The Eastern Gascoyne Race Club is located at Landor Station, 60 km from Mt Augustus and 350km from Meekathara. It has two meetings a year on the WA long weekend in September/October. It’s station jockeys on station horses, or as explained to me, fat blokes on bush horses.
The Annual Meeting cost $60 entry per person for the weekend, including camping on the property – on the rails if you wish – and three days of events for all from Two-Up to Tug of War. We rolled in on Friday and the lady at the entrance immediately recommended the chips and gravy and to avoid the left-hand side if we didn’t like doof doof. The road in revealed a wide open space, dotted with water tanks feeding corrugated toilet and shower blocks, and several early starters who had obviously been before, claiming the few shade giving trees and structures.
Lisa’s Country Kitchen, an iron shed with chandeliers, turned out such delicacies as freshly made pulled pork with coleslaw, slow cooked lamb with rocket salad and perfect chocolate brownie, yet the chips and gravy remained the steadfast best seller.
When the bar opened at 7pm for Two-Up and Crown & Anchor I wish we had packed our stockyard shirts in block colours of blue and pink (purchased in a surge of admiration for station style on our last trip). Drinks were cheap (beers $4.50) and the crowd already your good mates. Unrepeatable stories of intrigue and family dynamics shared, then onto dancing to live music from Leather and Lace commencing at 10.30pm, about 90 minutes after we would normally have retired.
Saturday was the AFL Grand Final*, and given Collingwood (Waz’s team) was in the Grand Final, considerable forethought had been given to whether this would be televised at the races and therefore whether in fact attendance was possible. Hallelujah! It would be on the Big Screen in the bar, with the added bonus of nipping the other side of the Big Screen to watch Barrel Race Time Trials and the other races.
Collingwood (Melbourne) was playing the West Coast Eagles (Perth), so given we were in WA and Collingwood supporters are the subject of significant ridicule and generalisation (missing teeth, mullets and so on) it transpired that there were precisely three Collingwood supporters at the screening;Waz, myself, and another person smart enough to attend undercover.
Two hours before kick-off we were first to the bar and determined the front row. I felt wine with aeration in it was required. I was furnished not only with an $18 bottle of Methode, but a wine bucket and plentiful ice to rest it in. The wine bucket being an actual bucket. Genius!
Collingwood lost in the last quarter. Brutal, but there were races to attend, and winnings to gather. On Saturday, five horses won seven races, and I’ve invited guest blogger and Colourful Racing Identity, Waz, to summarise the results below.**
Sunset drinks led to the ball. I broke out my new RM Williams boots and a top with a horse on it. Apart from wearing it inside out (the hazards of dressing in a dark tent), it blended sufficiently, and despite the ball not starting until 9pm, we were caught up in the theatre of it all and gazed with wonder upon the amazing hairstyles and massive ball dresses the gorgeous young gals materialised in. How the heck do you put that together in a ute and a swag? As strains of music from DJ Rev reached our tent at 2am, the nocturnal stickability had to be admired.
Sunday dawned and the gymkhana was on. Competitors as young as two and up to 14 were incredibly adept. The commentator sat in the stands with limited visual range and kept up a dry and highly entertaining report. “Looks like we have the young Miss…not sure who that is…Is that…? Gee. Look out. She’s missed that pole. She’s going to have to go around again. That’s thing with this event, you have to keep hold of that pole…I don’t want to guess who it is or there will be an angry mother and disappointed father coming at me …It’s a good turn out this year, been a good breeding season…”. As the day goes on, he gets funnier which is almost more compelling than the all comers Tug of War.
Monday, the ladies turn out in their racing best “Just because it’s the country doesn’t mean we don’t have fascinators”, and an evening of more Two-up (who said it only happens on Anzac Day) music and dancing until midnight. In 2021, the event celebrates its 100thyear and I can confidently predict it will be a cracker. Who’s with me?
