I am quietly finning along, snorkelling for the third time that day at Lakeside, on the Ningaloo Reef in the magical Cape Range National Park. If this rings a bell, it is because I harp on about the place incessantly, there is so much life out in the water. Along with Turquoise Bay, it is a favourite with day-trippers. Borne by tour buses, they amble to the spot with the snorkel marker, march directly out for around 30 metres, flop about for 20 minutes, then retire to shore to smoke, look bored with precision, and burn a new layer of ‘it sucks to be my family back in Europe’ into their undernourished frames.
It was at Lakeside that I had an epiphany in 2008. With nothing but the rasp of parrotfish beak-on-coral in my ears, my brain found a space to discover I actually wanted to be a photographer. (And a marine biologist – but that ship had sailed). Snorkelling or diving is the only time I truly switch off. Underwater, where air is generally absent, is ironically when I feel most able to breathe. The eternally blue space, without walls or fences, represents endless possibility for me.
So, I am quietly swimming in and around the rocky outcrops, following a fish that completely changes its colour and pattern as I get close or back off, a peeved turtle, 4m ray, and pausing to watch a plague of parrotfish engulf a patch of coral, the tiny territorial resident fish dashing out and back nervously. Just when it could not get any better, a huge school of mackerel and other silvery fish with wide eyes swept past and then started circling me, gaining pace as they went round. I decided to join their circling, and as I went round and round was thinking “Choice! They think Im their bro! I’m a mermaid!”. Amazed they cared not a whit as I whipped by the other fish and matched their crazy changes in direction, I was at once silver and fishy. Then it occurred to me. They are commonly known as bait-fish. And a school of darting bait-fish are probably being chased. Not that those three reef sharks and their homies, Trevor Trevally, and Barry Barra, liked the cut of my gib, but it’s safe to say I found myself ashore with no recollection of the breathless flail between realisation and landfall.
When we returned to our camp, we shared a beverage with our lovely Swiss neighbour, J, a fellow water-baby with designs on the outer reef. He had travelled for some months around WA in his wagon, sleeping in the back, and reliant on a dwindling collection of camping ephemera. As days rolled by he realised he only used one plate, cup, knife, fork and spoon. Subsisting happily on long-life wraps, honey, nutella, and canned goods, his camp stove, multiple devices of convenience and esky (chilly bin) found new homes with the Belgians that packed every other camp site.
J wanted buddies to go and explore the outer reef. He had gone out on his own but was worried he may be…ahem…taken, and no-one would know. Fortified with a zesty cider from Harcourt in Victoria, I found myself consulting tide and moon charts and committing both W and I to an outer reef expedition with the excitement I always have when an adventure of any kind is afoot, and drive I have to never miss out.
The following day, in the last 30 minutes of an incoming tide was the only opportunity in the next 7 days, when the tide would be high enough to swim over the reef edge. J knew the way and so three small figures swam out to the reef, quickly invisible to those on shore. The thing about a reef is that waves from the outside hit the edge, rise up and then smash down. Along with a titan tidal-pull, I found myself swimming two strokes forward, getting drilled by excitable waves, then dragged back 4 strokes, enjoying a nasal flush along the way. I don’t think it is a spoiler alert to say we made it, and the silence on the other side was astounding. The water clarity, unmatched. A long shelf of volcanic rock and an amazing variety of coral sat around 15 metres below us and ran out about 40 metres before dropping off into Predator World. As we followed the edge of the reef, we swam over enormous cracks in the reefs surface, so deep you could only see fish in the first few metres framed by blackness. Think awe meets terror. Leaving a sacrificial layer of dermis on the way back over the reef edge, we plotted to do it the next day, knowing full well the ideal conditions to go over the reef, had past.
Again at dusk, three figures headed out, this time for an elusive gap in the reef that we could sneak through. It was a much longer swim and after about a kilometre, I found myself musing on the relative benefits of such activities. There are bitey things out there, but I figure the risk versus reward profile points in the right direction. I never take the ocean for granted, and I accept the side of scaredy-cat that comes with the incredible beauty I get to breathe in.
The welling surf and sinking sun loomed large in my overactive mind. Stuff incredible beauty inhalation, I waved the boys on and with a feeling like there wasn’t enough air in the sky, swam to shore with an urgency that just skirted fish-in-distress. It is great to be alive.
…and the kitchen sink.
Day 1 – It was a rainy Saturday in Woodend when Waz, Suz, Stevie and I drove out of town towing a rented camper trailer bursting at the seams with chairs, tents, multiple configurations of sleeping mats, sleeping bags, tarps, and a fabulous camp oven courtesy of Moora (loving it G&K Thanks!). No model of logistical precision, we took a ‘filling the space with stuff we spotted on impulse in the garage’ approach.
We stopped at Ouyen for lunch, unnerving the locals, who upon noting our set up on the lawn in front of the historic society hall, complete with park bench hauled over by Stevie, paused helpfully to suggest we may enjoy the picnic spot 150m down the street.
