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.