Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gulf Country and Lawn Hill

Lawn Hill National Park is a little gem in the NW corner of Queensland, about 150 km south of Burketown, up near the Gulf of Carpentaria. To get there from Kakadu / Katherine, we had 2 main options: trundle away on the bitumen via Stuart Highway and Barkly Highway and come into the NP from the south; or go cross-country east from Mataranka on dirt road following the Gulf coast (albeit quite a long way inland) and come into the NP from the north. As we drove south from Katherine, watching a flotilla of caravans coming from the south heading for Darwin, most of which would be coming up the bitumen highways, we had no hesitation going for the latter option. Which turned out to be a lot of 4WD fun, for the roads were highly variable and often badly hammered by the big rains during the wet season, and there were a couple of doozie water crossings to boot.

If you draw a line roughly from Brisbane in the east to Carnarvon in the west, then 95% of all the rain water that runs off the Australian land mass runs into the sea north of this line, and only 5% south of the line. But the population distribution is the opposite way round. Australia is not really short of water, it’s just that it falls in the places where no-one lives. But it makes for some exciting off-the-bitumen travelling early in the ‘dry’ season. Our route took us on the Roper Highway east of Mataranka, then south down the Nathan River Road, where we:

- dodged and weaved around the wash-outs on the road
- stayed at Butterfly Springs where the swimming was fantastic and the mosquitos were so thick you could hardly see (bit of advice: DON’T camp at Butterfly Springs!)
- wandered around the sandstone pillars at the Southern Lost City, which is a bit like the Bungle Bungles, only they are pillars rather than domes, and not striped like the BBs. But pretty awesome nonetheless

After Nathan River, the Savannah Way strikes south-east, via Borroloola (a largely indigenous town but great fishing in this area). The Calvert River was the main hurdle, it was only in the 3-4 days before we arrived that vehicles had been getting through consistently. Hard to imagine, but at the end of May (only 3 weeks previously) the water level was 30 metres above the current level – roughly lapping the point where the road dips down to the crossing (see photo). They had something like 500 mm of rain around Easter and another 800 mm of rain in mid May in these parts.

We took a back-road into Bowthorn Station to get to Lawn Hill, via Kingfisher Camp, a delightful camp site on the Nicholson River. This too had been ravaged by floodwaters – see photo of 2006 water level, in 2010 it got to 1 m above this. The road in was pretty marginal. Basically it is a farm track that had been smashed in several places, and only just now being re-built by bulldozer – an annual occurrence. We were the first visitors into the camp for the season, so had the whole place to ourselves for about an hour before others started arriving, including Geoff and Ann from Adelaide who we had met at Hells Gate camp site the night before and we shared a good fire and more than a few drinks at Kingfisher that night.

Then on to Lawn Hill, where there is a fantastic tropical-like gorge of clear, fresh water and no crocs. Highlights here were:

- a BLT sandwich and chips for Chappy at Adels Gorge camp site, after about 10 days in the boonies
- canoeing the Middle and Upper Gorges
- bush walking
- swimming in Lawn Hill Creek

We are now in a little town called Camooweal, on the Barkly Highway in NW Queensland, next to the Georgina River. Tomorrow we plan to head south to a place called Tobermorey which is on the Plenty Highway, and then SW on the Plenty to Alice Springs. About 900 km of dirt road. Bring it on!

Hope all is well for you.


The Chappies

Just over 11,000 km

Butterfly Springs. Looks nice, huh ...

... but look what awaits outside the water. Those are little dots are mozzies

Southern Lost City

Calvert River crossing. Hard to get a perspective from the photo, but water level 3 weeks earlier was to the top of the banks where the road starts to dip

Kingfisher camp. The sign reads 'Water level 2006'. In 2010, it got 1 m above this

Lawn Hill Creek crossing, ranger Jen at the wheel

Adels Grove

Canoeing Lawn Hill Gorge

Lawn Hill Gorge

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Top End Stuff

The area around Darwin and Arnhemland is commonly called the ‘top end’. Fairly rough and relatively untamed. Fearsome hot in October – December, dripping wet from December to March or April, and liveable from May to August-ish. Right now is a good time to be here. The day time temps are in the low 30’s and night temps in the high teens, so no surprise there are heaps of Victorians here escaping the southern ‘winter’.

