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.
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
We have one week left of four months on the road and sitting at our camp, overlooking Osprey Bay in Cape Range National Park, time has accelerated and each day seems to last only 12 hours. We have driven 22,000 km in an overlapping circle and W is cleaning the Weber Baby Q, an annual activity, confirming that indeed, all things end eventually.
Cooktown is a beautiful spot at the base of Cape York (the pointy bit on the top right corner of Australia). Access is 4WD, and parts of it, fairly intrepid. Cape York was one of the few must-do’s on this trip, but our timing was a little off, and we reluctantly agreed the journey may spell the end of the camper trailer, so had got to Cooktown to at least put a virtual stake in the ground for when we would return.
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.
At the watery inlets and outlets around Cooktown Achtung!* signs abound, as do water lilies and lush rainforest. There is something oddly humorous about a crocodile sitting just under the surface with a water lily on his head.
From Cooktown we took the coastal 4WD road bound for Cairns. The trailer seemed to enjoy the bounce from steep inclines and declines as we roared south. The road took us through the Daintree, tropical growth fresh and happy in the rain. Greenery is so restful on your eyes when you have squinted your way through the Top End, carving deep furrows in your forehead. The contrast is so stark, in a relatively short distance, that I am reminded again how incredible Australia is. We didn’t stay in the Daintree or Port Douglas, as we have been to both before, and the damp was beginning to seep in. At this stage we didn’t know the rain would become a lasting signature of our East Coast experience.
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
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
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
We set the TomTom for south, clinging to the coast in search of sparkling beaches, and richochet-ing in and out of small, beach-style towns until we reached Mission Beach. We had hoped to find somewhere to swim since the threat of crocodiles was no longer present, but the murky grey water and persistent rain was uninviting and a faint ache in my tooth nagged. By the time we neared Townsville, I had decided a tooth was attempting to grow sideways out of my gum, so I called Townsville’s 1300 Smile and managed to drive straight to an appointment. 48 minutes later, I left 1300 Smile relieved of one tooth, a gaping hole in my mouth, and a legitimate member of the Collingwood Football Club**.
I will continue this tale from Townsville, QLD, to Exmouth, WA, in my next instalment – Things That Make You Go EEK – where I have regular and uninvited encounters with a range of scream-worthy creatures.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
Sunrise walk to another swimming hole – in the far distance a bearded nude man bathed.
Fly blown bush camping at its best
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.
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 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.
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
NRL at Mt Surprise. The joint was going off.
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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.
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 rocks
CUTE! Comb crested Jacana – Jesus bird with teeny chicks
We checked into the Cable Beach Resort, and took a mere 30 minutes to streak the white towels with red dust, scatter tiny Pilbara stones from our luggage onto the floor, and appear poolside looking like we had been rehomed from under a bush.
There were two pool areas, one for families, and one other, conveniently located on the edge of our room. The family pool area had funky Ku-De-ta style music and a lively vibe. Walking into our pool area was like walking into a scene from Coocoon. People draped over noodles smiled a little too brightly, bobbing slowly on the spot to an eerie silence. Those not in the pool appeared to be recovering from cosmetic surgery, with an over representation of compression bandages and overly large hats. A guy we identified as Solar Panel took up position at dawn, and rotated all day on the same lounger to face the sun, briefly moving to a particular chair in the shade to drink a beer every hour. I wanted to give the pool scene triage, and asked the terribly pleasant barman for some music. He seemed to have been swimming in the same pool, or may have been a droid as he looked blankly, before his eyes flickered, registering the request, and advising Management had told him to turn it off.
The noodles resisted W’s attempts to breathe life into them.
At dusk, a queue of cars formed to tear down the beach. Ok, well, W tore down the beach at a disobedient 16kph. Irikandji (a jellyfish that requires morphine to dull the pain) danced in the shallow tide, camels plodded past, and a 3m croc decided to wait another few days before having a crack at the swimmers and dogs splashing enthusiastically about.
Broome Broome to the beach
Fearful I may get attached to swaying palms in pink sunset bars, champagne in glass vessels, chlorinated swimming, mirrors, and air-conditioned rooms, W drove at breakneck speed up the Cape Leveque Peninsula, to Goombaragin, one of the many campsites offered by local leaseholders along the coast.
The road to Goombaragin, Cape Leveque Peninsula
Our campsite was one of only two, both on the cliff overlooking the bay, with a charming rocky track down to the beach that I would not recommend to the infirm. Unfortunately, wind made the water pretty murky but we were desperate. The welts from something in the water receded within 48 hours, and being led back up the path by one of the resident pythons was a bonus.
