Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Day 108 – 114 Exmouth – 24-30 Sept 2009

17,785 kms, 33 degrees C, 10 snakes

We apologise to our loyal followers for the delay in getting this post on the web, but we have been far too busy having a wonderful time!! Exmouth is 1270km North of Perth – it is heaven on earth but a long from where anywhere. We loved it so much, we stayed a week, longer than anywhere on the trip so far. Part of our thinking was avoiding going South too soon as it has been wet and sub 20 degrees in Perth – we have not seen rain since June and are quite happy to keep it this way.

We stayed at an excellent Big 4 campsite, complete with emus wandering around looking for food. Some of our followers are interested in domestic matters – well we now have a clipper and Nicky is getting quite good at trimming Stuarts head. Maybe a new career beckons...

Our first trip was to see more gorges – Thomas Carter lookout and Shothole Canyon. Both had staggering views, rock formations, views of the coastline in the distance and stunning colours, pindan reds with streaks of white, plus turquoise waters....

...and the turquoise water is where we spent most of the remainder of our time, in, on or by the sea. There are so many hump backed whales migrating South after calving that at any time of day, at any point on the beach you could look out and see at least one in a matter of minutes. Nicky and Nicko did a twilight whale watching trip and were treated to a stunning display – check out the photos and the video.

The snorkelling was great off the beach – Nicko donned a mask for the first time. Stuart has some very bad shots of a loggerhead turtle’s arse, that were not quite good enough for the blog!
The snakes are becoming more common – one ran across the path in front of us and we saw a sea snake on the surface on our trip to the Murion Islands. Exmouth is a great dive centre – Stuart did a Padi refresher course and we headed off North for a spot of diving and snorkelling. The windward side of the island had lots of beautiful soft corals, which could survive better in the heavy swell. The East side had more hard coral. We dived with Mike and Alice from Calgary – some of the shots on this blog entry are Mikes. In the surface stop between dives we had lunch on the upper deck and watched manta rays on the port side, with a pod of dolphins and breaching whales on the starboard side, at the same time! The dives were awesome – we were looking down at the coral and nudibranchs (highly colour tiny sea slugs, see photo) when a 3m wide manta ray sailed above us. These gentle giants are harmless, intelligent and inquisitive – circling for a better look at us.

And having got the dive bug again, Stuart did two dives at the Navy Pier – reputed to be one of the top ten dive sites in the world, with some justification. The pier is on commonwealth defence land, so only those from a single dive shop have access to it. There is no fishing, so the pier acts as a haven for thousands of fish of all kinds. We have over 1GB of photos and video from our Exmouth trip, most of it at the Navy pier. Everywhere you look there was sea life on or near the underwater columns. 4m grey nurse sharks floated on the bottom, with some large white tipped reef sharks (see picture and video). There were heaps of lionfish (photo), highly decorative, elaborate creatures with poisonous barbs, so it pays to sort out your buoyancy and not get too close. Stingrays, wobbygongs, stonefish, nudibranchs, angelfish, batfish, moray eels, huge schools of trevally the list goes on and on. The dive was amazing – a real highlight of the trip to date.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Day 105 – 107 Point Samson – 21-23 Sept 2009

16,714 kms, 32 degrees C, 8 snakes

Well, the plan was to move on from Karijini NP to Millstream NP, and we sort of did so, but not for long. We took the dirt road North, thro the ghost town of Wittenoon, once a thriving blue asbestos mine, but nowadays deserted, for obvious reasons. Millstream is in two main parts, the largest being in the South. We tried to enter, we really did, but the corrugations were just too much for both us and the car. We noticed the back bracket on the exhaust sheered some days ago – Stuart fixed it with wire, which is holding up well, but we might need to wait until Perth to get it fixed properly. There are 4WD and exhaust shops in places like Karratha and Port Hedland, but we would have to wait a week or more to get the work done.

So the only bit of Millstream we saw in detail was Python Pool, which was pretty awesome. The camp site next door was called Snake Gully – get the picture?! We saw a snake crossing a dirt road – he was none too impressed with us and the feeling was mutual! It is snake country and temperature – we are taking care on bushwalks, eyes down.

The scenery is wonderful – firey red rocks with light green Spinifex clumps. Sooo Pilbara. The red probably comes from iron ore. We were stopped at a level crossing while a train filled with ore passed by. It took almost 3 mins for the train to pass, it must have been over 2km long.

So we headed North to the coast at Point Samson, a beautiful spot with clean grassy campsite and showers, a real treat! Our next luxury was a huge fish and chips dinner. We originally planned to stay for one night, ended up staying three!! It was a welcome rest from all the driving.

