Rough as Guts (the last of the Gibb)

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K opening one of the many cattle gates on the station roads

Everyone said that the road up to Drysdale River Station was “rough as guts”. 

In fact, Lee and I hadn’t planned to take the Kulumbaru Road. But, after nearly two weeks of only solar power, the batteries were low and we needed to charge up; Drysdale Station had power.  We’d also run out of brake pads on the front wheels of the car, or so we thought, and were now trying to drive without using the brakes. 

Lee was worried about this, but I thought it would be an adventure to visit that out-of-the-way station.  Lee was sick of corrugation, “If you want to go, you drive,” he said and pulled over. 

So I drove.  And it made that road to Ningaloo Station seem like a smooth ride.  The corrugations were so deep, we couldn’t hear each other speak. 

There’s a road train that comes into Drysdale Station every week to deliver supplies and it goes out filled with cars that have broken down.  There were Jayco caravans at the station with kitchen cabinets that had fallen right off the walls.  We felt lucky that the only damage we sustained was a missing D shackle; the safety chain connecting the trailer to the car was dragging on the ground.  Luckily, Lee had brought a spare D shackle.

The highlight of our time at Drysdale was an afternoon spent on the Drysdale River with just us and a thousand birds. 

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I took the kayak down the river, lined with trees and palms.  The river was brown and still, calm and deep.  There was no one else. At first, I hugged the riverbank to get a better look at the birds.  A pair of rainbow bee-eaters flew right over me.  A dozen crimson finches came down to the water to drink.  Two Rufus night herons perched in a tree up ahead.  Several pied cormorants twisted their necks round in another tree. 

Then I saw a freshwater croc move from the riverbank and splash and disappear under the dark water without a trace, and I decided to stick to the middle of the river.

Paddling down that river for an hour, all alone in the wilderness of the Kimberley, on a river with no one but the birds, was sublime.  It felt timeless, as if I were lost in another world where only the present existed.  I was unable to think of anything else—what I was going to scrounge together for dinner, or how I was going to get K to memorise her times tables, or whether Trump would somehow win the election—I was just there, on the river with the birds and the occasional splash of a freshwater croc into water.

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Drysdale River

Ellenbrae and Home Valley Stations

After Drysdale, we drove back down that bumpy road, back to the Gibb, and stopped at the quaint Ellenbrae Station.  This was one of my favorite spots.  They make scones at Ellenbrae, which we devoured.  We set up camp and went to the river for a swim and a kayak.  That evening, the girls had a “donkey bath”, where the water is heated by a log fire.

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Girls in bath find a gecko on the ceiling

The next morning, we woke to light rain, unusual at this time of year.  I cooked pancakes under an umbrella and we packed up and moved on to the busy Home Valley Station, which was more like a caravan park than the bush.

At Home Valley, we camped right next to the playground and the kids played for hours with other kids, running themselves ragged.  Lee and I read books and went for walks.

And K got to go on her first ever horse ride.imageOne evening, we were playing Uno and having a drink at the bar, when we noticed a crowd gathering outside.  K went to see what it was: a whip-cracking show.  She came running back, “Mom, will you interpret?”  I came with my glass of wine and sat in front of her and it was the easiest thing I’ve had to interpret on this whole trip.  The whip cracker was a man of few words.

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The scenery at Home Valley Station

After three days at Home Valley, we said goodbye to the Gibb and drove to Kununurra.  Lee was overjoyed to be on a sealed road again.  I was a little bit sad to leave the Gibb.

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Goodbye Gibb

When we got reception and I looked at the New York Times online, I saw the terrorist attack in France with 81 killed by a truck and the attempted coup in Turkey with hundreds dead. It was strange to think we’d been swimming in gorges and kayaking down rivers and camping under the stars, blissfully unaware of the chaos elsewhere.

 

Gorges Galore on the Gibb

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Spot the croc

By the time we got to Galvin’s Gorge, we’d been on the Gibb 12 days, and I was getting into it.  So many adventures to be had!

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Galven’s Gorge, another great swimming spot

After stopping at Galven’s Gorge, we arrived at Manning Gorge campground in mid-afternoon and set up the tent in the heat.  It was packed with tour buses and camper trailers, caravans and tents and just three toilets for men and women. 

Then, just a few meters from the campsite, we saw why it was so crowded. There was a perfect swimming hole, complete with island rocks.  “It looks manmade,” Lee said, “like a resort.”  The water was clear and cool and there was a little boat attached to a rope so that you could pull yourself across the river, which the kids did all afternoon.

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Manning Gorge swim hole

That evening we dined on chicken Lee had bought at the roadhouse.  I looked at the label and noticed that it had been frozen for nearly a year, so I made a curry to mask the freezer-burn, but the texture was similar to an old boot.   

We were awoken before dawn by the sounds of heavy snoring.  Or maybe cattle?  When I zipped open the trailer tent and stepped outside, I realised it was both—the couple next to us snoring loudly (their son slept in a swag outside the caravan) and two cows moaning at each other in the next campsite.  Cows are everywhere on the Gibb, originally a “beef road”. 

