And so it begins. Monday morning, 6.15am on the bus. It’s still dark and we’re gone. Met our guides, Oscar Bedford, the head guide, who hails from Tasmania and Isaac Beales, who is more junior and a trainee. Lots of dreadlocks going on. South down the Stuart Highway in the pre-dawn quiet of Darwin coming awake. Suburbs dropped away and we are in the dry Savannah. This is the great featureless road trip of Australia. Busted arse speargrass-scrub and no landmarks until south of Katherine. Tried to remember how many times I’ve done this trip. Lost count. Stopped at Adelaide River and Pine Creek. The first time I visited these two places was in 1977 hitchhiking to Darwin to get the Merparti flight to Timor and Bali on the first leg of my round world adventure. I’ve changed a lot since then but these places are pickled. Starting to heat up when we left Pine Creek at 9.30am.
Lost in my thoughts as we headed south and soon pulled into the Katherine Gorge carpaprk at 10.55am. Right on time. Impressed with that. Distributed food bags and some fruit on the lawn. At 11.25am left the lawn with est 17kg on my back as planned. Walked down to the boat moored on the south bank of the Katherine River for the start of challenge number 2. On the far bank found I couldn’t jump from the boat to the bank with my pack on. Lacked confidence in something I would have once done so easily. Had to be helped.
Formed up on a track on top of the bank that was shrouded in spear grass and got underway. Heading due north. I sat in behind Oscar, at the head of the group, who lead at a cracking pace. Heat boiled out of the spear grass. Track flat but dusty. Soon bathed in sweat. Everything hurt. Right knee was a bit sore but this soon passed. My right Achilles tendon started to ache after about an hour but this was probably due to the speed.
At 12.30am stopped for lunch about 4km from the river at a place called Northern Rockhole. We had walked 4km in an hour. I don’t think we can keep that up carrying packs in this heat. It was an imposing spot under the escarpment but no waterfall. Beautiful SW breeze all morning, straight off Lake Eyre, hitting me in the back and cooling the sweat. Magic! At 13.30 continued north through rough, stony spear grass country and soon climbed a gentle grade out of the valley and we were onto the southern edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment. Walked along the edge of the escarpment with views of the Seventeen Mile Valley below. At 15.10 reached Biddlecombe Falls our first campsite.
Swam in a small rockhole at the head of Biddlecombe Cascades and washed my clothes. Great to have a dip. Survived first day. Tendon stopped hurting after about an hour. Right leg ok, left strapped foot is also ok. Back is stiff and sore, I think from picking up my pack incorrectly this morning at Katherine Gorge.
Got to know the group around dinner. No fire. Barry Feyder and his brother Robbie; Kelvin Steggles a friend of the Feyder’s, who is a very strong walker. Tony Smuts; Amanda a pom of West Indian heritage who is all legs and also a very strong walker, and her friend Narelle Coneybeare, a petite blonde who works for Standard & Poors. I think she is a bit embarrassed about that. Joan, an Ascham-educated, famer’s wife from Tamworth and lastly a couple, Christine Sanderson and Simon Young. Seems like a good group.
In bed at 7.30pm. Still muggy and hot. Just lay on top of my Thermarest under the mosquito net. There it was. As expected. Looking straight up at Antares – the red heart of the scorpion. The old clockmaker, right on cue, still spinning the constellations across the night sky of dry season Australia. How familiar. How reassuring. Lay listening to the night sounds and fell asleep.