30 June, 2007

Florence Falls

Saturday, this is our 2nd last night in the "truck", the time has flown. We are however exhausted, it has been a very active holiday.

Last night was not as quiet as we would have hoped. The boys and girls from the 2007 Wantirna High School Central Australia Tour ran like crazed animals around the Katherine Gorge campground, and it wasn't until after 10:00pm that their teachers, not really in control, tried to exercise some discipline and get their charges into their tents, where fights ensued and giggling lasted for a long time. These students, the boys in particular, showed no consideration for the other campers, and no respect for the aboriginal owners, and terrorised the noctural wildlife in a National Park. The administrators of Nitmiluk National Park are doing themselves no good service in accepting bookings from school groups, if this is how they behave.

We set off in the direction of Darwin today, and have now pulled into Litchfield National Park, 50km off the Stuart Highway, and about 80km short of Darwin. It is a great place, very well maintained, and with pristine water holes for swimming, and beautiful flowing creeks. First thing we did after a lunch by the gurgling Shady Creek was dive into a very large water hole, fed by a beautiful year round waterfall, in Florence Creek. How refreshing it was on this hot day. Many others had the same idea. No secluded water holes here!

This park must be very popular with "Darwinians", as it is so close to Darwin, and a real gem. Also, it's a weekend and it's Territory Day tomorrow (fireworks!), and we found we could not get into the National Park camping area at Wangi Falls that we wanted to. However, we have found a delightful spot nearby, Litchfield Safari Park, grassy, lots of trees and very quiet, and a powered site is a bonus. Not much chance of large school groups here!

29 June, 2007

Cruising the Gorges

Friday, well it wasn't a cold night at all, even tho' we are just down the road from Katherine, where we had an extremely cold night. About 6am we felt the chill and it was a very cool morning until about 10am. After that, it became a very hot day.

Last night about 9pm, two coaches roared in and a crowd of Year 11 teens from Warandite, Vic., piled out and set up camp. They sounded like the invading hoardes, and were very noisy until they went to bed, not late, and again when they awoke at 6am. They had apparently been on the road since 5am - we figure their departure must have been Alice Spings or Uluru. No sooner had they moved on, that sometime this afternoon, two coaches arrived from Wantirna, Vic., also full of teens, who are not too noisy (they haven't been cooped up in a bus all day), but are stretching the resources of the shower block a bit. This is our first encounter with school bus trips of this type, you do not get them in regular caravan parks of course. Needless to say the expected "dawn chorus" of birds did not eventuate, I think they had flown off to a quieter place. Both these groups of schoolies were well drilled at putting their tents up quickly and in neat rows (the first group in the dark) - we figure they've had plenty of practice since they left Melbourne.

We had the most fantastic day, doing a 4 hr boat cruise touring 3 of the 13 gorges here at Katherine. Each gorge is separated by a rapids at this time of the dry season, so you get out of one boat, walk over the rocks around the rapids, and get into another boat, for the next gorge. This works quite well. These gorges, which are so accessable to the general public, not needing a 4 wheel drive to get to, are spectacular, and the amount of water here is astonishing. To go past the 3rd gorge, you have to canoe or walk, or fly.

The second gorge was the most interesting of the three we saw, and given more time, we would try a full day canoeing, where you can do multiple gorges. The third gorge included a stop from which you could walk to a beautiful swimming hole, Lily Pond, fed by a very high "maiden's hair" type waterfall, which normally dries up in the dry season, but was working today, given the recent rains. Not too many people swam - they hadn't warmed up enough yet.

Coming back through the second gorge, the cruise guides Di and Jai tried something they hadn't tried before - it was a stop at Butterfly Gorge (normally only accessible by a 4 hour walk), named after the butterflies which inhabit it. It was a trial and error exercise, with nowhere obvious to pull up, and very steep banks to clamber up and down. Today's photo is taken from Butterfly Gorge. The people who had tackled the tough walk to Butterfly Gorge (for peace and solitude, one of them said), were none too pleased to see half a boatload of cruisers trampling their quiet turf, but we only stayed 15 minutes!

As everywhere in the Top End, the bird life is very interesting, but here the crocs were not evident at all. There is a particularly well decorated bower bird's nest in the campground here. Its owner seems quite unperturbed by the many passers-by.

The Nitmiluk National Park, jointly operated by NT National Parks and the traditional owners, the Jawoyn, is very well set up for tourism - they operate a commercial enterprise right out of the park's visitors' centre, although there are a few glitches in the operation. By our observations, the school groups are doing 2hr gorge cruises, which cover the first two gorges.

28 June, 2007

Katherine Gorge

Thursday, a freezing cold dawn at the Shadylane Van Park in Katherine. First thing, we upped stakes, drove 25km, and got one the the first powered sites (one of the dusty, non-allocated variety) available for the morning in the Nitmiluk National Park. We reckon we got the best one. These are apparently all gone by about lunchtime. Immediately, we noticed the prolific birdlife here - it's so noisy, it's going to be bedlam in the morning.

We rented a double canoe for a four hour afternoon session, to paddle Katherine Gorge up to the 1st rapids. They strictly limit the number of canoes on the river, and we were just early enough to get the booking. The paddle of the 1st gorge is 3.6km upstream, and then back again. It was hard work! Not because of the flow, which was very slight, but because of the light wind and our poor canoeing style. The canoes had no keel and no rudder, and it was impossible to maintain course, either upstream or downstream. But the gorge was, well, gorgeous, with a mixture of cliff faces and sandy banks running into the water. The sandy banks were almost all marked "no entry, crocodile breeding area". We didn't see any crocs today. We had a swim at the rapids.

