Full circle

The road from Cooktown to Cairns through the Daintree and Cape Tribulation

The road from Cooktown to Cairns through the Daintree and Cape Tribulation

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.

Damp squib. So wet right now.

Damp squib. So wet right now.

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.

Osprey Bay, Cape Range National Park

Osprey Bay, Cape Range National Park

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

Cooktown

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.

Armageddon. Thousands of fruit bats leave the gorge for their nightly feed.

Armageddon. Thousands of fruit bats leave the gorge for their nightly feed.

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.

Theres a croc in there disguised as a waterlily.

Theres a croc in there disguised as a waterlily.

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.

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation

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.

View from the cocktail deck at Cairns Salt House

View from the cocktail deck at Cairns Salt House

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.

Rough day out on the Great Barrier Reef

Rough day out on the Great Barrier Reef

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.

Make it stop

Make it stop

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.

Queensland coast - a little windy, a little murky

Queensland coast – a little windy, a little murky

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**.

Cape Range

Cape Range

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.

Mice-fetti. What is left when you chew your way through a red plastic lid.

Mice-fetti. What is left when you chew your way through a red plastic lid.

*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.


Raptors, crocs and other wild things

Nimulik National Park gorge

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.

ATM held hostage

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.

Timber Creek raptor feeding

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.

Croc feeding - a little less enthusiastic

Croc feeding – a little mangy looking and a little less enthusiastic

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.

Local Wyndham artwork in the saltpan

Local Wyndham artwork in the salt-pan

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.

Our search for fresh caught local fish takes us to all sorts of places

Our search for fresh caught local fish takes us to all sorts of retail outlets

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.

Edith Falls swimming hole. the fish are cute until they nibble your bits.

Achtung! The crocs at Flora River National Park say ‘come on in, the waters fine.’

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.

Edith Falls Camp sunset

Edith Falls Camp sunset

Edith Falls camp visitor

Edith Falls camp – sandwich boards, tibetan flags, sprinklers and marsupials

Sunrise walk to another swimming hole where we disturbed a naked man taking a morning dip.

Sunrise walk to another swimming hole – in the far distance a bearded nude man bathed.

Fly blown bush camping at its best

Fly blown bush camping at its best

Boat ramp in the Flora River National Park.

Boat ramp in the Flora River National Park.

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.

A fire makes it all worthwhile, even if it is 37 degrees.

A fire makes it all worthwhile, even if it is 37 degrees.

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.

Road to Karumba. March of the Termites

Road to Karumba on the Gulf Savannah. March of the Termites

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.

Karumba camp, awash with fishing boats, dust and a camp policeman on a quad bike ensuring you didn't step a mm over your campsite boundary

The best of Karumba camp, awash with fishing boats, dust, and a camp host on a quad bike keeping on top of campsite boundary infractions.

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.

The crowd goes wild for AFL at Mt Surprise

The crowd goes wild for AFL at Mt Surprise

NRL at Mt Surprise. The joint was going off.

NRL at Mt Surprise. The joint was going off.

Mt Surprise souvenir - XXXX enamelled gifted by the publican

Mt Surprise souvenir – XXXX enamelled gifted by the publican

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.

Swimming, anyone?

Swimming at the lush spring fed gorges! Anyone?

The next day we eyed Cooktown, at the base of the Cape York Peninsula, a new corner of Australia for us.


The Eternal Dry

Road to Fitzroy Crossing

Road to Fitzroy Crossing

As a fan of lists, spread-sheets and Gantt Charts, you could reasonably expect an itinerary for our trip, but my companion is far looser in this regard, providing me with a growth opportunity. We usually head off with a rough destination in mind, and I call out attractions as we go. It goes something like this:

“In 23 km we will arrive in [insert name of town]. This is a great base to explore [insert region]. Gazetted in 1876, this is the quintessential outback Australian town. Drop a line from the wharf, eat a meal at the historic pub with unique memorabilia, walk the main street and soak up the rich history…Hey! They have crocodiles, lets do the crocodile tour!”.

It will depend on blood sugar levels but I can accurately predict that if it is lunchtime and near a river, or a town made famous by a country singer, a Barra at the local pub inexplicably festooned with underwear items from passing travellers, could be goer. If none of the above, forge on.

Road to Fitzroy Crossing

Road to Fitzroy Crossing

In the north, the year and all activity within it is generally referred to by three seasons determined by prevailing weather. They are The Build Up (around November to January), The Wet (roughly February to April) and The Dry (May to October). Several people have told me if you can live through The Build Up in [insert name of any north WA or NT town] without going around the twist or I suspect, committing a felony, then you are worth marrying/belong here/are a local. During The Dry, bushfires are common, and apparently 90% of them are deliberately lit.  Great numbers of Birds of Prey circle above grabbing the rodents and locusts that flee in waves.

