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.
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 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!
If you are arriving at a Karratha campground, it is 42 degrees, windless, there are only a tiny scattering of caravans, no tents, and the washing lines are flapping with hi-vis, do not engage grey matter. Put your game face on, your swimsuit, and some clothes on top you will never want to wear again. Avoid discussion with fellow tent/camper erector/Sergeant, and just hook in, Private. Follow the drill as rehearsed at home and know it will soon be over.
Try not to test botox effectiveness at neighbouring campers orientated toward your site with fully engaged stubby holders dwarfed by the massive digits gripping them. Think about what colour you will paint your nails when this is all over. Lincoln Park After Dark? Bubble Bath? Big Apple Red? Indian Ocean? Orange-Utan? Back to task.
Appreciate the pore clearing that is occurring as sweat drips inelegantly from the end of your nose every time you look down to adjust a pole while keeping the canvas taught. It is Bikram yoga without the aroma.
Unfurl camping chair and orientate toward other campers. Grasp glass of chilled NZ Sav Plonk with frozen grapes for extra chill and down as if your life (ok, relationship) depended on it. It actually does. For if you do not do this, your body would independently find its way into your vehicle and drive with the aircon on Lo until the fuel ran out.
Wash hands with $35 Aesop liquid soap or equivalent. Find cold water source to immerse in. Pool, ocean or shower. Put on clean outfit that would not look out of place in LV luggage on safari in the 1940s. Have another chilled beverage. You can now speak to fellow camper.
CONGRATULATIONS! You are officially roughing it. You will redefine this lifestyle genre.
Sandy Cape is a brilliant camp spot north of Jurien Bay in WA. The basic offerings of a long drop loo satisfies the fisher crowd that pack into the pretty bay.
We were staying here because I kept reading about swimming with sea lions at Jurien Bay and Green Head, and ever alert for opportunities to commune with sea-life decided this was an excellent gift for W.
The boat we were to board was called Hang Ten (something like that), prompting warm memories of childhood surf labels. A multi-purpose vessel catering to fishing, diving, and in the off hours, sea lions tours. She had earnt the paint job she appeared to have been stripped for. Pounding through the swell it didn’t seem optimal conditions for such a trip, but Hang Ten was solid as a rock and the ten young people of varying nationality that boarded with slabs of condensating stubbies were in high spirits. The french girl whose thong bikini afforded no comfort against the metal seating bounced from spot to spot. The rock climbing Irish lad swung from the roof on single fingers. And before we knew it we were at the sea-lion island. A relaxed colony onshore were about to have their peace broken. Smacking fins together, a crew member wandered up and down the shore encouraging the resting mammals into the water for the eager punters bobbing about in the water. 30 minutes on and the performing sea lions retired back on shore, save for one teenage male that the older males prevented making land. Six of us chased him about, in between looking back to the boat for any sea lion sightings that the crew member on the bow would point out with her roll-yer-own.
Back on board the wiry Irish guy had succumbed to sea sickness and lay ashen in the corner. The thong was doing the rounds, up and down the stairs to the bridge, and beers were getting warm. Irish downed a warm one, and like a miracle was up and doing one handed chin-ups to the delight of the crowd. A lovely Irish girl shared the rest of her six pack, and tea and muffins headed off greying pallor.
As the sun settled back at camp, it became apparent that the tree we were camped next to was the midnight pee spot for all the men that had gone before. The malodorous waft of the PeeTree gathered under the camper annex and took residence in my nostrils, departing only once we had achieved a distance of 5km.
Entering Carnarvon, we took a spin of the main street. Rain had fallen freshening up the place and inviting me to open my car window and get a lungful of bracing salty air. Quelle Horreur! The PeeTree had hitch hiked its way to Carnarvon! Urea rose from the pavement the length of the main shopping area. Surrounded by banana plantations, mango orchards, and the evidence of fantastic fruit and vege supplies when in season, I am at a loss to understand Carnarvon. Boasting an award winning Aboriginal Cultural Centre, an active and enthusiastic local council, friendly locals and bounty from land and sea, the cafes offer roadhouse food, and the marina restaurant entices with chicken and lamb curry. I thank my innate talent for sticking with something long after wisdom would indicate. I knew the BBQ set, novelty cheese knives, and Lewis Carroll talking book I had discovered on sale at the Post Office for W were making for a memorable day for him, but I wanted more. And there it was. Shining like a yellow beam of happiness, a fantastic omelette at the shopping centre coffee shop restored plummeting blood sugar and humour.779
You know it is time to head to the big smoke when your Sauvignon Blanc is warm because your fridge has gone flat.
