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We're relaxing on the shady verandah of our room here at the Maud Creek Country Lodge, 20 km out of Katherine. It's a very nice bed & breakfast style property with just three rooms, run by Willem and Jennie, a friendly couple who have also looked after booking a Nitmiluk Gorge cruise for use tomorrow and a table for dinner at the best place in town for this evening - Katie's Bistro.
The rooms are in a fenced-off square of lawn decorated with pandanus palms, bougainvillea, and other tropical touches, set amidst a rather drier and more scrubby property away from the house where W. & J. live. When we arrived, two large, friendly dogs bounded over to us as we walked from the car to the reception desk in a small office attached to the house. They tailed us over to the rooms and I obliged to throw a dog toy for one of them.
The fence outside our room sits between us and the Katherine River, which we plan to have a short walk along once the sun gets a bit lower and the heat in the air cools down a little. From our perch on the verandah, we can hear about a dozen distinctly different bird calls, including some parrots of different sizes. I've seen a wagtail doing the rounds of the lawn in search of insects, and we had a blue-winged kookaburra sitting on the fence earlier.
We've arrived here in this semi-lush tropical paradise from the rather more prosaic Dunmarra roadhouse this morning. We rose with the sun, thankfully not disturbed too much throughout the night be another diesel generator that was evident outside our bathroom window. We drank the milks we bought last night as a quick breakfast and then packed, filled up the car with petrol ($93 - again more than the room), and hit the highway north once more.
With no radio stations in reception range for much of this trip, we've had to invent ways to keep ourselves entertained on the long featureless stretches of road between the tiny towns and fuel stops. Prompted by a bag of fruit and nuts we'd bought in Alice Springs as road snacks, we began singing various songs with lyrics modified to refer to nuts of various types. Some of the highlights included: Nutbush City Limits (which started us off easy), Hot Pistachio (to the tune of The Wiggles' Hot Potato), It's a Long Way Through the Shell If You Want a Coconut (It's a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock n' Roll), Brazil Nut (Goldfinger), The Nutshake (The Milkshake), and many more.
The first stop for the day was Daly Waters. (Again - the towns with water-related names but no actual water. We also figured the nasty hot dry stretches of spiky grass we've seen could be billed as the "Shady Seaside Breeze Caravan Park".) The only reason to stop here is to see the historic pub, built in 1930 and now decorated in what is really an indescribable manner, with all sorts of visitor mementos strung up over every available surface inside, and various attempts at witty signs on the outside. A couple of people were actually trying to have a quiet drink (despite it being 8 a.m.), but they were outnumbered by people with cameras merely gawking and snapping photos.
Further down the road was the tiny town of Larrimah, population 20. One of those 20 however is Fran, who is a local legend. Most days she runs a tiny Devonshire tea room on a porch outside what looks like a garage converted into a kitchen on her property. When we drove up, just after 09:00, her wrinkled face appeared in the doorway of the kitchen - half-hidden by humorous signs - and asked us what we would like to eat and drink. We got Devonshire teas and M. had a coffee and I had a Fran-made ginger beer. The scones were warm and delicious, with the raspberry jam and fresh cream spread on them, and our plates were also loaded with multiple thick slices of warm damper, which was perhaps even better, dense and chewy, but light enough to sit easily on the stomach. The ginger beer was incredibly sharp and fresh.
As we ate, birds of several species flocked around and entertained us, including a host of rainbow lorikeets, keen on the water dripping from Fran's rain tank. Fran engages us in a bit of conversation through the window screens of the kitchen as she puttered away preparing things for what would no doubt be a busy day ahead of serving passers-by, and apologised for not talking to us properly because she had so much to do. As we used the toilet there, an old couple came in and ordered some pies and danishes to take away. They left quickly and we went to pay for our morning tea, ordering a small blueberry and apple pie for the road. It came out of Fran's large chest freezer and she told us to leave it on the dashboard as we drove so it would be ready when we wanted to eat it.
Leaving Larrimah and Fran, we continued on to Mataranka, where a side road took us out to Elsey National Park and the famous Mataranka thermal pool. I changed into swimmers and took the plunge into this rather small natural pool of warm spring water sitting amidst a thick forest of palm trees. There were about 30 or 40 other people soaking in the bath-tub warm water, of all ages from pre-teens to elderly retirees. The bottom of the pool was sandy and uneven in places with rocks and tree roots, and nowhere too deep to stand comfortably. The water was subtly greenish and exuded a faint sulphurous smell, but nothing you'd notice after a few minutes acclimatisation.
The water in the pool cascaded away across a rock wall and along a shallow stream for a few metres before it joined the Roper River, a permanent watercourse through the otherwise arid country that supports lush growth of palms around it. There are freshwater crocodiles in the river, and a sign at the entry point for swimmers warns that the crocodiles can cause injury if they are aggravated. Otherwise the freshies are harmless to humans and it is safe to swim in the river, as a group of teenagers were doing when we went to have a look. We didn't see any crocodiles, disappointingly.
After drying off from my swim, we continued on our way to Katherine. On our way out of the National Park, we passed through a large group of huge termite mounds lining the sides of the road. Some of them were taller than us, so we got out and stood by them to get some snapshots.
