Around Australia 46

The plan was to get to the airport in plenty of time to set the boys up in a corner to watch the airplanes while I got Mom and Uncle S and brought them to the boys for a surprise!  Well, the best laid plans…..we hit major traffic on the freeway out to the airport (forgotten what traffic can be like in a city!) so we got there after the plane had already landed and our new arrivals were collecting their bags.  Kia was completely overwhelmed by the surprise of seeing his beloved and much missed Mamani – he just kept clinging to her and even shed tears of shock and joy!

It was an all too quick visit (of course) – Uncle S (visiting Sydney along with the rest of Dad’s family) stayed only a  couple of days, but we can’t thank him enough for the huge effort of crossing the country just to be with us! He had such tremendous patience with the kids and went along with all our plans and it was great to spend some time chatting about our family back in England.  We spent one day at Rottnest Island – beautiful island paradise, but really not recommended for a day trip. It was a hugely expensive ferry ride over (and extremely rough and nausea-inducing to boot!) and the island is basically a collection of lovely beaches and coves perfect for all sorts of water-play (fishing, swimming, snorkelling) – so you need at least a few days to explore them at your leisure.  But November is way too cold to get in the water anyway!  We did see quite a few quokkas though!

A much more relaxed day was spent at magnificent Kings Park (another place where all the hype is actually true) at the Synergy play area.  There are other playground areas within the park, but we couldn’t drag the kids away from the little lake with baby ducks and the dinosaur statues! And their playtime with other kids meant Mom and I could do some catching up with all the gossip from home.  Of course the weather was flawless! We did end up “dumping” the kids with Mom a few times (so easy to fall back into the old routines) – one day was spent in Freemantle where I visited the Freemantle Prison (very interesting tour and story about this prison which was built in colonial times and only closed its doors in the 1990s), Mike ran around doing some errands and the boys kept Mom busy running around the playground near the marina.

On our last day together, Mom and the boys caught the ferry across from Perth to the zoo – apparently it was even better than Taronga Zoo!  I spent the day at the WA Museum (the main exhibit area about the history of Swan River colony was closed that day, but they had a wonderful Indigenous history area including a great section about the Stolen Generation) and Michael got to spend some quality alone time at a 4WD show. It was sad as always to say bye to our beautiful Mamani, but at least this time it will only be for a month! Kia did a great job holding it together ;o)).

We spent the better part of the next day at the Rockingham foreshore. Being a Saturday it was packed full of local families enjoying the sunshine.  It was too cold for our boys to venture into the water, but they were happy with sandplay and time in the playground. We always need a couple of quiet days to recover from the excitement and whirlwind of a family visit!  The next day we spent a lovely few hours on a beautiful sunny day in Mandurah walking along the lovely marina canals (the kids’ new obsession are houseboats which are basically any boat that you can sleep in and there were plenty moored in the marina and even a few for sale) and having lunch on the waterfront.  Mandurah has a very laid back (and expensive) feel to it and we were sorry to leave it so quickly.

Kia was unwell the next day, so we all had a very quiet day inside and gave him a whole day (!!) to recover! The next day we drove out to Cape Naturaliste and did a 4km loop walk to the various lookouts.  Absolutely gorgeous!  But flies out in force again which always dampens our enthusiasm for the outdoors. Kia and Mike had gone ahead and Tiran and I had to bush-bash our way back to the road when we lost sight of the minimal track markers – Tiran made sure to tell Daddy that it was him that showed Mom the way out of the bush (yeah right!!). Although a few people had seen some whales off one of the points, we weren’t so lucky this time.  We drove down to Eagle Bluff beach for lunch – what an absolutely idyllic spot.  The water actually wasn’t too cold, but we had to rush back to Busselton and our tour of the Underwater Observatory.

The jetty at Busselton really is something to see!  It’s nearly 2km long, with a train that runs the length of it and an underwater observatory at the end.  We arrived just in time for the train ride (with 30 seconds to spare) to take us for our tour in the observatory.  While interesting, it actually wasn’t necessary as all the information is displayed on boards throughout the place anyway.  The observatory descends 8 metres below the surface with massive windows on 3 different levels where an artifical reef exists along the pylons of the jetty.  Definitely not disappointed in the array of fish we saw, but the whole experience was over-priced ($75 for the family).  Kia and I opted to walk back along the jetty – another beautiful day and lots of people fishing (we saw one guy reeling in a fish that was chased all the way back by a cormorant – he nearly caught himself an easy dinner)!

I have to say I really wasn’t prepared to be so thoroughly enamoured with the southwest corner of WA!!

Around Australia 45

A second trip down to Geraldton, but this time we actually stayed and had a look around. The foreshore area is really lovely and by chance on the Sunday we arrived there was a sailboat race happening – we had no idea who was racing or who to cheer for, but it was a beautiful sight on the water! We visited the memorial to the HMAS Sydney – hands down the loveliest one I have ever seen. And we learned the story behind the WWII tragedy at the WA Museum Geraldton which is fantastic – apparently the ship got duped by a German warship masquerading as a Dutch merchant ship and opening fire at close range. We could easily have spent longer in the museum, but ran out of time.

Luckily, we ran into a lovely family (J, A, M, O and R) we had met at Warroora Station a few weeks ago – their daughter (R) gamely tried teaching Kia and Tiran the basic rules of cricket! They were quite happy to be smacking a ball with a bat anyway. The next day we headed to Southgate Beach and the famous sand dunes – they were quite high indeed. Kia fearlessly scaled the highest one and had a few runs, including a tandem one with Michael which led to a face full of sand for poor Daddy (see the pictures); Tiran took it much slower (as it’s his way), but he did stay much cleaner at least! Kia had a good stack on his 6th run and the ensuing tantrum signalled the end of sandboarding for the day.

We spent a couple of nights at a free camp spot along the coast called Cliff Heads. We had heard good things about this place from other travellers, but to tell you the truth it was a huge disappointment (for us anyway). The beach was completely covered in dried seaweed (so not the nicest smell or even a good spot to go for a walk along the beach), the seas were rough, it was so windy Mike had to hide the BBQ in the bushes to cook dinner, and of course when the wind stopped, the flies swarmed! Maybe we just got there at a bad time of the year?? It was a good excuse to catch up on some blogging anyway.

