Saturday, December 10, 2011

The last lap

Carnarvon was the next stop and we arrived in time for the Main Street Christmas Party. There were various stalls offering goodies of the art and craft variety and food. A stage had been set up and an entertainer/magician was doing his stuff. He was a slightly unfortunate choice and we moved on! Carnarvon was clearly still getting over the floods  of a year ago, and struggling a bit, but the optimism of the locals is striking and they are confident of everything picking up again.

The "Coffee Pot" train that goes out along the One-Mile Jetty at Carnarvon. The jetty was burned and the train has been set on fire several times. It was its first day back in service.
One-Mile Jetty
From there, we drove to Monkey Mia, renowned for its dolphins. We were glad to see the dolphin feeding is now strictly controlled and the dolphins are healthy and thriving. Some years ago, when human contact with them was excessive, they became quite sick.
The dolphins have put in an appearance to be fed
It is many years since we last went to Monkey Mia and it has also been developed into quite a resort, but again it has been nicely done and remains unspoilt. There are many beaches around that area. The down side is the wind that seems to blow permanently.
Looking down from Eagle Bluff, near Monkey Mia. The lighter-coloured part of the sea was actually full of rays which we were able to identify. The darker areas are full of seagrass. This is classified as a World Heritage Area due to the abundance of seagrass.
Kalbarri, our next stop, is quite spectacular for its rugged cliffs and gorges. It is known for its wildflowers in the springtime. We were too late for these although some flowers were still in full bloom. This is a place we will revisit at the right season.

The cliffs near Kalbarri

For several months we have been looking for hose bags, a wonderful and very simple contraption for keeping the water hoses neatly coiled when not in use. They have a tendency to escape all over the place otherwise. We have never had any success but were assured in one place we would find them in Geraldton. Therefore this became our quest when we arrived there. After much Googling (what would we do without it?) we found various places to try and at last.......... success! A little ironic that we find them only 24 hours from the end of the trip, but better late than never. What a difference in the storage hatch.

The last stop was Dongara-Port Denison. This had just been the scene of a grisly triple murder/suicide where a mother had killed her two daughters and then herself but fortunately there was no evidence near the caravan park of the heavy police activity.

So now we are back in Perth. It has been an exciting year and a wonderful experience. We have only scratched the surface of this vast and beautiful country, but we will return to selected areas from time to time to explore further. People ask us which was the most scenic area, but there is no straight answer to that. The country is so varied, from the green of Tasmania which looks so much like parts of Scotland, to the lush areas of rainforest to the arid outback wildernesses and spectacular beaches and coastlines. It is all wonderful in its own way.

A trip like this brings people together and we have met some characters. Everyone is so friendly. We have also been able to catch up with family and friends in various parts of Australia, many of whom we have not seen for a long time, including some ex-Jakarta friends with whom we had lost touch. There were others whom we missed and we will try to catch up with them another time.

The weeks and months ahead will be busy as we seek to find a house that we would like to buy and sell the house we currently own but which is let out until April. We will then have the monumental task of recuperating our shipment of 400+ boxes from storage. Then we will be taking bookings from all of you that we hope will come and visit.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The South Hedland stopover and beyond

A lot has happened since our last post. On the way from Broome to Port Hedland we stopped a couple of nights at Eighty-Mile Beach. It is the turtle nesting season, and although we did not actually see any turtles (high tide when they come in was somewhere in the middle of the night), there was evidence of many turtles having dragged themselves up the beach, almost to the dunes, to lay their eggs and then return to the sea. It is one of nature's many wonders, but also tragic that the survival rate of the hatchlings is about 1 in 1000.

Our landing strip at Yarrie Station
From there we made our way to South Hedland where we descended on Isobel's second-cousin and his wife who were actually house-sitting and looking after a family of four while the parents were away. It was a similar situation to that in Darwin when we were actually getting to know relatives whom we had hardly met before and we had a wonderful time. Keith and Mary own a small charter airline, which also operates in Broome and in Derby. We were lucky enough to be able to hitch a ride on their mail run to a couple of cattle stations and to see these places from the air. The first was Yarrie Station. The second, Warrawagine, had 25,000 cattle on a million acres! We had difficulty getting our heads around that. With the approaching Wet Season they could be cut off for some time but it is all in a day's work for them. The day we were there they were keeping an eye on a large bushfire which was not far from their property boundary.
Bushfire causing a slight worry for Warrawagine Station
Adam, our young pilot, and the Islander plane in which we flew
Looking down on the port from the Spitfire
Keith also has a Spitfire in which he took us up for a ride, one at a time, on a little scenic flight around South Hedland, and the port area of Port Hedland. It is a very busy port for the iron ore that is mined in the Pilbara area and delivered on trains that can be up to over 3 kilometres long to be shipped. It was fascinating to look down on it from above. We never expected to be able to say we had flown in a Spitfire!