There were lots of other people canoeing on the river, some were doing more adventurous trips where they ported their canoes up the rapids and did the next gorge. There appear to be many gorges accessible this way, 13 in total. Some people had backpacks, and were doing overnight canoeing trips. The canoeists competete with the cruises for the river. Paddlers are cautioned to avoid the cruise boats, "they are big and have no brakes".

We are unused to canoeing (Tracy please note!) and are exhausted after the effort, Mike's arms are sore and so are Clare's wrists and hands. We hoped to save energy by eating at the very nice cafe here, but it's menu wasn't up to our exacting standards, so we are back at the truck, eating our own tucker.

It will possibly be another cold night tonight although now, at 8pm, it seems much milder than last night, but it is still clear skied with a full moon. Yes Ben, we are sleeping in the thermals again. Tomorrow we will be up early, to go on a 3 gorges cruise at 9am, should be great, and someone else will be paddling! Kathryn Gorge is a beautiful place, quite crowded, but the natural beauty is stunning, and it is only 3 and a half hours from Darwin.

27 June, 2007

The Long Drive

Wednesday, we've just completed the third big driving day on this trip, and the last. We covered 528km from Lake Argyle WA to Katherine NT, nd in our truck, that's about as much as you'd want to do. Our Toyota Hilux, which must be the oldest in Apollo's fleet (140,000km), is happy to do between 100 and 110km/h on a good bitumen road, which means we overtake all caravans (which seem to cruise at 80km/hr), and, despite its age, its been very reliable and performs very well. The speed limit in NT is 130km/hr, but very few vehicles are doing it.

Today's drive was quite dreary, with the only scenically beautiful section being in Gregory National Park and the Victoria River Gorge. Remember, we stayed at Vic River on our first night out of Darwin.

By doing the trip out of Darwin, we will have the opportunity to visit Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge), and Litchfield National Park on our return to Darwin, but, in retrospect, we could have avoided the dreary Kununurra to Katherine section of the road (both ways) by doing the trip out of Broome. When we planned the trip (a year ago), we chose Darwin probably without thinking it through properly, but we knew that flights to Darwin were much easier to get than flights to Broome. We've since heard that renting motorhomes out of Broome incurs a $500 remote site fee, which is startling, and nice to have avoided.

We are here (in the North End) in winter, peak season, but we are still surprised at how crowded the main caravan parks are. When we first arrived in Kununurra some weeks ago, the parks were full, and we were lucky to get a space in the lakesise park (which we then abandoned when we felt it was too crowded). Everyone says you won't get a space in Broome, but we did, right at Cable Beach, by just fronting up, pretty early in the day. That van park was indeed chockers, but we were lucky. Today, arriving at Katherine, the first two parks we tried were full, and the third, "Shady Lane" only had 3 spaces left when we arrived, and it's now got the "full" sign out.

This park is on the road up to the Gorge, and its in a delightful location, with spacious, shady sites, yet well grassed. Despite this, we prefer the sites in National Parks, where you can sometimes get "private spaces". (Today's photo is of our campfire at our private site at El Questro.) That privacy and seclusion is worth the price of no power and limited facilities. We're going to try our luck at Nitmiluk tomorrow. Having said that, the parks are still quieter than our neighbours in Surry Hills, although you are very close to vans and tents. People are very considerate, even the dogs are quieter!

26 June, 2007

Argyle Cruise in Sunshine

Tuesday, sunshine at last. Mike was happy getting a dawn run from the campground, across the Ord River dam wall, and down the gorge a bit, and back.

In the afternoon we did a cruise on Lake Argyle with Drew, a young fellow who has spent all his life here and certainly knows his lake. It's incredible to contemplate how big this body of fresh water is (30 - 50 Sydney Harbours, depending on the water level), how relatively small the dam is that holds it back, how it only took 3 wet seasons to fill, how it is massively underutilised as both an irrigation resource and as a tourism resource.

The cruise was in a very speedy catamaran - it had to be, we covered 100km on the water, and still only looked at a fraction of his huge lake. It was quite windy and hence choppy, which made high speeds in open water very uncomfortable for both the passengers and for the cat, so we couldn't go to the far side of the lake to see where the Ord River comes in. Instead we explored a long way up a river running into Ulysses Bay and saw a whole heap of wildlife.

The wildlife included more crocodiles (freshies, no confirmed reports of salties in Lake Argyle), ospreys (see photo), sea eagles, azure kingfishers, cormorants. We also saw wallabies and even big herds of feral cattle whose ancestors were lost when the valley was flooded 20 odd years ago.

It's quite amazing to see Kimberleys geology butting up against this huge man made sea!

25 June, 2007

Out of the Rain???

Monday, what a good idea it was to book into the Kimberley Grande, a brand new resort in Kununurra. Although having a few teething problems, the room was great, and we had a good meal in the bistro. A lot of washing and drying was done, and we have completely reorganised, so have set out afresh today. It poured all night and was still pouring this morning, when we left. We now know why its raining - it's not just Clare's determined hope for cool weather. It's really because our Nic and Baz are trying to to film some of the new movie "Australia", it is set in the dusty hot land! We hear they are knee deep in mud.

