I am reminded that when you think you know something, you know nothing Jon Snow.
About six years ago at Osprey Bay we went for a snorkel to the right of the boat entry point and saw nothing but sea grass and three fish. We declared the area barren and religiously snorkelled a small circle to the left every year since.
And then there’s my dodgy underwater filming (nod to The Blair Witch Project for unintended style inspiration)…y
This trip we had a chat with an American couple who said they had seen 40 turtles to the right. Say whaaaat? I figured that if I divided that by ten, it would be about right. Off we went, and presto! proceeded to bang into eight turtles more interested in sea grass than us. You literally had to swim around them in one metre of water. It was mating season and they were fuelling up for what appeared to be a game of turtle Stacks-On* at sunset.
We chatted to another couple who said neighbouring Sandy Bay was great snorkelling too. Back when we knew everything, we wrote it off as all sand and kite surfers. Apparently not. It teems with amazing coral and abundant fish-life just waiting for us; Moray eels, stonefish, and octopus a plenty. The strong current means crystal clear water at hightide, and very few other people with adequate kicking power.
I’ve always been super jumpy with fish over 1.5 metres like sharks, sting rays, and even manta rays, no matter how many times I’m told they are harmless, but by this stage I was spending five hours a day in the water. The nerves had to go; it was time to make friends with the reef sharks.
At dawn and dusk, Waz would generally fish while I would tour the coral. There were always reef sharks hanging around with intent, circling me with their beady Mona Lisa eyes. I settled on a new strategy: to swim toward them. And thus, my love of sharks was born.
The well-kept secret that is Ningaloo is showing signs of a security leak, thanks to WA Tourism’s successful campaigns in Europe and Asia. If you fancy a bit of fish time or simply white sands and turquoise water, go soon. While it is more difficult to access than the Great Barrier, it is already much busier than it was six years ago, and of course the ever present threat of global warming means every year is precious. You won’t be bothered by President T either (only The Orange One would give himself a nickname), who will be kicking back at Mar-a-Lago safe in the knowledge that the phenomenon is a hoax invented by the Chinese, and dead when Florida and Mar-a-Lago is underwater.
An absolutely awesome young teenager from the camp across from us was travelling Australia with her family. She loved the water as much as I do and appeared every time I got the snorkelling gear out. Despite the worst goggles in Christendom, and just a bikini (I’d turn white and feel nothing after 20 minutes without a wetsuit) she never tired of it. She was handy with a loom, (everyone with a child aged between eight and 15 would know what this is) and sold key rings in AFL team colours to campers and gave me our camp mascots.
She also had her own fishing gear and knew all the fisher person speak. She, along with many other camp kids we meet, is going to be an amazing adult.
For those travelling to Exmouth to see the Whalesharks, Cape Range offers fantastic snorkelling from the beach:
Oyster Stacks – most variety, tidal limitations, and a bit of current
Turquoise Bay – the most instagrammable
Lakeside – has the big things
South Mandu – an amazing drift 20 metres from shore
And now, for everyone’s favourite segment: What’s on the menu at WOKA?**
Bug and grass fed Chicken, tenderly embraced by prosciutto that once roamed the same pasture, kept company with chargrilled vegetables – a Symphony in Yellow – and finished in Spanish spice.
*A game where one person is ‘it’, someone yells “Stacks ON!” and everyone else jumps onto the person that is ‘it’.
**WOKA – Wazza’s Outdoor Kitchen Australia
With all aspects of ourselves, equipment, and belongings freshly laundered, we headed north toward Exmouth and Cape Range National Park. I described Cape Range as “my favourite place in the world” to a man who said, “The world? The world is a big place.” Awkward silence as the gravity of that statement lingered in the air.
The road to Exmouth is paved with Wedge-tailed eagles snacking on deceased kangaroos, and roadhouses selling diesel at $1.90/litre and outrageously priced dim sims (according to RollinRob57 on Wikicamps).
