Monday 24 August 2020

Red - dirt, but also blood

Last night I was watching a by-the-numbers true crime rehash of the Peter Falconio murder - or was it? - in the Northern Territory in 2001. It is a fascinating story, the more so for being so far unsolved (though Part 2 is yet to be shown, I rather doubt there will be a revelation) - but mainly I was gripped by the many aerial views of the crime scene. Well, the scenery, really, since the crime scene is literally just a smallish pool of blood on the edge of the road.

From side to side, and to the far horizon, it was just flat red dirt with a scattering of spindly shrubs, cut through by the dead-straight Stuart Highway. HUGE! And, to many people I suppose, pretty boring - but I love that side of Australia. You can keep your tacky Gold Coast and even Melbourne's laneways and Sydney's glorious harbour and iconic buildings - for me, Australia is all about the Outback. I've been there quite often now, and hope to go again one day; but nothing will beat the thrill of setting off from Darwin, all by myself in my hire car one June day back in 2005, and passing this road sign:

It rather put my mere 300-odd kilometres to Katherine into perspective  - and, now that I was out of the city, I understood the eyebrow twitch that had followed my request for a road map. The road - the road, the only road - lay ahead of me all the way to Adelaide, with its kinks and curves so stretched out that they were unnoticeable. There was just endless tarmac, blue sky, and me. Oh, and the road trains: around 50m of truck and up to four trailers thundering along on 60 wheels at 100kph. Overtaking the first one is guaranteed to give anyone sweaty palms. It takes the best part of a minute and up to a couple of kilometres to get past one of these monsters; but on the Territory’s long, empty stretches of road (with no speed limit, fyi) even I came to do it without holding my breath.
I side-tracked into Lichfield National Park to scare myself with crocodile warning signs by the pretty pool with its two waterfalls, though the only actual wildlife encounter I had was with a dozen hungry kites, dive-bombing me, intent on snatching my lunch-time muffin. Reader, I triumphed.
On the road to Katherine I came across lots of reasons to stop: other waterfalls, other pools; pockets of monsoon rainforest in amongst the parched savannah; a huge cluster of flat grey magnetic termite mounds, all aligned north-south; towering orange cathedral termite mounds, sculpted and architectural; beautiful white ghost gums and pink-barked salmon gums; untended burn-off fires licking along the road margins with plenty of snap, crackle and pop; precariously-balanced high stacks of red rocks; astonishing floodway markers measuring up to two metres planted in apparent desert. Not all the sights are natural: the War Cemetery at Adelaide River, where every meticulously tended grave carries a personal message, is unforgettable. ‘He was my love, my all. Mother’; ‘Our Daddy’; ‘He has folded his wings’. 
There was a lot to do in Katherine: boat cruise along the spectacular Gorge, caves, thermal pools, bush walks, the School of the Air, galleries of Aboriginal art, night-time croc-spotting outings... I did all that, and then dutifully turned right onto the Stuart Highway, heading back to Darwin again. Really, I would have liked to turn left, and carry on through the Outback, a dot in that vast landscape, off on my own adventure. Er, but not like Peter Falconio...

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