The next 2 nights were spent at an absolutely beautiful spot called Sandy Cape Recreational Area. We found a great camp spot right next to the beach and had a very lazy couple of days (it was actually a relief not to have any sights to see or things to experience for a change, so we could just relax). Although there was a swimming area of the beach nearby, it was way too cold for THIS family to get in the water! But we saw lovely dolphins swimming by in the mornings and afternoons. And the boys had their first close sighting of a tiger snake (holy crap!) when they were walking around the dunes – thank goodness they listened to the advice they learned at the reptile show at Coffs Harbour: when you see a snake, you freeze! Well done boys!

We were spending a couple of nights with friends M & L near Lancelin, so we stopped in at the Pinnacles on our way down. They are certainly a fascinating phenomenon – sandstone fingers growing right out of the sand in clusters – but I wouldn’t really call them spectacular. The good thing is that there is a driving path all the way around so you can take the easy way around, which of course we did. Stopping at a lookout a few kilometers down the road, we spied a lovely beach and I suggested we take a closer look, which is how we happened across Wedge Settlement. This is a freehold settlement of ramshackle fishing shacks built by local “squatters” as holiday beach accommodation. Not particularly impressive in structure, however they do have a “hospital” (a small shack with a red cross, so I guess that qualifies) and even a helipad for emergencies. And Mike (along with 3 other tourists just checking things out) got talked into helping a resident move an extremely heavy cast iron oven into his hut. Beautiful beach though!

And then a wonderful weekend of getting utterly spoiled by our lovely friends at their farm! We can’t thank them enough for their hospitality! L had even thoughtfully got out some of her son’s old toys, including a big box of Lego which kept the boys happily occupied for hours. We actually did nothing but eat, drink, be merry and relax – and to stretch out in an actual house and have a shower with continuous running water were wonderful – funny the things you miss when you don’t have them! It was really sad to say goodbye and we sincerely hope we see them again soon and be able to repay their kindness.

We checked into our caravan park in Freemantle (can’t believe we’ve made it all the way to Perth!) and spent an exceptional luncheon and afternoon at my manager’s house with the WA contingent of BMS. It was so fantastic to see them all again. It was perfect in every way and after 3 days non-stop feasting our clothes were straining at the seams!

All excited about seeing Mom and my uncle S from England tomorrow – we haven’t told the boys that Mamani is coming; can’t wait to see their faces when she shows up!!


Around Australia 44

We left Monkey Mia and explored further in the southern part of the Shark Bay Heritage Area. First stop was Ocean Park, which although quite a small attraction (with a big lagoon for the sharks and about 8 above water tanks for everything else) has the fabulous advantage of being run by marine biologists. So instead of a tour guide rattling off their litany, these guys actually knew what they were talking about and did so with great enthusiasm. Of course the boys’ favourite part was the shark feeding, but the whole thing was very interesting.

We camped one night at Eagle Bluff – although the weather wasn’t all that conducive to beach combing (very very windy and when the wind subsided for 20 seconds, a swarm of flies from all directions attacked!), the view from the boardwalk above was more than worth it. Such fabulously clear and shallow water – we easily spotted the sharks and sting rays swimming about lazily. We camped near the mouth of a creek, so the boys had safe shallow water and sand to play with – they very creatively set about re-creating the throng of marine animals we had seen over the past few days (sharks, dugongs, dolphins, rays).

After 3 days of lack-lustre debating, we finally decided to have a stab at reaching the western-most point of mainland Australia – Steep Point. We checked into Hamlin Station where we learned the true meaning of fly infestation – they were UNBELIEVABLE!! We arrived at lunchtime and the boys and I wouldn’t leave Optimus the rest of that very warm day for fear of swallowing some! A day trip to Steep Point (160km of dirt roads, sand tracks and some dune crossings) requires an early morning start and we were off just after 7am the next day. Mike and Ironhide did a great job on the dunes, some of which were pretty high and once we reached the coastline, the views were breathtaking!

After the obligatory pictures comemorating our success, we had a very crunchy lunch on the beach (it was another extremely windy day and despite sitting in our beach shelter which was covered with our mosquito net to keep out the fly infestation, and a tarp against the windier side, the sand still found its way in!). The boys had their compulsory go at fishing (it was never going to work with all that wind, but there’s no telling them that – especially Michael!) while I combed the beach for some lovely trochus shells. And then we decided since we had driven all this way, we should explore as many of the side tracks along the rugged coast as possible – so we checked out Thunder Bay (the crashing of the surf was indeed quite loud) and along a few more dunes down False Entrance followed by a VERY rough rocky ground towards the Zuytdorp Cliffs (which weren’t all that visible from that location).

It had been a few months since our last adventure, so providence decided we were long overdue. Returning along False Entrance Road (10km) towards Useless Loop (100km of corrugated dirt road back to sealed highway), we heard an all-too-familiar and stomach-churning grinding noise from the truck. A quick check under the truck confirmed that the power steering fluid was leaking (a problem we had thought had been fixed after an expensive day in Normanton). It was 4:30pm and as we had still had some daylight but no mobile phone reception, Mike bravely tromped through the bush across a couple of sand dunes (scraping bare legs and brushing off palm-sized orb spiders along the way) to reach a high spot. With the barest of signal available, he managed to contact the NRMA Premiumcare office only to be advised that towing was not covered on unsealed roads (and we were at this stage 105km from the nearest sealed road).

Braving his way back across the wild country (and after some serious venting), he decided to try and fix the problem as best he could to get us back to civilization. There was a sizable tear in the hose, and despite abundant lashings of gaffa tape (oh if only we had bought rescue tape when we had the chance!) the steering fluid oil dripped right out. It was by this stage 6:30pm: the sun had set and darkness descending rapidly, the boys were hungry and a bit scared from the lack of confidence their worried parents were exhibiting and we were literally in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! We decided to drive out and deal with any mechanical damage we may cause the truck later.

Now the really STUPID design of this truck is that if the power steering goes, so do the hydraulic brakes (give a genius award to the designer!!). So not only had standard right-hand turns become 3-point turns, Mike had to brake by down-shifting the gears! We knocked into a moronic kangaroo who just stared at us as we screeched to a halt in front of him (he was ok and hopped away) and got very lucky that the numerous rabbits along the way knew their way around cars. We arrived back at camp exhausted but elated at 10pm (a day trip to remember indeed)!!

