The Nullarbor Plains Australia – From Adelaide to Perth

Adelaide to Perth via the  Nullarbor Plains, through the Australian Outback

Thursday 5th September
We hailed a taxi at Adelaide airport and headed to Apollo Camper-van head-office where the fun began. We had booked our camper-van with just the basic insurance to make it a cheaper overall package. We also booked flights and other bookings with my Visa platinum card so we would be covered for most eventualities! This was the fourth time we had hired a camper-van in Australia so we knew what to expect – the usual push for extra cover!
All went well for the first 5 minutes until the chap who was sorting the paperwork told us he would have to take $5000 from our visa + 2% and as we both wanted to split the cost we immediately got concerned.  He would take 5K and pop it into Apollo account plus the 2% for three weeks and then return the $5000 but not the extra 2%.  The other problem for us was that we would be away for over three weeks. As we would probably not be able to access Internet banking easily across the Nullarbor Plain, we could incur extra costs from our own banks in NZ for late payment and for what would appear to be a cash withdrawal. This was something very new to us but we were informed by the staff that it was new legalisation that had come into Australia in last few months.
However, if we took the insurance for $27+ per day we would still get $2500 deducted from account in same manner.  This all seemed insane.  Where in the world do you get a client to pop $5000 into your company account, charge them 2% on top of that and the client ends up out of pocket because of bank fees and the company ends up with the interest + 2%? Whatever happened to the old fashioned method of taking the imprint of a credit card?
We ended up taking out fully comprehensive insurance – for $44AU per day so that they would not take the money from our visa account. I suppose this is the same in each state? I am not sure that this is exactly what the legislation meant however, as I have recently discovered that Jucy Rentals still just take your credit card details but do not take the money out.
When we thought they could not squeeze any more out of us we were asked for a further $250 on cc (not deducted) in case we incurred any fines for speeding or drunken driving!  I can assure you we will not be using Apollo again and suggest others check all their facts before you book with any of the big companies! . However, the camper van was pretty ok – old and a tad shabby but otherwise everything seemed to be in good working order.

Ferry from Wallaroo to Lucky bay via Spencer Gulf - saving 100's of kms
Ferry from Wallaroo to Lucybay via Spencer Gulf – saving 100’s of kms

We drove 150kms from Adelaide to Kadina (once a bustling SA Copper-mining center) and choose to stay the first night in Kadina Gateway Motor Inn, 706 Cooper coast HWY and not in our camper van. This gave us time to set the van up, shop and unpack more easily when we reached Ceduna. Also the town of Kadina got us out of Adelaide and close to the ferry for an early morning start. We had a lovely dinner in a local café – there were only two in the small town!

Friday 6th September
In the morning we had breakfast and drove down the road to Wallaroo to take the camper-van on to the car ferry. The ferry crossed the Spencer Gulf from Wallaroo to Lucky bay. By taking this ferry we saved ourselves about 400+ km driving – we had driven through Port Augusta on one of our previous outback trips so had seen that area. We were keen to reach the Nullarbor as quickly as we could. The ferry was very efficient and comfortable; it had glass panels along the edge of the floor so you could look straight down into the sea.
Once we were off the ferry we set off for a 400+kms drive from Cowell to Ceduna travelling through grain country. We joined the Eyre Highway at Kyancutta and alongside the road the whole way was a very large white pipe which we assumed must carry grain from one grain station to another as there were huge grain storage plants every 20-30 kms. The train tracks also ran parallel to the road.  As we passed through Wirrulla we noticed a massive carving in granite representing the local grain and sheep industry. The next settlement of Cleve was a very pretty town where we stopped for coffee and the people in the cafe were very friendly and chatty. We came away with a dozen free range eggs.
We spent two nights in Ceduna Tourist caravan park (10% off $30 powered site with vouchers from Apollo). Lovely facilities very clean and comfortable. One of our aims for this trip was to play the Nullarbor Links Golf Course. You can start this course either in South Australia(SA) at Ceduna or in Western Australia (WA) at Kalgoorlie. It is a unique 18-hole par 72 golf course which spans 1,365 kilometres. A single hole can be played in each participating town or roadhouse along the Eyre Highway, each featuring a green, a tee and a fairway and each has a distinctive theme that fits with the rugged outback.
We had brought a basic golf kit with us as we were doing this for fun not as a serious challenge. We bought our Nullarbor Links card at the Information Centre for $70AU for each card. The man who sold us the card gave us some good advice and information about the golf course.

Saturday 7th September
It was polling day at the local hall and unfortunately/fortunately Tony Abbott was elected PM. As we were not voting we went for a lovely early walk along the pier and then down to the end of beach.  Next we went grocery shopping, had a bite to eat and watched the sun go down over the southern ocean looking towards Denial Bay.
Ceduna is the start of the Nullarbor Plain: http://www.nullarbornet.com.au It is the last main shopping area until you hit Norseman 1400 kms across the Nullarbor Plain so we needed to stock up on essentials here, which we did.
Next we went to play the first two holes of the Nullarbor Links in Ceduna golf course and immediately lost a ball and battled the flies!!!! Hole 1 is Par 5 – called ‘Oyster Beds’, Hole 2 is Par 4 called ‘Denial Bay’. We did equally badly at both but had a good laugh. Each tee on each hole is named after a local identity.

IMG_5040
Dingo’s Den Golf Hole
IMG_5039
Nullarbor Golf links
IMG_5041
Playing one of the holes!

Sunday 8th September
Today we started our drive on the Nullarbor Plain leaving the comforts of Ceduna. Just outside the town I stopped to take a photo of the yellow road sign that says ‘watch out for: Kangaroos, Camels and Wombats’ and ended up BLACK with flies!! The sign should also have warned about flies!
On to Hole 3, par 4 called ‘windmills’ in Penong, and we filled up with petrol there. It seems many locals still get their water using their own windmills! We stopped at the Penong Woolshed Museum. Lovely collections of old farm gear and local craft and a lady with lot of local knowledge kept us entertained for some time. On to Nundroo, to play the next hole – Hole 4, par 5 called ‘the Wombat hole’ because Nundroo has the largest population of Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat! Last census says 2.5 million inhabit the locality. We stopped at the local roadhouse for petrol (we decided we would always top up when available) and discovered that they sold fly hats – those ugly hats with netting all around to cover your face from flies. A man with a very strong Scottish accent sold them to us – we could not really understand him but we were in heaven with the hats!!!

We drove by the Yalata community hall and on through the Nullarbor plain which was now becoming spaced out with low-lying blue and green bushes. Up until this point we really did not feel isolated nor did the Nullarbor Plain look like we imagined it to look like.
Our next stop, which was a small detour, was The Head of Bight 78 kilometres west of Yalata where we saw many Southern right whales – mothers and their calves. According to the Nullarbor roadhouse, there were 52 mothers and babies this year including thee white ones. Mothers only calve every three years. We watched them playing, breaching, blow-holing and rolling belly up.The young ones would follow their mothers and loll beside them. They moved up and down under the magnificent white Bunda Cliffs that stretch for 200km down to the WA border.
On our return to main road we saw several blue tongued lizards moving very slowly across the road which of course we stopped for and were delighted with the opportunity to photograph these slow moving creatures.
The Nullarbor roadhouse and campground was our stop for the night. Once we sorted our site we played our next golf hole, Hole 5, par 5, called The Dingo’s Den, at Nullarbor and lost yet another ball. We did get lots of comments from tourists wandering pass who were staring at us as though we were crazy trying to hit a small white ball in desert surrounds! But they did cheer us on and watched while we putted the ball into the hole! After our ‘successful’ golfing hole we headed for the pub to have some drinks amongst the locals, but it was a quiet night there so we headed back to our camper van and settle in for the night amongst flocks of noisy galahs. The sky seemed so large at night and so full of stars. It was beautiful just to sit there and watch the heavens. We had a great night’s sleep and woke to a stunning sunrise over the plains.

IMG_5063
Bunda Cliffs
IMG_4978
Southern right Whales and their calves of ‘The Head of Bight
IMG_4996
Southern right Whales and their calves of ‘The Head of Bight
IMG_4995
Southern right Whales and their calves of ‘The Head of Bight
IMG_4992
Southern right Whales and their calves of ‘The Head of Bight

Monday 9th September
On our way out from the roadhouse we saw a wild dingo staring at us from the bushes, we agreed that the golf hole 5 was aptly named, however we were very pleased not to have met him while on the fairway! Off along the Nullarbor plain to Border Village for the next hole. Hole 6, par 3, is called Border Kangaroo. Don Harrington, a local figure rebuilt Border village after it was burned to the ground in 2000. He is also the current Chairman of the Eyre Highway Operators Association which has developed and owns the Nullarbor Links – the world’s longest golf course. As we were about to leave Border Village we heard a massive roar and suddenly a huge procession of motor bikes arrived – we had just stopped to photo a dingo so we lingered longer to watch the bikies gather and take off down the Road to Perth.
This next part of the drive was the most scenic so far as we had amazing views over the Bunda Cliffs all along the way. Next stop was just over the border between SA and WA at a place called Eucla. As we were heading for the border and were not allowed to bring fruit or vegetables over the border, Marcia, as always very frugal, cooked potatoes for potato salad and cooked apples for stewed fruit to avoid having to throw them away at border. Good thinking and management helped by the joy of having your house on your back or rather on wheels that you drive.
Crossing the border we were stopped by a very funny Australian/Chinese man who asked us if we had any drivers licences as we were too young to be driving and he would have to report us to the police! We both loved his sense of humour, in fact anybody who calls us “young” or ‘girls’ has our vote.   We pulled into a parking area just beside the border as we had spotted hundreds of policemen in riot gear whom (we discovered) were waiting for a bunch of bikies (a renowned bikie gang called the Rebels) to arrive at the border to escort them to their next destination. All the police were either camping or staying at Eucla motel, we discovered later!
Our next stop was Eucla campsite and when we arrived there it was pretty empty but soon after we arrived, the bikes started to arrive. We found ourselves camped in the Eucla campsite amongst between 500-1000 bikie gang members. They spread themselves between Eucla, Border Village, and Mundrabilla , to camp, eat and sleep. We were very surprised by the lack of noise and action as we were expecting the worst. In fact many of them were very polite and courteous except the one guy I asked to photo who told me where to get off! We soon discovered that they were on their AGM which involved riding from Adelaide to Perth as that was where it was being held this year! They came from all over Australia to this event and many believed that by the time they got to Perth there could be up to 2000 altogether.

IMG_5045
Police on Bike coming to meet the ‘Bikies’ at the WA-SA border
IMG_5047
Police on Bike coming to meet the ‘Bikies’ at the WA-SA border
IMG_5086
Police in cars waiting at Border Village
IMG_5111
Mundrabilla – getting ready for take off to Perth
IMG_5118
Rebels on bikes

 

 

 

 

We played Hole 7, par 4, called the Nullarbor Nymph. The story goes that in the Eucla bar a PR bloke from Perth, was broke and in search of work so couldn’t pay his bill so he told Steve Patupis, the motel owner, he could make Eucla Motel famous. He told a story to a national newspaper that a naked woman with long blonde hair, was wild and living with the kangaroos at Eucla on the Nullarbor Plain. It seemed crazy that a newspaper would run such a story but they did and the story went viral. Suddenly Eucla was besieged by journalists and camera crews from Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and even the US. The good old BBC even sent a full TV documentary crew. The locals made the most of the story as all these people were bringing in $$$$. Hence the name of hole 7!
Eucla was established in 1877 as a manual repeater station for the Overland Telegraph and what is now the old telegraph station was built. Today the telegraph station is in ruins and a large part of it is buried in sand and locals believe that the area is haunted by a ghost. It was a lovely gentle walk there and the whole area is great for photography. On our way back to the camp we passed a large cross known as the travelers cross. As we headed out from the camp shop the following morning we had fun trying to drive through hundreds of huge bikes.

IMG_5106
Another Golf green
IMG_5104
The old Telegraph Station near Eucla
IMG_5103
The old Telegraph Station near Eucla
IMG_5101
The old Telegraph Station near Eucla
IMG_5067
No Trees…Nullarbour
IMG_5032
Sunset over the Nullarbor
IMG_5127
We see the lot!!

Tuesday 10th September
Next stop was Mundrabilla, where the young person in the cafe we stopped at said she had never worked so hard in her life – she was referring to the hundreds of bikies looking for coffee, food and smokes! It was a lively spot as all the bikies were there, hundreds if them and hundreds of police.  We heard they were about to depart so we went down the Eyre highway a little way out from town so we could video and photograph them taking off on mass and what a sight (and sound) it was. They were like little black and silver insects with their leather gear and their headlights on.  Half of the police set off ahead of the bikies and the other half followed.  They stopped frequently at each roadhouse and cleaned out all the food and drink along they way.  But we did manage to get a really tasty onion, cheese, bacon and egg sandwich in Mundrabilla after they had left and then went and played Hole 8, par 4, called the Watering Hole. Mundrabilla Roadhouse is on the Roe Plains which were once a source of sandalwood that was harvested and exported to the Far East.
At Medura Pass Motel in Medura we played Hole 9, par 3 called Brumby’s Run. It seems that many years ago this area bred horses called ‘Walers’ used for polo and cavalry horses for the British Imperial Indian Army.
And on to Hole 10, par 4, called Eagles Nest. The tee is called Bindy and to quote from the links website “Bindy (Glen) Seivwright has been carting BP Fuel along the Eyre Highway since 1983. He provides an invaluable service to all Fuel retailers and Pastoral Stations.
Bindy has over the years become a very popular truckie with all the roadhouses. He is a well respected and obliging person. The roadhouse operators regard Bindy as a real mate and look forward to his weekly visits.
This Tee is dedicated to a great bloke and a real true blue, Aussie Trucker. Bindy was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to the Nullarbor.
A lovely story
We were making good time so decided to drive on the extra 65kms to Caiguna where we would camp for the night. Since starting along the Nullarbor we had strong wind the whole way and it rattled poor ‘Betty’ our 4WD camper van as she was fairly high and narrow. This meant we had to hold the wheel tightly and keep to a certain speed so we would not get blown across the road. It was a little scary when large gusts of wind would just whip at us and we could feel the van move with it. When we arrived at Caiguna the wind had dropped finally and we had a lovely evening without wind which made a nice change. We played Hole 11, par 4, called 90 Mile Straight at the Caiguna Motel. The hole is aptly named as it is here at this roadhouse that the most famous stretch of road in Australia begins, called the 90 miles (146.6 kms) stretch and is dead straight – no bends! This 90 mile straight is also the only ‘true’ nullarbor (without trees) section of the whole Nullarbor Plains!