Suz’s talent for the exquisite was felt early, with smoked trout, organic avocado and sour cream on offer, while the lads wolfed down an Ouyen BBQ chook. I popped the remaining chook in the back of the car to cool, and found it the next day. Torn by the trade off between salty goodness and salmonella, even Waz could not be convinced to snack further.
Nightfall netted us the last spot at the Burra camp ground, and the first attempt to fold out the tardis that is the camper trailer marquee. Waz and I set out to test our ability to erect a canvas structure without a pulsing of blood vessels at the temples. We came away with a ‘needs to show improvement’ report card and repaired to the pub for dinner. The local $15 cleanskin red was outstanding! 824km down.
Eyre we go
Day 2 – 820km – Our trailer pack up was observed by our camper neighbours. Cup of tea in hand they monitored progress, stepping around another caravan to ensure a clear view.
In Port Augusta we stocked up on limited fresh provisions in the knowledge we would surrender excess at the South Australian border, but determined to fend off scurvy. Lured by the glow of a carnival style $2 skill test machine (where you attempt to pick up chocolate bars with a metal claw), I was immediately joined by a cluster of preschoolers wanting to snatch the booty. A cascade of chocolate bars falling into the shute sent small hands diving in, grabbing the prize and racing off. Waz’s large hands prevented the distribution of the last three bars in the interests of preserved milk teeth.
Along the roadside wild melon-like fruit grow. Google told us they had several names including Bitter Melon, Bitter Apple, Paddy Melon, and were unfeasibly bitter. Poisonous to cows, but ok for sheep, and comforted that the source was reliable, Suz opened one up and popped a piece in her mouth. Remaining concious and apparently unharmed several hours later we reflected how that may have had another outcome.
Onto Ceduna, our mouths watered in anticipation of fresh oysters bought from a roadside shipping container in 2008 and consumed at tables on the rooftop picnic area. The closed sign rewrote 48 hours of promise and we settled for a windswept rest area.
Passing up the mixed delight of roadhouses offering thermonuclear deep-fried lasagna, we pulled off the highway for the night. After a few circuits of the brush, much deliberation, and much facial contortion by Waz, we returned to the first spot found.
Suz produced more gourmet produce. This time, pure meat, organic sausages in 4 varieties, produced from goats reared by hand to Tibetan chanting. Our household grade frypan handle burned merrily in the hot coals. With a deft flick of my sneakers, I snuffed out the flaming handle and covered the rare treasures with grit. Much washing of sausages in cold water ensued, dropped sausages, more washing and a gritty repast.
The crystal clear sky offered a fine end to a night of spirited debate over the merits of a caveman diet.
Yulata to Balladonia: the Nullabor and the 90 mile straight
Day 3 – 909 km – We packed up the roadside camp after a hearty egg and bacon fry up and reflected on the volume and proximity of the road trains (trucks with 3 unfeasibly long trailers) making the trek to Perth.
A handful of kms later we were at the Head of the Great Australian Bight. From the platforms at the top of stunning cliffs we got to enjoy the antics and wonder of around 8 Southern Right Whales. A mother and calf stayed close to shore, and what was undoubtably a show-pony male, put a show on for ladies. The hearty gale racing through the carpark made for a most airy and pleasant long drop loo.
While Suz and I had eaten lettuce and all offending plant material before the WA border town of Eucla, Waz and Stevie celebrated with hot chips. Wedge-tail eagles were in abundance, cleaning up the less fortunate wildlife who lost the battle with unswerving truck drivers fueled on the heady treats of the roadhouse. These beautiful birds never fail to give me joy.
As the hours whipped by we undertook our daily discussion over the night camp. Roadside camp? Caravan park? Complex mathematical formulas were invoked to determine the optimal stopping coordinates, a collision of sunset, potential serenity versus shower blocks, possibility of civilisation, and progress along overall journey. The discovery of contraband mandarin with a modicum of floor mat detritus was a happy discovery as we chose our bush camp and wrestled dead trees over to a ready made fireplace rock circle. Dinner was an experimental and especially tasty affair of chicken breasts in the camp oven with a red wine and stock jus, hold the veges.
The stars were phenomenal, clouding over into a drizzly night, but not before I experimented with ‘painting with light’ photos. A trusty torch and some sculptural dead tree silhouettes providing some lovely results.
Wiluna to Karijini National Park
Day 5 – 954km – The Travellers Rest was a cut above. Half 44 gallon drum fireplaces (cut vertically), piles of firewood, and those moulded showers that have a small shelf in the wall to place ones foot on, was just the beginning. An unexpected mandarin grove bore fruit worthy of a Mediterranean summer.
