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Highway One – Central NT

THE TYRANNY OF DISTANCE AND

THE CURSE OF TEMPERATURE

 

 

One of the strange features of trying to escape the Northern Territory by heading towards Queensland is that you have to head South not East for a long, long way. Even stranger though is that once you have successfully run through a gauntlet of smaller towns, each a hundred or so kilometres apart, you then travel a very long way while seeing no towns at all – suddenly hitting two in close succession.

Threeways and Tennant Creek are well established towns and so close together in relative terms, it’s initially quite hard to understand how they haven’t somehow already met in the middle. They could do that by simply building more roads to connect up.

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The scale of the country has, however, started to seduce the way you think about distance. They are not actually all that close, only in relative terms are they close.

But after driving so far to reach from one town to the next, suddenly a hundred kilometres seems just not that far for two towns to be apart so that anything which is situated less than 25 kilometres from something else, that is now very easily considered close enough to be one town.

Financially the tyranny of distance means paying $2.08 per litre of petrol in places like this while socially the tyranny of distance keeps small clusters of people living in isolated towns as small clusters of people living in isolated towns. There is no question that this is some very harsh country. The cost of living is as high as it can feasibly be pushed.

But there are things here other than expensive cost of living for the locals and the tyranny of distance.

Consider for instance the terror scourge of very low humidity on the ground, or the thing which really, really matters, the dreaded curse of very high temperature.

It is temperatures which bake you from the outside in, while also dehydrating you from the inside out which really makes the huge distances in this place seem like such totally tyrannical bastards.

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The landscape seems to be permanently baked, it is an illusion though, there are clear signs it isn’t always this dry. even where there are few trees you will find soil which is dry, crusty, it has the confidence inspiring appearance of solid ground but step in the wrong spot and you make a hole up to your shin bone. It’s like walking on a giant slightly inconsistent pie crust which your foot can sometimes fall through – whenever the crust has a pocket of air in it… pop!

You are walking on a thin layer of hardened and baked soil, soil which once had a lot of water trapped in it. The water evaporates and boils away in these temperatures, evaporation really means replacing water volume with the same volume of hot air, the result is a dry and crusty textured soil which also has a lot of air now trapped in it, so it is no longer thick mud, it is dried pie crust and it caves in beneath your weight.  So even where there are very few trees, it is not permanently baked land, it is cleared land, this is all human impact on the country, but you could be forgiven for thinking it has always been this way and that it last rained there a few million years ago. It is like being on Mars. This is what drought looks like.

The Central NT at this time of year feels neither quite like a desert, nor does it feel so tropical. It is on the face of it pastoral and agricultural, mostly it is thirsty cow country – but it is also part baking tray. And so you will come across places where the few scattered cows in plain sight will hide under a tree.

I’ve seen that same meeting of cow minds under shady trees in the Kimberley and in Katherine but it is just not like here where smaller numbers of bovines take refuge under the only decent shady tree for a hundred or so metres in all directions.

IMG_4717It reminds me of the heat of the West Australian goldfields, places like Kalgoorlie or Coolgardie, here too is a place where the Sun can bake the brain even through your hat, this is the kind of place where sweating seems to fail you, this is the kind of heat which your car’s ever diminishing aircon will prove either most useful or most worthless. My car’s aircon packed it in. I was just glad my car had a roof.

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As I found out not long after leaving Tennant Creek, turning East along the Barkly Highway, my car’s radiator also proved unable to cope with the extreme heat. Honda make decent enough cars, mine was minted in the last year of the last millennium and until it rashly tried to get out the central Northern Territory alive, it was a real trooper. The people who built my car probably just didn’t think too much about places 260 kilometres from anywhere else, like Barkly Homestead nor did they spend a lot of time thinking about morons like me. Morons who drive 13 year old cars at 130km/hr on loooooooooong, straight sealed roads – roads so long they are just crammed with tyranny – driving through temperatures which are also cursed.

Sure there are cloudy skies in the photographs, but do not let that fool you, there is also the old scourge of low humidity at ground level and mostly it feels still. When you walk around it feels just like a conventional Australian Summer in Perth, say, on one of those days when it feels like living under a griller. But then occasional and rather violent gusts of very hot air will hit your face like you just opened an oven door to check the roast, here in this part of the country it is more like a fan-forced oven.

The winds have a lot of flat land to work with, trees are often sparse in vast, cleared rural land holdings, winds are therefore able to go about their windy business unimpeded, they are often very strong, they represent a traffic hazard to the extent that there are regular road signs, reminding motorists that gusts of wind across the plains will make road train carriages swerve unpredictably. These rather harsh driving conditions would finish off newer and more robust car radiators than mine. So, while Darwin in the Top End was bracing for continued storms, the central Northern Territory was a frying pan for old Hondas.

My own human radiator and sweat cooling system was taxed about as much as I could really cope with and though not quite as thirsty as my car, I found myself needing deep and long gushes of water spilling on my face, neck, back and chest as well as guzzling a litre inside 20 seconds. As a cola addict from a young age, I was surprised that coke just was not cutting it for refreshment and whenever a deep thirst hit me it was a warm bottle of water I reached for by pure instinct. It was nothing like driving in the comparable kind of tropical heat of the Kimberley or Katherine where cola was a true driver’s friend, here the low humidity will just fuck you up in a completely different way.

So instead of drowning in your own sweat as happens in the Gascoyne, the Pilbarra, the Kimberley, Victoria River and Katherine, in this part of the world you can be dehydrated by your own sweat inside an hour.

Although distance is undeniably tyrannical, driving on roads paved with pure tyranny inside a fan-forced oven turns out to be the real challenge for anyone foolish enough to move from an indoor shady spot.

If there’s a reason close towns like Tennant Creek and Threeways remain separate places, ie linked only by one road, it’s possibly because nobody could be arsed building another road in heat like that. Nobody sane wants to do anything energetic in heat like that. What really keeps people apart in these places is not just distance but also the weather.

It makes people slow moving, easily tired, prone to dehydration and unwilling to do more than sit under the shady tree and empathise with the thirsty cows.

 

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  • Lizabeth

    I like all the food allegories! From the roast to the pie you’ve covered quite a delicious sounding dinner. Also, the thought of walking on pie crust is great. I must try it some time (it would be even better if you could grab a chunk to munch on the way, a la Wallace and Gromit on the moon).

    • Bart

      Hi Liz!

      I have it on reliable authority that the Moon is made entirely of cheesy potato.

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