I arrived in Darwin more than 48 hours after leaving Brisbane, and I feel fine. The first bus service terminated at Mount Isa after 26 hours or so. The next one to Tennant Creek ended up being on the same bus. After the first night that might have bothered me, but the driver finishing at Mount Isa explained to the Tennant Creek driver how he made the heating work. The driver who was on overnight the first night didn’t know how to operate it and thought it was broken so we huddled through 13°C all night. It was 0-1 outside and the cold poured in through the large glass windows. One stop was at Charleville train station (below) at 3 o’clock in the morning. The driver opened the station up for us to use the facilities, and it most definitely wasn’t heated. I managed to nod off a few times on that first night, and slept better last night, and of course had a few naps during both days.
Because I’m going between major cities, it would be easy to miss the importance of these buses to the places in between. One of my fellow passengers on the first bus was a newly arrived Scottish lass, presumably on a tourist visa, heading to a new job in Cloncurry. It was only at Winton, a few stops before Cloncurry, that the conversation brought her to ask, “So, is there nothing to do in Cloncurry?” The conspiracy-loving Queenslander gladly informed her that drinking was pretty much the only thing to do there. Although he may have been biased towards drinking being the only thing to do anywhere. He was on the bus back to Mount Isa after dropping off a work truck at whatever town he joined us. Another fellow was heading off to respite care for the day. The buses also provide a mail and freight service, which I was reminded of in the first small town after Toowoomba when we went for a little detour through dusty back streets to a locked shed in the dark. So while I might be on these buses as part of my possibly once in a life time big adventure, for many people they’re part of everyday life.
Warning: Flowery bit ahead
A big part of why I’m doing this trip this way is to see what I can see along the way. Yesterday afternoon I got to see one of my old favourite places: the ranges of colour between Cloncurry and Mount Isa at the end of the day. The tablelands from first light at Tambo to Winton and north are the necessary precursor for full appreciation of what follows, but I also appreciate them in their own right. The plains stretch off in a gradually shifting monotony of variations in trees of scraggly charcoal or clumps of green, grasses of yellows, ashy greens and greys, orange yellow dirt and arching blue sky. Their meditative quality makes for the perfect start to a long holiday after a busy few months.
Around Winton there are some sudden mound-like hills dropped beside the highway, just to check you’re awake. Then, as you approach Cloncurry, a gentle undulation begins. Then we paused in Cloncurry to allow the sun to drop to just the right spot. And then the finale began.
A rough range thickly spotted with pale green clumps of grass over red dirt and trees like pins in a cushion. Broken rocky walls, mint green eucalypts with bare white branches and green-topped, grey sticky shrubs. All thoughts of plains obliterated. But I was disappointed. Where was the purple I remembered? The sun approached the horizon, the bus went through shadows, rounded a corner, and voila, purple replaced the grey sticky shrubs and the grey grass. Sunset time ticked gently. The sun dropped below the horizon and around the next corner, pink! The red dirt was streaked with it, pierced by dark red termite mounds. The pink of the land blended with the pink of the sky, while the ragged range kept it all from getting too sweet.
The scene was interrupted by the first billboard for Mount Isa advertising an adult mega shop (not a mega adult shop), and ended with the smoke stack and yellow lights of the Isa.
End of flowery bit
Traveling through the Territory today I was reminded why I like it so much. While the ranges between Cloncurry and Mount Isa are ruggedly beautiful, the scenery along the highway from breakfast at Dunmurra almost to Darwin makes me feel something else entirely. I can’t quite explain it. Lunch at Katherine reminded me why I’m not so sure I could live here. It’s the sadness of the place. The security mesh and bars and roller doors everywhere. The smashed up ATM. The who knows what stains on the pavement. The kids wandering around on a school day. And my first glimpse of the water at Darwin reminded me how much I like the coast.
Tomorrow I fly to Singapore.
(It looks like I might only be able to add one photo per page. Plus, they’re a little difficult to take through a tinted dirty window moving at 100 km/h or more.)