Darwin’s waterfront development had a stroke of the Docklands about it. Right on the harbour, the main restaurant area appeared to offer little more than ridiculously overpriced food-court fare, the neon yellow deep fried tidbits glowing radioactively under the fluorescents. A perfectly balmly night, the wharf cried out for a jug of sangria, some coastal peasant fare, light banter, and a surfeit of dangly earrings swinging from tanned lobes.
Perhaps my expectations were heightened after days without a shower block, and time spent calling every camp ground in Darwin trying to find a powered site. We gave up and drove to the campground with Darwin’s last tent site. The campground was enormous, and upon closer inspection, appeared largely inhabited by permanents. Charging the most we have ever paid to rent a piece of grass, the owners took an entrepeneurial approach to satisfying our energy requirement. Magically discovering an extra powered site they didnt have earlier, they directed us to a spot behind the toilets, motioning to set up there and plug into the toilet block. Thankfully, the affable resident in the nearest canvas structure had the requisite 100 metre extension cord so we could reach along the building, up the wall, and through a cavity into the powerpoint in the laundry.
Litchfield is only 130km from Darwin, and a wonderful alternative to Kakadu. All the beauty and wonder of its more popular sister, but all the better for its more rugged exterior, the 4WD camping weeding out anyone in possession of a generator. Waterhole upon waterhole beckoned, monitor lizards scowled at the edge, and I simply did not want to leave. That is, until tiny bitey black slugs attached themselves to my person, as I swam in the Avatar style pools. It was all I could do to get the leech scene from the movie Stand by Me out of my head. A snake whistled by, and I levitated.
As two full days drew to a close, we had one last place to discover. Tjaynera Falls at Sandy Creek, fringed by paperbarks and palms beckoned from the end of a challenging 4WD track. Campground conversation warned against taking a trailer, or even the Prado down there, due to the depth of river crossings. Undeterred, we drew up to the first crossing where seven vehicles had stopped, and a clutch of sleeve tattooed men in boardies and singlets stood at the top discussing the approach options. A shirtless young guy cast off his flop flops, and stubbie aloft, waded past the crocodile warning sign, to find the deepest spot for the benefit of the clutch. Silence fell, a flurry of nylon, and all bounded for their vehicles to be first over the lip.
When the headcount at the Falls made 20, we gathered ourselves and made for the car. It was lunchtime, and we would make Lake Argyle by sundown.
Our time at Club Croc drew to a close, but we felt we had not plundered the full depth of Kakadu. We ventured North to the Merl campground where countless people told us we would be carried away by mosquitoes.
Thundering along the road we heard a thump around the trailer. I was pretty certain no animal had met an untimely end so we concluded investigation would be in order. We paced around the trailer mystified, until I found a chain protected by heavy duty fabric dangling jauntily from the frame of the trailer. “What’s this for?”, I asked, swinging it around my finger. W said he hadn’t noticed it before. At about the same time we realised it was dangling from the spot where the spare tyre used to be, and 2 seconds later noted a black scrape on a corner of the trailer. Clearly suffering the same brain rattling experience I endured on the 4WD roads, the spare had made a bid for freedom, glancing off the metal case where the fridges live, and bouncing off into the underbrush. We immediately jumped in the car and retraced our steps, drawing to a halt at the point of ejection, behind a guy in a minivan beating a hasty retreat. We never recovered the tyre but were richer for the knowledge of where the wrapped safety chain should have been employed.
Out of our remote camp ground we realised Kakadu is teeming with gorges and swimming holes filled to the waterline with backpackers, parents, and peeing youth conveyed via bus. Worse than Bondi on a filming day, all I could think about was the poor little freshwater crocs hiding at the bottom waiting for everyone to go home. I realised THIS was the Kakadon’t people talk about.
Undeterred, we took off up north where Kakadu borders Arnhem Land and an “All hands in the boat!!” cruise up the East Alligator River, allows you to appreciate the watchful golden eye of many a saltie at close range. At nearby Ubirr, rangers tell stories, and hundreds of people climb the nearby rock plateau in the movie footsteps of Crocodile Dundee who took Sue up there to show her ‘his territory’. Rounding off the day with a feast of unexpectedly fabulous authentic Thai food from the Border Store, we repaired to the campground to erect the tent just after sunset, when the mozzies were at their zenith.
