Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Gibb River Road - 900km of Subaru abuse

After an early start from Broome we head across to Derby to prepare for the Gibb River Road. 650-odd km of dirt road through the heart of the Kimberley, built in the 60s as part of the government's beef roads programme to serve outback cattle stations, and now a magnet for outback travellers from all over Australia and the rest of the world. As we head towards Derby the first boab trees appear- Australian relatives of the African baobab (name shortened in typical Aussie fashion) that look like something dreamed up by HP Lovecraft. Derby doesn't really hold a lot of interest, so after checking out the huge prison boab outside town and taking a look at the wharf (check the photo below, it was taken with the tide a little below mid-tide, and at high tide it's only a couple of metres from the road, Derby experiencing the biggest tides in the southern hemisphere) we decide to get started on the Gibb half a day early.

The first 100km of the road are in pretty good condition- at times we're cruising along the flat red dirt at 100km/h, at least until an oncoming road train or other vehicle temorarily blinds us with a huge dust cloud! The terrain is flat, and the temperature is climbing- by mid-afternoon the mercury nudges 38 degrees, and for the next week it hits at least 34-35 every day. We turn off the main road to head down the side road to Winjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, which proves to be slower going due to some heavy corrugation in places. The sight of the sheer escarpment of the Napier Range rising ubruptly out of the plain is amazing, and unlike anything I've seen aywhere else- the closest I can thin of is the karsts of Halong Bay in Vietnam, but transported onto dry land in arid savannah country.

Tunnel creek is fairly empty, with the pools of water in the underground passages less than

knee deep, but it's still an interesting spot. On the way back we visit the ruins of an old homestead and police outpost, where there are some informative information boards detaling the regions bloody earlier history- when the local Aboriginal population were forced off their traditional lands by pastoralists or rounded up to work as indentured labourers in the pearling fields around Broome. Winjana Gorge is spectacular, and a 7km return walk through the gorge early the next morning rewards us with loads of sightings of freshwater crocodiles cruising the waters of the river.

The next day we head on east, as the road crosses first the Napier and then the King Leopold ranges, the scenry becomes more spectacular and the feeling of real isolation kicks in with the realisation that we're hundreds of kms of dirt road from the nearest town. The road becomes rougher in places, with the occasional creek crossing (no obstacle at this time of year as we're deep into the dry season, but they must be a different proposition after the wet!).

We still make pretty good time, and we reach the Mt Barnett roadhouse (approximately the halfway point) by mid afternoon, after stopping at Galvan's Gorge, a beautiful spot a short walk off the road. We fill up on some seriously expensive gas ($1.95/litre!) and head down the side track to Manning Gorge, our second campsite. There's a fantastic swimming hole right next to the campground, and in the morning we discover an even better one (maybe Australia's best? let me know if you know a better one!!) a 45 minute walk away. The waterfalls are pretty much dry at this time of year but it's still beautiful- I can only think about how amazing these places must be just after (or during) the wet season.

Heading east again, we reach the Kalumburu turnoff after another 100km or so. From here the road becomes rougher and stonier, and slower going- it's now a struggle to keep much above 50km/h. The roads well formed enough, but so dry that it's corrugated badly- and the harsh, stony surface means you can't risk running too lower a tyre pressure, although I drop them to 32psi all round. Amazingly (considering that we're on a set of well-worn road tyres) we complete the entire road without a single puncture (guess I used up all the bad tyre luck in Karajini). Elenbrae Homestead provides a welcome break from the teeth-ratttling corrugations, and it;s almost bizarre finding a green, well tended garden and scones and toasted sandwiches hundreds of kms into the bush! We puch on toward Home Valley, our 3rd night's stop, getting toward the eastern end of the road. Although the road

conditions at this end are the worst, the scenery is also the most spectacular, with the Cockburn ranges providing an incredible backdrop to the last 70-80km of the journey. The spectacular country also obviously attracts the tourists, with Home Valley and El Questro boasting a lot more in the way of facilities than further west. I even manage to catch the All Blacks' last gasp Bledisloe Cup triumph on the TV at the resort bar (although we still take the cheap option and camp in the adjacent grounds).

