Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 18 – Windjana)

Windjana is our last proper stop on our Gibb River trip. Once we turn off for the gorge we will not be heading further down the Gibb but will press on through to Fitzroy Crossing and Geikie Gorge.

 

The country around Tunnel Gorge

The drive from Bell Gorge to Windjana takes about three hours. As you approach the turn-off to Windjana the landscape takes on a different dimension comprising massive sandstone escarpments, limestone reefs and what appear to be volcanic plugs. It is spectacular country laced and riven by massive rivers.

The country approaching Windjana

 

Just to ensure that we are not lulled into a false sense of security by the absence of anything having fallen off the vehicle for several days we get our second puncture of the trip. This time we have a tear in the sidewall, as a result of Roger using that tyre to move the fire pit, while we were at Bell Gorge. So it is farewell to that tyre.

Approaching Tunnel Gorge

 

We stop for lunch at a free camping spot just metres from the Windjana turn-off where the Lennard River crosses the main highway. Like many of the free camping sites it is nicer than the paid camping spots and they are often less crowded as well.

One just has to deal with the morons who are too lazy to dig a toilet hole and think that wads or streams of toilet paper decorated white and brown are a good adornment of any campsite. Kaylee takes the time to find some ochre rocks and gets into a bit of local rock art. The next civilisation that comes along, once ours has disappeared, will be confused.

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Windjana exterior walls

We arrive at Windjana in late afternoon. Kaylee is suffering from a sore neck from having nightmares the previous night. Kaylee has been psychologically disturbed by a dream about being unable to finish her shopping in the IGA, among other things. In order to hide from guests who were to be fed by the food she was supposed to buy, but are now starving, she was forced to hide her legs between her head and this has given her a cricked neck. It’s unclear how the position taken in the dream bears any relationship to an actual sore neck.

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Fortuitously she has managed to arrange it so that we are camped directly next to Jerome, a masseur from Victoria, who is travelling with his partner in a blue Kombi and who is able to restore the neck to something approaching operational status. I had already tried to fix Kaylee’s neck in the morning but after Jerome’s massage my status as masseur is significantly downgraded. Were I a film, it would be “I give it one star, David”.

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Sunset reflecting off the exterior walls at Windjana

Like many of the other campgrounds the facilities are good but it is hot and dusty and we put off going to the gorge until tomorrow. In lieu of being completely lazy we all take some short walks around the bush adjacent to the gorge.

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Windjana approaching nightfall

Windjana gorge is created by the Lennard river cutting through the Napier Range which is a part of a massive and ancient coral reef that was shipwrecked here by the retreating oceans as the planet cooled 450 million years ago.

The Napier range is part of a Devonian reef complex that extends for some 350 km along the northern margin of the Canning Basin. It skirts all around the Kimberley to join with similar reefs in the Ningbing Range, near Kununurra and also includes Tunnel Greek and Geikie Gorge.

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Windjana at sunset

We follow the outer walls of the reef which stands 100 metres high and is red but stained black by oxidation and/or minerals. The sun is setting behind us and, away from the wall, the temperature is dropping but, as one closes in on the wall, the black rock acts like a giant radiator giving off masses of heat.

As the sun drops the walls light up in a gold red glow punctuated by the silhouettes of boabs. It is one of those moments of light and colour that come rarely in a lifetime.

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We retire to camp to cook dinner and relax. The big news of the night is that Jill is happy with the toilets and showers. We are required to receive a Jill-dunny report at each campground we visit. This urge to dunny analysis has been created by her trauma at having to live for 20 odd years without an en suite at her house.

Consequently we get a star rating analysis of the dunny as part of the normal travel arrangements. The state of the dunny is in fact more important than whether the car has oil and only marginally less important that a non-stop supply of tea.

The camp manager comes around to check on fees and Jill questions her about the lights in the distance. She tells us it is a diamond mine and has a communications contract with Optus. Consequently Windjana is the only place in the Kimberley one can get Optus reception. Optus advertises that it covers 95% of Australians but doesn’t tell you that they all live in about 5% of Australia (the coast and major regional centres) and that it has no reception anywhere else.

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The news on the mine is received with some relief by Roger who up until this point has refused to stand up for the last hour. He feeds us some story about his childhood when he was, apparently, traumatised by the possibility of being kidnapped by aliens and the presence of unknown lights reminds him of this trauma.

