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.

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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!

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There was an enormous cloud of smoke over the McDonnell Ranges as we travelled into Alice Springs – we have seen quite a bit of bushfire smoke around in the Northern Territory so far. We did the usual chore stuff while in the city, but did plenty of fun stuff too (well mostly the kids and I did as Mike was busy most of the time doing repairs on the caravan – yes, poor baby!). The caravan park we stayed at, Heavitree Lodge, is at the base of Heavitree Gap (convenient geography) where a mob of rock wallabies reside and you can feed them every night around dusk – they were the cutest thing and the kids loved that they could get so close to “wild” wallabies.

The nights are very cold, the days start off cool and very windy but warm up by mid-day. We spent the better part of one day at the Alice Springs Desert Park which is quite extensive – it has an enormous enclosed nocturnal house (we had 2 turns in there – the kids loved looking around the dark glassed cages for the animals) and about a dozen different bird enclosures with pretty much every bird you can think of! One of Tiran’s off-on hobbies on the trip has been collecting feathers, so he was mesmerised with all the different colours on offer. Kia was most excited by the massive red kangaroo – he was quite impressive actually, wouldn’t want to get into a tiff with him. Watched a very hazy but beautiful sunset from Anzac Hill and on the way back down saw a bushfire in the town – fire seems to be everywhere around here!

We had been warned to be wary of the aboriginal people in Alice Springs – I can honestly say we had no troubles at all. A very quiet and shy aboriginal couple came to our camp one night to sell one of their paintings, one of which we did buy for $30, a bargain for authentic aboriginal art if you ask me (well it was a painting and it was done by an aboriginal, so to my art-naive mind, it was authentic indeed!). I also got my culture fix at the Central Australian Museum and the Strenlow Research Centre – very interesting information about the Strenlow family, one of whom collected an enormous audio-visual library of aboriginal sacred ceremonies (the majority of which can’t be shown to the public). There is also quite a large Art Gallery with a large selection of Albert Namitjira art on display.

Heading north from Alice Springs, we detoured to Gemtree for a bit of garnet fossicking; the whole setting reminded me of a cowboy-western movie set – from the little pond you cross to the fences and signs. We chose the easiest option by buying a bucket of dirt all ready to be fossicked! There’s nothing to it really: put some dirt into a pan and shake out the dirt, remove the large worthless rocks, then give the rest a good wash and hold it up to the light of the sun – the garnet’s red colour shines through and you pick them out. Kia gave up after 10 minutes – not enough action to keep him interested. Tiran on the other hand was born to the task – it got so he could pick out the larger garnets before even washing them! We were very happy with our loot and the proprietor was duly impressed that a 4 year old had found so many jewels in a bucket of dirt.

We stopped off again at Devil’s Marbles for lunch and saw our old friend the dingo – and then we saw a complete moron throw him some food!!!! I’ve lost track of the number of signs we’ve seen everywhere about not feeding wildlife – I was pretty certain the majority of people who had a driver’s licence could read, but obviously I had jumped to conclusions! Mike actually went over and told them that he was an off-duty park ranger from NSW and gave him a big lecture about the dangers of feeding wild animals – he did quite nicely (as only Mike could because I would have been reduced to much profanity if I were to do it!). So a marathon drive of 800km over 2 days saw us reach the “middle” of Northern Territory and we spent a hugely enjoyable night at the Daly Waters Pub – absolutely the best steak I have had since leaving Sydney and a hilarious one-man show to boot. It was a great atmosphere and the caravan park was completely packed, which meant that the boys found some kids their own age to play with for the afternoon.

Mataranka Hot Springs had been earmarked for certain visitation after watching the Gall Boys DVDs (makers of Kedron caravans and several DVDs about travelling in very inhospitable terrain with their caravans) – it certainly lived up to the hype. Naturally hot springs (well warm actually but extremely pleasant) in a tropical setting; thankfully not very crowded at all on our visit so we spent a very happy and relaxing 2 hours soaking!