Yesterday, we discovered that our Apollo motorhome leaks in the rain. It has a pop-up lid, and when it is down (for driving), and you are moving forward into the rain, it leaks into the front of the "house" right where Mike sleeps. So we carted the mattress into our motel room to dry out last night.

We have now arrived at Argyle Dam, only 70km from Kununurra, and it is a most idyllic spot. We are camped in a nice grassy spot under a gum tree, a nice change from the mud.

Lake Argyle is the largest body of fresh water in Australia, about 54 Sydney Harbours. The air is so aromatic here, the gums and the water smell delightful, after the rain. Today, downstream of the dam, we noticed a small group fishing. One of them, with binoculars, was appointed to watch for crocodiles - they had one in sight, only 30m away, but it was just a freshie. Today's photo is of the Ord River gorge, downstream of the dam, taken near our campsite.

Thankfully it looks like the rain has gone at least for the time being. Everyone is talking about it. Yesterday we saw a man stopped in a river crossing, cleaning his car and caravan with a broom, in the rain. That's one way to get the mud off. We'll have to do something like that at the end of this trip. Apollo expect you to return the vehicle clean!

24 June, 2007

Rain, Rain and Roadhouses

Sunday. It rained most of the night at our Turkey Creek campground, leaving it an even muddier mess this morning. Our plan for today was to drive to Kununurra, do some shopping, and then drive to Lake Argyle where we would stay a couple of nights. But the weather was so bad on the way to Kununurra, tropical downpouring rain, which looked quite set in, that we eventually decided to stay the night at a motel in town, in the hope of riding out the weather. We've checked in - it's going to be very luxurious to have a real bed and a real bathroom tonight. The forecast is for more rain tomorrow, clearing Tuesday.

Last evening, the whisper at Turkey Creek was that the road into Purnululu would be opened today (Sunday) despite the official statement of "no review before Monday". We guess this batch of heavy rain has put paid to that rumour. We're very glad we managed that helicopter ride over the Bungles yesterday - walking in this magnificent national park will have to await another visit.

Our friend Cindy from Skykomish wondered how the isolated roadhouses of the Kimberleys received their "gas", petrol and diesel to us Australians. Today's photo shows how - it's of a huge road train pulled up in the boggy forecourt of Turkey Creek this morning.

Those roadhouses have been quite interesting - apart from the fuel and goods travellers buy there, they seem to have become centres of their communities in one way or another. Almost every roadhouse has a family of aborigines hanging around outside, enjoying the chairs and the shade of the awnings. Often these people will try to sell tourists some artwork, but, from what we've seen, they're asking too much money for very mediocre stuff. The aborigines seem to all have money, and look like heavy consumers of soft drinks and chocolates.

This is not news, but many of the aborigines are affected by alcohol, and loud arguments and physical fights are common. One such fight only this morning seemed to discourage a whole busload of people from getting off a Greyhound Coach at Turkey Creek. We had thought the local community was dry, and maybe it is, with this particular group being from elsewhere.

All Roadhouses sell premade food and some basic provisions. Signs say "ignore the use-by date, because the goods have been frozen". If there's hot food, it's almost always of the "pie in the oven" or "baine marie" variety, but some do it better than others. The Victoria River Roadhouse (NT) prepared meals from a menu in the evenings, although we didn't sample them. You could do short helicopter flights of the river gorge from right outside that roadhouse. On the Gibb, the Mount Barnett Roadhouse (diesel was $1.95/L, the most expensive we have bought) had a large and comprehensive general store, but stock levels on may items was low. They were expecting deliveries soon. The Imintji Roadhouse was next door to the mechanic who repaired our flat tyre. The couple running that place were obviously expat Queenslanders (judging by his Maroons shirt and flag), and had just taken over the business. They were very friendly, and sold us some fresh sandwiches, but were "too busy" to make hamburgers etc. We didn't stop at any of the roadhouses near Broome, and, on the Great Northern Hwy, we actually spent the night at the Turkey Creek Roadhouse, and enjoyed some very tasty baine marie tucker.

23 June, 2007

Over the Bungles

Saturday, another grey morning, cold and windy over breakfast, and the drizzle will not quite go away. This sort of weather is not supposed to happen!

We left Hall's Creek, and drove the 150km down the road to Turkey Creek, there was very little traffic, I think most people have just stopped and are waiting for the roads to open again. The vegetation was beautiful, as it was cool and overcast, so the silver, purple and grey foliage was splendid.

Last night reminded me of the wagons circling for protection from the Indians,in the wild west, as all night outside our compound the indigenous people of Hall's Creek partied loud and long, in acompaniment to loud live music from the Halls Creek pub which went to about midnight, but didn't keep us awake.

In the face of the road closures preventing us getting into the Bungles, and believing that Kununurra will be over-crowded again (there's a writers festival there this weekend), we decided to take a helicopter flight from Turkey Creek over the Bungles, so we can drive on tomorrow to Lake Argyle, hoping that it will be a good place to camp for a couple of nights. The rain is absent at the moment, but threatening to return next week. It is the coldest, wettest "dry "season here for 50 years, we heard today. As we only have a week left to camp out, we do not want to get stuck anywhere, and luckily the roads we will use now are sealed.

The helicopter flight was magic: Elaine, I had a look for you. I sat up with the pilot, and of course there was no-one in the Bungles, or on the road in. There were lots of pools of water, and a couple of falls running due to the amount of rain, and I have never seen such spectacular scenery, the rocks were so coloured, and you could see the silver-green lichens on them, it was great from the air.