In the morning we take a horse trek with a local aboriginal guide for a couple of hours. It's the first time I've ridden in over 20 years- and marred slightly by the fact that I'm allocated a rather wobbly old horse who manages to fall over whilst trying to have a feed with me on his back! Still I escape the tumble with mothing more than a slightly cut hand, and we continue on the ride, but there's no way I'm letting the old fella move at more than a steady walk after of that!

In the afternoon we cross the Pentecost River, the only major river crosssing on the Gibb. It's rocky, although not particularly deep- but it's made a bit more interesting by a bunch of idiots wo've decided to park their 4WD in the middle of the (saltwater croc infested) river to have a piss-up! I ignore their signals to slow up as I pass them- no way I'm risking bogging my vehicle to avoid splashing these knob-ends.

Much to my chagrin though, a couple of km past the river I realise I've left my wallet at Home Valley. luckily it's only about a 15km back-track, but it does mean we need to cross the river (and run the idiot gauntlet) twice more, and the last time the water level has risen a bit, making for a nervous few moments, as water starts to wash onto the Subaru's bonnet! To it's credit though the car handles everything we throw at it, and after another 30km of corrugations we arrive at El Questro.

You could easily spend a week exploring this place with it's network of gorges, walks and 4WD tracks, but unfortunately we only have an overnight stop although El Questro and Emma Gorges are still fantastic. I've gotta admit though I'm starting to get a little gorged-out! We exit the gibb just after midday on the fifth day- amazingly without a puncture or any other mechanical issue. I think the car could probably do with a wheel alignment though, and decide that we'll get it serviced a couple of thousand kms early in Darwin or Alice.

The Dampier Peninsula extends North of Broome for almost 200 km to cape Leveque. Connected by only a single (still mostly unsealed) road, it's a beautiful backwater, with only a few aboriginal communities and some relatively low-key tourist development. We spend a couple of days there, exploring secluded bays down the sandy 4WD tracks of the area, going mud crabbing with a local guide (catching and eating some of the biggest and best crabs I've seen!) and just enjoying the beautifully unspoiled coastline. No doubt in a couple of years they'll seal the rest of the road and it will be invaded by hordes of grey nomads in their caravans and backpackers in Wicked Campers, but for now it's a welcome respite from the tourist rat race up the WA coast (ie NOT having to fight for a campsite with hordes of caravans and their noisy generators!).

Can't get away from those catholic missionaries either- the area was the centre of one of the early missions and there's a couple of interesting little churches at Beagle Bay and Lombardina.

Broome - make mine a camel

First things first, isn't that a pretty bloody awesome sunset shot?

After a couple of months either in Exmouth or on the road in the middle of nowhere, Broome feels almost like a city. It's not really, just a medium sized town with a LOT of tourist infrastructure, but it's a nice change. Unfortunately the constant flow of tourists seems to have made the caravan park owners complacent- the two we stay in are dusty, run down and in one case more than a tad seedy. A bit of a rip-off considering the great facilities in places like Exmouth who charged us notably less! Broome itself is nice enough, and the climate is nice and tropical

- with temperatures nudging into the 30s for the first time on our trip. The nights are still and warm too- from here we only bother erecting the mesh inner section of our tent to sleep in, which makes making and breaking camp a lot less of a chore as it takes only 4 pegs and less than 5 minutes to set the tent up.

Broome's hardly the exotic Australia meets Asia multicultural melting pot the literature sometimes makes it out to be though- Chinatown is actually just a small outdoor mall of shops, none of which display any particular Chinese content (or even staff!)

In town I check out the local brewery (Matso's), and we do the tourist thing and catch the sunset from the back of a camel on Cable Beach- a bit cheesy, but fun anyway.

One other thing I've noticed up this way is the increased prominence of the Aboriginal community. In Sydney or Melbourne you hardly ever see indigenous Australian except for the little mob drinking near the railway station. Up here the Aboriginal population seem far less marginalised, you see black faces in the street all the time- which seems right an fitting as it was their country first, after all! However its not to say that the gap between black and white isn't still painfully obvious- you can tell straight away when you're on the black side of town. The Aboriginal communities that we've seen in the bush don't seem to be in too bad a condition (another pleasant surprise) but I have a feeling the situation in the NT will be a lot grimmer. Anyway enough soapboxing, here's a camel. His name's Ghan.

Exmouth - Dive, Dive, Dive!

