Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gibb River Road Running

It’s a while since the last blog. We have been a long way from any form of modern telecommunications since leaving Derby about eight days ago. We are currently at Home Valley Station, towards the eastern end of the Gibb River Road (GRR), nearly 600 km from Derby. This is classic Kimberley country, famous for its sweeping vistas, savannah vegetation, huge cattle stations (1 million acres being about the standard size) settled in the late 1800s, boab trees, and colourful rock. We’ve seen all these, plus several of the deep gorges for which the GRR is famous.

The GRR was built as a stock route originally, between Derby and Wyndham. It’s only in fairly recent time that it has become a mecca for tourists in the north. The road itself is about 600 km of gravel/mud/corrugations/creek and river crossings, deteriorating in condition as you go from west to east (which is the direction we are taking). But it is not too bad despite all the recent rain in these parts, which has meant that access roads from the GRR to several of the attractions along the way are still closed. We have missed out on Bells Gorge and Windjana Gorge / Tunnel Creek but will save those for another time.

Highlights have been:

- 2 nights at Birdwood Downs Station just out of Derby. This is a small (5000 acres) station carved off from Meda Station (which is now only 995,000 acres!) for purposes of developing more sustainable farming methods in the Kimberley. It is run by a loose alliance of indigenous groups and overseas institutes with various forms of funding. We spent about 3 hours with one of the pioneers of the project (a native New Yorker, who now spends most of his time in the Kimberley and other remote parts of the planet). Fascinating story, too long to cover here. Among other things, we stood alongside boab trees carbon-dated at 1500 years old! BTW, cattle carrying capacity in the Kimberley appears to range from 1 beast per 40 acres on the better country, to 1 per 100 acres and more on the rougher stuff.
- Mt Matthew (at Mt Hart Station – one of our camping stops along the GRR), Addocks, Galvans, Mannings and Barnett Gorges – all stunning in their own ways. We swam in most of these, in beautiful deep pools. Amazing to see such plentiful fresh water in a dry landscape, but important to note that places along the GRR can expect 650 mm annual rainfall, ranging from as low as 150 to as high as 1500. Both these extremes having been experienced in the last 10 years, and both very scary no doubt!
- Sitting outside in full moonlight, on a balmy 27o-ish evening at Manning Gorge campsite, just star-gazing.
- Second flat tyre, yesterday on the GRR when we covered 300 km from Manning Gorge to Home Valley. No less than 5 other passing vehicles all stopped to offer help and we ended up with a crowd of spectators at least as large as the crowd that turns out to watch the Melbourne Demons AFL side.
- The amazing Pentecost River with Cockburn Ranges in the background and salt water crocs lurking just below the surface …

Some of you may have heard of and/or read Mary Durack’s book ‘Kings in Grass Castles’. I haven’t, but am reading the sequel ‘Sons in the Saddle’ which tells the story of her father and his brothers developing their cattle business in the east Kimberley at Ivanhoe and Argyle from about 1890 onwards. (I think ‘Kings in Grass Castles’ may have been about her grandfather who took up cattle runs in south-west Queensland) Argyle Station is now mostly under the water of Lake Argyle created by the Ord River Dam, but the original homestead was relocated stone block by stone block and re-assembled and can now be visited as a museum – which we plan to visit while still in these parts. Anyway, Durack is a well-known name here, and the book is an excellent insight into what life and business was like in those days – if you’re interested in those sorts of things.

Tomorrow we will head for El Questro which is like a privately owned wilderness and tourist park with the statutory 1,000,000 acres, spend a few days there then push on to Kununarra, maybe Wyndham, definitely Lake Argyle, and then the Bungle Bungles – weather permitting.

Hope all is well in your neck of the woods.

Just shy of 6000 km so far

Boab carbon-dated at 1500 years old

Boab tree scene

Rock hopping at Mt Matthew Gorge

Adcock Gorge. Note the flock of cockatiels on the tree.

Galvan Gorge

Manning Gorge campsite ‘pool’

Barnett River Gorge lookout

GRR dodgems

Penetecost River and Cockburn Range. We cross the river tomorrow on the GRR – no bridge!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pilbara Pilgrimage

Greetings from hot and sweaty Broome. We have weaved our way north-eastward from Exmouth where the last blog came from. Broome is in the Kimberly region of the far NE of Western Australia. Normally it is dry at this time of year but there has been unseasonal heavy rain, causing incredible humidity (just breathing causes a sweat) and, worse, on-going closure of key tourist routes such as the Gibb River Road. The Gibb is our target, we were hoping to set off on this by Sunday but might have to delay a few days in the hope that the weather clears and the road becomes passable.