The next day was Melbourne Cup Day – the very kind and resourceful camp manager (J) and another fellow camper (K) spent a couple of hours in the morning with Michael fixing the power steering hose (temporarily until we get to Geraldton) and we had a lovely Melbourne Cup lunch to watch the race (what an amazing finish – by a nostril!). The next day we bid farewell to Shark Bay (and the damn flies!) and headed into Kalbarri which is an absolutely lovely little seaside town and very quiet in early November. We were in the process of filling up our water tanks at one of the foreshore facilities when Mike noticed the hose was leaking again. Spent the next half an hour finding a hose specialist in Geraldton who fit us in first thing the next morning, so we packed up and continued driving to Geraldton – a very long day of driving not appreciated by the boys!

The next day was spent in Geraldton: an hour and a half in the morning at Pertek fixing the hose, then to the information centre for maps and information only to find the hose leaking again (already!!) so back to Pertek for another hour, then just lazing around on the foreshore near a very windswept beach before driving all the way back to Kalbarri (talk about exhausting)! And to make things worse, we had our first road-kill casualty of the trip – a horrible feeling to thump over the small and utterly stupid kangaroo!

We camped at Murchison Station on a very sandy area which made levelling out quite difficult, but it was lovely and quiet and the property itself had the most magnificent views of the nearby mountains. Our afternoon at Rainbow Jungle was absolutely wonderful – a massive display of just about every sort of parrot you can imagine, including macaws from South America. Tiran’s favourite part was walking through the huge open aviary looking for the beautiful feathers (I think we found about 30!) for his collection. Kia made friends with cockie in the front cage and they put on a song and dance show for us.

We then spent a couple of hours driving to the various lookouts along the coastal cliffs and spotted a few whales breaching and tail slapping – the sight never ceases to amaze and excite us! The next day we took the boat out on the Murchison River to give the boys a bit of fishing time. There are so many sandbanks to be negotiated along the way that trawling was quite difficult. We then dragged the boys along to Kalbarri National Park to see the gorges and Nature’s Window (absolutely gorgeous!) but the flies were pretty bad , so I left the 3 boys in the car and did the walk to Z-Bend on my own. I think we have all reached gorge-saturation point now!

Around Australia 43

This was the first time on our trip that I was actually depressed to be leaving a location – we all could have easily spent another week or two in the beautiful Exmouth area! We dragged ourselves away and drove to Coral Bay, stopping at Kairis Seafood for some prawns and bugs (Tiran really wanted to try some crabs but none available) and pictures of the Big Prawn. Coral Bay is pretty tiny and built completely around tourism – but you just never tire of the colour of that water!!!! It is totally impossible to resist snorkelling (unless you’re Tiran of course) – the coral in the bay is very close to the shore, but some of it was bleached which was sad to see. Still plenty of colourful fish to see.

At 3:30pm was the daily fish feeding spectacle – the fish can tell the time of course so they congregate at the appointed place to be fed handfuls of fish pellets. A couple of them were nearly as big as Tiran and they really go for the food and whatever else happens to be near it, including your toes (had to bury them in the sand to keep them)! It was great fun, especially the squeals of laughter from all the kids gathered around.

We spent the next 3 nights at 14 Mile Beach at Warroora Station, an absolutely massive sheep station (these things are measured in thousands of square kms) with a good amount of ocean front land set aside for camping. By chance the caretakers had left that day, so we slipped into their oceanfront camp spot – very nice indeed! The first day’s boating saw Michael land a very nice sized spangled emperor – such a gorgeous fish, it was sad to eat it! Tiran actually ate half himself (he has declared it his favourite so far). And we experienced something we hadn’t felt in over 4 months – rain! Well it was more a spittle of about 12 drops of rain, but still…..forgotten even the concept of rain!

It’s sheep shearing season around the stations, so we wondered over to the homestead where the travelling shearing crew (6 shearers and 4 assistants including a wool grader) were busy getting through the hard work. Talk about back-breaking work! The kids loved the little lambs hanging in the paddocks waiting for their de-fluffed mothers to return – sadly sometimes the separation becomes permanent and the abandoned lambs die (saddest thing I’ve seen!). We followed that up with a snorkel on beautiful Elle’s Beach (got so close to getting Tiran in the water, but still no luck). It was amazing having the beach all to ourselves – like your own little piece of paradise.

I made us backtrack to Coral Bay to visit the shark nursery (we’d been so enthralled with snorkelling last time I had completely forgotten about it) – about a 1km walk from Bill’s Bay is Skeleton Bay which is a very large, very shallow lagoon where reef sharks come to breed from November each year. We couldn’t get too close to the sharks – they swam away as you neared – but it was a lovely sight to see anyway. I was really annoyed we hadn’t brought the snorkelling gear with us because if you lay in the shallow water with your mask in the water, they approached close enough for a good look.

We spent one night at Point Quobba near the blowholes – lovely area, but it was late afternoon and cloudy when we arrived, so we didn’t really get to enjoy it. The next day we drove the short distance to Carnarvon and picked up the Gascoyne Food Trail brochure – all the tourist magazines had made it sound as if there were fresh food stalls every 2km, but in reality there were perhaps half a dozen plantations that sold direct to the public (gotta be careful not to believe everything you read!). We did the drive around and picked up a few things – some fabulous strawberries (best since Tasmania actually), corn, beans, paprika and some free-range eggs too. We had intended to experience One Mile Jetty, but since we had to pay for the privilege of walking on it, we decided to view it from the shore instead (not all that impressive really).

There was a big storm forecast for the area which thankfully didn’t really eventuate – got more rain, which is really putting a strain on the wonderful bubble we had built around us (where weather hasn’t really been a factor of consideration in our day to day planning). Spent one night at a lovely lookout rest area and then drove into Shark Bay Heritage Area. We stopped first at Hamelin Pool to see the stromatolites – now they aren’t much to look at, but much respect must be shown to the lumps of cyanobacteria (clumped together with lots of sand and sediment) as it is through their mighty efforts that the world was oxygenated sufficiently to allow life to evolve. The stromatolites in this area are only about 2000 years old, but they are the descendents of those from 3 billion years ago. Next stop was Shell Beach – an entire beach made up entirely of very small bivalve shells – a bit hard on the feet! I had no idea shell grit has so many uses: road base, cemented together to make brick-like blocks for building, even as a calcium additive to chicken feed (apparently strengthens the hardness of their eggs).