Darwin is renowned as a bit of a frontier town, with a massive beer drinking culture (you can see why – so hot). Article in the local newspaper while we were there last week reported that the Northern Territory has the third highest per capita beer consumption in the world (not sure which places were one and two, but I’m picking they are not in Australia). In Darwin, a 'stubbie' is 2.5 litres! (Or is it 1.5 litres - anyway, a lot) Darwin has been ‘up against it’ in a number of ways, since first founded in about mid 1860’s (I think). First of all, it was very remote from the rest of Australia (still is); the climate is pretty torrid in the wet season; malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases were a big problem until early 1900’s; then the city was bombed by the Japs in February 1942 (nearly 300 lives lost, many on ships in the harbour); then of course Cyclone Tracey flattened the place in December 1974 with winds > 200 miles per hour (more lives lost, officially around 70 I think). Now it is a comfortable, modern city, rebuilt after Tracey. All this means there’s quite a bit of history to see here, and the Museum and Art Gallery which is a good place to get across all this.

We discovered 2 must-do’s in Darwin while we were there:
- on Sunday evening, go to Mindil Beach Market, buy sea food, and watch the sun go down – half Darwin plus all tourists in the area were there last Sunday I reckon
- on the Queens Birthday Monday holiday, head to Litchfield NP for a swim and a frolic in the plunge pools and swimming holes that abound there. Parts of this Park are also still closed, notably the Reynolds River 4WD track which meant that the other half of Darwin and all the tourists in the area were all jammed into 3 or 4 main swimming spots and it was all pretty crowded.

After Darwin, we drove back into Kakadu for a night before setting off for Garig Ganuk Barlu (GGB) NP on the Cobourg peninsula, about 560 km NE of Darwin. En route to Kakadu, we did a 3 hour tour of Corroboree Billabong, part of the Mary River system, about 100 km from Darwin. This was FANTASTIC! If you come up this way, do it. The tour only started this dry season, and costs $55 per person – similar tours at Yellow Waters in Kakadu are > $100 pp, and way more crowded. With Vicky and Mark, we saw:
- about 20 species of birds, some with chicks like the little jacana babies walking with dad
- amazing lotus water lilies, all huge and floppy with purple flowers, very picturesque
- about 5 or 6 crocs, close-up, like about 3 m from the boat, just quietly going about their business except one which took a bit of a lunge in our direction causing everyone to rush to the other side of the boat and nearly toppling us into the water (nah, the last bit didn’t happen, but is was a bit exciting for a while).

The road into GGB NP is a good, easy run and the camp site at Smith Point is a beaut. Hardly a soul about – no caravans, yea! The highlight of our time at GGB NP was the boat trip across Port Essington to the ruins of Victoria settlement, established by the British in 1838 to ward off any attempts by France or Holland to claim northern Australia, and to open up trading between British interests and Asia. Well, the settlement survived for only 11 years though heaps of the original garrison and reinforcements sent from Britain did not – malaria being the main killer, but there were also a couple of cyclones that claimed lives. The largest population supported during those 11 years was just 80 people. Trading never took off – the settlement is 27 km into Port Essington from the heads, about 5-6 days return sailing for any passing ships. And the Dutch and the French weren’t interested in a fight anyway. Ruins of many of the ‘village’ buildings like the married quarters, hospital (the busiest place in town), and the magazine where gunpowder was stored, are still visible. As is the cemetery, and some of the grave sites. Kind of an eerie experience, walking around the place.

