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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
We rolled into surf spot Gnaraloo when the shop was closed (loose hours subject to swell). We picked a campsite number from the board and squeezed ourselves into the last ‘primo’ spot on the waters edge. After a fair number of dark moments setting up for the second time in 24 hours, we took up our standard position for sundowners in aesthetically-pleasing chairs bought especially for this trip.
I had decided the two perfectly comfortable ones we had were unlikely to last the rigours of the next four months and a pair of extra-comfy, space thieving recliners with side table, a cup holder that only a stubby fits in, and no useful pocket, at ridiculous cost, were essential. Unlike the pair our friends have and everyone wants to sit in, these are hands-down going out to the nature strip (grass verge, kiwis) when we get home. The not very upright position requires the seatee to engage ones core and forgo back support, while the recline position reminds me of the dentist chair, without an adequate locking mechanism. This I discovered when our neighbours invited us to share Red Emperor wings they had just filleted and chargrilled to perfection. Mid story, I leaned back to demonstrate how the chairs were only good for star-gazing and ended up head-first in their rubbish bin. W delayed my retrieval until he could get a good photo. The host leapt forward to assist and hydrated the sand with a bottle of wine. The following day the host’s wife said “it was kind of like looking at a preying mantis, all you could see were arms and legs waving around…”.
Gnaraloo is one of those places that stays with you. As the sun sets, W and I always find ourselves talking about how we can import many of you reading this, for a holiday. The loos and showers are pretty grim, but the breaching whales cruising past all day, and snorkelling in the sheltered bay is hard to top.
It’s kids, dogs and man friendly (you can have a raging fire). The guys next to us drove 16 hours non-stop from Margaret River for the four-metre swell which was only three metres, but I heard a three year old tell his little mates it was epic all the same.
Gnaraloo – Three Mile Camp, hot bore water (mmm tasty) showers after 4 pm, heated by fire. Play spot the Humpback whale (in season) all day long, snorkel the shallow reef teaming with schools of fish, find the largest Nemo I have ever seen, along with fantastic soft coral, surf some offshore left and right-handers, and take your tinny to fish. Book ahead to get a primo site, and only stay on the beachfront. It’s windy, which keeps the heat down, and extra radical if you surf. You can buy internet (pretty slow), and the shop has a good range of emergency basics, but you must take your own water, and I’d recommend taking all food supplies, unless you are a two-minute noodle fanatic.
Wildflowers – Between Northampton and Gnaraloo, the flowers continue to wave in the Brand Highway jet wash. Next stop, Warroora Station.
Buckle up readers, the phoenix (blog) arises! I am about to embark on a 4 month tour of the north of Australia and will be blogging as I go. Come for the ride! Expect tales of misadventure, interactions with endangered species – human and otherwise – and photos of the wild, the beautiful, and the unique.
If you would like to receive an email when I publish something new, please enter your email address over on the right where it says ‘Follow this blog’. If you are new to my blog, browse a few old posts to get an idea of what lies ahead. These are some popular ones:
To the Pilbara and back where I left few stones unturned.
Feel the Fear where I realised I’d been swimming in a salty croc pond.
The Best Babi Guling In Bali where I temporarily returned to vegetarianism.
At the very least, glamour and lifestyle tips for surviving a road trip abound.
As my thinking is drowned out by the fans kicking in on the Mac and the interminable whir of 15 terabytes of storage, I am forced to face the fact that I have literally thousands of photos taking up space, that never see the light of day. They transition briefly through my image management software before I resign them to the Anthony Marantino (Sex and the City) “hates it!!” pile.
I freely admit to a perfectionistic streak, but rather than a charming character trait I have decided it is constraining to ones ability to share and something I must challenge. So, prepare yourself for more frequent posts. Sometimes without stories, sometimes something perhaps your three year old could do better, but the photos will always be something that grabbed me on the day. So, first cab off the rank is a shot of a fantastic lightning storm we had front row seats to, at Easter at Cape Range. It was better than the best fireworks I have ever seen. I love how the clouds are all leaning to the left. Could I love Cape Range any more?
