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Back to the Big Smoke

Brisbane from Mt Coot-Tha

Brisbane from Mt Coot-Tha

Unfortunately, much as I hate cities sometimes they can’t be avoided. They are concentrations of many things apart from people. Or maybe because of people. Restaurants, hospitals, cinemas, live shows, shops. Pollution, traffic snarls, noise. Sigh. But yeah. Medical specialists tend to work best in the city setting. All the equipment and required facilities are more readily available. So we drove down to Brisbane for a procedure to take place over two days, while I kicked my heels in a hotel.

However – did I mention the shops? Much as I love where I live, and I’m not a great shopper, sometimes the lack of variety in Hervey Bay can be frustrating. So this would be a chance to go into town and find myself a coat, preferably leather, that I could dress up if needed. Usually it would be worn with jeans. I’d booked into a small hotel near the city centre, and walked into the Queen Street mall with high hopes. I’d get this done, drop off the jacket back at the pub and take my camera for a walk in the park. Yes. That was the plan. Then I’d go back to the room and work on the next book.

Well, let me tell you a couple of things, folks. The current fashion has gone back to skinny. Skin tight pants, leggings, form fitting jackets. Leather jackets are biker style, fitted to the waist, with lots of non functional pockets closed with zips. A year or forty – or even twenty – ago I could have gone down that route. But not anymore, for two reasons. 1) I don’t like that style, having gravitated (as you do) to comfortable sack style. Gone are the days of lying on your back on the bed to do up the zip. 2) I’m no longer size 10 – or even 14. It seems that if you’re in the size 8 to size 14 range, the world of fashion is your oyster. You might find an occasional 16. Anything larger than that – nuh-uh. There might be a few sections in the big department stores specialising in larger sizes, or the occasional large size dress shop. But while I know I need to lose some weight, I’m not obese. Nor am I unusual. I’d venture to suggest that with obesity levels in this country soaring, the buyers ought to be looking at their stock.

I should add that I could have bought a genuine leather coat in a style I found acceptable. But the designer label $800-$1,000 weren’t even in the venue let alone the playing field, and  I balked at paying $600 for a coat, and then another $75 to have the sleeves taken up. I just won’t wear it often enough.

Anyway, after five unproductive hours of wandering around every sodding dress shop in the CBD (including some mens stores) it started to rain. So I bought myself a cheap umbrella and winced my painful way back to my hotel room, coatless. I suppose the rain was a good thing. I was too sore to spend the afternoon walking around in the gardens (not as fit as I used to be) and the rain provided a perfect excuse to play on my laptop instead. Mind you, I played solitaire instead of doing some writing on my WIP. But I’ll attribute that to frustration.

forest

Forest path

Water and fernsOn the bright side, I went to the Brisbane botanical gardens at Mt Coot-Tha the previous afternoon. There is nothing quite so wonderful as walking along a narrow path in cool shade provided by towering trees, palms and ferns, with the sound of tinkling water filling the air.

Birdsville and more Lake Eyre

It’s day 4 of our Lake Eyre adventure. If you’ve missed the previous episodes, here’s day 1, day 2 and day 3.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

The Birdsville pub

The Birdsville pub

We landed in Birdsville and I get to cross another entry off my bucket list. Birdsville is probably THE hottest place in Australia. The official highest recorded temperature is apparently 49.5 – but that’s in the shade.

It was Good Friday, one of the few days of the year when everybody shuts up shop. The pub’s front bar was closed, but since we were guests we got to use the Lizard Bar. This is another tiny outback town which has made a name for itself. People come here from everywhere on the 1st September for the Birdsville Cup, a gazetted thoroughbred race. The population swells from about 160 to eight to ten thousand. Then they all go home and it’s over for another year.

I was a little bit bemused at learning we were going to be taken for a half-hour bus tour of the town. But it actually turned out to be a heap of fun. We were shown the race course, and the permanent lagoon (part of the Diamantina river), and the nearby camping ground. Our guide explained that the influx of visitors for the Cup puts a strain on the town resources, especially the rubbish tip. The burning of rubbish is forbidden (OH&S) but as it happens the Birdsville tip seems to be struck by lightning every Wednesday at 2pm. Act of God, know what I mean? We saw the standpipe where the town’s water supply comes up steaming from the artesian basin. The water goes through a cooling tower and filters before it’s pumped to houses, but it’s never really cold. We were taken to admire the new street lights in a housing area at the edge of town. No houses, but nice lights. Our guide explained that there are about 4 rateable properties in Birdsville, so most of the town’s money comes from grants from drought or flood. The lights were from one grant, the streets were added later from another grant. They’d like a flood, please. They’ve had enough drought for now. Then we popped into the Birdsville Bakery for a chance to buy a curried camel pie and other tasty goodies.

