Travel Diary #9: Darwin, Katherine and car trouble

Litchfield National Park 4WD with rooftop tent

Whoopee! Finally! We arrived in Australia. We doubted for a long time if we would come over here. Australia was on our bucket list for ages, but because it is so expensive to travel in this amazing country, we weren’t sure now was the time for us. But then we thought, hey, we only live once! And who knows if we will ever have the opportunity again to come this far from Belgium (although in our minds we will definitely come again ?). So here we are! With tons of ideas how to travel on a budget in Australia but mainly with a lot of plans of all the things we want to see. Because everything we read and hear about this country seems to be full of promise! We can’t wait to find it out for ourselves…

Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory

Our trip begins in Darwin, situated all the way up north in Australia, in the state Northern Territory. We have a night flight from Singapore to Darwin an with the extra time difference, we are glad to arrive in our Airbnb (click on this link to receive €30/$40 discount on your first booking). And the Airbnb we stay in, turns out to be fantastic! Right in the centre of Darwin, close to the supermarket and with a lot of space for us and the kids to play. First we rest a little bit in bed and then we go out to get some groceries.

Entering the supermarket, we feel a little bit home again. The kids go totally crazy and run from one side to the other to show all the familiar products they have. After some months in Asia, it is nice to be able to buy all our usual stuff again. Chocopaste, cornflakes, regular bread, butter, sandwich fillings, our familiar vegetables, … Or how you can be happy when you get back the little things in life once you have missed them for a while!

Our time in Darwin

Darwin is known for a couple of reasons. It is at the end/beginning of the Stuart Highway, an epic road going through the middle of Australia and the outback. It is the capital of the state Northern Territory, which is known for the outback, being crocodile territory, having some of the most amazing national parks and in known as the ‘real’ Australia.

Darwin is all the way up north and has a tropical climate with only two seasons, the dry and the wet season. We arrive just before the beginning of the wet season, which means that the humidity builds up slowly while it is still very dry and hot. Not the easiest weather and especially Yuna and Jurgen have a hard time now and than with the very warm and humid conditions. Luckily, after our Airbnb, we have a hotel with a swimming pool. Nothing that cools you off like a quick dip in the pool (or a long as far as the kids are concerned)!

Darwin Travel Lodge Hotel Northern Territory Swimming Pool
Lots of fun in the water in our hotel in Darwin

Something that we notice about Darwin is how quite it is. As the biggest city of Northern Australia, we expected lots of traffic and people. But the streets are almost empty, with one or two cars passing by. And the people on the streets are mostly the indigenous people, walking around without a cause, but very friendly to us. It feels as if the entire city has adapted to the heat and everything goes slower. Although it is a bit strange, it’s also a quite nice lay-back atmosphere.

Mindil Beach Sunset Market

Darwin is also known for its Mindil Beach Sunset Market. This market is organised only during the dry season, so we are lucky to be just in time for the last two editions. And it turns out te be a very cozy and enjoyable market, right next to the beach. You can find some delicious food, the most amazing didgeridoo music we have ever heard and some fantastic local products and art of which a lot is made by the indigenous people. On our first time, we get to enjoy a breathtaking sunset! Wow!! The sky colours orange/red/purple/pink above a large beach. One of many magnificent beaches in Australia, as we would later find out.

Darwin Northern Territory Mindil Beach Sunset
Making drawings in the sand of Mindil Beach while the sun is showing off in the back!

The only downside her in Darwin is you have to be careful for crocodiles (even in the sea) and jellyfish. So just go for a swim without any thoughts is not possible around here. Which is a shame with all those amazing beaches and waterholes. The second and last time we visit the market, it is also the end of the season an we can enjoy the amazing fireworks above the beach! The Mindil Beach Sunset Market most definitely captured our hearts!

Aboriginal Painting Mindil Beach Sunset Market Darwin
A local artist makes some indigenous paintings on the market.

Cooling down at the waterfront

It is so hot out here! While we wait for our car (more about that later on), we stay in two different hotels. Jurgen has to work a lot, so after homeschooling in the morning, the kids go with mummy to the waterfront. A nice bay with an artificial beach, protected from sharks, crocodiles and jellyfish and watched over by life guards. Some carefree swimming and playing in other words. And the kids love it! They can build sand castles, play in the water as much as they want run after each other, … And mum relaxes in the shade and can work on the blog in the meanwhile.

Waterfront Darwin Swim Kids Northern Territory Australia
The kids enjoy bolling down in the water and building sand castles!

The story of our car

As we mentioned before, we were planning on buying our own car. It is the most cost efficient way to travel through Australia. Buy a car, travel around and sell it again. Because we have had some car trouble with our own car during our travels in Europe, we wanted to start this adventure well prepared. Our budget only allowed us to buy an older car, but that is not a strange thing to do down under. They maintain their cars very well so the vehicles drive around for many years and many kilometres. Travelling around is in the genes of the Australian people and the backpackers are happy to go along with this.

We are doubting between a campervan or jeep/4WD, but after looking into it, we decide to go for a 4WD. Up north, you find more of those (because of the outback and the rough tracks) and a van is a lot more expensive than a jeep if you want one that sleeps 4. And last but not least, a 4WD gives you much more freedom because a lot of places are only reachable by jeep.

