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.

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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!

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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
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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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