I am quietly finning along, snorkelling for the third time that day at Lakeside, on the Ningaloo Reef in the magical Cape Range National Park. If this rings a bell, it is because I harp on about the place incessantly, there is so much life out in the water. Along with Turquoise Bay, it is a favourite with day-trippers. Borne by tour buses, they amble to the spot with the snorkel marker, march directly out for around 30 metres, flop about for 20 minutes, then retire to shore to smoke, look bored with precision, and burn a new layer of ‘it sucks to be my family back in Europe’ into their undernourished frames.
It was at Lakeside that I had an epiphany in 2008. With nothing but the rasp of parrotfish beak-on-coral in my ears, my brain found a space to discover I actually wanted to be a photographer. (And a marine biologist – but that ship had sailed). Snorkelling or diving is the only time I truly switch off. Underwater, where air is generally absent, is ironically when I feel most able to breathe. The eternally blue space, without walls or fences, represents endless possibility for me.
So, I am quietly swimming in and around the rocky outcrops, following a fish that completely changes its colour and pattern as I get close or back off, a peeved turtle, 4m ray, and pausing to watch a plague of parrotfish engulf a patch of coral, the tiny territorial resident fish dashing out and back nervously. Just when it could not get any better, a huge school of mackerel and other silvery fish with wide eyes swept past and then started circling me, gaining pace as they went round. I decided to join their circling, and as I went round and round was thinking “Choice! They think Im their bro! I’m a mermaid!”. Amazed they cared not a whit as I whipped by the other fish and matched their crazy changes in direction, I was at once silver and fishy. Then it occurred to me. They are commonly known as bait-fish. And a school of darting bait-fish are probably being chased. Not that those three reef sharks and their homies, Trevor Trevally, and Barry Barra, liked the cut of my gib, but it’s safe to say I found myself ashore with no recollection of the breathless flail between realisation and landfall.
When we returned to our camp, we shared a beverage with our lovely Swiss neighbour, J, a fellow water-baby with designs on the outer reef. He had travelled for some months around WA in his wagon, sleeping in the back, and reliant on a dwindling collection of camping ephemera. As days rolled by he realised he only used one plate, cup, knife, fork and spoon. Subsisting happily on long-life wraps, honey, nutella, and canned goods, his camp stove, multiple devices of convenience and esky (chilly bin) found new homes with the Belgians that packed every other camp site.
J wanted buddies to go and explore the outer reef. He had gone out on his own but was worried he may be…ahem…taken, and no-one would know. Fortified with a zesty cider from Harcourt in Victoria, I found myself consulting tide and moon charts and committing both W and I to an outer reef expedition with the excitement I always have when an adventure of any kind is afoot, and drive I have to never miss out.
The following day, in the last 30 minutes of an incoming tide was the only opportunity in the next 7 days, when the tide would be high enough to swim over the reef edge. J knew the way and so three small figures swam out to the reef, quickly invisible to those on shore. The thing about a reef is that waves from the outside hit the edge, rise up and then smash down. Along with a titan tidal-pull, I found myself swimming two strokes forward, getting drilled by excitable waves, then dragged back 4 strokes, enjoying a nasal flush along the way. I don’t think it is a spoiler alert to say we made it, and the silence on the other side was astounding. The water clarity, unmatched. A long shelf of volcanic rock and an amazing variety of coral sat around 15 metres below us and ran out about 40 metres before dropping off into Predator World. As we followed the edge of the reef, we swam over enormous cracks in the reefs surface, so deep you could only see fish in the first few metres framed by blackness. Think awe meets terror. Leaving a sacrificial layer of dermis on the way back over the reef edge, we plotted to do it the next day, knowing full well the ideal conditions to go over the reef, had past.
Again at dusk, three figures headed out, this time for an elusive gap in the reef that we could sneak through. It was a much longer swim and after about a kilometre, I found myself musing on the relative benefits of such activities. There are bitey things out there, but I figure the risk versus reward profile points in the right direction. I never take the ocean for granted, and I accept the side of scaredy-cat that comes with the incredible beauty I get to breathe in.