And so to the reason this blog got derailed for so long... we reached Exmouth, and I decided to stay there for a month or so and get my divemaster's certification. the obvious reason for choosing Exmouth is of course the Ningaloo reef- Australia's largest fringing reef (as opposed to barrier reef) and a haven for all kinds of large marine life in particular. It certainly didn't disappoint in that regard- in my time there I saw whale sharks, turtles, sharks, manta rays, and even had the luck to be in the water with a humpback whale on one occasion! (and damn, they're BIG!)

Apart from the obvious reason, there were a couple of other reasons that Exmouth felt like the right spot to break the journey for a bit. For one, it was the first place where we truly seemed to leave winter behind us- the nights were still cool but the daytime temperatures were constantly in the mid to high twenties and it hardly ever rained- maybe twice in the six weeks we were there. The other thing is that it's about as far from Sydney as it's possible to get- if you showed someone a map of Australia and asked them to draw a line from Sydney to the opposite point, chances are it'd end up about at Exmouth.

Not too many photos, as I wasn't meant to take a camera on the course, but with the help of Shandos I still managed to get a few beauties. The scenery around Exmouth itself is pretty interesting too- the Cape Range national park contains a number of spectacular gorges, and we managed to spend a couple of afternoons hiking through it's arid scenery when I wasn't diving.

Exmouth itself is a funny place- it's over 1000km from Perth and hundreds of kms from any other town of any size and 200km from the main highway, so it exists in a strange little bubble. Everything you really need for a reasonably civilised existence is there, but there's no large supermarkets, fast food chains (even Chicken Treat, the dirty bird of WA is absent, let alone McDonalds etc) and only a few cafes/restraunts/pubs (the Potshot hotel is the epicentre of social life there, and the level of sophistication on the drinks list extends about as far as pre-made frozen daiquiris... still I had fun there). The town was only established in the 60s as a service town for the local Naval communications base and massive low frequency repeater (the southern hemisphere's second tallest structure!) and there's still a weird ghost town of facilities near the base that were originally set up to cater to the now departed American personnel stationed there- a baseball diamond, bowling alley, bar and grill etc, now sitting there all shut up and slowly crumbling.

Nonetheless I had a blast in Exmouth- did a lot of fantastic diving, made some new friends and got my certification done, albeit in a bit of a rush (I wish I could have taken longer, and owe the instructors who I worked with big time for helping me get through things so quickly- Carl, Micheal and Jemima, thanx if you're reading this!). I'd definitely like to return some day and dive some more of the sites that I didn't get to do.

I've also decided that I'm not returning to the IT industry when I come back to civilisation- I've decided to enrol in a 2 month commercial diving certification programme (ADAS levels 1 & 2 for those who're into that kind of stuff), and will be flying over to NZ to do it when I return. It'll be a big challenge, but I've really decided that I don't want to go back to 9-5 work working in cities and dealing with office politics anymore- no doubt I'll regret that decision at some point when I'm under 30 metres of freezing murky water though!! The long term goal of course will be to eventually get into the offshore industry (where the pay scales would make more than a few lawyers jealous!) but that's a long, expensive road, so I'll be trying to obtain the certification to do inshore construction diving and similar work first- which certainly enough to earn a solid wage anyway.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Coral Bay

Coral Bay's a funny place. Miles from anywhere, sandwiched between the desert and ocean, you suddenly find this crowded little tourist resort. 20 years agp when it was just a few people camping I reckon it would have been magic- but having to scramble just to find a campsite (and bear in mind there's 2 caravan parks plus a whole bunch of beach campsites out of town) kinda spoils the atmos a bit. The weather's still a bit unsettled too, making snorkelling a bit unattractive due to the wind- although diving is a different story thankfully. We book a trip get in a couple of nice, although unspectacular dives, however its nice just to be back underwater! However the real buzz comes in between the dives when we get the chance to swim with some manta rays- neither of us have seen them before, and watching them feed from just a few metres away is brilliant.

A final bonus on the way home is when we spot a dugong- mmm, sea beef!

Shark Bay, Monkey Mia and Carnarvon - I thought this was the desert?