There is an Aboriginal community near here, it looks to be dry, which is just as well, based on what we have seen. The houses all have air-con and they have a clinic and school there. There are some well known artists living there, selling paintings etc. Most of the people have been down to the store by the look of things today, our campsite is a good spot for watching. Turkey Creek is a basic little road house. We are sandwiched on a muddy site (everything is muddy), between the road house and the road, not very glamorous.

22 June, 2007

Mary Pool and Halls Creek

Friday dawned overcast again, but as we drove east from Fitzroy Crossing to Halls Creek, the sky cleared up progressively, and then become overcast again. The people are stunned by the cool and wettish weather, and we notice that cars and shops have their heaters on full bore.

We left Fitzroy Crossing via the old crossing, now consigned to a corrugated dirt road, and not via the new bridge. Again, a fairly uninteresting drive but a break at Mary Pool (on the Mary River) proved to be a wonderful relief from the boredom. We had heard about Mary Pool before this trip, and from many people during the trip, but we didn't realise what made it wonderful. We thought, is it a great swimming hole? A majestic river? Neither, it is the wildlife there! The trees are heavily laden with thousands of noisy corellas (must be a cacophony at dawn), the languid river boasts equally languid freshwater crocs, and we also saw numerous other birds, cranes, sandpipers etc.

Not quite matching the corellas in number are the numbers of free campers there. We counted about 25 camps (vans etc) set up, and the people were some of the most friendly we had come across - must be the spirit of the free camper! Our friends Jo and Henry had warned us on how awful the long drop toilets were in this location. We can report that the camp toilets were clean, not smelly, and equipped with toilet paper (by the campers, by the look of it). The bowl itself was an intrguiging contraption, moulded in concrete and painted white, without a seat or a cover.

Hoping for good news, we got the dreaded bad news when we reported to the Halls Creek visitor info centre. The road to Purnululu National Park (the Bungle Bungles) is closed, and the situation won't be reviewed until Monday. A bit more rain is expected, what's more. Lots of people have been trapped in the park, and there being no supplies available in there, today they towed the light 4WDs out. Tomorrow, apparently, they're going to use a grader to tow out the large 4WDs.

So we're holed up at the Halls Creek Caravan Park - it's usually a dusty mess, but now its a muddy mess. I asked the owner why he doesn't have grass like they do at Fitzroy Crossing and he (nicely) lectured me on how big the Fitzroy River is compared to the non-existent Halls Creek, and how strict the water restrictions are here. This afternoon, we could have visited some attractions out of Halls Creek, such as the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater, Caroline's Pool, the China Wall and an oasis called Palm Springs but, you guessed it, they're down dirt roads which are firmly closed. So we did a walk of town, and saw more of the same old problems with the indigenous population. Quite a few young ones talked to us as we walked around, they are as bright as buttons, and its so sad to contemplate their limited opportunities.

Geikie Gorge

Thursday, after a drizzly night, we spent the day at Geikie Gorge. It is the only gorge on our itinerary with a sealed road into it, so we are in the right place at the right time. All of the unsealed roads in the Kimberleys are closed due to the unseasonal rain. We just heard on the ABC, that 140 guests are stuck at El Questro due to the road closure. It was very fortunate that we did the Gibb River Road during the week it was so dry. We're picturing what those people at El Questro are doing. If you were at our private site "Wren", you couldn't leave it - there are two river crossings just to get back to the resort. To walk the gorges themselves require river crossings which would be impassable on the access tracks, and impossible to cross on the walking trails.

Today was overcast and cool, a refreshing change, and it did not rain, answering our prayers. We hope the rain has gone away altogether. This arvo, there are patches of blue sky showing. The locals are complaining about how cold it is - Kununurra radio this morning said it is like a Russian winter!

The gorge is 18km out of Fitzroy Crossing and was really beautiful, different to all the other gorges we have seen. We did a barge trip on the river, the Fitzroy, and then had a walk along its bank. The gorge is flanked by a reef from the Devonian Period when this was a seashore, and runs 1000km to the sea. On the bank we found shells and fresh water mussels, it was just like a beach. We saw some fresh water crocs, some rock wallabies, lots of birds, and were delighted to see 6 brolgas on the drive in and out, which elicited a chorus of "out on the plains the brolgas are dancing".

We have given up hope of being able to drive into the Bungle Bungles (would have been day after tomorrow). The river crossing on the road in is reported to be really difficult at the best of times and it will now be impossible. Anyway, the road is officially closed. Probably people are stuck in there too, although that hasn't been on the news.

Tonight, we are in the no frills caravan park again, but it is the most grassy under foot of all we have stayed at, which is nice in this damp weather. The town of Fitzroy Crossing is making us despair, we saw 10 children this morning going into the shop to buy sweets. They should have been in school.

20 June, 2007

The Savannah Way

Last night, we had a seafood platter at Zender's on Cable Beach. We ate early, at 5:30, so as to be able to enjoy the beautiful sunset. No green flash of course, the clouds saw to that, but the sunset colours in those clouds were just gorgeous.

Wednesday dawned drearily, said to be most unusual for the Kimberleys. Even ABC radio news is led by this exceptional weather. For us, the day started off with another 6:00am run along Cable Beach followed by a swim for Mike. This morning, there was a dawn camel ride going on on the beach. We thought these were only at sunset.