Otherwise, there are magnificent beach walks, and a sizeable freshwater lagoon where we startled a small-ish croc yesterday – luckily he/she chose to be startled in the opposite direction to us, cruising off into the reeds in the shallows of the lagoon, while we took some photos of brolgas (large, elegant birds of the crane family). No worries, we saw ‘Crocodile Dundee’ so we know exactly what to do, eh?

Heading south now. Apparently temperatures in Alice Springs have been hitting minus 4 degrees overnight, with daytime maximums of around 14oC. Now, where did we store those coats …


The Chappies

Running total of 9,500 km in 45 days

Freshly shucked oysters and other seafood goodies at Mindil Beach market, Darwin

Find some space if you can. Florence Falls pool, Litchfield NP, Queens B'day Monday. Crocodile heaven

Corroboree Billabong scene - lotus lilies galore

And crocs galore. This one had a bit of lunge at us. About 4 m long

Turtle tracks and nest (beside Jen) on beach, Garig Gunak Barlu NP

Remains of the married quarters at Victoria settlement, Port Essington, ca. 1840

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Kakadu Calling

Kakadu calling

You will all have heard of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory I’m sure, and many of you have no doubt visited this huge (1/2 the size of Tasmania) world heritage listed site. The Park borders can be reached in about 2 hours drive either from Katherine in the south (which is where we came from) or Darwin in the north. There is a town in the Park, called Jabiru (also the name of the species of stork common in these parts – large, dark blue and white plumage, very handsome birds), which is basically a mining service town because Kakadu is rich in (among other minerals) uranium. So it’s a classic example of the clash between exploitation and conservation. The latter seems to be winning currently, for example with the toppling of the Rio Tinto Jabiluka uranium mine proposal in 1998. The Park is owned by the aboriginal people and managed in partnership with the National Parks people.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at Kakadu: maybe more spectacular scenery, a plethora of wildlife, and rare plants. These things are here, but the real essence of Kakadu is the Aboriginal view of their land and their art (especially the rock art). And there are numerous opportunities to learn about these. In the 3 days we’ve been here, we have:

- checked out the Warradjan cultural centre (near Cooinda), and enjoyed a good couple of hours looking at displays on aboriginal culture and artefacts relating to the region. Good, informative stuff
- taken a boat cruise on an eerily silent and dark billabong under bright night stars. Our guide Jenny, a local indigenous person with her brother Doug, found white-bellied sea eagle, azure kingfisher (damned hard to see), freshwater croc (equally hard to see - very well concealed among the panadanus at the edge of the billabong) and a saltie sitting on a fallen tree trunk. A pretty typical ‘haul’ for water levels that are higher than usual for this time of year
- checked out the rock art at Nourlangie and Nanguluwur, the latter much less crowded because it involves a bit of a hike and the tour groups tend to give it a miss in favour of Nourlangie which is easy to reach. Age of the art is a bit of a guessing game – some is recent, 1960’s, though this is restoration work of older paintings; and there is some that is several thousand years old. Aboriginal rock drawings are the oldest continuous form of visual art anywhere in the world, and some of the best examples are right here.
- a big highlight, today we took a tour across into western Arnhem Land, to a town called Oenpelli where there is a renowned arts and crafts centre, and nearby a site called Injalak Hill which is covered in outstanding rock art examples. We had an older bloke from the local tribe lead us up the Hill and explain the various drawings and their meanings. Only possible to visit with a permit (if you know where to go and what to look for), or on an organised tour. Besides the amazing art work, the views of the East Alligator river floodplain and Arnhem, Land escarpment were amazing, and the bird life was fair bustling. Much more like what I had expected to see in Kakadu.

We’ve also seen some great sites in Kakadu, especially Gunlom Falls, where we camped the first night and climbed to the top of the falls to swim in the pools above.

