Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 14 – Munurru)

We spend the day at Munurru lazing by the creek, drinking tea, reading and writing. Our day is occasionally interrupted by people passing by to go to the river. Among them are three young Victorians who, we discover, have driven from the far side of the campground. We exchange comments about the failings of Gen X. They are somewhat embarrassed by their laziness and we are somewhat amused. I write on their car and take photos as evidence.

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“We drove 100m to swim in the river”

Our final evening at Munurru is a cool, still, starlit night and we sit around the fire tracking stars and planets. It is perfectly peaceful. By nine, bed time approaches and I go to get my toothbrush.

My companions are not happy as the ambience of the campfire-lit night is shattered by the electric whirring of my brush. To the others this is further evidence of my lack of sincerity about travelling light since I also require a charger and an inverter to keep my dental hygiene up to scratch.

The sound of the toothbrush adds insult to injury since the inverter itself has a noisy fan and I chose to charge my toothbrush during lunch. From their perspective I have now destroyed both a pleasant lunch and evening.

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Munurru rockart

We start to pull the tents down. Once again the zip will not close. The zip on the rear tent has malfunctioned due to excessive dirt in the zip. The subsequent use of excessive force to close it appears to have deformed several of the zip bits.

I have been advocating WD40 for several days as the solution since, as everyone knows, WD40 fixes almost any problem. In the absence of WD40, cable ties or fencing wire will do. Or duct tape.

Roger however is dubious. He believes that the presence of WD40 will only attract more dust, which of course it will. But more WD40 will fix that as I have demonstrated to my own satisfaction on many previous occasions. Too little lubrication? More WD40. Too much lubrication? More WD40 as this will attract dust and fix the over-lubrication. Any idiot knows that. But Roger has resisted and we still have no WD40.

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Munurru rock art

Meanwhile our neighbours, who are a large party with four vehicles, have a mechanical problem of indeterminate nature. It requires a bloke conference to fix it and the numbers progressively grow.

It’s a form of mens’ shed but without the shed. Initially there are just two blokes examining the ‘thingymajig’ or the ‘howsyourfather.’..whatever it is that is broken. Within five minutes there are four blokes and by the time ten minutes have passed there are 6 blokes discussing the issue. Blokes have started to arrive from neighbouring sites and there are even two women standing nearby marvelling at the DIY miracle that is a bloke(s) and a ‘howsyourfather’.

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Munurru rock art

I wander over on my way to the dunny and, as an aside, ask whether if another six blokes were added to group which is diligently looking at and passing around the ‘thingummywhatsit’, it might in fact just fix itself. One of the group looks at me: “Nah, that would never work, none of us have a beer in our hands”.

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Butcher bird

We are nearly packed. I have found a large attractive rock that would work well in my garden but, sadly our group refuses me permission to put it in the car even though it only weighs 250kg and has a diameter of only 450 mm. They question our ability to get it off the ground in any case and feel it would be detrimental to the local environment if everyone removed a rock even though, as I point out, there are a lot of rocks.

My bona fides now come under attack as Roger suggests I have undergone a personality transformation as I was the primary motivational speaker behind our efforts to travel light but am now trying to add large rocks to our entourage.

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The creek at Munurru

The final task as always is the Magic Pudding. Roger and Jill have decided to pack their entire worldly possessions into a conventional blue suitcase.

Apart from the fact that it is bulky and unwieldy, it has to contain about ten times as many clothes and other items as it was designed to take.

The time taken to pack the magic pudding is about the same as an orbit of Pluto around the sun.

Kaylee and I can take a half day bush-walk, eat breakfast, scratch all required body parts and say more ‘Hail Marys’ than the Pope at Mass, by the time the Magic Pudding is packed and loaded.

On our way to the main road we stop in at the two art sites nearly. Both are set in a idyllic landscape of rock outcrops.

By 8.30 we are away and travelling south. We make good time and about 40 kms from Drysdale Station we pass a Britz hire troop carrier travelling slowly in the same direction. Another 25 kms on and we are flagged down by a crew in a white Landcruiser. They have already had two punctures and now have a third. But we cannot help them as we have a six stud wheel and they have a five stud wheel. The lead actor introduces himself as Alex Frank from Kalumburu. He has his two sons, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren with him.

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We offer to take one of his wheels to Drysdale station, get it fixed and bring it back but he is not keen on that idea. As we are debating the issue, the hire vehicle that we passed previously, from Britz campers, approaches. Alex flags them down but comes back dispirited. They are French speakers and their English is limited. But Alex is fortunate and I am shanghaied as translator. We have two very cautious Belgians, Jaques and Brigitte.

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Jaques, in particular is very reluctant to be a party to loaning their only spare tyre. He is worried about losing their deposit if something goes wrong. My role now moves from translator to negotiator. I try to persuade Jaques that they are at no risk and that we can proceed to Drysdale Station “ensemble” (together). He remains reluctant. Alex, on the other hand, is pressing his case.

He wants me to just get a wrench and simply hijack Jaques tyre. Jaques doesn’t understand the culture, he tells me. He starts gesticulating, telling Jaques if he doesn’t help it will rain and he will all get bogged.

We are in a conundrum where Alex cannot possibly under stand Jaques attachment to his spare tyre and thinks he can resolve the situation by persuading me to take direct action.

I work on Jaques. He is about to concede to loaning his spare wheel when he notices that the front passenger tyre of Alex’s vehicle is also half flat.

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Munurru’s gloriously polished red rocks

C’est impossible…” he tells me looking at the state of the fourth tyre.

I spring into mid-east shuttle diplomacy mode, telling Alex, on the one hand, to stop humbugging me. It’s not me he needs to persuade but Jaques.