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The racetrack

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The Birdsville Track, made famous by Tom Kruse on the longest mail run in Australia

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Birdsville’s town water supply comes up from the Great Artesian Basin

    The Birdsville Bakery. And that gentleman with his hands on his hips is Trevor Wright, dictator of William Creek

The Birdsville Bakery.

Our guide epitomised the kind of people you get in the outback – tough, resilient, with a wicked sense of humour. They have a cultivated disdain for bureaucracy, which is understandable. Rules and regulations dreamed up by clerks sitting at desks in air conditioned comfort in Canberra or Brisbane just don’t make sense out here. Practicality is the name of the game.

And then it was back into the planes for another look at Lake Eyre before we met out trusty guide at Marree. This time we also flew over the part of the lake where Sir Donald Campbell broke the land speed record in Bluebird in 1964. This flight I was even more impressed with the scenery as aboriginal art.

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This is a cattle station with a serious airstrip

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There’s algae in the salt, hence the pink colour

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The water won’t last long

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Reminds me of the Nazca plain

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Chaos theory in action

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Eyre to Birdsville by air

lake EyreIt’s day three of our journey to see Lake Eyre in flood. If you missed day 1 you’ll find it here, and day 2 is here. Today we leave Marree and travel along the Oodnadatta track to William Creek, where we’ll catch a plane.

We’re really in the outback now, surrounded by barren plains with maybe a range of low hills on the horizon. It’s dry out here. Marree’s average annual rainfall is 160mm (6.3″). The vegetation is tough. There’s a lot of salt bush, and plants with leathery, greyish leaves. But there’s water, if you know where to look. Australia is host to the largest artesian basin in the world, and the road we’re following is there because it follows the water. Many towns up here have ‘wet’ words like creek or well in their names, places where water can be found. We stop in a particularly desolate area to look at the mound springs – places where the mineral-filled water bubbles up to the surface. Over thousands of years the minerals were deposited and the mounds built up. You can see from the pictures that around such springs the ground is lush with plant life. These springs have had to be protected from cattle, which trample the edges and muddy the flow.

Maybe they need to be protected from people, too. The settlers didn’t understand this country. Read the story on the information board and you’ll see what I mean. The aboriginal people called these places home, and they looked after them. Water, after all, is life.

This barren country is where you find mound springs

This barren country is where you find mound springs

That's a mound spring. It's a long way to the top

That’s a mound spring. It’s a long way to the top

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This spring is known as the bubbler. You can see why.

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

But it’s not just humans who need water. We crossed a creek full with recent rain. It teemed with little fingerlings all fighting for a chance to get to lake Eyre. And surrounding this crossing were hundreds of silver gulls. The nearest coast is at Port Augusta, around 450km away. How the gulls knew the water and the fish were here is a mystery.

Silver gulls in the desert. There's a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

Silver gulls in the desert. There’s a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

We arrived at William Creek (population 12) just before lunch, served (of course) in the pub. The owner, Trevor Wright, basically owns the town but he doesn’t like to be called king. He reckons he’s more of a benevolent dictator. He’s a big man with a shock of white hair and he operates the planes we’ll use over Lake Eyre. He likes to talk, too. One of his pilots came in to give him a hurry up call. The planes and the pilots were waiting.

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William Creek

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All you need to know about William Creek

Six of us 5V3A4771(including the pilot) crammed into a Cessna 210. I was in the last of 3 rows of seats and I won’t pretend it was comfy. The outside temperature was in the late 30’s and the cabin wasn’t air conditioned. We took along bottled water and frozen wet towels to keep us cool. I found the best way to avoid dwelling on discomfort was to watch what was going on below. It’s 450km as the crow flies from William Creek to Birdsville – and a bit more when you’re sight seeing. The journey took about two and a half hours and I don’t mind admitting I was pleased to stagger out of the plane at the other end.