Wednesday 11th September
We played Hole 12, par 3, called Skylab at the at Balladonia Motel. So called according to the links website “Skylab was a space research laboratory constructed by the United States National Aerospace Agency (NASA) when in July 1979 it eventually succumbed to the Earth’s gravitational pull, re-entered the atmosphere and landed in fiery chunks around Balladonia.”
The museum in Balladonia is full of remnants from the Skylab so worth a visit. Not far away is Afghan rock where it is rumoured that an Afghan Cameleer was killed for bathing in the local water hole because the two guys who killed him wanted to drink from it and resented him bathing in their drinking water as it was the only water-bearing rock pools for many kilometres.
Our next stop was 90 kms west of Belladonia just off the Eyre Highway called Fraser Range Sheep Station. (www.fraserrangestation.com.au) Fraser Range Station is a working pastoral property that specialises in producing Damara sheep. On the way there we spotted several Emus and of course we stopped for a photo op! We still had not seen a live kangaroo just several dead road-kills along the highway.
It was lovely to arrive into the peaceful Fraser Ranges Station away from the traffic and set well in from the road. So far all the campsites had been next to or close to the main Eyre Highway. We booked in for dinner and for the night and asked about walks in the area. Our job was to tackle Hole 13, par 3, called Sheep’s Back. As usual we were well over par but it was lovely to be out in the farming countryside. There was a big open camp fire that guests were encouraged to gather around at about five pm.  Most seats were taken by the time we got there but it was a very pleasant way to meet and greet other travelers and to have a chat to other campers about where they had been and where they were heading to.
We had a really great sleep following a lovely hot shower and a pleasant meal which was a little too salty for our taste.

IMG_5147
Entrance to Caravan Park!
IMG_5135
Daddy Emu and his 11 chicks
IMG_5128
Walk where we saw several ‘Big Reds’ (Kangaroos)

Thursday 12th September

We had asked for guidance from staff for a ‘wildflower’ walk that we could do the next day. I awoke early so I went for a wander around the station and I was so pleased I did as I saw an adult emu with 11 babies wandering around the farm and I followed them with my camera. Magic!The local farmer/camp manager told me that the father Emu incubates them then looks after them until they are big enough to cope themselves. A joy to behold but we did not find out what the mother did during this time. Probably exhausted after laying 11 large emu eggs! I raced back to the camp site to call Marcia to come and see them as well.

We set out on a suggested 6 km walk which took us along the old Eyre Highway and around a loop of the sheep station. We made lots of noise to ensure snakes were aware of us walking along through the grass and bush. We finally found our way around the large hill mass and saw several big red kangaroos in the bush. We also saw some angry wedge tailed eagles who chased and clawed a kangaroo who was obviously too close to their nest, they did not like our presence either so we hightailed it away quickly. It was wildflower season and we saw many different wild flowers as we walked. This camp was a real comfortable friendly ‘round the camp fire’ type of camp where the campsite manager was so helpful and pleasant.

Below many of the beautiful wildflowers we saw:

Friday 13th September

We were sad that our two nights at Fraser Ranges Station was over but we were heading off down towards Lucky Bay for another exciting adventure. We stopped briefly at Norseman to play the last two holes of golf. The final holes are in Kambalda (1) and Kalgoorlie (2)but we are turning left at Norseman to Lucky Bay not right to Kalgoorlie so these were the last two holes of the links golf course for us. Hole 14, par 4, called Golden Horse at the Norseman Golf club as was Hole 15, par 4, called Ngadju named after the Ngadju people who are the traditional owners of the land this hole is on. We had thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing the Links and would highly recommend it to anyone crossing the Nullarbor. We went around a ‘famous’ camel roundabout in Norseman, did some shopping and went to the information centre to get our certificates for crossing the Nullarbor.
We had loaded up our sat.nav. Tom Tom with up to date Australian maps before we left NZ so he took us to beautiful Lucky bay. From afar we caught glimpses of the beautiful white sands and turquoise waters. Not many people at the campsite so we parked where there was an amazing view over the sea and sand from our van. We then sat at the table overlooking the bay and were joined by a couple from Esperance, Geoff  and Anne who come out most weekends to Lucky bay and Margaret and John the other couple were heading home to Newcastle NSW following an anti clockwise trip around Australia. They were one of the hundreds of Australian ‘grey nomads’ and had been on the road for over a year and were very keen to get home. She told us she was running low on blood pressure pills but could not get into see a doctor in Esperance for three weeks!  They reckoned that Lucky bay was the best place they had been to on their trip. There were lots of friendly local kangaroos some with a joey in their pouch and very happy to be photographed!

IMG_5166
Approaching Lucky Bay
IMG_5167
One of the many friendly locals
IMG_5191
Lucky Bay
IMG_5195
Lucky Bay
IMG_5177
A local honeyeater
IMG_5247
Woody Island Jetty

Saturday 14th September
Unfortunately we had to leave beautiful Lucky Bay very early as we had to be at the Esperance Jetty at 08:30 for a boat trip out to Woody Island.  We had called Peter (the person running the trips) from Gibson to ensure the trip was on as it was still off season!  We arrived at Esperance and searched for an optician to try to get Marcia’s broken glasses fixed as they were impossible to use but alas the opening time was 09:00 and closed at noon as it was a Saturday so no go.
Off we set off to Woody Island on our boat called the Southern Niche. It was a lovely new boat just about a year old. Peter was at the helm while he taught Roger to captain the boat and Teaghan to do the commentary. Peter was incredibly enthusiastic about the whole Bay of Islands and Esperance where he had come to from England in 1976. He told us the history of the area, how the word knots came into boating, the life of the white breasted sea eagle, the habitat of the grey cape bar Goose. Teaghan threw frozen fish out and the sea eagles swooped down to grab them. There were several variety of seals and birds, all fully explained and named by Peter.
We arrived at Woody Island and were given morning tea and a muffin. We were then invited to go for a walk around the island with Peter, first to the viewing area where we were regaled with stories of local characters and their adventures on this and other islands around. There were many ‘risqué’ stories and some horrific stories. He talked of the pink lake just outside Esperance that was so pink that one might think it’s a trick but the colour is said to come from the algae. There is an even pinker lake on Middle Island that can only be seen from the air. Each island has different habitat – death adders on one, black snakes on another. He also told us the story of a man capturing aboriginal women and using then to crawl around the rocks to attract the seals!
People come out to stay on Woody Island – there are various types of accommodation – safari huts, on-site tents and tent sites where you bring your own tent, the accommodation and facilities are quite basic – campers kitchen and three lots of ablution blocks with hot water. All quite adequate. One needs to ensure boats are coming and going when you need them as the service is weather dependent. Our tour was with “Esperance Island cruises & Woody Island Eco Stays”.
We were back into Esperance by 13:00 so we went to Taylor Road Cafe for lunch it was really beautiful and in a great position! We were booked into The Jetty Resort where we finished the evening with pizza and champagne.

 

Sunday 15th September
We drove around Esperance looking for some shops but all were closed except IGA on the outskirts of the town. We topped up our groceries and headed off around the 40 km scenic drive passing several beaches, then on to Ravensthorpe. There was only one campsite in the small town and when we drove in we initially thought it looked grotty but turned out to have very clean facilities. The reason for our stop here was the Annual Ravensthorpe Wildflower Show and Spring Festival which they hold every year for two weeks in September, so we ate lunch and went off looking for the Ravensthorpe Wildflower Show. I called into the first garage I came across and asked the way – told it was along in community hall about ten minutes in one direction but when I got there it was deserted! So I headed back into town where I met Marcia and we found a lovely lady in museum who directed us, in the opposite direction!, to the right place. We had no idea what to expect but we found a hall with seven hundred species of flowers in it.  It is run by the local wildflower group and the women must have permits to pick the wild flowers in certain areas and they started picking two days before the show began. Incredible to imagine all the species can exist in the wild and wonderful to be able to view them up close as one may never find them on walks. It then started to rain and rain and rain. We waited in the senior citizen hall until the rain eased but still got very wet on our way back to the caravan park. Early to bed and listened to the rain all night.

Monday 16th September
Today we head off 159 kms deep into Fitzgerald River National Park to Quaalup Homestead Wilderness Retreat which is just outside the park.
(http://www.whalesandwildflowers.com.au/quaaluphomestead.htm). There were several ways into the Retreat but we decided to go via the route recommended by the owners. There were lots of wild flowers along the route. The road was pretty good at first but soon we came to a gravel road which eventually took us to the station. On the way we stopped to refuel at Jerramungup as we knew there was no petrol between there and Quaalup. We arrived at Quaalup at about 11:00, earlier than we expected. This Heritage Listed Building is owned by Karin & Carsten from Hamburg, Germany. Karin welcomed us warmly and took us to out little unit with an ensuite. We had decided to abandon Betty for a few nights of comfort. The unit was so quaint and was all we needed, clean functional and well maintained. Carsten advised us to take trip to Point Ann that day as rain was predicted for the following day and Fitzgerald NP would be closed if it rained. We drove 30km there and walked to the whale look out . We saw three Southern Wright whales and their calves in the bay. We then went for a walk along the rabbit proof fence to the cliff top to view Trigelow beach which was stunning with its beautiful crystal clear waters and white sands. There were wildflowers everywhere which made the walk even more exciting. On our way back through the park we had to let ourselves out through gate. The ranger had stopped us on way there to let us know that the park was being closed. He said we could carry on but would need to let ourselves out.

IMG_5304
Local roos enjoying the sunshine
IMG_5333
Heritage Listed Building -the old homestead at Quaalup Wilderness Retreat
IMG_5346
Road to Quaalup Wilderness Station
IMG_5314
The cross marks the burial place of Mary Mc Glade
IMG_5316
One of the many walks at Quaalup
IMG_5328
One of the many walks at Quaalup

Back at the retreat we had some afternoon tea and then headed off on their own nature walk – so many beautiful wildflowers and all labelled so we could get to know some of them. Then there was a viewing platform about two story hight, where we climbed up to have a view of the countryside. There were also dozens of pretty tame kangaroos who did not budge when we walked close to them. We saw no sign of Edna, the local emu who had been missing for a few days!

Quaalup homestead was established in 1858 by the John Wellstead and then taken over in 1890 by the Hassel family and then taken over by Karin and Karsten in 2004. We had also booked for dinner and had a delightful dinner cooked by Karsten as Karin was recovering from flu. It was served in the old dining room by candlelight. We had corn soup followed by Turkish stew with lamb, mince and feta and then a desert.

Fresh air and silence ensured a great nights sleep and though it rained during the night we awoke to a blue sky and more wind. After breakfast we sat out on the balcony reading and listening to the birds and watched the kangaroos hopping about. The kangaroos sat around the homestead like they belonged there, not in the least disturbed by anyone walking close to them – just a stare and yawn! The day was unsettled, with rain coming and going but when it had stopped raining we set off to walk the ridge walk – 11/2 hours. What amazing views from the ridge and again we admired lots of wildflowers. We decided we just loved this place and could easily stay for another few days. When we got back from the walk we discovered we had neighbours and also discovered that the walls are a little thin!
Dinner was again served in that lovely little room in the old homestead and tonight’s meal was as tasty as last night’s. Our starter was orange and carrot soup, followed by Thai chicken and jasmine rice and desert. We shared our table with a couple Michael and Maureen from Perth but originally from England. This place is a mixture of wilderness, isolation and tranquility. No mod cons here in the wilderness, just living with nature. The property is entirely solar powered with drinking water collected from rain, and washing water supplied from a bore on the property so it is totally self sufficient.

IMG_5343
One of the Mallee fowl

Wednesday 18th September
Sadly we said good bye to Quaalup and the Quaalup Bell (Pimelea physodes), a spectacular wildflower found only in southwest of Western Australia. We had seen several at the Quaalup Homestead.
We are bound for the Sterling Ranges today and our first stop is Jerramungup, and again the wind is blowing very strongly but at least it is not raining. We topped up with petrol and groceries before we made our way to the Yongergnow Australia Malleefowl Centre near Onegerup. The aim of the centre is to reintroduce Malleefowl back to their natural habitat. They have several large custom built aviaries that are big and have several trees where the fowl can hide. They have one male and one female in one aviary and a lone female in another. These fowl were nearly extinct because the mallee bush was fast disappearing through fires. They look like big attractive turkeys and are stocky ground-dwelling birds that are about the size of a domestic chicken. Malleefowl are said to be shy, wary, solitary birds that usually fly only to escape danger. They also fly into the mallee tree to roost. They are hard to see even in these aviaries as they tend to freeze if disturbed and then slither into the undergrowth.
When we arrived at the Sterling Ranges Retreat, just inside the Sterling Ranges National Park. (http://www.stirlingrange.com.au)  We were met by ‘Bully’ who greeted us warmly, found us a nice site out of the wind and gave us a long extension cord so we could use that particular site. We booked on an orchid tour the following morning and got settled into the park. Once settled I went for walk for about one hour. It was a lovely evening and I saw loads of wildflowers and fields of bright yellow canola seed. We used the camp kitchen to cooked steak and onions and met Mike from Perth who was very chatty and happy to share some thoughts about the local area.

Thursday 19th September
We were up early the next morning for our wildflower tour with Bully, the manager. We were to be outside the office at nine o’clock. There were a few other people waiting for the tour – one person from Albany WA information bureau, one Swiss couple who have lived on a boat for nine years. The boat is now moored in Cairns while the couple are travelling around Australia and one guy from NSW. We drove through various parts of Sterling Ranges NP and saw loads of orchids – it was refreshing to see a stocky man’s man so passionate and protective about tiny orchids and Bully knew exactly where to find them. We had morning tea at Mount Trio with biscuits and muffins supplied by Bully
The rest of the people (the owners) at the Sterling Ranges Retreat were efficient and helpful but not really friendly. They lacked enthusiasm, perhaps it was a bad day or they had been doing the job for too long. Excellent facilities and well organised but weather was very windy.