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A large decorative rock – ideal for any garden

With Jaques, on the other hand I am in cultural interpreter mode, explaining that “C’est toujours comme, en Australie” (it’s always like this in Australia). I try to explain that by the standards of many Aboriginal communities Alex’s vehicle is a Rolls Royce…virtually new. By now Alex’s sons have got out the compressor and are blowing up the half-deflated tyre.

Meanwhile Alex is demanding to know why we went to Mitchell Plateau and didn’t visit Kalumburu. I tell him that I heard the blackfellas up that way were too dangerous and that we were a little scared. “I worked with Aboriginal people in Darwin and they warned me about people from Kalumburu” I say.

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The famous blue suitcase, aka the Magic Pudding

This manages to divert Alex from harassing me and Jaques, and he starts explaining to his sons that I worked with Blackfellas and this explains why he can’t humbug me.

Jaques meanwhile has his ear to the newly pumped up tyre. He cannot hear any more hissing. We are on the cusp of victory. Finally he gets out the key which locks the the spare wheel to his vehicle. Within 2 minutes the sons have the spare on the car and we are away, Jaques leading the way.

But a few minutes of eating dust and Alex and sons decide to overtake. Within minutes they are out of sight. We plod along in Jaques wake who has told me he is convinced that Australians are “fou” (mad) for driving so fast on dirt roads. It’s why they get so many punctures he says. At this point my French runs out as we try and debate concepts such as corrugations and principles of speed versus comfort.073-IMG_1397

We round a corner. Alex and Sons are stopped. The bonnet’s driver side rear attachment has been fractured for some time and now  the baling twine which was holding it in place has broken and it has half flown off.

It is completely detached with the exception of the passenger side attachment and the hydraulic arm on the drivers side. When we arrive it is precariously perched on the vehicle, but we cannot get it back into position because the pressure from the hydraulic arm prevents us pushing it back.

At this point Jaques gets into the swing of things and suggests removing the hydraulic arm so we can push it back. The bonnet clicks satisfyingly into position. We are off again.

Finally we arrive in Drysdale. But Alex and Sons seem disinterested in giving back Jaques his tyre. I ask Jaques if he is “pressé” (in a hurry). He says he is. I go to Alex and tell him Jaques and Brigitte are in a hurry. I explain they are on Whitefella time. Time is money. Alex shouts at his boys to get the tyres repaired and back on the vehicle and they spring into action.

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Alex explains how to use your hands as a magnifying glass while looking for the bush skills of white people.

We go for lunch. But fifteen minutes later Jaques and Brigitte who are supposed to be lunching with us have still not reappeared.

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The more people you have looking at the broken vehicle the easier it will fix itself

I go to check. Alex’s boys have got diverted into stripping another deceased Landcruiser that belongs to another son who is not with them. I have to remonstrate with Alex and remind him that the others are in a hurry. He seems to have forgotten and another set of instructions are issued. Within a couple of minutes all is fixed. So it goes.

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This is whitefellla work

Finally we lunch. Jaques is retired farmer from southern Belgium and Brigitte is a child care worker. They have five children between them, one of whom is in construction in Sydney. Hence their frequent visits to Australia. Lunch is very staccato as I speak to Jaques and Brigitte and Kaylee and Roger look bemused. When I remember, I translate. I will not soon be applying for a job as an international translator since the series of diplomatic incidents that would result would make the series of gaffes byTony Abbott’, the ex-Australian Prime Minister, look inoffensive.

My final note for this blog records that Kaylee was provocative on Sunday 28th. But there is no supporting information, so one can only surmise who was being provoked and why.

Since it was Roger who stated that Kaylee was being provocative and in keeping with the traditional deterioration in relationships between travelling companions, it’s likely that Kaylee was making some pertinent and accurate comment on either Roger or Jill’s proclivities. In Roger’s case this was likely his inclination to spend his entire rest day grovelling under vehicles attaching additional bits of fencing wire and cable ties. No rest for those with OCD.

See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken:

Munurru
Alex Frank

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr
  4. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom
  5. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 5 – Katherine)
  6. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 6 Jasper Gorge)
  7. Beating About the Bush, 60 days in Northern Australia (Part 7 – Halls Creek)
  8. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 8 – Wolf Creek)
  9. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 9 – Purnululu)
  10. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 10 – Kununurra)
  11. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 11 – El Questro)
  12. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 12 – Ellen Brae)
  13. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 13 – Mitchell River)

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 13 – Mitchell River)

From the Gibb River, we easily reach Mitchell River in a day. Along the way the road gets progressively worse but we are still encountering nothing worse than corrugations and a few rocks, so have been making good time.

Just before lunch we turn off the Kalumburu Road and onto the Mitchell River Road. It’s now mostly one lane and the corrugations are interspersed by areas of rock. Still Kaylee’s driveway, at home in Wandiligong, is much worse.

At lunch-time we stop at Munurru, a beautiful spot on the Prince Edward River, just 7 kilometres from the turn off at the junction of the Kalumburu and Mitchell River roads. We decide we will spend a couple of days here on the way back. In the interim  we just have a swim and quick lunch.

The 80-odd kilometres to Mitchell Falls camp ground takes us about two hours. Kaylee, who has already been driving for a couple of hours, decides she wants to drive the rest of the way to avoid car sickness from the windy, bumpy road. She insists on this, even though we have agreed that no one will drive for more than two hours at one go and, as a result, she gets increasingly grumpy as she gets tired.

On arriving at Mitchell River, tired, dusty and beaten up by corrugations, we cannot decide how to park the vehicle. Roger simply wants to face it due north, as always. Jill is worried about being too close to the neighbours and I want to ensure that the external light on the car faces the proposed cooking area. Since all of these things are mutually exclusive we end up moving the vehicle at least four times. By this time neighbouring campers are throwing things at us, Kaylee wants to kill us all and the vehicle ends up almost exactly as it started. Much like last time. Don’t they say the definition of stupidity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different outcome?

