AWOL Around Australia… East Arnhem Land. Part 1

Nhulunbuy, is the town at the end of the Central Arnhem Road, in East Arnhem Land. A huge area of traditional indigenous communities, and mostly untouched wilderness.

A lazy 657km, mostly dirt road detour from the Stuart Highway.

The first part of the road is bitumen, and has a few rises and dips. Which gives you a glimpse of what is to come. Nothing but spectacular wilderness stretching out in front of you (it’s not suitable for stopping though, so you’ll just have to take my word for it as I didn’t take any photos).

In the NLC office, there had been all manner of photos of 4×4’s bogged up the headlights on this road. Old photos… With these super keen road closures, I think those days are mostly past. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? As ever, there are two sides to that coin. I’ve got eyes and I can use them, however it’s not always the case, and unfortunately people who know when to turn back suffer, because some people don’t.
Anyway, enough bitching. The road in the end was straightforward enough. We passed three grader crews in total (sometimes just a single operator to work the grader and the roller) and generally they had done a great job. There is a pretty rough section in the middle that is basically the road left over from the last wet season. However even in the sections that have been graded, and at 675km long, some were done quite some time ago, you have to be careful. The area clearly sees a lot of rain, and so you can be bombing along at a heady 70km/h and then hiding in the shadows can be a two foot deep washout. Safe to say our Ridepro suspension earned its keep along this road. At times like this I wish I had gone for a slightly heavier spring in the front, as that bottoms out a little too much. Whereas the super heavy duty springs in the rear do a great job and many times I braced for a big thump and we just sailed through, relatively speaking.
Some shots from that afternoon.
Lunch stop, just off the main track.
C’mon guys, don’t be an ass…
Do not want to connect with one of these…
We camped just past the halfway point, at the bridge over the Goyder River. It struck me and I noted to N that this had been our first ‘alone’ camp since the fly infested one at the side of the road in the Pilbara, and really it was only by chance we had that one to ourselves, our last proper bush camp had been back in SA, crossing the Nullarbor. It’s a real shame to write that about WA.
[I since learned you are not supposed to camp at the bridge, so don’t… Which is a shame as it a perfect place to break up the drive]
Next day.
Frill neck lizard.
About 5 hours to complete the Central Arnhem Road, so we rolled into Nhulunbuy just after midday. You have to list your (first night’s) accommodation (there are only two options) on the permit application, so we knew where we were staying that night. The Walkabout Tavern, a modern pub/motel/campground offering, in the centre of town. Fine, I was done after two half days of concentration on the road getting here.
Nhulunbuy is mostly a town to support the nearby bauxite mine, no it’s not all untouched wilderness, and has most modern conveniences. Toyota dealer? You bet.
Bertha’s auto gearbox kickdown had refused to turn up for work about 50km before we got here yesterday. So I got up early and checked out the cable situation, a little adjustment and all seemed back in order.
On the road out yesterday we had passed a four door Jeep Wrangler on Queensland plates a couple of times, which had duly rolled in a few hours after we had yesterday afternoon. Today we got to know it’s driver, Hans, relatively well. A PADI diving instructor, he looked like Henry Rollins, crossed with Simon from All 4 Adventure. Anyway, quick to humour, we both got on with him immediately. I helped him with the permits he needed (as we both found the permit office was shut) online. He asked why, as an Englishman, I wasn’t in a Land Rover. I explained we had ticked that particular box in a previously evolution.
It has to be said that Nhulunbuy strikes me as a good community and the information about where to go and what to do is great. In written form, and from the people you speak to.
Anyway, eventually we got out of town.
Hard to see, but as we got back from our stroll there was now a bloke spearfishing here. I wondered allowed if there would be anywhere that would sell the spears…?
So our next stop was the village of Yirrkala, for its art and cultural centre. Not something that would necessarily always be on our (my) radar, but boy I’m glad we went.
From the outside this looks like a remote community centre that night have a few bits of art inside, but as soon as you open the door you are wowed by what is a beautifully curated art museum. Stunning displays of contemporary local art and a museum featuring some works and (incredible) stories of past artists – and I’m not an art guy by any stretch of the imagination.
So, with the dogs we have to take turns in going into these things, which can be a pain in the arse but can also be interesting in that, as we drove away afterwards we were both bubbling with conversation about the different things we had noticed in the centre.
We also came away with slightly different souvenirs…
Next to explore the section of coast, and the campsites you could access with a General Permit. We had a Special Access Permit for a camp spot south of here in a couple of nights time, but I figured we could find a good spot at the multiple places you can access with the General Permit for the next few nights.
And it was so.
We actually checked out all the campgrounds up this section of coast but came back to this, the first one we had seen.
Well, truth be told we didn’t get to the last one. Whilst it is still marked on the tourist map they give you, I think the track to it is probably closed now. We followed a few different tracks out there, but in the end it was just  hacking through the jungle, so I turned back.
Certainly some pretty spots out this way.
So we stayed two nights here. I fished, nothing… Read, wrote, relaxed, usual gear. A few others tried fishing from the shore, but most just launched the tinny and headed out to sea. No signs of crocs on the banks here, but we both separately heard almighty splashing sounds at night, so they are probably around these parts.
Camp food.
Marinated lamb wraps.
Beetroot and mackerel salad, sauerkraut, mustard mayo.
Time to move on. First stopping off aa Goanna Lagoon, more of a swimming hole. Not that swimming is recommended anywhere around here but this looks about as safe as you can get, if that’s your bag.
We stopped back through Nhulunbuy for a quick supply top up and then headed out north to check out that area.
The views being dominated by the now closed aluminium refinery.
Heading back south now, I topped up the fuel, knowing that we were planning to head straight out from our bush camp in a couple of days. I didn’t fill right back up, just enough to do what needed to be done and a healthy safety margin.
About 35km out of town came the turn off for Wanawuy (Cape Arnhem). We headed down here and stopped to pick up firewood (again), just as I’d finished doing this a 100 series with a family of locals came the other way. We manoeuvred to let each other pass and the lady driver said to me “three more cars to come” I thanked her and drove carefully on.
Expecting three more cars of locals coming through at locals speed, I gingerly threaded my way down the rest of the track, till we came to the other three cars. Two younger couples and Hans, with the Jeep. We stopped to shake hands and chat, they gave us lowdown on the best camping spot and some others we might want to check out. Hans was like “you’re gonna love it!”. No doubt fella, no doubt.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *