It was the chance to experience truly remote exploration; a small team of 4x4 vehicles on a reconnaissance mission with the aim of extending the NT’s famous Binns Track farther north, linking this gigantic off-road route to the Top End’s spectacular Litchfield National Park.
As with any tale of adventure and exploration – and even in this modern tech-laden age – the recce trip was exciting, challenging, and a little bit heartbreaking for 4x4 Australia’s crew. But for those on the expedition, it’s still counted as one of those ‘trips of a lifetime’. This article was originally published on the January 2010 issue of 4x4 Australia.
Cecil Madigan, Ludwig Leichhardt, and Burke and Wills. All famous names linked to exploratory adventures centred on forging new paths across this massive country and now – take a deep breath of disbelief – joined by Walker, Newham and Stafford.
I know, I know, it’s reaching the limits of outrageousness to make such a statement. But, after spending some time in the Northern Territory’s more remote regions, part of which was undertaking a reconnaissance trip focused on extending the NT’s 2191km Binns Track, Brad Newham, John Stafford and I experienced just a taste of the epic man-against-nature struggle so prevalent in the glory days of these famous pioneers.
All big adventures start small, and this one was no different. I had been planning an off-road epic into the NT for some time and had been in contact with John Stafford (senior industry development officer, Destination Development, Tourism NT), the man behind the Binns Track’s latter stages of development.
The original idea behind the Binns was to finish at Litchfield National Park, around an hour south-west of Darwin, finishing a trans-Territory off-road journey that would begin at Mt Dare, in SA’s northern Simpson Desert. What our tourers eventually found was a track that started at Mt Dare but finished slightly short of the mark – at Timber Creek – after a final off-road trek through rugged Gregory NP.
Brad, Michael Ellem (Offroad Images) and I completed the Binns Track in 2008 (see 4X4 Australia Aug, Sept and Oct 2008 issues) but were left with some tantalising words from John regarding the eventual extension.
When I rang John for assistance with my latest trip he barely had the chance to get the words out about a potential reconnaissance of the missing leg of the Binns, before I was shouting down the phone that we’d be there – no matter the time or place.
The prospect of being modern-day pathfinders brought out the latent explorer in me, and I spent all of 10 seconds convincing Brad Newham to accompany me. After all, in this day and age of a near fully mapped and catalogued planet, the opportunity to play explorer couldn’t be missed.
The 21st century incarnation of those hardy early explorers has a much easier time of it when setting up an expedition.
During planning, a flurry of emails containing Google Earth overviews, GPS waypoints and enlarged topographic maps of forgotten station tracks, passed between Sydney, Elizabeth (SA) and Alice Springs – such is the world of the modern-day adventurer.
Excitement built as phone calls were made discussing possible obstructions – river crossings, overgrown tracks and any pastoralist/land-title concerns – countered by the obvious potential of John’s mapped-out route.
While John sorted the navigational aspects, I organised 4X4 Australia’s transport. A super-capable off-road vehicle, with plenty of clearance and high load capacity, was a must, so a Land Rover Defender Td4 was shipped to Brad’s ARB Elizabeth workshop for fitting out with a number of trip-essential accessories.
Getting there is half the fun, according to some. However, after months of organising and anticipation, the 14-hour drive from Elizabeth to Alice Springs was decidedly low-key. Passing the time was easier, with Brad and I reminding each other that it would only get better! And it did, as soon as we arrived in Alice Springs. John, his wife Blythe and daughter Ellie offered us a top Territory welcome and a much-needed bed for the night.
The Binns Track’s missing link is from Gregory NP to Litchfield NP. With travellers currently finishing at Timber Creek, the logical extension is from Flora River Nature Park, north-east of Gregory NP. John’s intended route went north from Flora NP, through pastoral properties and Aboriginal land along rough, overgrown tracks to the Oolloo Crossing, at the Daly River, which brings travellers out just south-west of Daly River community.
Rather than endure any more of the Stuart Highway’s monotony heading north, we took the off-road option: the Tanami Road. The Tanami is an Australian off-road icon that has undergone a slow transformation. Gone is a significant amount of the infamous corrugations, replaced with bitumen for long sections.
This civilising of the Tanami hasn’t taken away its attraction of being the quickest route to WA, or stopped it from offering some unique outback experiences. We had only travelled around 100km when we sighted a lone camel munching on some trees alongside the track.
It was the first photo op for me and gave Brad and John the chance to drop tyre pressures. Camel pics and tyre pressures sorted, we were soon on our way to our first stop of Tilmouth Roadhouse for a quick tour through its art gallery and a look at its impressive facilities.
Our plan from here was to continue along the Tanami to Rabbit Flat, before turning right onto Lajamanu Road and continuing north. The best laid plans, as we know, can come a cropper, and for us it was the realisation that the Defender’s 75-litre fuel tank just ain’t big enough for long-distance journeys. We had to drop our speed, reaching Rabbit Flat Roadhouse just before dusk for a refuel.