We passed through the town of Katherine (stopping only to stock up on supplies, fuel and water) and drove straight to Litchfield National Park (one of Michael’s fondest memories from his RAF days and a place that has changed tremendously since then). We spent 4 lovely (but quite hot) days at Litchfield visiting the Lost City (enormous varied-shaped rocks which really did look like a miniature ancient city), Blythe Homestead, the magnetic termite mounds (unfortunately couldn’t get too close to these), a few enormous “regular” termite mounds and the multitude of falls (Tolmer Falls, Florence Falls and the lovely Wangi Falls where we had a swim nearly every day). We met a very friendly off-duty park ranger our first day there and in the course of our conversation I mentioned all the fire smoke we’d seen in the Northern Territory over the past 3 weeks – he told us that they are all deliberately lit (as back-burning season ends in early July). How unbelievable is that??

As lovely as Litchfield had been we were looking forward to reaching Darwin – mainly for some air-conditioning!

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We made an early start in the morning, keen to reach the Yulara Resort (campgrounds for the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park). Entry into the park is $25 per adult, but it’s a 3 day pass, so you can space out the parts you visit and take your time exploring and doing the walks.

We decided to explore Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) first – it takes 30 minutes from the park’s entrance just to reach the car park. The colours here are so distinct and strong – the blue of the sky, the orange rocks, the green spinifex and scrubs (if only I had bought the polarising cover for my camera lens – the pictures don’t do the views justice). We did 2 of the walks – Walpa Gorge and Valley of the Winds – which were both lovely in their own way. I loved how close we got to the domes – they look so smooth from afar, but up close there are plenty of crags, gashes, even huge chunks carved out. Kia kept a few of the tourists (and there were so many of them unfortunately) amused with plenty of anecdotes. We stayed for the sunset which was truly lovely, but headed back quickly as the temperature drops along with the sun.

The next day was spent around Uluru (Ayers Rock) – we visited the Cultural Centre first which has quite a good display explaining the dreamtime stories tied to the area, as well the significance of the site as ceremonial grounds to the aboriginals. There was a strong message being sent out for tourists not to climb the rock – I think it’s a valid enough request, but they have constructed a chain rail along the climbing section which signals that climbing is not forbidden. The park is run jointly by the aboriginal community in the area, and if they don’t want people to climb, I think a “Do not climb” sign is probably a more unambiguous message. The climb is actually quite difficult (as confessed to me by a few tourists), but we decided not to climb as a sign of respect for their culture (personal decision).

There are also a few art and craft galleries within the Cultural Centre – some really magnificent art (if only I had a spare $2000!). We then headed towards Uluru itself – it’s such an iconic picture you almost can’t believe you’re there in person. The colour changes through the day as well – in the morning and from afar it’s a dusky pink, as you get closer and towards sunset the orange comes out more and after the sun has gone down it’s a dark rusty red colour. We drove all the way around it first and then parked the car to get closer. We walked to a little rockpool at the base and another area that had a rock wave formation – all beautiful.

But for Mike and I, the experience was severely marred by the sheer number of people there. We counted at least half a dozen huge coach loads (mostly European and Asian tourists) and a few helicopters overhead as well. The sunset viewing area was standing room only – there were at least 100 people there. I guess if we want to see it without the crowds we should come back in the severe heat of summer? On our last day we did another drive to the lookouts for both Kata Tjuta and Uluru to have some family pictures without the “sunset crowds”.

Then came one of the highlights of the trip so far – Kings Canyon and the West McDonnell Ranges (absolutely MUST SEE!!). It took another full day of driving to reach Kings Canyon Resort from Yulara (it’s getting to where we all groan as we get into the car each day!), but it was sooooo worth it! There are 2 main walks to do at Kings Canyon: one along the creek bed (rated easy) and one along the rim (rated difficult and a bit scary as you get close to the cliff edges in places). We opted for the easy walk first which left me completely unsatisfied, as though I hadn’t seen Kings Canyon at all. So although it was now the middle of the day and pretty hot, I forced the decision to do the rim walk too.

The first 800m or so is the hardest as it’s straight up, and granted there were a couple of small stretches where you walked close to the edge, but once on the actual rim, it was absolutely magnificent!! It’s a 6km walk but you’re so busy marvelling at the views, you hardly notice the time. It helped immensely that we ran into a lovely family (with 2 boys a bit older than ours) halfway through and the kids scampered about together and forgot to whinge! Our only mistake was not taking enough water along with us and by the time we got down 3 hours later, Tiran was hot and dehydrated (Kia who is half goat, half camel felt no ill effects) – but we stripped off his clothes and cooled him down with water and he recovered quite quickly.

