Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

54. The Best Swimming Hole in Australia

We went shopping prior to leaving Katherine. With me outside looking after Elle and Mel as usual, Karen ducked into Woolworths to buy enough food to get us to Darwin. As usual, she took her sweet time about it. On this occasion, however, I did not mind too much because I passed the time in conversation with three other touring cyclists who were also stocking up on supplies.

One of the cyclists was a Tasmanian who had flown into Darwin the week before and was now cycling south on his way back home. The other two cyclists were Austrians, headed north. They had a style of touring that was unlike any other Karen and I had ever seen. Five weeks earlier they had stepped off a plane in Melbourne and immediately started riding. During that time they had ridden four thousand kilometres at an astounding average of over one hundred kilometres per day! Every day! Karen and I averaged about sixty or seventy, and averaged one rest day for every day we rode.

While Karen and I loved the sights of Australia, the Austrians loved only three things - riding, camping out in the bush and experiencing the wide open spaces. They did absolutely no sightseeing apart from what they could see from the road. Rather than travel from town to town or from roadhouse to roadhouse as we did, the Austrians travelled from camp to camp and rode past the towns and roadhouses during the day. They had bypassed Adelaide. They had ridden right past Coober Pedy without bothering to stop. They had not even detoured to Ayer's Rock! It was only with reluctance that they admitted spending two nights in Alice Springs, and that was only because one of them had left his unchained bike overnight outside a backpackers hostel and had it stolen. It had then taken them only a day to buy a second hand bike (for one hundred and forty nine dollars) and set it up with racks (two hundred dollars) so they could continue touring. Katherine Gorge was also not on their agenda. They had camped about forty kilometres out of Katherine last night, ridden into town this morning and stopped to buy food, and would ride straight out of town again when their shopping was complete. It was an amazing attitude, and one that I still cannot understand.

All three cyclists had arrived at the shopping centre after Karen had gone inside, and all three of them had long since gone by the time she reappeared. We grabbed a couple of thirty cent ice-creams from Red Rooster then headed for the bank to pick up some cash. Two more touring cyclists were at the teller machine, also riding north like us, but on their way to Katherine Gorge for a few days before heading off.

As Karen and I left town we crossed over the Katherine River and commented on the depth markings painted on the neighbouring railway bridge. The river ambled through the base of the bridge, barely troubling the lower markings which boldly rose in one metre steps to a figure of eighteen at the top. We could not believe that the river would ever get anywhere near the top mark. Eighteen metres is twenty yards is sixty feet is six storeys high! In the floods that hit Katherine a year later, both the road bridge and the railway bridge would be completely covered by water!

We had not been riding long when Karen and I noticed the two Austrian cyclists ahead of us. Never renowned for our speed, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we were rapidly devouring the distance between them and us. It did not take them long to realise we were on their tail. Being a competitive male myself, I expected them to accelerate away from us once they saw that they were being caught by a woman, but their speed remained constant and we continued to catch up. They soon accepted the inevitability of their defeat and pulled off to the side of the road, telling us as we powered past that they were taking a break, off the road, in the shade, for a while. Just an excuse, Karen reckoned.

We stopped for lunch at a rest area about forty kilometres out of Katherine, just past the turn-off to Edith Falls, our next port of call. A half hour later the Austrians rode past, giving us an embarrassed little wave as they disappeared north.

Lunch over, we headed back to the turn-off and out along the Edith Falls road. Almost immediately we spotted a new bird - the black-tailed treecreeper. When added to the masked woodswallow we had seen the previous day in Katherine, the peregrine falcons at Katherine Gorge, and the white-winged triller at the Elsey national park, this latest sighting meant the north had now provided us with four new birds, giving us a total so far of three hundred and sixty eight - pretty close to half of the total number of Australian species.

A common Australian bird - the blue-faced honeyeater

The wind which had been helping us in the morning became a hindrance after the turn. We slogged on to the camping area at Edith Falls, where I set up the tent while Karen walked the short distance through the trees to the pool below the falls to collect water for afternoon tea. On her return she made no comment about the falls or the pool, so I mistakenly assumed they were unremarkable, but Karen soon suggested we go for a swim, waiting for my reaction as we walked down to the water. She did not have long to wait. We were talking as we approached the water and as it came into full view I stopped in mid sentence and blurted "Look at the size of that thing!"