The welling surf and sinking sun loomed large in my overactive mind. Stuff incredible beauty inhalation, I waved the boys on and with a feeling like there wasn’t enough air in the sky, swam to shore with an urgency that just skirted fish-in-distress. It is great to be alive.
OK. So to be clear, this is not glamping. I am not talking about permanent ‘safari/eco’ tents with their own ensuite and solid floor. There is no restaurant to nip down to for sous vide duck with a side of beetroot carpaccio and mustard cress. No. This is advice for Princesses with not so much as a powerpoint for the GHD.
Back to sleep. You will need a lot of it to cope with the absence of clean surfaces. You wont get a lot of it due to loose canvas, loose international backpackers next door, or foxes making off with the booty from the rubbish bag you left on the ground. Luckily you have all day to catch up, so it works out.
Buy the best mattress you can justify for the space, a pure cotton fitted mattress protector, and sacrifice one set of Egyptian white cotton sheets. This set will be sacrificed because the red dust takes a permanent liking to those perfect tiny fibres, but the sight of a glowing white sheet when all around is matt with dust will bring joy every time you flap it to dislodge wind-borne detritus.
If you sleep in a camper trailer on the trailer bit, on a windy night, welcome to middle earth, where seismic plates continually roll and shift. Imagine you are at sea like Pi with a Bengal tiger, and you will make land eventually. If you are in a double swag, sleep with your head out in the open to avoid your swag-mates emissions, and enjoy the stars. The dingoes may sniff, but they won’t bite. The force-field of limited edition Le Labo perfume will mask anything they deem edible.
If your ears are generous enough to cater for ear-plugs, wear them. Rejoice! My shell-like extrusions fail to maintain a grip on any brand or type. Wear your holistic silk eye mask if you want to miss the sunrise, but know that sunrises away from city lights are magical.
Pack a star guide, the old-fashioned printed kind, or download one for your ipad that doesn’t require coverage, and enough charge to last your stay. Find Scorpio, the Southern Cross, learn new star signs every night. Before you know it, you will be cursing the moon because it prevents you locating Huxtable Quattro 19-641Z.
Keep a BPA-free or stainless steel water bottle within reach. You will be unfeasibly parched at 1am from enjoying sun-downers and that ill-advised 16 year Scapa night cap.
By now you will be entertaining romantic notions of doing this again.
Sandy Cape is a brilliant camp spot north of Jurien Bay in WA. The basic offerings of a long drop loo satisfies the fisher crowd that pack into the pretty bay.
We were staying here because I kept reading about swimming with sea lions at Jurien Bay and Green Head, and ever alert for opportunities to commune with sea-life decided this was an excellent gift for W.
The boat we were to board was called Hang Ten (something like that), prompting warm memories of childhood surf labels. A multi-purpose vessel catering to fishing, diving, and in the off hours, sea lions tours. She had earnt the paint job she appeared to have been stripped for. Pounding through the swell it didn’t seem optimal conditions for such a trip, but Hang Ten was solid as a rock and the ten young people of varying nationality that boarded with slabs of condensating stubbies were in high spirits. The french girl whose thong bikini afforded no comfort against the metal seating bounced from spot to spot. The rock climbing Irish lad swung from the roof on single fingers. And before we knew it we were at the sea-lion island. A relaxed colony onshore were about to have their peace broken. Smacking fins together, a crew member wandered up and down the shore encouraging the resting mammals into the water for the eager punters bobbing about in the water. 30 minutes on and the performing sea lions retired back on shore, save for one teenage male that the older males prevented making land. Six of us chased him about, in between looking back to the boat for any sea lion sightings that the crew member on the bow would point out with her roll-yer-own.
Back on board the wiry Irish guy had succumbed to sea sickness and lay ashen in the corner. The thong was doing the rounds, up and down the stairs to the bridge, and beers were getting warm. Irish downed a warm one, and like a miracle was up and doing one handed chin-ups to the delight of the crowd. A lovely Irish girl shared the rest of her six pack, and tea and muffins headed off greying pallor.