Friday 20th September
Today we needed to get to Albany to try to find an optician and get Marcia’s glasses fixed. We had intended to take the Sterling Ranges Drive right through the park and then through Porongrup but sadly the weather was so bad we decided for the more direct route.  So a straight drive down the tar seal to Albany as it continued to rain and rain. Marcia managed to get her glasses fixed and again as we were in town we did a top up shop before heading off towards Walpole. On the way we saw a sign that said “Wild Food Factory” so we investigated and ended up having a delicious kangaroo burger and a slightly chewy kangaroo kebab. Stopped for coffee at a place called Phillipines cafe and then headed for Rest Point caravan park on west side of Walpole, having  gone through a quaint town called Denmark. This pretty town in the Great Southern region of WA sits on the banks of the beautiful Denmark River. It has a rugged coastline and is surrounded by towering forests.
Rest Point Holiday Village is a picturesque village with a beautiful waterfront on the banks of the Walpole and Nornalup Inlet, in the heart of the Walpole wilderness. The village is 4kms west of Walpole and is surrounded by the Walpole-Nornalup National Park. It was wet and soggy everywhere after the recent rains. But when darkness came and the sky cleared the reflection of the moon on the inlet was beautiful. We cooked our meal in the tiny camp kitchen where we met three sisters and one brother and their partners who were having a family get together and dinner. They from all parts of Australia and try to get together in a different area every year. They were very chatty and friendly.

IMG_5420
Walpole and Nornalup Inlet
IMG_5429 copy
Heading off for days fishing on the Walpole and Nornalup Inlet
IMG_5439
Local bird life – Pelican
IMG_5479
Climbing the Gloucester tree!
IMG_5412
An old Tingle tree
IMG_5402
Quirky sculpture WA
IMG_5490
Parrot
IMG_5438
Gum trees beside Walpole and Nornalup Inlet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday 21st September

Up early to catch the sunrise on the inlet and to watch the local fisherman set off for their day’s fishing. The inlet was like a millpond and the reflections of the boats in the early morning light was stunning. A local pelican preened and strutted his stuff on the edge of he water and swam up and down the inlet.
We then packed up and headed off to the Valley of the Giants to walk Valley of the Giants Tree Top walk and to visit the Ancient Empire, both of which are a few kms west of Denmark. This 600 metre long tree top walkway rises to almost 40 metres above the forest floor, which gives an amazing bird’s eye view of the forest. We then took the trail that links the Tree Top Walk to the Ancient Empire boardwalk where we could touch some of the 400-year-old giants of the forest.The Ancient Empire trail takes you through a grove of veteran tingle trees. Along the path we came across a gnarled old veteran tree known as Grandma Tingle. We loved it and were so glad we had taken the time to come here.
And on to another giant tree called the ‘Gloucester’ tree near Pemberton. The Gloucester tree had a narrow metal ladder winding around it to the top. We climbed about 1/4 way up and even there the view was amazing. This tree used to be used as a lookout for firemen to check for bush fires. While we were there one young man climbed to top and said he was very scared as it was extremely windy at the top.  The whole drive along the coast road to Yallingup  was very windy and we did not see any sign of the coast until we got into Yallingup! We had expected the coast road to be just that – along the coast!
We easily found the Yallingup Beach Holiday Park and we were assigned a van site, and took some wine, beer and nibbles to a table where we sat and watched the sunset over the Indian Ocean, with a bored dog and a hungry seagull. A young Australian woman joined us and it turned out she had been a cop up in Arnhem Land. She kept us amused for ages with stories of her time there. The wind continued  through the night rocking and swaying our camper van which in turn kept us awake half the night

IMG_5513
Yallingup Beach Holiday Park
IMG_5525
View from Yallingup Beach Holiday Park

Sunday 22nd September
I went for a wander around Yallingup village and beach to see what there was – not much, most shops and cafe closed as we were a little out of season.  We did our housekeeping and chores and then headed off to walk the Cape Nautaliste lighthouse circuit. Sadly, although the day was beautifully sunny and windy one minute, black clouds overtook us quickly and the next minute rain came lashing down. We got absolutely soaked! A change of clothes and off we went to look for the winery we had been told about called The Growers. It is a local vineyard that makes handcrafted wines and has been managed by husband and wife team, Doreen and Phil May since November 2011. They make a delightful white and red wine called ‘Shag on a Rock’ and the grapes are from the famous Margaret River area. We then went looking for places to eat but they were all either closed for weddings or routinely closed between 3-5pm. We ended up back at the Caves House Hotel which is a lovely big pub, cafe and hotel all rolled into one and where we were able to order soup. The wind continued blowing a gale so we hunkered down with a good book and slept better than the previous night as we were getting more used to the wind.

 

Monday 23rd September
We had booked a ‘Bushtucker Winery & Brewery Tour’ (http://bushtuckertours.com) for today and were being picked up at 10:40 by Peter. The tour visits 7 vineyards between Whitecliffe and Dunsborough, a chocolate factory, a brewery and a cocktail bar plus a bush tuckers lunch.
Our first stop was Cape Naturaliste Vineyard and here is a little information from their website. “The property now known as Cape Naturaliste Vineyard started life as the coach inn for travelers journeying between Perth and Margaret River on horse and buggy – a journey taking about 3 days – a history going back 150 years. Some later years the property then became a dairy known as Thorn Hill. During this time Whale ships came into the sheltered waters of Smiths Beach to purchase vegetables grown in the valleys rich alluvial soil.
In 1970 the surrounding land was discovered to be rich in mineral sands. A mining company purchased the land with the intention to mine the valley. Fortunately the government stepped in and declared it “A” zone national park.
 Cape Naturaliste Vineyard was planted in 1997 by the owner, Craig Brent-White, who purchased the land from a mineral sands company in 1980”.

Jan was our host for the tour of this vineyard and her vine keeper husband is an oenologist. She really knew her wine and gave us some really good pointers about WA wines especially the Margaret River area. She also gave us a lesson on the right way for tasting wines. This vineyard has won several international wine awards and we enjoyed several of the wines we tasted.
The next vineyard was called Nottinghill Hill Estate Vineyard– a family owned business, the family were farmers originally but are now winemakers. Knotting Hill Estate has been owned and operated by the Gould family since 1997 and their philosophy is simple: they love to sell quality wines to happy customers. Michael Gould and his father Brian established Knotting Hill from scratch, planting and training the vines, building the cellar door and dam, while simultaneously managing their wheat belt farm. A love of wine swayed the family to move from farming to viticulture. Michael, his wife Sondra and three children all live on the property. It was Sondra that was our host for the tour. What I loved about this and the last vineyard is the absence of snobbery about wine – they just love to tell you about their part in the wine making,
Churchview vineyard was our next stop. All the vineyards were in beautifully landscaped ‘parks’ with user friendly tasting rooms and car parks. And of course the wines were really good. We heard that our ‘Chocolate’ visited had to be cancelled because the wind had caused them to loose their electricity and so the tour leader had to make some quick phone calls to fine another suitable venue.
We had our ‘bush tucker’ at Nottinghill Estate and tasted kangaroo, emu, crocodile, huhu-bugs and lots of bush nuts. An interesting experience, some of which I would not have again!
We were entertained by ‘pretend’ grumpy Steve at The Grove Experience. We had several cocktails while been ‘abused’ by Steve about where we were from, what people wore, one’s accent in fact anything he could pick on but all in great humour and we had so much fun. A great experience!

IMG_5544 IMG_5540 IMG_5536 IMG_5529Then on to Duckstein Brewery, a little piece of Germany in the Margaret River where German-style craft beers are brewed on location. The bar was massive but was somehow divided into a few alcoves with very comfortable chairs. Many of the group chose to try a tray of five small glasses of beers to taste.

Tuesday 24th September

IMG_5547IMG_5548
Today we set off to see some old friends in Bunbury and booked into Bunbury Caravan Park. Bunbury is a port city and is the third largest city in WA and is 175kms south of Perth. Our friends came and picked us up and took us on a tour of city and out to the Leschenault Estuary which was a beautiful drive and we ended up back at their home for a lovely meal and a taxi ride home to ‘Betty’ in the caravan park.

Wednesday 25th September
And finally on to the city of Perth to stay with some more good friends for a few days and to explore Perth & Fremantle. We went to Kings Park to see the wildflowers – the colours and array of flowers was spectacular. Kings Park is one of the largest inner city parks in the world and encompasses the botanical gardens, a variety of walks and is on top of a hill in a stunning location that overlooks the city and the Swan River. the views from the park are beautiful and you can see the coloured sails of boats on the river,and the famous ‘Swan’ brewery, the lights of the city and the distant Perth Hills. It is a mix of 400+ hectares of cultivated gardens and bushland. There is also a 750 year old boab tree, that has been transplanted, at huge expense, from the Kimberley region of WA. The shop and information area was also very exciting to look around as it contained lots of artefacts created by local artists.

IMG_5624
Sitting on the seat at Fremantle Bay
IMG_5612
Kings Park, Perth WA
IMG_5569
Perth from Kings Park with Boab tree

We spent several hours out in Fremantle, Julie my friend drove us there and took us through the markets and down to the waterfront where we had fresh fish & chips and wandered around the hundreds of boats there. We happened to be there the same day as the Fremantle Roosters were in the final of the Rugby League and everyone there was dressed in the Roosters colours and settling into the pubs to watch the game. We wandered along to see the North Mole Lighthouse which began operation in 1906 at the entrance to Fremantle Harbour.

We met all the children and grandchildren of Pete & Julie and had some lovely family time with them. We also pampered ourselves and took Marcia out to a beautiful restaurant for her birthday near where they lived called Clarke’s of North Beach. The food and service was superb. Before we went for dinner Pete made us a ‘mean’ lemoncello’ which started the night well.

And then back home to New Zealand!

Australian Outback: From Adelaide to Darwin via Uluru, Tanami Track, Bungle Bungle Ranges and the Gibb River Road

Driving over 7000 kms through Australia Outback in four weeks

We flew from Auckland New Zealand to Adelaide to start our outback adventure, taking a taxi from the airport to pick up our 4WD that was to be our home for the next four weeks. When we got there and we were shown our truck we realized that managing the tent on the roof (which is what we had booked) might not be very easy for us 60+ women to do so we asked the young man serving us if there was any possibility we could change our minds. Marcia had spotted a much more user-friendly truck that slept us inside instead of on the roof.   The man checked if available and came back out with a grin on his face saying yes we could have it. We were very relieved and grateful and the change was made so we had to redo the paperwork but the guys at Britz were fantastic about it. The one we spotted was brand new – just had 800 kms on the clock, the distance from head-office in Melbourne to Adelaide.

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 3.08.38 PM

It had been a very long time since either of us had driven a large Toyota 4WD so we were very nervous for first few hours until we got used to it. Trying to park this monster vehicle was daunting at first especially as our first stop was the supermarket car park! The large Britz van was duly named Betty to rhyme with Britz! On arrival at the supermarket car park – we had to make sure it was a drive ‘straight’ in parking space not parallel park! Marcia stayed outside the van directing traffic as I parked because I was very nervous!! At least that is her story… Having parked Betty we spent a while shopping for groceries from our list created in Auckland. We also managed to find a butcher who vacuum packed the meat we had bought so it would last longer for us. We then drove to buy some wine and beer (you cannot buy wine & beer in large supermarkets like you can in NZ).

We just packed everything into the back of the truck and headed north as we really wanted to get on the Stuart Highway before dark. It was approximately 4pm when we set off from the outskirts north of Adelaide giving us only approximately one and half hours of daylight. We were not sure what time sunset was as we had forgotten to check it out before we set off. As we approached Port Wakefield, a small town about 100kms from Adelaide, dusk was descending so we made the decision to find a campground as we had heard horror stories about kangaroos and wallabies leaping in front of cars…and as we were new to it and have a $3000 excess we were cautious.

Once we had set up beds, (a new experience for us) we headed off to the local pub for grub. It was a very old and tatty pub and had about six different areas one could sit in. We chose the dining room, which had bright pink tablecloths and folded blue paper napkins in the shape of a birds! We both opted for the fisherman’s basket, which was edible once you removed the layers of batter around the fish.

The following morning after a healthy breakfast of muesli and fruit we set about getting our house in order, finding places to put away all our shopping from the previous day. We had a small fridge which held a surprising amount and loads of storage space. The campervan seemed to be equipped with all the essentials but it was early days yet!

We were back on the Stuart Highway by 10am, which was pretty good, heading for Port Augusta next. As we began to clock up the kilometres, we realized we would not get to Alice Springs before dark, we were not prepared to risk driving after sunset and we were in fact still too nervous to drive in the dark for long so we opted to stop at Coober Pedy.

Coober Pedy, with a population of 4000+, is an opal mining town and half the population live in underground dugouts to escape high temperatures in summer. The unusual aspect of this town is that you can eat in underground restaurants, stay in underground hotels, drink in underground bars, pray in an underground church or play golf on a course that has NO grass.

We found a campsite – Coober Pedy Oasis Tourist Park – over-ground, parked Betty then set about cooking our first evening meal in our campervan. We then headed for the underground pub for a drink. We did not feel as if we were underground but the thick walls and lack of windows provided the proof. Coober Pedy is still very much a mining town where fossicking for opals (unless with an organized group) is frowned upon. It was the dream of a German man to build the first underground hotel and this is where it happened. For miles either side of Coober Pedy we noticed many small working claims with diggers park along side. The diggers are used to haul out the red earth and drop it into mini anthills formations around the dig and because the land all around is so flat you can see mini piles of red earth everywhere.

Coober Pedy to Ayers Rock.

first view Uluru
Our First view of Uluru

Our plan when we set out from Auckland was to go first to Alice Springs and then drive to Ayres Rock via the Merenie Loop road, through Kings Canyon but decide because of the time it had taken us to get this far we would change plans. So instead we set off for Ayers Rock, what a lovely feeling to turn off the busy Stuart Highway and head along the Lassiter highway towards Ayres Rock / Uluru, stopping to view Mount Connor as we went. As we approached Mount Connor we wondered if it might be Uluru but when we stopped to look at it we realized that the shape was quite different.