The pool below Edith Falls is the biggest and best swimming hole I have ever seen. I don't know where the figures came from but my diary ascribes dimensions of one hundred and ninety metres by one hundred and sixty metres to the roughly circular pool. Edith Falls itself is pretty, but small and unimpressive, especially during the Dry. It probably becomes quite a sight in the Wet, but the pool and its setting are spectacular all year round.

Edith Falls

The water was surprisingly cold as we swam across the pool to sit for a while near the falls, on rocks warmed by the late afternoon sun. As the evening shadows approached, we braved the cold water once again for the return crossing. I barbecued steak, sausages, eggs, potato and onion for dinner - a rare treat, especially away from civilisation. We also had a few cups of wine, with Karen and I continuing our strange fascination with lambrusco. This phase of our drinking life did not persist for very long, thankfully, but we did enjoy it while it lasted.

The wild man and the barbecue

Actually, we had been extremely fortunate to have found the lambrusco. Despite a long search in the Mac's Liquor outlet at Woolworths, Karen had been unable to find any lambrusco, and had almost given up hope when she spied a broken cask in the corner of a shelf. Never one to miss an opportunity, Karen pointed out the torn cardboard carton to the guy behind the counter and asked for a discount due to the damage. The lambrusco was already on special at sixteen dollars (save two dollars thirty five!) so Karen was not really expecting any further reduction. She could not believe her luck when she received an additional four dollars off the price. Bargain!

After dinner we strolled down to the pool again. We had heard from some other visitors that after dark the water was alive with snapping turtles, so we took our torches with us and expectantly shone them into the water. Sure enough, we saw heaps of small turtles milling around in the beams of our lights, plus assorted fish as well, mostly catfish. A few days previously, while Karen and I had been at Katherine Gorge, we had read a display on snapping turtles which mentioned they could inflict a nasty bite. We had turned to each other and simultaneously said "Hinchinbrook!" as we realised that the wound Karen had received in the Mulligan Falls plunge pool almost a year earlier had probably been caused by a turtle.

Because Edith Falls was such a lovely location, Karen and I decided to spend an entire day there. In the morning we followed a circuit walk up onto the cliffs, walking to lookouts overlooking the swimming hole and photographing the smaller pools and cascades above the main falls. The rest of the day was spent reading and swimming, swimming and reading, and generally lazing around.

Just before we left the next day, we asked the manageress of the kiosk whether she knew anything about the birds in the area, as we had read somewhere that a couple of moderately rare birds - the Gouldian Finch and the Hooded Parrot - were regularly sighted somewhere along Edith Creek. She told us of a planned bird count of Gouldian Finches to be conducted in the area the following week, saying it was a pity we would miss it. She also told us of a location beside the creek, seven kilometres back along the road to the highway, where they had often been seen in the past. Dawn would have given us the best chance of a sighting, but we did not leave until after 8:30am so the likelihood of a successful sighting was small.

As we left Edith Falls we started our cycle computers as usual. At four kilometres we reached yet another milestone - six thousand kilometres of riding since leaving Sydney in February. We then carefully measured another three kilometres, which put us on top of a small hill - not the most promising location when looking for a creek. We rolled down to the bottom of the hill where a line of trees delineated a watercourse, propped our bikes together, pulled out our binoculars and walked about thirty metres to a small creek lined with paperbarks and pandanus. Initially, we saw nothing, but we persevered and soon spotted some Long-tailed Finches. At least we knew there were some finches in the area. A few other birds came and went, and then we saw what we thought was a Hooded Parrot! But the markings were indistinct, and we could not mark it down as a definite sighting.

Then we spotted another finch - and it was different! I followed it up the creek a little way until it loitered in clear view for a while. It was a Gouldian Finch, and not the usual black faced type either, but a red-faced variant. Karen soon joined me and confirmed the sighting. After about twenty five minutes beside the creek, we spotted another bird, a parrot this time. We could not believe our luck, because it was definitely a Hooded Parrot! It proved to us that patience and persistence pay dividends.

A bit like riding around Australia, really.

The common Blue-winged Kookaburra

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