We intended to head west to Kennedy Range, but “the miners have wrecked the road” and it was closed, so back we went and straight to Carnarvon, with an extra passenger of around 40 kilos of dirt. We chose a caravan park with a giant car wash and lost the next two hours of our life to a sponge and spray gun. Well, I got the elbow grease jobs involving foaming brushes and cleaning door frames and mesh windows. Waz got the stand-back-and-spray-the-bejesus-out-of-everything job followed by important matters of the iphone. By the time I had finished, dinner cooked by someone else was required, and judging by my expression, Waz had selected Sails, the fanciest place in town. Driving up to the 1970’s architecture I had shrimp cocktail on my mind. I was to be disappointed when presented with an amazing French inspired menu, lots of fresh local vegetables and a decent wine list, for about the same price as a pub meal in Perth***.
*An Aussie Rules Football season finale many Australians build up to all year. Home Opens, Auctions, Weddings and other significant things are purposely avoided on this weekend.
**Raconteur Waz says: The first day saw Rock River and Rodinia salute the judge twice with Jessamy Walsh taking the riding honours with four wins. Second day saw Centipede win twice with leading jockey Natalie Burke riding four winners including the two aboard Centipede. Rodinia, who came into the carnival a maiden won three from three making her the Landor “horse of the year”. NB: Landor has one annual carnival with many of the horses not racing many or any other races. Jessamy and Natalie shared the Landor jockey premiership with five winners apiece. From a punting perspective Biara Flyer was the shortest price winner (day 1) as well as the shortest priced losing favourite over the 1800m Landor Cup. Both times at $1.30 and in his last race came 4th as a drifting $2.00 favourite.
Thank you, Waz!
***When you live in Perth you get used to extending your mortgage simply to stick your fork into a parmigiana, so you are perpetually delighted by the Parma Price anywhere else.
The road to Mt Augustus from Meekatharra is unsealed. In the rear view mirror I could see billowing clouds of dust enveloping every crevice of the unloved camp chairs and brand new ‘pub bike’ we bought for this trip, strapped mercilessly uncovered to the trailer. It was Wednesday, Day 4. Around 75km from Mt Augustus we saw a sign for annual Landor Race Meeting at the East Gascoyne Race Club, kicking off Friday. Count us in! Darned if we were going to miss another compelling sounding local event.
But first Mt Augustus.
I kind of expected Mt Augustus to look like Uluru, but twice as big at eight kilometres long, and older, clocking in at 1650 million birthdays. Well, it has a lot more trees and what-not on it, so it is nothing like it really. The rock is so big you cannot actually get a photo of it in entirety. I even drove around the short ends of it, and, nope. So here’s a partial image.
Mt Augustus is known as Burringurrah by the local Aboriginal Wadjari people. The main dreaming story associated with it tells of Burringurrah, a lad not enjoying his initiation into manhood instead electing to take off, breaking tribal law. Punishment came in the form of a tribesman’s spear through his leg and a finishing off by the women wielding fighting sticks. If you look at the mountain along the long side, you can see his prostrate body and the broken-off spear. I can think of a few men that have avoided transitioning to adulthood, and who appear to have been lucky they weren’t under Wadjari law.
As a working station covering 1,250,000 acres, running over 100 windmills and bores, and a hard to count number of cattle, Mt Augustus offers travellers a campground oasis of lawns and sprinklers, 100% groceries in the fridge (yep, even the potato chips) and a bar specifically prohibiting ‘dickheads’ and open when deemed appropriate by the extremely genial and unintentionally humorous tourist park managers. If you are prone to dickheadery, avoid.
There are numerous short walks or drives to lookouts from the base of the Mount, doable for small people, and featuring magical rock engravings you can walk right up to. There are so few places in the world you can stand right in front of 30000+ human handiwork without a security rope and cctv. I love Oz.
The pinnacle activity for most is to climb the 12km return, 700m ascent Beedoboondu Summit Trail. The general guide says to expect a 6-8 hours climb, and that it boasts some savage radiant heat, that along with the terrain, tests the unwary. The day before we arrived, a woman had to be transported (a four stage several hour process) to Royal Perth and the bar manager said earnestly while pouring a chardy with ice, “I had to grab some people that looked like you to carry her down from the top”. We did a quick calculation and retired with a view to kick our walk off at 4.30am.
When the sun warmed our duvet it became apparent the alarm had been set for a time other than the appointed (4.30pm- not looking at anyone in particular!), and we were an hour behind schedule. Undeterred, we stormed up that hill like the undead from seven hells was upon us, and cracked a sub four hour return. I think the compelling feature for Waz was that someone told him you could get Telstra coverage on the cairn at the top.