But we only had eyes for the Minilya Roadhouse and its homemade sausage rolls. Talk of these sausage rolls began 250km before touchdown, so by the time we got there we were ready to eat every one they had. They sell around 60 per day and, it turns out, sell out by 11am. I must have looked suitably distraught as the lovely woman behind the counter fossicked in the freezer and nuked the last two in the building.
We decided to make Giralia Station on the Exmouth Gulf our interim stop for a couple of days. Checking in and grabbing the required portable loo at the homestead we drove an hour into one of the beach camp sites. Essentially 4WD, it was slow, but roads like this tend to mean awesome sites are vacant on a drop-in basis.
We set up and the loo looked incomplete. It had been strapped to the trailer with the lid opening to the front, so, fed up with its role in life we surmised it had flown off. Waz drove back in the dark, happily engaging the extra LED lights (that came with the UHF radio, snorkel and other ‘necessities’). The forlorn lid was exactly where it had made a bid for freedom, an hour away at the gate to the homestead.
Meanwhile, back at base, I kept noticing specks of dirt appearing on my legs and arms that stung. I blamed the wind.
Overnight, the black specks turned out to be microscopic midges that had bitten me on every exposed piece of skin. How something around 1mm in size can deliver such irritation defies logic. I couldn’t even run into the ocean for relief thanks to the ever present shark risk so I could only gaze out at the pods of dolphins chasing fish with ferocity, and lean into the wind thankful that midges appear to dislike wind as much as I.
The calm dawn inspired Waz to get the rod out and a while later returned with his catch; a small green turtle. To the collective trauma of Waz, myself and the turtle, she had inadvertently swum past the lure and hooked her shoulder. Do not despair! The lure was swiftly removed and as Waz carried the heavy wee turtle back to the water, she flapped her fins like she was swimming and took off without pause. Waz added fishing pliers to the list of things this Off Road Life required.
Although this beach was populated by five couples widely ranging age and origin, we were all very similar. Which explains why we were all headed to the same bay next.
Looking like we had a communicable disease and a nervous tick, we set the GPS for Exmouth and Cape Range National Park. We swung by the homestead to sign out, along with an earthy looking departing visitor (ignoring WA gun laws) who enquired as to where there may be goats he could shoot. “Side of the road anywhere?”.
What’s on the menu @WOKA* ?
*Waz’s Outback Kitchen Australia
The Eastern Gascoyne Race Club is located at Landor Station, 60 km from Mt Augustus and 350km from Meekathara. It has two meetings a year on the WA long weekend in September/October. It’s station jockeys on station horses, or as explained to me, fat blokes on bush horses.
The Annual Meeting cost $60 entry per person for the weekend, including camping on the property – on the rails if you wish – and three days of events for all from Two-Up to Tug of War. We rolled in on Friday and the lady at the entrance immediately recommended the chips and gravy and to avoid the left-hand side if we didn’t like doof doof. The road in revealed a wide open space, dotted with water tanks feeding corrugated toilet and shower blocks, and several early starters who had obviously been before, claiming the few shade giving trees and structures.
Lisa’s Country Kitchen, an iron shed with chandeliers, turned out such delicacies as freshly made pulled pork with coleslaw, slow cooked lamb with rocket salad and perfect chocolate brownie, yet the chips and gravy remained the steadfast best seller.
When the bar opened at 7pm for Two-Up and Crown & Anchor I wish we had packed our stockyard shirts in block colours of blue and pink (purchased in a surge of admiration for station style on our last trip). Drinks were cheap (beers $4.50) and the crowd already your good mates. Unrepeatable stories of intrigue and family dynamics shared, then onto dancing to live music from Leather and Lace commencing at 10.30pm, about 90 minutes after we would normally have retired.
Saturday was the AFL Grand Final*, and given Collingwood (Waz’s team) was in the Grand Final, considerable forethought had been given to whether this would be televised at the races and therefore whether in fact attendance was possible. Hallelujah! It would be on the Big Screen in the bar, with the added bonus of nipping the other side of the Big Screen to watch Barrel Race Time Trials and the other races.