Rock Art, Mertens Falls

At this point Kaylee decides she is turning into a bogan because she keeps saying me instead of my. She tells us that it is now our duty to correct her on each occasion and, if she corrects herself, to give her a Lindt ball each time. I have a strong suspicion that Kaylee actually has no concern about her speech but simply wants to have to eat lots of Lindt balls.

This reminds me of the joke about the Australia cricketer who sledges an English batsmen asking him why he is so fat. The Englishman replies that it is because every time he fucks the Australian’s wife, the wife feeds him a Lindt ball.

Mitchell Falls

After a month we are all occasionally getting on each others nerves and so the conversation morphs into one about remediation of bad habits, preferably each others rather than our own. Key to the discussion is behaviour modification, to prevent us all killing each other. We cannot agree however on who’s habits most require modification. Other than that Jill wants Roger to become less predictable which, given that the single most predictable habit of the entire trip is Jill’s requirement for tea at ten minute intervals, might be a case of pot, kettle, black.

In the morning we set off early for Mitchell Falls. It’s an easy walk through beautiful country. For the last few days we have been passing through open woodland, interspersed with palm forest and stunning rock outcrops, rich with birdlife and wildflowers.

Periodically it morphs from savannah, into palm forest and then into littoral forests some of which is remnant rainforest. Much of the landscape is dominated by giant escarpments. It’s incredibly rich but diverse. When one adds in the presence of boab trees everywhere, it gives the Kimberley landscape a form that is dissimilar to any other landscape in the world, although the African veldt is probably the closest.

As we move through the valley of the Mertens River towards the Mitchell River we descend into rich, wet valleys rich with Aboriginal rock art and palm gullies and then climb back into rock country, littered with outcrops and spinifex. The landscape is interspersed with grevilleas, acacias and kapok bushes. As we walk we pass flocks of finches and red-tailed black cockatoos.

There are three sets of falls on the walk, Little and Big Mertens Falls and Mitchell Falls. Mitchell Falls splits into four sets of falls, even in the dry. In the wet it splits further into several more falls as the side channels pour over the rock platforms on top.

One approaches all three falls from the top across highly polished river rock, allowing easy access and great views down the gorges.

In the dry season both rivers follow a smallish main channel down over the falls but the rock platforms, over which the river runs in the wet, are easily 200 metres wide at the top of the Mitchell Falls.

These rock platforms are deeply incised by gullies and channels. Even mid-way through the dry a good flow of water is dropping over the main and side falls. The Mertens River joins the Mitchell below Mitchell falls.

We make our way around the falls to a long-deep pool just below an upper fall and join the relative throngs (about 20-30 people) relaxing in the water and shade. Above the falls one can cross the main channel, where it widens out and becomes shallower.

It’s there that the teeming masses, who cannot be bothered to walk back, take the six minute, $130 helicopter ride back to the camp or the lodge. The crossing point allows access to the track leading to the viewing point where one can look back to the main falls.

Lunchtime is peak hour at Mitchell Falls but by 2 pm there are only a handful of people left. By the time we leave at 3 pm there are just us and one other family.

In the air and at the campground on the other hand it is ‘Apocalypse Now‘. There are four helicopters operating and they land just metres from the campsite shuttling back and forth to the falls every few minutes. It is at moments like these that one wishes for a ground to air missile.

We walk back to camp stopping to swim along the way. The red tailed cockatoos are kicking up racket in the trees as we pass.

In the morning we head out and back to Munurru.

See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken:

Mitchell Falls

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr
  4. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom
  5. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 5 – Katherine)
  6. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 6 Jasper Gorge)
  7. Beating About the Bush, 60 days in Northern Australia (Part 7 – Halls Creek)
  8. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 8 – Wolf Creek)
  9. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 9 – Purnululu)
  10. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 10 – Kununurra)
  11. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 11 – El Questro)
  12. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 12 – Ellen Brae)

Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 12 – Ellen Brae)

We leave El Questro. Three days is enough. While parts of the station are spectacular and it’s a well run operation, albeit pretty understaffed, it feels too much like what it is – a mass tourist operation.

Our next major stop is Mitchell River but we plan to stop over-night along the way. It is possible to make it to Mitchell River in a day but it’s a very long day. The road is good and we make good time past a series of spectacular bluffs.

For anyone who has ever seen a western flick, we feel like we are riding through the American west and that a bunch of so-called Indians should appear on the horizon at any moment. Jill is almost orgasmic with bluff pleasure and, with some difficulty, we restrain her from wading into crocodile infested rivers such is her excitement.

We cross several major rivers on route including the Durack and the Pentecost and then head to higher country. Shortly after crossing the Pentecost we pass a lookout which gives a great view right along the whole line of bluffs, stretching for miles, back up to Wyndham.

We pull into the lookout and are assailed by hundreds of chirps and squawks. We have finally come in range of the only Telecom tower between here and Alaska. It sits at the top of the hill and three phones and two iPads have gone berserk, instantly downloading hundreds of emails and messages.

We chat to a car full of Canadians, coming from the west, who tell us that rounding the corner, a kilometre or so back, they were mystified as to why this car was apparently parked on a long stretch of featureless road until they realised that both occupants were busy looking at their mobiles next to the Telstra tower.

Fifty kilometres further on we strike our first accident. We later find that this is a notorious corner on the road. An old 1980s land cruiser has left the road and rolled. The driver’s side is all smashed and the driver is lying by the road waiting for an ambulance which has been called by satellite phone. Half a dozen vehicles have stopped to assist. There is nothing we can do, so we proceed on to Ellen Brae Station for a mid-afternoon stop.