Isobel's reflection in the back of Keith's helmet
Warwick looking somewhat like a sardine in the back
Keith at the controls
We intended to stay a couple of days and ended up staying a week as our water pump gave up the ghost again, for reasons unknown. Winnebago agreed to send a new pump and an auto electrician installed it although he was not convinced that the pump itself was the problem. All of this took time, and we were grateful to be able to stay as part of this big family. They also took us to see the flatback turtles coming in, with mixed success. The first evening we managed to see two, one already covering its nest and another just coming in from the sea.  The next evening we didn't see any.

Continuing in a Southwesterly direction, we decided to leave Onslow for another time and head towards Exmouth, with a stop at the Fortescue River Roadhouse on the way. Unfortunately we realised too late that there was a pub quiz happening inside as we were sitting eating outside. We are having slight withdrawal symptoms for our regular Paddy's Pub quiz!

Exmouth is towards the top, on the eastern side, of a peninsula which ends in the North West Cape. On the western side is the Cape Range National Park which is dotted with bush campgrounds. It is in some places very close to the Ningaloo Reef which extends all the way down to Coral Bay and beyond. It was a stunningly beautiful area and our chosen campground was great for a few days away from it all -- no phone, no internet, just nature. Unfortunately no water either since our new pump chose that place to tell us it was not a pump problem but something else and it fused again. The frustration of having a 200 litre tank of good drinking water and no access to it was quite something! We managed to beg a couple of empty water containers from our campground host and went on a quest to fill them at a bore not far away. It was not drinkable but at least we could wash dishes! We had had the foresight to buy drinking water in case. Winnebago received another email as soon as we were in range.

The turtles also come in on these beaches so we joined an organised tour, which was very interesting. They were green turtles this time, very big and ponderous. We saw several at various stages in the process of nest-building and laying. There is a "code of conduct" for watching the turtles and at times we were crawling around or bent low so that we would not be seen by the turtles. Not the easiest thing for Isobel's knees but luckily the sand was very soft. No photography was possible but luckily a turtle came up on our campground beach and we got photos before the tide came up again and wiped out the traces.
Turtle tracks on the beach at Neds Camp, Cape Range National Park

Where she finally decided to lay her eggs
We had to laugh as we came back through Exmouth to continue our journey as we met several emus just wandering quite casually down the street. They are obviously not bothered by people at all. There was also a gathering of them, together with wallabies (or euros?) and a family of crested pigeons, at the bore where we had got the water, all waiting for people to turn up so that they could get a drink.

Emu with a couple of chicks hanging around the bore tap

Emu sauntering down the middle of the street in Exmouth
A relatively short drive by comparison with the last two brought us to Coral Bay. It has grown steadily since we were last here 26 years ago, and it is a delightful spot. We have just done a short tour in a glass-bottomed boat which took us over part of the reef and also stopped in a couple of places for snorkelling. There was a huge amount to see and it was very enjoyable. There are various places to eat, and even a well-stocked shopping centre so we will eat out tonight to save having to wash dishes! We have decided to just limp back to Perth to get Winnebago people to fix the pump problem, as auto electricians quite understandably do not know the wiring of the van and we are just wasting time going from one to another. Also between here and Perth, apart from Carnarvon and Geraldton, we pass through mainly one-horse towns which may or may not even have an auto electrician.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Broome stopover

Having pushed on with stormy weather seeming to follow behind us, we arrived in Broome to clear skies and hot days. We decided to spend a few days here. Broome has changed a bit since we were last here. Admittedly that was 26 years ago, so it would have been surprising to find it still the same! Then the caravan park at Cable Beach was right by the beach and there was very little else there. Now there are several expensive caravan parks, set back a bit from the beach and there are loads of "resorts" and clubs and restaurants. The camels are still there, giving their rides along the beach towards sunset, which is usually glorious.
Very docile camels on their way home from the beach.