With days north of 35 degrees in September, Goolinee (Cattle Pool) on the Lyons River offers surprisingly chilly respite in the noon day heat.
But this morning we were not dilly-dallying. We got back and packed without pause; we had a country race, of which we knew little, to attend.
There is some kind of M thing going on in Wildflower Country; Moora, Mingenew, Morawa, Mullewa, Mt Magnet, Mt Augustus, all wildflower hotspots. The exceptions are Cue, Coorow, Carnamah, and a host of others I’ve left out because they don’t suit my theme. It is striking how inventive and creative these small towns are, from murals to museums, and thrilling sounding events that we would miss like The Inseminator’s B and S Ball and Ute Muster, The Menzies Rodeo and Ute Muster (‘Have yourself a bucking good time’), and Mt Magnet’s Astro Rocks Festival.
Meanwhile, at Coalseam Conservation Park, a foggy morning greeted us, which you don’t get much of in Perth, and as some of you know, I do love a tree in mist.
I had done a little more research by this stage in snatches of mobile coverage and had a solid plan in mind that would not involve driving back down roads we had already covered. Part of Warren’s no work zen outlook was to stop the car and turn around as many times as I requested, without the veins in his temple exploding, but I didn’t want to fatigue that new muscle.
Our goal was Mt Augustus, the kind of place you choose to go because it is not on the way to anywhere and far from everywhere. You go there to see the ‘World’s Biggest Rock’ – yes, more than twice Uluru – to view carpets of wildflowers, intriguing geology, and enjoy some working cattle station hospitality.
Mt Magnet is en route to Mt Augustus, and although small, jam packed with history and pride in the success of past and present residents, all gathered in one sizeable place called the Mining and Pastoral Museum, within the visitor centre.
I have to say at this point that all small towns have their version of this. Country visitor centres are worth visiting simply to meet the warm and enthusiastic volunteers ready to spill the beans on what’s hot, recent celebrity sightings, movie filming featuring all the locals, and recommend where we could get a good cuppa. For us, it was the swimming wall of fame in the museum, where we paid homage to one of Mt Magnet’s famous sons, Paul Lee.
Coorow is another example of community pride and spirit. The local community owns and farms land for community benefit. Coorow Farm is home to the first homestead built in the area by William and Sarah Long, who raised a family of seven without, one would assume, any medical attention or intervention. A self-drive 6km wildflower trail offers point of interest, with walks of 250m or 1.25km, which apparently was 1km too far for the occupants of the other four vehicles.
By 4pm, Waz called stumps and we looked for a roadside stop. If you are not all over it, Wikicamps is a goldmine for finding paid and free camping and the voluntary commentary spares no detail. If there is rubbish, mosquitoes, flies, bees, generators going all night, crap hosts, or it looks like a scene from Cocoon*, TomTrukka or Ben1983 leaves no mystery. There is also an element of ‘this is too good to put on Wikicamps’, where you don’t want a good thing ruined by great unwashed tourers, so you and the other 100 people who know about it remain shtum.
A spot in the Gascoyne riverbed is such a place. Astoundingly, Waz did not create a massive fire, which is why he camps, but instead Waz’s Outback Kitchen Australia (WOKA) turned out free range chicken enveloped in similarly liberated prosciutto, atop a gathering of rocket and micro herbs accompanied by seared sweet potato. Just because we camp doesn’t mean it’s all two minute noodles and anti-bacterial wipes. I’ll go into why this whole camping thing is even a concept for one most comfortable in order and freshness in another post. Yes, city princesses and princes of Bel Air, you too can do this.
*Dang. There I go alienating my Millennial audience.
Our first day was pretty short by usual standards. It was simply enough to be on the road, and having not made it to the supermarket we only had the remains from our home fridge with us; a jar of red cabbage sauerkraut, leftover jalapenos, two lemons, one orange devoid of skin (denuded for Waz’s gin), and half a packet of bacon. Like a vision, the welcoming Watheroo Station Tavern loomed in the dusk, offering free camping, hot showers and home cooked food! Bonus offer – the Watheroo National Park was just down the road. Yes, yes, and heck, yes.