Departing the campsite at Cable Beach, we reminisced that it had the best (cleanest, most modern) facilities of any we had stayed at, but at $35/night, it was getting close to double the price of most others. While the spaces were generous, the ground was much too crowded, and we really prefer the private campsites concept elsewhere, despite the lack of power and facilities. We don't know if we'll see any more such places the rest of this trip.

Before leaving Broome, Clare retired her old Nike walking shoes, which had been good for years, but gave up the ghost in one of the gorges, and bought a shiny new pair of Dunlops, and we dieseled up, and got take-away cappucino, the last we'll see for nearly two weeks, at the Old Zoo Cafe.

It was a driving day - we covered 400km to Fitzroy Crossing where we'll stay at this small, run-down but still too crowded (powered) caravan park for two nights, so we can go to Geike Gorge tomorrow. We hope for better weather. It's drizzling lightly here, and quite cool - it reminds us of our old camping days at Durras - but the weather here is supposed to be hot and reliably sunny here in winter.

We are fascinated by how the owners of caravans which never leave the bitumen seem to wash their cars and vans lovingly in the caravan parks every night. We sat here under our tattered awning (out for the first time to protect us from the drizzle) beside our very grubby motorhome, having a cup of tea and watching everyone washing their cars in the drizzle. The Fitzroy River must have boundless water for this to be allowed!

On the way here we encountered patches of drizzle only, and the sky was very threatening. The drive along the Savannah Way (Broome to Cairns) was boring, the only point of interest being the rest area where we had lunch. This area surrounds a massive and ancient boab tree. Also parked there for lunch was a huge fifth wheeler caravan, which must be more comfortable than our modest Apollo truck. Mind you, these fifth wheelers, and indeed any regular caravans, are not able to do the Gibb River Rd! Apart from our friends' Steve and Alan's fifth wheeler, you rarely see these vehicles in the east, but they are reasonably common over here.

The town is very depressed with the usual samples of indigenous population camped out at the shops.They throw down their rubbish anywhere, even though there are plenty of bins, and it is very dirty. From what we saw, only the tourists use the rubblish bins.

19 June, 2007

Chilling out in Broome

Tuesday broke quite cloudy. Mike had an early run (with swim) on Cable Beach while Clare listened to local ABC and heard that most unusual heavy rain in patches around the Kimberleys had closed some of the roads we had recently travelled. Windjana Gorge and Bells Gorge access roads were closed, so we are lucky to have been there only a day or so ago.

Today we chilled out, but knowing that there'll be no restaurants over the next week and we'll have to live out of our van, we had breakfast out and will also do dinner at Cable Beach this evening. The overcast conditions made the beach suitable for Clare, so we walked along Cable Beach to a virtually deserted section and had a good swim there at high tide, when Cable Beach is at its best.

Today's rain (which we have not seen in Broome), makes one reminsce on the purpose of our holiday here, the Gibb River Road. It is about 700km long, running from the Kununurra to Wyndham road in the east, to Derby in the west, in Western Australia, and all but the 50km nearest Derby, and the odd steep pinch, is dirt. The road is "recommended as 4WD only", but based on our trip along its full length in the last week, this recommendation really only applies to the river crossings. The Pentecost River crossing is the longest and most daunting on the road, but there are numerous, dozens, of lesser rivers to negotiate. We had heard horror stories about this crossing at El Questro, but we found that Pentecost and all others are quite navigable with due care.

In wet conditions, such as might apply today, it is apparent that the road would be very treacherous. We traversed it just after the wet season, but the road was mostly dry and had been recently graded. There are long sections of very rough, dried up boggy bits, but most of the road is in quite good condition, and it is extensively maintained, apparently by the Wyndham and Derby Shires, which, we think, do a very good job. The dirt roads to Doug and Anne's farm at Glenrossal, and over much of NSW, are much rougher than most of the Gibb River Road, but as mentioned, it's the river crossings and bog potential which makes the Gibb special.

The bad stretches of the Gibb River Road are mostly in the eastern half. We felt, and confirmed with a destroyed tyre, that the greatest hazards were long stretches of grey coloured, very sharp stones. One of these tore a gaping hole in the side wall of our rear, passenger side tyre, forcing us to drive 300km or so on a sometimes very stony road with no spare tyre - this was quite a nervous time! Every private vehicle on this road carries at least two spare tyres, and we think the rental 4WDs should as well. We'll see what happens when we suggest that to Apollo.

The side tracks off the main road are notably worse than the Gibb. The roads to Gorges, or to Mt Elizabeth Station, are generally a degree narrower and rougher. Many of these tracks are not trivial, being up to 50km long. Even El Questro appears to maintain a policy of not improving the tracks on its property. The track to El Questro Gorge, for example, was a rugged affair definitely requiring 4WD. Even the track to our private campsite, Wren, was really rough and included a dry, very rocky, creek crossing. The hideous road to our dingy cruise on the Chamberlain River featured a very rough river crossing, and a really rugged rocky section which seemed to encourage all the young 4WD heros.

A lot of people travelling the Gibb, take the long excursion up to Kalumburu. Up there and back adds at least 600km to the trip, more if you do the obligitory side trips to the Mitchell Plateau. Even before we left Sydney, we had decided we did not have time to do this section of road, but we have spoken to many who have, or who will, and by all reports, it's a much rougher proposition than the Gibb River Rd (it crosses the Gibb River too!).

