Wednesday 7 August 2013

Katherine - the end.

Continuing on to Katherine was uneventful - Katherine marked the termination of The Big Lap, as I'd covered from Katherine on last year.  I stopped at a freecamp along the way for a night and was immediately questioned by a neighbor re what I knew about  solar panels.  His regulator had three flashing LED lights, which he didn't think was normal.  With my multimeter we soon determined his panels were working properly but his regulator was cactus.  Meanwhile another nearby camper came over and was quizzing me about how to determine the charge level of your battery.    I thought "This pretty well sums up the camaraderie of the road".  You can pretty well approach anyone and be welcomed.  If you have a problem, people offer to help, the same as you offer to help anyone else with a problem.  So who are these people?  They come from all parts of the country,  a range of occupations and their rigs vary widely.  One chap I met had a ute and an old caravan as his only assets in this world, others with quite expensive modern units but all are greeted on equal terms in their travels.  Some actually live on the road, others have a home base and travel a fair bit of the time.  While the term "Grey Nomad" is often used to sum up all the campervans and caravans on the road, there are a significant number of younger people also (we'll exclude those in the Wicked Vans from this discussion), from those undertaking a major trip before the children start school, to those with long service leave and - if travelling other than in the long holidays - prepared to take their children out of school for a term, to those with families taking extensive travels and home educating their children.  When asked what they consider they like most, they most often state "the freedom". 

We often hear the glib statement " another life.." - how many lives do we have?  What constitutes "another life"?  Tonight I am sitting around the campfire, looking into the flames and reminiscing;  since the loss of my beloved wife, I haven't been home long enough to establish a 'new life' without her - I wonder how that will go?  I have now completed The Big lap, and to me it constitutes "another life"!  I will continue traveling but not so extensively.  Thus I consider this the final chapter of this life - it has been an incredible journey!


Passing through Hall's Creek, I stopped at the Visitors Centre and managed to book a flight over the Kimberley's from Kununurra a couple of days hence.   I arrived in Kununarra and booked into a caravan park  - spot with a water view - and awaited my Kimberley Experience Flight. 

The Gibb River Road goes thru the Kimberley's from Kununurra to Derby, and while very scenic and interesting (I am told), it is also rough, requiring a sturdy, high clearance four wheel drive vehicle, which my HiAce is not!  Successful businesses at either end do a roaring trade in repairing damaged vehicles, vans & trailers that are supposedly sturdy enough to handle the road.  For the most part, the Kimberley's  are remote, rugged and not very productive.  So an extensive flight to view the area was my choice and this was a six hour tour including a couple of stops.  The Kimberley's cover an area about the size of Germany, our pilot/guide informed us on takeoff, as we left Kununura heading NW toward Wyndham, following the Ord River and over much of the irrigated area.  On reaching the coast we flew west along it and over a couple of wilderness resorts, where the only access was by plane or boat, and the prices ranged from $1,700 - $3,000/nite.  The area is certainly wilderness!  We continued working our way west along the coast over lovely beaches and bays, including an oyster farm, where oysters are seeded and then grown in cages to produce the cultured pearls for which the area is famous.  So far much of the country looked reasonably flat and very sparsely vegetated. 

Turning inland from the coast, the terrain below was more rugged.  Some rivers had cut steep gorges and we flew over the waterfalls which were, well, gorgeous!  As they had some water flowing it made it more interesting.   Passing over King George Falls we continued to our first stop on The Mitchell Plateau, where the air terminal and facilities were very welcome after three hours travel in a small plane:  Being in a wilderness, these facilities were in character. 

We then continued to Mitchell Falls on our way to the next stop, Drysdale River Station, for lunch.  While 'only' a hamburger and drink, a superb meal it was!  As stated earlier, this country is not very productive and stations find it hard to survive:  The fact is some don't, but those like Drysdale who have, did so by expanded into the  tourist trade.  It is perhaps 50 Km off the Gibb River Road, but well patronised as it offers food, fuel, accommodation and a real outback station experience.  While a bit basic compared to the wilderness camps on the coast, it is more in keeping with its pioneering spirit, as exemplified by the blue phone in an old fridge. 

From here we flew back to Kununurra over a more interesting terrain, with hills, bluffs and broken country below.  The pilot/guide pointed out El Questro Station, which today is a wilderness retreat, and very popular, so much so that you have to book about a year in advance.  Apparently Nicole Kidman, when filming the movie "Australia" wanted to stay there but didn't book far enough in advance and was disappointed.  We continued on over Emma Falls (which at this time of day was in shadow) and back to Kununarra, completing our unique aerial Kimberley experience.