Collingwood (Melbourne) was playing the West Coast Eagles (Perth), so given we were in WA and Collingwood supporters are the subject of significant ridicule and generalisation (missing teeth, mullets and so on) it transpired that there were precisely three Collingwood supporters at the screening;Waz, myself, and another person smart enough to attend undercover.
Two hours before kick-off we were first to the bar and determined the front row. I felt wine with aeration in it was required. I was furnished not only with an $18 bottle of Methode, but a wine bucket and plentiful ice to rest it in. The wine bucket being an actual bucket. Genius!
Collingwood lost in the last quarter. Brutal, but there were races to attend, and winnings to gather. On Saturday, five horses won seven races, and I’ve invited guest blogger and Colourful Racing Identity, Waz, to summarise the results below.**
Sunset drinks led to the ball. I broke out my new RM Williams boots and a top with a horse on it. Apart from wearing it inside out (the hazards of dressing in a dark tent), it blended sufficiently, and despite the ball not starting until 9pm, we were caught up in the theatre of it all and gazed with wonder upon the amazing hairstyles and massive ball dresses the gorgeous young gals materialised in. How the heck do you put that together in a ute and a swag? As strains of music from DJ Rev reached our tent at 2am, the nocturnal stickability had to be admired.
Sunday dawned and the gymkhana was on. Competitors as young as two and up to 14 were incredibly adept. The commentator sat in the stands with limited visual range and kept up a dry and highly entertaining report. “Looks like we have the young Miss…not sure who that is…Is that…? Gee. Look out. She’s missed that pole. She’s going to have to go around again. That’s thing with this event, you have to keep hold of that pole…I don’t want to guess who it is or there will be an angry mother and disappointed father coming at me …It’s a good turn out this year, been a good breeding season…”. As the day goes on, he gets funnier which is almost more compelling than the all comers Tug of War.
Monday, the ladies turn out in their racing best “Just because it’s the country doesn’t mean we don’t have fascinators”, and an evening of more Two-up (who said it only happens on Anzac Day) music and dancing until midnight. In 2021, the event celebrates its 100thyear and I can confidently predict it will be a cracker. Who’s with me?
We intended to head west to Kennedy Range, but “the miners have wrecked the road” and it was closed, so back we went and straight to Carnarvon, with an extra passenger of around 40 kilos of dirt. We chose a caravan park with a giant car wash and lost the next two hours of our life to a sponge and spray gun. Well, I got the elbow grease jobs involving foaming brushes and cleaning door frames and mesh windows. Waz got the stand-back-and-spray-the-bejesus-out-of-everything job followed by important matters of the iphone. By the time I had finished, dinner cooked by someone else was required, and judging by my expression, Waz had selected Sails, the fanciest place in town. Driving up to the 1970’s architecture I had shrimp cocktail on my mind. I was to be disappointed when presented with an amazing French inspired menu, lots of fresh local vegetables and a decent wine list, for about the same price as a pub meal in Perth***.
*An Aussie Rules Football season finale many Australians build up to all year. Home Opens, Auctions, Weddings and other significant things are purposely avoided on this weekend.
**Raconteur Waz says: The first day saw Rock River and Rodinia salute the judge twice with Jessamy Walsh taking the riding honours with four wins. Second day saw Centipede win twice with leading jockey Natalie Burke riding four winners including the two aboard Centipede. Rodinia, who came into the carnival a maiden won three from three making her the Landor “horse of the year”. NB: Landor has one annual carnival with many of the horses not racing many or any other races. Jessamy and Natalie shared the Landor jockey premiership with five winners apiece. From a punting perspective Biara Flyer was the shortest price winner (day 1) as well as the shortest priced losing favourite over the 1800m Landor Cup. Both times at $1.30 and in his last race came 4th as a drifting $2.00 favourite.
Thank you, Waz!
***When you live in Perth you get used to extending your mortgage simply to stick your fork into a parmigiana, so you are perpetually delighted by the Parma Price anywhere else.