The selection of Ellen Brae is not random. It was noted, on the very first day of our trip, that it advertises freshly baked scones, jam and cream and tea. So this has been a higher priority for some people on our trip (who shall of course be nameless) than Purnululu or the Horizontal Falls. Never mind the gorges, feel the jam and cream.

For all those who may follow in our intrepid footsteps, your trip advisor can report as follows: Ellen Brae is a pleasant interlude from traveling but we were sadly let down by both the food and the standards of those eating the food. Despite claiming to be a tea connoisseur, there was one among us who failed to uphold proper tea standards.

The absence of correct bone china cups, the poor quality of jam (neither home made nor good quality purchased jam), the acceptance of long-life milk, tea bag tea and lower than expected standards for cream should lead to permanent expulsion from the tea connoisseurs club. Even the scones which, it was generally agreed, were of reasonable quality were given unreasonably high marks by our nameless member. We can report, as follows, the various star ratings for each item of food and drink etc:

Tea: 2.25 of of 5 but marked down to 2 for being served in standard pottery mugs and being made with tea bags!

Jam: 2 out of 5, poor mass produced jam.

Scones: 3.5 out of 5. Warm, good texture and consistency but not cordon bleu.

Cream: 3 out of 5. Reasonable quality but not whipped sufficiently.

Ambiance: 3.75 out of 5, pleasant old-style shed and furniture. Well placed bird feeders added to the interest and charm. In addition the station had a first rate bush-dunny consisting of bog-standard long-drop (no pun intended), roof height at about 170 centimetres (leaving many visitors with scarred foreheads) and walls of shade cloth.

We can however report that the toasted sandwiches were of a high standard and, Margaret, I’m giving it a 4. Had there been pineapple it would have been 4.5 stars.

Evening reflections on the Gibb River

Mine hosts appeared to be a bit over it. Bog standard tourist questions such “what are the names of the dogs?”, had obviously led to response fatigue. As a result the owners had provided a standard Q and A, posted on the board, in order to avoid unnecessary interaction with visitors. Among the Q and As were: “The dogs’ names are Ned and Kelly, born….; yes, this is the homestead; we bake 200 scones a day” etc

Our group also faced a major issue of guilt at Ellen Brae. The walls were adorned with some quality paintings and prints of the region and Kaylee was keen to buy one for a memory. However Roger caused a strong Presbyterian/consumer guilt outbreak by saying that he felt that Kaylee was, somewhat astoundingly, worse than Jill when it comes to momento shopping.

This caused Kaylee to have an onset of first world consumer guilt and she refused to purchase anything else. Her children and their partners, being the main recipients of said consumerism, will no doubt be saddened by this.

It’s possible the situation was compounded by the presence of large numbers of double barred finches at the bird feeders. Kaylee had been given a pair of double barred finches as a child and has suffered life-long trauma over the imprisonment of her finches. This guilt had been made worse when one died leaving the other a widow (or possibly widower since sex had not been determined). Apparently the remaining finch had survivor guilt and shuffled off the mortal coil soon afterwards.

We left Ellen Brae, with those among us having, variously, fed ourselves, failed to purchase presents for family, visited the bush dunny and self-flagellated over historical gifts of double-barred finches.

We returned to our vehicle where the interior temperature was at around 70 degrees centigrade. This was as a result of Roger’s insistence that, despite the presence of many shade trees, we are required to park facing the sun at all times in order to avoid any minimal risk of battery degradation.

Sunset on the road to Mitchell River, overnight camp stop by the Gibb River

It was now around 3 pm and there was certainly no chance of reaching Drysdale River Station on the Kalumburu Road where we had intended to spend the night. The search for an overnight bush camp commenced. At 4 pm we reached the intersection with Kalumburu Rd. Several people were stopped there but we discounted it as it was dry, dusty and right on the main highway.

We continued north. Five kilometres further on we crossed the Gibb River which was still flowing strongly and was a perfect spot for a camp.

In one of those peculiarities of road naming, the Gibb River road never crosses the Gibb River itself. It is, perhaps, a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. If you go to Tennant Creek town you will find it is ten kilometres from Tennant Creek. During a big wet, a few years after Tennant was established, the dray (cart) delivering supplies became bogged short of the town. All the beer was on the dray. So they moved the town to the beer.

Among our fellow campers at the Gibb River crossing are three cyclists who have cycled from Kununurra to Kalumburu and are heading back to the Gibb River Road. Our nearest neighbours are tour guides who tell us they have been coming to the Kimberley for 20 years and that next year will be their last trip due to the increasing numbers of tourists. It’s now too crowded for them.

They have a small poodle which, in my view, like all small dogs, should be used for crocodile bait. It’s a perfect solution. Cats eat 70 million Australian native animals per night. So lets feed the cats to the dogs and the dogs to the crocs. Failing that crying babies in campgrounds are an option as a food source though whether they should be fed to the cats, dogs or crocs is a moot point.

Sunset is beautiful and Kaylee and I sit by the river and have a quite drink to her Mum whose birthday it was. A perfect spot for good memories. We settle in for a relaxing and quiet evening around the camp fire. Moments later our silence is shattered by an approaching rumble and we hear the sound of air brakes and engine brakes.

A road train has arrived and it pulls in about 20 metres away. The two drivers proceed to set up camp and to introduce us to their exemplary taste in music. Rocktober starts blasting the camp, with various renditions of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out for Summer, Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls, Billy Idol’s White Wedding etc. Our involuntary concert finishes up around 10 pm.

Morning starts at 6 am when the boys from Big Rig start up their engine for departure. The concepts of consideration or of ‘camp voice’ seems to have eluded them. But our early alarm call has the advantage that we are also on the road early, so that we are in Drysdale River around 10 am. This is the last stop for fuel and food before Mitchell Falls.