Mount Connor
Mount Connor

We had chosen to rent a campervan that used diesel fuel but it took us a few ‘fills’ before we noticed how the price increased the further north we drove. The price of diesel was a shock to us as it was much more expensive that in New Zealand, something we had not figured into our $$ calculation. It turns out that Australia pay the extra diesel tax at the pump not twice a year like we do in NZ. We had chosen a diesel van because we thought that would be cheaper overall and we would save some money on fuel! Alas this was not to be – we travelled nearly 7,000 kms and we spend $1000 approximately on fuel! The most expensive diesel was at Rabbit Flat on the Tanami track – it cost us $2.60 per litre! This was not a surprise though as all the books and research tell you that. We used Lonely Planet ‘OutbackAustralia’ as our bible plus a lot of pages printed from the Internet!

But when we did see Uluru – wow how exciting it was to see our first view of the red monolith. We did wonder how we could have mistaken Mount Connor for Uluru, if only for a second, when we saw the majestic Uluru. We camped at Ayers Rock Camp Ground in Yulara, 18kms north of Uluru and 274 kms from our turn off from the Stuart Highway. It took us some time to decide which site we would choose and we tried out three sites before we were happy with it as we planned to spend the next four nights in Ayers Rock. We started with U19, then U16 and finally U6! This did not seem to worry the owners – they just shifted us around from one to the other on the computer. It was a very pleasant campsite but we were very disappointed that we were unable to see Uluru from there – I imagined as it was the closest campsite to Uluru we would be able to see it!

IMG_3180
Early morning view of Olgas

The following morning I arose early hoping to find a local high spot to see the sunrise – not really sure where I was going but based on the information from the campground staff the night before and following my instincts I ended up following a path that looked as though it lead to a hill, however there was no lighting along the pathway and I did not bring my torch with me so I just hoped my instinct would lead me to the right place. I girded my loins and walked very very fast along the path until I reached the top of the knoll. I could see the outline of Uluru in the distance but it was cold and dark all around me. Within minutes of getting there, people seem to silently emerge from several different pathways leading to the knoll. As new people arrived they seemed surprised to find other people already there – It was so dark and still getting to the knoll one could be excused for thinking that you would be alone up there! Looking around from the hill I could see the lights of several hotels and resorts in the distance.

As the sun rose, the dark mound became a shade of purple, turning then to a bright red energetic monolith. The whole process took about 30 minutes for the rising sun to change the black mount to a bright orange. I could see the Olgas, which are now called the Kata Kjutas (which means ‘many heads’) in the distance as well and they too looked spectacular, they have a unique shape and beauty and in fact, many people prefer their gigantic marble shapes to that of Uluru.

Walking into the Olgas
Walking into the Olgas
IMG_3167
People climbing Uluru despite being asked by local Aboriginals to respect the site and not climb it!

Following a delicious camp cooked breakfast we drove out towards Uluru which is situated in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. A pass for three days cost us $25AU per car. A willy-wagtail was perched on top of the sign welcoming us to the park. Over the previous 24 hours, Marcia had been receiving several odd telephone calls, which she was cagey about. However, finally her phone rang where she could not hide and I heard her speak to my daughter (Niamh) from England and I was told that she and her husband had booked us both into dinner at the luxurious hotel called Sails in the Desert on 26th June to celebrate my 60th birthday. Niamh had been trying to contact us for several days but the campsite did not have us on the books so she thought she might have missed us – probably because of all our moving from site to site on arrival!

Armed with a packed lunch and water we set off to walk around the base of Uluru – a fantastic walk with several detours for caves and the viewing of aboriginal art. Uluru has a strong spiritual significance to the local Aboriginal tribe that call themselves Anangu. We were very surprised that so many people would still consider climbing to the top of Uluru despite being asked to respect the fact that the whole area of the rock is a sacred site to the Anangu people who ask that people not to climb it. The walk around Uluru base is an easy 9.4km walk on a flat well signposted dirt path and according to local pamphlets should take around 31/2 hours. My suggestion is to take lunch, as we did, and dawdle, taking time to check out the caves and the art. Walking around the base of Uluru you cannot help but feel some of the spiritual significance of this ancestral site, just being able to touch the red rock one gets a sense of the secrets of the past. As we walked along the Mala & Kuniya walk we saw some amazing examples of historic Aboriginal art. Each symbol has its own special meaning so it is worth while to either get a guided tour or pick up some books locally. Rock art tells a story of the history and occupation of Uluru. Like most national treasures one should ‘take nothing but photos’ as touching the art can damage it.

Back at the camp we cooked our evening meal and then strolled back up to the knoll to watch the reverse of the morning – to watch the sun set over the Red Rock changing it from bright red to a black mound. It is impossible to get too much of this amazing Monolith.

26th June – Olgas/Kata Tjuta

IMG_3204
The beautiful Olgas from the air

We drove to the Olgas now renamed their aboriginal name Kata Tjuta with it’s 36 spectacular large red domes which change colour depending on the time of day you are viewing them. Kata Tjuta also holds spiritual significance for the Anangu people. It was an amazing experience wandering through the large red marble shaped mounds through the valley of the winds track. We were very lucky that the wind was non-existent during our walk (it can be intense at times) so we were able to sit and watch many honeyeaters busy at work as we wandered along the track. The track was 7.4 kms long and wound its way up and down through the many domes and gorges. Kata Tjuta is as beautiful as Uluru, both are very different in shape, both are mighty, red and sacred but Kata Tjuta is less crowded and because you walk into the middle of the structure you almost feel you are a part of it.

That evening we donned our glad rags and headed off to the ‘Sails in the Desert’ Hotel. We went up to the roof to watch the sunset over Uluru but we were sadly disappointed as Uluru was nowhere to be seen. Back downstairs we went and sat in the lounge with a glass of bubbly before going into the ‘birthday’ dinner. The meal was superb and the wine from Margaret River area in Western Australia called Devil’s Lair was beautiful …Thank you Niamh & Paul!

The ‘B’ day, 27th June.

IMG_3195
My birthday treat – a flight over Uluru & Katatjuta

Awakening on my 60th birthday in the middle of the Red Centre of Australia was a dream come true. This was to be a day of surprises starting of with several gifts and card that Marcia had secreted away in her luggage. Rhys (my son), Niamh& Paul and some friends rang to wish me happy birthday.

I was then whisked off to a lovely hotel for breakfast in the White Gums restaurant. After a long leisurely tasty breakfast we visited the visitor centre, a worthwhile place to spend some time. Marcia kept popping gifts and cards out from her bag – some beautiful jewellery and other lovely gifts but the best gift of all was a helicopter ride that very afternoon over Uluru and Kata Tjuta – a dream of a lifetime!

The anticipation of the ride was with me all morning and the ride lived up to all expectations. As we flew over the Red Centre we had stunning views of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta but they looked so small from the air. We shared the helicopter ride with two other people – a mother and son but I was lucky enough to have the front seat, which allowed me to take some great shots of the two rocks!

Uluru - View from above
Uluru – View from above

After coming down to earth physically and emotionally there was yet another treat in store! We returned home did a quick change putting on all our thermals before being picked up at 1630 at the bus stop for the “Sound of Silence” dinner in the desert. We were warned about the cold nights in the desert so were well prepared.

There were several other people waiting fat the bus stop plus we stopped to pick up others along the way. There appear to be several “venues” for the ‘Sound od Silence’ dinners in the desert and each venue limits their numbers. At one bus stop we picked up a couple that were dressed to go out to dinner in a flash restaurant for the night. She had sleeveless dress and high-heeled shoes! She obviously did not understand that it was being held outside as it was winter and was very cold at night.

What a night, staff dressed in evening suit with black ties, greeted us, just as if we were in a fine dining restaurant They gave us a glass of champagne as we entered and they brought around a selection of nibbles – unusual nibbles from local fare – kangaroo, crocodile, emu and barramundi, having just a mouthful was a really good way to taste these local delicacies. A young aboriginal man from a tribe in Western Australia began playing a didgeridoo, a sound that seemed to fit with the ‘silence’ of the desert as we supped champagne and watched the sun set change Uluru once more.

We were then invited into another area that had seven circular tables set for 10 people. Each table had heat lamps close and we ate a fantastic dinner. It was lovely to share our table with other people; there were three couples from Queensland who were teachers and a young Italian couple on their honeymoon. It was a magic night dining under a starry sky with the added bonus of hearing about and seeing planets and stars through special telescopes, looking and learning about planets and galaxies that are visible due to the exceptional clarity of the atmosphere. What a fantastic way to spend a birthday!

28th June

Next morning it was time to say goodbye to Uluru and head off to Kings Canyon. We stopped at a farm and coffee shop called Kings Creek Station, 36 kilometers from the magnificent Kings Canyon (Watarrka) for coffee and fuel. Kings Creek Station is a working cattle/camel station with facilities for camping, accommodation and an opportunity to experience the outback either by quad (4 wheel motorbike), helicopter as they had a helipad and offered helicopter flights over Kings Canyon. The shop had a variety of basic supplies or you could get a meal or drinks. They even sold Kings Creek camel burgers!!!! We learned that that station is the largest exporter of wild camels in Australia and sells camels for live export, live domestic sales and meat. There were even camels looking over the fence at you as you drove in and you could go camel riding from there!

The Kings Canyon rim walk
The Kings Canyon rim walk

Even though our petrol tank was still half full we had planned to take advantage of any fuel stop we came across – this was partly nervousness of first time 4WD adventurers and also being frightened by the constant reminders in all our research about driving in the outback – always ensure you have enough fuel!! We drove on to Kings Canyon resort booked a site for the night and immediately headed off to walk the Kings Canyon Rim walk (called the Canyon Walk) in Watarrka National Park, the walk was about 6+ kms. Kings canyon walls/cliff face are over 100 meters high and from the top you can see Kings canyon creek running through the bottom. It was spectacular and relatively easy walk once you conquered the first 10 mins of a very steep climb called ‘heartbreak hill’ by the locals..…ah but you had a good reason to stop several times to take in the view!

There were several areas where one could branch of, one is the Garden of Eden where you can view a water hole with some lush vegetation. On the last part of the walk you meander through lots of sandstone domes. The gorge you look down on was created from the splitting of the rock many many years ago – you can walk close to the unfenced rim in many areas.

29th June

Marcia, I, and Betty headed off very early from KC towards the Mereenie loop road which is unsealed and allows you to drive directly from Kings Canyon (Watarrka National Park) to the West MacDonnell Ranges. This was going to be the first real test for Betty and those of us driving her, as this was the first major unsealed road. We needed a pass as we were going to be driving through Aboriginal land so had to wait until the Kings Canyon Resort office opened at 0700 to buy the pass which costs $2.20.  One cannot get the pass the day before – it must be issued on the day. The area you need the pass for is 93 kms long and you cannot stop anywhere except at one viewing point and rest area which is clearly marked and is called Ginty’s lookout.

The previous day, two local people told us that two tourists had been killed on the track a few weeks earlier, but the people at the office where the passes were issues assured us this was not so! We weren’t sure who to believe but just in case, we stayed extremely alert! Within a few minutes of hitting the track we were stopped by a group of wild camels strolling across the road, they appeared to be most indignant at having to move from the road (and we locked both our doors, just in case the camels were a set up!). The drive was through spectacular desert countryside where several herds of donkeys and camels wandered across the road as we drove along. We drove like people in a funeral procession for the first hour as the road was very ridged and corrugated and so Marcia (who had driven in the outback before) suggested I try to find the right speed to smooth the corrugations as much as possible! Easier said than done but eventually I got into a rhythm – just as we came to the end of the track!

We stopped at Glen Helen Gorge briefly and we decided we were very happy we had changed our plans and were not staying there overnight. It did not appeal to us at all so we drove to Ormiston Gorge. We parked the van at the visitors centre and headed off anticlockwise (recommended by the information centre, for impact) on the Ormiston Pond Walk – a three-hour walk. We went through the flat farmland on some stony pathways, meandering slowly through some beautiful scenic spots and then walking down into the incredible expanse of the Ormiston Pond. We then followed the riverbed for an hour right to the end. As we walked, beautiful sounding birds serenaded us. We met just three people on our 31/2-hour walk! The words amazing, vibrant, beautiful, magnificent were use frequently and repeated often! Every gorge was another ‘awesome’ gorge because each time we saw another gorge we felt it was more beautiful than the last but each gorge was so very different and so incredible in its own way.

We arrived in Alice Springs at about 5pm and went straight to the supermarket to do our ‘top up’ shopping before heading off early in the morning along the Tanami track. Unfortunately, we did not have any time to look around Alice Springs – it looked a very new and spread out town. We stayed at the Top 4 Holiday Park called Mac Donnell ranges which was 4-5 kms outside town, and found some delicious prawns for dinner at the local restaurant beside the campground.

30th June – THE TANAMI TRACK

The Tanami Track - 1053 kms!
The Tanami Track – 1053 kms!

Today it’s the Tanami Track– 1053 kilometres long, the long road, which joins Alice Springs with the Kimberley. Can we do it in one day – most people take three days to cover it. This track cuts through the heart of the Tanami desert and connects Alice Springs with Halls Creek. It is deserted and very very straight.

We left Alice Springs at 0715 so that we could tackle the track early and get a good head start, but were very surprised to find it was sealed for the first 100 kms. We drove straight on through vast arid land covered with spinifex grass and a mass of termite mounds in all shapes and sizes. The flat plains extended to meet the vast sky only broken by the red dirt road cutting straight through the centre. A herd of ‘brumbies’, a Telstra cell phone towers every 45 kms, an occasional acacia tree and a car coming in the opposite direction broke the solitude periodically. You knew you were going to have company for some time before you actually saw the vehicle as the dust came into view long before the car/truck did. We passed several isolated cattle stations on the track and drove by large areas of restricted mining compounds.

We stopped at Tilmouth Wells service station for fuel and then our next stop was 592 km from Alice springs along the Tanami track at Rabbit Flat, where we bought the most expensive diesel in the world $2.20 per litre! Sadly this station closed indefinitely at the end of 2010. Marcia’s friend who lived in NT for many years knew the old codger Bruce who owned Rabbit Flat so when we stopped there we introduced ourselves and we chatted about old friends and old times.