We wanted to do an overnight houseboat stay at the Horizontal Falls near Derby, around 220km from Broome, but the girl on the phone told us it was booked out and the next time we could book was 10 months from now. We also intended to do the Gibb River Road, a largely 4WD road joining Derby and Kununurra featuring a number of marvellous gorges, and privately owned wilderness park, El Questro.

Caustic bush- touch this pretty little shiny pod and it burns a hole in your skin.

Caustic bush- touch this pretty little shiny pod and it burns a hole in your skin.

We were travelling at the end of The Dry, which meant the road, at best corrugated and awash with superfine bull dust (yes, it is an actual thing, not just a euphemism), was in the worst state of the year. The dire portents from travellers just arrived, and the general disintegration of the camper trailer, assisted in our decision to avoid a 500 km test of both trailer and personal limits. We would take the Great Northern Highway from Broome to Kununura, (around 1100km) via Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek – a hop, skip, and a (maybe not so fictional) psycho away from Wolfe Creek crater. “He was a quiet neighbour. Kept to himself. Wore a lot of Camo.”

Largely uneventful, the Great Northern would provide us with ample opportunity to amuse ourselves with roadhouse ‘cheese and beef’ sausages, a food item suspiciously devoid of both, and a gift that keeps giving for hours after ingestion.

We were warned at Willare Roadhouse (good spot to pick up some Yeeda Station Grass Fed beef) that the road to Fitzroy Crossing may be closed due to a bush fire. Driving toward some pretty awesome smoke, we found ourselves diverted to Derby after all.

Derby wharf for sunset, a local tradition

Derby wharf for sunset, a local tradition

Making a campground decision based on the comments based on Wiki Camps is like reading between Real Estate Lines. ‘Adequate facilities’ means I will be displeased with cleanliness. ‘Sociable campground’ means the Sundowner drinks crowd will talk about you if you don’t join them. ‘No good for big rigs’, ‘Bins emptied noisily at 8:45am’, Didn’t have pool or children’s playground’ means probably awesome (for crying out loud people, its $20 a night!), ‘Rude reception’ means send in W, it will be his demographic.

Resident camp owl

The campground had an eclectic collection of folk, including a crowd from Mapua, a mere 10 km from my sister in the Abel Tasman region of New Zealand’s South Island. Given the size of Mapua and distance from origin, this is statistically significant.

Camp chat is such an education. I had noted with interest that an inordinate amount of women at campground Sundowner drinks drank Coca Cola, and always in a stubby holder. I had mused upon this, and marvelled at the popularity of both Coca Cola and the high proportion of tee-totalling women. Then Sandra From QLD let the cat out of the bag; “This? Oi’ve put me Bourbon in it already.”

Derby foreshore - its all about the fishing

Derby foreshore – its all about the fishing

By this stage of our trip, temperatures are regularly late 30 degrees celcius, mosquitoes, midges and March Flies simply feral, and estuarine crocodiles (the ones you don’t swim with) own every waterway. This is why glamping is a term devised by tricksy partners to convince those smooth of complexion, and fond of an unbroken nail, to get out bush. No. Unless you are travelling in a mobile home, your signature composure will be unattainable. Sure, I started out with wonderful West Australian, organic, chakra-balancing natural repellent, bio-dynamic sunscreen, and positive affirmations. But when my skin started looking like something you would fashion into a High Street tote and the high-pitched whine of a Ross River Virus-carrying insurgent made me wonder if I had tinnitus, I went full Agent Orange. It’s not all Akubra’s, glossy hair and honey coloured tans. Imagine a face and neck of bites gathered together by a rash worthy of a communicable disease, and similar in shape to a map of Europe.

Welcome to Camp Cow Pat

Welcome to Camp Cow Pat

Back on track, we headed for Kununurra, around 900km away. While there are notable Gorges worthy of stopover (Geikie, Windjana), we found ourselves relentlessly pushing forward, as if the gold lay at the end of the Great Northern. The campground options on this route generally boil down to roadhouse dust-bowls, or free camps labelled ‘gravel pit’ on Wiki-Camps. We usually start our hunt for a spot around 3.30pm, I reject the first six, then as dusk falls, we end up in said gravel pit, lulled asleep by the symphony of a road-crew generator, road-train refrigeration unit, or bore water windmill. The upside to this scenario is that you generally get motivated to go at 5am, giving you a grand start to the day.

