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- Arnhem Land – A very rare opportunity
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- Fit out
In the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory is a region of nearly 34,000km with a population of barely 16,000 souls, the overwhelming majority of which are traditional owners living on ‘outstations’ far from European influences. Access isn’t guaranteed, and those who do venture in are confronted with an isolation equalled by very few places in the world. Greg Murdock of Southern Cross Motorbike Tours had an opportunity to ride the area and he didn’t hesitate.
The ride was epic and special thanks go to the traditional owners of the land of the land for allowing access.
Hainsey! We got ’em!” “Got what?” queried a bemused Brian Haines.
“The permits for Arnhem Land have been approved!” I bellowed in reply.
“Shit hot!” blurted Hainsie.
“When are we going?”
The first week of November was the nominated time, and the normal crew – Brad Claydon, Brian Haines, Scott Luff, Gary Claydon and myself – was on board with a couple of extras to run support. November would be getting close to the Northern Territory wet season, so we’d need more than one support vehicle.
That was the start of our first excursion into the ancient region of Arnhem Land. What a ride it turned out to be.
Southern Cross Motorbike Tours can take you through Arnhem Land.
Bring it on
The route was to traverse south-east Arnhem Land, entering from Roper Bar and exiting at Gapuwiyak, then riding the Central Arnhem Highway back to Katherine. The bikes for the ride were a KTM990, two F800GS Beemers, a DRZ400 and a 501 Husky, just to cover all bases. It all sounded easy, except over half the ride was to be on a track which was only used every now and then, and that became a boggy mess if it got any rain on it.
Catching a breath at the Phelp River crossing.
Time flies in the Territory and before we knew it we were off.
We had two support vehicles, my 4X4 driven by Paul and Johnno, and Brad’s 4X4 co-piloted by his dad.
The first day had us heading to Roper Bar via Katherine and included a steak burger you couldn’t jump over at the Mataranka pub.
Fuelled and watered we headed onto the Roper Highway for a lazy three-hour ride in 40-degree heat to our overnight stay at Roper Bar Motel where we were met by our host, Veronica (who admits to being the best cook in the area) and her lovely team of backpacker staff.
We ordered our meals for the evening and were shown to our rooms in a compound separated from the bar by a yard patrolled around the clock, Veronica mentioned, by guard dogs.
The beers were cold and the facilities excellent, and after dinner – which again was huge – we settled in for the evening.
“How many dogs do you think are in that yard between us and the back-packers?” asked Scott Luff.
“Enough to eat you,” was the reply from the rest of us.
“Bugger,” said Scott as he retired for the night.
There were numerous shallow river and creek crossings.
Next morning we awoke to find another superbly cooked meal and Scotty learned the guard dogs were only Aussie and Maltese terriers.
We headed for the beachside outstation of Wyagibar.
First we crossed the causeway at Roper Bar which was flowing over just enough to wash a bit of dust off the bikes.
The road wasn’t too bad, being graded dirt with only a few bulldust holes and corrugations. There were numerous shallow river and creek crossings in the morning, and by lunchtime we were at the turn off to Wyagibar. We stoppped to check the map and were greeted by a carload of local people.
“Where you off to?” they asked.
“Wyagibar,” we replied.
They pointed us down the track toward the coast and told us to stick to the right.
Apparently the left-hand track was a bit rocky and unmaintained.
Farewells were exchanged and we headed off on what was to become 42km of sometimes knee-deep sand.
“Lucky we took the well-maintained road,” gritted Brian at one of the frequent stops.
The ride was brilliant, even though the sand was deep in patches and most of us had a minor off, some caused by the sand and others by protruding tree branches on blind corners.
Harris River was the chance for a swim and to wash the dust out of the riding gear.
But first there were barra to catch.
On arrival at Wyagibar we were greeted by traditional owner Kevin (aka ‘The Black Shark’) who was our host for the evening and enjoyed telling us his stories of country and past.
But first there were barra to catch, and on the change of tide at the local creek they were lining up in numbers to be caught. The boys bagged some nice fish for dinner and released the rest for next time.