Marcia's Oz Pics (37)
Bruce from Rabbit Flat

He was a wiry old bugger who had lived there for over 30 years and looked like he might live there for the next 30 years. We ate a very tasty meat pie at his suggestion, filled our tanks and Betty’s and headed off again. The road went on and on and on and on……………. We drove the last hour and a half in the dark driving at snails pace which was just as well as we finally saw our first live wild roo! He stood still startled by us and then jumped across the road barely missing our truck and his tail brushed past our left wheel, but he got away. Phew! We were having doubts about live wild kangaroos in Australia!

We finally arrived at Halls Creek at 20.50 (or so we thought). Halls Creek, not well known for its beauty appeared to us at that hour of the evening as a beacon of welcoming light and the Halls Creeks motel with is shower and clean sheets were every so inviting that we abandoned Betty for the night and booked into the hotel. We showered and headed to the bar and restaurant hoping we may still be able to find food but were devastated when the owner told us they finish serving dinner at 2030. Our faces said it all; he looked strangely at us and said ‘that gives you girls an hour still’. We had totally forgotten that we had crossed a border and time zone between Northern Territory and Western Australia! We were so relieved and thrilled to have gained an hour and a half and able to relax and have some wine and dinner.

Saturday 1st July.

After a leisurely breakfast we wandered around Halls Creek, did some shopping for fresh vegetables fruit, meat and wine. None of these were available where we headed next, into the Bungle Bungles Ranges in the Purnululu National Park, an area where you could only get to by 4WD. On the way there, before the turn off from the main highway to Darwin we saw our first Boab tree standing like a majestic being in the middle of the field. Each boab tree had its own character, some were tall and stately, others were fat and friendly, some were like family groups – children and parents grouped together, we stopped to photograph them many times. We also caught sight of some brolgas tripping through the tall grass – amazing elegant creatures that dance an elaborate courtship dance and are also called the Australia Crane (not nearly as nice a name as Brolga).

The turn off from Highway 1 was 108 kms north of Halls Creek and well signposted. The dirt road into the Purnululu National Park, which has been a World Heritage site in East Kimberley since 2003, was not as rough as we anticipated. The first part of the track was through an old cattle station called Mabel Downs which has since opened a caravan park run by the station owners. We did have to ford a few streams and we passed a dingo that grinned cruelly at us as we drove quickly by. We really loved the drive in and arrived at the information centre at about 12.30. It was lunch break so nobody was there but it was so well organized that we were able to register, pay and get all relevant information without meeting a soul. They had a beautiful logo on front with the spinifex pigeons on it and we had a choice of two campsites.

We decided we would spend the first night at the Kurrajong campsite and investigate the walks in that area and then spend the second night at the Walardi campsite. We had a relaxing evening listening to the sounds of countryside and the birds but had still not viewed the beehive formations of the Bungle Bungle massif. We cooked dinner by candlelight – it did not taste too bad!

Sunday 2nd July.

The sun rose at 0530 so we were awake early and had early breakfast – Marcia was becoming expert at creating good cooked breakfasts on a small gas cooker. We headed of to walk the ‘Mini Palm walk’ and the Echidna Chasm walk. We had read in our LP that we should do this walk around midday when the sun was directly above us and were they right. The narrow chasm became narrower and darker as we progressed through but suddenly at about 15 minutes before midday the whole area lit up as the sun shone directly into it, was an amazing phenomenon and lasted for about 30 mins. One could touch the wall on either side in several places as you walked through. There was one area where a huge boulder was wedged between the narrow walls and you can have your photo taken under it – pretending you were holding it up or just escaped its falling on your head, but it has sat in the same place for hundreds of years!

After lunch, we walked into Cathedral Cove, which is a massive amphitheatre where you could hear the frog’s singing/croaking. Unfortunately the number of people there spoilt the silence a little – or maybe it was the fact that we would have loved the amphitheatre to ourselves to hum a few tunes! On the way back we wandered through the dome track. The red and black beehives were unbelievable – twenty million years of weathering have produced these eroded sandstone beehive structures of the Bungle Bungle Range. The dark bands contrast with the lighter orange sandstone, sandwiched on top of each other to form domes. Nature is amazing! Back to Walardi campsite where we once more cooked steak by candlelight. It was a lovely quiet campsite but we had some unusual rustling sounds during the night – probably wallabies, we did not get up to see!

Monday 3rd July.

I really thought I was in heaven there amongst the Bungle Bungle Range. We were up and out early with sunrise. After breakfast we drove to the Helipad where we jumped onto a helicopter without doors which took us for a ride over the Bungle Bungles, just the pilot and us. What a trip and what views. We were a little disappointed that the weather was cloudy on take off but it improved as we flew over the range, nevertheless it was a breathtaking ride.

Today we said good-bye to the Bungle Bungles, a place I had wanted to visit since 1982 when they were first ‘discovered’ by white man – the Aboriginal people had lived there forever! I was not disappointed. I wish we had allocated more time to spend there – it would have been very easy to while away a few more days there. We met a couple who had walked the 32 kms return Piccaninny gorge and said it was really worthwhile. They had slept under the stars and loved every minute of it.

As we passed through Halls Creek again we shopped for water melon and chocolate – a request from Joy whom we were going to visit in a remote outback station – the water melon cost $25 !! We headed off for Christmas Creek station and beyond to Joy and Jim Motter at their station called Bulka. Joy was an old acquaintance of Marcia from her nursing days – 30 plus years ago at Fitzroy Crossing. The word Bulka means ‘old man’ in the aboriginal language.   The turn off to their station was about 120 kms from Halls Creek and then another 50kms along a dirt road. Joy had given us some very explicit instructions or so we thought until we got to the Wonkajunka community and realized we were not where we should be. We finally arrived having received directions form the local aboriginals to a warm welcome from Joy. Her husband Jim was a quiet character who did not say much and carried his gun everywhere with him. We parked the van outside the front door and slept out there…. more or less under the stars. We had a wonderful home cooked meal with Joy and headed off for Falls Creek following a very early breakfast.

Tuesday 4th July.

Nostalgia set in for Marcia as we approached Fitzroy Crossing. We headed for the Giekie Gorge for a boat trip then planned to drive around Fitzroy crossing. We made it to the 0930 (Conservation & Land Management) CALM organized trip and it was beautiful, the water not as still as it could have been but nevertheless we spied our first ‘freshie’ crocodile, some bottle-top birds nests in the cliffs and beautiful flora and fauna and also some stunning rock formations. The driver/guide was very well informed with a dry laconic sense of humour.

I then drove Marcia on a nostalgic trip around Fitzroy Crossing, visiting the site of the old hospital where she worked which was now an empty site with only a stone plaque remembering the wonderful Australian Inland Mission nursing staff of thirty plus years ago!! Photo time! The old police station building was still intact but is now a private dwelling. We drove across and back over the old Fitzroy River crossing which was always flooded, more than 50 metres, in the rainy season while Marcia worked there. This area was now a few kms outside the town of Fitzroy crossing.

We then booked in at the Fitzroy Lodge campsite, a clean and very well organized campsite and very popular! They had a nice shop/café/restaurant and we sat and had a coffee, wrote postcards, did some shopping. We then took our gas cylinder to have it filled but it only took a few puffs of gas but we were charge for a full fill!!   We decided to have BBQ dinner at Fitzroy Lodge for $22 each. Before dinner we visited the ‘new’ hospital, but discovered that in fact it was now the ‘old’ hospital and was soon to be replaced, by a brand new building just behind the current one. This ‘new’ one (to us) was already about 30 years old.

Wednesday 5th July.

Today we hit the Gibb River Road, but had a few stops before that. Our first stop was Tunnel Creek, which has long dark tunnels and one needed a torch to safely negotiate the tunnel – we had been well warned so we had invested in a big expensive torch and I brought my little old torch as back-up. The brand new expensive torch faded and died within one minute and my little torch had a tiny beam – not enough to see as far as your outstretched hand so we decided to turn back. In the dark, you were in danger of walking knee or waist deep into the creek. On the way back we saw loads of bats nests before the torch finally gave out.

Next stop Windjana Gorge! What an amazing place – our book say that we could see lots of crocodiles here but that was an understatement – there were dozens and dozens of them all sunning themselves on the banks of the creek – they were mostly on our side of the creek luckily so we could get pretty close to them and they did not appear to be worried by humans!  One very brave white heron took its life in its hands walking gingerly on top of a group of over 20 freshwater crocodiles moving from one to the next!

We also spotted many trees full of cockatoos playing happily and making a huge racquet. As we walked along the trail we came upon an empty bowerbird nest – quite extraordinary to look at and a mission to build – the male covers the nest floor with all kinds of shells to attract the female and make the nest as decorative as possible.

We hit the Gibb River Road (GRR) about a ½ hour after Windjana Gorge. The GRR is 586kms long from the Tunnel Creek/Windjina Gorge highway to Kununurra through the heart of the Kimberly, this milage does not include any trip off the GRR. It is constantly being upgraded so there may well be more bitumen parts than when we went through but is mainly a formed dirt/gravel two laned road.   The best time to travel this road is between May & October – the dry season! It was not as rough, corrugated and full of bull dust as we had been lead to believe or else we were getting used to the ridges.Our first stop on GRR was Silent Grove, in the King Leopold Conservation Park, a campground about 20- 30 mins drive down a rough road off GRR.

The rules of the campground are that you take a tag from the information board and the ranger will come around later to collect your camp fee. We were hoping to stay at the Bell Gorge site but we arrived too late and all the tags for the Bell Gorge site were gone these sites are very private and by the river. We had made many stops so we were late getting there arriving about 3pm. however, we had a great day but did not get the tag we wanted. We took a tag for Silent Grove which turned out to be a really beautiful spot – tranquil and uncrowded. We set up camp with chairs and tables to claim our site and drove to Bell Gorge where we walked to the waterfall and sat and absorbed the peace and tranquillity for some time. On the way home we spotted a wallaby sitting in the middle of the road – he eventually hopped across the road and off into the bushes. That night we left the doors of the van open to view the stars and in the morning, Marcia told of a close encounter she had in the middle of the night with two large kangaroos and a cow. We cooked steaks by candlelight under the stars – what more could a person want?

Thursday July 6th

Today we needed to rise early as we had a difficult drive to Mornington Wilderness. We stopped at Imtji for petrol, this is a store for the local aboriginals at Mt House station, sadly I read that in March 2015 this store locked it doors for good. It will be a huge loss to outback travellers as well as the locals as it was the only store and petrol facility for hundreds of kms. When we called in there, the managers had been there for only two weeks, as they care-take stations up north in the wet season. Lets hope sometime soon someone else will take it over and open the door again.

The road from GRR to Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary was a rough road through lots of streams – it was 90kms long and took us 11/2 hours. But was a beautiful place – an oasis in an arid land. As we checked in, we were told that someone had driven over a crocodile in the creek a few days earlier. One of the girls at reception suggested we drive to a quiet little beach on the banks of the mighty Fitzroy River where we could swim. So off we went to Cadejeput Creek and on to a sandy beach – one definitely needed a 4WD to get there. Cadejeput means ‘useful trees’ to the aboriginals. We spent a few lazy tranquil hours on the beach and Marcia swam in the mighty Fitzroy River. Our tranquillity was broken by a strange noise and we looked up to see a large yellow spotted monitor – out came the camera of course and he was not in the least camera shy! Mornington was a lovely quiet campsite; you felt you were the only people there despite a high occupancy rate in other camping areas.

Friday July 7th

When we booked our camp site from NZ we also booked a kayak trip in Dimond Gorge, so after breakfast, armed with paddles and life jackets we set off for Dimond Gorge. As we drove out from the camp, we scared the daylights out of a small wallaby that nearly skipped under our stationary vehicle. We crossed the Adcock River and past the turn off to Cadejeput Creek, passed beautiful blue and yellow lilies. The 26km road was pretty rough with several creek crossings. We stopped briefly along the way for some bird spotting but decided we would spend more time on way home. We did and I had the pleasure of seeing a red crowned Gouldian finch in the wild. I could not believe my eyes and was too slow to get camera out but did enjoy the moment. We kayaked down the gorge, which was tranquil when we set off but the wind began to whip up as we got to the end of the Gorge. We only passed two other couples on route. We had a lovely lunch on the rocks at the far end of the Gorge – this end of Dimond gorge was only 65 kms from end of Geikie Gorge, near Fitzroy Crossing, but it had taken us two days to get here across land. The return kayak trip back up the Dimond gorge was beautiful, as the wind had dropped back down.

Saturday July 8th

Today we just had a quiet day and lazed around the camp all day. Sat outside the main reception office sipping good coffee and writing postcards. I walked around Annie Creek trail – about 3kms in the afternoon and saw some stunning birds – the crimson finch, owl finch and the fairy wren to name but a few.

Sunday July 9th

We were really sad to leave this wonderful oasis in the heart of the Kimberley. All 3000 square kms rich with spectacular gorges and tropical savannah dominated by the Fitzroy River and the Leopold Ranges but we had limited time and had to head off for the next stage of our trip. Having left Mornington we headed back out to the GRR and up towards El Questro – a very long drive, 513kms.

The road was full of corrugations but we soon got into a rhythm which made for a more comfortable ride and you soon forgot about the discomfort of the ride as you made your way through the centre of the Kimberly, put very succinctly by http://www.gibbriverroad.net/

“Travelling through this landscape is an awe inspiring experience as you pass age old rock formations, spectacular ranges, magnificent rivers, vast savannahs of bushland, steep cliff faces, and delightful gorges forged over millions of years by the power of nature. Here you can truly immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, see the rare and unique species of Australian wildlife that call this land home, admire the absolutely spectacular views of this breathtaking country, and enjoy bushwalking or swimming at the secluded gorges”.

It was well into the afternoon when we arrived at El Questro campsite.  There are many options for accommodation at El Questro from total luxury to camping in a tent. It is a well laid out campsite in a beautiful area and when we arrived at reception we could choose where we wanted to camp and decided we liked the sound out the isolated campsite so were given the ‘Ibis’ site. It was 7.5kms from main campground and was VERY isolated indeed. I began to think about all the ‘things’ I might encounter during a midnight loo stop!! So back to the campsite closer to people, hot showers and flushing toilets we went, cooked a pasta dish, drank wine and beer and went to bed a little later than usual – 8pm!