Worse still this trauma is compounded by the fact that, according to Roger, in all the alien films he has seen, the aliens all torture/carry out the equivalent of scientific whaling by penetrating their human captives with anal probes. Roger’s fear of being anally probed by the nearby aliens that he has remained seated for hours and now has constipation, so over the next days the toilet stops are extended. Perhaps alien probes would be the solution for that constipation.

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Aside from freedom from concerns about alien captivity, the other result of the Optus information there is a mad scramble to re-fit Optus sim cards to phones. We have lost Roger since he is now marooned on top of the vehicle for the entire night trying to get the one bar of Optus reception.

Periodically, when he is not actually talking on the phone, he sticks his head over the side of the roof and we feed him a spoon of dinner. Roger’s sacrifice is not in vain and every five minutes we get updates via Roger, from son Arlen, on the Super 15 rugby union final and the ultimate one point victory of the Waratahs. Roger is so happy he almost falls off the vehicle roof.

 

 

 

Our other near neighbours are a father and daughter combination who have driven out in the daughter’s old commodore station wagon. Emily has retired early to a luxurious sleep in the back of the station wagon leaving her Dad stuck alone in the campground and destined to pass a long uncomfortable night in the front seat.

We invite him over for drinks and it turns out that he works for the WA Water authority. Among their concerns is keeping Coal Seam Gas drilling and extraction out of their catchments. But all that interests the WA Government, in common with most Australian state governments, is the almighty dollar. Hence they are losing the battle to protect water catchments in the face of massive pressure from the mining industry.

 

One of Windjana’s freshwater crocs

In the morning we head off early to the gorge. Aside from being physically impressive it is mightily. interesting geologically. The limestone abounds with fossilised marine creatures of all shapes and sizes, such as fossilised giant crocodile some thirty metres above the current river level in a cave.

There are also more freshwater crocs, in the gorge, than one can poke a stick at and we count 40 altogether on our walk.

The track abounds with bird life and we add to our twitcher score with some more varieties of fig bird and honeyeaters. The track is only 2.5 kilometres long but by the time we have scoured every corner of the gorge and stopped to look at about 50 birds it is already lunch-time. The gorge walls are already pumping out heat from their blacks surfaces. It’s something of a relief to exit and return to camp.

Freshies. Mostly not dangerous, just don’t make them feel threatened

Roger and Jill set off before Kaylee and I and are already back. They have retreated to the sanctuary of their tent which, in an effort to keep it cool, is covered by sarongs pegged on by our entire supply of pegs. As a result every time we do the washing another item of our clothing makes a getaway never to be seen again. The landscape is littered with clean jocks and socks everywhere from Mornington onwards.

As a result of the construction it is alternatively referred to as the sarong sanctuary or the senile sanctuary depending on the recent memory performance of the occupants.


Despite the wear and tear of packing and unpacking we are frequently rescued from difficult situations by the ubiquitous Australia Post box of aforementioned fame. This box has now traveled across the entire continent and continues to be pressed into service for multifarious uses such as yoga mat, pot stand etc. As a result we have now rewarded it with its own chair on which it watches sunrise and sunset with the rest of us.

The famous Australia Post carton which travelled with us for the entire trip

 

We start pulling the tent down for our departure for Tunnel Gorge and then on to Fitzroy Crossing. The packing up has taken on a new dimension since, effectively, Roger and Jill must now pack up two tents. The process involves opening up their tent on the roof, removing the mattress and other contents, then putting up their own ground based tent, inserting the contents from the roof tent and then finally folding up the roof tent again. To leave the reverse process must be followed.

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Jill and Roger perform their daily packing routine

Once this is done the final stage is packing the magic pudding as Jill’s and Roger’s case is known. This involves completely opening the case and stuffing as much into the bottom half of the case as possible. Once done, there is a pile of clothing in the case roughly three times its height of the case when it is empty and closed.

To address this either Roger or Jill closes the lid over the bulging pile, then kneels on the lid of the case while attempting to stuff errant items down the side. Meanwhile the other party attempts to close the clips holding the lid to the bottom. Usually this struggle takes multiple minutes accompanied by much swearing and cursing.

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The Magic Pudding. The next stage is to kneel on the lid

Despite the obstacles to departure we are out of the camp ground by around 11 am. We head off for Tunnel Gorge via a quick stop at the ruins of the police station which was used during the war against local Bunaba people. The most famous of the resistance leaders was Jandamarra who started as a police tracker and later led the resistance against the local police and settlers.

