin – at least I doubt it. I’m hoping to take a route which is very unlikely to take me past a McD’s!

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The Great Hitch is over!

I am now sat in McDonald’s in Cairns as it has free wifi. They’ve had a lot of business out of me in Oz since they rolled this out across every branch.

However, the reason I’m posting is that I’ve finished hitching all the way from Adelaide to Cairns (with brief uses of public transport and a hop out to Mt Isa – not a hitchable journey). And I think that’s pretty darn impressive. I had a heck of a walk out of Townsville this morning until I was picked up by a very pretty 30-something and her young son, then shortly after by a family originally from the Pacific Islands. They dropped me right on the Esplanade in Cairns, about 100m from the hostel I checked into.

£15 for the night, hot shower and a free dinner at 7:00. Awesome.

Tomorrow begins the long trek by campervan to Darwin so I’ll be off the radar until then. They don’t have many McD‘s in the Outback.

[I have some more posts to backdate, but I’ll get these up once I reach Darwin]

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