It is always hard to convey to people a remote desert campsite’s unique appeal, but that night’s stopover, just off the Tanami, ticked off all the highlights: an impressive light show in the sky, courtesy of a multitude of stars; a warm fire; cold beers and great company. Fuel worries were soon forgotten.
The Tanami Road was great, but a wee bit crowded with other traffic; we still craved that isolation synonymous with desert travel. Turning north onto Lajamanu Road our patience was rewarded; we encountered only two vehicles while passing through some spectacular desert country, dotted with rock-covered hills.
We had not realised that most community fuel depots would be shut on Sundays – the word ‘research’ comes to mind – and, once again, we had to rethink our fuel strategy. After passing through Lajamanu, we struck it lucky at Kalkarindji, where the general store was open and diesel was available.
From here, it was a straightforward journey along wide roads to Top Springs, where we paid an exorbitant amount to top-up the Defender. From Top Springs we continued along the Buntine Highway before joining the Victoria Highway and making tracks to the well-appointed Victoria River Roadhouse for a cold beer, shower and feed. And yes, it was in that order.
The plan from here was to head to Flora River NP to meet up with Greig Taylor, of the Northern Land Council, who was joining us on the recce as part of the proposed route travelled through Aboriginal land.
We arrived earlier than expected, so took the chance to do a preliminary scout around the immediate area’s station tracks, stopping to have a quick yarn – and confirm our route – with three station hands working on some fencing.
John’s main concern at this stage was the initial crossing of the Flora River but, after travelling along some rugged station tracks to reach the river, we soon dismissed our concern as the water was barely wheel-rim height – the proposed route was looking good. We returned to Flora River NP to meet Greig, had a quick briefing, and returned to the station tracks that would lead us, eventually, to Dorisvale Station homestead.
Google Earth, sat-nav and paper maps are fantastic, but they still don’t tell the real story when it comes to terrain you may encounter. Satellite mapping can often be out of date and tracks that were current at the time of mapping may no longer be so.
We had been following a sparse track along fence lines for a couple of hours, with some steep pinches testing traction levels as the vehicles fought for grip on the loose, rocky climbs when we reached what we thought was our point of return.
We were down in a small valley, next to a dry creek bed, in vehicle-high grass, puzzling over a track that existed in the digital world – it was on our VMS Touring 500 GPS unit – but had physically given up the proverbial and disappeared from the landscape.
The deep, dry creek bed in front of us had no visible track around or through it, and a three-metre high wall on its other side, topped by the ubiquitous tall grass. It was our first serious obstacle and, after scrambling across the creek bed, we still couldn’t see where the track went. The GPS said it was there and also showed one that ran along the riverbed adjacent to our position.
After much head-scratching, Greig tramped the long way around and through the dry riverbed, scrambling up and into some even taller grass, and then across an old fence to find faint twin tyre indentations. There wasn’t much room to manoeuvre – the three vehicles leaned precariously over the steep drop-off as they negotiated the tight access point – but we were soon on track again.
As we continued north, the overgrown landscape gave way to more open terrain, following the track as it snaked between creek beds and boggy, potentially vehicle-trapping swamp areas. It was here we spotted one of the Territory’s most infamous and destructive residents: a feral water buffalo. The stand-off between us and the lone bovine lasted for only a couple of minutes – and a few photos – before it sauntered off.
Country hospitality is a given in the outback, and so it was when we dropped in at Dorisvale Station for a quick hello, and were immediately offered beers and a hot meal. The station was preparing for muster the next morning so, not wanting to be an annoyance at this important time, we begged off from dinner and followed one of the station hands in a bull-catcher to our own private camping oasis – a site perched between two creeks.
It had been a hard day for drivers and vehicles, but we knew tomorrow’s 40-odd kilometres would contain the crux of the trip: the Oolloo Crossing. The tracks we were keen to follow hadn’t been used for years, so we were expecting more route-finding and trip-finishing challenges before we reached Oolloo Crossing.
We tracked north the next morning, running parallel for a lot of the way with Jinduckin Creek. The terrain shifted from dense forest to dusty, dry sections and then to more open areas where the flora was in the first throes of regrowth after the annual burn-off.
The tracks were barely visible, resulting in the Defender, with its GPS showing each track, acting as the rudder for John’s lead Landie. Most of our creek crossings were dry but moderately challenging – the damage the wet season causes was clearly evident – with two deeper ones, just before we reached track’s end at Oolloo Crossing, taking some careful wheel placement to cross.
After a couple of hours we were there; our convoy edging down the cutting toward a wall of trees that looked like they had been flung about by some high wet-season floodwaters. Jumping out, we continued on foot, clambering over a huge sandy riverbank to stand well above our final destination.