Our stop is not entirely useful given that the Drysdale River store’s entire food supply is one shrivelled apple, a black banana and a can of tinned peaches. It does appear to have half of Australia’s known supply of meat, however, and, at least, it is not the servo with no diesel.

While the supply of diesel is no problem actually getting it into the tank is another issue since the pumps are busier than a Kings Cross brothel during happy hour. Unlike said brothel, it is not self-service. All the pumping has to be done by one of the employees rather than the clients. Not to complain, (although we did) 30 minutes later we are fuelled and ready to leave.

Only the tyres remain to be checked. I head off in search of the compressor and find the workshop. There is no one around so I enter the building. At this point the local bush equivalent to the ancient mariner appears and orders me out of the workshop. He does not look if he is friendly to latte sipping southern tourists.

It is the first time  in 40 years of ignoring workshop signs that I have actually been ordered out of a workshop. The nanny state has clearly reached northern WA. I am, regardless, offered the use of the airline and after checking pressures we depart.

See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken:

Ellen Brae
Gibb River Bush Camp

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr
  4. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom
  5. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 5 – Katherine)
  6. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 6 Jasper Gorge)
  7. Beating About the Bush, 60 days in Northern Australia (Part 7 – Halls Creek)
  8. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 8 – Wolf Creek)
  9. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 9 – Purnululu)
  10. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 10 – Kununurra)
  11. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 11 – El Questro)

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 10 – Kununurra)

From Purnululu we head for Kununurra which will be our next rest day after Katherine. Our first stop, for fuel and refreshments is Warmun (formerly Turkey Creek).

Here we meet, John, another intrepid cyclist. He is from New Zealand and is en route from Darwin to Perth. His wife has abandoned him for the trip as she considers his passion for riding long distances over main roads to be something only explicable in the average asylum.

 

His two main loads are 30 litres of water and a bird book the size of the average car fridge. He expects to be in Broome, some 700 kilometres away, in two weeks. His trip has been a positive experience with passing motorists offering, water, lifts, tea and cake.

He notes that women are much more positive about his trip than men, with the women offering praise and enthusiasm and the men offering assessments of his sanity. John suggests that men feel that their masculinity is threatened, because they are cruising comfortably in four-wheel drives, so they feel compelled to belittle his achievement.

 

The scenery, as we travel east, is a mixture of spinifex plains and low mountain ranges topped by escarpments. The Goddess of Weird Excitability at Very Small Things Indeed (GoWEaVSTI), aka Jill, is agog. If we still used cellulose film instead of digital there would scarcely be enough cellulose on earth to sate her enthusiasm.

As we broach a rise in the road a low range of hills appears as a pimple in the distance. It is indeed topped by a very nice escarpment. Stop! the GoEaVSTI urges us. Scarcely a more glorious range of hills has ever been seen, she exclaims, it must be photographed immediately and multiple times.

A collective rolling of eyes occurs. But, GoWEaVSTI, we say, it is very similar to hundreds of other such ranges we have seen and will, indeed, not be capture-able on the implement for capturing such images. It will be simply a line on the horizon. But captured it was. And, lo, it was a line on the horizon.

We roll into Kununurra, which advertises itself as the gateway to the Kimberley. It is packed full of tourists along with a few intrepid “travellers”, like ourselves, who are exploring where thousands have gone before. We find ourselves ensconced in the Kimberley-land Holiday Park.

Unfortunately the lakeside site which we should have had is denied us when Roger appears unable to choose between a beautiful, green lakeside side with views of sunsets, birds, water and numerous other upmarket facilities and a dusty, non-lakeside site, with no views, directly on the toilet block and hence passed by several dozen visitors each five minutes.

As an added bonus we are mere feet from the kiddies playground which, I should add, does not change my view on involuntary euthanasia for noisy children.

Forced by Roger to consult and achieve consensus over such a difficult choice we find ourselves gazumped by the next arrivals. They for some reason, unlike Roger, are able to see, on the map, that the site indicated as being by the lake is, indeed, by the lake. Our camp site is lost.

Some compensation is achieved by the fact that we are adjacent to a very pleasant family from Macedon, Victoria, called the Royals. The Royals pass us important and confidential information about destinations which are, of course, not available to other tourists. This includes secret information such as the most popular camping spots around Wyndham.

Since it is late and no one feels inclined to cook we go for dinner across the road. The food is passable but the decor, which consists of photographs of a variety of female crotch and tit shots leaves something to be desired. MONA it is not.

Our days in Kununurra are dedicated to business and provisions, as well as a brief lunch with Lloyd, Lynda and two friends who are traveling with them. But first order of business is locating the town’s best coffee shop which is the Mango Tree on the corner of the main street. We also have to get our temporary repair to the sump crash plate fixed.

While the car is being fixed I retreat to the library. It is a beautiful new library. I am apparently funding its entire construction costs in the amount I am paying for access to the internet. At least it is a good investment since I am able to respond to my tax accountant about some questions he has about my tax return. He is unconvinced that by using the local coffee shop in Byron for work, I can charge all my several thousand coffees against my tax.

We replenish our food and alcohol supplies. Licensing rules in Kununurra limit us to one bottle of spirits per person, so we need three separate purchases. The most important additional purchase, over and above the gin and tonic, is a bottle of Baileys to add to the morning espresso.

For the uninitiated this is an essential component of camping trips which I discovered on freezing cold climbing trips in Joshua Tree and Red Rocks in the US. When you get up, sit in a chair facing east, in your sleeping bag and watch the sunrise while drinking coffee and Baileys.