No swimming for me at Ngamoowalem Conservation Park

No swimming for me at Ngamoowalem Conservation Park

On the final stretch to Kununurra, we decided to use our early start to check out Mollie Springs, a spring fed pool with a waterfall, and a ‘favourite with locals for swimming and picnicking’. W got in out of tradition, and turquoise dragonflies darted, while I chose a campground in Kununurra on the basis of its pool. W checked in for vacancies, and was given a very special site under a giant boab tree next to the pool that ‘everyone wants’. Uniformed staff buzzed about everywhere, tweaking pool chemicals, mowing lawns, erecting signs with rules, and manicuring the landscape. At 5.30pm on the dot, a staff member made their way to the pool enclosure to evict anyone still comfortable in loungers at the rigidly enforced pool closing time. Strains of 1960’s music drifted from the rear bank of permanent residents, and sprinklers circled relentlessly.

Under the Giant Boab

Under the 300 year old Boab

Kununurra is close to the West Australian/Northern Territory border, and sits on the banks of the Ord River. Everyone fishes, and Barramundi is on every menu. I like to investigate all local attractions in the limited time we have, so after a swift recconnaisance of the town environs, we headed to The Pump House, a great little restaurant/bar overhanging the river. At night, hundreds of creepy catfish pile up under the deck to dine on leftovers from Pump House guests. Far cooler than that however, is the eternally patient crocodile that hangs off the edge of all the catfish which annoying failed to launch into the frenzy.

Collective noun for Catfish?

Not convinced that one is real

Still not convinced that one was real

The next day, buoyed by the lush descriptions of swimming holes in the Springs Circuit, we set off to explore. It quickly became apparent we were about four months too late.  With enthusiasm fading we opted for a river cruise. Roaring up the Ord River, things were looking up. Three metre freshwater crocodiles (the harmless ones!) appeared on cue, and a back up one for tourists I am certain was rubber, sat unmoving on the rocks.

Riverbank bushfires filled our lungs and raptors soared. Tomorrow we would continue east.

Ord River.  80% of bushfires are deliberately lit

Ord River. 80% of bushfires are deliberately lit

Rod River rocks

Ord River rocks

CUTE! Comb crested Jacana - Jesus bird with chicks

CUTE! Comb crested Jacana – Jesus bird with teeny chicks


Sublime to the ridiculous

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Content warning: If you are close to convincing your better-half that camping is a really great idea, disavow all knowledge of this post.

Hello! I’ve been thwarted in my attempts to post in the last three weeks due to not having enough ‘fibre’ across the top end of Australia. I still don’t fully understand because W hasn’t drawn me a picture, but apparently having coverage and having speed to upload stuff is different. Stabbing my finger repeatedly on the return key doesn’t help either.  W makes a dial whizz around on his iPad and declares the location blog-possible or not.  As we have made it to the East Coast, the dial should whizz above 0.84 megabits and I can get back to where I left off…

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And the Landscape Design Award goes to…nature

Monitor Lizard, critter time (for Kenny)

Monitor Lizard, critter time (for Kenny)

When we packed up at Cape Range, a little surprise awaited me on the underside of the groundsheet; two poor little mice in pancake form, a vision now burned into my retina for the rest of all time. I had managed to forget the stowaway Huntsman spider, the ticks, and the poor man dismantling his two month old Toyota to evict the family of rats that were eating his vehicle from the inside of the seats out. Until then.

Mt Nameless Rd, looks innocuous enough

Mt Nameless Rd, the 4WD alternative to Tom Price. Looks innocuous enough.

We headed in the direction of Tom Price, and at 4pm set up camp on the side of the highway, close enough to deter psychopaths, far enough from the road-train that would inevitably park nearby, and run their refrigeration units all night. Opening the back door of the car to pull out bits of tent, a tiny stowaway mouse freaked out and shot into the depths of our vehicle. A forensic sweep of the Silverado coaxed it out of the car and straight under the imagined sanctity of our tent. By morning, two of them made it out alive to examine their new digs in the local spinifex.

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The last time I was at Tom Price, Stevie, Suz, W and I went to the only restaurant open at 6.30pm – the hotel – where no menu item escaped the scorching love of the deep fryer. Jump aboard the DeLorean and fast forward 5 years, and we found ourselves at Crave coffee cart that not only served a great heart starter, but oh my! smoothies with kale. I caught up with the lovely Matt and Kass, mid-roadtrip to meet photographers for new venture Austockphoto, started by Kass and business partner Clare. Hallelujah for beautiful Australian stock imagery, and hooray for tangibly supporting Australian artists! The Coles was another revelation. Jammed with every kind of produce you could want, we set new records in Paleo contraband (six kinds of kinds of cheese anyone?), and set off for Dales Gorge camp at Karijini National Park.

