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.
Sandy Cape is a brilliant camp spot north of Jurien Bay in WA. The basic offerings of a long drop loo satisfies the fisher crowd that pack into the pretty bay.
We were staying here because I kept reading about swimming with sea lions at Jurien Bay and Green Head, and ever alert for opportunities to commune with sea-life decided this was an excellent gift for W.
The boat we were to board was called Hang Ten (something like that), prompting warm memories of childhood surf labels. A multi-purpose vessel catering to fishing, diving, and in the off hours, sea lions tours. She had earnt the paint job she appeared to have been stripped for. Pounding through the swell it didn’t seem optimal conditions for such a trip, but Hang Ten was solid as a rock and the ten young people of varying nationality that boarded with slabs of condensating stubbies were in high spirits. The french girl whose thong bikini afforded no comfort against the metal seating bounced from spot to spot. The rock climbing Irish lad swung from the roof on single fingers. And before we knew it we were at the sea-lion island. A relaxed colony onshore were about to have their peace broken. Smacking fins together, a crew member wandered up and down the shore encouraging the resting mammals into the water for the eager punters bobbing about in the water. 30 minutes on and the performing sea lions retired back on shore, save for one teenage male that the older males prevented making land. Six of us chased him about, in between looking back to the boat for any sea lion sightings that the crew member on the bow would point out with her roll-yer-own.
Back on board the wiry Irish guy had succumbed to sea sickness and lay ashen in the corner. The thong was doing the rounds, up and down the stairs to the bridge, and beers were getting warm. Irish downed a warm one, and like a miracle was up and doing one handed chin-ups to the delight of the crowd. A lovely Irish girl shared the rest of her six pack, and tea and muffins headed off greying pallor.
As the sun settled back at camp, it became apparent that the tree we were camped next to was the midnight pee spot for all the men that had gone before. The malodorous waft of the PeeTree gathered under the camper annex and took residence in my nostrils, departing only once we had achieved a distance of 5km.
Entering Carnarvon, we took a spin of the main street. Rain had fallen freshening up the place and inviting me to open my car window and get a lungful of bracing salty air. Quelle Horreur! The PeeTree had hitch hiked its way to Carnarvon! Urea rose from the pavement the length of the main shopping area. Surrounded by banana plantations, mango orchards, and the evidence of fantastic fruit and vege supplies when in season, I am at a loss to understand Carnarvon. Boasting an award winning Aboriginal Cultural Centre, an active and enthusiastic local council, friendly locals and bounty from land and sea, the cafes offer roadhouse food, and the marina restaurant entices with chicken and lamb curry. I thank my innate talent for sticking with something long after wisdom would indicate. I knew the BBQ set, novelty cheese knives, and Lewis Carroll talking book I had discovered on sale at the Post Office for W were making for a memorable day for him, but I wanted more. And there it was. Shining like a yellow beam of happiness, a fantastic omelette at the shopping centre coffee shop restored plummeting blood sugar and humour.779
You know it is time to head to the big smoke when your Sauvignon Blanc is warm because your fridge has gone flat.
Darwin’s waterfront development had a stroke of the Docklands about it. Right on the harbour, the main restaurant area appeared to offer little more than ridiculously overpriced food-court fare, the neon yellow deep fried tidbits glowing radioactively under the fluorescents. A perfectly balmly night, the wharf cried out for a jug of sangria, some coastal peasant fare, light banter, and a surfeit of dangly earrings swinging from tanned lobes.
Perhaps my expectations were heightened after days without a shower block, and time spent calling every camp ground in Darwin trying to find a powered site. We gave up and drove to the campground with Darwin’s last tent site. The campground was enormous, and upon closer inspection, appeared largely inhabited by permanents. Charging the most we have ever paid to rent a piece of grass, the owners took an entrepeneurial approach to satisfying our energy requirement. Magically discovering an extra powered site they didnt have earlier, they directed us to a spot behind the toilets, motioning to set up there and plug into the toilet block. Thankfully, the affable resident in the nearest canvas structure had the requisite 100 metre extension cord so we could reach along the building, up the wall, and through a cavity into the powerpoint in the laundry.
Litchfield is only 130km from Darwin, and a wonderful alternative to Kakadu. All the beauty and wonder of its more popular sister, but all the better for its more rugged exterior, the 4WD camping weeding out anyone in possession of a generator. Waterhole upon waterhole beckoned, monitor lizards scowled at the edge, and I simply did not want to leave. That is, until tiny bitey black slugs attached themselves to my person, as I swam in the Avatar style pools. It was all I could do to get the leech scene from the movie Stand by Me out of my head. A snake whistled by, and I levitated.