18 June, 2007

Into Broome, connectivity again

Monday, our dinner in Derby last night was at the Boab Inn hotel, a Sunday roast, which was excellent. Lots of vegies which we fell upon, as our diet had not included them of late.

We drove into Broome today, a couple of hours from Derby on a sealed road. Lots of road trains tho, 4 trailers long boring down the road. Broome has really grown in the few years since we have been here, it is a very vibrant town, unlike some of the others we have been thru. They have a lot of new roads around the town, very good planning, but our Navman is totally lost!

Luckily we got into the caravan park out at Cable Beach, we had thought Broome might be full, which it is, but the park is very big so got in ok. The vans are slotted in side by side, and we find it quite entertaining looking at all the "rigs". We are in a lovely street, a lot of the people look like they are here for the winter, and even have fairy lights twinkling away, and pot plants. No dogs here, but some folk have birds in cages. I'm afraid we are the gypsies, as we do not even have a carpet outside our door, or an annexe, or a garage for the car which most people have.

Our mobile phones work in Broome, the first time we have had a signal since we left Broome. Also, on the way into Broome we found ABC radio on the car radio, the first signal for a long time. And to boot, last night in Derby, Clare was able to watch Grey's Anatomy on our portable TV, with rabbits' ears perched precariously on the bonnet.

The water at Cable Beach is very beautiful, so blue (at high tide anyway), and the rocks so red.

We ate at the Old Zoo Cafe tonight, an old haunt from our visit several years ago. It's great to experience fine dining again.

Doing this blog tonight, we can hear the waves of the Indian Ocean . . .

17 June, 2007

Thoughts on Campsites

Being non-campers, non-caravanners, and non-4WDers, we didn't really know what to expect at campsites.

First of all, there is the power/no power dimension. Since our rented Apollo campervan has a 240v power inlet, getting a powered site is important for convenience, but knowing where we were going, we did not expect powered sites to be common. The briefing where we rented the vehicle spooked us a little, because young Brett warned us that the van engine would not charge the "house" battery, which runs the fridge, very well, and we should use a powered site after 2 or 3 days. Well, we went 7 nights in a row without a powered site, and frankly, the house battery and van fridge held up quite well. We guess the good mileage we did many days helped the battery recover quite well.

Commercial campsites in towns tend to be powered, but the really attractive national park and wilderness sites (El Questro, Bell Gorge, Windjana Gorge) never do, and neither did the campground at Mt Elizabeth Station. We had powered site at Victoria River Roadhouse. Unpowered sites sometimes manage noise, by specifying times that generators can be used (for those who have them, e.g. El Questro) or by dividing the campground into "quiet" and "generators" areas (Windjana Gorge).

Some campsites allocate spots, others do not. With a motorhome as we have, non-allocated sites can be a problem, because you can't really leave anything behind to maintain a claim on a good site. Generally, with non-allocated sites, it's a first in best dressed approach, but this works fine if the camping area is not too crowded. We managed to get the same good spot two nights in a row at Windjana Gorge. At Wyndham, the powered sites were laid out with kerb and guttering, but the manager there lets you go and choose the site you like (and he cooks you Barra and chips for dinner too, if you like).

Allocated sites are booked out like motel rooms at most commercial town campgrounds, you get a site number, and you can freely drive in and out of that site. Trouble is, the commercial campgrounds tend to have small sites, close together, just like our friend Jack said he experienced in New Zealand. We actually paid for a site on the lake in Kununurra, and abandoned it because it was so crowded, and moved on to the next town, Wyndham, for a much more relaxed location. A tag system was used for the few private sites (about 12) at Bell Gorge, and we were very lucky to get one. We drove in at about 4pm and caught a lady returning her tag to the board. This was a miracle! They must have changed their minds about staying overnight, because the tags are put out at 7:00am, and are usually all gone soon after. We were also lucky at El Questro, although we orchestrated that luck by following advice and arriving there at about 9:30am. The site "Wren" we got was fantastic, highly recommended to anyone.

Most campsites we have stayed at have hot showers. Some, like El Questro's, are 2km down the road from our private campsite. But at Bell Gorge, the showers were 10km down the road from the private sites. And at Windjana Gorge, the showers were cold water only, but it was so hot there, that a cooling shower was very appropriate. Some campers don't like cold showers - we saw one guy rig up a heat exchanger and pump to warm up water real time for his wife, and others used solar heated hot water.

We have been very impressed with the quality of the toilets we have found. You expect clean flushing toilets at commercial sites, but we also found these at really remote places like Bell Gorge and Windjana Gorge. At El Questro, there was an "Eco-Loo" near our private site which was a high tech above ground modern looking contraption using no water, but was clean and odour free. We have been warned not to expect any such luxury in the Bungle Bungles when we get there!

End of the Gibb River Rd

Sunday, Mike was sad today as we drove the last of the Gibb River Road, into Derby. We left our lovely camp site, where a Bower Bird had built a bower,complete with a garden of white pebbles, and are in a very busy caravan park in Derby for the night. The sites are a good size, if a bit close, and next door there is a small caravan which is being towed by a Morris Minor. However we now have power, and have done 2 loads of washing, which dried in a minute. Expecting warmer nights now we are near the coast again.We have had a walk round the town, which is trying hard and Mike had a chat with a local man Andrew, who was selling an Aboriginal art work, which we had to decline to buy. Off to the pub for dinner.