Traditionally guests gather at a daily fire with the host family and fabulous tips and local history are generously shared. The 17-year old lad of the host family was an inspiration, his enthusiasm for pythons (he had a Stimson in an aquarium), fishing, diving, shells, bare feet, and his overall sunny and open nature will take him far. I would love to know where his future takes him.
Hermit Crab Highway. Overnight, all footprints are eradicated by the march of tiny hermit crabs.
There are a few must do’s on the Peninsula. A visit to the Hatchery at One Arm Point is a must. For a $15 fee to the community, I learnt more about local fish in that 30 minutes than I have with my multiple fish books. I got spat at by Archer fish and plotted to save a forlorn Barramundi Cod brought in by local kids, as it lay unmoving on the floor of the tank – this species mate for life, and pine away when they are separated. At low tide you can see Lemon sharks being herded by local dogs at the boat ramp. A visitor filmed it and the video became a phenomenon, but it happens regularly. At high tide, a phenomenal amount of water courses between offshore islands. And of course, there’s Kooljaman.
Beach hut accommodation (one of many great options) at Kooljaman
When I saw the azure beach at Kooljaman, a resort at the tip of the peninsula, around 220km north west of Broome, I booked us into the campground immediately. It had nothing to do with the adjacent resort cafe and ice cream fridge. Tour buses, float planes and helicopters swept in at regular intervals, piloted and driven by clean-cut guys in their early twenties dressed in Steve Irwin khaki’s and R M Williams boots. Most of the tours were a ten-hour marathon that covered both Cape Leveque and the Deeby Horizontal Falls in one day, giving a parade of people that looked remarkably similar to each other every day an outback-meets-the-ocean experience in 20-minute segments. The Outback Pilot Uniform seemed to catch on as I noted a surfeit of women my age, in flowing layered dresses (as women my age are prone to do) finished off with a pair of R M Williams boots. I haven’t discounted releasing a Boho-meets-Jillaroo Collection when I return to Perth.
Kooljaman campground. Beautiful setting, but the gold is always in the kitchen
I find the best sights are usually in the kitchen. A global fusion breakfast crafted by a young german lad with an evidently iron-clad constitution, wins so far. Layering white bread, a hefty squeeze of chilli sauce, a smear of berry jam, and plastic cheese presumably for stability, he flew in the face of standard backpacker fare – dry chicken and corn two-minute noodles, and teeny cans of tuna.
There is a meaningful statistical trend for the kind of travellers you find in campgrounds. The rougher it gets, the country of origin reduces down to three: German, Kiwi, and Australians under 40. You generally don’t see the guy in the t-shirt that reads: ‘This is Australia. We eat meat. We drink beer. And we speak f*kin English.’, anywhere that requires 4WD access. I reluctantly note another trend, and it is prompting a sense of vigilante-ism within. Each day I wish to be disproven, but alas, where Whizz-bangers (backpackers in forensically overloaded rental vans) have been, a trail of dry noodles and used disposable kitchenware appear on the bench, while cigarette butts, empty tuna cans, and egg shells pile up in the bush. PROVE ME WRONG people.
While we were at Eastern Beach a group of 30 or so people of all ages gathered to enjoy a picnic under the day-use shade huts, near a shower for cleaning off sand. They had walked over the hill, carrying multiple eski’s (chully buns), and bags of food, chatting excitedly all the way. Children ran about, a ball flew back and forth, the water sparkled, and adults laughed easily, although no-one swam. One said to another, “Go ahead, you can get in there, but I’m not saving you.” I wanted to tell them I’d take them swimming!
A blonde woman walked up and said to the group, “Aren’t you wonderful? I’ve never seen so many Indians together. Where are you from?”
Without skipping a beat, a particularly stylish young guy said, “Broome. You had too many cowboys, you needed some Indians.”
Blond woman: “Broome? What do you do? Are you taxi-drivers? The only Indians I have seen are taxi-drivers.”
Gorgeous lad: “Yes and we work in hospitality.”
We talked to all sorts of interesting people around Cape Leveque, including a guy we discovered had killed his wife on the basis of infidelity, “but it’s ok, he did time”. We offered to show a lovely German guy the snorkelling spots and a lift over the hill (it’s about a four minute drive) and he said, “Of course you drive, you are Australian.” We covered multiple topics including the international phenomenon of pre-dawn poolside chair claim, and he said the most wanted gift at a Deutsche Bank conference he went to was a towel that read, “We have been here already”. Gold!