I then spent two nites at the Lake Argyle Resort and Caravan Park.  Lake Argyle is Australia's largest body of fresh water, some 7-9 times larger than Sydney Harbour.  Its main purpose is to provide a storage reservoir to supply water in the dry season, the dry season being virtually an annual drought, prohibiting crop production.  Large tracts of flat land (around 7,500 Ha.) around Kununurra are thus able to be farmed with the resulting irrigation.  Initially cotton (devastated by insects) and rice (eaten by magpies & other birds) were tried but not feasible.  Other crops were tried and today melons, fruit, seedcrops, sugar cane and sandalwood are successfully grown.  The Ord River Dam, which created Lake  Argyle, cost around $20 million to build in 1971, and the crop of sandalwood is estimated to be worth some $5 billion dollars. 

But I digress.  Lake Argyle has a large number of freshwater crocodiles and a large number of fish on which they feed:  No saltwater crocs (the dangerous ones) can live in fresh water so the waters are safe to swim in.  They are also pure enough to drink from.  So, as we set off on the tour, a freshwater croc was soon spotted and became the star of thousands of photos!  Soon after we spotted a rare rock wallaby, who enjoyed similar instant stardom.  We continued our tour, with our skipper also being an excellent guide and giving us facts and figures along the way - for example, enough water flows out of the Lake each day to supply all of Australia's drinking water, and even yet, five times that amount is lost to evaporation (at least I think that's what he said).  Some of the larger islands contain trapped native animals that are now being used as a control group to study changes in evolution.  We saw only a small - but representative - portion of the lake and this included some of the fish, which also became instant stars, though they were cunning enough to only show up if they were fed. 

After the cruise we were driven to the nearby Durack Homestead, the Durack's being the original settlers of the station and who were the visionaries behind the Ord River Dam.  The homestead was in the area to be flooded and thus dismantled, every stone numbered and re-assembled at its current location above the flood waters.  Unfortunately, the waters rose more quickly than anticipated and most of the other items meant to be relocated were lost. 
Kununarra is the centre of much to see and do and quite a modern town.  The base population of around 7,000 more than doubles in the tourist season.  The young lass who filled my gas bottle had moved from Perth seven years ago and loves the place with a passion.  The pilot/guide is a seasonal worker who follows work south during the off season but can't wait to get back in the tourist season.  Yet I only stayed three days, being a bit travel weary and not motivated enough to see the Bungle Bungles, which everyone states is a 'must see'.  I did, however, visit the Sandalwood Factory! 

Sandalwood oil is valuable and used in perfumes, beauty and skin care products.  Sandalwood grows naturally in Australia, and while once threatened with over exploitation is now managed on a sustainable basis.  Indian sandalwood is used in the plantations as it is more productive, as well as having an increased demand with shrinking resource in its natural habitat.  Some 7,500 Ha have been planted in Western Australia, Northern Territories and Queensland, with potential for another 15,000 Ha in the NT if/when the Ord River Scheme is expanded to supply irrigation to the Keep River Plains.


Derby is the oldest town on this stretch of coastline, but doesn't have the great beaches that Broome has, rather some vast expanses of mudflats instead.  It is popular none-the-less and while I did get a spot in a central caravan park, it was my good luck, as it soon was filled.  John & Choi-Chu, who I'd met in the Northern Territory last year informed me they were now working in Derby and we soon got together, having fish & chips at the Dinner Tree at sunset.  The Dinner Tree is a large boab tree at the edge of the mudflats and apparently was a popular lunch spot in the early days, when cattle driven to Derby were grazed in the area until they could be loaded on ships.  Boab trees abound in the Derby area and are strange trees indeed!  Their age is difficult (impossible?) to determine, as they don't have normal growth rings and some guesses put the larger ones at up to 1,500 years old.  One such venerable tree has a hollow centre with a narrow opening in the trunk, and is called "The Prison Tree" as it was used to store prisoners being transported on overnight stopovers.  Boab trees are protected in Derby, thus any development must preserve existing trees, giving the streets some interesting twists & turns! 

Derby has boab trees along the centre of its main street, has an interesting Museum and also the wharf is an interesting visit:  It is often lined with people with crab nets, hoping for a feed of mud crabs (and not often disappointed, from those I talked to).  A few kilometres out of town is the Mowanjum Art Studio, with an excellent video on Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal paintings and boab seeds with Aboriginal scenes carved on them.  As regards the latter, boab seeds are around 25 cm long and have a hard outer shell:  Male Aboriginals carve art on them while Aboriginal women paint scenes.