Tunnel Creek

Saturday, this morning we drove 40km down the road to Tunnel Creek, which is an interesting place. It is a cavern about 1.7 ks long, with a creek running thru. Bad Points are (a) you have to wade thru waist deep water in the dark, (b) there are things in the water, crocs the biggest, fish the smallest. Good Points (a) the water was mostly knee deep, (b) we had our Petzel lamps and (c) we saw no crocs. At the end of the tunnel, we found some aboriginal rock art.

It was a magical place, very cool and I am glad we went there.

Stayed in the same camp site at Windjana again, the showers are cold but extremely pleasant after a hot day. We watch a few short films from TropFest every night, on our portable TV/DVD.

Technology Failure

Friday, the drive from Bell Gorge to Windjana Gorge uneventful. Has lunch at a totally unexpected "Snack Stop" on the Lennard River. The man at the snack shack, was a character and showed us a big croc basking on the river bank, thru his telescope. He lived very simply there with his little shop and garden.

The Gibb Road was very good this stretch, with lots of sealed bits. Every one drives as fast as they can, we are glad of an uneventful day, no dramas.

The nights are very cold, Ben, down to 3, so we are sleeping in the thermals. Mornings are lovely, and arvos are HOT. We have an air con in the cabin and one in the camper which we do not need yet, which is just as well becasue we haven't seen a powered site for a week.(This note for Deb).

Very impressed with the little private clearing you get to camp in, in some places, usually with a fire place, and close to a river. We have had lovely nights with a fire and a carpet of stars above. The toilets are very impressive, perfectly clean, flushing toilets. Amazing.

Have seen correllas and lovely finches today, as well as a lot of crocs in Windjana Gorge.

A technological failure delayed updating the blog. Our inverter, converting 12vDC to 240vAC has mysteriously failed, and we can't charge the computer's battery without it. For other appliances (e.g. the RBGAN satellite modem, our portable TV) we have 12v chargers, but alas, not the computer. We will not be able to update our blog until we can recharge the PC at the next powered site. We don't like our chances of replacing this inverter in Broome.

14 June, 2007

Swimming Holes

Thurs. Well you will know who is doing the blog today. We got the new tyre ok, a nice man named Neville a bush mechanic fixed it for us at the Imintji Road House, where we had lunch while we waited.

We called in at Galvans Gorge, which was beaut. Mike had a swim in the very deep pool at the bottom of a waterfall there. The Gibb River Rd is not too bad, we are being very careful now, as we do not want to buy too many tyres. The roads in to the Gorges are terrible, and the tracks to the Gorges are very hard, down river beds on rocks. My foot is suffering a bit, it is so rough. There are no tracks people just walk any where.

The gums are all flowering, and the native grevillia are beautiful. Just as I adjust to thongs in the showers, we get to camp for the next few nights where there are no showers. Upon arriving at Bell's Gorge this afternoon, we went straight to the river and had a great bathe. We have had no power for the last 5 nights, but the blog gets out, that is remarkable. No radio, no phones since we left Darwin a week ago.

13 June, 2007

Explosions and Flat Tyres

Tuesday, we chilled out in the morning and lazed around our ultra-private campsite. There are rapids in the Pentecost River near our site with running water and pools just perfect for an al-fresco bath, which was greatly enjoyed.

In the afternoon, we did the Explosion Gorge tour, led by ranger Del, a self-confessed "horse chick" who delighted in flinging a Land Rover down the worst 4WD track imaginable (that is how the tour was promoted, take a ride along a track you would never consider taking your own 4WD on). Several other "lads" did try the road for themselves though. That was followed by a cruise in dingys on the Chamberlain River gorge, a truly spectacular waterhole. Finally, back up the horror track to Branko's Lookout, amazing vistas of El Questro, accompanied by champagne and nibbles. We splurged and ate at the ElQ Steakhouse for dinner.

Wednesday, reluctantly departing El Questro, we hit the Gibb River Rd again. The road is a pretty reasonable gravel highway, but what makes it a 4WD only route are the river crossings. The biggest was the Pentecost River, but there were many others.

We had no troubles in our Hilux until we had a flat tyre, very flat, totally destroyed on a sharp rock. Some South Aussies helped us change the wheel in our unfamiliar vehicle, and we then drove ultra-carefully to tonight's resting place, camping at Mt Elizabeth Homestead, some 150km without a spare tyre on a rough dirt road. Same tomorrow, another 150km before we can hopefully get a new tyre at a bush mechanic's garage!

11 June, 2007

Emma Gorgeous

Monday, after a beautifully quiet night at our campsite Wren at El Questro, a little cool towards dawn, after breakfast we set out for Zebedie Springs. This is popular with the tours, because it's only 750m easy walk. The Springs are a wonderous series of small pools in a cascading creek - it's very shady but what makes this place unique is that the springs are hot, so it was most relaxing to laze in them, unfortunately with lots of other people. We were lucky enough to get 10 minutes by ourself in the top, hottest spring!

Then we drove to Emma Gorge, unfortunately not a long enough drive to fully recharge the batteries in the computer. This was entirely different to El Questro Gorge yesterday, because it is very exposed to the sun, and for 90% of the walk it was blisteringly hot. The degree of walking difficulty was "blue" (same as El Questro Gorge, moderate on the El Questro scale), but we found it quite difficult. You had to clamber over boulders virtually the whole way. The creek crossings were easier. At the top was a shaded, very cool, pool, which again, we were lucky enough to have to ourself for 10 minutes, before another mob came along. This was surprising, as we had passed an entire bus full of people walking back down as we clambered up.