Pt Samson has wonderful views, beaches, fauna and flora. Normally beach walks involve lots of dead shells – most of these boys were still crawling around (see video). We saw our first Sturt’s Desert Pea of the trip – a sign of the glorious WA wildflowers coming into spring bloom. Our campsite had lots of birds (the piccies are a spinifex pigeon, white plumed honeyeater and zebra finches). And the water is safe to swim and snorkel – lots of coral and LSTs (little stripey things!).

Next is a 600km driving day to Exmouth and more snorkelling.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Day 102 – 104 Karijini National Park – 18-20 Sept 2009

16,131 kms, 33 degrees C

We left Broome to hit another remote part of the world, the Pilbara, at the top end of WA. The next stage will involve big distances – we are already over 1000km from Broome.
We broke the driving with an overnight stopover at the aptly named 80 mile beach. When on beach we could not see either end and could hardily see the sea, which was at least 1km out. Swimming was not recommended due to the sharks, stingrays and sea snakes! The campsite was full of miners having the weekend off. Port Hedland is a huge iron ore port run by BHP Billiton, the biggest mining company in the world. Newman mine, 400km South of Porth Hedland is the largest open cast mine in the world. There is a theme here – large scale mining, lot of men employed in this game and not a huge amount to do on weekends. So fishing at 80 mile beach is a big attraction.

Karijini National Park is one of the jewels of the Pilbara - lots of gorges, waterfalls and swimming holes. It is 300km inland, too far for the salties, so safe for swimming. The video and piccies don’t really do justice to the scales of the gorges – they are huge. The combination of icy cold water, light green Spinifex and dark maroon rock makes for an awesome experience.
The gorges on the video are Dales, Knox, Joffre, Oxer lookout (the meeting of four gorges) and finally Hancock. The latter was the only gorge we descended into – we got as far as Kermit Pool with its remarkable blue layers of rock. The “walk” involved more climbing and swimming that actual walking, as illustrated by our resident water babies on the video.

Mercifully, the temperatures are getting lower – we can cope with low 30s much better than the 42 degrees we suffered at Mornington, off the Gibb River Road. The nights are getter cold – we had 12 degrees in Karijini. We climb into bed and feel heat coming thro the ground into tent – by morning it is decidedly chilly. Stuart is back in his fetching PJs, which gave the dingo a bit of a shock as he mooched around our camp after dark looking for supper. The other wildlife of note was a western red kangaroo – our first of the tour.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Day 98 – 101 Broome – 14-17 Sept 2009

15,010 kms, 33 degrees C

We have reached our next main milestone, Broome (shown thanks the generosity of Mr Google). This is just over the half-way mark of the trip – we have been on the road now over three months. 15,000 km is further than London to Perth (er the one in Australia, not Scotland).

Broome marks the end of the Savannah Way, the road we have been on (or taking detours off) since Port Douglas in Far North Queensland. This journey has taken two months and over 9000km, from the Tasman Sea to the Indian Ocean.

The pearl or more specifically mother of pearl shell industry is the reason Broome came into being. We read The White Divers of Broome, a remarkable book that covers the pearling history and shocking event just before WW1. The best divers were Japanese but the Australian government was pushing its white Australia policy and demanded that the ruthless, greedy mongrel pearl business owners employed white divers. So eight expert ex Royal Navy divers were brought over from the UK in an experiment that was rigged and doomed to failure. The business owners didn’t want it to succeed as the white divers were many times more expensive that the Asiatic ones. Three divers died of the bends.

The Japanese cemetery has 919 young men who died from diving related complaints. The mortality rate was 20% ie after 5 years all the divers had died.

The layout of the town reflects its history – what is now Chinatown, but called Japtown in the pearling days but was renamed when the Japanese became the enemy in WW2 and bombed the pearl Broome fleet in 1942, was the poorer end of town, with the rough pubs and shops. It still has these places. The Pearl Lugger tour was awesome, but Nicky looked a little too comfortable with $50k worth of pearls draped around her for Stuart’s liking!!

But life is very different nowadays – Broome is a stunningly beautiful, laid back resort, probably best known for Cable Beach, the camel rides on the said beach and staircase to the moon. But it is not without a little angst. The papers are full of Broome rescinding its twin town relationship with Taiji over alleged dolphin killing in Japan. There is litigation over a dispute between two of the three camel tour companies who take tourists for a bumpy, smelly rides on Cable Beach. Camels have been allegedly stolen, nobbled and there has been camel dung thrown at tourists and operators alike! And we attended a firey meeting with WA state government officials to discuss proposals for an enormous Liquified Natural Gas proposal planned for the pristine coastline of the Dampier Peninsula, 50km North of Broome on the way to Whalesong.

We sat on the pindan rocks at Gantheaume Point at the Southern end of Cable Beach and watched humped backed whales breaching, a couple of ospreys attending to the biggest nest we have ever seen perched up lighthouse tower and searched for dinosaur fossils. The combination of red rocks and turquoise water was amazing, and quintessentially Kimberley. Matsos was a bit of a favourite for “beer o’clock”. The have an interesting range of beers, but the chilli beer will not be on our xmas list – that is seriously hot!