(see: http://www.jandamarra.com.au/jandamarratheman.html).

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Tunnel Creek was one of his main hideouts and we arrive for a walk through the gorge that has cuts through the ancient reef. We arrive to be greeted by three giant Brahmin bulls that are clearly Buddhist as they are entirely docile. We are fortunate to have the place to ourselves other than two of the resident freshwater crocs which put in an appearance as we are wading through.

The absence of other people in the gorge allows one to sense how it might have been when Jandamarra and his resistance fighters were using the tunnel.

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The cave system, of which the tunnel comprises a part, are massive and we walk under enormous ceilings of stalagmites and other limestone formations. The tunnel is pitted with other caves that go off far beyond the walls of the tunnel and the creek is fed by a spring that emerges from the walls part way down. It is an impressive end to our gorge walking.

We leave Tunnel Creek and take the road south to Fitzroy Crossing but night starts falling before we arrive. So we pull up at an old quarry site which is mentioned in the bush camping guide which Kaylee has purchased. It’s a beautiful site with views over the entire surrounding areas of bush but the swimming hole, sadly, is not inviting.

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Police Station ruins near Tunnel Creek

 

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Part of Tunnel Creek

 

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Inside Tunnel Creek

See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken:

Bell Gorge to Windjana
Windjana
Tunnel Creek

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)
  14. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 14 – Munurru)
  15. Beating about the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 15 – Manning)
  16. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (part 16 – Mornington)
  17. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 17- Bell Gorge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (part 16 – Mornington)

After Manning Gorge, Mornington ‘wilderness’ camp is our next stop.

Mornington is run by Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). Normally one has to book ahead but when we arrived the repeater station that allows one to radio to the station office was out of action and had been replaced by a sign saying “If you arrive prior to 11 am just come on down”. Since we have arrived at 10 am we proceed down to the camp.

Mornington is one of a string of reserves established by the AWC which are designed to address the appalling state of the Australian natural environment which has the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world.

The failure to protect habitat, effectively, is one of the key factors in this decline, with the others being excessive burning and feral animals. We should all be eating cat pie on a daily basis since this would put the cattle industry, which is one of the key factors in habitat destruction, into terminal decline. It would also mean that we would reduce the impact of cats which kill 70 million Australian native animals daily (a million feral cats each eating 7 native animals nightly).

The great attraction of Mornington is that it provides some respite from the crowds one encounters in most other parts of the Kimberley.

Despite its reputation the Kimberley is not remote and the Gibb River Road is better than the average road in Byron Shire and, certainly, has fewer potholes. If you happen to break down in the Kimberley you can be sure of assistance from passing vehicles.

The only way you would get as many offers of assistance in, say Sydney, would be if you stood at the side of the road offering free bags of money. So there is little risk to travelling in the Kimberley unless you are either (a) drive dangerously or (b) go fishing for salties with your arms or legs.

The other nice thing about Mornington is that they have a good restaurant although you have to take what is on offer. for the meal of the day A la carte might be a bit much to expect given where they are located.

Both Kaylee and I and Roger and Jill, separately, decided to assist environmental efforts by eradicating some of the excess beef cattle around. Very nice romantic starlit evenings with good wine and food. Or at least Jill and Roger’s would have been had Roger not spent most of the evening on the phone to their sons.

Mornington is where camper-rig envy first kicked in. Having spent the last five weeks lazing around in creeks and walking to remote-ish parts of the Kimberley, Kaylee has decided that would like to continue in this manner should the Department of Education be prepared to continue funding her to laze around on each school holiday. But to do it she requires a state of the art four wheel drive and camping rig.

The end result of this is that anyone who camps within about 200 metres is at risk of having their entire morning devoted to showing Kaylee every spare inch of their ‘rig’.

With each inspection some new requirement is added: the motorised tent so that no effort is required to stow it, the double fridge all on rollers, the sliding sink, the kitchen with 50 separate little drawers for every conceivable object, the espresso machine, the built in massage space etc. As each mornings passes you can an extra year to the length of time she will need to work before she can afford even half of such a beast.

Our first morning, at Mornington, is spent at Bluebush water hole, on the Fitzroy. It’s yet another beautiful swimming hole but from my perspective the main asset is a long rope swing from which one can leap from a great height into the pool below. This allows me to indulge my never to be sated passion for being a ten-year old with access to water and swings and to combine that with my fantasies about flying.