Apart from being a perfect day-starter, it has the added advantage of relaxing one enough that one’s climbing techniques improve considerably. On this trip its function is to improve ones dexterity while climbing on the vehicle to put the tents away.

A part of our alcohol allocation permitted the purchase of six bottles of apple cider for Jill, who promptly gets drunk on one bottle. Jill observes that alcohol does not really agree with her. Jill’s tendency to be a cheap drunk has a very problematic downside on the morning that we leave Kununurra.

Kaylee and I are outraged to discover that she has given away the rest of our communal bottles of cider because she can’t cope with the entirely predictable side-effects of alcohol.

Roger and Jill are out canoeing on the lake when Lloyd and Lynda turn up. Kaylee and I meet them in the Mango Tree. They are travelling in an identical hire vehicle to us, albeit that, because theirs not a one way hire, they have been able to leave the surplus swag, chemical toilet and other encumbrances in Alice Springs. The vehicles are equipped, unlike most similar four-wheel drives, with two double tents constructed on the one roof.

I observe to Lloyd and Lynda that the main drawback is their proclivity to roll around like a ship in a storm when anyone moves. There is no need for Kaylee and I to move if we want to have sex. One person simply lies on top of the other and we simply wait for Roger to turn over, at which point the swaying motion of the vehicle accomplishes everything for which one might otherwise have to exert oneself. There is the added benefit that the only thing Roger and Jill notice is that Roger has turned over. It is the perfect sexual technique for shared vehicles.

Saturday morning sees Kaylee and I go kayaking on Lake Kununurra. My paddling technique is somewhat limited since I managed to put my back out due to Roger’s night-time movements but it’s an easy and short paddle surrounded by a plethora of water birds.

It is one of the bizarre eccentricities of bad backs that you can spend three weeks walking, lifting heavy boxes, climbing on vehicles, crawling under vehicles etc with no ill effects. On the other hand one tiny movement, with no apparent stress, and ones back decides to pack it in for three days. I am consoled by the thought of cooked breakfast at the Mango Tree.

While Kaylee and I are breakfasting, Roger does the shopping. This later proves problematic since, according to Jill, Roger is foolish enough to actually follow the shopping list. Jill’s technique, according to her own admission, is to waste a considerable amount of time writing a detailed list of requirements and then completely ignore it.

Having written your redundant shopping list you then go shopping, randomly adding anything you feel like and increasing or decreasing the shopping list accordingly.

To quote: “I just add at least a third more things to any list to ensure we have enough”. The logic of writing a list seems to have passed Jill by. After our breakfast I visit the chemist to replenish my reading and sunglass supply. I have a reading glass consumption rate of about 2 pairs per month and, regrettably no strategy, such as tying glasses to fixed objects, has managed to reduce that.

Our final job is to explore getting rid of surplus gear to make packing easier. We plan to freight the chemical toilet and spare swag to Perth. We ring the local trucking companies. Only one is open on a Saturday morning. They need to check on costs and delivery schedules and promise to ring back. But by the time that call comes we have already left and are out of mobile range.

We are now officially on the way down the Gibb River Road which branches off from the road to Wyndham. But first we plan a quick detour to Wyndham. It is one of those towns on which one gets mixed reports. But like Halls Creek its sum is greater than its parts.

Many of the alleged attractions of the town are closed, such as Look Sea Fishing Charters, the crocodile farm, the botanic gardens, the Lee Tong’s Oriental Grocer, the video store and the war memorial gardens. The town is also a tad overwhelmed by a constant stream of road trains carrying ore from the nearby mine.

Having had a poke around the town we stop for afternoon tea at the Rusty Shed, where, as with virtually ever other place we have visited, we are served by a French woman on a working holiday.

It seems our hospitality industry is sustained by visitors on long-term holidays. We meet Fred there who recounts his life history as a emigre from the Netherlands and a long-term resident of Wyndham.

Fred is fascinating and has strong links with the Aboriginal community. His father was part of the resistance during World War 2. He recounts the difficulties of surviving the war with virtually no food and getting arrested for cutting down trees for firewood.

He says that even in the fifties there were massacres of Aboriginal people occurring He quotes a case where a black tracker, from one clan group, assisted some people to kill a group of other blackfellas from a different clan group.

On Wyndham’s positive side there is a thriving and well managed caravan park, as well as the aforementioned Rusty Shed which a great cafe, There is an impressive Aboriginal memorial which is hidden in the back blocks and is half dignified and half kitsch. Nearby there is the fantastic Five Rivers Lookout from which you get a Panorama of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf where the five huge rivers meet on an enormous flood plain.

Leaving the Five Rivers Lookout we pick up fuel and head out down the road to the Gibb turnoff.

En route we stop to photograph the boot tree which appears to be a random tree into which passing motorists have thrown their worn out boots. It is at the top of the hill on the other side of double white lines. I insist we stop to get a photograph of this phenomenon and my insistence persuades Roger, just short of the crest of hill, to swerve at high speed across the double white lines in order to meet my request.

Mission accomplished, Roger is advised by Jill that crossing a double white line at speed is risky and out of character and that he has been in my company for too long.

See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken:

Kununarra
Wyndham

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr
  4. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom
  5. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 5 – Katherine)
  6. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 6 Jasper Gorge)
  7. Beating About the Bush, 60 days in Northern Australia (Part 7 – Halls Creek)
  8. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 8 – Wolf Creek)
  9. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 9 – Purnululu)

Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 5 – Katherine)

Beyonce has returned!! Our vehicle which suffered a cracked brake line has been returned to us but with no guarantees. The mechanic believes the repair will last for our trip, at least, but someone, somewhere in the future, will suffer the same fate, he predicts.

It appears that the original modifications to the vehicle were not carried out to spec and this has led to the brake problem.