A quick stop at Denham to get some information and to see the Shark Bay Discovery Centre (what a complete waste of time and money!) and then off to Monkey Mia resort which was totally booked out for the long weekend (luckily Michael had booked us a camp spot about 3 hours prior!). We met up with new friends P & K and their 3 kids for a sunset drink on the beach while the kids played happily together for a couple of hours. The next morning was dolphin feeding time – the lovely bottle-nose residents come by to feed 3 times during the morning, starting around 8am. There must have been nearly 200 people on the beach for the first feeding, but thankfully reduced dramatically for the next one around half an hour later and Kia got picked to feed them. This of course led to a very disgruntled Tiran – we negotiated that he could chose a movie to watch that night and have his favourite dinner (chicken nuggets); he was so happy with this arrangement that he actually refused to stick around for the last feeding in the hopes of being chosen! Actually the highlight of the very commercial and overcrowded endeavour was the viewing of the newest addition – a 2-day old baby dolphin; wanted to grab him out of the water and cuddle him to death!

We then took our own boat out dugong spotting – these things are pretty hard to spot. Luckily K had gone on a cruise the day before and gave us some tips on what to look out for – basically scan the water surface for a blob of brown! We only managed to get close to a couple of them (and I couldn’t get a good picture from so low in the water) but we spotted around 8. The dolphins came frolicking around a couple of times as well which was beautiful. Not really sure what we think of Monkey Mia – it’s certainly a beautiful spot and the sea-life spotting was great, but would we put it on our must-do or return-again list? Probably not.

Around Australia 42

Our drive from Dampier to Exmouth was VERY long – we hadn’t intended to do it all in one day, but as we head inland along the highway, the temperature soared to 37degrees and wouldn’t budge even at 4pm. So we reasoned it was at least cool in the car, and kept driving. We reached Exmouth around 6pm and not wanting to fork out the ridiculous caravan park charges just for an overnight sleep, we continued toward Cape Range National Park. They have recently changed their “booking” system (whereby you queue up at the gate house from 6am and wait until someone vacates their campspot so you can get in) so that 4 of their camp areas can now be booked on-line (which we had done a few days before). We “camped” at the front of the gate house that night – a big no-no, but we were too exhausted after our 500km driving session to care at that point.

We spent 5 glorious days at Tulki Campgrounds – it was everything we had been told, researched, hoped for and more! If you see no other part of Australia, PLEASE visit this area and snorkel Ningaloo Reef – it’s exactly like they show in all those underwater documentaries, except that you are there doing it yourself. Our only regret was that Tiran just wouldn’t come snorkelling – we begged, pleaded, attempted bribery, promised him that Dad would be holding him the whole time, but not even the prospect of seeing the amazing fish we kept describing to him would nudge him over his fear of deep water. Since it’s a given we’ll be returning here in the future we feel certain he will get to experience it for himself soon enough.

Our stay started off on a bad note with Mike nearly blowing up the entire solar panel system when he tried to attach an extra panel given to us by another camper – this of course led to not only a bad mood, but a good couple of hours of work trying to fix the problem (which thankfully seems to have been resolved). But we made up for it over the next few days. Each of the campgrounds in the National Park have their own Camp Hosts (ours were just lovely) – we had happy hour every day around 5:30pm and generally a very social bunch of campers. Kia adopted a couple of the older ladies as Mamani-substitutes – he’s missing her terribly!

The zodiac was taken out at Tulki beach; we went out about 1.5km from the shore – the water was like glass. You could see EVERYTHING, even the tiny blue tropical coral fish. We saw a huge sea turtle (it’s their mating and nesting season) and a shark as large as the boat that we chased a bit in an attempt to video it. Still some debate about the species – reef shark vs tiger shark – it was thrilling either way. We anchored on a bit of sand amongst the coral and I had my first go at fishing and hooked a couple of beautiful coral snapper within a few minutes (threw the first one back, but the second was big enough to eat). Mike went out 2 more times that day and added to our fish haul so it was fish fingers for dinner.

We had a look around a few of the other campsites (for future reference and choices) and made the mistake of driving onto the sand at Mesa without deflating our tyres – yup got stuck good and proper (see the pictures for just HOW good and proper). Kia was an absolute champion, using our MaxTrax recovery gear to help Daddy dig us out! And we visited a turtle beach – during mating season they can be found along quite a few of the more remote beaches. We spotted around 30 or so at this beach, with the exhausted females escaping from the very persistent males and coming ashore to rest before the next onslaught! We didn’t approach them as the Visitor Centre had advised that if startled they would return to the sea and in their exhausted state are in danger of drowning. We were only about 10 metres away from them anyway which was close enough for a good view. We went back to the beach on a couple of occasions at night time and witnessed the females digging a nest – it takes a good 30-40 minutes and even then it’s not a guarantee of success. All the ones we saw weren’t happy with the “vibe” of their nest and moved along to try again – we were too tired to hang around though!

The drift snorkel at Turquoise Bay is fantastic! We were a little worried about the strength of the current carrying us down (and being able to kick across it to get back to shore), but it was unfounded; no problems at all! Kia had an absolute blast and even discovered talking under water through his snorkel so he and Daddy could converse as they floated along. It is another world altogether down there – the fish are so oblivious to your presence so you feel like a fly on the fall as you watch them go about their little lives! So many colours! We had cloudy days, but when the sun shone through it lighted up the view with such brilliance. We missed out snorkelling the Oyster Stacks – gotta save something new for next time!

Out of peak season, Exmouth is a peaceful town. We spent 2 nights in a caravan park there – our main mission was whale hunting (with a camera of course). Now the zodiac is very very handy – it’s light and packs down very well, it fits the 4 of us (just barely), doesn’t need a boat trailer and can be launched very easily from the beach. What it ain’t got is a lot of power and speed. On our first outing we spotted 2 different groups of whales (2-3 animals each) breaching and tail slapping, but try as we might, we couldn’t get close enough. The following day, after yet another fruitless chase, we were finally rewarded with a close sighting of a family unit (2 adults and a baby) – we got a fabulous view of their tail slapping show! It was sooooooooo cool – voted one of our favourite experiences so far.

