Friday, 28 July 1995

AUC 1995 - Mataranka (NT)

Mataranka (NT)
Larimah (Stuart Highway) 168 kms

The road was beneath us again, come 8:30 am, as we headed toward Mataranka Homestead. This was one of our planned short hops, to compensate for the popularity of the place we were travelling to: the theory being, early arrival at our destination would ensure the site we wanted. Therefore, the 170km we had to travel was not seen in the same daunting light the previous day's travel had been.

Our route north took us past several more cairns, but we didn't make any "real" stops until the town of Larimah. On little more than a whim, we turned off the Stuart Highway because of a sign which simply said "museum" and in the process, found enough fascinating history to fill a few hours.

This started at the "museum" in question, a little building located near a disused railway siding. Several signs outside and inside caught the attention, owing to their humorous and at times quirky wording. Near the entrance was a visitors book which had a preface "For old diggers ONLY" and another imploring the visitor to turn the lights off after they leave - presuming, one would suppose, all visitors must have long arms !

The building turned out to be a signal repeater station developed at Larimah during the Second World War. It had been essential for communication to the Top End to be improved dramatically, at the start of the fifth decade of this century, as well as a rapid improvement in the standard and reliability of transport.

The history of the NT, is marked by the enormous leap forward communication and transport links took during the course of the years 1940 to 1945. A rail link had existed, in part, to nearby Bidwill prior to the war. It was extended to Larimah in 1940, giving rise to the hope a link would be established, finally, from Adelaide to Darwin.

As the Japanese made repeated attacks on Darwin and northern Australia, troops were moved to the north for defensive purposes and in doing so, staging posts had to be established. Larimah was one such post and had as many as 6 000 personnel stationed there in 1943.

Nine kilometres further north, an airfield was established for the maintenance and repair of allied aircraft. It was built here because of the proximity to the rail head and the fact it was beyond the range of enemy bombers. The airfield was begun in November 1942 and the bulk of the work was completed by March 1943. During its life, the facility was vital in its role of replenishing the hardware needed in the defence of Darwin and the offensive taken in New Guinea. As the years rolled on, 1600 aircrew added to the compliment of service personnel in the area.

Gorrie Airfield
Gorrie Airfield was named after an RAAF pilot - Peter Gorrie - who was killed flying a mission in Europe and continued in its role, after the war, until closure in 1946. The airfield also marks the southern most point any Japanese aircraft flew in Australian air space, as a Zero flew over the field in 1943, hotly pursued by an RAAF Spitfire. The Zero dropped its main external fuel tank on the runway, as it prepared to cut and runfrom the Spitfire, but it was ultimately shot down, having caused no damage. The fuel tank is on display in the Larimah Museum.

It was strange driving down the deserted gravel runway, claimed from the bush which was thick on either side and exploring the remains of control towers and other facilities. The ghosts of Liberators and Spitfires seemed to roar along with us as we drove from one end of the runway to the other. A photograph - in the Larimah Museum - of two airmen standing beside "the giant anthill" came flooding back as we stood beside the same anthill at the runway's southern end.

I returned to the car, after shooting stills and video footage, moved by the stillness and images of what life in this remote place must have been like.

From this place of fifty years silence, we moved further back in time, to the resting place of Aeneas Gunn and other luminaries mentioned in Jeannie Gunn's "We of the Never Never". The graves, now in a government burial place on the old Elsey Station, are approximately 3km from the site of the homestead. Both the graves and the homestead had little affect on us, as Sue and I both felt we had read more moving accounts and were aware of harder lives than that suffered, for twelve months, by Mrs Gunn.

It was on to our end point in the day's travel, Mataranka Homestead, and the delights it had to offer.

It is quite a complex! All type of accommodation needs are catered for here, from motels to camping. There is a pleasant bistro and bar, fresh pig on a spit each night, free live entertainment, billy tea and damper, visits to the recreated Elsey Homestead (used in the film "We of the Never Never"), scenic flights and the Thermal Pool.

The tourist resort is located adjacent to the Thermal Springs and the beautiful Waterhouse Creek - a
tributary of the Roper River. The thermal springs themselves, were developed during the Second World War, when soldiers were stationed here. The officers had the channel leading away from the spring widened, so they could enjoy the spoils of the 34.5 degree natural bathing. An enlisted man had the last laugh though. He recognised the tourist potential, bought the lease in 1946 and made a fortune until it became government property as a National Park.

The walls have been reinforced on one side with local rock and a series of steps into the water along this side, allow the visitor to sit quietly and enjoy the cleansing affect of the heated, mineral springs. Although there are some rocks on the bottom, the predominantly sandy floor of the channel is a most pleasing sensation. The clarity of the water is truly remarkable, as is its cleanliness. Sixteen thousand litres of water flow from the spring per hour and this keeps a constant flow passing through the Thermal Pool. It therefore copes with even the heaviest tourist usage.

After soaking for some time in the pool, we caught up with its most recent addition. It appeared, a 3 metre python had been visiting over the past week and had little concern for any human being which might be using the water at the time. Harmless to humans, the python leisurely lounged his way through the water, clearing a path for himself, simply by his presence. One disbeliever to the story of the snake I was now calling "Monty", had become a convert that morning. He had noticed that people had been avoiding him and had all either left the water or retired to the far side of the pool. The reason for their reluctance to continue being in close proximity to Mr Cynic reached realisation point for him when he looked down to see "Monty" brushing past his lonely feet at the bottom of the pool.

The water of the Thermal Pool was delightful and so warm we felt cold when we got out of the water, despite the outside temperature being in the mid twenties. The water is said to have therapeutic powers and many of the oldies which make up at least 60% of the travellers, seemed to believe this to be true. The copious numbers of older citizens and the late afternoon sunshine filtered through the trees and palms, was enough to bring vivid images of the movie "Cocoon" to mind.

During the evening, we attended the free entertainment provided by the resort. In this case, it was a guitarist/singer who obviously harked back to the sixties and had an excellent repertoire. He was an excellent musician (not just because he said I had a hot voice !) and was able to play a wide range of requests from an audience which varied in age, cultural background and interest. Chris was excited by the guitar work and Sue and I loved being able to sing along with most of the songs.
Some of his own songs were also very good and the satirical stuff which he included went down well.

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