8-9 hours in the car every day was eventually going to lead to creative time passing activities. Stevie was winning the ‘not being overtaken at any costs’ competition 3-1 to Waz, both men holding out against the need to pee lest some wily silver fox at the wheel of a multi-roomed caravan with satellite dish and rice cooker (surely a -10kph wind drag) lumbered past at the next chicane.
At around the 4pm mark, Waz’s iPod would be scanned for songs suitable for rousing singalongs. This of course became the game called ‘find a song Stevie recognises’, with Waz awarded extra points for knowing the entire lyrics of Dominion Road (by The Mutton Birds).
The Pilbara region seemed supercharged in beauty. I cannot be sure whether that was because the ever present mining ravages made one appreciate it more. It was dusk by the time we made Karijini National Park. The Park Ranger taking the sandwich board with birthday greetings to a staff member on it smiled and chatted with Waz before taking our national park entry fee and waving us off. We drove half an hour to the campsite to find a closed notice. With moments of light left we forged on to a spot above where four gorges converge. Kir royales (bubbly and creme de cassis) were distributed as I captured the scene, the boys threw rocks of increasing girth hundreds of metres below into the gorge, and Suz made me proud with a girly throw I thought only I could execute.
Our one hour visit to the park plunged into darkness and we were obliged to press on to Tom Price, a town built specifically to service the mining in the area. En route, Suz had a coyote sighting, our first for the trip.
Craving a pot and parma, we sought out the only pub in town. Imagining an artfully constructed building blending into the surroundings, a portable hove into view. Strip lighting, barn-like dimensions, and the redolent qualities of vats of oil on permanent boil was outdone only by the $33 price tag for fish and chips, and Suz enquiring how far we were from the sea.
Balladonia to Wiluna – a little piece of the Mediterranean
Day 4 – 898km – Discovering the perils of leaving items out in the incredibly heavy night dew, we dried off what we could and packed the tardis up. Taking the only right turn in a while, we made for Kalgoorlie, and West Australia’s mining heart.
Kalgoorlie was a town I romantically envisaged characterised by goldrush architecture, horse troughs, and hotels called something like ‘The Royal’ and ‘The ‘Continental’. Springing from the arid landscape, a large bustling town fell into view; McD’s, Red Rooster and shopping malls spruiking a broad spectrum of consumer desires.
The Kalgoorlie Coles offered a symphony of fresh fruit and vege, terms like ‘organic’ and bread that wasnt phospherescent. We fell upon it like we had been subsisting on Paddy Melon (see day 1) for months. A few left turns to locate the heart of the old town rewarded us with 1970s architecture punctuated with grand old hotels featuring blackboard promises of ‘skimpy’ womenfolk, complete with chalk line drawing. Suz again lifted the baseline on roadside luncheons, presenting us with a second smoked trout, artfully scattered on a bed of mixed leaves, fetta crumbles, white onion and cheery tomatoes.Our stop was Menzies, a town who had cared enough at one time to erect an info board in a bare section of dirt inexplicably some distance from the road, and a display of mine equipment relics.
Racing the sinking sun to our campground, we found our way to the Wiluna Club Hotel Motel Caravan Park. Cryptic language in a guidebook was a portent to the razor wire festooning the hurricane fence surrounding the campground. Barely slowing to 40km, Stevie drove east to the promise of the Travellers Rest on a working pastoral station. One hour later, negotiations began between the menfolk on whether the fast twitch fibres of the steak would be better slow cooked (Stevie) or seared mercilessly (Waz). A hybrid approach delivered enough for a fine bubble and squeak for brekkie. Waz bet a bottle of Moet I couldnt guess the variety of Spanish red we enjoyed with dinner. I called upon an ancient memory of my sis and I in Madrid. Like a spirit channeller speaking in tongues, I uttered the word ‘temporanillo’. Muy buen!
Tom Price to Exmouth
Day 6 – The growling dog I had heard through the canvas on our first night at the Burra campground had followed us to Tom Price, and was vigorously defending its prize carcass again. Last night we realised the predatory canine was resident in Stevie’s pup tent.
With a tiny 650- odd kms to go, we were took a leisurely breakfast cook-up beside a picturesque billabong. Loving the roadside stop in postcard locations, we made it a double with lunch on red sandhills covered in snake and other critter tracks.
By the time we reached Exmouth, it was time to delve into the dodgy depths of our two chilly bins. Chicken and pork fillets had been on slow defrost since we left a week earlier, and it was D-Day. We decided wrapping everything in prosciutto and frying the heck out of it would kill or mask potential bacteria and so it was that we feasted on pig wrapped in pig that night.
Keen to see nocturnal native fauna, Stevie and Suz were fascinated by the sea of tiny green lights they walked through as they searched for animal movement. The discovery that every pair of green lights was a spider, spelt a hasty retreat.