The following day we did it all again, flying from Birdsville back to Marree, where our driver picked us up. There’s a lot to say about Birdsville, but I’ll do that in another post. For now, let’s take a look at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

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Heading towards Lake Eyre

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water

 

More reflections

More reflections

Flocks of pelicans. That's why we're up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we'd end up being permanent residents

Flocks of pelicans. That’s why we’re up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we’d end up being permanent residents

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

The Diamantina flows into the lake

The Diamantina flows into the lake

Trevor said he'd never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

Trevor said he’d never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

The desert. It doesn't look like the Sahara - but there are sand dunes

The desert. It doesn’t look like the Sahara – but there are sand dunes

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

Red sand of the Simpson desert

Red sand of the Simpson desert

This is 'Big Red' a sand dune 30m high.

This is ‘Big Red’ a sand dune 30m high.

Coming in to land. That's the plane's shadow on the ground

Coming in to land. That’s the plane’s shadow on the ground in the middle of the picture

 

 

Crossing the Flinders – the Pichi Richi pass

Lake EyreWe’re on our way to see Lake Eyre in flood. Last time, we left Adelaide and travelled to Port Augusta at the head of Spencer Gulf. From Port Augusta we travelled north, crossing the Flinders Ranges via the Pichi Richi pass. We’re following the old railway line built for the Ghan in 1879. You’ll find the history here. These days, the line and its steam train offer a tourist service. Press ‘home’ on that website to find out more.

We’re headed for Quorn, which used to be an important railway town. In 1917 it was the junction between trains travelling east-west or north-south, but eventually it was bypassed. Now the railway station houses a rail museum, and it’s where tourists can board the Pichi Richi steam train for an authentic look at the Flinders Ranges.

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Opposite the railway station at Quorn – two pubs. Typical.

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The parrot was eating grapes on the vines growing on the pub veranda in the previous picture

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The platform at Quorn station

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Old ore cars in the rail yard

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The Prairie Hotel at Parachilna

20160324_121054Lunch was at Parachilna’s Prairie Hotel. It’s the only substantial building in “town” (population 15), but this little place is typical of the resilience of the outback people. They’re reinventing themselves by offering an experience you can’t get anywhere else – Australian bush food. They call it ‘feral’ (see website under ‘restaurant’) because some of it is – camels and goats are introduced species. We were served a tasting platter of kangaroo mettwurst, emu pate, camel salami, goat cheese, quandong chutney, bush tomato chilli jam, (and some chicken) with what looked like home baked sourdough bread and a salad. It was seriously yummy and I’d go back in a moment. You can find out a little more about Parachilna itself here.

 

imageFrom there we went to what our guide described as a semi-ghost town called Farina. It seems a semi-ghost town is one where not all the houses are abandoned. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered why anybody would want to live in a place like that, surrounded by crumbling remnants of past lives, but some people evidently do. Farina is close to Farina station (what the Americans call a ranch, not a railway station). Having said that, like most of the towns we visited, it started off being all about the railway. But we were just passing through.

And then our guide did something wonderful.

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Not too many people lasted out here.

Bush-bashing

Bush-bashing

She didn’t go back to the highway the same way she’d come. She knew there was another way, so she took us bush-bashing through the scrub at the back of the Flinders Range. I lost count of the dry creek crossings we negotiated, all of them studded with magnificent river red gums. All the while, we drove in the shadow of the Flinders, following the remains of the railway back to the blacktop. Even in an air-conditioned 4WD, I got a better idea of what it was like for the poor innocents who tried to conquer this country. You don’t. You just don’t.

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Marree Pub at dawn, with a nearly full moon

And then on to Maree, (population 60), deep in the desert and not far from Lake Eyre. This is another town which has had to reinvent itself. Phil and Maz Turner turned their backs on the bright lights of Canberra and bought the pub in 2011. Phil’s a big man with a big beard and he’s happy to talk to travellers. He told us he wanted a change from being a business consultant, so he bought the worst pub in the best town and hasn’t looked back. He has developed motel style accommodation and small but functional cabins for tourists like us. Phil has enormous admiration for pioneering outback legends like Tom Kruse (pronounced the same way as the plonker in Hollywood – and that’s where the resemblance ends) and has set up an exhibition in the pub. It was a great evening. We bought drinks at the bar from a black Canadian guy, got to meet the pub dogs, and ate a simple but tasty meal in the pub restaurant.