Emptying a can of pleasingly noxious flyspray into our sleeping quarters, I remained there until the inevitable odyssey to the ablutions block was upon me. Blithely wandering off into the dark without a torch, I spent 30 minutes circumnavigating the frustratingly organically planned campground. By the time I found our spot again, I had benefited from ribald snatches of german and french conversation as I passed, and lost the battle with mosquitoes the size of small birds.
The next morning, we squeezed in a trip to the Mamukala Wetlands, which I realise are what I have always thought Kakadu would look like everywhere. Swathes of water lillies and water birds were just too far away for me to get a great shot, but it certainly made me want to jump in a tinny and putt around.
I can thank Renner Springs for a blonde discovery. Turns out those iconic rural windmills are not just ornamental, they put them where the wind blows to pump water. Cue another flappity night of unsecured canvas, and crotchety camper inhabitants.
Natural hot springs can be found about 110kms south of Katherine, just off the Stuart Highway. Choosing Mataranka, we picked our way around the bunch of people that make a career of finding public hot pools, clinging to the entry and exit steps, and giggling nervously about not being able to swim. Taking our place in the pool next to all the other sardines, we pretended not to hear blush-worthy conversation, fought the urge to stare at others body parts, and scowl at those amongst us Most Likely to Pee. I lasted about 1 second longer than W, threatening to transform the tranquility into a wave pool by fidgeting, for a grand total of 5 minutes. Hopes still high, we decided the much lower profile Bitter Springs was worth a visit. The brief summary of Bitter Springs in our tour guide ill-prepared us for our visit. Stepping into a narrow creek fringed by palms, the warm, crystal clear, deep teal, water slowly flowed, carrying us along with it. Small turtles slept on the exposed tree roots. A water monitor lazed warily on the bank. It was like that Theme Park water ride where you float around in a current on tubes, but without the screaming, garish tones, and fibreglass.
On the sterling recommendation of friends J and L, we booked one of the permit-only 4WD camp sites at Koolpin Gorge in Kakadu. Picking up the key to the gate, the ranger warned against swimming in the two pools nearest the camp, as saltwater crocodiles were known to inhabit them. The pools that ascended from these, linked by waterfalls, were not known to have any saltwater crocodiles in the house, due to the difficult access. I took it that the likelihood of actually seeing one was slim, and although the Rangers are careful not to condone swimming outside the hotel pool, taking a dip in one of the countless waterholes was business as usual.
We took one of the unmarked paths to the first croc-free pool, and boiling hot by the time we got there, popped into our own outdoor swimming arena. I’m a beach girl, and a confident swimmer, yet I’ve never developed the same love for fresh water; rivers, ponds or gorges. As I doggie paddled my way from one end to the other I observed that I wasn’t really enjoying it, and in fact, may have found my kryptonite. The black below me, silence around me (once W stopped thrashing), and my over-fertile imagination conjured up scenarios at odds with the sparkling surface fringed by perfect palms.
In standard operating mode we spent a full six minutes out of the water before eyeing off the climb to the next pool (to the right of this picture). Recalling a great summer holiday 20 years ago at Anakiwa Outward Bound with my cousin and her instructor hubby R, I channelled R’s calm and encouraging tones as I grabbed for foot and hand-holds. I found myself flat against the rock face, with a single finger wedged in a crack above me, and both feet below me claiming ownership to two small ledges via my big toes. Stuck. My right leg independently started a sewing-machine-like action, and from somewhere within, sobbing ensued. W offered a knee to stand on and once foot was transferred added, “You have to move, I cant hold you there forever” and other useful things like “Focus. You’re being silly.” Once the shrieking had subsided, I recommended he never volunteers to talk someone down from a ledge.
The next morning we decided to tackle the gnarly looking unmarked ridge to the upper pools. The view back to the camp and along the pools was stunning. To the left, the croc pools, and immediately underneath, the first pool we swam in. I looked a little closer. In the middle of the pool was a crocodile spread out like a starfish, sunning himself, and taking in the serenity. I cursed not bringing my long lens! The wide angle lens I had with me reduced the scene, and detail of the croc along with it, but I managed a Yeti quality snap all the same.