Around Australia 41

The area along the coast between Port Hedland and Onslow is often by-passed by travellers – most head south to Karijini then west to Tom Price and to Onslow from there. As it would be unlikely we would travel all the way up here in the near future (or ever, who knows?) we decided we should visit while we could. It’s all about mining around here – Karratha being the major town centre and Dampier the main port for shipping of the mined material. I wouldn’t call Karratha “big”, but it was astonishingly busy – all to do with the enormous mining industries (iron ore, salt and gas) in the area.

We stayed a couple of nights in a caravan park (thank goodness for those vouchers we got when we bought the 5th wheeler) and spent the ENTIRE first day spring cleaning Optimus (I just couldn’t stand the dirt anymore) – it was a necessary exhaustion, but for a few days afterwards the poor kids were very confused about why Mom suddenly barked at them everytime they came near the door with sand or dirt on their feet! The next day was spent mostly doing all the other chores – shopping, laundry, gas refills and another car service for Ironhide. There was a great playground at the caravan park built on a huge sandpit and the kids made some new friends and spent ages building mines for their mini-dump trucks. B & T and their little tribe of 6 children joined us for an outside viewing of “Cars 2” (which the kids hadn’t seen yet) while the adults had a good chat about all things travelling.

Our next stop was at a lovely camping area called Cleaverville Beach – Camps 5 and the sign out the front declare that it’s only open for camping from May to September, but a call to a friendly information centre revealed that the area isn’t locked or gated and there is no caretaker from October onwards, but due to cyclone season “officially” starting, they can’t really endorse camping. Basically do so at your own risk – so we did! We had heard quite a bit about the midges in the area, but we luckily chose a great spot and spotted not a one during our 5 night stay. We were joined there by a lovely Irish couple (H & M) we had met a few days earlier (who had brought over a whole bag of ice blocks for the boys!) and a family with a boy Kia’s age, so we were all set socially!

Cleaverville was the perfect camp spot. We were only 50m from the beach, at one end of which was a lovely large rock pool perfect for a swim or a snorkel at high tide. There were long walks as well, looking in the numerous small rock pools all along the beach for all manner of sea creatures – huge sea cucumbers, nudibranchs, a few good size octupuses (one of which was caught and cooked – Tiran loved it!), and some enormous black-lipped clams. There was a boat ramp on the other side of the camp area which led to a series of mangrove creeks – lovely boating along here, but unfortunately not much luck catching fish.

We spent a day exploring the other towns in the area: checked out (from afar) the huge port and loading facilities at Cape Lambert, spent the morning snorkelling in the amazing clear waters of Point Samson beach (no coral around but a couple of turtles and some lovely bream that Kia had fun chasing) and after lunch explored the historical town of Cossack with its restored buildings of a century ago (the display and information about the area in the old gaol was excellent). When we returned to camp, on a whim we decided to drive up the very rocky and steep 4WD track to the lookout – at one point I had my eyes shut tightly as all 4 wheels spun for some traction! Lovely view but we were all glad to be back down soon after!

Although hard to leave Cleaverville, we were running behind schedule (again!), so dropped in for a last stock up in Karratha (next Woolworths not for another 700km at Carnarvon) and drove the short way to Dampier. We took the boat out to nearby Sam’s Island – Sam was the local character who adopted the island as his home and spent 40 years rearranging the basalt rocks into a type of medieval castle, importing sand onto the once barren island and even starting a coconut palm grove. Sam died in 2005 and everything has been left “as is” which unfortunately also means a state of disrepair, but it was interesting to have a walk around the old structures.

One of the things we had really wanted to try and see on this trip was the Staircase to the Moon phenomenon – October is the last month of the year for this (don’t ask me why) and nearby Hearson’s Cove was touted as a great place to view it. We stopped off on the way at Deep Gorge to see the petroglyphs, which is apparently the largest concentration of aboriginal rock art in Australia (perhaps the world). There is very little information on how to get there and the tracks aren’t clearly marked at all – we did find it eventually and had a walk around which involved quite a bit of rock scrambling. We saw quite a few images, a lot of them pretty faint. We weren’t really up for a long hike or too much rock climbing, but I think if you took your time you would find A LOT of hidden treasures.

Hearson’s Cove was absolutely beautiful – a massive shallow bay, where at low tide the flats are exposed for nearly 2km (which the kids and I walked all the way to the edge of the water)! The full moon rising coinciding with the low tide provides a stunning visual display of a “staircase” going up to the moon. There were nearly 200 people there to watch the “last” event for the year – I’m so glad we managed to fit in with the timing to see it! And tomorrow we head off to one of the most anticipated locations of our trip – Exmouth & Ningaloo Bay (hope it lives up to our extremely high expectations)!


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Bid a sad farewell to wonderful Broome and did a few hops (well that’s a relative term I guess as each “hop” was at least 200km – I thought the distances in NT were bad, but nothing compared to WA!) southward towards Karijini National Park – we spent one night each at:

* Barn Hill Station – lovely open caravan park on one of the countless massive sheep and cattle stations along the way, huge expanse of beach perfect for shell fossicking, lots of rockpools for more exploration and a very social spot! We met 2 other around-Australia-families with children roughly the same age as ours (P & K with their 3 kids, D, S and L and G & R with their 2 boys T and D), which meant lots of free time for adult conversation. Great night!

* 80 Mile Beach – hands down the best shell fossicking beach EVER! We travelled along the beach for about 20km to get to the creek entrance and were rewarded with total seclusion (not another soul in sight!) and an abundance of large shells. The tides here are absolutely enormous – at least 1km of exposed mud flats at low tide. And it’s the fishing destination of choice, although the day we were there the wind had picked up and most people were just catching seaweed. We had travelled down with the 2 families we had met at Barn Hill, so more playing for the kids and more socialising for us.

* Cape Keraudren – magnificent views and excellent boating in the calm lagoon, but the midges swarmed in like I’d never seen before: one minute I was inside enjoying a lovely breeze and reading my book and the next I was swatting away more and more of them. When the boys came back from their boating for some morning tea, we had to keep picking them off the fruit! There was absolutely no escaping them short of closing all the windows, which would have meant stifling heat, so we packed up very quickly and moved on.