The ford at Oolloo Crossing was still there alright; it was just around five metres below the vertical, sandy riverbank we now stood on. Disappointment – there was no way a sustainable track could be built to withstand the Daly River’s might during the wet season – merged with admiration of the brute force of nature.
Even with the latest navigational technology, super-capable vehicles and plenty of experience, the territory’s ageless – and powerful – landscape had defeated us. John, ever the optimist, muttered something about future plans for a track on the other side of the river, starting way back south, but for us, this abrupt end to our exploratory foray meant our path-finding journey was over – for now.
An adventure is never over until you get home – or back to Dorisvale Road in our case. Somehow, on the return journey, we managed to lose Greig. He was leading on the way back (we’d hung back to keep clear of his dust) and, as we entered some boggy terrain, the last radio call we got was, “Can you guys still see me?” At that stage, we could – just; his white roof was visible in the distance through a dense stand of trees. However, another few kilometres along the track and he disappeared – no radio communications and no white Troopie.
For modern-day explorers it was a tad embarrassing. We returned to Dorisvale Road where, after a half-hour wait, the white Troopie appeared, with Greig intact – and only slightly embarrassed. He’d followed another of that area’s myriad tracks and had nearly ended up in a swamp. I am sure the ghosts of explorers past would be shaking their heads.
The recce had ended in disappointment but we were keen to finish off the future Binns Track so, after farewelling Greig, we continued north to Daly River and Mango Farm Tourist Resort for our rendezvous with Matt Grooby (Tourism NT’s industry development officer – indigenous tourism), who was going to spend the next week with us as we ventured farther north and west.
It was surreal being back in civilisation – although we soon adapted after diving straight into the showers, plugging in our power-dependent gear and cracking a coldie. Then, it was off to an even more welcome realignment with the modern world: a feed of barramundi and a few more beers – at the Daly River pub.
The focus for our next day was initially going to be barramundi. Matt had organised a couple of tinnies to get us out on the Daly River, and throw a line in. However, after half an hour with no bites or nibbles, we decided croc spotting was a lot more fun.
The Daly River is renowned for having one of the highest concentrations of estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles in the country and we weren’t disappointed – some of them were massive, and demanding plenty of respect. This was something Brad failed to recognise when I asked him to move just a little bit closer to a particularly large one, only to hit a sand bank and stall the boat engine.
As we drifted ever closer to the bank – and a croc – the term ‘ageing fast’ took on a whole new meaning and I could hear some pretty frantic clicking of the start button as we continued floating forward.Fear aids exaggeration, I guess, but it seemed like an eternity before Brad selected reverse gear, we both simultaneously barked a nervous laugh, and the tinnie was moved back to a safer viewing distance.
Our afternoon at Daly River was spent with Agnes Page, a member of the Daly River community, who is heavily involved in developing indigenous tourism in the area. Agnes offered a fantastic insight into her land and the plans the community has (read "A Country Welcome" below).
Litchfield NP is slated to be the Binns Track’s final leg and it really will do this epic trip justice. We entered the park the next morning from its southern end and tackled numerous water crossings. We stopped off for a swim at spectacular Tjaynera Falls, checked out historical Blyth Homestead, stood in awe beside huge termite mounds, and even helped out a German backpacking couple who had bogged their Mitsubishi Delica at one of the crossings. A final stop at Litchfield NP’s northern end to check out a massive collection of termite mounds was a great finish to an action-packed week.
Sitting in Corroboree Park Inn’s bar, over a couple of beers later that night, Brad and I had a chance to reflect on our jam-packed first week. The recon trip stood out most – and we knew we’d get another crack at the Binns extension – but it joined the sublime desert camping and Litchfield NP’s truck-load of attractions as great examples of why the NT has such appeal for off-road tourers: you get a lot of everything!
And for us, the adventure was only half-finished. With remote, rarely visited Top End locations still to come – not to mention the chance to experience the indigenous culture so prevalent in the region – we knew it would be unforgettable.
The great outdoors on 4x4 Explore
A Country Welcome
In being sprayed on the stomach and head with water out of a stranger’s mouth – without complaint – may seem odd, but it was all part of a traditional welcome to country by Agnes Page, from Daly River.
Agnes grew up on the Daly River mission, before training as a teacher. She soon sought a new challenge and moved to Cooinda Resort, in Kakadu NP, where she worked in the Warradjan Cultural Centre.
She later trained as a Yellow Water Cruise skipper and became mildly famous – and received the Premier’s Award – for the rescue of two fishermen who had capsized their boat in the croc-infested waterway.
Agnes returned home to teach pre-school children in Daly River, and is now developing a tourism business. This revolves around providing cultural immersion experiences for visiting high school students from Victoria and NSW.
Agnes also hopes to expand this to general visitors and, after spending a day with her being shown around some of the more out of the way locations in and around Daly River, there’s little doubt she will continue to be a home-grown success story.