Once again I was in luck to be in Derby for The Mud Crab Races, the last of three races held each year - one would be remiss in not attending, and we weren't!  You are "given" a mud crab, which you then name (which is written in white on the shell), and in return, "donate" a minimum of $10.00.  There are ten races of ten crabs each, the two winners of each race set aside to run in the Grand Final, which then determines the first, second & third  place prizes.  The "caller" is an entertainer extraordinaire, one to whom 'political correctness' has yet to arrive.  The crabs are placed in the centre of a ~3 metre ring and the first two to reach the edge are set aside:  The losers go into the cooking pot!  None of us had a win or place, but we all had lots of fun!  The races were followed by a BBQ, which included a half mud crab.  A great local, fun-filled event!  Following this, we then went to a birthday party for friends of John & Choi, so it really was a party nite!

A trip out to photograph boab trees the following day was organised by a photographer friend, commencing with lunch (what a civilised group they are!) at the Prison Tree.   We then traveled over the mudflats (they are normally quite dry, only getting covered in the extremely high tides)  to some rather amazing and different places.   Our final stop was at the site of an old mission (near a trinity of boab trees) and the area was littered with old cars & other bits of machinery.  The old cars made an interesting inclusion in some of the photos of boab trees.  Driving back to Derby over miles of mud flats ended our very interesting day.   John & Choi insisted on tea (she is a great cook!), so my last evening  was spent with them - they certainly made my stop in Derby a special part of my journey with their hospitality.  As I was rather sadly driving out the following morning, a vehicle waiting to turn out onto the main street had  John's smiling face behind the wheel - reminding me of special treasures of Derby they'd introduced to me and then I wasn't so sad! 


Next destination-Port Hedland, to do some shopping & connect to internet.  I'd planned to continue to Cape Keraudren, but at the turnoff was a large sign stating "Offroad Vehicles Only!!", so I freecamped and continued to Broome the following day.  Ever popular, Broome was essentially booked out so I managed to get a spot at the Roebuck Roadhouse Caravan Park, some 35 Km out of Broome, and took it. 

Broome has grown to be a modern city, with some of the older areas still maintaining the character of earlier times.  Initially, the main industry was diving for the oyster shells for the Mother-of-Pearl, of which Broome supplied to the world, as much as 80% before 1915.  Cultured pearls began to be farmed in the 1950's and today it is a major industry in Broome.  With its tropical climate and lovely beaches, in the 1980's Broome developed a tourist industry, huge today!

So, a visit to the famed Cable Beach was in order;  Cable Beach got its name after the international telegraph cable between Java and the rest of the world, which came ashore at Cable Beach in 1889. Not surprisingly many of the 100,000 annual visitors were sunbaking, bathing and generally enjoying the fantastic beach weather.  Here and there you could spot a beach bum, but what surprised me was how old some of them were!  Or maybe they just looked old, as their vacant stare indicated they undoubtedly were traveling in the speedway.     

A visit to the Historical Society Museum gave an interesting account of Broome's development and life in a remote town.  Of special interest were interviews screened of former telephone exchange operators:  While they didn't mention names they certainly covered some 'facts' of early life you don't find in the history books! 

I was lucky enough to be in Broome when the Staircase to the Moon occurred, a phenomena that only happens three nites a month and only from March-October:  When the full moon rises over exposed mudflats at an extreme low tide, the reflections on the rippled sand create a staircase effect.  So I spent the late afternoon at Town Beach with a book, waiting for sunset.  It was scheduled to rise not long after sunset, thus it wouldn't be quite dark at first.  As sunset approached, it soon became evident most of the 100,000 tourists had left Cable Beach and were now at Town Beach!  Like a watched pot, it seemed to take forever for the sun to finally set and then the moon rise, but rise it did!   With cameras clicking everywhere I felt a bit puny with a compact digital camera, especially as there were some super-fancy long lensed SLR's on tripods for the event, but given the limitations I managed to get some decent photos.  It is certainly unique, and fascinating to watch - a wonderful experience!  Then a 35 Km drive back to my van and preparations for early departure, Derby being my next stop.

Friday 26 July 2013

Indee Station

On the way to Port Headland, I saw a car alongside the road and an Aboriginal waving, so I stopped.  He'd run out of petrol, then flattened his battery: While he had a jerrrycan of petrol, he needed to be jump started.  He said he and his wife were from Coober Pedy, traveling around visiting friends & relatives, and had been there for two days broken down.  I asked about food and they said they were OK, but I opened a pack of biscuits and shared them around:  They were quick to grab as biscuit so I left the pack with them.  We connected up leads, and shortly a couple of stockmenn also rolled up.  In summary, it turned out his immobilser had been engaged and needed resetting, requiring bringing the car to a mechanical garage:  As it was an automatic transmission, it couldn't be towed and needed to be loaded onto a truck/trailer, such as most towing companies now use.  One of the stockmen said Indee Station may have one so as there was nothing more I could do, I agreed to drive on to Indee Station ("...only about 30-40 km up the road" and then another 9km off the highway on a gravel road into the station) and ask them to help.  On arrival, they said they had no vehicle capable of loading the car so in the finish we passed the information on to the Police.  Meanwhile, I discovered they had a caravan park on the station so I booked in for a couple of nites.

