The Marrakai Road

The Marrakai Road

Jan bought a new road map at Alice. At first glance this seemed to be better and more up to date than our older Northern Territory map. By the time we left Katherine however we had our doubts. Many features were shown in the wrong place.

On our last night in Litchfield National Park we looked at possible routes to Kakadu. We hoped to find an alternative to driving up the bitumen.

Both our old and new maps showed the Marrakai Road. This cuts across from the Stuart Highway to the Arnhem Highway. Although only a fraction shorter, it looked much more interesting than the highways. The maps of course disagreed about the road quality. However without detailed topographic maps of the area we had no way of knowing which one was correct.

It was still the tail end of the"Wet" and many roads remained closed. With this in mind and the discrepancy between the maps we decided to check. If we received a favourable report, we'd give it a go. Local knowledge is invaluable.

'Sure, the advice came readily, 'it's a good road. No worries.'

We found the road without difficulty, thanks to the sign. At first it was a good road, even with a lot of surface water. Gradually evidence of hard work in the deep mud increased, but nothing to trouble us and as we skirted round the worst sections. We were enjoying the ride

The maps did not show the road junctions which came at frequent intervals, but that was no surprise. With our compass indicating that we were heading in the right direction we pressed on.

The road deteriorated and became a track. The track degenerated and became indistinct, until it disappeared completely. Just as we decided to turn back two lads in a Toyota tray top drove up. They confirmed we were on the right road and after a little discussion between themselves agreed that we would get across the Adelaide River.

'No worries. The track is better defined on the other side."'

They offered to guide us and set off down a non-discernible track through spear grass that towered way over their vehicle. The road alternated between quagmire and non-existent track. Without their guidance we would not have ventured on, but they were confident. Eventually they stopped at the top of a cutting.

'The river's just down there. It's too deep for our Toyota, but with your clearance you'll make it without trouble.' they said as they shot through.

Left to our own devices we took a closer look at the river. The water was deep all right, up to my chest, and the bottom was soft. On top of this we could see no way out up the opposite bank. We did not share the lads' optimism. Even if we could find a way out, it made no sense to risk being bogged in a river with crocodiles for company.

We had nothing to prove so turned back.

We had only travelled a few hundred metres back along the track when we saw the decrepit Landrover leaping and splashing through the quagmire towards us. We stopped and waited until the battered machine pulled alongside. An Aborigine got out and introduced himself as Peter and the white driver as Alex. Two dogs shared the open tray with spare wheels, a drum of petrol and a variety of discarded junk.

A short chat followed and I mentioned the river and the lack of exit.

'You drive down the river for about a hundred yards and then out over some girders. Your wife'll have to get out and guide you onto the girders, they're a bit thin. You'll have no worries.' Peter was an optimist. 'I'll show you.'

He was insistent so we went back to the river where Peter waded straight into the centre of the deep water.

'Down that way,' he said, 'the girders are on your left.'

'No chance, it's too deep.,' I replied for the third time. 'The bottom's soft as well.'

Peter came out. 'You're probably right,' he said with a grin, 'tide's in. Then he added, 'I was stuck here for a couple of days once. It cost me a new motor.'

When we returned to the vehicles the Landrover refused to start. Peter's reaction was quick and practiced. Open the bonnet, off with the air cleaner and pour a hefty slug of petrol into the carburettor. Then it started.

'Choke's dead.' Peter offered by way of explanation.

We followed as they set off, bouncing and making waves along the track. It was not long before one larger than usual immersion drowned their engine and they came to an abrupt halt. The two dogs in the back were quick to escape from the vehicle. '

'They don't like his driving,'  Peter said laughing. My sympathies were with the dogs.

Fifteen minutes and one flat battery later, Peter gave up trying to start the Landrover.

'Will you give us a push,' he asked, meaning with the truck.

'Sure,' I said, 'but it's going to make a mess of the back of the Rover.' 

'Don't worry about the lights.' Peter was still an optimist.

'It's not the lights I'm thinking about,' I replied, 'the back of your vehicle's not built for this type of use. Why don't I pull you instead?'

Peter was determined that pushing was the way to go so we pushed. We made the initial connection as gently as possible, feeling nothing in our five tonne truck. After a short distance the engine reluctantly spluttered into life. They pulled away under their own power, but not for long. Alex's driving was a bit gung-ho and he drowned the engine frequently with his erratic excursions into the deeper pools along the track. The process was repeated many times.

Each time the Rover stalled in a shower of water the dogs took their chance and escaped. Each time Peter had more difficulty getting them back in. Each time more of the back end of the Landrover disintegrated.

We lost count how many times we pushed. Eventually after a deeper than usual drowning I finally persuaded Peter that towing would be far better and got a rope from our recovery kit. It was a long tow before the Rover finally started and made its own way behind us. Peter was now driving and their progress was less dramatic. There were no more drownings. Everything went smoothly until we came to the next creek crossing.

This was a particularly awkward narrow track, twisting between trees in tight turns. Immediately over the creek a fallen tree blocked half the track opposite a billabong. It was right on the apex of a sharp corner and I had to keep uncomfortably close to the steeply sloping bank as I negotiated the turn. I knew I was in strife as soon as I felt the back end slide towards the water. A rear wheel sank out of sight into the soft mud of the bank. The camper's sub-frame, usually more than a metre above the ground, was sitting on the track.

It's never a pleasant experience to get bogged. It does nothing to improve the feeling when this happens only millimetres from crocodile infested waters. The thought of a hungry salty snapping at our heels added urgency to the situation.

As I started to unpack the hand winch Peter stopped me. He'd pull me out with the Landrover. There was an obligation to return the tows I had given him. His mind was made up and he did no wish to be confused by the facts

He quickly had the rope secured to the front of both vehicles and backed off to take in the slack. To try and ease the load I engaged low range first gear, but to no avail. All we proved is that a Landrover with near bald tyres is not suitable to pull a five tonne truck out of deep mud.

Peter was still not convinced and was determined to prove me wrong. Again the Landrover slipped round on the slanting track. As the rope tightened Peter backed into a tree. Ignoring all warnings he continued to reverse and almost pushed the tree over. The Landrover had another modification to it's bodywork.

The truck stayed firmly trapped.

Peter now agreed to using the winch.

There was only one tree in a suitable position, but that was enough and before long I had the winch set out with a two part purchase. Peter insisted that I stayed in the truck while he and Alex operated the winch.

'Let the young ones do the work,' he said.

Getting older has a few compensations.

There is an often quoted rule about not driving and winching simultaneously. This was time for the exception to prove it, particularly as we were using a hand winch. While they winched I engaged first gear low range and kept my foot well away from the throttle. The combination of an idling engine and winching had us out very quickly.

Peter helped pack the recovery gear away and carefully shackled the two ends of the tree protector together. I tried to stop him, but he didn't hear me. He looked puzzled when I unscrewed the shackle again. I showed him that the tree protector was still wrapped round the tree. Then he realised what he'd done.

He made a comment about his ancestry and laughed. When I responded that it was his privilege to make those comments, but not mine, he laughed again.

'You're in the Territory now,' he said. 'You can say what you think in the Territory.'

After a billy of tea and another push we escorted them to their property and said goodbye. In the short time we had known each other we had become friends.

From the time we had turned onto the Marrakai Road to retracing our steps to the Stuart Highway five hours had passed. As we turned north onto the bitumen we reflected on the day. A visitor has no way of knowing if locals are giving sound advice or otherwise. There is only one way to be sure. Go and check it out.

There was no doubt about it, the Marrakai Road was more interesting than the Highway.

© Jim Ditchfield 1995

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