Looking across to Cable Beach from Gantheaume Point, about 5 kilometres away, where there are some dinosaur footprints visible at low tide.

Chinatown, contrary to the picture that the name usually conjures up of hustle and bustle, is very quiet. Even the usual Chinese restaurants are hard to find, so it is not entirely due to the time of year. We were a little disappointed.

In spite of the weather maps consistently showing Broome under cloud, we have seen very little of it. In the afternoon the cumulus clouds build up a bit, then dissipate during the evening to leave starry skies. The humidity is high and a bit trying. With that and temperatures in the 30s we are grateful for our air-conditioning. It is, however, lovely to sit out in the evenings and we even went to the open-air cinema one evening. We sat in deck-chairs in a big garden, in front of a large screen to watch "Red Dog", the true story of a dog that roamed the Pilbara region of Western Australia. There is a statue of him in Dampier, where he finally adopted a master. It is a lovely film although a bit of a tear-jerker. We will visit him in Dampier as we pass through.

It has been very pleasant just to take it easy for a few days, swim either at the beach (stingers are not here yet) or at the shadier caravan park pool, catch up with the washing where there is no queue for the laundry and (today) get the pump fixed on the Winnebago. It suddenly died the other day and we refuse to travel without the possibility of getting water out of the taps unless we are connected to mains water. Someone is due to come to us to fix it today, but the 10 o'clock appointment has suddenly become 1 o'clock. Good thing we had no special plans.

Our next stop will be South Hedland, where Isobel has a second-cousin. Keith and his wife Mary are still with Golden Eagle Airlines. It will be interesting to catch up with them after a few years.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Across The Top through boab country

From Lake Argyle it was a short hop to Kununurra, where we decided to have two nights and eventually extended it to three. This was due to waiting at the hospital for half the day for a prescription which had become necessary. There was nowhere else to do it and one just has to be very patient. It is the way of the outback.

Kununurra is a town that grew up around the building of the Ord Diversion Dam and then the main Ord River Dam and has since flourished due to the effects of the dam on agriculture. Irrigation schemes are being extended, which allows for the opening up of more agricultural land. It was a busy place. The campsites by the lake were very pleasant and we celebrated Warwick's birthday with a meal in the caravan park's restaurant by the pool. Very nice.

There is already quite a lot of water in the Ord River, which meant that Ivanhoe Crossing was already closed. Isobel is sure that this is the causeway we crossed back in 1985 when we did our trip with the kids in a Hi-ace pop-up. It would not be one to cross with this beast at the best of times, but in fact it was running too fast for anything to be able to cross. It seems to be good for fishing, though.

Ivanhoe Crossing with a couple of hopefuls
Our intention was to detour to Wyndham and a rather smart-looking "wilderness retreat" called El Questro, but the weather was looking distinctly stormy and El Questro meant quite a stretch on unsealed road. Perhaps we would get there OK but if a real storm struck, maybe the return would be doubtful. So reluctantly but probably wisely, we missed out that detour and headed straight for Halls Creek. A boring road at the best of times, it was made quite irritating by the amount of roadworks. A couple of roadhouses on the way broke the monotony a bit.

Halls Creek boasts a pioneer by the name of Russian Jack, who is said to have carted a sick mate in a wheelbarrow all the way to Wyndham to the nearest doctor -- a distance of some 300 kilometres! One cannot help being amazed at the stories of pioneers and the conditions in which they lived.

Russian Jack. It seems his mate survived.
Next stop Fitzroy Crossing, another largely Aboriginal community. This town is involved in a lot of interesting medical research. We had our first real rain for many months during the night, which caused us to abandon the idea of the only tour still open on Geikie Gorge. The real splendour of Geikie needs clear skies and sunshine and we still had grey skies and rain. This will be for another trip.

So it was on towards Derby, past scores of boab trees. These trees are variously described as bottle trees or upside-down trees, due to their extraordinary shape and to the fact that they store water in their trunks, which causes them to swell into odd shapes. Near Derby, we visited a particularly famous tree called the "Prison Boab Tree", which in years gone by was used to hold some of the prisoners who were being forcibly moved for sentencing in Derby.

The Prison Boab Tree near Derby
Derby is known for its extraordinary tides and we walked out on the wharf as the tide was racing in. That particular day it was 11 metres and the way it was racing in was impressive.