In the meantime, we have had a great time since leaving Exmouth. Our route was via:

- Ningaloo Station, a working sheep and cattle station toward the southern end of the reef. It is on the western side of the NW Cape, and is reached via a crossing at low tide at Yardie Creek (where the bitumen ends) and a reasonable 4WD track for about 40km. Our reward was to be the only people sitting on a vast beach watching the sun sink over the Indian Ocean. Glorious.
- Pilbara mining area, notably the town of Tom Price which is effectively ‘owned’ by Rio Tinto and has a massive iron ore mine adjacent. Great views from Mt Nameless, 1230 m, reached by a pretty rugged 4WD only track, but the views are spectacular. Interestingly, the Aborigines of course had a name for this mountain ages ago but maybe no-one thought to ask them at the time …
- Best of all, the remarkable Karajini National Park, about 100 km on from Tom Price. Quite apart from the glorious colours of vegetation against red rock landscapes (this is the same rock mined at Tom Price and elsewhere for iron ore, so good foresight by the Govt to secure it as a NP), there are incredible deep gorges that you can clamber along, finding amazing pools at the bottom of caverns with beautiful clear running water. The rock here is shattered into layers, that make natural paths (almost like terracing), ‘cept these ‘paths’ often sit 5 m or more above the bottom of the gorge, and are slippery when wet! Needless to say, it is territory better handled by 20-somethings who are nimble and have no fear, rather than 50-somethings who are … not. Nonetheless, we saw some great sights, and got totally immersed in the experience – including two real immersions, one unintended (which also took the camera underwater, a shock from which it seems to have recovered) and one intended (a nice dip in Fern Pool). Karajini is brilliant.

After Karajini, which had a pretty bum-numbing 1000 km to reach Broome, broken overnight in Port Hedland which is where all the iron ore is shipped from. It is, not surprisingly, an industrial town, very much part of the Aussie commodities boom. Not a place for tourists, apart from getting tyres fixed and so on.

So far we have clocked up 4600 km, at about 290 km/day average (breaking Captain Courageous’s sustainable trip indicator of 200 km/day?? was it Tony?), and chewed through one tyre and about 800 l of diesel. Found out the air compressor that came with Ned for re-inflating tyres after going over soft sand is kaput (so weak the tyres actually started to go down rather than up when we got it running) and that the jack is useless for getting under the correct lift point below the axle and so that a 2-stage lift is needed with 2 jacks. We are geared up now.

Looks like we will be in Broome for a few days yet. We are actually one day ahead of schedule (having earlier decided to give Mon key Mia and the dolphins a miss – have seen dolphins before), and have a bit of wriggle room later if needed.

Hope all is well in your neck of the woods.

4600 km, and counting

Ningaloo Station

Ningaloo Station

Tom Price iron ore mine, from Mt Nameless

Getting wet at Karajini

Handrail Pool, Karajini. Descent to pool via rope ladder from here

Fortescue Falls, Karajini

Circular Pool, Karajini

Thursday, May 13, 2010

North west capers

Hi all,

We are currently in Exmouth, way up on the NW Cape of WA – see my crude map below for a trace of where we have been. We got here on Wednesday late afternoon, after a fair bit of driving via:
- Northam which is about 90 km east of Perth where we stayed with Murray and Jules McGregor, old friends from Lincoln days
- The northern wheat belt area, which is desperately dry – according to Murray, at Northam they have had only 18 mm of rain (that’s less than an inch) since start of October last year … and it shows from the photos
- the Pinnacles in Nambung National Park, near Cervantes (south of Geraldton) – crazy limestone pillars, like a graveyard or Aussie stonehenge - Carnarvon – nice town, but not much going on there
- Coral Bay – beautiful beach, but seriously overcrowded with hundreds of people cramming into a tiny little settlement with only 2 campgrounds
- Cape Ranges National Park, just south of Exmouth, where we did a beaut 2 hour walk over limestone plateau with huge ravines and good views across to Exmouth and the gulf looking north east

The clear highlight was yesterday’s trip to go snorkelling alongside whale sharks on the outer edge of the Ningaloo reef! It was a cracker. See photos, taken from underwater camera that we hired. The whale sharks come regularly to Ningaloo, between March and June each year, evidently for the food which is like a plankton soup as the corals and other sea life spawn. They are big gentle giants. This is the only place in the world where these tropical fish can be found consistently. Very little is known about their lifecycle, range, reproduction and so on. They are known as the mysterious fish, as well as the big spotty fish! Our excellent boat crew got us onto 4 fish (4- 6 m long) at various stages during the roughly 3 hours we were out there, which is good – sometimes there may only be one fish in the vicinity with 4 boats wanting to share and people might only get one or two drops to swim with it. So we had pretty good value.

Very windy today. We will probably head down the west side of NW Cape, camp somewhere in that area tonight, then head toward the Pilbarra/Karajini NP tomorrow. Next communication is likely to come from Broome. Hope all is well with you.

x marks the spot! A lazy 2200 km so far

Whale shark

Whale Shark

Cape Ranges NP

Coral Bay


Drought in the wheat-sheep zone

Friday, May 7, 2010

South-west Sojourn


Writing this at Mamjimup, which is about 300 km SW of Perth. We got here from Busselton via Dunsborough, Margaret River, Cape Leeuwin (the point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet), Pemberton and Northcliffe (guess I should work out how to mark our route on a map and upload it to the blog - there again, you can just Google these places!).

