February 12, 2011

32 hours from Ngukurr to Katherine

Wet season travel in the Top End is never straight-forward. Ngukurr is cut off by road for 4-5 months every wet season, thanks to the Wilton and Roper Rivers rising and making crossing impossible. When it really rains hard, more crossings become impassable and it can turn into a nightmare.

I was ready to leave Ngukurr in mid-Jan after a two week trip, right in the middle of the wet season. I'd booked my 4WD on the barge, which would take me up the river, bypassing the flooded crossings, and from there it's just a 3 hour drive back home to Katherine. A 5-hour trip all up - not much longer than the 4 hour dry-season trip.

But the night before I was due to leave it rained and rained all night. Enough for me to be woken by splat.... splat... splat... near my head as the pounding rain found a way to squeeze itself ever-so-slightly through the roof. In the morning, I knew it would be touch-and-go as to whether my planned trip was achievable. After getting as much info as I could, I decided to go for it, and went through with my Roper River barge trip.

The barge trip was great and the rain was holding off (just), although the chances of flooded crossings had already been determined by the previous night's rain. At the end of the barge trip is Roper Bar Store, the only shop, fuel and accommodation for 200km when the Roper crossing is flooded. With no news about whether I could get through to Mataranka (and subsequently Katherine), I set off to test my luck.

For the next 40-60km the road is dirt and with all the wet weather, it was slushy. Go 4WD go! No problem though - I made it to the bitumen and was starting to get hopeful. Until I reached Strangways. Bloody Strangways.

The most enormous floodway I've ever seen, stretching about 500m around a corner. It was sitting on 0.6m. Too much for my Nissan Patrol? My thoughts were yes, don't cross it. Next thing, I watch a Troopy full of community mob creep through from the otherside. I talked to them and felt like I couldn't do what they had done. After some deliberations, I had to decide - Do I cross? Do I wait here, potentially overnight? Do I go back to Roper Bar Store and get a bed for the night in their basic motel? Nup. I want a bed and shower. So I drove the 90km trip back to Roper Bar Store, where I spent a very lonely night in the accommodation compound, all by myself, no phone, no internet, no TV, no company and plenty of time to wonder about what gushing Strangways might be doing in the morning.

8am Saturday, 21 hours into my trip from hell, I set off again down the slushy dirt part of the Roper Highway, which I think included a moment of lost traction and a slide to the road shoulder. (Oops... is the 4WD actually working on this thing?). By 10am, I was climbing the last rise before Strangways, wondering what I'd find. And then I found it:

Ack! It still looked like the most enormous floodway in the world, stretching way around the corner. But! It had dropped to 0.4m (well, 0.4m at the start part at least). So what to do now? It's probably passable. But it's flowing quickly. And what's my 4WD like - I've never put it in low gear before. Okay, I'll just watch it for a while, see if it's going down and wait for someone to come along so I can get some advice.

After 15 minutes, I could tell the level was dropping, ever so slowly. Great! I'll be able to get out of here today, surely. The rain is holding off, the water's dropping. I'll just wait a bit until it drops to a comfortable level and/or until someone comes along and can help me.

Waiting. After one hour, it'd dropped maybe 1cm. No one had come. Waiting. Another hour. Yep, still dropping, yep, still no one had come. Let's try walking into it. Wait, what's the grunting sound? Is there a cow stuck in a tree somewhere in the floodway? This water's flowing pretty quick - okay, maybe I won't walk into it too far. Someone will come along soon, surely.

Lunchtime now. Still waiting. Okay, breathe and relax. Make a sandwich with your last bits of food and enjoy the Iced Coffee (Territory's own Pauls Iced Coffee, of course!) I'd been saving. Someone will come. The water will go down.

Still waiting. 2pm now. Shit. No-one's come. Everyone must think it's impassable. That's not going to give me confidence to cross it.

At this point, I'm getting pretty stressed. I want to go home. I'm sick of waiting for water to go down. It's 28 hours since I left Ngukurr. I'm sunburned (forgot sunscreen, of course!). I go for a short drive and test out my 4WD low-gear driving. I go back...

Okay, it's definitely below 0.4m now. Let's walk through it...

So I walked the entire 500m stretch of flooded Strangways, not even letting the possibility of certain reptiles being there cross my mind. It was up to my knees in the deepest parts and felt strong but not too strong. The road didn't feel slippery. After 15 or so mins, I got to the other end, where I couldn't even see my 4WD waiting patiently for me. I walked back. Okay, one more hour and then you will just have to go for it.

4pm: I hear someone coming! From the other side, ever so slowly, a 4WD full of people I know from Ngukurr were coming through. I waited and watched and they made it - cautiously but without a problem. I asked, "Im rait det roud? Mi nyip ba krosim" (Is the road okay? I can't bring myself to cross it). "Im rait," came the reply. 'Just take it slow - 1st gear on low, stay in the middle, keep your position and look where you're going'. 'Okay, I'll give it a go. Can you watch me?'. They were rushing to get to Roper Bar store before it closed and really didn't have any time, but yeah, they could watch me. I was and am still so grateful. It was RR who said some words that in my state of anxiety really helped and I can't remember exactly what she said now, but her words really helped and included her telling me: "Yu garra trastim mijel" - You have to trust yourself. :-)

So I gave it a go and trundled into the water. Through the water. Through the water. Through the water. Started rounding the corner. Waved to my 'support crew' who then sped off to Roper Bar Store. Trundled through more water and yes, finally, I made it to the other side and Strangways was finally behind me.

2 hours later, I made it home. Tired, burned and traumatised. Then Bernard Tomic and Sam Stosur both lost in the Australian Open. But I was home, 32 hours after I started what was not a pleasant trip.