As two full days drew to a close, we had one last place to discover. Tjaynera Falls at Sandy Creek, fringed by paperbarks and palms beckoned from the end of a challenging 4WD track. Campground conversation warned against taking a trailer, or even the Prado down there, due to the depth of river crossings. Undeterred, we drew up to the first crossing where seven vehicles had stopped, and a clutch of sleeve tattooed men in boardies and singlets stood at the top discussing the approach options. A shirtless young guy cast off his flop flops, and stubbie aloft, waded past the crocodile warning sign, to find the deepest spot for the benefit of the clutch. Silence fell, a flurry of nylon, and all bounded for their vehicles to be first over the lip.
When the headcount at the Falls made 20, we gathered ourselves and made for the car. It was lunchtime, and we would make Lake Argyle by sundown.
I can thank Renner Springs for a blonde discovery. Turns out those iconic rural windmills are not just ornamental, they put them where the wind blows to pump water. Cue another flappity night of unsecured canvas, and crotchety camper inhabitants.
Natural hot springs can be found about 110kms south of Katherine, just off the Stuart Highway. Choosing Mataranka, we picked our way around the bunch of people that make a career of finding public hot pools, clinging to the entry and exit steps, and giggling nervously about not being able to swim. Taking our place in the pool next to all the other sardines, we pretended not to hear blush-worthy conversation, fought the urge to stare at others body parts, and scowl at those amongst us Most Likely to Pee. I lasted about 1 second longer than W, threatening to transform the tranquility into a wave pool by fidgeting, for a grand total of 5 minutes. Hopes still high, we decided the much lower profile Bitter Springs was worth a visit. The brief summary of Bitter Springs in our tour guide ill-prepared us for our visit. Stepping into a narrow creek fringed by palms, the warm, crystal clear, deep teal, water slowly flowed, carrying us along with it. Small turtles slept on the exposed tree roots. A water monitor lazed warily on the bank. It was like that Theme Park water ride where you float around in a current on tubes, but without the screaming, garish tones, and fibreglass.
On the sterling recommendation of friends J and L, we booked one of the permit-only 4WD camp sites at Koolpin Gorge in Kakadu. Picking up the key to the gate, the ranger warned against swimming in the two pools nearest the camp, as saltwater crocodiles were known to inhabit them. The pools that ascended from these, linked by waterfalls, were not known to have any saltwater crocodiles in the house, due to the difficult access. I took it that the likelihood of actually seeing one was slim, and although the Rangers are careful not to condone swimming outside the hotel pool, taking a dip in one of the countless waterholes was business as usual.
We took one of the unmarked paths to the first croc-free pool, and boiling hot by the time we got there, popped into our own outdoor swimming arena. I’m a beach girl, and a confident swimmer, yet I’ve never developed the same love for fresh water; rivers, ponds or gorges. As I doggie paddled my way from one end to the other I observed that I wasn’t really enjoying it, and in fact, may have found my kryptonite. The black below me, silence around me (once W stopped thrashing), and my over-fertile imagination conjured up scenarios at odds with the sparkling surface fringed by perfect palms.
In standard operating mode we spent a full six minutes out of the water before eyeing off the climb to the next pool (to the right of this picture). Recalling a great summer holiday 20 years ago at Anakiwa Outward Bound with my cousin and her instructor hubby R, I channelled R’s calm and encouraging tones as I grabbed for foot and hand-holds. I found myself flat against the rock face, with a single finger wedged in a crack above me, and both feet below me claiming ownership to two small ledges via my big toes. Stuck. My right leg independently started a sewing-machine-like action, and from somewhere within, sobbing ensued. W offered a knee to stand on and once foot was transferred added, “You have to move, I cant hold you there forever” and other useful things like “Focus. You’re being silly.” Once the shrieking had subsided, I recommended he never volunteers to talk someone down from a ledge.
The next morning we decided to tackle the gnarly looking unmarked ridge to the upper pools. The view back to the camp and along the pools was stunning. To the left, the croc pools, and immediately underneath, the first pool we swam in. I looked a little closer. In the middle of the pool was a crocodile spread out like a starfish, sunning himself, and taking in the serenity. I cursed not bringing my long lens! The wide angle lens I had with me reduced the scene, and detail of the croc along with it, but I managed a Yeti quality snap all the same.
By the time we reached the pool, W hissed in exasperated tones “what are you doing back there? Get over here! You won’t get a good shot from there”. A gold beady eye at waterline caught W’s, and slipped under. We spent the next half an hour watching Colin the Croc’s progress trip around the pool, bubbles breaking the surface where we went in the day before, along the edge, and everywhere we swam. Spurred by fears that a family would lose a child if we did not report the sighting, we used the emergency phone at the campsite. One hour later a helicopter circled overhead. A couple of hours later, a Ranger appeared and concluded it was probably a ‘Freshie’, the shy and non-threatening Fresh Water Crocodile. Given that they were present IN MOST POOLS in Kakadu, he felt this was the most likely conclusion. Wishing I could turn back the clock to when I thought they existed only if you could see them, from a boat, I learned the Freshies are in most of the pools, just waiting for you to leave so they can do their own thang. Later that day, I went for another swim, in the highest pool I could climb to, and talked myself through a panic attack. I’m not brave all the time.
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.