Highlights have been:
- Meelup beach, a little corker - on the road between Dunsborough and Cape Naturaliste. So tranquil that we just lazed on the beach for a couple of hours reading our books. Nice to be able to make such choices, huh
- Margaret River - smart, trendy town, good feel to it. Jen was intent on checking our galleries. Well, at the first one, we saw some magnificent wood furniture and ended up buying some stools for new house ... gulp, that tore a big chunk out of the budget right there, so no more galleries that day (by mutual consent), AND for rest of the trip (that bit is still to be negotiated). But, the wood design and finish was something else.
- Cape Leeuwin - spectacular coast line scenery and historic old buildings. Weather was super while we were there - apparently this is rare!
- the karri forests of Pemberton area (1200-1400 mm rainfall). These are big eucalypts (not to be confused with the NZ kauri), they grow very straight with few branches and produce magnificent hardwood. Hence very sought-after in the early days of development of WA. Now there are large tracts of virgin forest protected in national parks which is great. The Gloucester tree (thanks Geoff and Sue for the tip) was used as a forest fire look-out for many years. The platform is 61 m above ground level. I climbed it (which is a bit surprising since I am not good with heights normally!), Jen didn't (sook!).
- at the little town of Northcliffe (the southern-most point of our WA sojourn) there is an excellent Forest Sculpture Walk (called 'Understory'). This is a series of commissioned and free-form sculptures in all sorts of materials and themes by mostly WA artists, telling different stories about the forest. Really well set-up, with an audio track to accompany the walk which has the artists explaining the idea behind their sculptures, and how they made them. Good stuff, highly recommended if you find your way to these parts.

Tomorrow we head north to visit friends at Northam east of Perth (and celebrate Jen's birthday!). Then further north from there - apparently it is quite a long way to the top, still ....



Gloucester tree

Gloucester tree

Karri forest scence

Cape Leeuwin

Meelup Beach

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tuesday 4th (276 km, Perth (Guildford) – Bussellton)

Wow-wee, first real day of our trip! Writing this at about 8:30 pm, in a campground at Bussellton. We are in the cabin of our faithful Toyota Landcruiser Bush Ranger model (a.k.a. ‘Ned’ - see photo above, at Bunbury) collected this morning from the Camperworld depot at Guildford, near Perth airport. Sipping on a coffee made from our espresso cook-top coffee maker (bought at South Wharf about 6 weeks ago, when we stayed at the Hilton with Kaye and John), music playing from the iPod and speaker system (bought at JB Hi Fi Nunawading about 2 weeks ago), after a nice meal of steak, salad, mushroom and onions (bought earlier at IGA Bussellton) and chips (donated by fellow grey nomads at the camp kitchen) and after finishing a Durif red wine from Rutherglen and bottle of French white wine given as a gift from the University at my farewell exactly a week ago (give or take an hour or two due to the time difference between WA and Vic).

Our home-on-wheels is set up as best we can in the first 24 hours. Clothing all stowed, nick nacks all tucked away in a drawer here and there. The cabin on Ned’s back is, ahem, cosy, but we have had fun setting it up as we want it (and will no doubt change it several times over during the next 90, oops, 89, days). There is a large bed, which slides back and forth from above the driver/passenger cabin), fridge, 2-ring gas cooker and a sink with water pumped from underneath. Also underneath are 2 diesel tanks and 2 spare wheels, plus various items of equipment kindly supplied by Doug et al at Camperworld.

Jen rates today so far as: “A1! Very impressed with the sound system. Bed is going to be our biggest challenge, creating a little nest every night. Very impressed with the French wine, how are we going to keep that standard up?!”

We are at Manadalay camp ground, about 4 km from Bussellton town centre. Arrived here about 2:30, conscious that we needed some daylight to sort out all our stuff in the campervan and generally get set-up. Route was via Pinjarra (nice coffee and muffin had there), Bunbury (stopped for a while to admire the beach and the harbour) and then Bussellton, which has a sweeping sea-front onto Geopgraphe Bay, a mere 200 m from our camp site. There is a wooden jetty 2 km long here, but it is currently closed off for a make-over. The town has a nice feel to it, as did Bunbury.

Already we have encountered the nomadic tribe. We cooked steak, mushrooms etc in the camp kitchen, where about a dozen grey-ies were congregating and, wouldn’t ya know it, the first people that we chatted to were from, you guessed it, Surrey Hills, Elgar Road to be precise. How freaky is that!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Day zero minus 1

OK, so here we go. Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3 ...

First time I've ever blogged, and first time footloose in the great sunburnt country of Australia.

Jen and I pick up our 4WD campervan tomorrow, and head southwest of Perth to start with, down to Manjimup area where there are vineyards (so we can stock up!) and ancient karri forests. And much more besides.

Maps, Lonely Planet, insect repellent, book of Australian birds, etc all on board.