Marree is home to the Lake Eyre Yacht Club. Yes, it’s real – even if they can’t go boating all that often.

Next blog we’ll be going to William Creek to catch a plane for a flight over Lake Eyre and on to Birdsville.

 

Chasing rainbows

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance is down on the southern West Australian coastline, an absolute jewel for those willing to take the time to visit. Showers accompany us along the road from Albany and rainbows appear – on both sides of the road. By this time the Pajero’s windscreen resembles the surface of Mars, with a sprinkling of craters and two cracks that inch a little further every day. It has also acquired a patina of insect bodies but even so, this rainbow is a jewel.Rainbow 1

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

We’re staying with friends I haven’t seen for twenty years, but we reconnected via Face Book and I’m looking forward to the visit. Needless to say, our sat nav isn’t much help to navigate to a farm but we follow the instructions given on the phone and find the farm entrance just on sunset. Yes, this is the right track. Well graded gravel, even the zig-zags between the wide puddles. It has been wet wet wet here. A couple of kilometres from the gate we find the third house and I get out to check we’re at the right place. We are.

The canola crop is ruined.

The canola crop is ruined.

We stay for three nights. Joe and Charlotte and their eldest son farm 23,000 acres where they plant canola and raise cattle and sheep. Their machinery shed is mind-boggling. They have headers and bull dozers and road trains and ploughs and I forget what else. The big machines cost close to a million dollars each, mostly high-tech with computer controlled functionality and air-conditioned cabs (the headers, anyway). Pete is fascinated by the sheer scale of the operation. It costs $3 million to plant a crop, and they might make $5 million. If they get to harvest. This season will be poor. Australia runs in cycles of flood and drought, and this year has been the wettest for decades. The canola stands in shallow lakes, the yellow flowers reflecting prettily in the water.

There’s always work on a farm and Pete goes to help the boys bring in sheep while Charlotte and I go off to do the tourist thing at an area called Duke of Orleans. The scenery here is breath-taking. The granite outcrops are just as spectacular as they are in Albany, but the rock seems more colourful. The sea is turquoise blue, and the beaches are brilliant white, full of silicon. The sand literally squeaks under your feet as you walk. The islands of the Recherche Archipelago dot the ocean, steep granite mounds, such a contrast to the pancake-flat platforms of the Abrolhos Islands. It’s late in the day, and the showers have stopped, although clouds still drift across the sky in groups and the wind is fresh, whisking up the white caps. I manage a few reasonable pictures and then we head for home, talking all the while.

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Next day, Joe takes us out to a granite outcrop at the top of a hill to see if we can find some orchids. It’s quite an adventure. The paddock we cross is waterlogged and despite High rock Esperance1the four wheel drive, Charlotte is not the only one who wonders if we’ll be pushing the car. Oh we of little faith. We’re a little bit early for the orchids but a few have shown their faces. These outcrops are baking hot in summer. Only the toughest plants, like the dryandra, can survive. The delicate orchids wait their turn with the mosses and lichens, responding to the first rains. Charlotte tells me her oldest son was married here, overlooking the land. What a place for a wedding.

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

While Joe and his son move another mob of sheep, Pete fixes Charlotte’s ride-on mower and Charlotte and I drive out to Cape Le Grande. You’ve probably noticed the French place names. The French poked around the Australian coast many times, in lots of places but they seem to have left their mark especially around that southern coast. Bruni d’Entrecasteaux visited this area in 1792, and named both Esperance and Recherche after ships in his expedition. The weather is stunning, with blue skies and light breezes, an absolute invitation to climb on the rocks and walk on the beaches. We admire the scenery and the wild flowers, and encounter a kangaroo fossicking around on the beach. She seems untroubled by our presence, apparently grazing on something. We have no idea what.Esperance beachA roo on beach

Looking over the sea at the islands I’m reminded of a story I read somewhere, that a black American pirate operated out of here. My recollection is correct. Here’s the story of Black Jack Anderson Australia’s only known pirate. And here’s a link to a book about him.

From here we’ll be heading for home, east across the Nullarbor. Join us, won’t you?

Heading for the hills

Back in the car again we head for the hills. Literally. Perth is hemmed in to the west by the Indian Ocean and to the east, the Darling Range, an escarpment which rises abruptly, if not very high. We aim to stay a night in Albany on the south west coast, cutting off the bottom corner of Western Australia with its tall stands of temperate forests, boutique wineries, wild surfing beaches and spectacular limestone caves. I have fond memories of those places, but I’ve been there many times and this is, after all, a whip around Australia.