We still had time to make it to Broome so we pushed on, with boabs of all shapes and sizes all the way.
A line of boabs down the middle of Derby's main street.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Litchfield National Park and the Northern Territory to the WA border and Lake Argyle

Everyone told us we must go to Litchfield. When we got there we realised why. There is a series of waterfalls in different parks of the park, many of them with a plunge pool in which swimming is safe. Hot and sticky as we were it was a joy to swim in the cool water. We met so many young Germans still on the road. It is very quiet now as it gets close to the Wet but the only disadvantage to travelling at this time is the heat. Otherwise it is delightful to have caravan parks almost to ourselves.

Wangi Falls with their plunge pool

Buley Rockholes

Florence Falls from the lookout above ........
......... and the plunge pool below. Not so easy to get into this one.
We left the Park the way we had come in, through a little place called Batchelor. There was a little general store that we went into and were amazed to hear a lively conversation going on between the shopkeeper and some clients in Swiss German. It was the second time that day we had heard Swiss German and it sounded odd in such a lost corner of the Northern Territory!

A brief stop at Adelaide River allowed us to look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where, among others, the victims of the bombing of Darwin in 1942 are buried. As always, the cemetery is immaculately tended.  At Hayes Creek, in mining country, there was a constant stream of road trains passing but it was nonetheless a peaceful night in an almost empty roadhouse caravan park. There was mail waiting for us in Katherine, and also a very convenient carwash suitable for our, by this time, very dirty Winnebago. We wanted to push on so, having dealt with those, we drove on to Victoria River. It was stormy-looking and cloudy the whole day, which took a lot of the heat away, and when we arrived at the roadhouse it was clear there had been heavy rain. Again we had escaped it. The sign at the roadhouse amused us.
Typical Aussie humour

There was not much to stop for before the border, so Isobel was up early cooking the remaining vegies  for the freezer and cutting fruit to eat on the way. Quarantine restrictions are enforced between NT and WA and we knew the van would be inspected. No fresh fruit or vegetables are allowed in. There is only so much one can consume, however, so at our lunchtime picnic spot a passing nomad going in the opposite direction gladly accepted the remaining tomato, avocado and cos lettuce, while we had left a quantity of garlic at the roadhouse. (That was supposed to have been left with Patsy and Richard but the bed episode put it out of our minds.)

Even before the border, the scenery had changed to the impressive red rock formations so typical of the WA Kimberley. It can be breathtaking against a clear blue sky, which there was as the storms had passed. There are so many deep gorges and it is interesting to speculate on what the countryside must have been like in the Ord River valley before the dam was built in the '70s. Even now, the huge lake that has been formed by the dam has steep sides and cliffs. For those who are familiar with Australian history, this is Durack country, settled by the pioneering Durack family from Ireland, and described in several books by Mary Durack, notably "Kings in Grass Castles" and "Sons in the Saddle". The Argyle Downs Homestead, which was moved when the Ord dam was built, is now a museum, but it is already closed for the wet season. We have actually been there before, back in 1985.

The caravan park at Lake Argyle was also very quiet. It is a beautiful site, with an infinity pool from which there is a view over parts of the lake. A swim there at 7:30 in the morning made a great start to the day.

The infinity pool at Lake Argyle caravan park

One of the views from in the pool

Looking down on Lake Argyle from the lookout

The dam from below

The outlet valves below the dam

The Ord is still a mighty river below the dam

The road across the dam, looking down from another lookout above

Kakadu and Darwin in the pre-monsoon build-up

Kakadu is magic. Not only is it teeming with birdlife and crocs but it is steeped in Aboriginal lore as well. We were lucky to be able to visit the main rock art sites before the real heat of the day as walking becomes such an effort and it seems impossible to put water back into the system as fast as it is pouring out. After Cooinda we did spend one night bushcamping -- no power for AC therefore. Isobel thought she was going to die of heat!! We chose a caravan park in Jabiru for the next two nights. It also had a delightful swimming pool.