I waited for the nude swimmer to leave, Circular Pool, Karijini

I waited for the nude swimmer to leave, Circular Pool, Karijini

The numerous campsites at Dales Gorge were spacious and shady, the serenity broken only by the grind of the Parks generator, and the five flirty European 20-somethings next door, travelling in a tardis. I still can’t figure out where they all slept.

Hancock Gorge where you wished you had worn more grippy shoes

Hancock Gorge where you wished you had worn more grippy shoes

Karijini has numerous stunning walks, some a short wander, some a sweaty ridge top walk, and a couple of sweaty-palmed spider climbs, like Hancock Gorge, rewarded by a cool gorge pool. Everyone seemed to have the same idea. It was a race against time. We all wanted to do an Edmund Hillary and knock all of the bastards off, and the same faces showed up at every walk throughout the day. Most striking were the family groups, with home-school books pressed to the back window of their packed vehicles. A typical bunch had five adults with at least seven kids aged two to ten. A beaming three year old boy matched us walk for walk and stayed considerably more cheerful than I did battling heat and mosquitoes.  The older kids raced each other up every rocky ledge and tricky incline with the agility of rock wallabies, while their mother told me they didn’t really bother with the home school stuff, they had adventures instead.

A walking bottle of bug deterrent. Karijini National Park.

A walking bottle of bug deterrent. Karijini National Park.

That night we took in an Astro-tour at the campground, run by Phil Witt, a sound and light spectacular. I thought the Milky Way was a cloudy blob, but no! Densely populated with up to 400 billion stars, I gained a new appreciation for how extra teeny Earth is, and how any number uttered with more than nine zeros recalls the horrors of Pure Maths and Stats at Canterbury University, before converting to white noise in my ears.

Millstream Chichester National Park, homestead walk.

Millstream Chichester National Park, homestead walk.

I had read about Millstream Chichester a few years back, and never got there. Lush with wetlands thanks to an underground aquifer estimated to contain 1700 million cubic metres of water, the surrounding country supports a wide variety of species. It was worth tackling 200km of corrugated 4WD thick with bull-dust.    Arriving at any campsite at dusk usually means you get the sole remaining camp site, next to the rubbish bins, and out in the burning sun. Which is exactly what happened. It was a breathless 39 degrees on the last campsite, as we paused to draw smiley faces in the red veneer of dust on everything outside the vehicle. I said to W that it’s ok, AT LEAST there were showers. Opening door after door to over-ripe bush-loos, I was confronted with the irrefutable fact I need reading glasses.

So dirty right now. Cant believe the layer of dirt on my clothes doesn't show up!

So dirty right now. That is not a tan.

The aquifer, along with the Harding Dam supplies water to ‘industry’ and residents in Dampier, Karratha and other surrounding towns. Unceasingly through the night, the inescapable drone of an industrial water pumping station sliced through the silence, but the brochure reassured me that this is to just to keep the Park wetlands topped up and ensure the survival of dependent species. Hmmm.  Awake since 3am, waiting for first light, we thundered out in a cloud of red dust headed for Point Samson, an idyllic seaside spot for a shower, power, laundry facilities, and the promise of the ‘Best Beach in the world’ at Hearson Cove.

Best Beach In The World they said. Hearson Cove, Dampier Peninsula.

Best Beach In The World. Perhaps on another day? Hearson Cove, Burrup Peninsula.

There are many things to do in the West Pilbara Coast, ideally in the early dry season, and ideally if you have access to a boat. Having failed in our search for snorkelling and swimming, almost being carried off by midges and devoid of waterborne vessel, we headed out to the Burrup Peninsula in search of one of Australia’s most prolific Aboriginal rock art sites, with over 10,000 engravings and etchings, dating back 30,000 years. Their location is somewhat mysterious. Three hours and five failed attempts down nondescript trails later, I can confirm they are 2.2km from the turnoff to Hearson Cove from the Burrup Peninsula Road, down a gravel track.  Despite the noonday sun leaching all colour from both the landscape and my life-force, the rock art looked freshly pressed.

10,000 etchings and drawings dating back 30,000 years Burrup Peninsula

10,000 etchings and drawings dating back 30,000 years, yet so fresh!

Our next stop was Barn Hill Station, champion of corrugated iron architecture and the authentic bush experience (covered in this post).  We went from Barn Hill to far fancier digs at the Cable Beach Resort in Broome, where the rooms are lined in corrugated iron.

NEXT: Broome, Cape Leveque and Derby

Lambstails, Road to Tom Price

Lambstails, Road to Tom Price


When you are those campers

150904-4402-karijiniImagine building an Outback-themed wilderness camp. There would be buildings made of rammed earth and corrugated iron, open air showers like Mash, but with higher walls, and painted tyres with names like Redback to indicate camp spots. At sunset, campers bring chairs and a beer and enjoy Johnny Cash and Paul Kelly covers from a guy in a singlet with a guitar, sound system and good yarns.