Monday July 10th

First thing in the morning – we changed sites (again), as we had spotted a better site away from the main track – we were getting pretty good at changing sites now but were also learning our limitations! We drove to Zebeedee Springs, and walked through beautiful Livistonia palms for 750 meters to some hot pools that were tiered down the hill. It was very crowded but we found a lukewarm pool and sat there for ½ hour. It was a beautiful spot but only opened for restricted hours each day to try to maintain the delicate ecosystem – hence the crowds, when opened for just the few hours in the morning.

Our next walk was into El Questro gorge where we walked all along the bed of a river (about 1.3kms) and hopped over very large boulders and ended up at a large swimming hole underneath a canopy of rain forest trees. The boulders were not easy to hop over and both of use nearly took a tumble. I had to hug a tree to stop me falling down a steep slope and Marcia nearly went for a swim slipping from a large bolder! But we loved it and of course got back safely.

In the afternoon, we drove to the wharf on the Chamberlain River – a picturesque drive in itself and then hopped on the – wow what a great cruise. We were served ‘bubbly’, saw ‘freshies’ (fresh-water crocodiles) and ‘salties’ (salt-water crocodiles), wandered around viewing local aboriginal art which we were told by people on the boat that they were Bradshaw and Wynham’s art. The guides cannot talk directly about the art or tell you where it is but if one asks the right questions, they are allowed to answer! Luckily for us, some people on the cruise were much more informed than we were and knew how to phrase the questions. The reason they cannot speak about it because there are pending negotiations between local aboriginal people and the government, apparently there are conflicting native title claims on the area and until these are resolved El Questro management cannot acknowledge their existence. We then got to feed the spitting fish from the boat – and they really do spit for a good metre! – and saw barramundi and turtles. We also visited sites where aboriginal people lived in caves may centuries ago and saw grinding stones and other stone utensils used for everyday living.

In the afternoon, we drove to the wharf on the Chamberlain River – a picturesque drive in itself and then hopped on the Chamberlain River cruise – wow what a great cruise. We were served ‘bubbly’, saw ‘freshies’ (fresh-water crocodiles) and ‘salties’ (salt-water crocodiles), wandered around viewing local aboriginal art which we were told by people on the boat that they were Bradshaw and Wynham’s art. The guides cannot talk directly about the art or tell you where it is but if one asks the right questions, they are allowed to answer! Luckily for us, some people on the cruise were much more informed than we were and knew how to phrase the questions. The reason they cannot speak about it because there are pending negotiations between local aboriginal people and the government, apparently there are conflicting native title claims on the area and until these are resolved El Questro management cannot acknowledge their existence. We then got to feed the spitting fish from the boat – and they really do spit for a good metre! – and saw barramundi and turtles. We also visited sites where aboriginal people lived in caves may centuries ago and saw grinding stones and other stone utensils used for everyday living.

IMG_3569
Reflection on Chamberlain river

Tuesday 11th July

We wanted to get away early as we planned to reach Kakadu National Park by evening but had to bide our time until 0700 for the office to open to get our $10 deposit back. Today’s drive was to be our last drive on the corrugations of the Gibb River Road – we drove for 17km along El Questro road and about 30+ km to the end of the Gibb River Road. We stopped in Kununurra, a pleasant town close to Lake Argyle and 37 kms from the border with the Northern Territory. We wandered around the shops and enjoyed being in a town with shops and cafes! I bought some carved Boab nuts for sentimental reasons as I had spent some time photographing many Boab trees. After a coffee we were back on the road on our way to Kakadu National Park. It was a long drive from El Questro to our campsite in Kakadu national park via Katherine and Timber Creek – 663 Kms . Several wallabies hopped around on the side of the roads during the day trip. As we drove into the park we noticed smoke and realized we were driving past small bush fires!

IMG_3595 IMG_3599

Initially we were a tad scared until we realized that it was controlled – a park plan, at least we hoped it was!  Only trouble was we could not see anyone there who seemed to be in charge!!! When we arrived at the campsite we managed to find a nice site near the edge of the site and close to facilities. As we set up our van for the night we saw several sets of beady red eyes stare back at us from the bush. Dingos quietly staring at the campsite residents, looking for easy pickings amongst rubbish.

Wednesday 12h July

Photos from Yellow river cruise& wetlands:-

We had booked the Yellow River Cruise the night before but unfortunately the dawn cruise was fully booked so chose the 9am cruise and were very excited about it as it promised teeming bird life!   The cruise takes you along the Yellow Water Billabong, Kakadu’s most famous wetland, near the end of Jim Jim Creek. The river system, which is the largest in  Kakadu, contains extensive wetlands that include river channels, floodplains and backwater swamps. The bird life, flora & Fauna and crocodiles especially the large ‘salties’ were stunning. The guides were very knowledgeable telling us that one third of Australia’s birds live in Kakadu NP. We saw whistling ducks, magpie geese, jabirus, brolgas and some soaring Sea Eagles. The jabirus appeared to walk on top of as well as through the water lilies. We got up close and personal with one huge ‘saltie’ as the guide nosed close into the shoreline!

We drove from Jabiru to car park at Nourlangie Rock (now called Burrunggui) and then we walked a 1.5 km circuit through the ‘wet’ season home of generations of aboriginals in that area – the aboriginal artwork is truly amazing considering the age – 20,000 years is how long the aboriginals have used this shelter and some of the colours are still vibrant. The aboriginal word for art is gunbim and they use art to express their cultural identity and the connection to the earth. One guide told us that the actual act of painting was really far more meaningful to the painter than the art itself!

Drawing telling story of evil man
Nabulwinjbulwinj – a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam!

Our next stop was the Bowali Visitors centre close to the town of Jabiru. People stop off here to plan their trip inside the National Park and you can have a cup of coffee! Then back to Kakadu Lodge caravan park where we loitered by the pool had a nice meal and some good Australian chardonnay.

Thursday 13th July

It rained hard on our campervan all night which necessitated rain jackets for toilets and showers. We left the park in the pouring rain and drove into Jabiru town where we saw several jabiru birds wandering around the place. It was quite a small town – only thing that was opened at 0800 was a bakery where we bought some lovely fresh rolls. We drove 40 kms up to Ubirr which is in the East Alligator region close to the edge of Kakadu NP and Arnhem Land. It is only a short walk to the foot of Ubirr Rock, many of the paintings have been painted & repainted over the last 2000 years and there a local aboriginal guide will give talks about the art. We walked around the Aboriginal art gallery and saw examples of X-Ray art, saw lightening man, fish and many more paintings and visited the sacred site – Rainbow Serpent gallery. We also spied a black wallaroo from the top of the rock and we spotted a tiny rock wallaby, which just seem to sit transfixed. We decided she was either sick or pregnant or both!

About midday we left Ubirr and intended to drive straight on to Darwin. However, about 80 kms east of Darwin we came upon a wetland area with thousands of water birds including hundreds of magpie geese sitting in the trees. We couldn’t miss out on the thrill of absorbing this sight so we sat for ages on the side of a busy road just watching the birds wander around the wetland. There were egrets lining the telegraph poles, which made for some good photography. A little further on we stopped at “Window on the Wetlands” visitors centre perched on Beatrice Hill with amazing views and great interactive information about all species, flora and fauna in the wetlands and they also have coffee!.

We eventually arrived in Darwin at about 1630 and could not find a comfortable hotel – which is what we wanted as we were saying good-bye to Betty Britz the next day. Finally, we stayed at a backpackers for $99AU – it was a 4X bedded bunkroom but they let us have it as double for the $99. It was a very basic but comfortable and clean room and we were very happy to sleep anywhere where we could spread out ourselves and our clothes after three weeks in our little campervan! I slept like a log after finding dinner and wine nearby.

Friday 14th July

Marcia and Betty has some last hours together as Betty got scrubbed and washed outside the up-market hotel called ‘The Palms’ where we had decamped for our last night. We had breakfast in the park by the esplanade following the cleanout of three weeks of accumulated ‘stuff’ from the campervan and having checked out from the backpackers. We did leave a lot of rubbish in their bins and a load of unused groceries for the cleaners to enjoy. Darwin had a nice friendly feel about it and seemed to be a thriving small city. People having coffee in the café we were sitting in told us that there was a teacher’s convention on in Darwin, which is why we could not find a decent hotel on our first night here.

We finally returned Betty all spick and span and without her coat of red dust she had worn for three weeks and with a tank full of fuel. She had been good to us throughout all our days in the Australian outback and she passed her inspection with flying colours. We spend the rest of the day wandering around Darwin and paid a visit to Government House, which was just across the road from the hotel. It was open day, had music playing, and beautiful lush gardens to wander around with several brightly coloured exotic plants. Inside in the dining room there was an elegant table set for next reception with name tags at each place setting – our name was not there so we went to find dinner and wine elsewhere!

Saturday 15th July

Last day in Australia, clean from red dust we sat by the pool in our hotel all day after we checked out…lovely! Marcia went for a massage – my treat to her for cleaning Betty. Took taxi to airport at about 1800 expecting to have dinner at airport – not to be, a mini nightmare began. No dining area, no comfortable seats. Flight supposed to be Qantas but was Jet Star instead where one could not get an allocated seat. Both our bags were overweight for which we had to pay. Then I was told that I owed $190 for my flights!! I knew I had an electronic ticket and had fully paid before I left! The flight was supposed to leave at 0210 but did not leave until 0315. Then arrived in Melbourne and Marcia was called over loudspeaker and discovered her bags had been left in Darwin. They were off loaded because of a forecast of inclement weather in Melbourne. However, we had a comfortable flight from Melbourne to Auckland.

But what an absolutely fantastic holiday!

Australian Outback: Betty Britz and two ‘Sheilas’ drive from Cairns to the Tip of Cape York

Driving 4WD from Cairns to the very ‘TIP’ of Australia through the Red Outback

With our petrol tank starting to get dangerously low after leaving Cooktown, our first stop on the isolated Cape York Peninsula was a remote roadhouse. We joined about a dozen 4WD trucks, trailers and vans of various brands, shapes and sizes all similarly covered with a coat of that ‘bloody’ red dust. Everybody who could had parked under the little available shade while others refilled their tanks with Cape York’s famously ‘high cost’ diesel. Some folks were eating their lunch on camp chairs by their vehicle; others sat at plastic tables and chairs provided by the roadside café.

Stopping at the Road house for petrol
Stopping at the Road house for petrol

All heads were raised as a new truck approached. We parked our 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser — our “Bushcamper” — by the petrol pump. Suddenly all eyes are staring at the two grey-haired ‘sheilas’. You could see them thinking something like:

“Not two 60-plus women on their own, driving a monster like that on these roads? There must be a bloke in there somewhere?”

After looking inside for the token male, there was much scratching of heads and muttering when he was nowhere to be see. Eventually it was too much for one man who approached us with a smile. “You two girls (I liked that) drive up here on your own?”.

This was how many conversations — and friendships — started during our trip across the vast outback from Cairns to the tip of the Australian Continent on the Cape York Peninsula.

Planning for the trip started two years ago during another 4WD outback challenge from Adelaide to Darwin which was a celebration of our respective 60th birthdays. The website I had previously used www.Exploreoz.com rated the difficulty for this trip as 4 1/2 stars – 5 stars being the ultimate challenge. We were much less daunted than were family and friends who kept asking well-intentioned questions. “Can you not join a ‘tag along’ group (where one travels in convoy)?” “Will you take a satellite phone?” “Can we have a detailed itinerary?” My son even parted with his precious iPhone so we could have GPS.

The first step was to get to know the area and start drafting an itinerary. So we downloaded commercial Cape York 4WD itineraries and bought books by Moon, Hema and Lonely Planet. Next, we decided the best dates to travel. Everything we read suggested that June to September, the dry winter season, was best.

Next we booked our accommodation on wheels — the Britz Bushcamper, a popular model in the dry season. These 4WD Toyota converted campervans are not cheap – the cost for 17 days with total insurance cover (no excess), safety kit, chairs, table, linen, sleeping bags, pillows and awning was AUD 4,522 (NZD 5,625, USD 3,831, GBP 2,632)

Betty Britz - our home for 3 weeks
Betty Britz – our home for 3 weeks

Day 1

We picked up ‘Betty’ (the Bushcamper) just 4kms north of Cairns on 25th July, arriving on the doorstep of the rental yard at 7.30am eager to get under way as we had to get acquainted with her idiosyncrasies (and there were a few), buy essential food for 17 days and still have plenty of time to enjoy the drive from Cairns to our starting point at Wonga beach.

To our shock, the van was still dirty from the last trip with a thin layer of red dust inside and out. Worse, the right-hand front tire wasn’t roadworthy – and we had 3,000kms to go.   After some discussion we were finally on our way back to our hotel with two new front tires. After we’d packed her up, we noticed a couple taking photos of the van. The couple told us they had rented her for the previous two week and just returned her the previous evening – they also told us they had complained about the state of the tires after getting three punctures.

Once out of Cairns’ suburbs we drove on sealed roads through sugarcane country and along the breathtaking scenery of the northern beaches, heading north along the coast to towards the Daintree National Park and bypassing main towns. We needed to get to the campsite before dark to do some serious repacking and rearranging of gear and food before we hit the rough roads. We stayed at Pinnacle Village Holiday Camp at Wonga Beach. Tomorrow was a big day as we needed to be up at the crack of dawn for a sunrise boat trip on the Daintree River, 15kms away, and prepare ourselves for the notorious Bloomfield Track.

Day 2  Daintree River & the notorious Bloomfield Track

This was when it really started. – the long dusty red roads that we were to brave for the next 17 days! We hit the Bloomfield Track at 11am. Books and blogs described it as “exceedingly” or “hideously” steep, slippery and exceptionally winding. It is also tidal and cannot be crossed at high tide. The best advice recommended stopping at Mason’s store in Cape Tribulation, just a couple of kilometres from the start of the track, to check the state of the road and the tides.

We arrived there about 10.30am, anxiously seeking reassurance that we could drive this fearsome road. I would have been more than happy to go the long alternative route around to Cooktown at the first hint of concern from the shop owner but, alas, the very pleasant young man behind the counter could not help – he had been a Masons Store employee for only three days. Nothing for it but to grip the wheel, put Betty into 4WD and head off.