Which brings me to my latest project: I’m going to visit every National Park in Australia. I thought it would be a great way to spend the four months. Then I discovered there were ‘over 500’. The husband of a friend said “But that will take ten years!”, which is probably on the money, but in my defence, I do my best work when there is a list to attack, and I do not like list items mocking me for too long.
So to Watheroo National Park. An amazing array of wildflowers (in season), echidnas and rich wildlife, areas of water and walking tracks, it covers over 44,000 hectares and is home to Jingemia Cave, and the biggest mosquitoes I’ve had to take an entire palm to.
Sporting around 50 bites despite industrial spray, I was ready for the Watheroo Station Tavern dining room for some excellent offerings from the kitchen ladies. Lamb shanks, fish in butter and caper sauce, salad and vege. Washed down with an $18 bottle of wine. A bargain night for $58. It’s a must stay!
The next morning I had the wildflower trail maps open, with an eye out for the ‘extremely rare’ yet seemingly common wreath flower. Any local info/visitor centre is happy to hand draw specifics on a map : “They are near this cross road, before you get to the big tree, under the fenceline, and behind the bush…”. The rest of the morning was a a zig zag around taking in wildflower hot spots: Carnamah, Morewa, Three Springs, Mingenew, and winding up at Coalseam Conservation Park (surely this counts as a National Park?!).
While the East Coast may have the Big Pineapple, Western Australia’s wildflowers are the biggest collection on Earth – with over 12,000 species, 60% of which are found nowhere else. If it appeals, make a date to self-drive the many trails from July to November.
By this stage Waz had that strained look. He had gone above and beyond with the driving back down roads he had already been, and blood sugar was plummeting alongside his sense of humour. Picking up the pace we set up camp at Coalseam Miners Camp. The result of a spirited exchange in a radiant 36 degrees abuzz with clouds of flies about whether site nine was better than four, and where north was.
Next: Mt Augustus and dust. So. Much. Dust.
It’s Friday. Warren has taken voluntary redundancy from Telstra, and will be finishing in a week. He declares with enthusiasm that we are to hitch up the Aussie Swag camper trailer (creatively referred to as The Swag) and hit the road. For around four months. Leaving in two weeks. All that is required is to buy a suitable vehicle, pack a minimalist bag, slow to 40KPM for a quick food shop, and we would be off.
Alas, no. We have the ingenious idea of installing some people in our house while we are gone, and I am granted a revelation. Apparently the hours spent bingeing Netflix had robbed me of the truthful vision that my home held grime ransom in every crevice. The gloves, magic erasers, and a toothbrush that would deprive anyone of gum margin came out and I was off on a Konmari* extravaganza with laser focus.
Have you ever inspected your washing machine? The thing that cleans everything else, that never actually gets cleaned itself? A quick check on what it would cost to buy and simply replace the Fisher & Paykel manky bits had me head back to the garage for another solution. The steamer, the water blaster, a bladed scraper later, and good deal of muscle later (hooray for pre-dawn winter pool kilometres**), I stood back with satisfaction. [At this stage I must mention our laundry lives in the garage. It’s a matter of priorities. Namely Warren’s wine storage trumps boring laundry that Warren is still in a quandary over what it’s contribution to life quality is.]
Then I noticed the wall behind the washing machine. Having just reorganised the entire garage pre-departure, I knew exactly where the painting stuff was. No multiple trips to Bunnings here. Two hours later, two walls of the garage were freshly white. I’ll leave you to imagine how this played out in every corner, draw, and crevice of our house.
By the time our incredibly lovely new tenants knocked on the door last Sunday, 16 days post declaration, I was at the stage of dually cleaning the fridge and flinging indiscriminate matter into the trailer. A bag of dry goods, dirty runners, and clean linen vied for real estate on the back seat. I paused and took a moment to appreciate the immaculate cream sheepskin seat covers, champagne interior, and unmarked ‘Liquid Bronze’ exterior of our newly purchased car. It would never look this way again.
We headed out the drive and north. We hadn’t actually had time to discuss an itinerary, but a pie at the Bindoon Bakehaus would be a good start.
And so it begins.
*Marie Kondo is an organising expert who introduced the KonMari Method™ in her transformative best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” She began tidying as a young girl and refers to “tidying adventures”, just like me apart from being half my size in every measure, gently spoken, and smiling serenely out from perfectly face framing sleek hair. Simply reading her book is an exercise is peaceful mindfulness. The approach is rooted in a single question: Does this item spark joy?
