Day 9: Jabiru to Batchelor
The Jarwon aboriginals call parts of Kakadu "sickness country." They knew that if you camped too long at the wrong waterhole, or spent too much time hunting in the wrong place, you would get sick and die. What they didn't know was that this whole area is rich in highly radioactive uranium ores. At one point, there were 13 uranium mines scattered through here. Now there are just two, the Ranger and Jabiluka Mines near Jabiru.
It's a hot and steamy 84 degrees as we roll out of Jabiru at 8 a.m. We're barely out of town when we run into a police checkpoint at the junction of the road to Jabiluka. It's a random breath test-all drivers have to blow into a bag to ensure they're not over the legal limit. The fact that the police are shaking down drivers for drunk driving at breakfast time suggests the Territory hasn't lost its reputation for hard drinking.
We're heading west along the Arnhem Highway, toward Darwin. Not long after we cross the South Alligator River, where we spot a croc basking on the mud near the bridge, Chris feels the Land Cruiser start wallowing over the road. A rear tire's gone flat, the only car problem we will have on the entire trip.
We turn left off the Arnhem Highway and onto a back road that will take us to Adelaide River, back on the Stuart Highway. The road is wide but badly corrugated in places, and extremely dusty. Occasionally we hit a patch of what Aussies call bulldust, powder so fine it explodes around the car and penetrates past even the best door seals. There's a fine film of dust all over the Outback's dash as we approach the Margaret River crossing, where in the wet there can be water barreling across 30 feet of road.
During the World War II, the northern military command center was moved 60 miles south from Darwin to Adelaide Rover. Up to 30,000 Australian and U.S. soldiers were stationed in bases around here, and numerous airstrips were carved out of the scrub alongside the Stuart all the way up to Darwin. Australia was never invaded, but it was touch and go in the early 1940s until Australian troops stopped the Japanese advance in the mud-soaked, malaria-infested hell of the Owen Stanley Ranges on New Guinea.