"I hear that whistle blowin'...

 

Barnhill Station Camp is ACTUALLY like this, without trying. The unbelievers on Wikicamps say things like “we drove in and drove straight out. WE WILL NEVER RETURN.” Was it too tree-lined? Are the station beef sausages at $3.50/a pack of seven too expensive? Is the croc-free ocean too warm? At the end of a 10 km access road on bulldust, I find clean flushing loos with a live green tree frog on the paper dispenser, hot showers, bore water at your camp site, and a pristine beach, a veritable gift for $25 a night.

More corrugated iron than you can drive a rivet in

More corrugated iron than you can drive a rivet in

Our campsite was on the ridge top overlooking the ocean, next to a site with an unfeasibly grassy front lawn, and a selection of veges and herbs flourishing under a tree. Vacated by a guy who spent a few months there, an annual pilgrimage, the new inhabitant took his duty of care seriously. A gregarious racing identity, our neighbour was a hoot, regaling us with hilarious stories about any topic you care to name. Both he and his wife, early retired, super savvy, knew all the good spots to fish, walk, swim, and the closest shower block within 24 hours of arrival. Despite the dusty drive in, their Winnebago was immaculate. He talked about backpackers and Whizz-bangers (the sound a mini-van camper side door makes – GOLD!), about his friend up the other end with the four drones and an undeniably cool 4WD motorhome complete with winch and simply everything that opens and closes. He generously offered his hose, grassy shade, gas, anything you could need. Aghast, I realised, we had become THOSE campers.

Barnhill Station Camp

Barnhill Station Camp

Looking back, the signs had been there for a while. At Tulki, our need for optimal view, necessitated a camper angle that was arguably the most inefficient use of our site. Our tent ropes splayed out beyond our site in all directions, and we eyeballed everyone on their way to the loo. At the time we labelled this Own the Road. What began as an apologetic wave to passers-by, evolved into This World domination, and foot traffic diminished as campers found alternate routes in. The undeterred few that kept coming started dropping by for a chat. The chatters were always fisher folk, and a new species revealed itself, the FIFO* Fisher Folk. Who knew fly-fishing in the ocean was a thing? Clearly, a gaping hole in my knowledge. It was either a Bony day or a Permit day, the fightier the better, unless the freezer was running low and they needed meat fish more than sport.

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At Osprey, we had taken a similar approach with trailer placement, we were effectively invisible and inaccessible to others, so they had to grab us emerging from the surf, to let us know we had the prime site. Throughout the day, campers wandered by, scratching down our site number. We knew to enjoy our time, as it would probably be booked out for the rest of our lives.

After Osprey we urgently required power and water so made tracks for Tom Price via the dusty and corrugated Mt Nameless Road. With dust in every crevice, we set up for just a night at the campground in a blistering, windless, 35 degrees. We finished the last peg when I noticed our shaded location straddled two sites. Cue apology to immensely friendly camp office, who mercifully allowed us to stay put, preserving the last of our good humour.

Every outback location needs a weather vane

Every outback location needs a weather vane

We managed to keep it together at Karijini, but we clearly needed help at Point Samson. A combination of downward pressure by W on the coffee pot and the swing out nature of the kitchen was too much to bear for the hinges and giving way, rendered us denuded of Means to Conjure Coffee. Inexplicably, the caravan park had a blow-up castle, carwash, and toaster, but no means to cook other than a microwave. To get the trailer kitchen hinges fixed, we formed a contemporary installation out of possessions on the concrete slab, and set off for Karratha, 60 odd Km away. Several hours later, we returned to new neighbours who called out from their pristine caravan annex, “Oh hello, we thought you were having a garage sale.”

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But the kitchen wasn’t the only issue. The only way to know whether our water tank is full, is when it overflows; a shameful waste of desert resources. So W fills the tank, and notes the unceasing cascade of water splashing down on the concrete slab, spreading inexorably toward the aforementioned neighbours. Hours later, in the growing mass of red mud under the trailer, W determined the source and it was off to Karratha again for parts. Fixing it meant draining more litres of precious water out onto the concrete, and then filling the trailer up again. Picture frowning caravan-ers in all directions standing hands on hips watching all of this unfold, and you get the vibe. The only people not taking noticing was the family with four children under four, the naughtiest of whom was Brydon, fond of hitting his sister Charlay, and waking the inconsolable baby with colic, prompting Dad to threaten tying him to the front of the car. “BRYDON. To the bull bars. Is that what you want, mate? One, two….”