Ardi Reflections Tour. Bardi Dancers from Lombadina Community
That night a group of musicians on tour played a few numbers at Kooljaman in advance of their Ardi Reflections gig at local community, Lombadina. On the strength of the amazing sound, we went and enjoyed incredibly arresting and impassioned performances from the musicians, story tellers, and Bardi dancers from Lombadina, alongside a lot of other tourists. Sitting there being entertained felt a little colonial to me. On the one hand, events like these enable communities to share their culture and provide an income stream. On the other, it somehow made history stark, that there is so much wonderful heritage still to be shared, and that we all have a long way to go.
What you looking at, Williams? Incoming anemone fish at Eastern Beach, an amazing snorkelling spot with coral gardens of wondrous design
Cape Leveque vine of unknown species!
Next: Across the Top End.
HIGHLIGHTS from this and the last post
Broome (2200 km north of Perth) – Eat great tapas at 18 Degrees, $12 cocktails on Friday and Saturday from 3pm-5pm. Have mex-inspired breakfast or a fab almond croissant with Broomes best coffee at funky The Good Cartel café, that also does drive through.
Karijini (1400 km north of Perth) – Do all of the walks, especially the spider walk, swim every day to cool down in Fern Pool, go to Phill Witt’s REMTREK Astro Tour.
Millstream Chichester (150km east of Karratha) – Go there in May/June, get there early, and nab a campsite at Miliyanha on the outer ring, under trees. The old homestead has loads of detail about the families who lived there, and a very charming and shaded Homestead Walk. There are loads of walking tracks, and you can swim in Deep Reach pool.
Kooljaman (220km from Broome) – stay in the beach huts (need a tent) or cabins at Eastern Beach.
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
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.
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 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
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!
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.
The radio silence has ended. In truth, it has been an interesting, somewhat patchy, all-over-the-shop year, that was not at all as I envisaged at the beginning. When that happens, some things get my attention, and others languish. Nothing seems good enough to share, and the paralysis of perfectionism kicks in. Here are some observations.
In 2013, it is safe to say I did more new things, challenging things, and dumb things than I have done before. I was more excited, disappointed, determined, exhausted, and inspired than ever before, and sometimes in close succession. In fact, I squeezed all of those things into a 4 day mountain bike event, and somehow sneaked into the official documentary. I apologise unreservedly for the dodgy snippet.
Watch the full Cape to Cape 2013 Documentary on SBS here and join us next year! (I may have stuffed up the video above, if so, I’m at 48 minutes!)
Training for the event pulled me through the dark part of my year, winter. That, and a clutch of talented, inspiring, and just plain good fun mountain bikers that had me riding at my limit, and only ever crying on the inside. Legends, all. I’ve learnt that when I’m riding, if my mind drifts off to anything but riding, my speed drops 30%. Sometimes, thinking too much leaves you behind.
My photography world has shifted. The brooding, changing, landscapes I came to seek, love, and know inside-out in Victoria, have been replaced with vistas hardened to strong light, the colour sucked out of them, and located hundreds of kilometres from home.
I came west with a specific and fanciful aim to spend days on the road, finding magic, but while adventuring with W, I realised I it only worked when he was around. I felt unsafe travelling alone, and this destroyed my ability to see any magic. This floored, then freed, me. Without the singular identity of ‘Landscape Photographer’, I have spread my wings, and undertaken both paid and personal projects across the genres.
Against the advice of every entrepreneur that knows their shizz, I’ve done the opposite of specialise, amongst other things, pointing my camera at architecture, real estate, a baby Cake Smash, documentary, events, actor portfolio shots, vintage flowers, and corporate headshots. Throw in a Star Trek-themed wedding and a Bar Mitzvah, and no stone remains unturned.
I don’t recommend this approach for anyone starting a business, but it has been an important journey for me. And while I came to Perth with a plan that hasn’t materialised, it is a fantastic place to live if Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is something that snaps at your heels. It is never too early to greet a fellow traveller along the river, and they always seem happy.
Like the shirtless guy last week, strolling barefoot along at 5.30am, in his business pants, a business shirt tucked into the back of his pants, carrying one business shoe, and waving a cheery good morning.
In summary, 2013 has been a year of possibility, made possible by the unrelenting support from a handful of wonderful people. I wish you all the same for your 2014.