By the time we reached the pool, W hissed in exasperated tones “what are you doing back there? Get over here! You won’t get a good shot from there”. A gold beady eye at waterline caught W’s, and slipped under. We spent the next half an hour watching Colin the Croc’s progress trip around the pool, bubbles breaking the surface where we went in the day before, along the edge, and everywhere we swam. Spurred by fears that a family would lose a child if we did not report the sighting, we used the emergency phone at the campsite. One hour later a helicopter circled overhead. A couple of hours later, a Ranger appeared and concluded it was probably a ‘Freshie’, the shy and non-threatening Fresh Water Crocodile. Given that they were present IN MOST POOLS in Kakadu, he felt this was the most likely conclusion. Wishing I could turn back the clock to when I thought they existed only if you could see them, from a boat, I learned the Freshies are in most of the pools, just waiting for you to leave so they can do their own thang. Later that day, I went for another swim, in the highest pool I could climb to, and talked myself through a panic attack. I’m not brave all the time.
Reaching the Barkly highway, we were out of opal and gems and into copper/zinc-lead-silver mining country, headed for Mt Isa where Rotary invented the Southern Hemispheres largest rodeo. Offering a side of Mardi Gras and ute muster with your bull riders, I was disappointed we would miss such heady goings-on. Fighting the urge to pick up a couple of R.M. Williams longhorn seat covers, I sought out coffee at a gorgeous restored building. Packed to the ceiling with horse, outback, and mining paraphernalia, warm scones on offer to the refrains of ‘A pub with no beer’ performed live out the back, a genuine Cobb & Co mail-coach, and stabled horses drew me out. The barista had stepped out for lunch, taking with her all knowledge of coffee production. Itineraries and spreadsheets wait for no barista to return, so W set his jaw, and we rolled on.
It was 5pm. Marvelling at the diminishing light falling on Gregory National Park, my driver had the crazed stare one gets after 900km of white lines, and around eight hours of talking-book about time travel and Highlanders in the 1700s. The Widower’s words came back to us as we flew by a sign mentioning a dam. Constructed in 1959, Corella Dam supplied water to the Mary Kathleen Uranium mine. Now decommissioned, it allegedly has a hole in the wall which means it never fills. A largely unoccupied park, free campers spaced themselves 500m from each other, and we felt most when we snagged a spot near the water with a ready-made rock fireplace. “I cannot believe this spot is free!”, I exclaimed excitedly. As the arctic gale blew down the small valley through our campsite toward the water, my chicken dance against flying ember ignition in the parched grass surrounding us, kept me warm. From the house bus perched on the Ridge, Johnny Cash warned of a burning Ring of Fire, and two hardy souls hunkered down in sleeping bags, next to their fishing rods, leaned into the blast that threatened to transform their protective tarp into a magic carpet. I imagined fish caught here would prompt a geiger counter to play Verdi’s Requiem, Dies Irae, but presumably that was the least of their worries.
5am could not arrive sooner. The flappity flap of unsecured tent bits deprived all but the permanently rested of slumber. Alessi came through with a single origin colombian heart starter, and we got the hell out of Dodge.
Renner Springs presented itself in the manner of all roadhouses, at about the time when you have truly reached the limit of your ability to sit contained in a sardine tin, no music in your 1200 strong playlist hits the right note, and crumbed potato and cheese mash with gravy sounds like a well-rounded end to the day. Warmly welcomed at the Roadhouse, we threw up the Taj on the banks of an ornamental pond, eschewing pesky pegs, and paused briefly to admire the craftily silent flotilla of geese. We longed for someone to cook us a meal, and the pub, lined with caps and other clothing items fresh from years of unwashed love, looked like it would make an honest fist of a steak. When the meals arrived, they looked frightened. The seven chips on my plate attempted to conceal themselves under the small grey wedge of barramundi impersonating a jandel*. The slice of tomato, carrot shred, and tablespoon of lettuce spelt a story of eviction from their happy place at the back of the freezer. While these kitchen antics ensued, it was clear W’s steak had been stewing itself silly incorrectly sensing reprieve. It was another beautiful clear night in the Outback.
* also known as thong or flip flop
Two days of unrelenting rain taught us many new things about the camper trailer, and how folded bits of canvas are actually flexible swimming pools, overflowing at the precise moment your neckline presents a waterfall opportunity.
In Carnarvon Gorge National Park campground, ‘Van owners toiled without merit at the most popular and time-consuming daytime van-owner activity: Cleaning the Van. Brows furrowed at the campfire over the misleading advice that they would easily enter the park without 4WD capabilities, and plans made to leave just as soon as Brian finished cleaning the spare tyre with a toothbrush, so that they may bask once again in the blinding white exterior of their mobile home.
A pre-breakfast wander up the Rock Pool made me appreciate afresh the abundance of palms and cycads, and a desire to create all manner of craft out of the beautifully textured palm leaf casings that littered the forest floor.