We had intended to stay a couple of nights at Port Hedland, but the caravan park was full and booked out for the next few weeks, so we stocked up on supplies and did a bit of night driving, with a game of dodgem-cows thrown in for fun, to reach our rest stop for the night (that was a huge day – 5 hours of driving). We entered the lovely country around Karijini and the start of the Hammersley Ranges. We stayed in the “Cockatoo” camp area at Dales Campground for 4 days – the days were quite hot and the sites were completely unshaded, but we used our tarp to provide ample shade and there were plenty of swimming holes for cooling off. There are quite a few gorges within the park to explore (if only we were younger, fitter and had more time) – we chose a couple of the more popular ones.

One day was spent exploring the gorges around Dales Campground: there are some great lookouts along the rim walk and then a steep climb down into the gorge which leads to the swimming areas. The walk to Fortescue Falls along the gorge floor was lovely and cool (lots of shade from the trees and gorge walls) with plenty of interesting rock formations and a couple of slippery creek crossings for some adventure. Fortescue Falls themselves were lovely, but a bit too exposed to the hot sun, so we moved on to beautiful Fern Pool for a swim. The water was just perfect for a cool off – the kids decided to stay around the boardwalk steps and sneak their crackers to feed the congregating school of fish, while Mike and I took turns swimming out to the waterfall, which was like a warm shower! Absolutely magnificent!

A whole day was needed to explore the other side of the park (Weano Gorge) with even more astonishing gorges. Joffre Falls and Knox Falls were both very picturesque (mental note to explore them next time) and the Oxer and Point Junction lookouts were very humbling – I really got the insignificance of the time humans spend on this planet! Then onto our favourite gorge adventure so far…Hancock Gorge, Kermit Pool and the Spider Walk! Another steep climb down to start with (this time helped by a couple of steel ladders), then a shallow pool crossing (a bit slippery in parts making me very nervous carrying my indispensable camera across), followed by a mini-gorge swim (had to leave all our gear including camera behind at this stage) which led to a lovely natural amphitheatre, then the Spider Walk (where the walls of the gorge are only 50cm apart so you can walk along with legs and arms on either side like a spider) which we chose to slide down (loads more fun and very very slippery from all the algae) which finally led to beautiful and cool Kermit Pool. The walk continues from there, but only for very experienced (and somewhat crazy) people with abseiling and caving equipment. I can’t recommend this gorge walk highly enough – it was a melding of wonderous views and adventurous scrambling; it made you work to get there and you appreciated it all the more for it.

We made a day trip into Tom Price for the Rio Tinto Mine tour which was very interesting (great tour guide) – we saw one of the open cut mines and did a drive by tour of the processing facilities. But of course the major attraction is those impossively massive dump trucks! They have got to be seen to be believed – and we heard a few horror stories of them running over 4WD cars (with people in them!!!) and not even feeling the bump underneath! We had lunch at basically the only food place open on the day – a Chinese restaurant which made me remember fully why I haven’t eaten Chinese food in a decade! Then we drove up a very steep and rocky 4WD track to the top of Mount Nameless (I’m sure they could think of a name if they only tried a bit harder) for fabulous views of the mines, the township and the surrounding landscape.

Now we’ve seen our fare share of gorges and national parks, but it was a unanimous vote that Karijini had the best gorges! Shame it’s so far from everything – we spent the next day driving all the way back towards Port Hedland (no pain no gain)!

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After a wonderful night’s sleep back in our very roomy Optimus we continued westward – we stopped briefly at Halls Creek for fuel and some information, had lunch at Mary Pool rest stop (we’ve earmarked that for a re-visit sometime in the future…) and arrived at Fitzroy Creek for the night. This town had also suffered major flooding earlier in the year and work on the bridge was still continuing.

We’ve managed so far to keep up our “new” habit of early risings (around 6am), so the next day we were one of only 8 people on the first cruise (8am) along Geike Gorge. Drifting along smoothly and quietly in the beautiful gorge, we spotted around a dozen freshwater crocodiles along the banks (everytime we think we’ve reached saturation point with crocs, we are proven wrong!). The information kiosk at the gorge had placed flood level markers all around the building (signifying the height of various floods through the years) – the worst floods had reached a full 2 metres above the domed roof! It’s hard to imagine that much water coursing through a place!

On our way to Derby we stopped off at the Boab Prison Tree and Myall Bore – the stories of the mis-treatment of aborigines seems never-ending and these sites were often used as stop-overs in the transport of kidnapped aborigines to the west coast to work in the pearling industry. Derby is a very quiet town with very wide streets, a very picturesque jetty which shows off the massive tides in the area perfectly and boab trees everwhere! Having only just “recovered” from our camping foray, we decided on a day trip into Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek. The Gibb River Road section from Derby to the national park is mostly sealed, but we got a little taste of the real thing a few times as well – very corrugated indeed!

Windjana Gorge was lovely – lots and lots and lots of freshwater crocodiles (we inched quite close to a pair sunning themselves on the bank of the river, one swooped into the water but the larger one stood his ground and bared his teeth at us!) and some wonderful fossilised invertebrates in the gorge walls. But the march flies were relentless, even with a good dosing of strong Bushmans on our skins. Mike made us all fly swishers with eucalyptus branches which saved us on our walk back! After a quick lunch in our air-conditioned car (very hot day), we changed into our swimwear, grabbed some torches and headed into Tunnel Creek. What an awesome experience! We travelled through complete darkness (ok we had a torch!) and at times waist-deep cool water to the other side of the cave which opens out to a lovely part of the river. There is a section in the middle with a collapsed roof and if you hunted around a bit you could see the elusive ghost bats that live there. It was the perfect place to be on a hot day!

Next came our wonderful week in Broome. Believe ALL the hype about Broome – it’s all true and then some! Cable Beach is as gorgeous as all the pictures in the magazines and every sunset is magical. The town is very widely spread and although it has everything you need, it has a very small town feel (maybe because it was at the end of tourist season?). We arrived just in time for the closing ceremony of the Shinju Matsuri Festival, which celebrates the town’s pearling industry (upon which Broome was built) – there was hours of entertainment and music, a farewell dance by the Sammy the Chinese Dragon (the kids didn’t know if they should be awed or scared – a bit of both I expect) and fabulous fireworks (have never been so close before – it makes a huge difference!!).