** Thanks Team Phoenix! xx
30 days of rain when your home is made of canvas requires becoming at one with perpetual damp. The irony of recently arriving from weeks of skin blistering heat, unfeasibly mobile dust, and sticky, biting, flies was not lost on me. The car smelt of a wet dog we did not own. Our bed was damp right through the mattress, towels reminiscent of forgotten washed laundry sitting in your washing machine after three hot summer days, the knives and forks grew rust, and our backsides sprouted algae from the winning camp chairs that attract and retain the tiniest molecule of moisture from the air.
The rain joined us the moment we reached Cooktown, chased us down the East Coast of Queensland, and did not let up until we cried ‘Enough!’ one especially wet evening at the tiny EJ Fahey Park, as rain blew sideways under our groundsheet cable-tied to the trees, and the fire limped through dinner. Blinking at each other through the mist we wordlessly agreed to drive 5000 km back to the West, to spend our last two weeks on the sparkly, turquoise, pretty-fish-filled Ningaloo Reef.
We have one week left of four months on the road and sitting at our camp, overlooking Osprey Bay in Cape Range National Park, time has accelerated and each day seems to last only 12 hours. We have driven 22,000 km in an overlapping circle and W is cleaning the Weber Baby Q, an annual activity, confirming that indeed, all things end eventually.
Cooktown is a beautiful spot at the base of Cape York (the pointy bit on the top right corner of Australia). Access is 4WD, and parts of it, fairly intrepid. Cape York was one of the few must-do’s on this trip, but our timing was a little off, and we reluctantly agreed the journey may spell the end of the camper trailer, so had got to Cooktown to at least put a virtual stake in the ground for when we would return.
The anchor of James Cook’s Endeavour sits in the Information Centre at Cooktown. I love looking at collections of relics from past times, specifically home and personal items, but the actual anchor of a ship I heard tales of as a child thrilled me far more than I expected. It must have been a really weird experience for both Cook’s mariners and the local Aboriginal people seeing each other for the first time. Quotes and writing from both perspectives at the time makes compelling reading.
At the watery inlets and outlets around Cooktown Achtung!* signs abound, as do water lilies and lush rainforest. There is something oddly humorous about a crocodile sitting just under the surface with a water lily on his head.
From Cooktown we took the coastal 4WD road bound for Cairns. The trailer seemed to enjoy the bounce from steep inclines and declines as we roared south. The road took us through the Daintree, tropical growth fresh and happy in the rain. Greenery is so restful on your eyes when you have squinted your way through the Top End, carving deep furrows in your forehead. The contrast is so stark, in a relatively short distance, that I am reminded again how incredible Australia is. We didn’t stay in the Daintree or Port Douglas, as we have been to both before, and the damp was beginning to seep in. At this stage we didn’t know the rain would become a lasting signature of our East Coast experience.
The Great Barrier Reef could be accessed from Cairns, so we booked the last two seats on a boat going out the next day, and reclined on a large day bed for a few cocktails at the marina. W had wandered off to make some calls, leaving me to the charming attentions of a short, older, gentleman in a genuinely antique Hawaiian shirt, who sidled onto the long day bed. We both inched left, a fraction at a time, until I was cornered. With nowhere to go, I made a bid for freedom over the side, sacrificing my Margarita in the process. Walking home via the Cairns Night Markets, I managed to avoid buying dream-catchers and multi-coloured beach cover-alls, but the cocktails I’d had managed to purchase a pair of two-tone gold UGG boots, the last pair, a half size too small, but at 70% off, impossible to resist.
We embarked the boat, and just when we thought legal capacity had been superceded, another 30 people got on. It was a rough day out on the water, with five metre swells, and we hadn’t read the bit in the brochure about the two-hour trip to the reef, followed by another hour to another reef, and back again. Around 65% of those on board had failed to bring their sea-legs, and while many proceeded to the open and fresh rear of the vessel as instructed, a stubborn few stayed amongst the rest of us inside, and shared their recycled muffin. As a person who just needs to think about vomit to start gagging, I stared resolutely through the window to the front of the vessel just in time to see a guy plastered to the exterior of the window clutching a sick-bag like it was his first born. A position he maintained for 7 hours.
