A drive from Mount Isa to Darwin

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About 16 years ago I drove from Brisbane to Alice Springs and Uluru with a couple of friends. I’d never been back so I was looking forward to two weeks on the road to renew acquaintance with the Red Centre. But the Red Centre is not really part of the Northern Territory’s Never Never, and I’d never never been. So I was also looking forward to a week in Darwin and Katherine checking out the top end of the Top End. That meant a lot of driving, but something I was well used to in my time in Mount Isa. Isa to Darwin was first up, a journey of 1600km, so I planned to do it over two days.  This first photo is from the Queensland side of the border (I think, though I can’t exactly remember where) but I’ve covered the Isa-Tennant Creek stretch in another blog post about a trip to the Devils Marbles so won’t dwell on it too much here.

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About 50km across the border, just past Avon Downs, I bumped into “world walker” Tony Mangan. The 61-year-old Dubliner is walking his buggy named “Karma” around the world. The former ultra-marathon runner is well used to world travel and has been on this journey since 2016, relying on the generosity of locals while he spreads his message of awareness that “early cancer screening saves lifes”. I’d met him in Mount Isa a week earlier and written about him. I knew I’d pass him somewhere on the highway. After a brief chat I agreed to hide one of his large heavy water bottles at the Stuart Highway 300km marker (about 90kms down the road) which he would find a few days later. We both continued on to Darwin but I would beat him by about one and a half months.

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About seven hours into the journey I got to the Three Ways. This roadhouse is at the junction between the Barkly Hwy which heads to Isa and the Stuart Hwy which links Alice Springs and Darwin. I had never been north of this point before and Darwin was another 1000km away. I did consider staying at the motel here but it was expensive at $170 a room. With an hour or two of daylight left I decided to take my chances further north.

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This beautiful clump of rock was about 100km north of the Three Ways. Called Lubra’s Lookout this flat topped rocky outcrop is at Pamayu. As the name of the lookout would suggest it was an Aboriginal women’s meeting place. There was a climb there which affords great views but with no internet around these parts, I didn’t know at the time. Besides, I was starting to get anxious about finding a bed for the north.

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Renner Springs Desert Hotel was in the right place at the right time for me. Situated just 5km north of Lubra’s Lookout, I approached it near dark and the cost of a room was considerably cheaper than Three Ways. It was a nice pub, though no Internet as I said. It was a good place with simple food and I chatted over a beer with a camping cyclist who was taking his two wheels from Swan Hill in Victoria to Broome in WA. I certainly wasn’t going to complain to him about any distances I might be doing in the comfort of my car.

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Renner Springs is named after Dr Frederick Renner who tended the workers on the Overland Telegraph Line in 1871. Dr Renner’s diary records a large gathering of birds and while investigating he discovered the nearby Mud Springs. The Mud Springs and the large Lagoon still support a large range of birdlife. It was also a pleasant walk around the property at dusk.

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A beautiful Northern Territory sunrise greeted me the next morning on a ridge just north of Renner Springs. I was out at first light around 7am but still well beaten by the cyclist who had already cycled an hour in the dark. I didn’t tarry – I still had around 900km to get to Darwin, though with the 130km speed limit, I expected to make it by mid-afternoon.

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This monument, 50km south of Daly Waters celebrates where those working on the telegraph line from the south met those working from the north. Called the Sir Charles Todd Memorial or simply the Telegraph Memorial, it commemorates Todd, the Post Master General, Superintendant of Telegraphs and Government Astronomer of South Australia. The monument is near the spot where the final join of the Overland Telegraph Line was made on August, 22 1872. The monument also pays tribute to those who built the telegraph line and the explorer, John Ross. The Line was a great civil engineering feat and Todd drove through the project to its successful end. He sent the first telegraphic message: “We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert…”

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Another human-made monument, though it was not obvious at first glance. This is the talking termite mound in Mataranka, 400km south of Darwin, apparently the “largest man-made termite mound in the world”, though you wonder what competition might be for that title. Mataranka is home of the “never never” from Jeannie Gunn’s book “We of the Never Never” about her life on the land at nearby Elsey Station.

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Mataranka also had hot artesian springs but getting close to lunchtime it was food I needed not a spa bath so I drove 100km further north to Katherine. With a population of over 6000 it was easily the biggest settlement between Mount Isa and Darwin, though a lot closer to the former. I found a lunch spot but didn’t hang around. I still had two and a half hours driving to Darwin and I would be back in Katherine later in the week to check out its beautiful Nitmiluk Gorge.

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I kept going to the end of the Stuart Highway, After 1600km and two days driving I was glad to get to Darwin and luxuriate in its above 30 degree winter warmth. After checking in to my motel I immediately set out to check the lovely view over the harbour and out to the Arafura Sea. I had four days to explore Darwin city and was looking forward to getting to know her.

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Ten Favourite albums: 10 Andy Irvine / Paul Brady

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When it came down to deciding on my ten favourite albums there were some that picked themselves and some that came down to decision making that was fine-tuned (literaly and figuratively).  In all I picked nine albums but wanted to leave one spare for what my favourite album is of the moment (so this list may change if I do it again – and I’m already half regretting plumping for This is The Sea ahead of Fisherman’s Blues in the Waterboys choice).