We had lovely swims in the warm Indian Ocean – both at Cable Beach which has waves big enough for boogey boarding and at Town Beach which is a very shallow inlet of Roebuck Bay (waist deep water for a good 50m), so perfect for Tiran the non-swimmer. The contrasting blue of the ocean and red cliffs of Gantheaume Bay were beautiful, but the timing of our stay didn’t coincide with the appropriate tide movements to go hunting for dinosaur footprints in the mud-flats (and truly we were dinosaured-out anyway) or to see the staircase to the moon phenomenon (not to worry, we still have one more chance in October to catch it). Had a walk along famous Johnny Chi Lane in Chinatown which has history plaques all along its length giving a wonderful and concise chronology of the founding and evolution of Broome. And I have never seen so many pearl shops in the one place – not sure how they all stay viable!

One day was spent exploring the area around Quandong – absolutely gorgeous (sound like a broken record…..need to work on my imagery vocabulary!) and the colours of the ocean, sand and red cliffs were even more distinct here. Spent a couple of hours exploring the different beaches and looking in the multitude of rock pools which were brimming with huge sea cucumbers, little fish, even small rays. There were a couple of protestor camps along the road decrying the off-shore gas mining in the area – I think they mis-took our truck as belonging to the mining company because as we were leaving at the end of the day, one of them tailed us with his high beam on for about 5km. Whatever your beliefs and agenda, that’s just stupid and dangerous behaviour!

We had great intentions of spending a couple of days exploring Cape Leveque (a magnificent peninsula made up of small aboriginal communities which specialise in tourism), but we fell into the trap of total relaxation and laziness and just couldn’t get ourselves organised or motivated enough to store the van (which would have cost a bit as well) and get the camping stuff organised – we couldn’t even decide where to stay! We heard several reports from fellow travellers about how beautiful it was up there, so yet another location put on the next-time list – we’ll need at least another year to see the stuff we’ve missed! The other attraction we missed (bad timing on our part again!) was the Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Farm & Park (which is closed on Sundays when we planned our departure visit) – Kia was devastated (with real tears), Tiran was ambiguous about it and Mike and I were secretly relieved to be putting the crocs behind us at last!! But he was cheered a little when the tooth fairy re-imbursed him generously for his 2nd lost tooth!

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We found a very friendly and obliging welder at Canning Industries in Katherine who fit us in straight away to fix the chassis. We unhitched Optimus and drove to Edith Falls – it was way too hot by the time we arrived to do the walks to the spectacular lookouts, so we let the boys splash around a little in the freezing water instead. And just to keep us on our toes, Mike tore out the left-hand side front bumper of Ironhide as he pulled out of the parking bay (it got stuck above a wire fence!) – so another thing to fix! This one was cosmetic only, so we stocked up on supplies and headed into Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park) for a couple of days.

We spent one day exploring the gorge in our Zodiac – we could only get to the end of the 1st gorge as there are rock falls to cross between the gorges and it would have taken quite a bit of effort to carry the boat across. Quite fun to zip by all the kayakers though on our little motorised vessel! The water was absolutely perfect for a swim and the boys spent a couple of hours trawling in the gorge – caught a couple of baby barramundi (bittersweet as they were too small to keep). We walked to the top of the lookout for the 1st gorge the following day – what a great view – and were completely drenched when we got back at 10am (the hot weather hadn’t let up at all), so we spent the rest of the day lounging around the lovely resort-style pool where they boys tried out their new snorkel gear. Kia was apprehensive at first as the mask completely blocks breathing through the nose (made him claustrophobic I think) but once he got over the initial fear he swam around like a fish! Tiran gave the snorkel a good workout on the pool steps – don’t think he’s going to be seeing too many fish in the ocean at this rate!

Our last night in Northern Territory was spent at the Timber Creek Caravan Park – they have a small river flowing out the back full of freshwater crocodiles and small turtles and every evening they feed the crocs. The boys actually got turns feeding the crocs too which was a big thrill for them. The last 2 days before the border crossing was spent eating as much of our fruit and vegetables as possible – apart from Tasmania, this was the most “official” border crossing! I handed over the last of our illegal stock (2 each tomatoes, oranges and lemons) and we drove into Kununurra. We were so excited to cross into Western Australia – it was our “last” state to explore on our journey!

We got very lucky and the hot weather broke for our stay (down to 28 degrees) – and since now we were waking up before 6am (time difference), we got plenty done during the daylight hours. We spent a day exploring the area around Wingham – the impressive 5-river lookout was somewhat obscured by smoke from a huge bushfire in southern NT, but the Boab Prison Tree and the 20 metre crocodile statue provided more than enough entertainment.

As we were a bit short on time, we also decided to experience a (very expensive) 2 hour scenic flight tour over Lake Argyle, Boyd Carr Ranges and the Bungle Bungles. On advice from the pilots (that in general the wind is quietest in early morning) we opted for the 6am flight, so up at the crack of dawn (literally) to be at the airport at 5:30am. First up we flew over Lake Argyle – seeing it from the air really put in perspective why they call it an inland sea – it is massive! The rest of the flight didn’t go quite as smoothly……

Being a veteran of flying (Platinum Frequent Flyer 2 years in a row, thank you very much) I was more than a little surprised to be the first one to “lose it” – and that’s when I was really thankful that we had done a pre-breakfast flight! Tiran was next – we were flying over the Bungle Bungles at the time so I had to divide my time between holding the air-sick bag for him and taking as many photos as I could. I had lulled myself into a false sense of security when the second wave hit both Tiran and I, and finally as we passed over Lake Argyle on the way home, Mike finally gave in. And Kia……..didn’t know what the fuss was all about, he didn’t even look green (God love him)! It took Mike and I the longest (most of the day) to recover and we vowed to do the rest of the sight-seeing from the ground!

The road into Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungles) is a no-caravan zone, so we finally got to break out the Ironhide-specific tent! We stored Optimus at the closest caravan park and made our way along the 55km road – very corrugated, lots of turns and a couple of creek crossings (very shallow at this stage of the year) meant it took us about 1.5 hours to complete it. As we reached the final creek crossing, we saw about 4 cars banked up on our side – a hired 4WD was stranded on the other side of the creek crossing leaking oil and completely unable to move. Well what else to do? Mike to the rescue with the snatch line to drag them out of the way. Although the river crossings are shallow, the entry and exit points are still a bit steep with plenty of sharp rocks, so it doesn’t pay to approach too fast!