Those close to me may have noticed my barely concealed pathological desire for order. I am fully aware that this is one of those genuine weaknesses one could declare at a job interview, and not sound smug, unlike “Oh, a weakness? Hmm, let’s see. I’m a perfectionist?”. I say pathological because I actually feel anxious when things are disorderly, to the point of preventing forward motion. I write spreadsheets of packing lists for roadtrips, bike trips, work trips, lists for things that live permanently inside the camper, lists for stuff that gets added on the day of departure with the camper. I spend hours arranging the lists. I print the lists. W ignores the lists. Last weekend we took a quick trip to Margaret River. It is our 20th trip, and 150km down the road we realise we have no coffee. In terms of functional necessity, one may as well have forgotten to bring clothes.
I deal with my Disorder Disorder by making myself take abstract photos, and not rearranging my tees that call to me daily to be placed in order of hue and saturation. The Fleeting Glimpses technique (named during a road trip from Melbourne to Perth with photographer C, who introduced me to the idea) of shooting out the window of a car travelling at 110km is one way I practise achieving the unpredictable. I took these photos in the wonderfully verdant and be-sheeped hills of New South Wales, between Wagga and Canberra a couple of weeks ago. I love that the Auto-Focus and Vibration Reduction mechanism on my 70-200mm lens go crazy trying to lock onto something, which results in blurred lines going in lots of different directions, or a single plane of sharpness and all the rest a blur. Which is exactly what my brain feels like more than some of the time.
I welcome feedback on any of the pics I post. What do you like? What don’t you like? What do you want more of? Don’t be shy! It is great to hear what strikes people.
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.
Turquoise Bay smile – that little lump on the horizon is the reef
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.
view to the west
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.
Cape Range National Park
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.
Gnaraloo, 950km north of Perth, and accessible by 4WD only, has the right mix of rugged and remote, cushioned by a fridge of Whittakers’ chocolate bars, hot showers at 4pm, and endless bags of ice for the esky (that’s a chully bun, people).
This is our second trip to 3 Mile Camp at Gnaraloo Station, the last in August last year at the end of our six-week trip from Brisbane to Perth. We loved it so much, W decided he would spend his birthday there, so we booked and paid for the same site before we left, an uncommonly committed act.
Stars above and below, Gnaraloo, WA
Gnaraloo is located on the Ningaloo reef, so delivers incredible snorkelling right off the beach, and tropical fish that seem adorably curious. A Sergeant fish would swim to shore and meet me every time I waded out, so I decided to sit quietly and let it come closer. Sure enough, it boldly surged forward, but its tiny sharp teeth were no match for my weathered shin. From that point on, I swear it sought me out across the reef, navigating via my sonic-borne fear.
Turns out I should be more worried about the 3 metre saltwater crocodile (they are the ones with no sense of humour) that paddled into Pelican Point at Waroora, just up the coast, a couple of days before, and made himself visible 15 metres from shore. After an hour at Gnaraloo Bay, W furnished me with the additional fact that a 4 metre saltie did a little snorkelling himself at home in, why, THIS very lagoon in 2009.
Gnaraloo is popular with impossibly good looking 20 year old surfers who could care less, with minimal possessions, happy to survive on cold beans straight from the tin, cereal, and cold beer. Uniformly tan, bleached hair in a way no salon could create, and gifted with a greater-than-average incidence of striking blue eyes framed in ridiculously long eyelashes, conspiracy theorists could conclude there is a covert breeding program afoot. You could think I want to be with them, but to be honest, my interest stems from wanting to BE them.
The other over-represented crowd are the 40 year old surfers, now driving Range Rovers, towing $40k tricked-up 4WD camper-trailers, a pretty, fit, yet frowning wife, a minimum of two children under 10 and their bikes, a black and white working dog, industrial shade structure, multiple surf boards, kite-surfer, surf ski, canoe, stand up paddle board, and dozens of Corona’s and lemons. From this crowd I only want one thing. That wonder of a camper; all pullout draws, tables, and racks of happiness. And maybe the custom-shaped mesh ground sheet. And maybe their dog. But not the poor dog that got a bit bitey. He got locked in the car while the enraged owner packed up the circus first, herded the family, then drove doggie to the house of Green Dreams and a one-way ticket to the leads-off park in the sky.
3 mile lagoon
3 Mile Camp gives me the overall impression it has been a holiday spot for those in the know, and local families and their descendants, for decades, and what an amazing place to spend childhood holidays. Outsiders are welcome…just don’t book their favourite camp-site!