Under the watchful eye of camp residents, we set off for Honeymoon Cove, at the end of the campground, for the ‘best shore snorkelling in the Dampier Archipelago’. It was deserted, save for a high pitched whine in the distance. Ten minutes later, bare skin freckled with welling Midgie bites, we trooped back. That night, shambolic pile of possessions hastily hidden in the tent, we took comfort in cooking on our gas burner, by the ambient light of the caravan park. Some hard-core retirees in an off-road trailer offered us their lamp, and enquired after our repairs. They suggested Barnhill as our next coastal destination, in direct opposition to the freshly pressed van-ers who told us “DON’T go to Barnhill, it’s really bad. 80 Mile Beach is much better. Our friends looked at Barnhill and drove straight out.”

Sang Choy Burger

Sang Choy Burger

And so we found ourselves at Barnhill, inadvertently taking up two sites (seriously, again?), enjoying the entertainment without taking our wallet (no-one mentioned passing the hat!), drove to the beach (prohibited unless launching a boat – didn’t read the flyer), and attracting offers of gas and amenities from our jovial neighbour. I hadn’t noticed that we were the ones in a rig worth about 1% of almost everyone else’s. People actually felt sorry for us! To put them at ease we let on that we were booked into the fancy Cable Beach Resort in Broome in a couple of days, but W felt compelled to explain to quizzical looks that we won it as a door prize.  Equilibrium, restored.

*Fly In Fly Out workers, usually employed in the remote mining and affiliated services industry

Authentic bush camp with camp oven

The Real Thing – bush camp, camp oven


Never leave your wingman

Sunrise at Tulki camp

Sunrise at Tulki camp

I have cured my Exmouth Banoffee fixation. Nothing like a year away from a restaurant and the idealised memory of a dessert, to ramp expectations to other Everest proportions. For 7 years we have driven straight to Whalers from Woodend or Perth, ordered takeaway Banoffees, then proceeded with less important matters like finding somewhere to sleep.

Practically inhaling soft shell crab tacos and a great gumbo in indecent haste at Whalers latest incarnation, the reason I had come arrived.  Disassembled chocolate biscuit crust fought for air under runny toffee keeping the kitchen’s last few slices of banana hostage. As if embarrassed, the historically firm piped Kahlua cream ran over the lot like a blanket, as if to say “keep moving, nothing to see here.” It was never traditional, but I will never forget. RIP.

Retro styling, now closed navy base swimming pool

Retro styling, now closed navy base swimming pool

Exmouth is a great little spot with three shops you can buy beach gear from (#eternalsearchfortheperfectbikini), a massive fishing and camping shop, great coffee, and fabulous fish and chips. It is the kind of place I would choose to work if I needed country practise time in my imagined life as a Doctor. It grew around a once sizeable UN-Australian naval communications base, established in the late 60’s until 1992 when it passed to the Royal Australian Navy. The buildings remain, with faded signwriting hinting at bar and bowling alley good times, and the 200 American cars flown over to help the US families feel at home, cruising the wide streets. In 2002, all naval personnel departed, but multiple communication towers remain. An awesome retro swimming pool is fenced off presumably to LA skateboarders, and wildflowers gradually takeover  the paths.

Bright spots

Taking over – Sturt Desert Peas make their move

W told me we would park the camper trailer and stay somewhere a bit flasher for my birthday, but first, a snorkel. Pulling up to the South Mandu snorkelling spot, a wee golf cart grabbed our bags and disappeared into the dunes.

Sal Salis whale watching spot

Sal Salis whale watching spot

Sal Salis is a self-sufficient safari-tent eco-resort located within the National Park. Virtually invisible to the rest of the Park, its continued existence relies on being invisible, and adherence to closely monitored strict environmental requirements. This means the delicate flora and dune eco-systems around Sal Salis actually enjoy a far greater protection from those random visitors that stomp around the fragile dunes in the rest of the park. It attracts all sorts of people, but I would wager a heavy international patronage by current or retired IT professionals, or engineers working in the Emirates. The young teenagers that get to tag along seem to be extremely bright, immensely down-to-earth, and in the same sentence as saying “Pancakes for breakfast!!!” tell me they will go to either Oxford or Cambridge, as if it is the same thing.