Canola in the foreground and behind grazing sheep

Canola in the foreground and behind grazing sheep

The landscape changes quickly, replacing the coastal sand dunes and limestone with gravel and rounded granite outcrops. Taller eucalypts form dense forests. This is the home of jarrah, a beautiful, fine-grained hard wood found nowhere else in the world. It’s heavy wood that when cut almost glows with the deep red of dying embers. When I was a kid the timber was used for fruit boxes and fences – and at our place, speargun handles, the shape roughly sawn and then carefully sanded by my older brother. Now, the trees are protected from logging but they are under threat from the soil born fungus phytophthora cinnamomi.

I spent many a happy hour in those forests. The climate here is mediterranean, with almost all the rain falling in winter. In summer the bush endures intense heat and rainless months. The trees shut down, leathery leaves hanging from branches, conserving precious moisture. It’s a time of survival where even the locals don’t budge until nightfall. But in winter, the hollows in the hills fill, the many streams begin to flow, and the run-off feeds the dams that supply water to Perth. It’s a magical time for children. While my father collected fallen timber to take home to burn, my brother and I would explore the streams gurgling through rocky beds softened by bright green moss brought to life by the rain. If we were lucky, we’d find rapids where the water chuckled and clattered over stones smoothed over centuries, or a deep, silent, shadowed pool. If we were even luckier Mum would have brought sausages, which we’d cook over an open fire and eat in a slice of bread. With billy tea, of course.

Albany from Google Earth

Albany from Google Earth

The forests give way to farmland, wide hectares of canola and short, arid-tolerant wheat interspersed with sheep and cattle. Sometimes we find a small town, almost always next to a river. The road is good, and despite the increasing showers, we reach Albany by lunchtime.

It’s a pretty little place with a spectacular natural harbour formed by low granite hills. Two islands in the outer harbour (King George Sound) protect the town from the pounding gales of the southern Indian ocean. I note with interest that the narrow passage into the harbour is called Ataturk Entrance. The reference is historical. Troop carriers loaded with Australian soldiers left for WW1 in 1914 from this port, for many their last glimpse of home. Those soldiers went to Egypt to train for the campaign against the Turks at Gallipoli – where the Turkish army was led by Kemal Ataturk. The name was given in 1985 as part of a reciprocal arrangement with Turkey to honour the dead on both sides of that pointless conflict. Nice.

Granite rocks line the edges of Albany Harbour

Granite rocks line the edges of Albany Harbour

The weather still threatens but the breaks in the clouds allow for some great photo opportunities, the water silvered by sunlight. In the distance, ocean rollers crash against the outer islands. The seas are rough, and rich.

The sun, shining through breaks in the clouds, silvers the water

The sun, shining through breaks in the clouds, silvers the water

Whaling was a major industry here, and indeed, was a reason the area was colonised. It’s sobering to learn that the last whale was taken as late as 1978. Now, whale watching has replaced whale hunting but I can do that in the warm, calm waters of Hervey Bay at home. There’s a whaling information exhibit where they used to process the whales, along with the last whale chaser, Cheynes II.

Rather than risk getting wet trying to find a place for dinner, we book into a motel with a restaurant. Dinner proves to be less than a foodie’s delight. It can sometimes be hard to get as many vegetables as we’d like when travelling, so we order the soup of the day, which we are told is minestrone. Except it is shredded chicken and mashed vegetable. We eat it, but point out the error to the wait person, who explains that he simply told us what the chef had written down. Uh-huh. For main course I order the chicken caesar salad, correctly described in the menu. But the kitchen used iceberg lettuce, not cos, and there is no chicken. Pete is unimpressed with his pork chops and even less impressed with the soggy vegetables and salad offered in the help yourself bar. I can’t help but feel that our complaints are seen as a nuisance more than anything else, although the cost of the soup is removed from the bill.

That’s one hotel crossed off the places to stay list. Never mind. Tomorrow night, we’ll be staying with friends.

Some motels are crummier than others

A panoramaPicking motels from the internet has its pitfalls – especially as you pay when booking. We chose to be careful and booked a motel room in Karratha online from Port Hedland. We’re staying two nights so we can do a day trip to Millstream in the Chichester Range. Nice place. I’ve been there before.

