Down Under in the Top Ebd - Penelope Heads North‘Tim Bowden loves a good yarn. He also loves travelling with his wife Ros, their four-wheel-drive and camping trailer, and setting up camp under bush skies. In Down Under In The Top End – Penelope Heads North, he combines all three to take us on one of the world’s great road trips, from Australia’s east coast to the Top End and into the heart of the outback.

 ‘Told with wry humour, and infectious enthusiasm, a sense of history and a nose for finding great stories, Tim lays bare the hardships of bush life and celebrates the joys and freedoms of being on the road. He takes us to a pub with no beer at Gregory Downs, has us paddling a kayak between the red granite cliffs of Lawn Hill Gorge, teaches us the pleasures of being an in-house guest in Darwin’s Government House and leaves us wondering what a statuesque and topless German tourist was doing striding down the Stuart Highway.

 ‘And all along the way, he introduces us to characters only the outback could throw up, fellow travellers, and extraordinary tales of exploration and unexpected immigration. Listening to Down Under In The Top End will have you packing your bags, putting your belongings into storage and taking to the road.’


‘This part of the Oodnadatta Track had vivid memories for us, dating back to our 1982 trip with our Kombi and box trailer…’


Well we were in croc country...

Well we were in croc country…

To gather material for our fourth Penelope book, we planned a three-month journey north to Darwin and back to New South Wales via Alice Springs, the Oodnadatta Track and Arkaroola, we were already aware (both being on the wrong side of sixty-five) that opportunities to hit the road for three months should be grabbed eagerly (a) while we could manage the journey and (b) while we wanted to. Both our respective fathers died in their early nineties and we knew that their expectations of life had diminished over time. Ros’s father’s main preoccupations in his nursing home were to have a box of man-sized tissues beside his bed and plenty of his favourite fruit-flavoured jubes beside the jumbo Kleenex. Much, we felt, remained to be done and seen before our focus narrowed to that extent.

Penelope and The Manor in a top camping site at the Devil's Marbles in the NT.

Penelope and The Manor in a top camping site at the Devil’s Marbles in the NT.

Australia’s tropical north, now the nation’s most popular tourist destination for overseas visitors as well as locals, was not always so highly regarded. It was even alleged in 1942 during World War II that in the event of a Japanese invasion, the whole of the north was to be abandoned to the invaders. (This was later denied by the Liberal government of Robert Menzies.) The Labor Party’s Eddie Ward alleged that evacuations and a scorched earth policy would be carried out down to the ‘Brisbane line’ which was to be held after more than half of continental Australia was written off!

With torrential rain in the ‘wet’ season, and fierce heat in high summer, Australia’s north is a potent manifestation of the poet Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘sunburnt country’ with its ‘droughts and flooding rains’. She noted also that her much loved ‘wide brown land’ was not without ‘her beauty and her terror’. In more recent times the ‘terror’ of Australian travel was made much of by writer Bill Bryson who claimed Australia was the most dangerous country he had ever visited: you could be dispatched by a long list of deadly creatures including poisonous snakes, spiders, crocodiles, box jellyfish, sharks – and even a seashell that would attack you.


Sunset at 'The Rock'.

Sunset at ‘The Rock’.

Ros's prized barramundi caught near the Daly River in the Top End.

Ros’s prized barramundi caught near the Daly River in the Top End.








Fortunately, Bryson has been unable to dissuade hordes of overseas visitors from roaming northern Australia, climbing Ayers Rock (Uluru), riding camels, diving on the Barrier Reef, marvelling at Aboriginal rock art, cruising on Kakadu’s incomparable wetlands, soaking in thermal springs and watching crocodiles in wild life enclosures leap high into the air to take chunks of meat offered to them via a very long pole.

When  Ros and I first ventured forth in our elderly split-screen Kombi and trailer in 1974, travel in the Northern Territory was not for the faint-hearted – even in the cooler dry season. The Stuart Highway was unsealed from Port Augusta in the south, to Alice Springs. Navigating the red-rutted track with huge, seemingly bottomless pot-holes full of ‘bull dust’ (a white substance of talcum powder texture with an ability to penetrate almost anything but a capped bottle of beer) made it too dangerous to take your eyes off the road to even snatch a quick look at the surrounding countryside. Such reminiscences must seem inexplicable to today’s tourists who speed along the wide, sealed motorway through the desert in air conditioned luxury. And speed they have been able to, because until 2006 there was no speed limit in speed limit in the Northern Territory. In the 1970s relatively few tourists made it to Uluru or Kings Canyon because of the unsealed roads.

Size isn't everything...

Size isn’t everything…

Unbelievably, Territorians in the late 1960s and early 1970s were faintly resentful of tourist visitors and let us know it, but that was soon to change. In the twenty-first century tourism in Australia is booming. And Australians are traveling widely within their own country, partly due to the uncertainties brought about by terrorism and instability around the world, but also through a desire to experience their own ‘wide brown land’.

The wonderful bar of the William Creek pub on the Oodnadatta Track in South Australia

The wonderful bar of the William Creek pub on the Oodnadatta Track in South Australia

It is true that the Bowdens seem to travel with too much gear – including a wine cellar. But we have always believed that camping is not about deprivation, but indulgence. Even with that mantra in mind, we did not envisage the heights of luxury we would score in Darwin, when we were invited to stay for almost a week in Government House, while our great friend Ted Egan was the Administrator of the Northern Territory, with his partner Nerys Evans. Ros and I even stayed in the Queen’s Bedroom!


There were two single beds there, so I could not be certain that I slept in the one inhabited by Queen Elizabeth the Second. But the en-suite had only one toilet, with a splendid polished wooden seat, so it is entirely possible that my plebean posterior shared that particular throne with Her Maj’s…

Government House in Darwin, our temporary home away from home...

Government House in Darwin, our temporary home away from home…



























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