We visit two gorges at Mornington, Dimond Gorge and Sir John Gorge. Both of these sit on the Fitzroy River which drains a vast area of the Kimberley and has 20 major tributaries. It is 733 kilometres long and drains an area of 94,000 square kilometres, just over 3 times the size of Belgium.

Flood flows are among the largest in the world for a catchment of this size and the 1993 flood reached 25,000 cubic metres per second equivalent to 15 Olympic pools each second. Each gorge and waterhole are completely different.

On our second day we head off for Dimond Gorge. Normally we would have hired canoes and gone for a paddle but they are allegedly all booked. On arriving we find 7 canoes lined up unused. Either they have more cancellations than Tiger Air or the booking system leaves something to be desired.

Fate comes to our rescue however and we are able to bot a canoe from two couples who have just finished using theirs. They are graziers from Walcha and discussion turns to the drought. They have now had two dry springs, in succession, and say that a third one, which seems imminent, will be disastrous. Already they have cattle on agistment around Ensay in Victoria.

On the way back from Dimond Gorge we take a quick detour to the wetlands. These are also part of the Fitzroy River and we are fortunate enough to see a pair of Brolgas close up, as well as a mass of long tailed finches.

On our departure I am ambushed by a gaggle of restless flycatchers nearby and in my struggle to both follow them and take pictures I start dropping everything in my possession. Roger following behind dutifully collects everything I drop until he has the appearance of my hired sherpa.

He is carrying my binoculars, binocular case, hat, sunglasses, reading glasses, jumper, t-shirt, lens hood, phone, water bottle and almost everything else I seem to have brought on the two month trip. In keeping with our reward policy he gets a Lindt ball but since he can’t eat Lindt balls I add it to my own tally of rewards which I receive just for giving him the opportunity to win a Lindt ball.

Perhaps the most picturesque of the gorges is Sir John Gorge. Unlike most of the others it is not a high sided gorge but a long flat stretch of water bounded by low red rock walls. The water is dotted with large and small rock outcrops. At sunset it turns into a photographers paradise with the sunset lighting up the walls and their reflections in the water.

While we were there it was perfectly still and we sat on the rock ledges enjoying the beauty. The combination of the stillness, the quiet, the views and reflections instilled in one a perfect sense of tranquility

On our final morning we all plan to go off and do various short walks. But first we must achieve our own version of lost in translation. It is the morning of Premature Packing.

Roger, Kaylee and I are already up and Jill is awake in her tent. As Kaylee and I are going for breakfast in the restaurant I don’t want to leave Roger and Jill to have to pull down the tents alone, so I jump on the roof and start packing it up.

Jill has decided she needs another five minutes dozing and asks me to stop. I assume from her tone that she is joking and I carry on packing. She descends into laughter and keeps repeating her request, so I assume she is finding the sensation of being in a small boat in a storm somewhat amusing. But sadly no, she tells me later, laughter is how she deals with stressful situations and she is not amused.

As with all things it is a question of perspective. I view Jill as being incredibly selfish for wanting extra sleep when everyone else is up and running and somewhat weird for expressing her annoyance with peals of laughter. Jill views me as incredibly insensitive and disrespectful for not listening to her requests to stop packing. Everyone is displeased. If nothing else one understands how World War 1 started.

I am largely oblivious to all this since Kaylee and I have taken off for a bit of amateur twitching on Annie’s Creek where we see a myriad of bush birds including the purple crowned wren, double-barred finch and crimson finch, as well as bower birds, pigeons, doves, honeyeaters etc. Jill meantime is working herself into a state of furious indignation which is to reveal itself later.

By 10 am we are packed and on the road to Bell Gorge. En route we stop to try and spot the ever-elusive and extremely endangered Gouldian Finch but we are out of luck so we have to make do with Boab Valley which is a creek line dominated by hundreds of Boab trees.

Mornington disappears behind us and we are on our way to Windjana Gorge.

See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken:

Mornington

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)
  14. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 14 – Munurru)
  15. Beating about the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 15 – Manning) 

 

 

 

 

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.

02-IMG_1428
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 11 – El Questro)

Leaving Wyndham, it’s a sealed road all the way to the El Questro turn off. El Questro describes itself as a wilderness. It’s a dubious claim given it is still an active cattle station, leaving aside the tourist facilities. For many wilderness enthusiasts it is anything but wilderness but, no doubt, many Aboriginal people would view it differently since, in their view, all of Australia would be managed land.

