Central Arnhem Highway

Thursday, Jan 11, 2018 at 18:10

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Approximately midway between Mataranka and Katherine on the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory there is a turn off that many people would not be aware that it is there and where the road goes. For any serious adventurous Outback traveller that would like to visit some remote country and the once large mining town of Gove, situated 675 kilometres from the junction of the Stuart Highway, the Central Arnhem Highway is the road to head east on.

Like any remote trip, all drivers must be fully prepared with food, water, basis car spares and fuel for the drive, with the longest section of road with no fuel supplies being around 540 kilometres from Mainoru Store, 200 kilometres from the Stuart Highway, or 480 if you are able to top up at Gulin Gulin (Bulman). Before setting out, you must first obtain your free Transit Permit from the Northern Lands Council in either Katherine or any of its offices. Another thing when applying for your permit, is you must let them know where you are staying when you get to Nhulunbuy, with the Walkabout Lodge being the usually nominated place, and then if you wish to free camp out in other nominated area, you must then obtain either your General or Special Permits from the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation in Nhulunbuy.

If applying for your permits in person at Katherine, the office can give you the latest up to date information of track conditions and any other useful information that you may require. I feel the most important thing with this drive is the tyres on your vehicle, and to carry and know how to use a basic puncture repair kit, as you will encounter every type of dirt road driving conditions, from perfect well compacted sections, rocky sections that can very easy ruin a tyre if you are not using correct tyre pressures and some very good corrugations, not unlike some of our more famous outback highways and roads. Do not shudder at the thought of endless kilometre after kilometre of corrugations like the Anne Beadell Highway, but what we found with the Central Arnhem Highway was that when you hit sections of corrugations, by the time you slow down to try an take it easy, you are back onto good un corrugated dirt again all within a few hundred metres. The only section of road that seemed to be the worst was the 60 kilometre section from Mainoru Store through to Bulman, but when we made the return drive a week later, it had been graded and was quite good except for some very large rocks that you had to be very careful not to hit, or it would have been very easy to ruin a tyre.

Like any line on a map to your destination, you never really know what to expect, so for future drivers that travel the Central Arnhem Highway for the first time, I hope that this Blog will give you a better understanding of what you encounter and can see along the way, with some stunning scenery and perfect looking creeks that look so inviting to swim in, if it was not for the crocodiles that are found right through the Arnhem Land area. Do not be tempted to take a chance, as even when we were stoped at the perfect looking Giddy River for our lunch break, a small truck pulled up. Out jumped an Aboriginal man and went to the river bank, but before going to the waters edge, stopped and looked in both directions for about a minute, before squatting down and using his hat to pour water over his head and back, while all the time constantly looking in the crystal clear water. When he walked back to his truck, I went up to him for a chat and mentioned the water. He said he was looking for any signs of crocodiles and to keep our dogs away from the water, as yes they are found in the area and will attack before you even seem them coming.

I found that it was easy to sit quite comfortable at around 80 kph for the good sections of dirt, but slowed down to around 60 kph for the rockier sections and I was running 26-psi tyre pressure in the car and 24 psi in the Ultimate Camper. We did the drive over one and a half days and arrived in Nhulunbuy around 1.30pm of the second day, allowing for many stops along the way to take many photos. We were never alone on the road, with the longest time between seeing another vehicles around around two hours. There are many standard type passenger vehicles doing the drive out there, with majority of them going to the many Aboriginal Communities that branch off from the road. There are no longer any deep creek crossings, as in 2014 there was a major upgrade of the creek crossings and now the deeper ones have bridges over them, with the greatest upgrade being the new detour road and bridge over the Goyder River.

The Drive.

After leaving the Stuart Highway, you head east on a good bitumen road and for first time drivers, like me, still have no indication of what there is to encounter as the kilometres go by.

The first bridge that many drivers will not be aware of is over the Roper Creek that is dry in the later part of the dry season.

The next creek crossing further out is the Marnaboy Creek that has a good body of water in the creek.

Just before the Barunga Aboriginal Community, you will cross the Beswick Creek that looks quite deep and makes you wonder what lurks in the murky water.

Continuing further east, the next water crossing is the bridge over the Waterhouse River, just before the next Aboriginal Community of Wugularr (Beswick).

After passing the Beswick, it will be time to drop tyre pressures and the start of the dirt that will now last all the way, with the exception for sections of bitumen that have been laid in some of the steeper escarpment country and new roads constructed to by pass some of the larger creek crossings.

It does not take long before the first of the short-lived corrugations start, with a variety of scenery as you make you way the local area known as Jurassic Park. On our drive in, we made this our morning smoko spot, while on our return drive back out, camped here.

Making your way down the escarpment country, there is a small section of bitumen before the country opens up taking you out to your next creek crossing of the Maikok Creek. There was not much water in this creek but the Pandanus growing along the creek bed give you thoughts of what could be here when the water is deeper. It was in this area on our return drive that came across one rather large Bull Water Buffalo and as I stopped to take a photo he was not concerned by our presence.

The next creek crossing is the delightful Flying Fox Creek, with its crystal clear water lined by paperbark trees.

Another section of small corrugations and then the countryside opens up and the first of the small termite mounds make their appearance and then further out, a grid across the road.