Roger wants to see Katherine Gorge so we decide on a two night stay in town. We book into the Katherine River Lodge. It is clean but based on room size, cat-swinging is prohibited. The motel has a large resident population some of whom appear not to like each other much. Our neighbour has pasted a large sign on the pole outside his door “Don’t touch my laundry you bitch”.

Good relations among the motel residents

The next room to our neighbour’s is occupied by a young Chinese woman. We approve of her ability to adopt Australian ‘tea leaf’ practice but we wonder if she is into cross-dressing, since she is, allegedly, stealing male underwear, .

The first night brings another major decision. Will we stay at the motel and partake of the $15 pasta night or get takeaways. Kaylee vetoes the pasta night. She has seen a picture of one dish which she describes as looking like excreted tape-worms covered by a dollop of pasta sauce. We want Thai but the nearest Thai restaurant is at the Border Store in Kakadu some 200 kilometres away. So Chinese takeaway it is.

We use Katherine to finish numerous jobs. Roger has a job application to write. Among other jobs I have my tax return to complete so that I have something to live on for the next few weeks. Kaylee has to change her phone over from Optus to Telstra Pre-paid so that she can get reception. For Kaylee, dealing with Telstra is as desirable as an Abbott Government or walking on hot coals. Katherine is the start of her Telstra saga, a saga that will last a week or two.

With numerous jobs to do that require internet we become permanent members of the Coffee Club which provides free internet, half-decent coffee and air-conditioning. By the time we leave town we are on first name terms with most of the staff. Jill and Roger are unaware that I have invited all of them to stay with Roger and Jill at Bundagen. Surprises are good things in life.

A key task for Kaylee is to get her Telstra sim card working so that she can occasionally have phone and internet access on this trip but, more particularly, on her subsequent 1000 km bushwalk along the Bibulman track through south-west Western Australia. Currently she can get phone calls but she cannot get data.

There are no Telstra shops in Katherine, so Kaylee is on the phone to Telstra. Telstra advises Kaylee that it is not their problem but that of Optus because the phone must be locked to Optus.

Katherine Gorge

Kaylee calls Optus who advise that it is not their problem as it is not locked to Optus. By this time there are a long stream of expletives emitting from the vicinity of Kaylee. She abandons the issue, for now, as it is time for her, Roger and Jill to decamp to Nitmiluk, where Roger and Jill will go kayaking up the gorge. I am left to the pleasures of tax returns and similar tasks.

Later Kaylee calls Telstra again. After an hour on phone to Telstra most fragile objects within metres of Kaylee are at risk of imminent destruction. But apparently the problem has been resolved. Or so she believes. I think pigs might fly.

Chrystal Creek, Katherine Gorge

Roger, Jill and Kaylee return from Nitmiluk. Kaylee has multi-tasked by responding to a call from Energy Australia which she received while at the lookout at Nitmiluk. This is another of her favourite tasks. Two months after installation, Energy Australia advises her that they have been unable to activate her solar panels because Adam Cartwright, her electrician, failed to tick box six on the form which he submitted two months ago.

In keeping with the extraordinary level of customer service in Australia, rather than ringing and advising Kaylee of the issue, they decided the customer should use their omniscience to automatically know that there was a problem.

Kaylee has suggested that one of the helpful Energy Australia staff could perhaps ring the electrician and directed them not to call her for two months since she wouldn’t be answering her phone.

While Kaylee struggles with Telstra and Energy Australia, I am dealing with Australia Post. My parcel which I had hoped to receive in Darwin and which I had asked to be forwarded to Katherine is still lost.

Abandoning all hope of receipt I have concentrated on other tasks. A tour of Katherine’s op shops has delivered me a long sleeve shirt and a mossie-proof pair of long trousers. With my exceptional packing skills I had ended up with 6 pairs of jocks, 6 cords to charge my phone, 8 pens, a tube of punctured rectal cream which leaks through everything and  enough warm clothes for Antarctica (very useful in the tropics) but no long trousers or long-sleeved shirt or coffee maker.

My walking boots which gave me blisters walking 200 metres down Ann St in Brisbane have, however been replaced. My consumer blitz also delivers me a new espresso maker and a head torch (another useful omission during my packing frenzy).

Post Katherine Gorge kayaking we meet back at the Coffee Club. We are now life members. Jill and Roger report that they covered the Katherine Gorge sprint of 3.2 kms in the unparalled time of 30 minutes. Since the Olympic record for the K1 2000 metres is about 30 seconds, some Olympic training is still required, but I don’t mention this.

During their absence I have discovered the joy of the Katherine library which has also set a world record for a public library internet access charge of $6 per hour. A good book burning is deserved as retaliation for the library’s unrivalled exploitation of the public.

We have some final tasks before we leave. Woolworths is calling, as is shopping for a few car spares. We head for Repco to buy hoses and belts among other things but leave empty handed. Katherine’s biggest car spares shop has no spares for Australia’s second most popular four-wheel drive.

Our time in Katherine is almost at an end. Time for a barbie at the hot springs and a moonlight swim. We head out to the springs for dinner. It’s the last supper in Katherine.

See all collection from which these images were selected on Flickr:
Katherine: https://flic.kr/s/aHskx3dtCG
Katherine Gorge: https://flic.kr/s/aHsiYhi6DU

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr
  4. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr

After departing Twin Falls, we head for Nourlangie Rock. As we approach the Kakadu Highway, the main road between Pine Creek and Jabiru, Kaylee complains about the brakes. They are spongy and it takes a while to stop. But we think maybe it is just dust or water in the brakes. But, hey, there isn’t much to hit out here so who cares.