A hot walk back down the hill, but we rewarded ourselves with a fine lunch at the plush Emma Gorge Restaurant, before driving back to our secret little Wren spot at El Questro (about 30km).

10 June, 2007

On the Gibb River Road !

Sunday, and at last we have reached the Gibb River Rd. So far, it's been a "normal" dirt road, with the creek crossings mostly dry. In the El Questro wilderness area, there were a lot of creeks to cross, and we now know why it is strictly 4 wheel drive territory.

At El Questro, campers have to choose between "public sites" clustered together and close to amenities, or "private sites", very secluded, but not close to bathrooms. We opted for the latter - we're at "Wren", a beautiful spot on the Pentecost River, nothing but us and nature in sight or in sound. It's a serious 4WD road just to get to Wren, no power, no water, and best of all, no neighbours.

Today we walked El Questro Gorge, one of a dozen in this area. About an hour up to a beautiful swimming hole (which we utilised), but one of the toughest, roughest walks we have done. The gorge is stunning and narrow, steep sides and rain forest in the bottom half, with beautiful ferns on the walls, and a pretty creek to cross many times. We got wet feet. The road to the base of the gorge was another minefield of soft bulldust and numerous creeks to cross. Our Toyota Hilux handled all of these hazards with aplomb, although Mike is still getting the hang of selecting which 4WD gear to be in, there are 3 to choose from.

Looking forward to our first night at this ever so quiet bush site

09 June, 2007

Into WA

At Vic River, we met a solo bike rider doing Round Oz on Hwy1, raising money for Cystic Fibrosis. He started in Sydney, and will be half way (4 months) when he gets to Broome. He is emulating someone who did this ride in 1902, and his bike has no gears!!!! His schedule is determined by where he can get a meal, as he has no support vehicle, and camps out every night. He does about 100km a day, he said, but he knew his next leg would be tough, because from Timber Creek to Kununurra, there's not a single thing, he feared. Today we saw that he was right. This note is especially for Alex.

After a good but cool night at Vic River, we set out for WA. Got spooked when tried to book at 3 campsites in Kununurra, and they were all full, so we then decided to go to Keep River NP, and then changed our mind and went for Wyndham WA where we easily found a quiet and spacious and pleasant powered site. We saw the sites at Kununurra, on the way through, and they were just too crowded anyway, so we're glad to have missed them. Tonight we had excellent Barramundi & chips, cooked by the campground owner.

The border crossing was uneventful. The quarantine guard was impressed that we actually knew the rules, and our search was very friendly and superficial.

Kununurra itself was depressing just like Katherine. Wyndham is also a very tired old town, but with a spectacular lookout, showing 5 rivers and how much tide flows here.

08 June, 2007

On the Road . . .

Last night we were both exhausted, from the dry heat of Darwin, the rigors of getting approved to rent our camper, and the trauma of provisioning it! So, we only went next door for dinner.

It turned out to be Char @ Admiralty, purported to be "Darwin's newest fine dining" restaurant. It was a great choice - we sat outside under an ancient frangipani, watched a delightful sunset, and were treated to excelent and unusual food and exceptional, really exceptional, service, without any attitude.

Today, we slept in, so Mike missed his intended run. It was our plan to have a long day driving, and we set out at about 9:30am. Not much exciting on the way. The Stuart Highway south was populated by grey nomads and huge road trains. Only occasional yobbos in utes threatened the posted 130km/hr speed limit - we understand that any speed limit at all is an innovation in the Northern Territory, and was strongly opposed.

We stopped at Adelaide River to look at what's supposed to be the only War Cemetery in Australia. It contains the graves of servicemen killed in the Japanese air raids on Darwin in WW2. Like all war graves, kept beautifully, and very moving to visit.
We filled up (diesel) at Katherine, before getting a bit lost looking for the turn off to the Victoria Hwy west towards Kunnunurra. Navman pointed us correctly, but there was absolutely no signposting so we didn't believe him at first. Katherine was depressing - a very strong aboriginal problem is evident there, no suitable cafe was apparent, so we didn't hang around, and had lunch at a rest-stop.

Overnighting at Victoria River campsite, our first night in this van, but we have a powered site which will keep the aircon going & the fridge cold.

07 June, 2007

Made it to Darwin

Well, we made it to Darwin safely, Qantas were a little late, but no other dramas. We are now in range of the satelite modem, and the fact that the blog is updated is proof that it works! I could've used the Bigpond wireless from here, but I wanted to test the modem before we go out of mobile phone range.

Darwin is hot, fine & very steamy. We picked up our rented 4WD camper today. It is a Toyota HiLux ute with a camper thingy on the back tray. It's been well used - it is a 2005 model with 140,000km on the clock. In good shape, but the wear and tear of its life on the Aussie outback roads show. The air con works well, which is just as well, because Clare is already wilting in this tropical heat.

Apollo are the rental company, and they are very well organised in briefing you about the vehicle and how to use it, and they show you a comprehensive DVD before they hand over the vehicle. What they are really well organised at is extracting your money, but we expected that, and we knew what the cost would be!

So tomorrow we set out for Victoria River. Stay tuned for further updates.

PS, I have to learn how to update this blog in Dutch, because the satellite system operates out of Holland, and obviously, Blogspot thinks we've suddenly become Dutch speakers! So I hope I publish it OK!!!