NB:  I have subsequently been warned that it is very dangerous to stop for anyone in remote areasI am doubly happy in this case that I didn't come to grief and that I was able to help.

Every evening at 5:30 PM they have Happy Hour - they have an open section (roofed over) in the middle of their homestead, with living quarters on either side.  It has a table that seats about 30 people and it was full both of the nites I was there!  A retired quarry owner was there and volunteered to take a group on a tour of the station & quarry for a donation to the RFDS, an opportunity quickly seized by half a dozen people.  It was quite amazing, he showed us two railways running thru the station, they are about 500m apart and one belongs to BHP & the other FMG; they run parallel virtually all the way to Port Headland, but they cannot agree to share so each have their own rail.  Gina Rhineheart is in the process of building a third parallel line as no share arrangement can be negotiated.  He also gave us a good background into the quarry, which was set up to provide basecourse for the railways (he was happy they built two!).

The large bridge was nearly underwater not many months ago, as the area was virtually an inland sea after heavy rains.  Hard to imagine, when at the moment it looked pretty dry and thirsty country.  The station is 250,000 Ha and runs about 1,000 head of cattle - understocked at the moment due to previous drought.  They were hit hard financially by the sudden halt in exports to Indonesia and relatively recent drought.  The station was wiped out by a cyclone a number of years ago and the owner spent three years with a brickmold making the concrete blocks to build a new, cyclone safe homestead.  It was hit again in 2007, and while much damage occurred, the homestead survived.  They were mustering at the time so while we didn't see the boss cocky, his wife was supervising meals for the stockmen & Happy Hour at the station:  Apparently the owner came in the second evening with a bad gash in his thigh but said he wasn't going to hospital:  A fellow who knows him and saw the wound reckoned he should go to hospital, and also reckoned his wife would order him to go!

A pleasant stay, the tour was fascinating and a small glimpse into an operating station.

Tuesday 23 July 2013


We set off at 0730 and covered 630 Km to a freecamp near Karijini:  We stopped at Nanutarra Roadhouse for lunch and met up with Vida, another solo Grey Nomad traveling around the country counter clockwise and now on the way to Perth.  The Pilbara is an ancient land, some 3,500 million years old.  It is a wildly beautiful place, with large open flat areas out of which arise hills & mountains, showing red bands of the iron rich rock that abounds in the area.  There are flat areas with (relatively) small heaps of rock, looking to all intents as if they were dumped there, but on closer inspection, the size of the rocks themselves are much larger than the largest trucks about today:  Perhaps like everything else in the days of yore things were bigger.  Within some of the ranges are deeply cut gorges and some of the best in the region are in Karijini.

We arrived at Dales Camp Ground in Karijini, booked a site for three nites and went to the well set up Visitors Centre.  Then off to explore Dales Gorge;  we walked along the top, then descended into the Gorge to Circular Pool at one end.  This is a pool at the bottom of a sheer circular cliff and is quite spectacular.  It also is a popular swimming pool, as evidenced by those doing just that (Heidi joined them).  From here we walked along the bottom of the gorge about two Km to Fortescue Falls, at the other end of the gorge.  This gorge is narrow, steep and beautiful, being cut through layers of rock, mainly rust red but with some yellow as well.  The bottom has a creek flowing thru it supporting a range of vegetation.  Surprisingly, there are fig trees growing here, remnants from the rainforest era, we were told.  There are large melaleuca trees, as well as the white snappy gums.  This is pretty well the pattern for all of the gorges we visited.  A short walk upstream from Fortescue Falls is Fern Pool, a lovely swimming pool with twin waterfalls off a ledge on the far side. 