Five Go Down to the Sea
Day 7 – We established basecamp at the Lighthouse Caravan Park, at the entrance to Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef, the very reason we made this trip in the first place. Driving out to Turquoise Bay, Stevie excitedly announced his sighting of an ostrich. Craning our necks to see the bird, we determined it was somewhat stouter and shorter than an ostrich, or emu for that matter, resembling more of a dodo. p.s. It turned to be an Australian Bustard – Ardeotis Australia
Fresh off the plane, Lesley joined Team Intrepid on the reef, and it was proclaimed to be one of her top 5 snorkelling experiences. By day 10, the odds had shortened to favourite. Looking at fish all day sparked a craving for fish and chips in some, so Waz, Suz, and I made a mission to a seafood place we had spotted on the way into Exmouth. About 90km later we were met with a closed sign and retired back to Exmouth for family packs from Blue Lips Fish & Chips.
Day 8 – Troubled by debilitating seasickness, Lesley declined to join but drove us to the launching ramp. With high winds and waves breaking over the side of the tender, Lesley’s choice was vindicated. An hour and a half later, our boat returned to the dock due to the inclemency and we hitched a ride to town to locate Les who had possession of all wallets, phones and vehicle.
As it was Suz’s last day we were determined to make the most of what time she had left, so drove off to Yardie Creek to spot rock wallabies and finished off the night at local restaurant Whalers. The banoffee pie called us like a siren from 2008, but the strange crushed biscuit and toffee creation bore little resemblance to my cousin Chris’ tales of cooking for English gentry, or what I imagined I had eaten every day at Exmouth three years ago. Due to torrential rain, we were forced to sit inside in an overly illuminated featureless room, dangerously close to the light dimmer which provided the resident fidgeter (Waz) with amusement all night.
And then there were four
Day 9 – Suz headed out for a last inspection of the nearby dunes and shores; ancient fossils embedded in the rock, and clam shells bigger than a bread box. Meanwhile, I decided it was time to allow my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder out of its box and signalled a camp redesign to collective groaning, eye rolling, and pursed lips. And that was just Waz.
The Tardis had been deployed to 40% of its potential until now, and I saw so much more was possible. An hour or so later, a kitchen and living annex, cooking corner, multiple bins for dishwashing workflow, and a draw for utensils materialised.
After depositing Suz at the airport, in jeans that chronicled a journey of bush fires, spilt wine, dinners on laps, and road dust, we made our way to Lakeside Bay to find reef sharks and bigger fish. A 500m walk to the snorkelling spot effectively weeds out 90% of other tourists, so we were mostly unaccompanied while we found three octopus, a reef shark, turtles and loads of life.
Piling into the car happy it was decided Waz would be stood down from driving and I took the wheel. It was dusk and there were plenty of roos and joeys out and about. Despite my best efforts, I connected with a male roo and I thought W had to euthanase. (The roo expired instantly). This is a consistent theme for us. I bring home wounded animals and he has to perform last rites. Another vehicle slowed to ask if all was ok, and hung about. A missing carcass the next day suggested they may have seen fresh dog food potential. It still traumatises me, marginally more than the white goods packing that lined the moulded plastic masquerading as our front right bumper, that presumably stands between us and a more serious collision.
Whalesharks come hell or high water
Day 10 – If a whaleshark tour is cancelled, you have the option to go again, so after consulting three separate and differing weather forecasts, we scattered rune stones, pointed a wet finger in the air, and determined Monday was our best bet.
The day dawned still and clear. Les felt inspired enough to join us. It was going to be unforgettable! The crew was all less than 20 years old and keen as mustard. A gorgeous Maori girl from Nelson had the job of dishing out fins and endured two English women, a German guy and an American woman declaring they knew exactly their size and that the fins were sized wrong. Looking down at the great paddle a woman called size 10, next to my own relatively petite size 11, I concluded our crew member was Cinderella.
We had 10 swims with 3 whalesharks (8-10 metres long), outlasting all but 3 other people on the boat for keenness to jump back in. Les stoically lasted 4 swims before fusing herself to the railing, joined by a woman regurgitating litres of berry cordial, and a terribly cool looking german boy of around 18 “Ah, I am remembering four years I was the boat sick”.
It was magical, unforgettable and worth every rouble Waz earnt to pay for it. If you are comfortable in swelling open ocean, you MUST do it.
Day 11 – With the challenge of an epic whaleshark day behind us, we were faced with the encore. Pouring rain looked grim and we rifled through bags looking for that book we were sure we packed. Stevie’s Bryce Courtney from the library had somehow swelled inexplicably to twice its size while sitting in the rain, and triage was applied. A morning of running (S&L), and coffee for N&W. We revisited Turquoise Bay, and were joined by a clutch of Navy boys who sat down, had one beer, waded into the water, waved their now removed boardies in the air to great hoots from the shore, then roared off in manly utes.
