This is the story of our Australian adventure, and covers the second part of the journey, from the start of the Stuart Highway as we leave Port Augusta, to our arrival in Darwin.
Being woken at 6:20am by the sound of birdsong, with the sun shining outside and a full day's driving on one of the world's iconic roads - the Stuart Highway, which bisects Australia down the middle - ahead, is not a bad way to start the day. A long, hot, shower in your own en-suite shower room was simply the icing on the cake. That great start continued with a breakfast of porridge (as most days, cooked in a pan and with Australian raisins adding a little sweetness) and a cup of Tetley tea (my preferred brew, Yorkshire Tea, is rather expensive here). We were packed and on the road by ten-past eight, and joined the start of the Stuart Highway a few minutes later. The Stuart Highway, named after after the Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart, who was the first European to cross Australia from south to north, runs for 2,834Km all the way from Port Augusta to Darwin. It largely follows his route too, although I suspect the journey now is much easier than it was back in 1861/1862 when he made it. Whilst we wouldn't be going all the way up to Darwin (we'll head there around the coast from Perth in a few weeks), we would be heading up to Alice Springs in the centre of the continent.
At first the highway was surrounded by trees and scrub, but as the journey wore on these became more sparse, although not as sparse as I had expected. There was scrubland either side of the highway, not the red desert I'd read about in travel books. There were also a lot of signs warning of kangaroos, although the only ones we saw were on the verges at either side of the road and decidedly worse for wear. Most had very large birds - Wedge Tailed Eagles - perched on them and accompanied by black raven-like birds waiting for their chance to dine. These sad sights were every few hundred metres, testemony to the fact there must have been live kangaroos here at some point in the past, for there were non present now. There were emus, though, a few very large birds camoflagued in the scrub but seemingly more intelligent than their bouncy neighbours, as they stayed in the scrub and away from the roads. The other hazard we had to deal with was another one I'd read about - Road Trains - these are tundering great trucks with 3 trailers that total between 36.5 and 53.5 metres long. That's a minimum length double that of a UK heavy goods vehicle (max is 16.5metres for an articulated HGV) - and many are over 3 times as long. Now they don't really present much of a hazard on the Stuart Highway as the road is fairly straight with a smooth(ish) tarmac surface and good visibility (except for distant heat-haze). But overtaking one, when they cruise at 90kph+ and the maximum speed limit is 110kph (and the motorhome beeps loudly if I exceed this by as much as 2kph!) can take a while, and a distance. That said, there were relatively few of them and most were oncoming, so apart from interrupting the crosswind were no trouble at all. The other traffic was very spartan and friendly, with oncoming vehicle drivers offering a wave (usually a friendly lift of the fingers from the steering wheel so as to not waste the driver's energy). I even developed the habit of waving to them too, and had different waves ready for those that waved back and those that didn't (the latter involving two fingers, then a hand gesture first developed by Gareth Hunt when advertising coffee).
We drove like this for several hours and many kilometers (there are no miles here...) before pulling into one of the many roadside rest stops for lunch. These are advertised with slogans like
Stop, Revive, Survive and
Drowsy Drivers Die, so were quite enticing places. They usually had a picnic bench under some shade, a rubbish bin and drop toilet. And a lot of flies. Our lunch was cheese and biscuits inside the motorhome, with the flies looking enviously on from outside. Tracy then took over for a bout of straight-road monotonous driving whilst I relaxed and read the guide book (they had little to say on this particular stretch). About an hour later were pulled over into another rest stop for a fluid adjustment break and then I retook the wheel for the last stretch to Coober Pedy.
The name Coober Pedy brought to mind films such as
Mad Max and
Crocodile Dundee and I expected a real outback town where the men were men and the kangaroos were worried. In fact it probably was like that, but it was too hot for much exploring and the incessant flies were annoying. Coober Pedy was a nothing town until 1915 when some lucky sod found Opals here and the place became the world's largest Opal mine. The name stems from the Aboriginal
white man and
hole - literally
white man's hole. I think this refers to the opal mines. But who knows?