We found the address – but not the motel. Rather than go and ask at the rather inauspicious hotel where the motel should have been, His Highness assumed a mistake had been made in recording the details. To cut a long story short, I ended up asking at the aforementioned hotel, at the front bar. I had my doubts pretty much immediately, walking over sticky carpet to a bar where a handful of chaps in dayglo safety jackets perched on barstools. The barmaid didn’t know, neither did the bloke she was chatting up – but the other fellow sitting beside him did. Next door, it seemed.

We eventually found a tiny sign for the motel – but we were sent back to the bottle shop in the pub to book in. When Pete mentioned a sign in the road for the motel might have been nice, the manager fellow said the council had complained because the sign was 10mm too long. So we booked in. This place is clean, but very, very tired. The faux floor boards are peeling, the bedspread needs replacing and a few glasses to go with the chipped, not matching mugs would have been nice. Need I add that the internet wasn’t working? We found out why the faux floor boards were lifting when we had a shower. The water oozed through and soaked into the backing, so you squelched your way across the floor.

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An ore train heading for the port

We’ve stayed in some pretty ordinary motels in the past and this isn’t the worst, but it sure is up there, especially for the cost. Still, we can live with it for two nights.

Having said all of that, there’s always a bright side. We ended up chatting with a fellow inmate, and sharing a table for dinner at the pub’s restaurant. It was unanimously agreed the food and the company were both excellent. And I sold a book. We promised to catch up with Mick in Perth, where I would sign To Die a Dry Death for him.

Chichester Range and spinifex

Chichester Range and spinifex

DSC01863Millstream turned out to be HUGE disappointment. It’s changed in 30 years or so. Hell, I probably have too. A little bit. But the Chichester Range and Python’s Pool made up for a lot.

Back at the motel, the room hadn’t been serviced. But dinner was every bit as good on the second night as it was the first.

We said goodbye to Karratha with no regrets. It’s a town of transients who come here to work. Looking at what they work at was certainly interesting. The massive ore trains, the mountains of coal and salt and the LNG plant offered lots of work, but the demand has waned a little. I get the real impression that people can’t wait to get out of here. We can’t say we disagree.

Horizontal Falls -an exhilirating freak of nature

A Falls2A horizontal waterfall. The very concept is strange. How can water fall horizontally? It can and it does, provided you have the intersection of a number of factors. That combination occurs in the Kimberley in remote north west Australia. It’s rugged country, characterised by eroded, ancient mountains and thousands of tiny islands where those same eroded mountains were drowned when the ocean rose. Here, ten metres of water, the second highest tides in the world (after Nova Scotia) surge backwards and forwards twice a day. In some places, the water rushes through narrow canyons to flood a valley at high tide, and rush back through the gap at low tide. The phenomenon happens in several places – but none so spectacularly as at Horizontal Falls. Think of water going through a funnel and you’ve got a good analogy.

We started our day early. Pick up was at 0530 to catch a seaplane to Talbot Bay. The alarm went off at 3am, courtesy of a person who shall remain nameless, who set the alarm on a phone still on Australian Central time, which was an hour and a half earlier than Western time. What? Nobody’s perfect. And I’m sure I’ll never hear the end of it.

The sun was rising as the plane took off for the flight over the rugged Kimberley hills, the light glancing off mist-filled valleys lying between bare cliffs. Then we were descending into Talbot Bay. The pilot banked, performing a low level turn over the falls. Those gaps looked narrow from up there. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling a prickle of adrenalin.

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A narrow fallsA tide flowTrips through the falls are dependent on the tide and we headed out immediately. The first gap is twenty meters wide. The powerful jet boat raced forward, going up the flow, bouncing and pitching across the churning water. The skipper held the vessel at the point where the water looked smooth before it tumbled into chaos. Going back through was even more exciting as the boat literally fell off each wave top. We did the trip back up again and took a look at the second gap. To be honest, I was scared he’d take the boat through that. The canyon is only seven metres wide and some of those sticky-outy bits looked as though they were just waiting to eviscerate a boat that tried the trip. But our intrepid skipper didn’t relish the thought of all the paperwork if anything went wrong, so we headed back for breakfast, given a promise we’d go through when the tide had dropped.