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Road Train kickin’ up dust on the Gibb

K and I left early to walk to Manning gorge.  K pulled us across on the boat and we set off through grasses, past boabs, over rocks and boulders. 

As we walked, I taught K the terms “first” and “third-person” and we talked about the advantages and limitations of these different points of view.  K, who’s written four stories on this trip (three more than I have) talked about why she chose the POV she did for the various stories.  And I figured that was home school for the day. 

Soon, we were standing in front of the falls.  We’d walked there in just half an hour and it wasn’t crowded yet.   We were hot from the walk, which didn’t have any shade, and dove into the massive pool beneath the falls.    

A teenage boy did a backflip from the top of the falls into the gorge and I saw K watch with envy.  She’s not allowed to go more than a meter under water, or she could lose the rest of hearing.

When the boy came up, I asked how deep he’d gone.  “A meter and a half, and I’m 80 kilos.” 

“OK,” I said to K, “you won’t go too deep.”

K scrambled up the rocks to the top of the falls.  And stood, looking down, terrified.  I climbed up behind her. 

“You jump first,” she said.  I jumped and it reminded me of all the impossibly high rocks my late brother, Mark used to get me to jump off of when I was K’s age.  I plunged into the water and turned around to look at K standing anxious on the rock ledge.  I counted to three with my fingers and, to my surprise, she held her nose and leapt off the rock, flying through the air.  When she came up, she was exultant.  “I did it!” 

We had lunch on the rocks and another swim and walked  back to camp.

That afternoon, we read books in the shade.  It was hot.  K looked at me, her cheeks red, her hair stringy from the river water, and sighed and said, “I love the Gibb.”

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K looking out to the falls jump

 

Leonard Gorge, Bell Gorge and Charnley River

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One of many water crossings on the Gibb

We stopped at Leonard Gorge and went for a hike in the mid-day sun.  The sun beat down; sweat poured off of us and we lost the path.  Whose idea was this?  Luckily, we met another family on the same walk, shared our water, found the trail and became friends along the way.

They’d left their hometown of Bunbury when it got “too busy” seven years ago and had been traveling, on and off, ever since.  K ran ahead with the two boys, her face like a beetroot in the heat.  When we got to the gorge, there was no waterfall running and no place to swim.  The last wet season in the Kimberley saw little rain.

“Why did we come here, Dad?” one of the boys asked.  A reasonable question.

“Just a healthy walk, son.  There’s not a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.”

The boy seemed satisfied with this answer.

In 35 degree heat the boys and K proceeded to run up the hill, down the hill, over the boulders and all the way back to the car.  The parents and little ones followed behind. They told us about a free camp at Bell’s Creek with swimming and we followed them, but they soon drove ahead of us.  When we drove past the turn-off, the dad hopped in his car and drove after us.  We were grateful, as it was a lovely spot, right by a bubbling brook.

That evening we had a “bush bath” in the creek, which was running, but didn’t go too deep, for fear of freshies.

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Bush Bath

That night K helped the boys put up their swags and R played with their four year-old sister. The boys had a wonderful sense of adventure and were completely adept at all things camping—building fires and the like.  They made us look like amateurs.

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K helping the boys set up the swags–she wants one of her own now!

It was only us two families in this magic little free camp.  The stars were bright and the next morning we were awakened just before dawn by two barking owls (dingo birds).  I got out of the tent and saw one perched on a gum tree—magnificent.

Bell Gorge

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K and Mama relax at Bell Gorge

The next morning we drove to Bell Gorge, where we walked in and had a swim in one of the most spectacular gorges on the Gibb River Road.  This place, too, is full of birds, including the stunning rainbow bee-eater.

We stayed three nights at Silent Grove, a busy campsite close to the gorge.  We spent hot days down at the massive swimming hole.  The rocks were slippery and K liked to “skate” down them, into the cool water.

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One day, K and I ventured further down the river and swam through a large pool, over some small falls and then through another pool, feeling like explorers.  There were no other people. Then we got to a waterfall that dropped into another massive gorge, nearly as large as Bell Gorge, but I couldn’t see a way down the sheer rock face.  On our way back, we saw two goannas basking on the rocks and there was a small snake in the water, which we swam quickly past.

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R walks back from Bell Gorge

 

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The top of the gorge

 

Charnley River Wilderness Camp

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K jumping into Dillie Gorge at Charnley River

 

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Goanna at Dillie Gorge

Bell Gorge was stunning, but busy and filled with tour buses.  We were determined to get off the main drag and find some place with fewer people and so we drove up to Charnley River Wilderness Camp.  It had grass, which kept the dust down, and trees, which shaded us from that fierce Kimberley sun.

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Grevillie Gorge

There were numerous walks to gorges and swimming holes and a communal fire to sit around at night and share stories and marshmallows.  We’d have stayed more than three nights, but ran out of cash.  Charnley is expensive, but the money goes to preserving the wilderness and a program to try to rid the place of the destructive feral cat, something that’s almost impossible.  Every night in Australia, feral cats eat millions of native animals.