There’s lots of other interesting history here too, like wild buffaloes (used in early British settlements in Arnhem Land and released into the wild when those settlements failed), old uranium mines (there were about 12 active ones in the 1960’s, now all closed down, though the Ranger uranium mine near Jabiru continues), some pastoral leases, and of course the salt water crocodiles. One of the most recent episodes of croc-feeding-on-human in Oz was in 2002 at a billabong adjacent to the one where we did our night tour – a German tourist, swimming in the billabong along with fellow tour members on the advice of their tour guide (would you believe). Nah, not a good idea. Several of the Park sites are still closed because of the late rains and high water levels in creeks and rivers, which means crocs are still to be found in waterholes like Jim Jim Falls, and Twin Falls. The rangers have to find them all, trap them and move them out before they’ll re-open these sites, which will take another 3 weeks or so, we are told.

Tomorrow we head for Darwin for 3-4 days, where we will catch up with Vicky and Mark Connolly who are flying over from Brisbane to join us. After Darwin, we are heading to Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, which is NE of Darwin, and requires a permit to enter (check it out on Google). Only 15 vehicles are allowed in the Park at any one time and we have been lucky enough to get a slot. It is on the coast, and has pristine coastal scenery and some pretty agonising history of failed British settlements from the mid 1800’s.

So, we won’t be on-line again until more than week from today. In the meantime, hope all is well with you and yours


The Chappies

Gunlom Falls

Nanguluwur rock art

Ooops. This is Cahills Crossing, over East Alligator River, into Arnhem Land. The vehicle belonged to some Oenpelli fellas who were crossing back to Jabiru to buy grog (Oenpelli is a dry community) with HIGH tide flowing out - doh, got washed off.

Brolgas, on E Alligator River floodplain

Injalak Hill rock art

Monday, June 7, 2010

What’s in a name? Part 2: The Bungle Bungles

The Bungle Bungle Range is a captivating area of very old sandstone that has been eroded by wind and rain over millions of years to create strange, striped bee-hive like domes in the southern part, and deep chasms in the northern part. The name ‘Bungle Bungle’ is also an oddity, no-one seems to know how it came about. It’s not a traditional aboriginal name, at least not a literal version of an aboriginal name. Anyway, again the name seems to suit, because it looks like something out of an Alice in Wonderland type story. Curiously, it wasn’t until the early 1980’s that it became known by anyone outside of the indigenous people and local pastoralists. Now it is a World Heritage Listed site, and protected inside the Purnululu National Park.

The BBs are about 250 km from Kununarra by road, but we decided to take a flight from Kununarra first (8-seater, there are 4 companies that run basically the same flight path from Kununarra), which also tracked over Lake Argyle (created by a dam on the Ord River in 1970) and the Argyle diamond mine (produces about ¼ of the world’s diamond supply!). This was a 2 hour flight and it got a bit, ahem, bumpy, such that I spent a fair bit of the journey with my head in a paper bag rather than seeing all the sights. Jen fared a bit better, so we got some good shots.

The next day we drove into the National Park, and walked Echidna Chasm and Mini Palms Gorge in the northern part of the BBs on the first day, and then Cathedral Gorge and Domes Walk in the southern part the next day (yep, more gorges, but these are different from the Kimberley).

Hard to describe the BBs really. Maybe best left to the photos. The stripe effect is due to different porosity of different layers of sandstone. The more-porous layers are covered on the outside by cyanobacteria that leave a dark stain – hence the dark stripes. Less-porous layers have a coat of iron oxide, which gives them the red colour, hence the reddish strips. Both the bacteria and the iron oxide protect the surface of the structures, but you can see how they are eroding in large chunks, slowly. So, if you want to see ‘em, don’t leave it too long but any time within the next 300 or 400 million years should be fine. It’s interesting how the vast age of rock in Australia gives rise to these totally different types of landscapes - only time can do it.

The Argyle diamond mine is huge – see photo. It is basically a big hole drilled down into a volcanic ‘pipe’ or plug that is rich with diamonds. The first diamonds were found in 1979, just lying among the stones in the beds of Bow River and Smoke Creek, by a geologist working for a company that was looking for uranium. They traced the source back to one hill. Or, rather, what was a hill - it has pretty much been hollowed out since. Not possible to visit the mine except as part of a one-and-only tour. All very tightly controlled – they don’t want anyone else accidentally finding some of their diamonds (which apparently was the case when there was a visitor area and a look-out – which was promptly removed!).