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A reflections3A reflectionsWe went back during that hour when the tide has lost its power and the water in bays were at equilibrium before the great rush started again. The contrast is stunning. The boat ran easily between the cliffs, revealing bays ringed by red-gold hills, mud flats and grey-green scrub, all reflected in mirror-flat water under an impossibly blue sky. The only sound was the creaking of the boat and our voices.

We did other things on a very full day, but the falls were the highlight – as well as the flight over the Buccaneer Archipelago and its myriad of tiny islands. What a buzz. An unforgettable memory.A Buccaneer

Never smile at a crocodile

Salt water crocodiles. AuA croc headstralia’s greatest predator. Ancient, wily, aggressive and absolutely deadly. I didn’t get a chance to see one in the wild. Here’s a bit more technical info about the crocs. Mind you, there are tours that can guarantee a sighting because they feed the giant reptiles, but that wasn’t anywhere we were going. So when we reached Broome we visited Malcolm Douglas’s wild life park.

Malcolm died in a car accident a few years ago, but here in Australia he’s as much of an icon as Steve Irwin – and he never said ‘crikey’, but he did say g’day. Malcolm used to be a crocodile hunter up here in the north. In 1973, when crocs were protected, after most of the big ones had been killed, Malcolm became a conservationist. He started a croc park/croc farm near Broome and learned how to trap the big males in the wild. He was often called to catch and remove dangerous crocs from the northern waterways. They were transferred to his breeding farm to live out their lives siring handbags and harassing tourists.

When we arrived at the park, having entered through a stone crocodile’s jaws, we reached an enormous, weed covered lake. Several suspicious logs drifted about. However, the weed-covered crocs basking in the sun gave the game away. The lake contains seventy crocs, mainly male. The reptiles are usually highly territorial but these guys get along fairly well because they were all brought up together – so they’re not the rogue males I mentioned earlier. I’ll get to them.

A crocs

Up to 70 crocs, mostly male, share this large lake.

Our host Chris started proceedings by handing around a few very young crocs (jaws taped despite their tiny size – which says something in itself). After photo opportunities, he threw chickens and fish carcasses to the big crocs. They weren’t very interested. Chris explained that despite the mid-thirties (centigrade) temperatures, this was cold for the crocs, who prefer the forty+ of the summer. They’d rather lounge in the sun warming their bones. But… you could almost imagine the conversation…

“Charley? Charley!!!”
“What?”
“He’s here again. Brought those whatsits. And he’s throwing nibbles around.”
Charley half opens an eyelid. “I’m not hungry. Go back to sleep.” He smacks his jaws and tries to settle.
“No. Go on. I did it yesterday. It’s your turn.” Nudge. “Get on with it.”
Grumbling,  Charley lifts his head and tries to look interested.  A few moments later… “Okay. I swallowed a nibble, leave me alone.”

However… never smile at a crocodile. One croc was much more animated. He fixed a beady eye on Chris and advanced with intent. Trust me, it was obvious. That reptilian golden eye glittered and the move was focused. Unfortunately (for the croc) he stood on a few heads and bodies, and woke up some large neighbours who objected and told him so. He was forced to retreat into the lake, literally walking over everybody to do so. A leaving

Everybody settled down and dozed off, as old folks often do. Then we went to meet the rogue’s gallery. Here’s a few CVs.Croc signs

Yes, they’re a bit dopey and cold and not very interested. But that doesn’t mean they’re nice.

As mentioned, the males are very territorial, so each has his own pond with a female in attendance. Sometimes the crocs were basking on the bank. Sometimes there was no sign of them. In one such case, Chris threw a round, black, supposedly indestructible float onto the water.  The resident crocodile exploded out of the water, jaws agape and all the spectators took a step backwards. Crocs are stealthy hunters, endlessly patient and much smarter than they look. It’s said in the Territory that if you go fishing at the same spot three days in a row, that third time a croc will be waiting for you. And if you don’t get them with a tranquiliser dart on the first try, you’ll never get close enough to try again. Did I mention they can climb, and jump, and run fast over a short distance?

A salty 5

This croc is up on a metre-high fence, lunging at our guide. He has shoved a stick down the beast’s throat to deter it.