It was an interesting excercise “camping” out after 9 months in our lovely Optimus! The tent fits over the tray of the truck and we have an air mattress that fits into the tray, but still not quite big enough for the 4 of us to sleep comfortably. Mike toughed it out in the front seat of the truck the second night! And how odd for the day to be mostly over around 6pm as it got dark – no table to play on, not enough light to read for too long, no DVD or TV to watch. There are 2 areas in the park (with a corresponding camp site). Picaninny Gorge is where the actual “Bungle Bungle” experience occurs – the walks are amongst the domes, so you get a very close up view. Again the colours here are so clear and distinct – it’s hard to take a bad picture! We reached Cathedral Gorge and its natural amphitheatre and were treated to a lovely song by a fellow visitor – wonderful acoustics! Once we were all alone I gave singing a go – I had just finished when I saw another couple entering the area, no doubt looking around for the poor wounded animal that was making those noises!

On our last morning we visited Echidna Chasm – another absolute MUST SEE phenomenon! The chasm is at times less than a metre across (so a bit of scrambling required) and the cliff sides rise over 150 metres above you; around mid-day the sun shining overhead produces an amazing optical display of brilliant shafts of light through the narrow crevices. So very impressive! So glad to have visited Purnululu, but our excitement at seeing our comfortable Optimus on our return was beyond words – so we all ran over and gave him a big hug instead!

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A fantastic bit of luck in choosing the right caravan park in Darwin led to a completely unexpected and wonderful reunion with D, J and N whom we had first met in Tasmania when all of us had initially started our respective trips! The kids were so excited to see their first “trip friend” again – they spent quite a few hours playing together; and we had a great catch up with J and D as well. And so glad to have power for the air conditioning – we had it on pretty much the whole time!

Darwin was the closest WWII came to Australian shores (bombed mercilessly by the Japanese) and there are quite a few displays within the museums describing the era, including one in an ex-ammunitions bunker (quite a few of the bunkers are now within the Charles Darwin National Park). The kids loved all the different planes in the Aviation Heritage Museum, especially the gigantic (seriously!) B-52 bomber. The Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery was also great value (in fact it was free!), specially the life-sized statue of “Sweetheart the crocodile” which terrorised the nearby waterways a few years ago (I’m counting the days to the end of the Top End and croc country)! The Cyclone Tracy display within the museum is also fantastic – really made you realise how badly the whole town was damaged (the aerial before and after photos were particularly eye-opening). And an enormous range of art – we actually ran out of time to see all of it.

Mindil Beach Markets was lovely – loaded with yummy food stalls and a great contemporary 4-didgeridoo-playing band provided the entertainment. Around sunset the majority of the wanderers headed onto the beach to watch the spectacular sunset and we were all enthralled with the magical spray-painting art stall (I remember this from a decade or more ago, didn’t know there were still people practicing the art). Sadly bid farewell to our friends again (who are going in the opposite direction) and headed east towards Kakadu – with one major crocodile attraction detour: Adelaide River Jumping Crocodiles. I can’t even describe how excited Kiavash was on the day – he could barely stay in his seat on the drive down. The big attraction was the 5.5 metre Brutus who has ruled the roost in that part of the river for years; however Dominator (who is slightly bigger and heir to the throne) failed to make an appearance. Got some great pictures which I think Kia will probably plaster all over his bedroom at some point!

The weather now is nothing short of stinking hot (mid-30s)! It was bearable in Darwin because we had power for the air-conditioning and some seaside breezes keeping things somewhat cool. But travelling inland towards Kakadu revealed that the build up was in fact on its way. And to keep things interesting, just before we got to Kakadu Mike discovered a crack along the chassis! We spent a very tense day wondering if this meant the end of our trip – but happily the very kind engineers at Jabiru assured us that it was definitely fixable, but we would have to go back to Darwin for the repairs. They suggested we drive as little as possible with the 5th wheeler attached, but they also assured us that it wasn’t in danger of cracking in the near future. Thus assured, we continued to explore Kakadu as planned.

Kakadu is absolutely enormous! The big drawcards are the fabulous aboriginal rock art, prolific range of birds in the enormous wetlands, lots of crocodiles (well it’s a drawcard if you’re not interested in swimming) and the beautiful gorges and waterfalls in the southern part of the park. Cahill’s Crossing provided plenty of crocodile sightings and Ubirr was magnificent; both the rock art galleries and the incredible sunset over the wetland plains from the top of Nadab Lookout. We did a walk around Anbangbang Billabong (try saying that really fast 3 times) in the early morning to escape the heat and the 3 boys stayed in the air-conditioned car while I braved the mid-day heat to visit the rock art at Nourlangie.

One of the great things about Kakadu is the number of free talks given by the Rangers (about the rock art, the geology, flora and fauna of the area) – I attended as many as I could, including a basket-weaving demonstration run by 2 aboriginal women from Arnhem Land. I had no idea how much work and effort goes into making even the smallest basket: collect the pandanus leaves (it can take hours to collect enough), strip them and tear into very thin strips (an art in itself believe me!), collect the various roots for different colours, grind them up, boil them with the strips, allow the strips to dry and after all that, you can start weaving – no wonder they charge so much for them!).

The rangers we had spoken to during our stay all confirmed that this late in the dry season, most of the waterfalls were down to nothing but trickles, so we decided not to visit the areas. And in the end, the relentless heat (36 degrees and no wind plus humidity starting to build) got the better of us! Mike challenged the boys to a waterfight with some trigger bottles to cool off – they were all drenched by the end which was the real purpose anyway! We spent an entire day at the wonderfully cool public swimming pool within Cooinda Resort – that was absolute bliss! The Bowali Visitor Centre and the Warradjan Cultural Centre both had wonderful displays about the area and the aboriginal history plus they were air-conditioned which made it all the more enticing to spend a couple of hours at each.

We had decided that we would take a chance that we could find a welder in Katherine to fix the chassis to save us the major detour back to Darwin. Father’s Day was spent at a quirky “caravan park” (well it had power boxes and there were caravans parked around the showground/racecourse, but that’s as official as it got to a caravan park) called Pussycat Flats at Pine Creek. Being both Father’s Day and the departing manager’s birthday, they had put on a huge dinner and band that night; I sent Mike out to have some “male bonding time” with the other fathers (and a break from the rest of us) – the boys joined him a bit later on and played with the other kids while Mike gas-bagged into the night. It’s all about the man of the family on Father’s Day after all!