We had to bring our shoes in at night so the dingos wouldn’t take them.  They howled intermittently after sunset, an eerie sound in the night.  But at least there was no dust.  The dust on the Gibb River Road is pervasive—in the car, the tent, the clothes, the nostrils.  Every time I opened the food drawer or the fridge, I had to wash my hands again before I continued cooking.

By now, we were all feeling weary from traveling.  A year is a long time to be constantly in motion.  And I had a fierce longing for a washing machine—washing clothes by hand, the dirtiest clothes ever, gets old fast.  And yet it was all so beautiful: the kangaroos, the western kookaburras, the green pools at the bottom of all those dramatic gorges, the evening chats round the campfire at night, cuddling up with the girls, all in the same bed on cool crisp mornings, eating pancakes outside under a canopy of trees.  I know I’ll miss this when we do finally go home.  And when I think of marking all those papers, travelling feels a lot less tiresome . . .

R is officially tired of camping.  Lee is sick of setting up the trailer tent and packing it away.  He’s tired of the dust and the corrugation.  K and I could keep going, I think, but we’d also like to pause somewhere, go to school, get a job, settle.  We’ve started to talk about stopping in Darwin for a while.  For now, however, it was on with the Gibb.

When we ran out of bread, I cooked some on the campfire.  On our third and final night at Charnley River we sat under the stars and ate fresh hot bread, smothered in butter.  There’s nothing better.

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Kimberley Sunset, Silent Grove

 

 

Derby and the Start of the Gibb

imageThe morning we left Broome I went to Woolies and bought dehydrated peas, dried apricots, canned fruit salad, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cashews, kilos of pasta, rice, smoked salmon, smoked trout, 32 eggs, 15 litres of long-life milk, dried milk, bags of apples and mandarins, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, baked beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, two tins of salmon, tinned beetroot, a kilo of sultanas, a kilo of dried apricots, a large block of butter, a larger block of cheese, a bottle of olives, four packs of crackers, seven bars of chocolate and more, totalling $403.

It would be three weeks before I went to another grocery store.  In some ways, our entire trip has been a preparation for this: the Gibb River Road. But first, to Derby.

We said goodbye to the Indian Ocean and drove northeast to the next town, 220 kilometres and a world away from Broome.

Derby was 36° C and dusty in the middle of “winter”.  The caravan park was packed and there was no pool and no swimming in the sea because of salt-water crocs.  In the evening, Outback Paddy played for the Gray Nomads in the camp kitchen, which cheered things, but only slightly.

In the centre of town a playground stood empty, surrounded by unlikely grass and a few boab trees where a couple dozen Aboriginals sat in circles in the shade, drinking the last dregs of warm beer and waiting for the liquor store to reopen at noon.  As we drove by I saw a woman stand and with slow determination swing her backpack, squarely hitting a man in the back of his head.  He didn’t respond.

I’m reading Grog War, by Alexis Wright, an unsentimental look at alcohol and racism in Tenant Creek, and the fight elders had to go through to get a dry community.  She points out that most Aboriginals don’t drink, an important observation, especially for us travellers only see the drunks in town.

Wright describes the racist “2 kilometre law”, which forbids consumption of alcohol within two kilometres of a liquor store.  I noticed a sign in the liquor store in Derby, which read, Will not sell alcohol to anyone without transport.  Must show car keys to be served!

I also saw a cop in the parking lot of the liquor store, waiting for it to open so he could buy a bottle.

There was a swimming pool in town, thankfully.  But even the swim coach was harsh, yelling insults at the little swimmers who paddled up and down the pool as fast as they could. K, R, Lee and I jumped in, relieved to cool down.  Then, we were suddenly famished.  Luckily, there was a kebab shop across the street, where I went to buy hot chips.  The take away shop, run by Egyptians, was filled with souvenirs for sale: pyramid paperweights and miniature pharaohs.  It felt a long way from anywhere.

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R examines part of a seed from a Boab tree in Derby

In Derby I was reminded of a line I’d heard on Radio National recently, something to the effect of: every program the [majority white] government of Australia has tried to improve life for Aboriginals has failed.

And I was grateful for the positive images that my kids had seen of Aboriginal life in Cape Leveque, where our Baardi tour guide has blended his traditional culture with modern-day living in a way that attempts to educate the (mostly) white travellers and tourists.  I imagine this kind of blending of old and new exists elsewhere on communities I haven’t yet seen.  And I’m fairly sure not every Aboriginal wants to be a tour guide.

The more I learn about indigenous culture in Australia, the more I realise how little I know.

I’ve thought about visiting an Aboriginal community and though I’d like to, I’m reluctant.  I’m reminded of the numerous visitors who come to the deaf pre-school that both my kids attended in order to stare at the “cute little deaf kids signing”.  The director of the pre-school once said, “We start to feel like animals in a cage.”