We arte now in the Northern territory, en route to Katherine, having had a fabulous 5 weeks or so in Western Australia. Great place … if only they could squeeze all the attractions a bit closer together, so it doesn’t take so long to reach them.

Bye for now

The Chappies

Ord River Dam and Lake Argyle

Bungle Bungle Ranges - aerial shot

Argyle diamond mine

Echidna Chasm in the BB range - vertical panorama

Mini Palms Gorge walk, BB Range

The Domes walk

Cathedral Gorge. This cavern is huge.

What’s in a name? Part 1: El Questro

Maybe it’s because Australia is so vast, and there are so many things to name, that sometimes the names themselves become a curiosity. First we had Mt Nameless above the town of Tom Price (Tom Price was an American mining engineer), now we have come across El Questro and the Bungle Bungles.

El Questro is a big, privately owned wilderness park, at the eastern end of the Gibb River Road. We had a great 3 days there, taking in several of the walks and 4WD tracks on the property, and a bit of the guided stuff that you pay more for. The name El Questro has no literal meaning, even in Spanish which would seem the logical source. It was bestowed by a guy called Thomas McMicking who first took up the pastoral lease on the property in 1958 and apparently had a penchant for the rum. The wilderness park idea came later, via a young couple who must have taken over the lease around 1991 and started from there, building it up into a major tourist attraction. Until quite recently it was owned by a company called Voyagers, and now has been taken over by an American company called Delaware North, or something like that – they run resorts at places like Niagara Falls and Yosemite, so it is big business. But, still offers a great opportunity to see some spectacular sights in an environment that has only been known to non-indigenous people for 100 years, and accessible to the great masses for about the last 30 years. El Questro is a funny name, but it suits rather nicely.

While we were at ELQ we:

- walked the Amalia and El Questro Gorges – both terrific and very different from each other, even though only a few km apart. El Questro Gorge is narrow and long, and has lovely livistona palms growing from the gorge floor trying to reach the light. Most people go only ½ the distance up the length of the gorge where there is a huge boulder that blocks the way, but being nimble 50-somethings we clambered past this and made it to the delightful top pool and waterfall where we had the mandatory swim in crystal clear and cool water. Lovely.
- Did some “oh shit, I’m not sure this is such a good idea” 4 wheel driving, notably across the Chamberlain River which was flowing pretty strong and deep (so we discovered, when we were too far in to reconsider the idea) and took us nearly three minutes to ford. Jen was ready to end the marriage about right then, but we got some great views from Branco’s lookout over the Pentecost River as a reward
- Took a cruise on the Chamberlain River, and learned about some of the flora and fauna of the region, plus the geology. Stars of the show were the archer fish which can spit with deadly accuracy 2-3 m in the air – their purpose being top knock down insects flying just above the water. In our case, their target was our hands holding fish food, or the camera lens poking over the side of the boat …
- After leaving ELQ camp site, we called in at Emma Gorge on the Gibb Road, probably the most well-known of the gorges at the eastern end of the Gibb. It is on ELQ property, but anyone travelling down the GRR can visit. It was nice, and swimmable of course ... but think we have seen enough gorges for the time being.

From ELQ, we headed to Kununarra en route to the Bungle Bungles (more on this weird and wonderful place in the following blog) – our plan being to take a flight from Kununarra, over Lake Argyle, the BBs, and the Argyle diamond mine before driving down to the Purnululu National Park (where the BB Range sits) to explore by wheel and foot. Check out the next blog to see what we found.


The Chappies

7000 km after we left Lake Argyle this morning

Amalia Gorge

El Questro Gorge

Chamberlain River crossing. Note, that is not the far bank in the distance - landfall cannot be seen for quite a while ...

Chamberlain River cruise view

Emma Gorge with Jen modelling the new season style in Aussie swimming cossies