The next day we tackled the Mereenie Loop – our research (via the information centres and first hand accounts of recent travellers) had given us enough confidence to take Optimus down the 155km dirt road. They had done quite a bit of work on parts of the road over the last couple of months, so nearly half the road was “sealed”, but the other half had us crawling along at around 20km an hour, so it took us over 4 hours to reach the start of the gorges of the West McDonnel Ranges. Never mind, the views of the ranges more than made up for it.

Brief accounts of the gorges and attractions (really you have to see these places yourself!): amazing views of Mt Sonder and the Finke River (still had a bit of water), Glen Helen Gorge (lovely, but you can only see the entrance to the gorge unless you’re willing to swim around, which we weren’t), Ochre Pits (a palette of colour, absolutely fabulous), Ormiston Gorge (the most beautiful of the lot), Ellery Creek Big Hole (great name and lovely gorge, but strong fish smell due to algae infestation killing the fish) and Standley Chasm (had to pay to get in, it was lovely although the “light show” wasn’t that magical, but I wouldn’t do it again). All in all, one of the most spectacularly scenic areas we have ever seen!!

Now we faced the inviting prospect of travelling all the way back up the centre (about 1000kms) to the northern part of the Northern Territory!

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Had a few lovely days of “respite” at Corella Dam (just east of Mt Isa) – some of the free camp spots in this country are truly wonderful. The absolutely cloudless days (and I mean EVERY day) meant the boys pretty much lived outside, playing whatever crocodile make-believe story Kia had cooked up. Tiran also expressed a keen interest as “cane toad killer” for a possible profession – there were quite a few around, day and night, so we made up a solution of dettol in a trigger bottle and off they went killing toads! Disgusting animals – I felt no sympathy at all!

We took the zodiac out a few times croc-spotting (freshwater only, don’t worry) and saw quite enough to satisfy the troups. On our way back from the last trip, we spied a very large one on the bank (close to 4 metres we guessed) and slowed down to get as close as we could – usually they slither into the water gently as soon as you get too close, but this one actually charged into the water as we approached, so we hightailed it out of there (freshwater or not!).

At Mt Isa we free camped behind the RSL Club – for payment, they “request” that you have a meal at the club, which is really no hardship at all (in fact the food was pretty good). We visited the Isa Experience & Riversleigh Fossil Centre – what a tremendous amount of information about the history of the town! And very well done – lots of mining equipment to keep the kids amused (for a little while anyway). I could have easily spent another 2 hours in there (in addition to the 2 already spent).

Mt Isa is quite a large town but still has a country town feel to it and it’s very widely spaced out. Of course the usual chores of shopping, post office, catching up on a bit of work, laundry, and a car service had to be taken care of as well, but that’s what the cities are for. But plenty of water play for the 3 boys (who are suffering severe withdrawal symptoms) including another boat outing on Moondarra Lake and an afternoon splashing around at the huge water play park in town.

So excited to cross into the Northern Territory – as we have been for all the state borders so far. But my oh my, the distances are hard to describe! We entered in the middle of the state and headed south first, towards Alice Spring. The majority of our first 2 days were spent in the car, which led to very grumpy boys with too much energy to burn in the afternoons. The scenery far greener now than it had been the last few weeks in outback Queensland and amazingly few roadkill. Spent a night in Tennant Creek out of necessity to break up the huge distance to the Devil’s Marbles, where we were greeted by the first cloudy day we’ve had in weeks. It really is amazing to see these massive boulders perched so precariously on top of each other – it’s very tempting to try and push them over! And we were all hugely excited with our first wild dingo sighting – this one seemed to be a “resident” of the camp area and although he didn’t come right up to people, he stayed in the campgrounds for hours (I think people have thrown scraps to him in the past). Gorgeous animal!

Another long day of driving took us through Ti-Tree (lots of stray dogs and not much else), Red Earth Mango Farm (yummy home made mango ice cream), the imposing statue of the aboriginal hunter atop the hill at Aileron, and saw us cross the Tropic of Capricorn for the second time (also our rest area for the night). We stopped off at Alice Springs for supplies and at the information centre for details of the state of the roads (the absolute nicest and most helpful information centre staff in a very long time!) and picked up our census pack to fill out that night (must be counted no matter where you are). We detoured off the highway and negotiated a very short section (15km) of the infamously rough Ernest Giles Road (took us nearly 40 minutes) to see the Henbury Meteorite craters – these things look much more impressive from above though and none of the lookouts were high enough to give us a good overall picture.