The following day we drove to Weano Gorge over a diabolically corrugated road, avoided after this day.  There is a lookout here where four gorges come together:  You look straight down into the steeply cut gorges, which is awesome.  We then set off for Handrail Pool, which involves a bit of wading, a walk through a very narrow section and steps with a handrail down into the aptly named pool.  Early on, the water was a bit higher than normal, so a swim or spiderwalk along a sheer section of gorge was involved:  I waded over to the spiderwalk area but didn't feel confident to traverse it so turned back (at worst I would have fallen into the water but didn't have waterproofing for my camera, thus negating swimming across the pool also, which I could have done easily).  Heidi continued to the end, which she described as phenomenal!  
The next day we drove to Kalamina Gorge.  On descent into this gorge, you arrive at a picturesque waterfall and pool.  We met a couple here who were taking photos for the NP Service on a volunteer basis.  He seemed totally involved in the business, ignoring his wife who followed along as best she could.  We then followed the valley downstream to Arch Pool, the end of the trail.  While some were swimming in this pool, it was well shaded and cool.  We met some trekkers returning from further on but they said it was rough and unspectacular so we returned along the same track, heading for a more pleasant pool we passed earlier.  Here we had a pleasant rest which involved lunch and a swim for Heidi.  While here, we saw aforementioned  photographer single mindedly striding back  - but we never saw his wife.  We arrived back at camp with enough time to visit Fern Pool again and a very pleasant swim.

 Our last day, we packed up and left the Dales Camp Site and drove into Tom Price as we needed petrol.  We checked at the Visitors Centre, as one option I had was going north along a gravel road to Millstream Chichester NP and I wanted to check the road condition - it was badly corrugated & rough so I canned that option.  We then went to Hammersley Gorge, which was a fitting finale as it was superb!   The rock layers are much thinner, more varied in colour and bent & twisted into fascinating forms.  There are two pools for swimming, the top one finishing in a grotto where the water has cut a short tunnel through the rock.  Again Heidi swam, I ate lunch & took photos. 

And then it was time to leave.  We stayed at the Tom Price Caravan Park and the next morning drove to Parabardoo, where Heidi caught her flight to Perth.  In the ten days we covered some 3,100 Km and had some unique and wonderful experiences.  I returned to Karijini for three nites, then intend heading towards Port Headland & then turn east. 

So far this year my travels have covered 13,873 Km (8,648 miles) and have a minimum of 5,631 Km (3,513 miles) to Brisbane.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Exmouth & Ningaloo Reef

A 1,214 Km run from New Norcia to Exmouth, lunch at Geraldton and an overnight at a freecamp south of Carnarvon:  We drove into Carnarvon for a quick look also.  On arrival at Exmouth, we checked at the Visitor Centre and discovered the place was packed out - School Holidays, and what better place to take the family!  We managed to get one night at Yardie Homestead, on the other side of the peninsula (we subsequently booked two more nights in an overflow accommodation).  The main attraction here is Ningaloo Reef, and Heidi organised a boat tour to snorkel on the reef and to swim with whale sharks.  On this particular boat they also have a number of research scientists, adding another dimension.  They were interesting and happy to discuss their particular area of expertise which, as may not surprise you, comprises of ocean and reef ecosystems plus whale shark studies.  We had an extra day waiting for our boat tour so we went to Yardie Creek National Park where we walked along the Gorge, visited the Myerling Visitor Centre and lazed about on a beach or two. 

Then the following day we went on the boat tour.  We were picked up by bus, drove to Tantabiddi Boat Ramp, where we were ferried out to our boat and then set off for a bit of snorkeling.  Plenty of reef fishes and coral but sadly coral bleaching has taken its toll.   While we were snorkeling, a spotter plane found a whale shark, so we were hustled back aboard and set off in pursuit.  On the way to it, we were organised into two groups and given our specific instructions by our team leader as no more than ten people can swim around the whale shark at any time.  Once in the water, said leader located the shark, brought us to it and we followed along as it slowly (for a fish!) cruised foraging for plankton.   What a terrific experience to be three or four metres from an 8 metre fish just below the surface!  We had a couple of dives at this shark (the groups take it in about ten minute turns and there was also another boat) and I thought that would be it, but we ended up observing four whale sharks, the smallest at three metres long.  But that wasn't all, we also observed humpback whales nearby (the other team actually had a mother & calf swim right next to them while they were observing a whale shark!), I saw a sailfish leap clear of the water and others also observed some turtles and a giant ray leap clear. 

The scientists were busy taking photos, movies and gathering any pertinent information on the whale sharks as research on these creatures is in its infancy.  They took water samples and plankton samples plus gathered other data in relation to their particular expertise, which they freely discussed with us, encouraging questions from any and all.  We were on the water about eight hours and arrived back at the boat ramp pretty well exhausted!  But what a totally unique experience - and a sumptuous lunch provided as well!  Being privy to the research was a terrific bonus - it added so much.  We rested well that night, as we planned an early start to Karijini.    

NB We were promised an email link to some of the underwater photos but none received at this stage, so the photos are a bit light on.