The road to Mt Augustus from Meekatharra is unsealed. In the rear view mirror I could see billowing clouds of dust enveloping every crevice of the unloved camp chairs and brand new ‘pub bike’ we bought for this trip, strapped mercilessly uncovered to the trailer. It was Wednesday, Day 4. Around 75km from Mt Augustus we saw a sign for annual Landor Race Meeting at the East Gascoyne Race Club, kicking off Friday. Count us in! Darned if we were going to miss another compelling sounding local event.
But first Mt Augustus.
I kind of expected Mt Augustus to look like Uluru, but twice as big at eight kilometres long, and older, clocking in at 1650 million birthdays. Well, it has a lot more trees and what-not on it, so it is nothing like it really. The rock is so big you cannot actually get a photo of it in entirety. I even drove around the short ends of it, and, nope. So here’s a partial image.
Mt Augustus is known as Burringurrah by the local Aboriginal Wadjari people. The main dreaming story associated with it tells of Burringurrah, a lad not enjoying his initiation into manhood instead electing to take off, breaking tribal law. Punishment came in the form of a tribesman’s spear through his leg and a finishing off by the women wielding fighting sticks. If you look at the mountain along the long side, you can see his prostrate body and the broken-off spear. I can think of a few men that have avoided transitioning to adulthood, and who appear to have been lucky they weren’t under Wadjari law.
As a working station covering 1,250,000 acres, running over 100 windmills and bores, and a hard to count number of cattle, Mt Augustus offers travellers a campground oasis of lawns and sprinklers, 100% groceries in the fridge (yep, even the potato chips) and a bar specifically prohibiting ‘dickheads’ and open when deemed appropriate by the extremely genial and unintentionally humorous tourist park managers. If you are prone to dickheadery, avoid.
There are numerous short walks or drives to lookouts from the base of the Mount, doable for small people, and featuring magical rock engravings you can walk right up to. There are so few places in the world you can stand right in front of 30000+ human handiwork without a security rope and cctv. I love Oz.
The pinnacle activity for most is to climb the 12km return, 700m ascent Beedoboondu Summit Trail. The general guide says to expect a 6-8 hours climb, and that it boasts some savage radiant heat, that along with the terrain, tests the unwary. The day before we arrived, a woman had to be transported (a four stage several hour process) to Royal Perth and the bar manager said earnestly while pouring a chardy with ice, “I had to grab some people that looked like you to carry her down from the top”. We did a quick calculation and retired with a view to kick our walk off at 4.30am.
When the sun warmed our duvet it became apparent the alarm had been set for a time other than the appointed (4.30pm- not looking at anyone in particular!), and we were an hour behind schedule. Undeterred, we stormed up that hill like the undead from seven hells was upon us, and cracked a sub four hour return. I think the compelling feature for Waz was that someone told him you could get Telstra coverage on the cairn at the top.
With days north of 35 degrees in September, Goolinee (Cattle Pool) on the Lyons River offers surprisingly chilly respite in the noon day heat.
But this morning we were not dilly-dallying. We got back and packed without pause; we had a country race, of which we knew little, to attend.
There is some kind of M thing going on in Wildflower Country; Moora, Mingenew, Morawa, Mullewa, Mt Magnet, Mt Augustus, all wildflower hotspots. The exceptions are Cue, Coorow, Carnamah, and a host of others I’ve left out because they don’t suit my theme. It is striking how inventive and creative these small towns are, from murals to museums, and thrilling sounding events that we would miss like The Inseminator’s B and S Ball and Ute Muster, The Menzies Rodeo and Ute Muster (‘Have yourself a bucking good time’), and Mt Magnet’s Astro Rocks Festival.
Meanwhile, at Coalseam Conservation Park, a foggy morning greeted us, which you don’t get much of in Perth, and as some of you know, I do love a tree in mist.
I had done a little more research by this stage in snatches of mobile coverage and had a solid plan in mind that would not involve driving back down roads we had already covered. Part of Warren’s no work zen outlook was to stop the car and turn around as many times as I requested, without the veins in his temple exploding, but I didn’t want to fatigue that new muscle.