Day 12 – Suz gifted us her remaining organic tea leaves, a superior experience to our bag variety, which we honoured with a boil up in the billy. Waz recalled his camping youth and introduced the swinging billy routine where you wind up the centrifugal forces inside the billy, forcing leaves to the base and pouring leaf free. Les quickly figured out the technique. The less sporty amongst us lacked the commitment to pull it off, gaining a tea soaked foot as a result.
By lunch, the sun emerged and we set out for Lakeside again. We were rewarded with great volumes of fish life, reef sharks, a turtle, enormous rays, octopi, and Stevie won the trifecta with a dugong (sea cow) that circled him three times. On a number of occasions, Waz attempted to point out sharks under the coral, which the three of us could not see for the life of us. We stayed until sunset in the warm, with water you could waterski on, and small stingrays gliding up to your feet in the shallows.
Our new neighbours in the camping ground had arrived and it was similar to opening a bag and everything explodes out. All free surfaces were covered, and along with the caravan, bins, bottles, shoes, satellite dish and complex system of levers and pulleys, they pulled out a scooter to take the washing back and forth from the laundry block.
Then we saw it. The only thing the man was wearing was a pair of white nylon shorts four sizes too small, and was determined to bend over repeatedly with his back to us. At around midnight it started raining so Waz and I started zipping up the window flaps, and a glow from next door attracted our attention. Like a vision, our eyes fell upon the uncovered full length window of the caravan, and the man now bereft of his shorts, back to us, and squatting down to inspect the freezer contents. We recoiled, but not fast enough, as he turned around and pulled the blind down, burning a new vision in my retina that haunts me still.
At 3 am a rustling of our rubbish box had us up and face to face with the most adorable fox, jaws locked purposefully on the box and dragging it backwards. It stopped and stared but wasn’t letting go. Waz deployed a manly ‘heyyyyy geddddouuut’ and it slunk around the corner of the tent, peering back around within seconds. The box went on the car bonnet and we retired once more. Next the fox attempted a raid on the chilly bin, to no avail. I wanted to warn it to steer clear of the chicken. We had bought some from the butchers, and the butcher had either given us moa thighs or the chickens were special members of the soviet Olympic team. Either way, I felt my discarded meal would spell malformation in the litter.
Four Reefs in One Day
Day 13 – Foxy was busy all night at the neighbours, dragging bits and pieces around and distributing rubbish. I chatted with the partner of Naked Guy about it, during which I glanced behind her to enjoy the fully naked profile of Naked Guy sitting perched in the open doorway of his packed to the gunwhales caravan, on the last free inch of his breakfast nook.
We decamped soon after with a mission to a section of the reef called Oyster Stacks. Timed to coincide with high tide pre-8 am we leapt into the surging tide and joined an express train current to the left end of the bay. Jostled amongst shredding piles of oyster shells we emerged unscathed and decamped to Lakeside hoping to spot the dugong again. Turtles and 4 metre rays, no dugong.
Lunch in Exmouth and Stevie suggested we follow the sign that says ‘coral viewing’. Moments later we were kitting up and timing our leap into the boating channel, on the port side of Exmouth, between fisherfolk returning to base, over to the reef on the far side. Finding a coral cemetery that looked like it had been on the losing end of a stack of dynamite, we found the most unique and delicate soft corals that we hadn’t seen anywhere else. Swimming apace across the boat channel back to shore I found my first lionfish for the trip, and with some resistance implored the team to pause and enjoy, amid the whir of passing props.
With light left we raced off to Turquoise Bay for our last snorkel and followed a large and relaxed turtle Les found, before dusk sent us in. Rounding a large coral, we swam into a couple of sizeable reef sharks resting on the seafloor, prompting Les and I to perform a little known snorkeling manouvre called the reversing levitation. Eyes wide as they would go, we looked at each other, shrieked, look back down, shrieked again, by which time the sharks were suitably disturbed and departed.
A great last day in my favorite place in Aussie!
Day 14 – Depositing S&L at the airport, we left Exmouth bound for pearls, one of the ‘top 5 beaches in the world’, and allegedly Kylies holiday place. Packed in the chilly bin were 5 blue swimmer crabs, thankfully gifted by another camp neighbor who had caught them that morning. Pulling off the highway at dusk into a track leading bushward, we waved at a couple of enormous caravan truckettes parked roadside. A steep, v shaped, dip in the track proved off limits for any other driver, ensuring a quiet night and our pick of spots.
Day 15 – Most of our stopover selections are gleaned from a small, free, giveaway book from a petrol station, affording us a somewhat limited outlook and unexpected outcomes. Working on a tip from a waitress, we decided 80 mile beach was unmissable. In typical form, we think we spotted a sign to the beach in the cloud of dust as we thundered past, but TomTom (the gps) did not concur. Placing our trust inexplicably in a gadget that had prior form in disappointing, we found ourselves 100km past it and pulling into Port Smith Caravan Park, ‘the friendliest campground in australia’, 24km down a dirt road.