The only thing more depressing than modern-day Derby is Derby’s darker history.

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Prison Tree, Derby

The prison tree is both a remarkable and heart-breaking site.  This boab, estimated to be over 1,000 years old (it’s hard to tell with boabs because they’re hollow and you can’t count the rings) was used as a temporary prison, transporting people to the goal in Derby.  Many of the prisoners were young Aboriginal men who were kidnapped, chained, and taken to Broome to dive for pearls, a form of slavery.

We were glad to see Derby in our rear-view mirror as we headed down the start of the Gibb River Road.

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Road shot–On the Gibb

The Start of the Gibb—Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek

The Gibb River Road is known as Australia’s “last frontier”.  Originally built to transport cattle, there are still road trains howling past in the night—mostly they don’t drive in the day because the Gibb is so full of four-wheel drives pulling caravans or camper trailers, like ourselves.

The Gibb is 660 kilometres of mostly unsealed road, with the attractions—mainly gorges—lying off the Gibb on rougher roads.  Some people take three days to drive the Gibb; others take three weeks.  We were grateful to belong to the latter category.  There are so many gorges to scramble downand swimming holes to jump into.  The birdlife is remarkable; the boabs majestic.

The start of the Gibb was lined with bulbous boabs of all shapes and sizes.  The spinifex grass was reminiscent of the landscape of the Pilbara.

Kaitlyn wrote of our first day on the Gibb:

Today we boarded the Gibb River Road.  It was sealed at first, then it got real bumpy.  Halfway down the road I needed to pee, so we stopped.  The ground was all cracked because it was so dry.  When we finally got to Windjana Gorge, the place we were to sleep, we were all sweaty and grouchy.  I brought out my water gun and started spraying everyone.  It was good fun.

Windjana Gorge rose up before us as we drove down a heavily corrugated road off the Gibb. As we come closer, a wall of ancient reef towered above the ground.  This was part of the Devonian reef from 360 million years ago.  It’s hundreds of metres high and two and a half kilometres long and really one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  When we stood next to the ancient reef and looked up, we were standing on what used to be the seabed.  Inside the reef were fossils of pre-historic fish and squid that look quite different from fish and squid today.

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Termite mound–made from termite poo!  And the ancient Devonian reef in the background.
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Spot the crocs in the water at Windjana Gorge

The campsite at Windjana was crowded—it was school holidays in WA, the NT, Victoria, NSW, France and seemingly everywhere in the world and we were far from the only family camping.  We set up the tent in the heat and then, as K said, got out the water pistols. 

The next day we drove further down that heavily corrugated road to Tunnel Creek, where we brought our torches and water shoes and waded through water in a pitch black cave. We got to a place where the ceiling had collapsed, revealing daylight, and then went further, all the way through the darkness to the other end, where a couple freshwater crocs lay, their eyes just above the water.

 

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Lee, who was carrying a nervous R on his shoulders, walked straight past a croc, shining his torch, looking for those orange eyes.  “Dad, look, it’s there!” K said, and he got a shock.

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Glowing eye of a croc in a cave at Tunnel Creek

The campsite at Windjana was dusty.  Every time a car drove past we got a mouthful of dust.  There was dust on the table and dust in our food, dust in the trailer and dust in our lungs and after two nights, even though this was such a spectacular site, we were happy to head further down the mighty Gibb.

Instalments two and three to come . . .

Middle Lagoon, Cape Leveque, Bush Tucker and the Milky Way

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Cape Leveque

After a sad goodbye to the grandparents, we drove out of Broome and down 90 kilometres of a very bumpy dirt road and then turned off down an even bumpier dirt road, where we drove another 32 kilometres to the Aboriginal-owned land of Middle Lagoon. 

By the time we arrived, something was rattling in the car and one of the doors on the back of the trailer had been blown open, the lock busted. Miraculously, nothing had fallen out.

And we were lucky to get a camp spot above the beach with panoramic views of the ocean—the most picturesque site we’ve had.  In the evening the kids met up with a dozen other kids and made damns in the sand of the receding tide as the sun set and parents watched from above.

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Kids on the beach at sunset, Middle Lagoon

After sunset, a full fat yellow moon rose up over the camp.  During home school the next day, K wrote in her journal:

Last night the full moon was so bright we had moon shadows walking to the toilets.  We gazed up at the night sky to look for shooting stars.  I saw airplanes and the Southern Cross, but no shooting stars.  The moon was so bright we did not need a torch or a lantern to guide us!

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Home school

The next night, after sunset and before moonrise, we turned the lights out and looked again for shooting stars. I showed K the Milky Way.  “We’re going to miss this when we go back to Sydney,” she said.

“We can still go camping,” I offered.

“But we won’t see the stars like this,” she said.

And she’s more right than I would’ve suspected.  The next day I happened to read an article in The Guardian Weekly about light pollution around the world and learned that “99% of people living in the U.S. and the European Union” can’t see the Milky Way.  And, with LEDs, the situation is worsening.