Making the most of our precious 42 hours at the resort, we decided to jump in the resort kayaks and explore the reef. Still traumatised by a self-inflicted wobble into the Artic jellyfish rich waters of Norway’s Grimstad harbour, I had not chanced a kayak since. Before long, we were slicing through the water like Olympians, and en route to a spot called Blue Lagoon. W wanted to get out and snorkel so I offered to hold his kayak. Sitting in a Zen-like state I glanced over my shoulders to discover my immediate proximity to the reef edge. As waves crashed over the kayaks I realised I had hold of two paddles and a kayak, no free hands to navigate, and a one-way ticket to the outer reef. Mindful of preventing a cheese grater experience for both kayaks and myself I yelled to W to swim over and get his boat. Fighting the tidal flow, W struggled to make ground and my Zen made way for shrieking. As W reached me, I ditched the excess goods, and paddled like a steamboat on the Mississippi for shore. Meanwhile, W fought to swim out of the current, before he could mount his craft. Around 500m away I checked my wingman. Short on oxygen, W’s kayak technique improved significantly that day.

The carnival has arrived

The carnival has arrived

Luxury tent time over, we repaired to Tulki, a campsite 5 km away, and took up position in the only available spot. It was sun-downer time, where the camp residents gather for drinks and discuss with mirth our camp establishment. Faced with the options of looking at other campers or the drop toilet, we went for a hybrid solution where we looked at the sunset flanked by the toilet and one campsite. We had a rock-star size tour bus next to us, but the paint job spoke less of all-nighters and more of ‘10 year old insults Pro-Hart’. The chirrup of settling birdcall fought valiantly against hits from the 50’s to the 70’s, booming out into the night from a massive video screen on the side of the bus. The occupants with radio call-sign ‘Dogs Balls’ had a jolly time, oblivious to my curmudgeon-y cursing until shut-down at 9pm when George Thorogood had his last Bourbon, Scotch, and Beer.

Let's walk to the Pier!

Let’s walk to the Pier!

The Navy Pier is allegedly one of the ten best shore dives in the world. Another world-class thing! The cyclone in March 2015 caused mayhem in the town and damaged the Pier preventing diving until further notice. Unfortunately access to the Pier is only through restricted naval property or via boat, but W heard from a local we could walk to it from Bundegi Beach and it was well worth a snorkel. We arrived at the beach at 3pm in a cloudless 31 degrees. We were told it was about a 30-minute walk, which translated to about 15 minutes knee-and-Achilles-busting W pace. Sweet. We suited up and bounced down the path to the beach. In the far distance I saw a shimmering oasis in the form of a pier. And so the trudge commenced. Collapsing into the shade of the pier, I felt somewhat uncertain about the swirling tide and the volume of liquid pouring into it from a pipe running along the pier. Having almost perished in the pursuit of this place, I got in, freaked out at a giant wall of fish (Bait-ball! Bait-ball!), the three white tip reef sharks on the bottom, cashed in my Wingman membership, and made like Thorpey for the shore.

Yardie friend

Yardie friend

Back at camp, we had used the last of our power, and it was time to head to Yardie Homestead, ‘Home of Serious Fisherman’, for a powered campsite, laundry (hallelujah) and showers. The lad refuelling the giant commercial fishing boat with two immense outboards, sporting a cap featuring plush style two dimensional man-parts on the front, alerted me to a new species of the Fisher realm.


Sea to shining sea

Tall Mulla Mulla, Warroora Station

Tall Mulla Mulla, Warroora Station

Warroora Station is another link in the daisy chain of enviable properties chasing the Ningaloo reef from south to north. Around 50km south of Coral Bay, like Gnaraloo, it is best attacked with a 4WD. There are multiple camp areas along the white sand coast, so you are unlikely to awake to what at first appears to be the mating sound of a kakapo, but in truth is just the rhythmic snore of your neighbouring camper. Like all places that take some committmentto get to, it attracts an interesting array of individuals.

Warroora Station road to Elles Beach

Warroora Station road to Elles Beach

The wind had whipped up when we came to set up camp, and with my brain still pin-balling around my cranium from the drive in, I deemed the tent annex a bridge too far to tackle. My usual rule is no annex for less than three days – it falls in the category of good humour challenge and I usually need three days to forget the fresh hell of grappling with 10 sq. metres of canvas whipped into a spinnaker, and a husband with White Line Fever basketball eyes.

Elles Beach, Warroora Station, WA

Elles Beach, Warroora Station, WA

Allegedly the best snorkelling in the world

We headed to the beach to inspect the ‘best snorkelling in the world’. Pristine white sand and jewel toned water beckoned, but the hazard sign warning of extremely dangerous currents, a raging rip, and the 50 cm white caps suggested we try another day. Moving to another beach just 400 metres along, a super-fit mega-tan retiree in speedos emerged from the sea bearing a handful of knotted fishing line, sinkers, and hooks. A keen fisherman, he liked to clean up the edge of the reef on days the fishing wasn’t up to much. It was his second year back at Warroora since his wife died and he said this year was easier than the last. They had travelled everywhere together, so there was a big gap in his day, but hauling the tinny in and out by himself kept him on his toes. It was then I realised we had entered the Realm of the Fisher Folk, and suddenly I saw them everywhere.