Founded on the religion of fishing, this camp was the only address in the bay, bar one, with an 11 metre tide, hectares of mangroves, and a deserted ocean inlet. The only other residence was completely hidden behind a mysteriously lush and highly landscaped garden and high fence. With few exceptions, we were the youngest guests by around 25 years, but the generally spritely appearance of other campers had me convinced we needed a tinny, or needed to find the Cocoon pool they were dipping in. We were a tantalising 140 km from sunset cocktails and camel rides on the beach.
Day 16 – Entering the outskirts of Broome, Waz executed his patented passing manouvre, guaranteed to have anyone in a car smaller than an urban assault vehicle assuming the brace position and reaching for their oxygen mask. Oh wait. That was me. On this occasion the gentleman about to be passed was thinking “look at this idiot. No wonder he has a massive dent in his bumper…”. When we drew level with them, Waz recognised his sister and bro-in-law Sandy and Mick who we were meeting up with.
We secured the last camp spot in cable beach, at the entrance of the caravan park, between the gate and the fence. The orientation of the camper meant our private area was road facing, directly opposite the bus stop, where all the tour buses picked up people from 5:30am. Sandy, Mick, Waz, and I headed out in search of the fabled micro brewery that brewed alcoholic ginger beer. Mick was a trooper, finishing the mango beer Waz bought him with a polite expression of satisfaction “mmm mmm”. I found the ginger beer so refreshing, Waz was assigned to rations replenishment for the rest our trip. Given the level of refreshment already achieved for three of us, Sandy became designated driver, getting the job of driving us onto Cable Beach for a picnic dinner at dusk, with plenty of unsought advice coming from the boys in the back seat. Ok, from Waz.
Day 17 – Waz declared independence from cooking brekkie and we found ourselves at the highly acclaimed Old Zoo Cafe, disappointingly devoid of any reference to animals. In an allegedly thin ruse to walk Broomes main street and relive it’s rich historical past, (think saloons, Chinese bars, metal diving suits), I had allegedly ‘conned Waz into shopping’, managing to gain a little piece of Broome jewellery for my wrist. Must visit more places with old stuff near shopping.
We spent the afternoon on Cable Beach on ergonomic loungers you could rent with a brolly. They were at the waters edge, rendering all the other punters invisible behind us except when they had the cheek to swim in our field of vision. S&M appeared with great steaks of barra, and we reprised the sunset dinner. Swept up in the occasion, the magic ginger beer had me convinced there were not enough sunset photos of strangers on camels on the beach, and I found myself composing the next set of $1 postcards.
Dino at Dawn
Day 18 – Amongst it’s many charms, Broome boasts 120? 280? 380? million year old dinosaur footprints in the ancient rocks at Gantheaume Point. The catch is that you need a maximum tide depth of 1.4m if you want to see the two sets that are visible. Low tide was at 6:30am, and so it was we swept by and grabbed Sandy and Mick, and raced down to the Point. A few hardy souls were already battling the breeze, map flapping in an effort to locate the prints cunningly unmarked by Broome Tourism. A spell of rock hopping, a bit of pointing, yelling over the breeze at people with maps who looked like they knew what they were doing, and we fell upon the three-toed markings which were, in truth, very cool.
A fullsome breakfast at the only place that appeared open before 8am, and what a find! The unpromising sounding RaRa’s had everything you could source in an eating forward Melbourne location – think Smith St – and great coffee. We had enough caffeine to keep me lucid till 2 am. Regretfully waving Sandy and Mick goodbye, we pointed ourselves toward Derby, the 4wd Gibb River Road, and the Kimberleys. And three days of no mobile coverage.
Fashion tip: next time you go outbacking, leave the flowing white linen, and dainty white singlets at home. Pack your camo/khaki gear. Think Steve Irwin. Turns out his outfit was more than good TV.
We stopped for the night at Windjana, and baked in unshaded 32 degree heat while erecting the tardis. Collapsing in our camp chairs, we turned to the ginger beer for revival and resolved to do the gorge walk in the morning. In the interim, a jam-packed hilux with 4 Swiss French 20-somethings drove up and they piled out. They immediately started out for the gorge and Waz was moved to go too. Fresh water crocs were scattered along the shore, and amazingly close, until a man tried to yank the tail of the one below, and it slipped into the water. There is an animal botherer in every crowd. (Ours left with Les :))
When you are the photographer in the crowd, you tend not to feature in photos. When you do, feet are generally cutoff, you are looking away, mid speech or eating. Exhibit A.
The Unseen Pythons
Day 19 – Keen to view the private gorge on the station, we roared off at 6am. A couple of km walk in from the end of the 4wd track, we came to another amazing gorge with a waterfall, hundreds of tiny frogs behind it, cascading into a natural waterhole surrounded by sheer red rock cliffs. Spotting a turtle, fresh water cray and ominously a snake skin, I swam about with a smidge of anxiety. I’ll swim with sharks when I can see them, it’s the unseen stuff I’m not good at.