We have seen a lot of broken down cars on this trip, but none towed by a couple of camels!!

We had a wonderful time in Janice’s lovely flat – thank you Janice, I hope to meet you one day soon. And this was arranged thanks to the glorious Trish Pepper. We spent much time with Trish and Katie whilst in Broome, thank you girls. Looking forward to seeing you in the Barossa KT.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Day 96 – 97 Whalesong – 12-13 Sept 2009

14,691 kms, 36 degrees C

After two days at the Cape we headed South to Whalesong, close to Middle Lagoon, half way down the Dampier Peninsula, on the road South to Broome. Whalesong is not on our map and we had not heard of it until many people heading clockwise around the country raved about it – when we got there we could see why. The site is being developed steadily - in 2007 they had 3 camels (check out the video, the noisiest camels in the world), 2008 a camp ground and this year they have opened a restaurant. The campsite is perched on top of dark red cliffs which run to the spectacular semi circular Pender Bay with views for miles and the obligatory stunning sunrise and sunsets (check out the video). Nicky could not only hear the sea (very important to her) but she could see it from the netted windows of our tent. We were befriended by a couple of chihuahuas who followed us around all day.

The beach was strewn with beautiful shells and bits of dead coral, with plenty of cone shells, the first we had seen since Wilson Island on the barrier reef. Despite their colour and beauty, cone shells are to be avoided as they can be lethal. Bill Bryson was preoccupied by the many exotic ways one might be killed in Australia in his excellent book Down Under, including the cone shell. A small proboscis pops out of the pointy end of the shell and injects many times the venom needed to kill its small fish prey. Enough venom in fact to kill a human. So we left those shells alone!

We took long walks on the beach and watched boobies crashing into the water, often returning with a fish in the beak.

Day 92 – 95 Cape Leveque – 8-11 Sept 2009

14,594 kms, 36 degrees C

We drove from Derby West to Broome then had a couple of relaxing days, stocking up the fridge and chilling out. Trish Pepper is an amazing woman – it would be quicker to tell you jobs and business ventures she has not tried, rather than the ones she has. We caught up with he as she was running the kitchen for a TV crew filming in and around Broome. Trish put us into her friend Janice’s wonderful house which is close to the airport (well, everything is pretty close to the airport in Broome). It has things we had long since drooled over such as a shower, roof, settees to lounge on all day and awesome books. We both read The White Divers of Broome, an excellent history into the unscrupulous pearl industry just before WW1. Another treat was restaurant food and wine from a bottle – we had dinner with Trish and Katie, plus friends Katie, John and Sarah.

And then it was time to hit the road again - North up the Dampier Peninsula, to two spots we had been strongly recommend via the word of mouth grapevine around the country.

First was Cape Leveque at the Northern end of the peninsula. We had an ‘interesting’ drive up – lots of soft sand, corrugations and challenging gradients, but we made it OK, despite a large number of others changing tyres along the way. The cape is a spectacular spot – the first swimming beaches since Port Douglas, two months ago. There have been plenty of beaches between in between but there were many reasons why we did not swim, either being too far inland or the saltwater crocs across the top end. This will be the first of many beaches around the country back home to Melbourne in early December.

Cape Leveque is truly magnificent – there are great swimming and snorkelling beaches either side of the cape, which points North, so we were treated to a magnificent sunrise and sunset daily on one side or the other. We went out on a fishing trip and had a ball – one bloke caught a couple of 3-4’ reef sharks, but the star of the show was Nicko who pulled in our supper, a blue lined emporer that went straight in the pan for supper. And the local shop did take away chips, so yes, we had fish and chips on the beach watching the sunset.

We saw humpbacked whales for the first time since the East coast – we followed them up the coast as they migrated North to breeding groups through June and July. Breeding is now done and they are heading back South on either side of the continent, so we should see them as we head SW round WA’s enormous coastline. They are magnificent creatures.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Day 89 – 91 Derby – 5-7 Sept 2009

14,110 kms, 39 degrees C

Derby was a welcome injection of town-stuff. We stopped three nights in a caravan park close to the “CBD” and revelled in the joys of a pizza restaurant, a pub to watch the afternoon footie (in air conditioned luxury, hence we avoided the searing heat outside) and some other quite quirky stuff, like the No Bikes in Shop sign!

The main reason for stopping in Derby was to do the Horizontal Falls trip. Derby and the surrounding country have huge tides – the second largest in the world, at around 10m difference between high and low tides. The reason for this is the steep sided King Sound and the huge amounts of water flowing in and out daily. Further North of Derby that is the remarkable natural phenomenon known as the Horizontal Falls – check out the picture from the sea plane and you will see two narrow openings in the rock. The water held inside these pools comes from the sea, where the plane is. It rises quickly on the ocean side on an incoming tide but the speed of water going thro the narrow channels is limited, so a waterfall is created, with level differences up to 4m. Waterfalls are created in the opposite direction on the outgoing tide. The dark rocks show the change in water level across the tides.