Apart from a high-powered rifle bullet, they have few weaknesses. They can actually withdraw their eyes into their heads to prevent damage, so don’t bother trying to gouge their eyes if they latch onto you. Those teeth are not sharp but the jaws are powerful. When a croc catches hold it tries to drown its prey, performing a ‘death roll’ to force the victim underwater. The only weak point they have is at the back of the throat, where a flap closes so they don’t get a lungful of water. Oh, and that death roll? One of the big rogue males was missing a front foot. It seems he got too close to the missus’s mound where her eggs were deposited. She attacked the massive male, (much larger than her), grabbed his front foot and performed a death roll, tearing the foot off. Interestingly, despite the dirty water they prefer, the injury didn’t set the croc back at all. We may have something to learn from them about infection.

Chris demonstrated the totally different temperament of the freshwater croc by actually walking into the pen with them. Normally, he said, they would have disappeared into their pond when he approached, but only one did that. None showed any sign of aggression.

A gators

Gators waiting for fish carcasses

The park also had a few American alligators. Like the crocs, they were dozy, but not as dozy as the salties. It seems alligators can stand much cooler temperatures than crocs. Chris explained that while a few parks had gators, they were not bred from and all the park’s animals were males. The last thing anybody wants is for gators to become yet another feral species in Australia. While our crocs are confined to the tropics, the alligators would be capable of spreading down into the southern waterways of the continent.

So what’s the smart thing to do around crocs? Keep away. Take care. Talk to the locals who live with them. And never, never smile at them. They’re imagining how well you’d fit inside their skins.

Along the mighty Fitzroy

a stone croc

A salty cast in concrete

Next stop on the Big Trip was Fitzroy Crossing, a comfortable 650km or so down the road – including a side trip to the old port of Wyndham which used to service the cattle trade and has now expanded into other areas. I was hoping to see a salty (salt water croc) but I was disappointed.

As usual, the road barrels along between low, eroded hills and passes over dry river beds. The bridges are narrow, with room for only one car so drivers have to exercise common sense if another car is coming the other way.

Everywhere you’ll see termite mounds, their colours reflecting the ground, sometimes deepA fire red, sometimes limestone pale. In between is the usual sclerophyll scrub, some taller eucalypts and the signature boab trees. The largest of those can be over one thousand years old. This one is framed by a grass fire, probably started by some vandal and quite uncontrollable.

The mighty Fitzroy River is among the largest in Australia – when it’s running, of course. We’re talking about Sydney Harbours of water pouring into the sea in the Wet. In the Dry, a series of deep pools keep the local wildlife alive.

In this land of extremes, it’s hard to get across to people from more equitable climates how dramatic those changes can be. These pictures of the Fitzroy at Fitzroy Crossing might give you an idea.

A concrete crossingNot too many years ago, all rivers were crossed using fords which later were at least cast in concrete. This one lane ford over the Fitzroy plunges steeply down from the river bank to the bed, then up the other side. At the height of the wet season, the road is impassable.

So they built a bridge. Now, towardA Fitzroy rivers the end of the Dry, the pools still trickle from one to the other. I’m standing on the river bank taking the picture.

Far below me, a Jabiru flies over the pools looking for breakfast. At the height of the 2011 floods, the water would A flying cranehave been over my head – and over that bridge. Bear in mind we’re a long way from the river’s mouth into King Sound. Further down its length we crossed three major channels funnelling the Fitzroy’s water to the ocean. I’ve included a picture of the 2011 floods from the visitor centre at Geikie Gorge to give you some idea of what I’m talking about.

A floodOf course, the Fitzroy has its share of spectacular gorges formed at rocky ground where deep water can last. A GeikieTwenty kilometres from the town of Fitzroy Crossing is such a place – Geikie Gorge. This is a very special place. The rocks are so different from most in this red, sunburnt land. Yes, it’s limestone but it’s steep and sharp. This little article about the gorge is eye-opening and accurate about the park’s current condition. And they’re expecting cane toads to arrive with the next flood. Those introduced toads will decimate the unique wildlife. The gorge contains sawfish and stingrays which have evolved to survive in this very different environment. Read more about the place here.

I’d like to see more done about preserving these incredible places. When we were there work had commenced on cleaning up the area around the visitor centre but much more needs to be done to clear away the introduced weeds choking the trees and covering the rocks. Because the land must cope with extremes in its own way, it is very fragile, unsuited to coping with the introduced species.

We didn’t have time to take the two-hour boat trip to look at the gorge from the water. A pity. But it won’t be the only thing I’ll miss on this trip.