Warroora costs only $10 per night and $50 per week to camp. It requires 100% self-sufficiency (water, firewood, chemical loo, food etc.). This suits the Tinny genus of the Fisher Folk. Incredibly resourceful, weathered, and footloose, these retirees have only grandchildren scattered about Australia to navigate to periodically and import for Vital Life Experience, but otherwise are the canniest at finding the lowest cost and wildest camp spots. Their vehicles and camping configuration are equipped to travel on 4WD roads. They fish in outfits borrowed from Lawrence of Arabia about to head into a sandstorm. They love watching us set up camp in slow motion, and the addition of the annex is like double billing at the movies. They know exactly when you drove in, how many days you have been there and what your daily movements are. Sadly they have enough freezer space for their bountiful catches, despite W’s disappointment that I have not yet wrestled a kilo or two of snapper or coral trout out of them. Favoured vehicles are utes with custom kitchen and storage setups on the tray, and a rack for the tinny on the roof. I’ve never seen a tinny put on a roof yet, and cannot fathom how they get there. My twig cycling arms cannot even lift our trailer lid, so it is a matter of awe to me.

In these locations you will come across a closely related genus – the Grisly Fisher Folk, found in the centre of a circling of the Fisher Folk wagons, standing around a 24 hour fire, and surrounded by rotating solar panels and super-powered generators. Identifiable by hides tanned the colour of nicotine, plaid plumage, and gnarled paws; they are the ones throwing back the fish bigger than 1 metre (as per the fishing limits).

Coral Bay sandwich

Coral Bay sandwich

Wishing we had the same capacity for long term stays off the grid; we were only at Warroora because we couldn’t get a spot in the high-density craziness of Coral Bay, thank goodness. We have never quite appreciated the fabulous Coral Bay people talk about, and we were not to discover it this time. I had a few to-dos listed there but we were too early for the shark nursery at Maud Bay (September/October), the wind and cold ruled out snorkelling and taking a tinny out, but the Manta Rays were swimming around just waiting for me to pretend I was one of them, and I was going on that tour come hell or high water. Boarding the boat in a howling gale did little to temper the excitement of our small but enthusiastic bunch of adventure seekers. With only 12 on board we were able to spread ourselves out. As we spilled off the transom at the back of the boat onto our first reef, in a decent chop and the boat swinging around in circles from the wind, I felt a little sympathy for the first timers on board, hyperventilating and clutching at their masks, noodles waving wildly like promotional blow up stick people, and snorkel guides corralling like crazy and soundlessly yelling at everyone to “STaaayyy… TOgettthhherrr……..”.

Back on board, body temperatures plummeted. Hot drinks inhaled, a tray of chelsea buns (coffee scrolls) reduced to crumbs in seagull time, and colour swiftly returned to cheeks as the spotter plane called in our first Manta. Suiting up, the Germans gave no thought to the life-affirming experience of their maiden ocean snorkel, and we all leapt in again. As we followed three Mantas, in a semi circle from tip to tip, a beautiful four metre female trailed hopefully by a smaller all black male, reminded me of Torvill and Dean doing Bolero (Google that if you are under 40). Returning to the boat, everyone had turned blue but the experience rendered hypothermia a mere side effect of being so lucky to take a glide with magical creatures.

Mantas done, it was time to head to Cape Range National Park. More white sand, perfect blue water, and one of my all time favourite places. A perfect place to spend a birthday.

The Low Down

Mulla Mulla on the road in

Sweeping vistas of Mulla Mulla on the station road

Warroora Station is outback coast wonder with postcard sunsets. There are beaches safe for kids, and beaches wild and full of fish. Sweeping vistas of Mulla Mulla and other wildflowers distract from your brain rattling around from the corrugations on the drive in. Some camps are accessible by 2WD. Check the website before you go to make sure you have everything you need. Chemical toilets can be hired from the Homestead, and a small array of goods and firewood are for sale. You can have an open fire. Man-folk rating of 4. You can have a fire but wood is expensive. If you can take your own stash of fence-posts, all the better to flame that cryovac-ed, grass-fed, 70-day aged steak with.

Manta Tours – Mantas are harmless, no need to fear deathly barbs. We went with Coral Bay Eco-Tour, run by a great crew. If you are new to snorkelling, they look after you. Mantas hang out in Coral Bay all year, but the busy season is July to October. Pay the extra $5 for a full length wetsuit.

Wildflowers, Warroora Station

So much diversity! Wildflowers, Warroora Station