The trip started with a seaplane ride from Derby, landing on the water at the mouth of the falls. Next we were transferred to a purpose made jet boat with 2x 250bhp motors each, and hooned up to and thro the falls. Awesome, although some in our group were wibbling a little! Next was a spot of fishing – Stuart had a monster on the hook, but it got off, probably a bronzed whaler (a type of shark). Finally we boarded the Lady M for an awesome evening on the luxury cruise ship. We spent hours watching the fish in the lights – check out the 3m lemon shark on the video.

The trip was a real highlight of the tour so far – it was not cheap but truly memorable.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Day 84 - 88 Gibb River Road (West) – 31 Aug - 4 Sept 2009

13,881 kms, 42 degrees C, 7 snakes

We left Drysdale River Station on 31/8 and headed for Manning Gorge. The roads are still rough – we were lucky that we chose to stop and the junction of the Gibb River and Kalumburu Roads and noticed the indicator/number plate hanging off the rear bumper by the electric wires. We took them off to be fixed in Derby – we couldn’t get thro the chassis to re-attached the bolts rattled loose by the corrugations, which is pretty normal on this road.

We had tapped the word of mouth grapevine about Manning Gorge at campsites around the country. We had been told the waterfalls were dry but that it was still worth a visit as the waterholes were awesome. All of that advice was true. We set up camp under a boab tree, serenaded by cockatoos (check out the video) – how Australian, er WA is that? We got to Manning around midday, and spent the arvo sheltering from the heat, which is getting unbearable. The main walk is to the “falls” – we took this on at 6.15am. One challenge is the short swim across to the start of the walk, with our stuff in polystyrene boxes (video and picture below). The walk, views and dips were all great, and we saw some groovy lizards and a couple of yellow spotted monitors.

Mornington Wildlife Camp is heaven for wildlife and bird lovers. It is one of 20 or so properties owned and run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. They run amazing research projects into land management for the conservation of wildlife, much of it endangered or critical. One great example of the Gouldian Finch – once populous across the top end, now down to around 2500 birds. AWC are confident that thro their research they might have found out why the birds are struggling and have put a potential solution in place – don’t burn too often, give the ground time to recover, especially the spinfexes which need 3 years to seed and is a vital food source for the Gouldian in November.

We toddled off on a 5.45am twitchers tour and were amazed to see a number of Gouldian Finches. There was a little puddle under Nicky’s camp chair, she was soooo excited. The photo to the left might not win any prizes but it shows a red faced male, one of probably only 400 in existence. Nic also saw a purple crowned fairy wren, another amazing endangered bird and another little puddle.

After Mornington we headed for the Silent Grove campsite, via Imitji roadhouse. We had been told by travellers all the way from Port Douglas that the coffee (the only “real” coffee on the GRR) and kangaroo pies were great at Imitji – so we tried both, and yes, they are truly wonderful. Silent Grove is the most inappropriate name for a campsite with lots of cockatoos and corellas – they are soooo noisy. And it was anything but silent in the evening when a 2m king brown snake slid across the camp, about 5m from our set up! We warned those camping around us, none of whom were auzzies – the germans and dutch were particularly “toey”.

Silent Grove is the launching pad for the glorious Bell Gorge, which we nipped into and had a welcome dip. The heli bypass was a bit low – below the gorge walls.

Next stop was Windjana Gorge and its sister attraction Tunnel Creek, complete with very noisy fruit bats (see video). The creek is a 2km underground walk with torches and swimmers - it was great to get out of the 40+ heat for an hour. Windjana Gorge is a dramatic vertical gorge that used to be a coral sea, millions of years ago – the coral is clear to see, just with no water and lots of boab trees on it. We sat out the arvo sun and went in at 4pm - the place is stocked full of freshwater crocs. We must have seen 30 in the space of 1km. We didnt swim!

As you are reading this we are in Derby - civilisation, well as close to it as we are likely to get up here. Stuart upset some of the locals on hearing that there is no car wash but 2 prisons, saying, "you must of have lots of crims driving dirty cars then"! The roads and campsites are getting quieter - it is hot, unseasonably so. Some think the wet season is coming in a month early. The grey nomads are certainly heading South in droves - we will be following them soon. We nipped thro the Gibb River much quicker than planned as it is just too hot. We will heading South as soon as we can - next Derby, the Horizontal Falls trip, Broome, across the Pilbara, Exmouth then down the WA West coast.
The wildlife pictures on this blog entry are crimson finch, gouldian finch, agile rock wallaby, skink, brown falcon and grey crowned babbler.