I grew up amid Irish music but Horslips aside – it mostly passed me. And even then I liked Horslips (and the later Moving Hearts) for their modern slant on traditional airs. Another band was doing similar innovative things in the early 1970s, a band called Planxty. But at the time I probably dismissed it as “diddley-eidley” music without understanding the brilliance that went into it.

It was only in recent years I’ve come to back to their music through the extraordinary body of work of Christy Moore, a dominating presence in Irish music for almost 50 years, and a founder of both Planxty and Moving Hearts. I can’t find the Youtube link now but there is live footage of Moore introducing the members of Planxty, saying three of them (Moore, bouzouki player Donal Lunny and the world’s best uillean pipe player Liam O’Flynn, who sadly died this year) came from the same Irish county – Kildare. The fourth member, Andy Irvine, joked Moore, was from “god knows where”.

Irvine was London-born to Irish and Scottish parents, and a classically trained musician who switched to folk after discovering Woody Guthrie. He moved to the Dublin in the 1960s but an abiding influence was a trip to the Balkans in 1968 where he was enchanted by Bulgarian music. Irvine invented the Irish bouzouki tuning his instrument one octave lower than the open-tuned mandolin. He introduced Lunny to bouzouki while he mainly played mandolin in Planxty.

The band was hugely successful in its early days but the success and the associated touring took its toll on members with Lunny and Moore both dropping out. However Lunny still continued to work with the band and Moore was replaced on vocals by the brilliant young Northern Irish talent Paul Brady. Brady and Irvine struck up an instant liking and enjoyed each others work.

It didn’t take long for the idea of them making an album as a duo. The album simply called Andy Irvine/Paul Brady was released at the end of 1976 after Planxty finally broke up – though with Donal Lunny also involved it seemed like another Planxty album in exile. Irish master fiddler Kevin Burke also contributed playing violin.

The album opens with Irvine’s arrangement of the traditional English ballad Plains of Kildare (somewhat ironic as the only non-Kildare man in the original Planxty) about the 18th century horse Skewball and its race presumably at The Curragh (though not mentioned). Irvine’s jig in 3 4 time elegantly transitions to an instrumental middle eight in Bulgarian rachenitsa rhythm of 7 8 time to suggest the gallop of racing horses, before slowing down for the final verse.

Irvine’s musical invention shows also on the second song, the Ulster love song Lough Erne Shore sung by Brady.  Irvine played hurdy-gurdy making it seem the instrument’s drones are capable of playing chords.  “I recorded three different drones on the hurdy-gurdy,” Irvine said. “We cross faded them on the mix to fit the chords. It’s very subtle and you may not hear it but I thought it gave it a great feeling.” The effect is almost Oriental and it remains my favourite song on the album.

According to the sleeve notes Fred Finn’s Reel/Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh” are reels learnt from a northern Irish trio Deirdre Shannon (fiddle), Brian Bailey (flute) and Trevor Stewart (uilleann pipes). Bonny Woodhall is Irvine’s interpretation of Scottish folk song Bonny Woodha, the poignant story of a miner who must leave his true love, Annie, to fight in the king’s war.

The anti-war theme steps up in the next song Arthur McBride and the Sergeant, an Irish anti-recruiting song that dates back to 1840 and one which Irvine had early recorded with Planxty. However Brady makes it his own with this stirring rendition. The Jolly Soldier, continues the martial theme, Brady singing of the love-lorn soldier, a variation of an old English ballad Earl Brand but without its grim death tally. “Don’t despise a soldier just because he poor / He’s as happy on the battlefield as at the barrack door.”

Autumn Gold is Irvine’s song about his experiences in Eastern Europe.  The sadness of departure and the changing seasons are reflected in the lyrics. “Time to leave my friends behind / I leave this town with you on my mind / The dead leaves are burning, the year is decaying / Winter returning, no use in delaying.”

The Troubles in Brady’s native Northern Ireland were likely in his mind as he sang the love song Mary and the Soldier. “For when you’re in a foreign land / Believe me you’ll rue it surely / Perhaps in battle I might fall / From a shot from an angry cannonball.” The same gloomy sense pervades The Streets of Derry, a traditional air sung by Irvine, just three years after the terrible events of Bloody Sunday. “As he was a-marching through the streets of Derry / I’m sure he marched up right manfully / Being much more like a commanding officer / Than a man to die upon a gallows tree.” Martinmas Time is more of the same – trenchant commentary disguised by an ancient ballad. “It fell out upon one Martinmas time / When snow lay on the border / There came a troop of soldiers here / To take up their winter quarters.”

The effect of the album is inescapably political. Great traditional music played by dazzling musicians at the peak of their powers but with a message that was bang up to date. It still resonates with great power four decades later. No wonder they have often re-played the entire album in concert. Musicianship with a message at its finest and deserving a spot in my Top 10.

The full list

1: Horslips – Dancehall Sweethearts (1974)

2: Brian Eno David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)

3: The The – Soul Mining (1983)

4: The Waterboys – This is the Sea (1985)

5: The Smiths – The Queen is Dead (1986)

6: Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs (1998)

7: Cat Power – The Greatest (2004)

8: Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

9: Iggy Pop – The Idiot (1977)

10: Andy Irvine / Paul Brady (1976)