Two hours later, I felt a bit of a fool. We were eating lunch in the Lion’s Den 35kms south of Cooktown. I had built the Bloomfield Track up into a veritable Everest but it really was a piece of cake. Or maybe we were just lucky as there are many horror stories and it had not been raining. We were glad to reach Endeavor falls Campsite 31kms outside Cooktown after a leisurely wander around the town

Day 3 & 4 – Drive to Kalpowar Camp site in Lakefield NP – stayed 2 nights

However that still left the road from Cooktown to the tip of Cape York, which has has just about every 4WD challenge you could wish for, especially if you take the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL). Several of the crossings along this track are feared and revered. Bearing names such as Gunshot Creek, Nolan’s Brook (don’t be fooled by the gentle name), Cannibal Creek, Canal Creek or Logan Creek, they can leave you stranded or under water.

Fortunately, our insurance did not allow us to travel on the dreaded OTL, so we had no choice but to take the Southern and Northern bypass roads. We were, however, allowed to travel 8kms deep into the Elliott Falls along the OTL, provided we came out the same way. We heard many a tale of brave souls tackling Gunshot and knew of three vehicles that “drowned” during our trip.

The OTL started as a track through the dense forest of Cape York in 1885 and followed the path of the telegraph wires north, which was for many years the only means of communication between the residents of remote areas and Cooktown. The bypass roads –Southern and Northern — which begin at Bramwell Junction Roadhouse and end at the Jardine River, were developed later by Telecom Australia to service its newly installed telegraph wires. The first car ever to travel from Cooktown to the tip of Cape York was a 7HP baby Austin owned and driven by two intrepid New Zealanders in 1928. It took two months to travel the OTL which was then called the ‘goat’ track. They floated the car across the rivers including the crocodile infested Jardine River.

The Southern & Northern bypass road was most certainly not an easy ride. It was a long continuous red road with dips that could be shallow or deep, bone-jarring corrugations interspersed with large tracks of bull dust, a major road hazard which hides holes that can wreck your tyres or vehicle if hit at speed. Other common hazards are road kill and unannounced road works. At speeds of 20-40kms over corrugations, you feel as though you and the vehicle are being shaken to pieces. But at faster speeds of around 80kms, the corrugations are smoothed out somewhat.

Another hazard is the red dust thrown up by trucks ahead of us. Passing lanes are non existent so it was either put up with it and carry on or the more sensible option – stop for a cuppa. Of course Murphy’s Law dictates that as soon as you finish your cuppa and are ready to hit the road again, a truck passes and you find yourself eating the red dust again!

With our house on our back (well, Betty’s back) we could camp’ anywhere but this did not stop us setting out with a rough itinerary. Many books warned us of the need to book some of the more popular national parks well in advance. Also, an itinerary was a tool to keep family and friends happy. Our first remote camp site was in the Lakefield National Park where we had booked two nights at Kalpowar camp. The instructions were to drive to the Ranger’s Station, which we did, carefully following the signs. When we got there, there was nobody about and a sign read “strictly private”. It turned out that the “Ranger’s Station” is a large notice board where you write your name alongside a site and pay the fees into a box!

We chose a site from our map and it turned out to be inhabited by agile wallabies that crisscrossed the back of the site getting to and from their waterhole. We set ourselves up for two nights, cooked dinner, lit a campfire in a specially made iron base and enjoyed the night sky, the birdlife and a glass of wine by the light of the campfire.

At about 8pm our peace was shattered by the sound of several motorbikes arriving and we feared our little paradise was about to be spoiled. Instead our visitors quickly lit a fire, set up their individual tiny tents, ate their meal, donned head torches and moved around the site like mobile glow worms. They were in bed and asleep before us.

Day 4 Kalpowar Campgroud – Lakefield NP

In the morning we took a walk down to the Normandy River running alongside the camp. There were several warning signs about recent sightings of crocodiles and the dangers of swimming or even getting close to the water’s edge. The date of the last sighting was a month earlier. The shores of the river were overflowing with birdlife – ibis, goshawk, pied herons, kingfishers and grey herons, to name but a few. On the other side of the camp were walking tracks and the ranger (a real live one this time) suggested a 4.5 km loop track that took us through flowering kapok trees and a variety of gum trees and fern trees.

Monitor guarding the black snake for his lunch
Monitor guarding the black snake for his lunch

We had completed about three quarters of loop walk when we disturbed a very large goanna tucking into his lunch. He seemed displeased by the disturbance and immediately retreated a few centimetres, leaving his meal, a black snake, in the grass between him and us. We decided to retreat behind some trees and wait, hoping he would grab his meal and leave. But this was his territory and he wasn’t moving. As we approached him again he rose up on his back legs, looking ferocious. I knew enough about goannas to recognize this as an attacking stance, so after some discussion we decided to circumnavigate our four-footed friend by taking a path through the bush and back to the campsite.

Day 5 From Lakefield NP to Archer’s Roadside

The road out from Kalpowar was red and rough. We stopped briefly at the white and red lily lagoons to admire the lotus flowers and birdlife, once jamming on the brakes when we came across two brolgas dancing in the bush by the road side, beautiful elegant birds famous for their courtship displays. We watched and photographed the pair until they danced off into the long grass and out of sight.

As we drove the Nifold Plains, we suddenly came across termite mounds standing everywhere, large ones and small ones. These amazing structures can be as high as 30 feet and take elaborate shapes. They face north-south, which helps them maintain a cool temperature even in the hottest of climates. Who needs a compass when you are surrounded by anthills that show the way, all created by insects no bigger than a pinhead.

Up here, fuel is like gold dust and at the Musgrave Roadhouse one has to wait for an attendant to fill the tank as pumps are kept locked. The attendant, a 12-year veteran of Musgrave, has been pumping fuel and lived in the area all his life. Fascinated by two grey-haired sheilas driving a 4WD truck, he spent a long time questioning us about our plans. Where were headed, where had we come from?

The road from Musgrave to the town of Coen, our next port of call, was easy and straight. Coen is reportedly famous for its fruit bats and we were keen to check them out, but after driving around the town three times we gave up and enquired at the local store. The owner looked at me like I was bats. “Fruit bats in Coen – haven’t a clue lady, didn’t know we had any!” So much for hearsay.

Instead we went to visit the museum which was surprisingly informative about the local history and displayed many artefacts from people who had farmed the area over the past century or so. But there was still nothing about fruit bats. After having lunch by the banks of the Coen river, we headed for our next stopover, Archer River Roadhouse.

The roadhouse of the far north is a species all its own. The proprietors are pleasant and friendly and the locals are keen to share their considerable knowledge of the area with anyone who asks. Intended for one-night stopovers, the roadhouses let people park cheek by jowl. The generators make more noise than the crows and cockatoos. The cafés have plastic chairs and tables and the aroma of fast food mixes with the smell of diesel. Noisy 4WD cars, trucks and the huge road trains come and go until late into the night. For some unaccountable reason most drivers run their engines for a quarter hour before leaving.

Their vehicle parked and camp set up, new arrivals wander along to the café for a cold beer or (rather expensive) wine or to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller, to use the local phone, or to take on the challenge of the famous Archer burger. The latter comes with a knife and fork because it is so full of food it is impossible to get your mouth round it. At every one of the roadhouses where we stayed, we saw local aboriginal families eating and drinking at the café, sometimes appearing to drink more than they should.

Marcia and I were becoming savvy about finding the ‘ideal’ camp site, learning to assess levels, views, proximity to toilet (not too close), neighbours and privacy. We often moved when people just drove up, and parked directly opposite so we ended up looking at the whites of their eyes instead of enjoying the trees and the birds. However sometimes close proximity to one’s neighbours cannot be avoided so friendly conversation would ensue. One night at Archer River road house, a retired couple in their mid fifties from Perth in Western Australia was spending one year travelling around the whole of Australia. They told us they had left Perth just after Christmas and the plan was to arrive back there to meet up with their kids next Christmas. They had been ‘on the trail’, as they put it, for months and [were really] enjoying it. In fact, they seemed quite addicted. British by birth but Australian in spirit, they never booked a camp site and, if they could not get into a site, they just camped by the nearest river. By astonishing coincidence, we ended up bumping into them several times during our trip, which was great for us who knew nobody.

We did meet many “grey nomads”, older people who had sold up their residence, purchased the complete home on wheels which often included a Winnebago-style trailer with boat on top and a 4WD vehicle towed behind, plus camping gear for every possible eventuality.

Day 6 To Chilli Beach 

Next morning we were up with sunrise and off to one of the highlights of the trip – Chilli Beach in the Iron Range National Park where the wind blows constantly. The weather had been a little iffy over previous days so we had some concerns about staying right on the beach, but decided that if we got there early enough we could spend some time on the beach and withdraw to a more sheltered camp site if the wind [strengthened too much.] We made Chilli Beach in 2 1/2 hours as the road was in excellent condition – we must have been along the road soon after the graders. It rained all the way there and as we passed Mount Tozer it was shrouded in mist. We drove on through the lush, wet rain forest.

Fording the Pascoe River
Fording the Pascoe River

As we forded the Pascoe river, we stopped to talk to a couple who were heading in the opposite direction. They suggested we go to the site at the northern end of Chilli beach because it was less windy there. The sun greeted us on our arrival and we found the perfect spot, parked up and went straight to the ‘ranger’ board’ to register, stopping behind the ranger’s truck to complete the camp park permit. We put money in the envelope, dropped it into the honesty box and returned to our well chosen site, completely private and only 10 seconds from the beach. Brush turkeys, often mistakenly called bush turkeys, played in the scrub. As we watched, they combined for an assault on newly fallen coconut, pecking away until they broke into it. The meal lasted for hours.

As soon as we had set up our camp for the night, we strolled a few steps onto the beach, which appeared to be deserted as far as the eye could see although we knew there were others there as we had seen a few 4WD’s investigate our site. All the sites were virtual mini-sanctuaries, hidden behind swaying palms right beside the beach. Anybody stopping there needed to be completely self-sufficient in the absence of a local pub or shop. In fact, there was nothing there but the elements. The beach was long, with white sand littered with rubbish washed up from passing ships. One managed to overlook the flotsam and jetsam and admire the spectacular beauty of the east coast of Cape York. No swimming was allowed because crocodiles had been spotted, although we had not seen one of the predators and soon began to seriously doubt all those signs warning of ‘recent crocodile sightings’. We fell asleep to the sound of the wind whipping through the palms and the sea pounding the shore.

Day 7 – To the Iron Ranges National Park

We awoke just before sunrise and took our chairs onto the beach to enjoy the first signs of the new day.

Sunrise
Sunrise at Chilli Beach

 

 

Reluctantly we left Chilli Beach early the following morning to head inland to the Rainforest camp site for the night, a fairly remote and isolated camp site still in the Iron Range National Park. On the way we decided to take a detour to visit Portland Roads and noticed a flash blue sign with white lettering announcing “Out of the Blue” café. Was this a joke in such a remote area? A café in the middle of nowhere? Deciding to investigate, Portland Roads turned out to be a beautiful little village and harbour, boasting a total population of 12. Even better, there really was a café and we ended up sitting on its deck and eating a huge plate of prawns washed down by some freshly brewed coffee. We had indeed found our oasis in the middle of the red dirt.

IMG_7623
Enjoying a prawn sandwich at ‘out of the Blue cafe, near Portland’s Road

 

This haven in the heart of the outback was owned by a young couple, the husband having been a commercial fisherman in the area for many years who had sold his license to buy the café. The business was flourishing despite opening only between 9am and 2pm every day. The menu featured six assorted seafood and fish dishes with the fine print joking that the “information comes free”. The couple talked about the need to plan their menu very carefully as they only get two deliveries a week. Growing their own vegetables was out of the question because of the foraging brush turkeys. They had persisted for several years but the turkeys just flew over a six-foot fence and feasted on the produce.

Our Rainforest camp site that night was remote and silent, still in the Iron Range. Our only neighbours, a German family who had been camped there for three days, were 750 meters away. They told us that they had spotted a green python just beside the site we had chosen. While part of me was excited at the presence of a big snake, the other and bigger part imagined a large reptile slithering over the top of the van as we slept.

We went early to bed and lay listening to an amazing cacophony of rainforest sounds before falling asleep, but not for long. We were rudely awoken around 9pm by our neighbours stomping around with torches and looking for nightlife.

Day 8 Seeing the Eclectus Parrot – amazing!

Our plan for the today was to walk along old Coen road but were faced with a dilemma – cross a stream with a sign saying “Beware of Crocodiles” or drive to the other entrance several kilometres away. We took the second option and decided to do the walk the following day. We woke to a dawn chorus which continued throughout breakfast. Then off we drove to the alternative entrance to old Coen Road where our nocturnal visitors had guaranteed we would find Eclectus parrots nesting in a very old tree. And they were right. We were lucky enough to see two parrots displaying their bold colours of red, green and blue. We watched, captivated, for about 10 minutes before they flew off, extending their spectacularly coloured wings……………….

swimming in Twin falls
Enjoying swimming in Elliot Falls/Twin falls

Next stop Bramwell Junction Roadhouse to fill up Betty’s tank. Diesel got more expensive as we headed north [where most people working at the road houses and resorts seemed to be in temporary employment for the dry season, like the young English woman at the petrol pumps at Bramwell who had been there since June. Her partner was also employed for the season as the odd-jobs man around the roadhouse. They had come straight from England but planned to travel around Australia at the end of the dry season. However the owners were putting pressure on them to stay till the end of the season, the end of September.

We were making good time and thought we might head for Elliot Falls where we could have a swim safe from crocodiles. Elliot Falls in the Heathlands Reserve was 6.6 kms down the Overland Telegraph Line but this was the only part of the OTL, as it’s known locally, that Britz allowed their vehicles to use provided they returned by the same route. What an oasis in the outback it turned out to be! We arrived at about 3 pm and already it was getting crowded but we found a suitable camp site, donned our swimming togs and headed for the falls. We swam for about an hour and it turned out to be our first and last swim for the whole trip. We made the most of it, swimming under the falls, around the falls, walking on top of the falls and then back underneath the falls.

Day 9 Crossing the most expensive stretch of water in the world?

Next stop was the car ferry across the Jardine River. We arrived there about midday and paid $88 for our return trip. The ferry that carried us across the 400-500 meter wide river was propelled by a large steel cable and manoeuvred by a man sitting in a tiny control tower decorated by local aboriginal artists.