As the sun settled back at camp, it became apparent that the tree we were camped next to was the midnight pee spot for all the men that had gone before. The malodorous waft of the PeeTree gathered under the camper annex and took residence in my nostrils, departing only once we had achieved a distance of 5km.
Entering Carnarvon, we took a spin of the main street. Rain had fallen freshening up the place and inviting me to open my car window and get a lungful of bracing salty air. Quelle Horreur! The PeeTree had hitch hiked its way to Carnarvon! Urea rose from the pavement the length of the main shopping area. Surrounded by banana plantations, mango orchards, and the evidence of fantastic fruit and vege supplies when in season, I am at a loss to understand Carnarvon. Boasting an award winning Aboriginal Cultural Centre, an active and enthusiastic local council, friendly locals and bounty from land and sea, the cafes offer roadhouse food, and the marina restaurant entices with chicken and lamb curry. I thank my innate talent for sticking with something long after wisdom would indicate. I knew the BBQ set, novelty cheese knives, and Lewis Carroll talking book I had discovered on sale at the Post Office for W were making for a memorable day for him, but I wanted more. And there it was. Shining like a yellow beam of happiness, a fantastic omelette at the shopping centre coffee shop restored plummeting blood sugar and humour.779
You know it is time to head to the big smoke when your Sauvignon Blanc is warm because your fridge has gone flat.
Darwin’s waterfront development had a stroke of the Docklands about it. Right on the harbour, the main restaurant area appeared to offer little more than ridiculously overpriced food-court fare, the neon yellow deep fried tidbits glowing radioactively under the fluorescents. A perfectly balmly night, the wharf cried out for a jug of sangria, some coastal peasant fare, light banter, and a surfeit of dangly earrings swinging from tanned lobes.
Perhaps my expectations were heightened after days without a shower block, and time spent calling every camp ground in Darwin trying to find a powered site. We gave up and drove to the campground with Darwin’s last tent site. The campground was enormous, and upon closer inspection, appeared largely inhabited by permanents. Charging the most we have ever paid to rent a piece of grass, the owners took an entrepeneurial approach to satisfying our energy requirement. Magically discovering an extra powered site they didnt have earlier, they directed us to a spot behind the toilets, motioning to set up there and plug into the toilet block. Thankfully, the affable resident in the nearest canvas structure had the requisite 100 metre extension cord so we could reach along the building, up the wall, and through a cavity into the powerpoint in the laundry.
Litchfield is only 130km from Darwin, and a wonderful alternative to Kakadu. All the beauty and wonder of its more popular sister, but all the better for its more rugged exterior, the 4WD camping weeding out anyone in possession of a generator. Waterhole upon waterhole beckoned, monitor lizards scowled at the edge, and I simply did not want to leave. That is, until tiny bitey black slugs attached themselves to my person, as I swam in the Avatar style pools. It was all I could do to get the leech scene from the movie Stand by Me out of my head. A snake whistled by, and I levitated.
As two full days drew to a close, we had one last place to discover. Tjaynera Falls at Sandy Creek, fringed by paperbarks and palms beckoned from the end of a challenging 4WD track. Campground conversation warned against taking a trailer, or even the Prado down there, due to the depth of river crossings. Undeterred, we drew up to the first crossing where seven vehicles had stopped, and a clutch of sleeve tattooed men in boardies and singlets stood at the top discussing the approach options. A shirtless young guy cast off his flop flops, and stubbie aloft, waded past the crocodile warning sign, to find the deepest spot for the benefit of the clutch. Silence fell, a flurry of nylon, and all bounded for their vehicles to be first over the lip.
When the headcount at the Falls made 20, we gathered ourselves and made for the car. It was lunchtime, and we would make Lake Argyle by sundown.
I can thank Renner Springs for a blonde discovery. Turns out those iconic rural windmills are not just ornamental, they put them where the wind blows to pump water. Cue another flappity night of unsecured canvas, and crotchety camper inhabitants.
