Tag Archives: australia

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.

IMG_2429

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.

A both gaps

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.

A reflections2

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.

Ord River buzz

A lake ArgyleThe highlight of our visit to Kununurra was a trip on the Ord River. After all, without the Ord River, Kununurra wouldn’t exist. The town was created in the sixties, when one of the visionary Duracks, who originally opened up the area, persuaded the Government to dam the river. If you’ve been following my journey, you’d know that year-round water is a huge problem up here. There’s the Wet and the Dry, and the Wet is very, very wet and the Dry is very, very dry. In between there’s fire, which clears the land ready for the next wet. But traditional crops like wheat, cotton and sugar cane don’t grow like that. So a dam was built and Lake Argyle was created. You can read all about it here.

It’s hard to give an idea of size when talking about lakes and things. I’ve often heard descriptions involving Olympic sized swimming pools and football fields. But sometimes even they become insignificant. In Australia we have our own term of measurement – Sydney Harbours. Sydney Harbour holds a big lot of Olympic swimming pools (don’t ask me how many) so we have an idea that’s an enormous amount of water. Lake Argyle holds about 15 Sydney Harbours in normal times. At the height of the 2011 floods it held 44 Sydney Harbours and the flow over the diversion dam that feeds the irrigation area is also measured in Sydney Harbours.

Yes, there’s irrigation, but the other use for all that water is hydro electricity, which requires steady water flow over the turbines. So the line of isolated waterholes that used to mark the course of the Ord River in the Dry is now a fast flowing, all year river.

That’s it for context, folks. Let the journey begin. We caught a bus up to the main dam, stopping for a scenic glimpse of the lake. From there, we piled onto a jet boat – very fast, with very shallow draft to get over the shallow, rocky bits, but able to drift very comfortably in the deep bits. And off we went. The very knowledgeable driver stopped often to let us take pictures of wildlife and reflections.

A rock wallaby3

A rock wallaby watches us from high on a vertical rock wall. They are very agile little critters.

A reflections6

Red rock, blue sky, water. Gorgeous.

A reflections5

We stopped for afternoon tea. This was taken from the river bank in late afternoon light.

A reflections1

Paperbarks line the bank.

A pelicans

A pair of pelicans enjoy the sunlight

A croc

A Johnson river crocodile basks on a reed bed

Guys, this was the bestest trip. Loved the boat, loved the river, loved the red rock almost glowing in the sunlight, loved the reflections, the bird life, the crocs, the botany lessons. If you get a chance, go do it. And at the end, back at Kununurra, we watched the sunset from the boat.

A sunset1

An ancient land

rampart

Nature doesn’t do straight lines

It’s one of those truisms that nature doesn’t operate in straight lines but if you think about it, that’s not necessarily true. Rocks, in particular, often follow straight lines through stress and fractures. By their nature they form blocks which man then uses to build structures. Take the Great Wall of China, which is built of local stone and marches for miles across and around the hills in China. Today, that mighty structure – where it has not been rebuilt – is a jumble of rocks.

Now look at the picture above.

It’s so easy to imagine a ruined wall. But it’s an eroded hill, exposing the hardest rocks as the worn down material slides down to create the slope.

Or this one. Ruined castle, anyone?rocks

When you look at pictures like this you begin to understand the essence of the Australian landscape. It’s old. It was old before the dinosaurs – before anything, really. Those rocks in the Nitmiluk gorge don’t contain fossils and I’ll bet these don’t either. These rocks are like the last remains of a long-dead beast, dessicated bones poking up through the ground. The soil here (if such a word is appropriate) is poor, lacking in nutrients. The vegetation is tough and resilient, able to cope with flood, drought and fire. In fact, though the aboriginal people never farmed and were nomadic, they certainly managed the land. They would set fires not long after the wet to burn the dried grasses at a time when the flames would not cause huge conflagrations. That happened in nature, too, fires lit by lightning. The dead vegetation was cleaned away and new growth rose in the ashes, food for kangaroos and other prey animals. And, of course, if you knew where to look, water was available, collected in pools in the great rivers, even if the water only flowed in the wet.

At Nimitluk, our guide told us how the people found crocodile eggs. Fresh water crocs lay eggs on sandy banks, burying them like turtles do, then just leave the eggs until they’re ready to hatch. The youngsters make a noise the females recognise and they come back to help the new crocs out of their eggs. Until then, though, the eggs can be harvested. The time for that is when the yellow flowers appear on the kapok bushes. The aboriginal tribes knew this place, the cycles of life, what they could eat and what they couldn’t. And they never destroyed. They never took all the croc eggs, they never killed all the kangaroos.bag

I want to finish this with a piece of work created by local aboriginal women. We call them ‘primitive’. But they can make something like this out of grass, and they can survive in this fundamentally hostile land. Their traditional lifestyle is totally different from ours but slowly slowly, we’re beginning to understand, just a little.

Walkabout Day 1

sunsetDay one – aaaaargh. It was supposed to be a simple little trip up the road to Emerald. Easy. Australia’s main highway north, west at Rocky (Rockhampton), arrive Emerald around 3:30, 4pm.

Wrong.

Childers

50kph through Childers – the A1 northbound

The problem, you see, is Australia’s main highway north. The Bruce Highway is a six laner out of Brisbane but well south of where we live, it dwindles down to two lanes each way, then it’s just an ordinary old, two lane suburban road. It’s still the A1. But it carries all the heavy traffic – B doubles, oversize loads etc etc – and the grey nomads and young camper vans – from Brisbane up to Cairns and beyond. Frankly, dudes, it’s a goat track. This is the A1, crawling at 50km through the town of Childers. Yes, folks, this is the main highway north.

It doesn’t help that the road was devastated by floods in the last few years. So they’re fixing it. Sort of. Fill in the holes, widen the shoulders. I reckon we spent 30 minutes and more sitting at lollipop points for something like ten sets of road works, and crawled through kilometre after kilometre of 40, 60, 80 kph speed limit stretches on a 110km road. Why they don’t bite the bullet and make it a dual carriage way right up the coast is… another issue. They spend their money in the cities where there are more cars, more voters. Don’t get me started on the road toll on the Bruce. End rant.

Windscreen

Just what we need – a cracked windscreen

Hey ho. An hour and a half into our Wonderful Adventure, our brand new Pajero copped a rock in the windshield. I hoped it was going to be a gouge we could fix. Until the zip zip. Here it is. Let’s hope it lasts until we get to Broome (sigh).

Train

Coal train on the rails, military vehicles on the road

This is coal country, mining. Here’s a coal train, 50 wagons between the locos, two locos up front, two in the middle, 100 wagons of coal. Dozens a day, from bloody great holes in the ground, loaded on ships and sent to China and India to help produce stuff to send to America. And the army was going home. They’d had a joint exercise with the Yanks, whose carrier group docked in Brisbane harbour the other day. USS George Washington, for those interested.

Anyway, here we are in a motel in Emerald (booked in 6:30pm). I would have posted this but the WIFI connection is pathetic. So I’ll do it when I can.

Cheers, mouseketeers. Tomorrow we’re seeing dinosaurs.