Most expensive river crossing $88 return
Most expensive river crossing $88 return

We drove on to Bagma, one of the bigger towns north of the ‘Jardine’, arriving there in Bagma at 1pm when everything was closed except the supermarket and the BP station. As we strolled around the supermarket stocking up on food, we met and chatted to several people we had encountered along the track. The BP garage turned out to be run by a Maori from New Zealand and his son, both enthusiasts of the town and area.

Moving on closer to the edge of Australia, we headed towards Punsand Bay resort to stay for the next four nights. The road was rough, full of potholes and ruts but worth it when we arrived at our beach front site on the edge of a long white sandy beach stretching as far as the eye could see. We were now as far north of Australia as one could go without actually standing at the very tip, just an hour’s drive distant. We found an excellent site, set up camp, had a hot shower, and went off for a cold beer, wine and a steak sandwich in the camp restaurant. A thirty- something couple walking past us in the camping area stopped to engage us in conversation – “you girls (he was on a winner here) are doing great travelling around the Cape all by yourselves – whaddya reckon – there should be more of it. I am going to tell my mother about you two”. We set up camp at Punsand Bay ready for the adventure to the ‘TIP’ tomorrow

Day 10 – Finally we reach the ‘tip’ of Australia

The plan was to head off very early in the morning to reach the tip before the hordes turned up. Many people fly into places like Weipa and Seisia from Cairns to visit the ‘tip’, taking the easy route. So, bright and early Monday morning, we drove about 11 kms through the famous Lockerbie Scrub rainforest to the car park beside the track leading to the tip. We were the first to arrive there and took the Punja track. Thereafter we scrambled over rocks for about the next 20 minutes. Each rock face we climbed we thought might be our last before the tip but there always seemed to be another one. We had little or no indication that we were on the right track except for some very faint pale white track indicators as we negotiated rocks, more rocks and boulders. Finally we saw an insignificant sign in the distance and headed straight for it. It was a strange feeling to stand beside such a modest identification of the very edge of the enormous continent of Australia. Yet were felt exhilarated that we had made it all the way, exactly 403 years after the first European sightings of Cape York by Dutch navigator Abel Janszoon Tasman.

 

After leaving the “Tip” we drove to the failed trading post of Somerset, a small settlement that was established in 1864 by the first Government appointed resident, John Jardine. A natural entrepreneur, Jardine recognized the need for supply of fresh meat and started the first cattle station five kilometres kms beyond Somerset at Vallack with 2000 head of cattle. We visited the crumbling remains of the Jardine home at Somerset and strolled around what was once a bustling town, a hive of activity, with ships moored in the harbour and mainly Chinese divers seeking pearls on the seabed of the coast leading into the Torres Straits – it was known as the “Singapore” of the Pacific.

Today, all that remains are some old gun barrels, a few exotic trees and plants that once grew in the beautiful gardens of the Jardine homestead and some old graves with headstones written in the language of the pearl divers. We tried to drive beyond Somerset but met a couple in a 4WD who had to turn back as the roads were impassable due to rain. So instead we headed back through the Lockerbie scrub and went for a stroll along the Roma track for half an hour.   Back at Punsand Bay, we treated ourselves to dinner in the restaurant yet again, as an award for reaching the “Tip”, downed a bottle of wine from the limited wine list, a lovely sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

The one disadvantage about all campsites (except those very remote sites) is that one cannot close a door when the neighbours are less than desirable. That night, expecting to find the site as quiet and empty as we had left it, we were confronted by four extremely large people in the site next door, one woman and three men. The woman sat in a chair and was waited on all evening, the men moving very slowly. The youngest of the three men set his bed roll on his camp bed stretcher right alongside our campervan – no tent or awning – and went to sleep at about two in the morning leaving a dozen empty ‘tinnies’ on the beach. His laboured breathing and snoring made sleep almost impossible.

 campfire at Punsand Bay (1) campfire at Punsand Bay_edited-1

Whenever possible, we built and lit a camp fire and became very efficient at it. There is something magical about sitting around a blaze listening to the world around you, reminiscing about the day just gone and planning for the day ahead. We had planned five days at Punsand Bay as we had hoped to take a trip to Thursday Island – “TI” to the locals — but there were not enough people in the campsite wanting to go so we missed out. That helped us to decide to head off a day earlier and spend an extra night near Laura, which would give us plenty of time to visit the many aboriginal art galleries in the area.

Day 12: Bramwell Junction Homestead here we come

As we drove out, the diggers were coming in to smooth the road – just our luck to miss a smooth ride! We stopped briefly in Bamaga to refill water, petrol and food and rang Bramwell Station to book for tonight – all guide books recommended this because of it popularity as the most northerly privately-owned working station in Cape York. We headed back down the northern bypass road, remembering to take the bright red roads this time which were in passable condition, but again we had great difficulty identifying which was the right road. On one side there was one bright smooth red road and on the other a grey rough road running alongside it. Which to take? There were no signposts. After a short discussion we chose the smooth red road because it looked so inviting.

A few kilometres later, we spotted a truck with a person under the wheel and asked him if we were going in the right direction. “Yep,” he yelled and went back to his wheel. We drove on 600 metres and came to a screeching halt in front of a huge mound of red sand shifted there by a bulldozer. We turned back and asked the our guide again. “Yep”, that was the way to Bramwell.

We did another U-turn but something about this mountain of red dirt looked wrong. Luckily another driver passed us and stopped when we asked for directions. Yes, we were on the right road but had to take the little grey gravel road off to the left!  Eventually, we caught up with the smooth red road when we suddenly came upon two trucks blocking the road ahead. One truck was feeding the other truck diesel and between them they appeared to completely block the road. The drivers, both young men, beckoned us to come on and squeeze between the tree-lined ditch and the truck. As we gingerly approached, they leaped into action and ripped out the trees, allowing us to pass through with the barest of margins. Soon afterwards the lovely smooth red road turned into one of the worst roads we had encountered so far with steep corrugations on the straight road followed by tight corners with banks of white loose sand . It seemed to go on for ever.

Finally we arrived at Bramwell Roadhouse where we filled up with fuel before heading off for Bramwell Station. We crossed the cattle stop to find a real working station with cattle everywhere. A friendly chap called ‘Bluey’ came out from an open air bar and restaurant, slap bang in the middle of the grounds in front of the old homestead, to give us a warm greeting and direct us to a camp site shared with several graves belonging to the former owners of the property. Lining one side of the property was some very basic accommodation called ‘dongos’ — a bed, a chair and a window. What more could a man want?

Bluey was very talkative, asking us where we had been and telling us excitedly that only the second-ever aeroplane mail drop was happening at 3pm that very afternoon and we could come and watch. He then showed us several photos of the inaugural mail drop last week and the local celebrations to mark the occasion. Close to three o’clock we grabbed our cameras and walked to the air strip. We waited and waited but the plane did not arrive so we walked back to the camp site. One hour later he raced over on a quad bike and said: “Hop on, it’s coming”. Off I went, hanging on for dear life as he drove like a maniac over the rough terrain.   People came rushing from all over the station to see the plane arrive.   It landed two minutes later and unloaded the mail and other goods.

When it was time to leave, the pilot was unable to restart the engines for take-off. He jumped out with a very red face and spent several minutes deeply engrossed in an open side panel. After a few minutes he hammered it, closed it and hopped back inside. The engine burst into action and the aircraft disappeared down the runway.

We fell asleep under a beautiful clear sky full of stars and woke up to the most amazing moonset in the big morning sky, lighting up a giant termite mount close by. We stood for ages watching it until the sun rose and it lost it red hue.

Day 14  Bramwell Station west to Weipa

After a big breakfast fry-up, we headed for Weipa on the west coast. We drove through the Batavia Downs road, passing nobody but the local wildlife along the road. We checked into Weipa’s only camp ground, which even at noon was pretty full but we just managed to get a beautiful site right beside the beach with a view across the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Weipa is a busy town and most of its population work at the big Rio Tinto Bauxite mines that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week – even on Christmas day. At night you can hear the drone of the machines working at the mine even though it is many kilometres away. The locals put up with the noise and inconvenience as the company bring money, employment and good roads into the local economy. The company burn the scrub and excavate the land but they replant all areas after they have finished mining. What damage they do to plant and animal and sea life was not discussed – best left for locals to discuss among themselves. One got the distinct feeling the subject was taboo. We ate our meal, drinking wine and watching a spectacular sunset as several giant black-necked Jabiru storks strolled through its rays.

Day 15: On to Laura

Next morning, we set off early to our planned stop at Hann Crossing but we made such good time we ended driving as far as Laura – a distance of 496 kilometres, a dead end spot but a very convenient launch pad for the Quinkan art sites and the Quinkan & Regional Cultural Centre. We set up in the local camp grounds behind the rebuilt Quinkan Hotel that had been burned to the ground some years earlier. The locals were very friendly and keen for a chat about where we had been. We met two Frenchmen who were walking from the top of Cape York to the bottom of New South Wales, averaging 30kms a day. With a backpack each, they carried the rest of their gear strapped between two planks on wheels. They had no idea, they said, how long it would take them to cover the continent from top to bottom but thought probably about six months.   They had flown into Weipa and got a lift to the top. During the first few days they realised they had brought far too much stuff with them, but they could not afford to pack it all up and post the parcel home to France as they were on a tight budget so the left the parcel on the side of the road with a sign on it reading: “Please use our gear as you need but if you see us along the way maybe you might give us food or drink”. Three days later a 4WD truck and trailer pulled up along side them and told them they had picked up their parcel but had no intention of using it. Instead they would take it home to New South Wales and the two guys could come and stay with them and pick it up themselves. They also gave them food and water!    When we met them they had been walking for one month and they were having their first day off the next day and were about to have their first shower in three weeks.

Hardly had settled into our very basic camp site in Laura when we were invaded by a family of wallabies – several mothers and babies bold as brass checking us out. The young one were very brave and moved towards but very quickly the mums barked at them and brought them back into line behind them. The stayed around and grazed on the long grass on the verge of the camp. Soon afterwards the campsite suddenly began to fill up with travellers going north and south. A young German couple we had met several times on the trip spotted us in the campsite and pulled up asking if they could share our spot. We were only too happy to have them next door as they were good company. They had acquired an extra passenger – Steve, an English guy who casually told us he had cycled from Cairns to the “Tip”! He even carried his bike across the rocks and boulders so that he and his bike could be photographed together there at the final destination. A school teacher, he wanted to show his pupils back home that he had achieved his goal. The German couple Annette and Jorg had driven all the way from Germany to Cairns on a motor bike, but had hired a 4WD to travel from cairns to the Tip

Day 16 – The Quinkan Art Site and on to Mareeba

The Quinkan Art site was our next stop but we very nearly missed it as we were so excited to be on tar seal for the first time in several weeks that we powered along so fast we overshot. There are no large signs for directions; you just have to keep a keen lookout. An honesty box had been set up for donations but it looked like it was anything but an honesty box as it had obviously been broken into several times, so we left our money at the art centre instead. In spite of the heath and hard going, we walked around the [outdoors] centre for two and a half hours, loving the variety of rock art along the way and the views.

We did not meet another soul on the walk but this was probably because we had gone through an area that said ‘no access’. However, the night before Annette and Jorg had told us that the person at the cultural centre had told them to do this. – there was no obvious reason for the no access sign but one did have to keep a look out for the markers as several were very faint. Sometimes we had to split and one would go ahead until the next marker was spotted and call back.

We decided to try to drive as far as possible that day after we had finished the walk as we had booked ourselves into an eco-tent at the Jabiru Safari Lodge, a treat for our last night on the road with Betty. We also wanted to get there early so that we could spend the day in the Mareeba wetlands where the Jabiru Lodge was situated. We drove as far as the Mareeba township and stayed in a very busy camp site.

Day 17: ‘Glamping’ at Jabiru Safari Lodge, Mareeba Wetlands

Next morning we arrived at the Mareeba wetlands at 9am just as they opened up. What a magic place! It was populated with many species of birds both inside large aviaries and outside on the lake, in the wetlands, the bush, the river, the trees, beside the tents and along the walkways. We saw pelicans, brolgas, pigmy geese, swans, Australian darter, pied shags and were able to view Gouldian finches through glass as the Mareeba wetlands were part of an Australian wide breeding programme with the aim to increase numbers throughout the continent. They release about 100 birds each year in November and get great feedback from local amateur ornithologists or “birders”.

Mareeba wetlands extend over 500 acres of savannas and wetlands, providing a sanctuary for some of Australia’s unique flora and fauna. It is a community conservation project combining run by the not-for-profit Wildlife Conservancy of Tropical Queensland with the help of volunteers. The money from tourism is reinvested into the upkeep of the wetlands and conservation programmes such as the re-introduction of the Gouldian finch. When we there, some ‘birders’ spotted mature and juvenile birds, a great boost to the programme as it meant they were breeding.

Right in the middle of this Savannah stood three eco-tents, our accommodation for the night. When the tourists left that evening there was nobody else except us and the animals and birds. We had ordered a gourmet BBQ meal which was sitting in a cooler beside the BBQ on arrival. After a 5kms walk around the lake, we sat in the still of the night eating our steak and salad and sipping bubbly. Bliss. In the early hours of the morning I was woken by a rustling sound outside. I got up quietly, grabbed my torch and peered outside – straight into the large round eyes of a quoll who was feasting the BBQ leftovers. Quolls are small carnivorous marsupials with a pointed snout and a long tail. The fur is reddish to dark brown to black and it is distinctively spotted with white. They are lively, attractive animals with a pink nose and sharp teeth and live in the savannas of northern Australia. I ran to grab my camera but he was gone by the time I got back.

Day 18: Last day with betty and back to Cairns

Early the following morning we took a tour on the lake where a local guide showed us the wildlife as we drifted through the red lotus lilies with their huge shiny waxen green leaves. The boat, which belonged to the Mareeba Wetlands, had been specially for use on the lake. It has no backwash so the birds, flora and fauna are not endangered in any way.

Sadly it was then time to hop into Betty for the last time and drive one and half hours to Cairns via a carwash so we could rid her of 17 days of that ‘bloody red dust’. We had enjoyed Betty for three whole weeks but now it was time to say goodbye and spend five whole days by a beach where it was safe to swim and in a hotel room that wasn’t on wheels.

A truly memorable trip.

 

IMG_7725
But we will be back again for more Red Roads