Natural hot springs can be found about 110kms south of Katherine, just off the Stuart Highway. Choosing Mataranka, we picked our way around the bunch of people that make a career of finding public hot pools, clinging to the entry and exit steps, and giggling nervously about not being able to swim. Taking our place in the pool next to all the other sardines, we pretended not to hear blush-worthy conversation, fought the urge to stare at others body parts, and scowl at those amongst us Most Likely to Pee. I lasted about 1 second longer than W, threatening to transform the tranquility into a wave pool by fidgeting, for a grand total of 5 minutes. Hopes still high, we decided the much lower profile Bitter Springs was worth a visit. The brief summary of Bitter Springs in our tour guide ill-prepared us for our visit. Stepping into a narrow creek fringed by palms, the warm, crystal clear, deep teal, water slowly flowed, carrying us along with it. Small turtles slept on the exposed tree roots. A water monitor lazed warily on the bank. It was like that Theme Park water ride where you float around in a current on tubes, but without the screaming, garish tones, and fibreglass.
On the sterling recommendation of friends J and L, we booked one of the permit-only 4WD camp sites at Koolpin Gorge in Kakadu. Picking up the key to the gate, the ranger warned against swimming in the two pools nearest the camp, as saltwater crocodiles were known to inhabit them. The pools that ascended from these, linked by waterfalls, were not known to have any saltwater crocodiles in the house, due to the difficult access. I took it that the likelihood of actually seeing one was slim, and although the Rangers are careful not to condone swimming outside the hotel pool, taking a dip in one of the countless waterholes was business as usual.
We took one of the unmarked paths to the first croc-free pool, and boiling hot by the time we got there, popped into our own outdoor swimming arena. I’m a beach girl, and a confident swimmer, yet I’ve never developed the same love for fresh water; rivers, ponds or gorges. As I doggie paddled my way from one end to the other I observed that I wasn’t really enjoying it, and in fact, may have found my kryptonite. The black below me, silence around me (once W stopped thrashing), and my over-fertile imagination conjured up scenarios at odds with the sparkling surface fringed by perfect palms.
In standard operating mode we spent a full six minutes out of the water before eyeing off the climb to the next pool (to the right of this picture). Recalling a great summer holiday 20 years ago at Anakiwa Outward Bound with my cousin and her instructor hubby R, I channelled R’s calm and encouraging tones as I grabbed for foot and hand-holds. I found myself flat against the rock face, with a single finger wedged in a crack above me, and both feet below me claiming ownership to two small ledges via my big toes. Stuck. My right leg independently started a sewing-machine-like action, and from somewhere within, sobbing ensued. W offered a knee to stand on and once foot was transferred added, “You have to move, I cant hold you there forever” and other useful things like “Focus. You’re being silly.” Once the shrieking had subsided, I recommended he never volunteers to talk someone down from a ledge.
The next morning we decided to tackle the gnarly looking unmarked ridge to the upper pools. The view back to the camp and along the pools was stunning. To the left, the croc pools, and immediately underneath, the first pool we swam in. I looked a little closer. In the middle of the pool was a crocodile spread out like a starfish, sunning himself, and taking in the serenity. I cursed not bringing my long lens! The wide angle lens I had with me reduced the scene, and detail of the croc along with it, but I managed a Yeti quality snap all the same.
By the time we reached the pool, W hissed in exasperated tones “what are you doing back there? Get over here! You won’t get a good shot from there”. A gold beady eye at waterline caught W’s, and slipped under. We spent the next half an hour watching Colin the Croc’s progress trip around the pool, bubbles breaking the surface where we went in the day before, along the edge, and everywhere we swam. Spurred by fears that a family would lose a child if we did not report the sighting, we used the emergency phone at the campsite. One hour later a helicopter circled overhead. A couple of hours later, a Ranger appeared and concluded it was probably a ‘Freshie’, the shy and non-threatening Fresh Water Crocodile. Given that they were present IN MOST POOLS in Kakadu, he felt this was the most likely conclusion. Wishing I could turn back the clock to when I thought they existed only if you could see them, from a boat, I learned the Freshies are in most of the pools, just waiting for you to leave so they can do their own thang. Later that day, I went for another swim, in the highest pool I could climb to, and talked myself through a panic attack. I’m not brave all the time.