Unfortunately, the popularity and fame of the Great Barrier means mainstream reef trips are worse than 30-hour flight on a no-frills airline to a small crowded atoll where the fish look rented. Staff flatly roll out the same jokes and routine every day, and flirt with each other to break the tedium. By the end of the trip, the Kiwi extravert guy had made solid headway with the Swedish lunch prep girl.
We set the TomTom for south, clinging to the coast in search of sparkling beaches, and richochet-ing in and out of small, beach-style towns until we reached Mission Beach. We had hoped to find somewhere to swim since the threat of crocodiles was no longer present, but the murky grey water and persistent rain was uninviting and a faint ache in my tooth nagged. By the time we neared Townsville, I had decided a tooth was attempting to grow sideways out of my gum, so I called Townsville’s 1300 Smile and managed to drive straight to an appointment. 48 minutes later, I left 1300 Smile relieved of one tooth, a gaping hole in my mouth, and a legitimate member of the Collingwood Football Club**.
I will continue this tale from Townsville, QLD, to Exmouth, WA, in my next instalment – Things That Make You Go EEK – where I have regular and uninvited encounters with a range of scream-worthy creatures.
*Crocodile warning signs read ‘Achtung! Warning! Crocodiles inhabit this area.’
**Collingwood Aussie Rules Football Club members are popularly described as being short of teeth and long of mullet.
Timber Creek is a small town in the Northern Territory with the three most common remote town signs; to the roadhouse, police station and medical centre or hospital. The roadhouse is typical, providing all manner of services including bar, bottle-store, restaurant, service station, and caravan park to locals and travellers alike.
We arrived on Saturday, and the roadhouse was doing a roaring trade in beer destined for a party up the road. Carloads of locals drove up, piled into the bar, emerged with slabs of beer, and yelled to other carloads of locals doing the same. The Eftpos machine sat silently trapped in a cage at the front door, and a cheery bunch of international staff buzzed about.
Travellers under 30 years of age to Australia can extend their tourist visa by one year, if they work for three months in a remote area. This means you can generally guarantee the people serving you in many small town pubs and roadhouses are a cheerful array of intrepid young people with exotic accents, seemingly well out of context, yet curiously at home.
The caravan park behind the roadhouse offered the twin attractions of crocodile and bird feeding. At 5pm, an eager bunch of kids, a couple of elderly folks, a handful of freshwater crocodiles, a varied flock of airborne raptors, and W and I excitedly gathered for feeding time. When the English girl from the pub dangled raw pieces of meat in the creek, the crocodiles looked a bit bored, but the birds were somewhat theatrical, and the kids and I were thrilled.
A whiteboard on the wall in the bar listed names of people banned from the bar, and the date they were allowed back in. Every now and then, a whiteboard person wandered in and attempted a purchase, or sat at the bar and charmingly argued why they should stay. Both the Chilean and the Kiwi behind the bar were barely 25, yet managed to deliver the bad news, wave farewell to the banned, and order a Barra and Chips at the same time with a smile. I wanted to suggest the publican run a detox program for city adolescents, currently gaining life skills from a screen, but he didn’t appear to possess the same charm as the gals.
We had left Kununurra at the break of day, and foiled the guy with the wheel covers, awning OCD, and dawn leaf-blower routine next door, determined to wake us. I like to ensure we have plundered the depths of local attractions, squeezing in The Mini Bungles and Kelly’s Knob at sunset the night before, and planning to swim at Valentine Springs, Black Rock, Marley Billabong and a handful of other watery delights on our way east. Alas, the swimming holes were in varying states of dehydration, but the backpackers were up for it, shrieking and smoking while splashing about the murky green water. We ventured to Wyndham where local artists had crafted an alien message into the saltpan, looked at another grey harbour, and deemed our work done.
From Timber Creek we drove straight through Katherine and north to Nitmulik National Park, a gorgeous park full of gorges and swimming holes just 30km from town, managed jointly by traditional owners and Department of Parks and Wildlife. Edith Falls is one of the beautiful camp areas within the park, offering shade, and , watered grass, wildlife (both two and four-legged), and a swimming hole replete with fish eager to nibble off your callouses. I am never at ease in fresh water, but became excited at the prospect of a pedicure of sorts. I watched the cute little fish dart about my legs until one took a wee chunk of my thigh.
