Day Twelve

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I’ve said it before: drugs are good. The previous night on the Stuart Hwy I’d given up my front-seat bed in the car so that I could sleep under the stars, and as wonderful as the experience was it was not the best night’s sleep, and I woke up with a pretty sore shoulder. Last night I took a couple of ibuprofen before bed, and had a much better night’s sleep. According to Jane, that meant I snored, which in turn meant that her night’s sleep was not so good.

The small wallabies around the Katherine Gorge camp site are cute and fairly tame, and they also like rummaging in the rubbish bags at night. Dad managed to disturb one at 2:00am and salvage the rubbish from being scattered all over the site. Nick and Di both had close encounters with wallabies munching right near their heads as they slept.

I awoke this morning to the sound of birds… many, many birds. The first to make its presence felt had a solo call of long, mournful notes. The sounds was beautiful. Soon after there were flocks of birds overhead, and the noise was spectacular. I didn’t want to get up, but eventually I grabbed the camera and the good microphone and set it up just away from camp to capture the sound of the birds.

We packed up and were ready to roll by 8:00am. I’d decided to have a shot at driving, after working out the night before that I could change gear OK with my left hand. I figured I would be able to handle the bitumen section at least.

The bikes were off the trailer, and Nick took command of my trusty ride for the day. That was a bittersweet moment for me. I would have hated the thought of the bike being on the trailer today, but it was still sad to see my baby off with another man.

We set off and fuelled up back in Katherine. A five-minute detour into Woolworths to find an iPod adapter for the radio somehow delayed up by about half an hour, but before long we were rolling.

The road out was great, to the point of making me even more jealous of the riders. After around 60 kays the bitumen came to an end, and was replaced by a well formed dirt road. As with any dirt road around here there were patches of sand and corrugations, but we were happy to be holding 75 km/h. It would mean a late night getting in to Gapuwiyak, but wed get there. We wound up following a raod train, which we might have been able to pass, but decided not to try. The dust it kicked up was incredible, and we were able to establish that he’d be turning off before to long. We dropped our speed a little and kept out of his dust.

We stopped for lunch just past the remains of the Manirou Store (after catching up to the road train again), just after our first river crossing. Both the riders decided to open the throttle on the way out, and both of them nearly lost control as their back tyres slipped on the slimy causeway. By now we were approaching the permit-only Aboriginal land, so we decided that it was time to load the bikes back on to the trailer.

As the day progressed the road only got better. Our average speed increased to 95km/h or so as we continued on. It was sandy a lot of the time, and occasionally the corrugations got pretty rough. There were floodways, wash-outs and a number of river crossings (with actual water in them), but we kept the radio communication going to warn each other of what was coming.

We saw the foliage change and the termite mounds grow and change colour as we travelled along. We saw the occasional wrecked car (don’t take a RAV4 to Arnhem Land, and if you do, be sure to take the sweeping left-handers nice and slow), a water buffalo and assorted other wildlife.

Radio communication was interesting all day. When Marco was on the bike and in the lead, he could be heard consistently by Mandy in the last vehicle, usually by Andy in the front vehicle and rarely by me in the middle vehicle. If Andy spoke, he could be heard by everyone, but could only hear Mandy at the back. So for Marco to warn Andy that a car was coming, Marco would speak to Mandy, and Mandy would have to repeat what Marco said. Occasionally I would then have to relay the message again. It took us 20 minutes to tell Andy that we were looking for a lunch stop, and when he finally replied, he said, “Why are you stopping?”

Another vehicle who passed us (and could pick up everything) thought we were hilarious.

We reached Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) at around 5:30pm, and I’d managed to drive the whole way. It left me with a fair sense of achievement, all things considered, and went some way toward making up for not riding the bike.

When we turned in to Daniel and Silke’s street, Silke and Zoey were standing out the front of the house. There was so much going on for all of us at that moment – we’d arrived at one of our key destinations, we caught up with old friends, we’d kept a promise made years before to come visit, and we were promised the chance to just simply rest and be for the next few days.

We made coffee and sat in the yard while Silke told stories of what they had been up to. It was so good to see her again, as beautiful and funny and sassy as ever. For those of us who knew Silke already, it was as though no time had passed since we’d seen her last. And the others in the group seemed to feel right at home, right away.

Silke told us about their old, green Land Cruiser with the open sides and the canvas top, how that day she had put another hole in the roof, and how it was starting to finally wear out, and how she was too often having to use it for work and community activities. As we listened, we smiled quietly to each other.

As it got dark, Silke led us about 5 kays out of town to a camp site in the bush. As we arrived, the clutch in Silke’s old green Cruiser gave out completely, and she stalled in the middle of the campsite. Andy the wonder-mechanic took a look, and was able to top up the hydraulic fluid for the clutch, and get it going again.

We set up in the dark, and despite good weather, most of us opted for tents this time. For me, it was the glittering eyes of the wolfe spiders in the bush around us. I can’t speak for the others (though I did mention the glittering eyes to one or two as we made camp).

After we set up we started to make dinner. As dinner was being served, Andy and Silke took the Troopie back to town to collect Daniel (after telling Silke that the clutch was still dead in her own vehicle), who had been out hunting for the day. Silke drove, and commented to Andy how much she would love to replace the old Cruiser with a vehicle like that. On the way back, Daniel also remarked on how well a troopie would suit their needs.

When they returned to camp, and we’d all greeted Daniel, Andy gathered us all near the campfire. Without any fanfare, he told Daniel and Silke that the troopie that they’d both just ridden in was actually theirs to keep. He told the story of the last 12 months or more since he’d had the idea to find a vehicle for them, and how the previous owner had looked after the car, and even reduced the price when he learned what we were doing with it. Naturally they were thrilled, and we were all pretty excited at that point.

And we were all pretty tired. My shoulder was starting to remind me just how much I’d put it through that day, and I was first to bed. What a day of blessings: incredibly good and quick roads, in a place where we could only expect the worst, reunions of old friends, and the joy of seeing a gift purchased 10 months ago given at exactly the right time to exactly the right people.

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