The car park is packed. It is a chaos of buses, cars and a parade of 4WDs in all shapes and sizes. Two rangers are checking park entry tickets. They are being harangued by a French man in his 50s who appears not to understand that it is not the rangers’ fault that he is apparently functionality illiterate (at least in English) and cannot understand signs with the simple words “park entry permit required”. I wish I had a baguette and I would stuff it somewhere he deserved to receive it.

It is the antipodean version of my experience in France where ignorant English speakers would behave like ill-mannered louts if someone couldn’t speak English. First ask your question. If you don’t get the answer you want repeat the question, just louder until you are shouting. I Always felt like I should hand them the quotation that says “the definition of stupidity is repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome”.

We do a lazy tour of Nourlangie, admiring some of the world’s finest indigenous rock art, and then climb to the lookout. We wonder why the parks service still insists on retaining signs calling it Nourlangie when the interpretive signs clearly say that the traditional owners want it renamed with its traditional name. Renaming would have the additional advantage that a large proportion of visitors would no longer be able to find it and would make the visit of the remainder much more pleasant.

Most of the visitors are blissfully ignorant that if our Governments, of both political persuasions, had got their way, Nourlangie Rock would have been blessed with the sound and dust of a proposed uranium mine only a couple of kilometres distant.

The proposed Koongarra mine lease was excised from the park back when it was established in the 1970s and was only added to the park this year (2014) due to the persistent opposition of the Aboriginal traditional owners to mining at the location.

 

Lunch brings us to Jabiru, the mining town created for the Ranger uranium mine. It is a little oasis of neo-colonial white development on Aboriginal land. The Ranger mining lease existed before the park was created and prior to land rights, so traditional owners had no right to veto it, even had they wanted to.

Tidy quarter acre blocks bake in the sun, each with their ugly brick veneer home. In common with most communities in the NT, Jabiru has a major drinking and domestic violence problem.

Ranger Mine (now closed as at 2021)

For white people those social problems are hidden behind the neat facades of modern Australia, whereas for the black community the issues with alcohol and violence are played out on the streets. This means that society can look down on Aboriginal people as being hopeless drunks while pretending their own issues don’t exist.

Ranger has been operating for about 35 years. It is a model of mismanagement, regularly enduring accidents, leaks of contaminated water and similar malfunctions. But neither Federal nor NT Governments really care since both are client states of the mining industry. So Ranger, which should have been closed years ago, goes blithely on.

Our party of four continue on our un-planned way. Even though we plan nothing we still operate more smoothly than the Ranger mine.

Sun and smoke over the Magela wetlands

We have forgotten that it is Saturday, so our planned shopping expedition suffers credit card interruptus because the supermarket closes at 3 pm. As a result we are forced to decamp sans the espresso maker I planned to buy. Mawson was forced to eat huskies and I shall be forced to drink earl grey. In fact I shall apparently be forced to drink it very often.

So far we are two days behind schedule, solely and only because Jill insists on stopping for tea about every 17 minutes. Few first world problems could be more daunting than earl grey tea every 17 minutes and no coffee.

Last sun from the top of Ubirr

Next stop is Ubirr. The road, which was a windy dirt road of many creek crossings, often closed in wet season, is now sealed. The crossing of Magela Creek, once  an expendition in its own right, is now a routine exercise. Many of the side roads down which one could venture to the flood plain have been closed and locked with gates. The camp ground which used to border the East Alligator is now set back 3 kilometres from it and the Border store which was once an archetypal remote store now has a Thai restaurant.

Ubirr is not only a major rock art site but also one of the best places in the park to experience the interaction of flood plain and stone country. I have visited it more than 20 times over the years to experience the sublime sunsets from the top of the rock and the unequalled sense of the spiritual.

Some of that remains although the numbers watching the sunset have increased more than 10 fold and there are more than 200 people enjoying the Kakadu equivalent of Uluru’s sunset strip when we arrive.

Jill is so seduced by the elixir of sunset and flood that, despite her alleged fear of heights, she thinks she can fly. She moves ever closer the the rock edge much to Kaylee’s consternation, who, as a result, has her  experience of the tranquility of Ubirr severely undermined.

Jill contemplating flight

Dinner time brings us to the Border Store, which is arguably Australia’s most remote Thai restaurant. We eat duck curry surrounded by $1000 art works all of which lean crazily on bits of wire. The food and coffee are good. But there is no dessert…Kaylee is devastated and she suffers dessert withdrawal symptoms.

This lack of dessert and its associated sugar hit appears to lead to some sort of memory loss over coming days…such as thinking she has lost her phone which she plugged into the charger only 30 seconds ago. She also manages to  go for a shower with no soap, towel, shampoo, or change of clothes, but takes her phone as a substitute for those items, meaning she has to do another 100 metre return trip to the showers.

Before leaving the Ubirr area we embark on a short walk around the rock country near the East Alligator River. As with almost of Kakadu there is rock art on most of the rock outcrops. Crane your head and some figure or creature appears; the entire landscape is peopled by the spirits of 40,000 years of occupation.

Finally we head down to Cahills Crossing where one crosses the East Alligator from Kakadu into Arnhem Land. The crossing is a sort of mythical divide between Aboriginal Arnhem Land and the rest of Australia and is impassable in the wet.

The occasional person has become crocodile bait here. In 1987, when I was working in the park, a local miner imbued with alcohol immunity waded into the downstream side of the crossing to fish one evening, despite warnings of sightings of a large black crocodile. He was reported to have said that he had been fishing there for 15 years and had never had a problem. Minutes later he was dead. So it goes.

Most years people get caught out by a sudden onset of the wet and get trapped on one side or the other; in 1988 a sudden wet caught dozens of vehicles on the Arnhem Land side and the Gagadju Association did a nice business towing vehicles across using its grader. Cost $200 a pop.

See all collection from which these images were selected on Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHskwuKZAM

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls

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