The night sky is the stuff of legends, creation myths, poetry.  Milton described the Milky way as “a broad and ample road whose dust is gold, and pavement stars”.

We’re blessed that there are so many spots outside the cities of Australia that are free from light pollution. . . and we’re still waiting for K to catch one of those shooting stars . . .

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K in tree at campsite at Koojaman

After Middle Lagoon we drove to Koojaman, another campsite on Aboriginal land.  image

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Sunset, Kooljaman

I’ve been reading a bit of history on this region, the Kimberley, which was the last place in Australia to pay their indigenous employees.  Most of the stations here hired Aboriginals for no money, and “paid” them with bread and tea; it wasn’t until the 1960s that they began to receive wages.

These days things have changed.  The Bardi and Jawi people have reclaimed some of their land, including both of the places we camped, thanks to the Native Title Act.  

K and I took a cultural tour with a local Aboriginal man, Bundy, who told us about one of the stories from Bardi dreamtime, and how it connects to which foods are safe to eat in the bush.  Then we went for a walk and sampled berries from various trees, and learned about the medicinal qualities of the bark and leaves of other trees.  It was a humbling experience to listen to a man tell us about a culture—his culture—tens of thousands of years old.  image  

Broome, WA

imageR after the obligatory sunset camel ride on Cable Beach

Broome is a sleepy pretty little town a long way from anywhere on the north coast of WA.  It has a population of around 14,000, but this quadruples in the “dry”, when tourists and travellers like ourselves visit.  In the wet it’s so humid and hot that everyone stays inside the air-con.  But now it’s dry and 31 in the day, 19 at night.  At the local shops they’re selling mittens, gloves and fleecy PJs.

On the way to Broome we stopped overnight at Cape Keraudren and camped on the beach.  The tides are massive in this part of the world—the biggest in the southern hemisphere.  The difference between high and low tide can be as much as 10 metres.

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Low tide at Cape Keraudren

After a sunset over the Indian Ocean, hundreds of little hermit crabs scuttled past our trailer on their way to the water, wearing shells of various shapes and colours.  Magic.

There were also hundreds of sand flies.  We all got covered in bites.  Thankfully, for Lee and the girls, the bites just faded away the next day. Unfortunately for me, I was still itching a week later.

Then we had a night at Barn Hill Station, where they do a lovely Sunday roast dinner, BYO table, chairs, plates, cutlery, drinks–they provide everything else.  There’s live music, a great Aboriginal band, and dancing.  It was WA Day weekend and so there were dozens of kids on the dance floor; they had a blast.

The next day, on the 6th of June, we arrived in Broome . . . and so did the grandparents!  They came all the way from the USA to see their feral little grandchildren.  It was a happy reunion at Broome’s tiny airport.

A tour of Habitat’s gardens showed papaya (above), frog-leg croton and desert rose.

My parents have spoiled us rotten these past two weeks, putting us up in a resort.  Ahhhh, running water, electricity, telly, air conditioning, a sofa!  And my mom bought us each a tour.  The girls went on a camel ride—what remarkable animals.  Lee and I went, too, and after reading so much about camels in Tracks, it was wonderful to get to be so close to this oversized desert animal.

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Camel shadows on Cable Beach

My mom and I went on a boat and saw snubfin dolphins, native to northern Australia (photo from wwf.org.au).

Snubfin dolphin in Roebuck Bay, Western Australia. Photo taken as part of the MUCRU/WWF snubfin ... rel=

Lee flew up to Cape Leveque and Horizontal Falls—the highlight of his journey thus far.

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Lee in the cockpit!
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Horizontal Falls, or “Horzies” as they’re called here.

We visited the croc farm, which was terrifying.  We’re hoping these—the crocs behind the fence—are the only salt water crocodiles we’ll see on our trip.  A few days later, Cable Beach, the main beach in Broome was closed because of crocs.  We stayed well away.imageCrocs at the croc farm, who see us as prey.

While here, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  Whew.

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50 years . . . . And they still like each other!

We’ll be sad to say goodbye to Mootie and Pop on Tuesday, when they fly back to Atlanta and we head up a dirt road towards Cape Leveque.  The kids don’t want to leave their grandparents.  R doesn’t want to leave the resort.  But the rest of us are itching to get back to the bush.

A Mining Town in WA

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Newman, WA

In the brightly lit aisles of Newman’s only grocery store you see miners in fluoro tops, trousers and boots, covered from head to toe in red dust.  They walk through Woollies in a daze.  Shifts at the mine are 12 hours, 6-6; the mine is open 365 days a year.  Workers often work two days followed by two nights.  The only time there’s traffic in town is just after six in the morning and just after six in the evening when the shifts swap over.

In Woollies I also saw the beautiful bored wives of miners making small attempts to reign in their toddlers.  These young families have moved here so they can make enough money for a down payment on a house in a city or a town more liveable than this.  They may stay a year or two before moving on to another mining town; they may stay until their kids are in high school.