Those of you that are using a moving map like OziEzplorer will see ahead the only major change in travel direction and you come to the boundary of Mainoru
Station, where the road makes a sharp left turn. The road in this section is good and at this point you are now around 200 kilometres from the Stuart Highway and it is time to top up your fuel fully at the only fuel outlet on the Central Arnhem Highway at the Mainoru Store. For those that are not comfortable of camping out, Mainoru has cabins and lawn camping areas and the small shop has basic supplies. After leaving the Mainoru Store, you are back on bitumen again for a short distance as the new road and bridge crosses the Mainoru River, with its crystal clear water and Pandanus lines banks.

Leaving the bitumen, it was a slower trip to Gulin Gulin with longer sections of corrugations and rocky roads that would love to catch out the inexperienced driver. It was through these sections that there is large burnt out roadside vegetation where the local Aboriginal still practice their dry season burn offs.

The termite mounds, still only small are now becoming more common and as you approach Gulin Gulin, there are large flats covered in Pandanus, which shows this low lying area must be under water during the west season. If you happen to catch the store here and you are concerned about your fuel supplies, this will be your only chance to top up, as when you leave the community, there is the large red warning sign advised that there is now more fuel for the 420 kilometres through to Nhulunbuy, so you must be fully prepared.

Leaving Gulin Gulin, the road now improves and in what seems no time at all, you are passing through another small creek crossing of the Weemol Creek. The water here is shallow and where it drops down over tree roots, it forms little rapids. It is from here on that those with a watchful eye will catch glimpses of water buffalo that will be anywhere in the scrub.

Not long after passing over the cement culvert on the main road, the dirt road is in good condition and in a short hit arrive at more bitumen, which indicated another new bridge crossing, and this time it is the Wilton Creek, with large deep pools.

Road condition after here greatly improve, and the dirt road can be described as perfect and just like driving on a normal bitumen road. Evenly placed along the complete Central Arnhem Road are the distant markers and when we stopped for more photos, we were now 370 kilometres from Nhulunbuy.

These conditions kept up for around 10 kilometres before going back to normal dirt road condition, which were still good, and we were still able to sit comfortably around 80 kph. With the opening up of the vegetation, we then came upon the first of many Magnetic Termite mounds that were quite thick in certain places.

We had heard about the new Goyder River crossing, but had no idea where it was in relation to the old crossing. Coming to a big wide corner, I could see where the old road was, being blocked by large trees and mounds of dirt to stop vehicle access, and we were now driving according to the moving map, on no road at all, but in fact it was in perfect condition as we made the very big arch way above the old road, and then we came to a perfect new double bitumen road. This section of road goes for a few kilometres before dropping down towards what appears to be 3 new bridges that now span the Goyder River and the immediate flood plain, giving almost year round access.

It was not long after passing the new Goyder River Bridge that it was that time of the day to set up for an early camp. We found a perfect little spot in the form of an old road works camp no more than 50 metres off the road. It may have been close to the road, but the dense vegetation between us and the road mad it very hard to see our camp and we settled into the usual routine of setting up the camper, getting the fire going, feeding the dogs and then just chilling out in our perfect camp.

After a great nights camp, we were back on the road early the next morning and the road was still in great condition. The next thing that caught my eye was a cluster of giant termite mounds. In an old roadwork’s camp that nature was fast reclaiming, there were around 6 giant termite mounds of well over 4 metres high and want made them more stunning were their colours. While some were the typical red / brown colour that is typical of the colour of the roads along the way, some were almost white and would have been caused by the colour of the dirt and sand that they were located on.

While still travelling east, the next change in the road was the new bitumen road detour to the south of the main old road over Rocky Bottom Creek. Like so many of the previous creek crossings, the water here was crystal clear with the Pandanus growing along the riverbank.

Travelling further east there were more roadwork’s with large piles of rubble along the side of the road waiting to be spread out and compacted to improve road conditions. Further along the road the next feature that stands out are the large rock outcrops that rise up from the flat area. Within a few more kilometres there was more bitumen and another new bridge over the Donydji Creek with thick vegetation but little water in the creek.

With changing vegetation and scenery as we headed east, the next creek crossing is Flat Rock Creek and was the start of normal cement culverts across the road and no more bitumen crossings. At this crossing, there is a small rest area and a nice spot to take a break.

Travelling further east, the track seems to just get better and it may still be dirt, but at times it’s as good a any bitumen road. The next major change in the vegetation is the amount of country that has been burnt off in traditional Aboriginal custom with late dry season burn offs. The next creek to cross is Boggy Creek and for anyone that was not paying attention, you will drive over the creek without even knowing it was there. The cement bridge crossing is small, well above the water level and again this creek has very little water and only a few small pools.

The next major change in country travelling east is the unexpected large amount of cleared land that one Aboriginal group have carried out and now run large herds of beef cattle and one can only wonder the work involved in clearing the vast areas of native vegetation. Once back into the natural native vegetation of dense eucalypt and other under story plants, you then approach the last of the ricer crossing before reaching Nhulunbuy – the Giddy River.

The Giddy River is deep here and the lush vegetation makes it a very peasant place to stop, stretch your legs, and in our case a great lunch stop. The water here is crystal clear and it makes you wonder what lurks in the dark shadows and care must be taken if you are water near the waters edge.

Leaving Giddy River, the road soon widens even more and the final run into Nhulunbuy goes quickly. The traditional burn offs were still very prevalent and in a couple of sections, the smoke was quite thick as it lingered in the taller trees and crossed the main highway. Back onto bitumen again, it does not take long now for the final kilometres into Nhulunbuy and in most cases, it is booking into the Walkabout Lodge and prepare you your next great venture, with the many great places that lay close to town and will require permits from the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation.

Stephen Langman

January 2018

Smile like a Crocodile
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