Nitmulik is atypical for National Parks, with quirky personal touches. Edith Falls greets you with quirky quotes on a sandwich board, and the main caravan park features a rockstar-style lagoon pool, and resident 4 metre python (harmless but freaky all the same), that hung out at the pool in daylight, and on the path to the toilets at night. Moving to the main camp, we set up with haste, eager to make it in time for our Gorge Dinner Cruise, the only tour with vacancies. Waiting under the trees for our cruise to depart, a man approached enthusiastically and said “Saw you at the camp ground. You’re next to us. In the camper trailer. We’re in the Winnebago.” Pausing to reflect, I couldn’t remember anything about our fellow campers except the fact I thought there was no-one around as I changed into my bikini beside the car.
Our next destination was Karumba. The promise of abundant fresh fish and prawns, a fantastic azure vista, and location bang in the middle of the Gulf of Carpentaria took on a spiritual quality, and got me through two bush camps. To be clear, bush camp means off-the-grid, no loo in any form, no water, coverage or rubbish bins. Of course, a sweet little shower faucet in a box, some cigarette lighter power, and a bucket of pre-boiled water convinces you temporarily you need never live a civilised life again. Until you see yourself in a roadhouse bathroom, and realise your husband is not a details guy, and you need an intervention.
Karumba is all about fishing, just like the rest of the north. You cannot swim because of the crocs, it is hot as all get out, and the Barra run freely. At night the sunset pub hosts thousands of hermit crabs as they march about, pile up, then march again. At every point the road or a boat campmates the water you see signs warning of croc activity. They read “Achtung! Attention! Crocodile activity in this area”, and show a no-swimming icon. After a while we simply referred to these river crossings as Achtungs. Australia’s largest saltwater crocodile, ‘Krys the Savannah King’ met an untimely end at nearby Archer’s Creek in 1957, but the legend lives on in a life-size replica, over 8 metres long, in the main street of Normanton, where people take photos of their babies in its mouth.
Karumba’s Hotel offered two kinds of experience; the open air Animal Bar and air-conditioned Suave Bar. Alone in the Suave Bar, we were schooled by Maddie and Tae on the Country Music Channel, on being a ‘Girl in a Country Song’, which seemed to prescribe smiling over speaking, daisy dukes and cowboy boots, and a lot of admirable hair.
We had to stop at Mt Surprise for name alone. This is another small town with a tiny local population, residing in fields rich in ancient history and semi-precious gems. We made sure the pub could receive the AFL Grand Final transmission, then settled into the caravan park with resident Johnny Cash, miniature ponies, exotic birds, an emu, and another resort style pool. Always a fan of a gem, I convinced W to grab a prospector’s license, treasure map, and shovel from the gem store and we set out for the field of dreams. Before we left, I had probed the expert for tips, amongst which was the theory that good things lay two metres down. When I said we could easily dig that far, I saw a flash of focused attention pass across the eyes. It’s a look I have only seen in opal fields, carried by people living in corrugated iron lean-to’s for decades and in possession of an unshakeable belief that tomorrow they will find the mother lode. Three hours later, having dug over the well ground in the allowed areas other tourists has already toiled over, bitten by March flies, and with dust in very crevice, we departed in possession of a few small pieces of Topaz, unsurprised by the appraisal they were too small to do anything with.
Hanging up our prospecting boots, we investigated a once vast farming property owned by the entrepreneurial Collins family, the first white settlers in the Gulf Savannah, and who have owned the property since the 1860’s. Featuring caves formed by ancient lava tubes, and numerous unique geological features, the family decided to partner with National Parks to create the Undara Volcanic National Park, and developed a slick tourism venture on the property, called The Undara Experience, which thrives today. Of course the only way you get to see them is to take the tour. W and I spend a lot of time in each others company, so whenever we go on a tour I am freshly reminded that we walk at twice the pace of anyone else, and how I need to develop a more Buddhist outlook when it comes to that person in every crowd that dawdles at the back with their camera/eternally fusses in their back pack/stares into the distance/is last on the bus.
The next day we eyed Cooktown, at the base of the Cape York Peninsula, a new corner of Australia for us.