During the boom some miners kept their families in Ubud in Bali and flew in and out of Indonesia.  It’s relatively cheap there and the flight from Port Hedland to Bali is an hour and 52 minutes.  The boom is over.

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Whaleback Mine (formerly Whaleback Mountain)

It’s a transient place—especially now that the price of iron ore has dropped.  Houses in Newman were being rented out for $2,000 a week, two years ago; now they’re $400.  The caravan park used to be $200 a night, and it may still be, but we didn’t find out because we got to stay with Lee’s friend from Wales, who has a beautiful house and garden filled with frangipani and papaya trees in the front garden and chickens and veggies in the back.  Our friend, Andrew, likes Newman.  He frequently volunteers for St John’s Ambulance and he’s well-loved in town.

Newman can reach temperatures of over 50 degrees in the summer months.  There’s no cinema or bookstore.  There’s no café, though they’re building one in the new shopping centre.  They do have a library and recreational centre—sport is big here—and an oval and golf course.  Radio Hill overlooks the town; it’s only small, but there’s a steep ascent and when Andrew was training to climb Everest last month, he’d hike up Radio Hill ten times in a row with a pack on his back.

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K, Andrew and Lee looking down at Newman from the top of Radio Hill

And there’s the beautiful pool that Andrew manages.  It’s quiet in winter—we were the only ones swimming—because it’s too “cold”.  It was 30 degrees outside and the pool temperature was 25.

The town is cosmopolitan.  There’s a Thai community, Pacific Islanders, Kiwis, Irish, Indians and of course the first people of this country.  Some Aboriginals come down to town for a drink; they’re community, nearby, is dry.  They wander slowly through the heat, gather in groups in the shade, sit on the grass and speak their native language.  I wonder what they make of the massive hole in the middle of their country, and people like us passing through their country with a camper trailer.  Newman is full of travellers this time of year.  Some Aboriginals work in the mines, but they’re a minority.  It’s much more common to meet a miner from New Zealand, some of whom are FIFO (fly in fly out).

imageK and R under an old mining truck outside the Visitors Centre in Newman

There’s a group of Aboriginals around the liquor store, “Cellarbrations”.  Some leave their welfare cards with the cashier.

There are a lot of other ethnicities frequenting the liquor store, too.  Newman has three pubs (Lee went to one–$12 for a pint of One Fifty Lashes!).  And three churches.

Our friend tells us that they recently passed an ordinance here that Aboriginals are not allowed to buy alcohol after five p.m.  But other ethnicities can purchase alcohol after five.  I thought the days of different laws for different colours were over.

You can see the temptation to sit around and drink in the tropics.  It’s just so warm.  And there’s so little to do (unless you’re Andrew, training for Everest by day and rescuing people in the ambulance by night).  No one moves fast here, not even the miners.

Newman is located 165 kilometres west of Jigalong, a place familiar to anyone who’s read Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence.  If you haven’t read it, go out and buy a copy now.  The girls in the book were from Jigalong.  It’s the story of the most remarkable journey in Australian history.  Three Aboriginal girls with white fathers and Aboriginal mothers were kidnapped and taken to a prison-like school just north of Perth, where they were trained to become domestic servants.  Shortly after arriving, these three girls escaped the prison/school at Moore River and travelled on their own, by foot 2,400 kilometres home to Jigalong.  They escaped numerous attempts to capture them.

The story is both inspiring and heartbreaking.  The post-script explains how one of the girls was abducted again by white authorities, as was her child.  They were part of what is now known as the Stolen Generation.

I find the journey of Molly, Daisy and Gracie especially remarkable when read alongside histories of early white explorers like Burke and Wills, grown men from a “civilized” culture, who had all the money and gear and no clue how to get through the middle of this rugged country.  Many of them died before they were able to get home.  These three indigenous girls whose story is told in Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence had more brains, knowledge of the land and stamina than most (if not all) of Australia’s famous male white explorers of the 19th century.

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R looking out at the massive cargo ships at Port Hedland, where the iron ore arrives from Newman, is loaded onto the ships and taken overseas.

K and I went on a tour of the mine, which was remarkable.  The pit used to be a mountain, Whaleback Mountain.  “Pit” is a rather small word for the massive tiered crater dug out of red earth. 

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The numbers are staggering when it comes to mining.  We saw the tyres they use for the huge mining trucks–$40,000 a piece, and they only last nine months!

Whaleback Mine is the largest open pit iron ore mine in the southern hemisphere.  It’s mines like this that are responsible for Australia’s prosperity in recent decades.   image

When I stood in the hot sun and looked down at the big trucks dwarfed by the size of this massive pit, I had mixed feelings.  There are jobs and other financial, as well as practical benefits that come from the steel made from this mine.  How many homes–apartments in high rises in Beijing and Shanghai–have been built from the iron ore that used to be Whaleback Mountain?  I wondered if the steel in the foundation and floors of our own unit back in Sydney came from Whaleback?  

But I shuddered to think of the environmental impact of the mine–they use six million litres of diesel a month at Whaleback.  