After the turn off, it’s about an hour down a dirt road to the main station complex, although the homestead is elsewhere. The place is heaving as it is still school holidays and a weekend to boot, with many visitors from Kununurra. We find a campsite and settle in for the evening. The Royals from Kununurra are also here, as are our Kiwi friends from Purnululu. This is to be a pattern repeated with others throughout the trip.

Dinner preparation is down to one burner on the gas stove, as the other, which was already about as much use as the proverbial mammary glands on a bull, has given up completely. Horton and Harris, bush mechanics start to pull it apart but after a while I lose interest.

Kaylee and I decide that breakfast at the restaurant is of more interest than trying to fix the stove. Eggs and pancakes beckon.

In our absence the camp supervisor comes around and Roger is able to get detailed jet removal and cleaning instructions. Apparently ours is a common problem and Roger tells us that our mutual friend, Hugh, who travelled around the north, several years ago, with his family, became a global expert on fixing gas stoves as a result of the persistent impact of red dust on the gas valves.

We return after breakfast to the news that the stove has been fixed. Roger is now the new Hugh. There is a general evacuation of the camp ground. The weekend warriors are returning to Kununurra and Wyndham and many others are homeward bound for the start of school term. They abandon their firewood piles so we disperse around all the abandoned fireplaces and as a result of our scavenging accumulate an Everest like pile of firewood for our remaining two evenings.

At 9 am we set off to walk to Champagne Springs about two hours away. It’s a walk that starts along the banks of the Pentecost River and then enters a stunning grevillea forest. We pass silently along a flower and leaf strewn path that threads its way through six metre flowering grevilleas.

Grevillea Forest on the walk to Champagne Springs

The forest is filled with the noise and sight of birds of all sizes, calls and colours. None of us have ever seen a patch of forest quite so completely dominated by flowering grevilleas. We emerge from the grevilleas into a rock and spinifex landscape dominated by soaring gorge walls and, twenty minutes later, arrive at a clear fast flowing creek, with a series of rapids and waterfalls. We have it entirely to ourselves. It appears that a two hour walk is a bridge too far for most visitors.

Champagne Springs

On our second morning we head off to Zebedee hot (warm) springs. On arriving at the springs we discover that disaster has struck. I have managed to abandon my thongs at the El Questro main car park and, if we can’t recover them, I am down to just boots for the next couple of weeks. Australia and the globe are strewn with random items of personal possessions which I have been managing to spread around the world with abandon for years. Glasses, wallets, combs, hats, phones, pens, daypacks, shoes, clean and dirty laundry, computers. No item is too big or too expensive for me to lose.

Zebedee Springs is a beautiful spot but is suffering severe visitor pressures and is heavily populated by grey nomads many of whom are very overweight. To get around one has to walk and climb very carefully over very sharp rocks. Watching people move around, there is an element of having emerged into some sort of heavily choreographed dance routine, but performed at snails’ pace, as posses of old and not so old visitors perform a staccato circulation around the various pools, trying not to fall.

Champagne Springs

When we arrive there are more than 50 people in the 1000 square metres that constitute the area of the springs. The best spot is right at the top where the springs emerge. Roger, Jill and I laze around in the top pool and I then go to fetch Kaylee who is in one of the lower pools.

As we ascend the rocks, she calls out to me and I pirouette gracefully on the crest of our nation’s most slippery rocks, elegantly sliding down them, to land horizontally with my head on one rock, my hip on another and my hand on a third. Fortunately my pride suffers more than any body part since, so far as I can see, the collection of 80 year olds have managed to negotiate the pools without incident.

As we leave I manage to abandon my hat and sunnies on the rocks and they are rescued by Jill. I am on about strike six so far as lost items are concerned and I continue to be banned from care of car keys.

In the afternoon we head for El Questro Gorge. It is an easy hours walk up the Gorge to the first waterfall. The gorge is cool and narrow, quite different from many of the others we have visited. The walk above the first falls is a further 40 minutes, but we go no further as the end of the gorge is heavily populated.

In the absence of more heroic feats to perform, I leap to the rescue of a plastic floating baby which has escaped the grasp of two young girls. I bask in the universal acclaim of a 3 and a 5 year old, which redeems somewhat the opprobrium which has been heaped on me due to my amnesia about my various possessions.