We buy a car in Australia

After testing 3 cars, we bump into one we are very interested in. A Nissan Pathfinder, fully equipped for 4 persons with a little more than 300 000 km, which is still OK for Australia. But, as we want to be well prepared, we decide to go to a mechanic to test the car before we buy it.

After the checkup, unfortunately, the mechanic tells us there are a few problems with the car. But they can be fixed. We get an estimated cost and succeed in getting that amount of the asking price. So we decide to buy the car. It seems to be a good deal. We will have a car that just comes out of a garage, completely fixed and with a full service and in the end we only will have paid the asking price. We want to be sure everything is Ok with the car, as we will be driving down the Stuart Highway through the outback, and that is not the place where you want to have a break down. With temperatures reaching 40 degrees or more and hundreds of kilometres without a house or living soul you are better well prepared, especially with the kids. We do want to stay on the highway however, and not go off track, so normally if something happens you always encounter other cars or trucks after a little while.

We begin our journey

After waiting for an entire week, we can finally pick up our car. We name him Cody, after the little boy of the movie ‘The rescuers down under’. It was a long wek and not our finest one. We bought the car on Monday and he was supposed to be ready on Friday. But of course, that was not the case and we could only leave on Tuesday of the next week. That meant we had to stay in a hotel for another 6 days, after our lovely Airbnb apartment. That on itself is not that bad of course (we also had a pool), but we were stuck and that is not a nice feeling.

Luckily, Jurgen could work a lot. Cooking however was not an option and is way to expensive to go to restaurants in Australia, so eating involved a lot of hassle with sandwiches and fillings on our room. We couldn’t go anywhere without our car and it was so hot everything was just a little harder than it should be. But on Tuesday we could finally leave! Ready for our epic adventure through Australia! Or at least, we thought we were but Cody decided otherwise…

Travel Lodge Darwin Room
Eating sandwiches on our hotel room in Darwin.

The oil light starts to burn…

Yes, we know, that is never a good sign! But let us explain how everything exactly happened. We left the mechanic in Darwin and drove 100 km to Litchfield National Park. A beautiful park by the way, but that is for our next diary. After camping in the park, we want to leave the next morning. But when we start the engine, the oil lamp starts to burn. However, after less than a minute it goes out again. We check the water and oil to be sure, but everything seems to be ok.

Camping Litchfield National Park 4WD
Camping with Cody in Litchfield National Park.

Thanks to our prior experiences with the oil light, we are alarmed and on our guard. So we drive on but after another 30 to 40 kilometres it starts burning again. Not good :-(. The problem however is that we are in an national park without any mobile coverage (which is very common in Australia). Luckily we just reach a major sight in the park and they have a public phone so we call the mechanic in Darwin. He asks me to check the water, oil, airco and fan again. If that’s all ok, he advices us to continue because it is likely to be an electronic issue than.

Continue our journey or not?

We have two options: go back to Darwin or drive on to Katherine, the next big city which is another 200 km down the Stuart Highway. We decide to continue, because the mechanic told us so, it is more than 100  km back to Darwin anyway and we were so happy we could finally leave Darwin after being stuck there for 9 days. So we go on with our journey, but with a lot of doubts because the light continues to burn. So lets hope it is something purely electronic.

Katherine, a city on the edge of the outback

The fact that this city gets its own title, says enough of what’s to come ;-). We didn’t encounter any other problems during the rest of our journey to Katherine. Although we did had the feeling that the engine was making more noice. But it was hard to judge that, as we only just got the car and it was our first trip in it. Once we arrived in the city, we decided to immediately look for a mechanic to check the car. But that was easier said than done. Everywhere we asked, they either did not have place or could only help us after a week or more. Eventually, we got the number of mobile mechanic, who normally does road assistance. Because it got late already, we first looked for a campground to stay the night.

The verdict

The next morning, the mechanic came by the campground and he brought us bad news. The problem doesn’t seem to be electronic, so there has to be something wrong with the engine itself. And that engine doesn’t sound that good anymore. He thinks the engine is totally gone, so in other words, our car is worth nothing anymore. We can’t sell him like that, we are stuck in Katherine, which is almost the middle of nowhere, so the only solution is getting a new ‘old’ engine for the car. And that’s something that easily costs a few thousand dollars.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t the best day of our trip. Many tears were shed by Heleen and we felt discouraged, not a nice beginning of our trip in Australia. But anyway, you need to go on, so after some downtime and self-pity, we decided to handle the situation. After all, it is only money and a car and we should be happy we are stuck on a campground and not really in the middle of nowhere somewhere along the road.

After a few calls, we find someone who has another engine (an old one, but still in good shape). only downside, he can only help us in 2 weeks. The positive news, after some angry phone calls to the mechanic in Darwin, he agreed on paying a part of the costs for replacing the engine. But it still was a financial setback.