We had planned to stay at one of the campsites in town so we could plug in and use the air-con in the motorhome (which only works when connected to the mains), but didn't like the look of them and prefered the idea of spending a night in the middle of nowhere, so went to the supermarket to get something for dinner. Then we went to the excellent Umoona Opal Mine museum, which explained much of the history of the town. It has some apparently excellent interactive exhibits too, but these were closed for maintenance, so we had to content ourselves reading about the early miners and then looking at the fossils of dinosaur age creatures that have been found in the opal mines. The other main feature of Coober Pedy, and another we couldn't explore, is that most of its white residents live underground. Outside the museum was the entrance to one
home, George Burford's Dugout, which looked more like a sheet of corrugated steel leaned up against a hole in the rock. Which it was.
After leaving Coober Pedy we drove on for a further 70Km to a rest area called Pootnoura, which we had all to ourselves and was, to our delight, in the middle of nowhere. Just off the Stuart Highway, in fact. Had it not been for the rubbish left by other people that had used it - plastic bags, bottles, toilet roll, and other rubbish - all over the bushes surrounding the parking area, it would have been idyllic. But we had it to ourselves, at least initially, and so set about preparing dinner - chicken tikka masala with cauliflower rice. Dinner was delicious, even though I say so myself, but whilst we sat and ate a couple of other campers turned up. There were two vehicles - a pick-up with trailer and another with a camper on the back - travelling in convoy with a guy driving the trailer setup and a woman and dog in the other. They parked some distance away which was great, but then Tracy and I watched in horror as the guy got his chemical toilet out of the trailer, walked a short distance into the bush, and emptied it. Not only was he showing absolutely no respect for the land, but there was a chemical toilet dump station in Coober Pedy, which was signed from the main highway and he would have passed it less than an hour previously. No wonder the site was so full of rubbish, with people like him camping there. Utterly disgusted, we closed the curtains and waited for sunset. Which was at least very pretty, the sun turning the ground even more red before turning the sky orange and then disappearing. We retired to the motorhome as another camper arrived and they set up a real fire (despite the
No Fires signs) which lit up the night sky, but didn't detract from the blanket of unfamiliar stars that had started to appear. Even though it was still relatively early, we called it a night and went to sleep to the occasional sound of a passing road train, or a real train on the railway that ran alongside the road.
We both slept well in the relative peace and quiet of our roadside rest stop, and woke to the sound of the dirty campers departing, but that didn't stop us complaining to each other about them over breakfast. Needless to say, we didn't empty our toilet or waste water until much later, and at a proper facility. Regardless of our ranting, we were packed, showered, breakfasted, and on the road by around 8am, heading once more in a generally northern direction on the relatively straight Stuart Highway. This day was much like the previous one, with sightings of road-kill kangaroos and the occasional dead sheep, accompanied by a lone wedge-tailed eagle and small flock of ravens, and no live kangaroos. We did see a horse, though, all on its lonesome stood by the fence that inexplicably runs for miles (sorry, kilometres) alongside the road.
Good morning, Mr Horse, why the long face?
we shouted in unison. Oh, how the time flew by.
A roadside stop at Marla's roadhouse for a coffee and slice of cake broke up the morning, but then left us both feeling very full and not in need of lunch. So we kept going, as the scenery changed from scrubland with trees to scrubland without trees and back again. There were occasional curves to break up the monotony, and even the odd road train to overtake, but there's no getting away from the fact this is not one of the world's greatest driving roads. Eventually we arrived in what I had been led to believe was one of the Australian Outback's most iconic towns, Alice Springs. The name conjures up all sorts of images, of dusty streets lined with bars, of rough weather-beaten men staggering about shouting
G'DAY MATE! of dark, scary looking aborigines lurking in alleyways, and of dingoes doing what dingoes do. (repeat after me, much quicker
dingoes doing what dingoes do
. There, isn't that better?). But, alas, it wasn't thus. It was like arriving in civilisation after being lost at sea and discovering you were in a town designed by people with no imagination, flair or sense of community. Milton Keynes has more pesonality than Alice Springs. It was awful. We had booked to stay at the Alice Springs Tourist Park (no points for imagination in naming that one) which claimed to be just 400m walk into town. And we'd planned on going into town to find a bar and then some bistro where we could hang out on a Friday night amongst the outbackers and backpackers. Only it was over 1Km into town and we were glad, as it meant we had an excuse to stay on the campsite and cook our own dinner. There wasn't a high street with interesting looking bars or even places that you might think twice about entering. No soul at all. We went to Woolworths and bought the ingredients for the pulled pork burgers we'd wanted earlier and retired to camp. It was hot, very hot, so we put the air-conditioning on in the motorhome and sat in the shade having a beer before cooking the burgers, then retired early for the night. Very early, as it turned out the clocks had gone back an hour as the Northern Territories doesn't do Daylight Saving Time like South Australia (which is nominally in the same time zone) does. But I'm not one for clock watching when I'm tired, and fell asleep before 8pm...