It’s the kind of place I’m sure I’ve seen on ‘Farmer Wants a Wife’, with some hardy 24 yr old ready to get serious and settle down, due to inherit it all, and splashing about with some 20 year old part time model/receptionist from Sydney.
Returning to the station campsite, we enacted my new theory, pack up, THEN shower, it being a particularly red dusty job. Being on holiday I’ve made full use of my OCD tendencies and have the trailer and car packing so streamline now, I can set up and pack down in minutes. W does the food and beverages. Next time I’ll be in my element with labelled bins, velcro’ed tools and solar panels.
The woman at the homestead revealed there were two 3-4 metre pythons down at the waterhole we had visited, but she didn’t like to tell people in case they tried to maim, kill, or bother them. (one guest tried to pull the red and white python out of it’s hole and complained that it wouldn’t come out). Every now and then guests see one or other, most recently, the olive python digesting a wallaby. And they do swim. I KNEW it.
The rest of the day we drove to El Dorado. Actually it is called El Questro, one million acres of Kimberley beauty, 1800 million years old (there seems to be an exponential formula applied for the age of each new place we get to) and privately owned. Stopping for tea and scones at a homestead on the way, the managers gave us a hot tip – ask for the private campsites. Our boab lined camp site entrance was fantastic, located on the river edge, palm fringed, wallabies passing, and salt water crocs lurking in the underbrush.
Waz produced roast lamb and vege, and all was good in the world. I think he has been surreptitiously watching my fave SBS program, which is about two buff blokey aussie guys called something like Thommo and Dunney, driving a hardcore troopey, towing a boat around remote Australia, fishing, performing homegrown fish hook removal and surgery on each other, without so much as a 4X to anaesthetise, and cooking up a storm in a camp oven.
Ashes to Ashes
Day 21 – Leaving El Dorado, we hit the tarseal, and reluctantly, our return trip home. By now, everything in the trailer was thick with dust and vibrated to heck. The bolts protruding from the underside of the lid had worn several tracks in the top of our camp table, which would appear to be made of cardboard cunningly coated in faux formica/laminex. Fortunately this can be repaired, on good authority from Sandy, with nail polish.
Getting into Kununnurra, we drove about looking for somewhere to have lunch. Having run out of caffeine, we decided to go to the only cafe we could find and I ordered a ‘bush tastes’ salad which was smoked crocodile and smoked barra, garnished with some woody leaves. Waz had barra fish cakes. I can now advise with authority that barramundi shouldn’t be messed with, and eating croc just aint right. The leaves did perform a useful flossing task.
When you spend 9 hours on the road, you pass a lot of ‘vans. Like Bev and Ian ‘riding on diesel and dreams’, Keith and Kathys’ ‘Plaything’, a massive vehicle, pulled by a truck, and lit like a 711 (see to left of W below), Peter and Patricias’ ‘Adventure before Dementia’, and ‘The Old Farts’.
The routine appears to be: pull into campsite at or before 3pm, pour glass of white wine, sit and watch arrivals, question me about dent in car. Pulling into the campground at the base of the amazing looking Gregory National Park, it was excruitiating that we had no time to explore. It is on my future to do list.
I amused myself instead by painting a gum tree in the campground with light via torch and watching the guy beneath mystified as to where the lights were coming from.
Day 22 – We dashed off at 6am to catch the sunrise, but the early morning didn’t deliver any award winning shots (unlike the Gold and Silver I just won at the Australian Professional Photography Awards!!!). But I digress.
Today begins the 4000km drive home in four days. We were aiming for Alice Springs but happy if we made somewhere 400km north. Turns out the Devils Marbles were in the right place and had a campground. We got to Katherine and did a couple of circuits trying to find the info centre, fell upon a Woollies and bought last supplies for home run. Forgot about South Australian border control and realised we have thirty six hours to eat 9 mandarins, 8 pears, 2 lemons, three bags of salad leaves, cucumber, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and two full celery bunches. And we forgot to buy more oil so we can’t cook the fresh Barra we found, as opposed to the Barramundi from Uganda, and Perch from Argentina on offer. I passed on more soviet weight-lifting chicken marylands. Lasting image of Katherine – no cafes, literally empty shelves in the supermarket in the chips and fizzy drink aisle, but six varieties of mandarin, heavenly scented lemon bergamot pears at $1.99/kilo, and three kinds of fast food franchises.
Tenant Creek featured an unusually large number of vehicles carrying large numbers of passengers squashed up against the glass and smiling broadly.