Our stay at the Riverview Tourist Village campground

Looks like we were stuck for a while on this campground. Luckily, it could have been worse. We have a swimming pool and it is situated next to some beautiful hot springs! On the other hand, our car is parked right next to the Victoria Highway, so we get a lot of noice from the gigantic trucks that pass by or park right out front our roof top tent. Here in the outback, you see a lot of road trains, huge trucks with 3 or 4 trailers.

Riverview Camping Katherine Victoria Highway
Our camping spot at the Riverview campground, next to the Victoria Highway.

And it is so terribly and unbearably hot and humid out here! We really just don’t know how to escape the heat. It is the build up to the rain season and out here it feels even worse than in Darwin. Working is hard, homeschooling barely succeeds as the kids simply can’t focus because it is too hot and our nights aren’t the best we ever had. So you understand, it weren’t our best days over there, but we did try to keep are heads up high and make the best of our days. Luckily they have a swimming pool and especially Hanne stays in there for hours!

Riverview pool heat camping Katherine Australia
Fun in the swimming pool to kill some time and escape the heat!

Luckily we meet the locals

Something typically Australian is that a lot of people are permanent residents on the campgrounds. They see all the tourists come and go, but once they noticed we were sticking around for a little longer, they started to talk to us. and as it turned out to be, they were all so friendly, willing to help and full of good advice! Once we socialize with the locals, our stay on the campground was a lot more enjoyable and interesting. For example, we could use a mobile airco from a friendly man that we could use for the kids, so they could sleep a bit better.

Riverview Campground Katherine Australia Camping
Killing time with playmobil and eating.

Our guardian angel

Someone else told us to get a second opinion. He thinks the engine might not be broken after all. And with a lot of luck, we get the number of Patrick, a priest who turns out to be a fantastic mechanic as well. He normally doesn’t take in new customers, because he works from home and it is not his only activity. But because we call til in person, he doesn’t want to say no and comes over to check the car. Unfortuntaely, he has the same conclusion. We will need another engine…

Patrick is somebody with his heart in the right place. After seeing us, a family with kids, stuck in the heat of Katherine and with brutal bad luck, he wants to help us, despite his lack of time. He looks for a much better engine (100 000 km less than the other one we were waiting for), that will cost us a lot less and we can stay with him and his family while he is working on the car. And even better, he is willing to fix it a lot sooner than the other guy, which means we won’t be stuck for so long on the campground. Is are luck turning after all?

We can’t express it enough how happy we are we met them, how lucky we feel they were willing to help us and how blessed we feel we can count them among our acquaintances (or may we say friends?).

Our time with Patrick ad his family in Katherine

From the moment we arrive at Patricks home we are warmly welcomed by Jen, his amazing wife, and Autumn and Cody (who happens to have the same name as our car ?) his lovely kids. We can stay in their homeschooling office where they have airco! Whoopee, finally some cool air! Which means Jurgen can work and focus again and also the teaching works out fine again. The kids play with Cody (Autumn is already 16 years old), and have lots of fun on the trampoline, with their water games, board games and lego. We stay for 5 days and get to know them better. It is a wonderful experience to really live among the locals and discover the Australian way of life in a remote city such as Katherine. We see and learn a lot and it definitely enriches our image of Australia and our travel experience!

Katherine Family Mechanic
Our new friends from Katherine, Patrick, Jen, Autumn and Cody.

On Sunday, Patrick can’t work on the car because he has his church work then. He is a priest of the Baptist Church and in his community there are mainly indigenous people. It is an hour drive from where we are, so we can’t come a long because, oh yes, that is right, we don’t have a car ?. In the afternoon we do attend a discussion group in the local church. How interesting! And so different than the way we are used to in the Catholic Church. More open, more singing and more room for discussion. The kids get to be creative in an art session with the other kids.

The car is fixed and we are back on track

Patrick worked hard on our car. In the meanwhile he discovered the mechanic in Darwin really fooled us. Some things he charged for, aren’t done. Other things just aren’t fixed properly and he shouldn’t have advised us to buy this car in the first place. Everybody agrees, we really had some bad luck. Both with the car and some of the people we met in Darwin. Patrick had much more work at the car than anticipated (how lucky are we it was not the other mechanic who had to do the job) and works till late in the evening and starts early in the morning in an incredible heat!

Car New Engine Katherine Australia
The new engine is placed in the car, not how we are used to see Jurgen :-).

And then, again on a Tuesday, the car is ready and we can leave. Patrick checked everything twice because he really wants us to be able to travel through the outback without any further problems. We are very happy we can continue our travels, but it is with a little pain in our hearts that we have to leave this fantastic family! We hope they visit Belgium one day and we can have them in our house and give them back what they gave to us! And now, we really can chase our Australian dream!

4 thoughts on “Travel Diary #9: Darwin, Katherine and car trouble”

  1. Pingback: Travel diary #10: The Stuart Highway and Uluru: an epic adventure · The Global Wizards

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  4. What a shame about the car. Sadly it is a common problem in Australia as in some states there is no legal requirement for cars to have regular checks – so buyer beware. But you did all the right things by getting it checked initially, so sad that the first mechanic did a poor job. I bet it is all in the past now.

    So wonderful that you met a kind helpful Aussie family. There is nothing like meeting wonderful locals and yes, it changes your perception of a place.

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