Our goal was Mt Augustus, the kind of place you choose to go because it is not on the way to anywhere and far from everywhere. You go there to see the ‘World’s Biggest Rock’ – yes, more than twice Uluru – to view carpets of wildflowers, intriguing geology, and enjoy some working cattle station hospitality.
Mt Magnet is en route to Mt Augustus, and although small, jam packed with history and pride in the success of past and present residents, all gathered in one sizeable place called the Mining and Pastoral Museum, within the visitor centre.
I have to say at this point that all small towns have their version of this. Country visitor centres are worth visiting simply to meet the warm and enthusiastic volunteers ready to spill the beans on what’s hot, recent celebrity sightings, movie filming featuring all the locals, and recommend where we could get a good cuppa. For us, it was the swimming wall of fame in the museum and one of Mt Magnet’s accomplished sons.
Coorow is another example of community pride and spirit. The local community owns and farms land for community benefit. Coorow Farm is home to the first homestead built in the area by William and Sarah Long, who raised a family of seven without, one would assume, any medical attention or intervention. A self-drive 6km wildflower trail offers point of interest, with walks of 250m or 1.25km, which apparently was 1km too far for the occupants of the other four vehicles.
By 4pm, Waz called stumps and we looked for a roadside stop. If you are not all over it, Wikicamps is a goldmine for finding paid and free camping and the voluntary commentary spares no detail. If there is rubbish, mosquitoes, flies, bees, generators going all night, crap hosts, or it looks like a scene from Cocoon*, TomTrukka or Ben1983 leaves no mystery. There is also an element of ‘this is too good to put on Wikicamps’, where you don’t want a good thing ruined by great unwashed tourers, so you and the other 100 people who know about it remain shtum.
A spot in the Gascoyne riverbed is such a place. Astoundingly, Waz did not create a massive fire, which is why he camps, but instead Waz’s Outback Kitchen Australia (WOKA) turned out free range chicken enveloped in similarly liberated prosciutto, atop a gathering of rocket and micro herbs accompanied by seared sweet potato. Just because we camp doesn’t mean it’s all two minute noodles and anti-bacterial wipes. I’ll go into why this whole camping thing is even a concept for one most comfortable in order and freshness in another post. Yes, city princesses and princes of Bel Air, you too can do this.
*Dang. There I go alienating my Millennial audience.
It’s Friday. Warren has taken voluntary redundancy from Telstra, and will be finishing in a week. He declares with enthusiasm that we are to hitch up the Aussie Swag camper trailer (creatively referred to as The Swag) and hit the road. For around four months. Leaving in two weeks. All that is required is to buy a suitable vehicle, pack a minimalist bag, slow to 40KPM for a quick food shop, and we would be off.
Alas, no. We have the ingenious idea of installing some people in our house while we are gone, and I am granted a revelation. Apparently the hours spent bingeing Netflix had robbed me of the truthful vision that my home held grime ransom in every crevice. The gloves, magic erasers, and a toothbrush that would deprive anyone of gum margin came out and I was off on a Konmari* extravaganza with laser focus.
Have you ever inspected your washing machine? The thing that cleans everything else, that never actually gets cleaned itself? A quick check on what it would cost to buy and simply replace the Fisher & Paykel manky bits had me head back to the garage for another solution. The steamer, the water blaster, a bladed scraper later, and good deal of muscle later (hooray for pre-dawn winter pool kilometres**), I stood back with satisfaction. [At this stage I must mention our laundry lives in the garage. It’s a matter of priorities. Namely Warren’s wine storage trumps boring laundry that Warren is still in a quandary over what it’s contribution to life quality is.]
Then I noticed the wall behind the washing machine. Having just reorganised the entire garage pre-departure, I knew exactly where the painting stuff was. No multiple trips to Bunnings here. Two hours later, two walls of the garage were freshly white. I’ll leave you to imagine how this played out in every corner, draw, and crevice of our house.