As we approached Katherine, we saw a total of two police cars, an ambulance, and an ambulance car pass us at high speed in the opposite direction. We figured there may have been a traffic accident somewhere behind us, but we hadn't seen any.
Katherine is a significantly larger town than Tennant Creek, but arriving as we did after 13:00 on a Saturday, most of the shops were closed. At least they didn't appear run-down and dusty like they did in Tennant Creek. We stopped to wander up and down the main street, browsing in an art and souvenir shop that boasted a "live saltwater crocodile" on a sign outside. The crocodile turned out to be a baby, about 60 cm long, sitting idly in a fishtank at the rear of the store, beyond all the racks of cheap, tacky souvenirs.
The odd thing about stopping in Katherine is that when you turned off the radio and got out of the car, we could hear the same song being played. We thought a shop must have been playing it through exterior speaker. But as we walked down the main street, we slowly realised that the radio station was being played over a public address system with horn loudspeakers mounted on light poles running down the street. It was bizarre.
And in fact the radio station was bizarre in itself. We'd picked it up about 50 km out of Katherine and it was one of those peculiar stations you only ever get in the country, with hits of the 50s through to the present day in a random mixture, but this time also with the occasional outright country music song thrown into the mix as well. So we had the rock classic Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again by The Angels, followed by a country ballad about some guy and his dog, followed by a 50s doo-wop tune, followed by the Beach Boys Good Vibrations.
After the "live croc" shop, we crossed the main street to check the Oasis Shopping Centre, which was basically a Woolies with a row of smaller shops fronting on to it to form a glorified arcade. I got a small pizza roll from a Brumbies bakery as a partial lunch. Then we walked out to the street and a Subway where M. got a "vegie delight" sub, which we split. It was good to have a big slab of raw vegetables for a change from all of the heavy holiday food.
With the entire afternoon to kill, we figured we'd try the Katherine Railway Museum and thre Katherine Historical Museum. Unfortunately, it being Saturday and after 13:00, both were closed according to the opening hours listed in the Lonely Planet. So we gave up and decided to head for our lodging for the night. However, on the way out of town towards Maud Creek, we passed the Historical Museum and saw that it was actually open! So we took the opportunity and drove into the parking area.
For an entry fee of just $5 each, we perused various displays on the Overland Telegraph, the Katherine flood of 1998 (which turned the Oasis Shopping Centre into a swimming pool - apparently they found a large saltwater crocodile in the butcher section of the Woolies...), a local identity and hero in the person of a stockman of mixed Chinese, Aboriginal, and European descent (and of whom there is a mounted statue in Katherine), various old farming and household tools and implements, and Dr Clyde Fenton - the first flying doctor in the Northern Territory. The latter display was housed in a hangar that also held Fenton's original Tiger Moth biplane, registration VH-UNI, that was the first plane used for the Flying Doctor Service.
While looking at the old kitchen and household implements, such as a clothes washing copper, clothes mangle, wood-fuelled stove, and so on, we were joined by an elderly couple who were expressing amazement at how things used to be done and how different it was now. The woman said her mother used to have some of these old devices and that she herself wouldn't want to give up her modern electric appliances for these museum pieces. The man looked at us and M. in particular and said we were too young to remember any of that.
One item in particular had a sign on it saying "What am I" followed by "Lift flap to find out". I said, thinking of the first silly thing that I could think of, "A sausage maker!" I lifted the wooden panel, and lo and behold it said: "Sausage making machine" underneath! M. didn't believe I hadn't peeked at it, but honestly I hadn't!
With some of the afternoon thus constructively spent, we headed off to our accommodation for the night. After checking in with Willem, we rested in the cool of our room for a couple of hours until we took a short walk out the back of the property to glimpse the Katherine River. The view was not great, since trees and a steep slope down to the water prevented us from getting too close to the bank, but we saw a couple of wallabies watching us warily from about 20 metres away as we made our way down there and then back to the room. Then soon after we drove back into town to Katie's Bistro for dinner.
We were seated outside and immediately I was bitten by a couple of insects. I raced back to the car to apply some Aerogard after we'd ordered our meals, and wasn't bothered by the bloodsuckers again. I had a barramundi fillet baked in lemon myrtle and wattle seed with veges, and M. had a fettuccine with eggplant, zucchini, olives, tomatoes, and red capsicum. We started with a trio of dips with ciabatta and ended with a cheese platter, which was good, but soon ran out of crackers. We asked for some more crackers and the waitress obliged happily, but we discovered when the bill arrived that they'd charged us an extra $3 for a plate of crackers! (The whole box probably cost them $2.14 at Coles.)
Dinner done, we returned to Maud Creek where the dogs greeted us eagerly with their toys again. In the inky darkness of the road out of Katherine, we drove slowly to avoid running into any of the wallabies that we could see populating both sides of the road. We must have seen several dozen of them, but fortunately none took the opportunity to leap out on to the road in front of us. On the way in to our room we had a chat with an Indian family who are occupying the other two rooms and who had just done the dinner cruise on Nitmiluk Gorge. They said it was fantastic and that we would have a great time tomorrow.
Speaking of which, we have to be up early at 06:15 to make the cruise, so it's bedtime now.
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