But it was when we reached the Devils Marbles that the day really picked up. It was dark, and so was Waz. Like the caveman he is, he likes to have the fire going before dusk, and starts grunting when this is not happening. The campground at the Marbles was wall to wall but we found a spot wedged between a couple that sell portable campfire pot belly stoves, and a young family. The stove people had curiously built their camp around one of the fantastic fire pits supplied by NT tourism, but were not using it, instead placing their own product right next to it. Waz’s singleminded desire to set fire to something overrode any social nicety and so it was that he was able to build a massive flaming pyre without a second thought, yelling through the biting clouds, “the smoke will die down soon” as the couple sat gripping mugs of tea, billows of close range smoke and ash sweeping over them. The man replied that if it doesn’t, he will put it out. Moments later, the couple retired early, sending dark looks in our direction.
The next morning, one of the young people from what appeared to be a group of at-risk teens on an outback experience (sleeping in swags under stars, but dressed in black hoodies with skulls and tattoo script on them, and jeans resting below their backsides) appeared to be carving his name into a gum tree. The father of the young family said to his children “that young man is vandalising that tree”. The youth slunk off to a further comment “Yes. We are talking about you. Bring that knife over here, and I’ll show you a better use for it”.
ay 23 – As I write this we are 1800km from home and have Monday and Tuesday to get there. Most do-able! When we do big driving days, we listen to audio books. This trip has featured crime novels. We tried another Michael Connelly (?) book, having loved The Lincoln Lawyer, but you know a book sucks when we start mimicking the VoiceOver, and rewording the script. Onto the next one. Two hours into The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke, we were enjoying the southern drawl, when it stopped mid-sentence, and could not be revived. Stuffed full of potentially contraband salad and fruit, Waz could not even sleep, lapsing into major fidget mode. I relinquished the wheel to keep him from investigating every button and compartment in the car.
We found a roadside spot and deciding it was probably our last bush camp, W set about making the mother of all fires. Within 20 minutes, we were joined by a tiny marsupial sitting by the fire warming itself, before scaling my jeans and upon arriving at my hand, gave my pinky a little nibble. Meanwhile, his navy seal mates were assessing the tardis’ vulnerability, scaling the fabric door, squeaking “huh, huh, huh”. Next structure broached was Waz’s sandals and toes. Waz was unaware until a wee nip on his big toe had both Waz and the perpetrator leap 2 metres in the air. I watched the scene unfold and realised how the simple things can amuse in a way they may not in the city.
Speaking of which, I am reminded of Ratatouille, the tiny and oh-so-cute rat we discovered behind our slow combustion stove the morning we left. Waz almost broke his hand attempting murder with a mop and we were obliged to leave the house in Ratatouille’s hands. I have visions of a plague facing us when we return. I can only hope the fact that a mud-brick, unheated for three weeks, becomes it’s own icebox, driving them all outside into the frost, in search of warmth.
Day 24 – The Australian Spinifex Hopping Mouse is most commonly found in Central Australia, living in burrows under the spikey spinifex to survive the extreme heat of summer. In winter, they warm themselves between the rocks of our camp fire.
All night, the colony scaled the tent for a breach without success, rappelling at speed to the ground every time Waz whacked the side of the tent to dislodge them. They ate the last of the leftover spud, and as we drove off, one burrowed into the smoking dirt Waz had shovelled over the fire to put it out.
The day had its amusements. We roared up upon another trailer, and naturally passed immediately. Due to speed of event, this was all I could capture.
In Australia at the moment, a young father of two is missing in Central Australia. His pet dog recently turned up at a roadhouse with cut feet and starving. This is the same roadhouse Warren and I arrived at late one night last Easter after driving 1000km. We slowed to 40km, took one look at each other, and said “Let’s go to Coober Pedy (another 300km).” I hope the young father’s story ends well.
We decided our last night would involve a Motel and regular shower that doesn’t require shower shoes, dislodging frogs, or mopping the floor when you have finished. While I was pleasantly surprised at the glow my skin had acquired free of the chemical preparations I usually heap upon it, and the rustic way of our life, suddenly I craved civilisation and clean feet. Between us, we left 3 kilos of red dust in the shower in Clare, shattering any illusion that a solar shower really “gets een” (channel Mrs Marsh). Peering into the brightly lit vanity mirror, I also became aware that the healthy glow of my skin was afforded by a layer of accumulated grime, and stainless steel sheets that pass for mirrors in campgrounds.
Day 25 – The last day is always the hardest, only 850km ahead, destination: work. Distractions become especially key to survival. I can attest to the error in playing William Shatner’s Has Been album end-to-end more than once, awaking to the anthem ‘Common People’ playing in my head every morning for two weeks. On the flipside, I can recommend Nick Cave’s B Sides and Rarities album as unexpectedly fine road sound.
Driving into Woodend, we took bets on the internal temperature of the house, a relatively ambient 7 degrees as it turned out. But we are not resting long. We are house-sitting for a friend with three chooks and two guinea fowl for the next three weeks. If nothing else, this trip has given me a far more flexible view of ‘home’, I predict less lawn-mowing (envisage Waz doing a jig) and more road-trips.