By the time our incredibly lovely new tenants knocked on the door last Sunday, 16 days post declaration, I was at the stage of dually cleaning the fridge and flinging indiscriminate matter into the trailer. A bag of dry goods, dirty runners, and clean linen vied for real estate on the back seat. I paused and took a moment to appreciate the immaculate cream sheepskin seat covers, champagne interior, and unmarked ‘Liquid Bronze’ exterior of our newly purchased car. It would never look this way again.
We headed out the drive and north. We hadn’t actually had time to discuss an itinerary, but a pie at the Bindoon Bakehaus would be a good start.
And so it begins.
*Marie Kondo is an organising expert who introduced the KonMari Method™ in her transformative best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” She began tidying as a young girl and refers to “tidying adventures”, just like me apart from being half my size in every measure, gently spoken, and smiling serenely out from perfectly face framing sleek hair. Simply reading her book is an exercise is peaceful mindfulness. The approach is rooted in a single question: Does this item spark joy?
** Thanks Team Phoenix! xx
Timber Creek is a small town in the Northern Territory with the three most common remote town signs; to the roadhouse, police station and medical centre or hospital. The roadhouse is typical, providing all manner of services including bar, bottle-store, restaurant, service station, and caravan park to locals and travellers alike.
We arrived on Saturday, and the roadhouse was doing a roaring trade in beer destined for a party up the road. Carloads of locals drove up, piled into the bar, emerged with slabs of beer, and yelled to other carloads of locals doing the same. The Eftpos machine sat silently trapped in a cage at the front door, and a cheery bunch of international staff buzzed about.
Travellers under 30 years of age to Australia can extend their tourist visa by one year, if they work for three months in a remote area. This means you can generally guarantee the people serving you in many small town pubs and roadhouses are a cheerful array of intrepid young people with exotic accents, seemingly well out of context, yet curiously at home.
The caravan park behind the roadhouse offered the twin attractions of crocodile and bird feeding. At 5pm, an eager bunch of kids, a couple of elderly folks, a handful of freshwater crocodiles, a varied flock of airborne raptors, and W and I excitedly gathered for feeding time. When the English girl from the pub dangled raw pieces of meat in the creek, the crocodiles looked a bit bored, but the birds were somewhat theatrical, and the kids and I were thrilled.
A whiteboard on the wall in the bar listed names of people banned from the bar, and the date they were allowed back in. Every now and then, a whiteboard person wandered in and attempted a purchase, or sat at the bar and charmingly argued why they should stay. Both the Chilean and the Kiwi behind the bar were barely 25, yet managed to deliver the bad news, wave farewell to the banned, and order a Barra and Chips at the same time with a smile. I wanted to suggest the publican run a detox program for city adolescents, currently gaining life skills from a screen, but he didn’t appear to possess the same charm as the gals.
We had left Kununurra at the break of day, and foiled the guy with the wheel covers, awning OCD, and dawn leaf-blower routine next door, determined to wake us. I like to ensure we have plundered the depths of local attractions, squeezing in The Mini Bungles and Kelly’s Knob at sunset the night before, and planning to swim at Valentine Springs, Black Rock, Marley Billabong and a handful of other watery delights on our way east. Alas, the swimming holes were in varying states of dehydration, but the backpackers were up for it, shrieking and smoking while splashing about the murky green water. We ventured to Wyndham where local artists had crafted an alien message into the saltpan, looked at another grey harbour, and deemed our work done.
From Timber Creek we drove straight through Katherine and north to Nitmulik National Park, a gorgeous park full of gorges and swimming holes just 30km from town, managed jointly by traditional owners and Department of Parks and Wildlife. Edith Falls is one of the beautiful camp areas within the park, offering shade, and , watered grass, wildlife (both two and four-legged), and a swimming hole replete with fish eager to nibble off your callouses. I am never at ease in fresh water, but became excited at the prospect of a pedicure of sorts. I watched the cute little fish dart about my legs until one took a wee chunk of my thigh.