We headed north from Geraldton bound for Kalbarri, and right on cue the weather crapped itself again- heavy rain squalls which meant the views from the coastal cliffs were limited. We stopped at a seahorse sanctuary which, while in reality more of a breeding centre than sanctuary (although it does save wild seahorses by providing an alternative to wild caught ones for the aquarium trade) at least was indoors and dry! Thankfully then the rain stopped for long enough for us to check out the parrot jungle next door then drive into town and get the tent up for the evening. The next day though it was bucketing down again, making it rather pointless to stay in the arewa so we headed on. The weather meant that the dirt roads into the gorges were closed, but luckily we did strike a break in the rain while checking out the lookouts closest to the road, providing these great views of the Murchison river.

Then in was on north again towards Shark Bay and Monkey Mia. The weather was still
unsettled but thankfully the real heavy rain didn't seem to penetrate so far north, although the wind meant the surface of Hamelin Pool was pretty choppy, limiting our view of the famous stromatelites (one of earths most ancient life forms, apparently).
At Monkey Mia we saw the famous pod of bottlenosed dolphins, and I managed to get the rangers to let Shandos feed one, which she was pretty chuffed with, having wanted to do that since she was a girl!
We spent the night camped on the clifftop just south of Denham, a spectacular spot- and the weather cleared beautifully, treating us to a spectacular sunset.

Then it was north again to Carnarvon- a pleasant enough place I guess, although apart from the mile long jetty and some great mud crabs from the local seafood factory, not too much to interest the traveller.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

North from Perth.... prangs, papists and pinnacles

After a couple of days in Perth we headed North. The good weather we'd had for the last few days unfortunately packed it in, although the monastic community at New Norcia wasn't a bad place to visit on a rainy day. Anyone who knows me knows I'm far from religious, but it was an interesting place none the less, although rather moribund these days; the schools have all closed and only 5 monks continue the traditional monastic life, with the community's farms being maintained by local lay staff.

We headed up the coast to Cervantes and the Pinnacles, where the weather still wasn't playing ball, but the Pinnacles were still worth a visit.

Unfortunately a careless bit of reversing in the caravan park resulted in a bent tie rod arm in the Subaru, leaving it driveable, but throwing the wheel alignment way out and causing it to start eating through the front tyres. We managed to limp as far as Geraldton Stopping on the way to snap the pic below at Port Denison) but didn't want to go any further to save from wrecking the tyres, meaning we had and unscheduled 3 day stop there waiting for the car to be fixed (as luck would have it the damage occurred on Friday afternoon, and couldn't be fixed til Monday!) Again the weather fined up when we didn't really need it too, although it was pleasant enough hanging around the caravan park for a couple of days, and more than pleasant spending a night at a nice motel (complete with in room spa) when I realised we could claim accommodation expenses from our car insurance whilst waiting for the repairs to be completed!

Days 39-40: Perth, and the Australia's dirtiest backpackers...

Spent a couple of days in Fremantle, which is a lovely spot, all old buildings and funky shops and cafes (not to mention a couple of decent microbreweries!) Unfortunately the backpackers we picked to stay in wasn't a highlight... less said there the better really, I must be getting old.

Did the obligatory pilgrimage to Bon Scott's grave whilst in Freo, and caught the Nick Cave exhibition at the Museum of WA, which was fantastic (given that Cave is something of an idol of mine). Perth seems like a nice enough city, although the couple of days we spent there probably weren't really enough to properly get a feel for the place. Still the view of the city from the banks of the Swan is nice.

The rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated....

Ok so I've been a slack-arse, and haven't updated the blog for a while (ok, about a month and a half!) so I'll do a quick round-up of what I've been up to since the last post...

Days 35-38: Margaret River area to to Perth

After Pemberton we headed down to Dunsborough via a couple o
f wineries, and my next diving destination, the wrech of the HMAS Swan, which lies in 30m of water off Dunsborough. Despite being rather seasick I got a good dive in on the wreck, which was a pretty awesome experience. Unfortunately it wasn't the easiest place to take pictures but here's one of my dive buddy saluting me from the bridge : )

The next day we checked out the Margaret river area, visiting a few wineries and breweries, and checking out the local scenery. Unfortunately the weather still wasn't co-operating and was pretty grim, although it did make the big surf at Canal Rocks pretty impressive.

We then headed up to Perth, where the sun finally started shining!!