A quick swim and lunch and we head back to the camp. Jill has decided not to come up the gorge with us and has stayed in the lower part of the river to do some drawing. When Roger, Kaylee and I all arrive back at the car park and there is no Jill, Roger has to go off on a search and rescue mission.

This is normally accomplished, we are told, through a series of whistles which they have allegedly perfected for just such a situation. It seems fortunate that Jill is not really lost since the system clearly does not work even when they are just five metres apart. It would be entirely useless in more critical situations.

Jill appears to want Roger to find her by some form of symbiotic process since, seeing Roger walking past, she stops whistling and waits for prescience to set in. Jill on the other hand blames Roger for not listening. All is sweetness and light.

We return to El Questro Central. My thongs are continuing to reside where I left them that morning. Kaylee is not amused and berates me for my carelessness. When I suggest that my leaving the sandals was due to her distracting me at the critical moment when I was due to load my sandals into the vehicle the lack of amusement turns to verbal assault. My pleas about early onset Alzheimers are ignored.

Being Saturday night, decide to have dinner at the restaurant. The big question of the night is did the Swans beat Hawthorn? We interrogate each of the waiters, in turn, but no one knows and the General Manager, who is a footie fanatic, has knocked off.

On our return to our camp the question of the week is still unresolved. Somewhat jokingly, I despatch Jill to ask nearby campers to put us out of our misery. But she takes me seriously and returns to report it is a split round and the match is not for another week.

Kaylee decides on the second afternoon that she wants to go trail riding on our final morning and I agree to accompany her. At 6 am we stagger forth for our 7 am start. There are 10 of us plus the two guides, Laura and Christian, who run this business and another one near Mansfield in Victoria where they have an additional 55 horses.

Kaylee trail riding

We set off along the trail. Having being used to riding my friend Lizzie Clay’s horses on which I have been, variously, thrown, nearly decapitated and have witnessed another friend being rolled on by her horse it is a little lacking in excitement. If my horse was any more docile it would be dead. When I drop the reins and remove my helmet in order to remove my jumper, I receive a stiff dressing down from Laura. She apparently believes it is possible to fall off a lounge suite and break ones neck because falling off these horses is about as likely as falling off a lounge suite.

Still the bush is beautiful and we have an exciting rendezvous with a large and aggressive bull which sends all the leading riders scattering. The main excitement of the trip is my conversation with Christian, one of the other riders, about high country grazing, climate change and live animal exports. I doubt he is a Greens voter

On our return to camp we discover Roger has had a partially sleepless night having woken, with a scream, from a bad dream in which he has to rescue me from the attack of a large Irish wolfhound or similar. We are unable to determine the cause of the nightmare, and my suggestion that the wolfhound might represent Kaylee does not meet with universal approval.

We are packed and we head for Emma Gorge. We have just crossed the Pentecost River and the occupants of the car behind start leaning on their horn. Roger tries to ignore them but after a while he pulls up. Someone has failed to lock the rear compartment and Jill’s walking boots have fallen out. Roger is blamed because we have decided to assign Roger the blame for everything that goes wrong.

Emma Gorge is another shortish walk up the creek leaving from the Emma’s Creek Resort where we take note of how the idle rich pass their Kimberley holidays. Here they are pandered with spas, massages, restaurants and auto massage water beds and silk sheets. We, on the other hand, who are down among the dust are increasingly blending with the landscape. We all have complete sets of red dust clothes, shoes and hair. The vehicle is red, the sheets are turning reddish and the cameras, phones, iPads and all other electronic devices are increasingly covered with a miasma of red.

Emma Creek narrows out into a steep-sided gorge and terminates into a giant plunge pool which gets no sun at all in winter. The water is cold but, off to the right, as you face the waterfall there is a miniature sculpted rock bowl smoothed to a marble finish. This pool is fed by a warm spring which wards off hypothermia. It is just large enough for one or two people to get in. Fifty metres downstream is another warmer pool, the Turquoise Pool, and Kaylee and I leave the sun-phobic among us to the cool pool.

Lunch brings us back to the resort and then we leave for the Mitchell Plateau and falls.

See the Flickr archive from which these images were taken:

El Questro (general)
El Questro Gorge
El  Questro Horse Riding
El Questro Zebedee
El Questro Champagne
El Questro – Emma Gorge

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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