Nitmulik is atypical for National Parks, with quirky personal touches. Edith Falls greets you with quirky quotes on a sandwich board, and the main caravan park features a rockstar-style lagoon pool, and resident 4 metre python (harmless but freaky all the same), that hung out at the pool in daylight, and on the path to the toilets at night. Moving to the main camp, we set up with haste, eager to make it in time for our Gorge Dinner Cruise, the only tour with vacancies. Waiting under the trees for our cruise to depart, a man approached enthusiastically and said “Saw you at the camp ground. You’re next to us. In the camper trailer. We’re in the Winnebago.” Pausing to reflect, I couldn’t remember anything about our fellow campers except the fact I thought there was no-one around as I changed into my bikini beside the car.
Our next destination was Karumba. The promise of abundant fresh fish and prawns, a fantastic azure vista, and location bang in the middle of the Gulf of Carpentaria took on a spiritual quality, and got me through two bush camps. To be clear, bush camp means off-the-grid, no loo in any form, no water, coverage or rubbish bins. Of course, a sweet little shower faucet in a box, some cigarette lighter power, and a bucket of pre-boiled water convinces you temporarily you need never live a civilised life again. Until you see yourself in a roadhouse bathroom, and realise your husband is not a details guy, and you need an intervention.
Karumba is all about fishing, just like the rest of the north. You cannot swim because of the crocs, it is hot as all get out, and the Barra run freely. At night the sunset pub hosts thousands of hermit crabs as they march about, pile up, then march again. At every point the road or a boat campmates the water you see signs warning of croc activity. They read “Achtung! Attention! Crocodile activity in this area”, and show a no-swimming icon. After a while we simply referred to these river crossings as Achtungs. Australia’s largest saltwater crocodile, ‘Krys the Savannah King’ met an untimely end at nearby Archer’s Creek in 1957, but the legend lives on in a life-size replica, over 8 metres long, in the main street of Normanton, where people take photos of their babies in its mouth.
Karumba’s Hotel offered two kinds of experience; the open air Animal Bar and air-conditioned Suave Bar. Alone in the Suave Bar, we were schooled by Maddie and Tae on the Country Music Channel, on being a ‘Girl in a Country Song’, which seemed to prescribe smiling over speaking, daisy dukes and cowboy boots, and a lot of admirable hair.
We had to stop at Mt Surprise for name alone. This is another small town with a tiny local population, residing in fields rich in ancient history and semi-precious gems. We made sure the pub could receive the AFL Grand Final transmission, then settled into the caravan park with resident Johnny Cash, miniature ponies, exotic birds, an emu, and another resort style pool. Always a fan of a gem, I convinced W to grab a prospector’s license, treasure map, and shovel from the gem store and we set out for the field of dreams. Before we left, I had probed the expert for tips, amongst which was the theory that good things lay two metres down. When I said we could easily dig that far, I saw a flash of focused attention pass across the eyes. It’s a look I have only seen in opal fields, carried by people living in corrugated iron lean-to’s for decades and in possession of an unshakeable belief that tomorrow they will find the mother lode. Three hours later, having dug over the well ground in the allowed areas other tourists has already toiled over, bitten by March flies, and with dust in very crevice, we departed in possession of a few small pieces of Topaz, unsurprised by the appraisal they were too small to do anything with.
Hanging up our prospecting boots, we investigated a once vast farming property owned by the entrepreneurial Collins family, the first white settlers in the Gulf Savannah, and who have owned the property since the 1860’s. Featuring caves formed by ancient lava tubes, and numerous unique geological features, the family decided to partner with National Parks to create the Undara Volcanic National Park, and developed a slick tourism venture on the property, called The Undara Experience, which thrives today. Of course the only way you get to see them is to take the tour. W and I spend a lot of time in each others company, so whenever we go on a tour I am freshly reminded that we walk at twice the pace of anyone else, and how I need to develop a more Buddhist outlook when it comes to that person in every crowd that dawdles at the back with their camera/eternally fusses in their back pack/stares into the distance/is last on the bus.
The next day we eyed Cooktown, at the base of the Cape York Peninsula, a new corner of Australia for us.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Imagine 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.