So we headed off towards the Red Centre and the arguably the true centre of Australia!

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Back into the wonderful oranges, blues and greens of outback country. The nights and early mornings are quite cool and the days sunny and warm – it’s a hard life, I know! The drives between towns are quite long now. Stopped overnight at Cloncurry and stocked up on our very depleted food supplies, then headed to Winton on what is called the “dinosaur trail” (Winton, Hughenden and Richmond making up the triangle of dinosaur attractions in the area). We had a quick stop along the way at McKinlay to photograph the “Walkabout Creek Hotel” from Crocodile Dundee – this was also where we suffered our first roadkill tragedy when a flock of lovely finches flew right in front of us and one of them crashed into the grill. We were so proud of our clean record up to then!

Winton is the town of “Waltzing Matilda” and in every nook and cranny of the town that they can think of, some reference exists to the famous poem by Banjo Patterson (he wrote the poem on a cattle station nearby and performed it publicly for the first time at the North Gregory Hotel in town). The Matilda Centre is a museum entirely based on the poem itself and the themes from it – such as the history and lives of swagmen, drovers and the outback life in general. It’s actually quite a good museum! We also had a look at Arno’s Wall – an odd but unique expression of art where Arno has cemented whatever he can think of and has on hand in a wall around his house.

We also got to experience the festivities of the Camel Races at Winton – I love the small scale of events in the country towns. They have such a laid back, informal air to them. There were perhaps 200 people there and the MC of the events was an absolute riot! Our favourite event was the Camel Tag where contestants (just your average blokes) are put in a large pen with a camel and have to tag them with a strip of gaffa tape, which is the easy part, and then have to run back and grab if off the camel, which is the really hard part. No one got hurt but those camels were not shy with their kicks!

We stayed at Long Waterhole a few kilometers outside of Winton – it was quite shallow at this stage of the year, but enough water to make mud for mud fights! Also a good free camping base to do our sightseeing, all of which were over 100km away, along very rough dirt roads. We spent a day fossicking for opals at Opalton – it was hot, dusty and we had absolutely no idea what we were doing, but the kids (specially Tiran) were right into it and we managed to find a few rocks with veins of opal and one with a good sized specimen! After the lucky find, Mike was ready to pitch a tent (as a few people were doing) and spend a couple of weeks looking for the “big one”!

The next day we made a trip to Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways – another 100km-plus trip down a dirt road – where the footprints of a stampede of small dinosaurs running away from a very large one have been discovered and preserved. This may be something that would have been interesting to see on TV, but I was quite underwhelmed with the whole thing. Couldn’t really fathom why this was important – we already knew big dinosaurs chased and ate little ones, so what was the big deal with finding their footprints? I guess it’s one of those things you like or not.

Hughenden was the next town on the trail – they have a big statue of a muttaburrasaurus and a small museum which includes facts about the discovery of this dinosaur in the area and a great 10 minute DVD about the creation of Porcupine Gorge, which is where we camped for 2 nights. We spent an entire day down in the beautiful gorge (so picturesque) – it was a 1km walk straight down (which of course had to be climbed later in the day), but what a perfect place to have a picnic and relax. We also had a visit at camp from the resident bettongs (small marsupials) which thrilled the boys no end.

Our last leg on the dino trail was Richmond and what Kia had been waiting for…..Kronosaurus Korner. So many fossils of different types of dinosaurs have been found in this area – the majority of them by station owners mustering their cattle near dry creek and river beds. They had a really great display about how fossils are found, cleaned, identified etc and a fantastic computer generated DVD about a Kronosaurus attacking other very large dinosaurs – the kids must have watched it a dozen times! We tried our hand at fossicking for fossils too – Tiran found a great specimen of a fish jaw bone, but mostly we found fish scales and a few shell fossils. It was too hot to stick around looking for more and we had a big day of driving ahead of us (nearly 300km) getting us ever closer to our next border crossing into the Northern Territory!