Leaving Carnarvon, we made our way up to Emerald and joined the Capricorn Highway, so named for it follows the Tropic of Capricorn. Excited by campfire tips exchanged with a ten year old girl tenaciously seeking a spark among the rain soaked ashes, I planned to be driving when we passed Australia’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. It wasn’t to be. Rustic gem shops and attractions flew by as W fixed his steely gaze on the odometer and wordlessly expressed a mandate that given my ambitious list of target destinations filling my master excel spreadsheet, there would be no spontaneous stopovers for anything bling-related.
I had read about a riverside ‘free-camp’ in the town of Jericho, and the Grey Nomads forum was all over it. Finding a spot right on river, late afternoon, I was delirious in sunshine. The adjacent Nomad collective invited us to their campfire, and light banter about fishing and fire-making ability ensued. After a spell, a man travelling on his own with an immaculate car and ‘van, systems, levers, and pulleys for everything, and an aged dog invited himself to join our lively throng. Within twenty minutes he managed to insert references to ‘the Vietcong, Abbos, Swamp Arabs, refugees, how the Krauts have ruined free camping for everyone, French backpackers called Mr Zippy, and a great free camp up the line we should stop at’. Being guilty of over-zealous tent zipping action myself I fell silent, pondering the Pauline Hanson factor and how it seemed endemic to campgrounds Australia-wide. He didn’t say, but I think the man was a widower, possibly widowed within the last year, and I felt compassion for him. I surmised his trip has started with his wife, and he was now very lonely, with fearful and angry views that may find favour with some, but would alienate many. As the thrum of generators lulled us to sleep, I concluded sadly that he would never change.
Clapping eyes on our camper trailer for the first time since W bought it over the phone a couple of months earlier from ebay, we were thrilled! A briefing, a hook up, and we were off, Perth bound, via Kakadu. Four or so weeks of camping ahead, and around 14000km.
Navigating Brisbane to find an outdoor shop, organic store, grass-fed ruminant butcher, and supermarket where you can actually park a car and trailer provided greater challenge than what lay beyond the city bounds. Exhausted by it all, we decided a rest in Noosa would be good use of our first day. A trip to the outdoor store two more times had the trailer fitted out with the first of many improvements to come.
Turns out Noosa camp grounds are in high demand, and wedging ourselves into the last spot at a caravan park some km’s down the road, plugged in the trailer to fire up the fridge and freezer Engels, and headed to the happening end of Noosa town. The quaint little cafes and bars I recall from a trip a few years ago were gone, a row of chain stores in their place. Ending up at the potentially fabulous sounding tapas bar down the road, surrounded by 20 year olds, we gave thought to our itinerary. A jug of sangria meant we got as far as deciding to stay one more night in outer Noosa. We were off to a flying start.
The caravan park palm trees alone were worth staying for.
It was raining as I entered Brisbane, and I suddenly felt immensely conscious of the extremely ungroomed appearance of both driver and vehicle when I rolled up to a carwash and enquired as to cost of a quick once-over. Peering through cruddy windows with sundry items pressed up against them, the owner looked doubtful about both his ability and desire to make an impact, but feeling sorry for the customer who appeared to have suffered at the lack of a mirror and grown a nice mono-brow, generously agreed to have a go at the exterior only.
Checking into the Sofitel, I encountered a similar reception from the young concierge who didnt want me leaving the car within direct or peripheral vision of any other guest. The overly mirrored lift, and highly groomed liftees had me shrinking to the corner and looking forward to level 18. A lift shutdown soon after confined me to my floor for the next hour without clean city clothes, during which I reflected on my 5522 km odyssey and arrived at some conclusions.
Awakening 1: The romantic and lofty plans I had of tearing off into the desert for weeks at a time to take incredible shots were likely curtailed by the persistent sciatica that came with solo responsibility at the bridge.
Awakening 2: Must take more time to go places. Less drive time provides keys to the replica castle and other great attractions.
Awakening 3: It only took two days to start talking to myself, OUT LOUD – early onset dementia previously joked about potentially imminent. Don’t be surprised when I greet you with “…and you are??”
Awakening 4: The apparent flush of health visible in the rear view mirror, leading one to conclude road life suited one, was in fact natures soft focus through a sheen of fine dust.
Awakening 5: Any place that has a sign out saying ‘Best coffee in the [locality]’ doesn’t, and never ask a motelier who does the best pub meal.
W flew in, and staggering away from the seafood buffet, I was ready to do it all again.