Now we are in Darwin with Patsy and Richard, their son Ben and his delightful Korean partner, Seonja. Warwick and Patsy grew up at opposite ends of the world and even during Warwick's visits to Australia they didn't see each other as Patsy was not in Perth, so it is fun now to get to know each other. They have a most amazing house, ideal for the tropics and there is even a resident snake in the bathroom!
He often lies right inside the jar beside the plant with just his head sticking out. Otherwise he is sometimes stretched out along the louvre windows.
Patsy is a keen gardener so one of the highlights was a visit to the Botanical Garden's annual plant sale. It was a good thing we went in the ute to bring back the spoils! Great plants, though, at very good prices. People were leaving with barrowloads. Now she has the job of planting them -- a big job in the present heat. They keep hoping for rain and several times it looked as if it could happen, but so far nothing.
My favourite part of the garden, where we had breakfast ay Patsy's mosaic table overlooking the lagoon. It is dry at the moment but will fill as the wet season starts and will have water lilies growing.
Patsy also took us to the museum, which had some interesting art and photographic displays, as well as a whole section on Cyclone Tracy, which of course devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974. Sweetheart the infamous big crocodile that used to attack boats is also there. He came to a sad end by accidentally drowning while being captured. The maritime part with its collection of boats, many Indonesian, was also interesting.

Our last evening there we all had dinner out at a restaurant on the wharf and were joined by Eamonn, Warwick's cousin Robin's husband, who was passing through Darwin. Eamonn does a lot of work out in the sticks at the mines. It was great seeing him.

Our Winnebago excelled itself while parked in the driveway. For reasons best known to itself, the bed broke free from its moorings when Isobel was putting it down. (The end lifts up to offer storage space underneath and it goes up and down on gas struts.) When the hinges broke loose the bed rocketed forward under the force of the gas struts and pinned Isobel by the knees to the wall. She was alone in the van and took a few minutes to make herself heard. Her knees of course are not up to taking that kind of treatment. We are hoping that bruising is going to be the extent of the damage. The right one is OK but the left one is giving a certain amount of grief. The next Winnebago dealer is in Perth so we will have to manage with the bed loose until we get back. It is more of a nuisance than anything else as it now takes both of us to store or retrieve anything from under the bed (chairs, table, etc.) The Winnebago people were on the phone immediately they received our email account of the incident and were rather concerned about the state of the knees. Perhaps they were afraid of an impending lawsuit!

All this happened as we were preparing to leave Darwin. Patsy and Richard will not easily forget our visit as getting the Winnebago into their driveway was one thing, but getting it out was another. Richard ended up cutting down branches with an electric saw as Patsy and Isobel hauled them out of the way to let Warwick edge the Beast out. It was such a wonderful visit, though, and we are so glad we were able to keep Darwin on our itinerary.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bugger!! It had to happen eventually

Katherine Gorge was hot, but beautiful and our tour allowed for an hour of swimming between Gorge 1 and Gorge 2. Much has been done to develop the campground and create a Visitor Centre since our last visit 26 years ago. The gorge, however, remains the same.

From Katherine, after a medical visit to get Isobel a tetanus shot after she had been bitten by a wallaby (!!), it was on to Pine Creek, which is a real haven for bird lovers. Unfortunately we did not see the elusive Hooded Parrot which is common in that area but Warwick did manage to see some Gouldian Finches.

From Pine Creek, on the advice of Warwick's cousin's husband, Richard, we set off down an unsealed road to Gunlom, apparently beautiful for swimming, waterfalls, etc. There are unsealed roads and unsealed roads, however and this was one of the rutted kind that would shake the teeth out of your head, not to mention what it does inside the van. After a while we decided to turn around and, getting back to the bitumen, after a while there was a sound like a gunshot. We stopped, checked all the tyres, but there was no sign of anything amiss. Arriving at the caravan park at Cooinda, however, someone asked if we were aware we were driving on an almost flat tyre. By the time we parked, it was completely flat  -- and destroyed! We groaned, looked at the situation, considered the temperature, which was nearer 40 than 30 and said, "This is why we have Winnebago Roadside Assistance." Within an hour we had a huge truck beside our van, with an extremely pleasant young man to fix it. We very quickly got over feeling a bit shame-faced at getting someone out to change a wheel, when it took the expert about half an hour to release the spare wheel from its hiding place under the van! It was accompanied by lots of huffing and puffing and some asides about Iveco and their methods. We were glad we had not tried ourselves. The spare wheel is now on, a new one will be ordered and probably obtained on Monday, and we will be safe to travel again. It will be an interesting conversation with Richard when we visit him in Darwin next week!

Not looking good

No wonder!
Dave, our friendly garage man doing his stuff
The spare tyre installed on the front wheel