Wyagibar is one of the most beautiful spots you will see in this area. White, sandy beaches are lined with casuarina trees and a wonderful, cooling, sea breeze keeps the climate pleasant.The third day saw us heading to Numbulwar, a local community on the Rose River, to refuel before heading to our overnight stay at Milwul. The road to Numbulwar was still graded gravel, but some areas hadn’t seen the grader for a while and the bulldust holes were long and deep.
North of the community the road turned into a single vehicle track in good condition and the boys enjoyed the blast to the Milwul turn off. The track into the coastal outstation was similar to Wyagibar, but with a few more deep washouts and rutted tracks before we hit the sand closer to the coast.
Sandy beach tracks were explored for future trips.
Milwul is a tiny outstation with only one house, and unfortunately the traditional owner, Henry, wasn’t home so we had to host ourselves.
Milwul is another beautiful area with white-sand beaches and another local creek teeming with fish. The spare bikes were unloaded and given a bit of a blast along the sandy beach tracks to do some exploring for future trips.
We camped under the trees on the beach and enjoyed an excellent campfire dinner under the stars.
Camp under the trees with an excellent campfire dinner under the stars.
Our fourth day had us heading north to Markalawa, another outstation located on the Walker River, but before we got there we stopped at the Harris River for a swim and a chance to wash the dust out of our riding gear. Luckily the track is hardly used, as the sight of seven half-naked men in the crossing probably would have startled most people.
The water at the crossing was shallow and clear, but we were still a little wary of the local handbag population.
All clean again we headed on to our overnight camp at the billabong adjacent to Markalawa and another campfire dinner under the stars. The road on this day was a single-vehicle track across floodplains and over rocky escarpment country that doesn’t see any form of maintenance. The view from some of the escarpment ridges has to be seen to be appreciated, and it’s hard to believe how vast this area is.
Two support vehicles meant the bikes didn’t need to carry much.
We were getting closer to the end of this trail as we rode off the next morning, and we managed a little adventure loop to kick things off.
As we’d ridden in we’d seen a sign saying ‘Gove’ – a town in the direction we were heading – so we automatically took this turnoff. The track returned us to Markalawa outstation some 20 minutes later.
D’oh. Never trust bush signs. But it was a good short ride in the cool of the morning.
We headed on to Gapuwiyak via the Koolatong River Camp, and then on to Mainoru Store and safari hunting camp.
The track started off much the same as the day before and slowly improved as we approached the Central Arnhem Highway. It was still littered with bulldust sections that kept all the riders on their toes, though.
Koolatong River Camp is another glorious bush layby overlooking a river that just screams, “Fish me!” Maybe next time we will. We had a quick wash in the river and jumped back on the bikes to ride north to Gapuwiyak, another community where we could fuel and provision at a the local store.
We then started our trek west for lunch at one of the many rivers before heading to Mainoru.
The spare bikes were unloaded and given a bit of a blast.
The Central Arnhem Highway is a gravel road and for the most part it was okay, but it still had some extended bulldust sections that needed creative riding moments for most riders. Sometimes it was just easier to ride on the road shoulder instead of the road.
Mainoru Store is an oasis with green lawns, good accommodation, excellent meals and wonderful hosts. It’s also the first place in four days where we could have a beer, as the area so far had had alcohol restrictions. Luckily we’d prearranged some cool treats to be on hand for our arrival and the boys enjoyed a couple before dinner.
The sixth day dawned and it was time to head home. There remained just a short run on the last of the dirt to the blacktop and then a few hours on the tar. Someone suggested we could stop off at Hayes Creek and check out the new thumper track they’d built for a meeting the following weekend, and it didn’t need a vote. We had a top after-noon and night at the Hayes Creek pub and, for the record, Brian now holds the track record for an 990, I have it for 800GSA and Scott Luff was the first to crash on it.
The ride was epic and enjoyed by all that came. We’d like to thank the traditional owners of the land for the opportunity to ride, and we look forward to going back to this ancient area and invite you to come and join us.
Southern Cross Motorbike Tours
Greg was checking out Arnhem Land as a possible tour for his guiding and rental outfit, Southern Cross Motorbike Tours. Get more information on this destination and plenty more at www.southerncrossmotorbiketours.com.au.