 

Traveling into the Pilbara

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A week ago we left the turquoise waters of the Ningaloo Reef and drove inland, into the Pilbara, a region in Australia’s northwest that is more than 400,000 square kilometres. 

I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of this varied landscape, so different from anything I’ve ever seen.  Tufts of spinifex grass, golden yellow in the late afternoon light, dot the red earth.  Sometimes it’s flat and desolate; other times there are rolling hills, or plateaued red mountains.  We drove past mines and Aboriginal communities. 

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Driving in the Pilbara

We drove and drove and camped by the side of the road near the banks of a dried-up river bed, where the girls collected iron ore rocks, smoothed by running water during the wet season.  All the rivers and creeks that we passed over were dry.

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Iron Ore Feet

The next day we drove some more and finally arrived at Karijini National Park.  The traditional owners of this park are the Banyjima, Yinhawangka and Kurrama people, who have been here for over 30, 000 years.  It’s places like this  that remind me how odd it is that Australia’s national anthem begins, “Australians let us all rejoice, for we are young and free” when Australia is home to the longest continuous culture on earth.

This park was the highlight of our trip thus far.  It’s filled with dramatic red gorges that lead down to cool, green fresh water pools: perfect swimming holes.  In summer, the temperatures can get above 50 C (over 122 F).  But now in “winter”, it’s only 29 (84 F). 

On our third day we walked down the steep descent into Hancock Gorge and arrived at a place where we had to walk with water up to our shoulders.  And that was the easy bit! 

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Hancock Gorge

Then there was the narrow Spider Walk where we climbed over running water with hands and feet on either sides of the narrow gorge.  At the end, we got to Kermit’s, a green pool, cooled by the shade, and plunged into the cold water.  K did the Spider Walk twice, the second time with no hands.

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Spider Walk, Hancock Gorge

We spent four amazing days in Karajini, camped in a lovely bush setting with no wind and hardly any flies!  Our neighbours were a freindly young couple, who came over for drinks one evening.  Shane was an electrician, luckilly; he fixed the connection between our solar panels and the batteries used to power our fridge and lights.  Thanks Shane!

Another highlight was swimming at the idyllic Fern Pool with pygmy perch who nibble at your toes, black bats hanging from the trees above and loud squawking corellas flying overhead.  The pool is cool, but the waterfalls feeding the pool come off the hot rocks and they’re warm, creating a natural shower.

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The walk to Circular Pool
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The perfect swimming hole: R at Fern Pool

Next, it’s on to the mining town of Newman, to visit a Welsh friend.

Ningaloo Station

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Ningaloo Station

The road into Ningaloo Station—50,000 hectares of land bordering Ningaloo Reef—is described by one Wiki-camps review as “the worst road in Australia”.  I reckon that’s not far off the truth.

Last Thursday we left Carnarvon, where I’d stocked up on as many groceries as our 60 litre fridge and trailer drawer would hold, and drove two and a half hours (on a lovely smooth sealed road) to the turnoff for Ningaloo Station. 

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The road, if you can call it that, doesn’t feel as if it’s ever been graded.  It’s filled with potholes in the best spots and cavernous voids in the worst.  We drove past shrubs and grasses and occasional herds of goats or sheep that looked feral, but I wasn’t sure—this was a station, after all.

It took us well over an hour to go 30 kilometres.  We passed some defunct trailers that never made it out—not surprising—and finally reached the homestead, a house with a goat on the front porch and an ancient caravan next to it.

A sign on the fence read, Private. Another read, Visitors: Toot horn and wait.  We did.

A few minutes later a tall thin woman with long grey hair emerged from the house.  She looked as if she’d stepped out of an Alice Munro story.  She didn’t say anything and so I introduced myself.

“Have you had any rain here?” I asked.

“No,” she said without looking at me.

“They had rain in Carnarvon last night,” I said.

The smallest spark came into her eyes.  “Really?”

It was the first rain Carnarvon had had in 12 months, and while the campers complained about packing away wet canvas, the locals were ecstatic.  One woman told me, “When I heard the rain last night I went outside just to feel what it felt like.  It’s been that long.”

The woman from the Alice Munro story looked wistful and said, “We could use some rain to wash down the dust.”  She motioned to the caravan that had another sign, office.  We went inside.

There was an exchange of $75 for five nights’ accommodation plus a hundred dollar bond for the key to the gate a further 16 kilometres down the road.  “Do you have a toilet?” she asked.

“Yes,” Lee and I said in unison. There are no facilities at the campsites at Ningaloo—no water, no pit toilet, nothing.

The woman gave us a map and drew on it—neatly, precisely—where our campsite was and which tracks to take.  As she drew I studied her face, lined by this relentless western sun, and saw that it had once been beautiful.  Not now—now, it just looked tired.  She wasn’t one for conversation—how could you be, living so far from other human beings?

We took our key and, reluctantly, got back on the road, which seemed to worsen.  K was still reading, despite the bumps.  R slept.  We passed by sheep and goats and termite mounds the size of my children.  I wished I’d worn my sports bra.  Lee said, “Whose idea was this anyway?”

At last we arrived at a sign that said, Reduce tyre pressure.  Towing fees apply in/out.

Lee let down the pressure in the tyres—way down; we’re learning—and drove through soft sand.  Finally we arrived at an old tyre with a “1” on it.  Next to this, where our sight was supposed to be, was a sand dune.

We got out.  The wind was fierce.  I felt nauseas and headachy.  It had taken us two hours to go 46 kilometres and we’d arrived at a campsite that no longer existed.

“Maybe we won’t stay five nights,” Lee said.

“Let’s wait and see,” I said. We’ve been in the same situation before, arriving at a place and feeling disappointed, before getting to know the beauty of what lay just beyond the dunes.  Luckily, there was plenty of space to set up, right on the track, overlooking the blue blue sea.  We didn’t unhook the trailer because we’d never get it on again in this soft sand.  WA sand must have some of the softest sand in the world.

The wind blew and blew and even with the beautiful sea just steps from our camper trailer, five days felt like a long time.

I gave the girls a snack, set R up with a bucket and spade, and went for a swim.  There was no one else on the beach.

As I approached the water, I saw a snorkel, or what I thought was a snorkel, just two metres off the beach.  Then it disappeared.  It didn’t come back—what was it?  Suddenly, a dolphin jumped out of the water.  It was so close I could almost reach out and touch it.  I shouted for Lee and R (K was still reading in the car).  They came out and the dolphin jumped again and again.

It seemed to be saying to us—this beautiful creature—that although the road we came down was rough as guts, and the basic life we’re living is sometimes exhausting, it’s worth it.

I got in the water—so warm up here, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn—and tried to swim to the dolphin.  I didn’t have a chance in hell.  These mammals can swim up to forty kilometres an hour.

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K in the water–“It’s warm!”

 

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Lee, off for a snorkel

In the days that followed, we got into a rhythm of snorkelling in the reef that lies just off the coast, playing in the shade, reading in the shade, socialising with the others camped on the beach, many of them for three months.  When the girls ran out of paper, they collected dried cuttlefish and the jawbone of a goat and painted them with watercolours.

Time seemed to stand still there in the sun on Ningaloo. 

The winds died down and we swam with tropical fish—angel fish, unicorn fish, clown fish, tiny electric blue fish.  We let the current take us over the coral reef and studied what was beneath: sea cucumbers, bright blue starfish, dark rays. 

We climbed the dunes to spot sea turtles swimming in the waves with their cumbersome grace. I cooked nearly all the food we had and brushed the sand off our plates before we ate from them. When a couple of boys caught a huge maloo from their boat, they shared it out among the campers and we all ate fresh fish that night.

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R and Lee at sunset with the uke

Each evening we had sunset drinks as we watched the sun sink into the sea.

After five nights, we said goodbye and drove back down that dreadful road to return the key.  The same woman—tall, waiflike, sturdy—came out to give us back our deposit.  She moved slowly, deliberately in the heat.  “How long have you been here?” I asked.

She looked at me. “All my life,” she said, as if it were obvious.  As if there were nowhere else on earth to live.

Red Dirt; Blue Seas: the West Coast of WA

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Francois Peron National Park

imageShark Bay is best known for Monkey Mia, the touristy destination where you can, for a fee, feed a dolphin.  We skipped this, avoiding the crowds and headed to see the stromatolites, staying a night at the classic Hamelin Station:

We headed to Hamelin Pool.  At first glance, these large dark clumps are rather underwhelming, BUT, this picture (sans R) is what life on earth may well have looked like 3.5 billion years ago.

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R checking out what the planet looked like over 3 billion years ago

These organisms, or something very similar, is what the first life on earth was like. They can, and do, live in extreme conditions–very salty water and temperatures up to 50 degrees C.

After visiting the stromatolites we drove to the stunning, remote, 4 wheel-drive-only Francios Peron National Park, where red cliffs meet the bright blue sea.image

This was our, ahem, Lee’s first time driving on soft sand, let alone with a trailer.  And it was SOFT.  Once we entered the park and reduced our tyre pressure, we had to drive another 25 kms to our campsite.  We started off strong.  A father emu and seven chicks crossed the road in front of us.  We drove on.  And then we hit some soft sand.  Bogged.  Lee swore.  I said, usefully, “It’s OK, honey.”  We got out into the hot sun, shovelled sand, took the Max Trax off the roof and let out  some more air from the tyres.

Lee gunned it out of there.  I ran after with the Max Trax, which we kept handy in the back seat.  We drove on for several kms . . .

And got bogged again.  The French backpacker in front of us, driving the other direcion, was also bogged.  We all got out in the heat, dug out tyres, let out more pressure, everyone pushed, and after five goes, we were out!

From then on, we followed a friend’s advice, “Drive it like you stole it,” and flew through the sand all the way to the campsite.  Beauty.