Sidenote: There are no pictures here of Alice Springs. No prizes for guessing why...
Despite going to bed ridiculously early last night, I woke late, around 6:30am as Tracy was sneaking out of the motorhome to go and get her shower. I reluctantly got up and put the bed away and then went and joined her. Not in the shower, they have separate mens and womens blocks and that sort of thing is discouraged, but in having a shower of my own. Back at the van we had breakfast and packed away, then were on the road again by just after 8am. Heading south for the first time in ages meant that Tracy had the sun shining through her window instead of me, which at least meant she stopped complaining about being cold whilst I cooked. Now I was
cool and she was
warm. Much better. The 200 Km from Alice Springs to the roadhouse at the junction off to Uluru seemed to take an eternity, being punctuated only by a stop at the roadside
Cannonball Memorial, which we'd passed on the way up and deemed not interesting enough to stop at (we were close to our destination of Alice Springs at that point). On the way down it definitely seemed worthy of stopping, if only to break up the monotony of the journey. And so it proved. I wasn't sure why there was a memorial to a cannonball in the middle of the outback, but reading the inscription explained it. It was a memorial to 4 unlucky souls - 2 officials and 2 competitors - of the Inaugural Northern Territories Cannonball Run in 1994. A Japanese millionare dentist, Akihiro Kabe and his co-driver Takeshi Okano died in Kabe's Ferrari F-40, when he lost control and slammed into two race officials, Tim Linklater and Keith Pritchard, who were standing at the checkpoint, then hit official cars parked nearby and burst into flames. Eye witness reports say the driver apparently was surprised by the corner, braking suddenly before skidding in gravel and ramming into the checkpoint vehicles. The memorial marks the spot, but I'm at a loss as to what they meant by
corner, even if the cars in the event were travelling at up to 185mph. A tragic accident, though.
After paying our respects we continued on at our sedate pace of 110kph, with the cruise-control set and me ready to pounce on the braks should an errant kangaroo come bounding out of the bush, as was indicated likely by the roadsigns. Except as with the other 2 days on the Stuart Highway, there was not a single kangaroo, bounding or otherwise, to be seen. Or, as it happened, any other forms of life, bar a few birds. At least until we reached the Erldunda Roadhouse and its attached Emu Farm. This sits at the junction with the Lasseter Highway, which runs to Ulurua, and has perhaps the most disgusting toilets of any roadhouse or rest stop on the whole Stuart Highway. All the tour buses seem to stop here to use the facilities, which seem to have run out of water in the 1970s. They were so bad, most of the women would approach the entrance, then suddenly decide that constipation was underrated and turn round again. The guys, because we have no sense of smell, would continue on, then come out looking blue after holding their breath for the requisite period. They were bad. The shop, though, sold iced coffee and chocolate and a big road atlas of Australia exactly like the one we'd been searching for, so we were content. Until we worked out we'd paid over AUD$60 for the map book. But hey-ho, at least now we can plan where we're going without resorting to Google maps.
After leaving the roadhouse, and vowing not to stop there on the way back, we joined the Lasseter Highway and headed in a westerly direction, once more on a straight road surrounded by scrubland and trees. Only with redder soil. This got redder too, as we got closer to our destination. And then, there on the horizon was Uluru itself. Only it wasn't, it was Mount Connor. We knew this, of course, because we'd done our research, but we still stopped to take a picture as it's quite impressive and there was a viewpoint. Continuing on, we eventually saw the real Uluru and there was no mistaking its magnificent shape. We drove past the resort where we're staying and on to the entrance to the Park, where I had to scan the entry ticket I'd bought online the previous day, then we drove a little way before pulling over to take some pictures. It looks mightily impressive even in the full glare of the early afternoon sun. We drove to the Culture Centre, where we read about the history of the land seen from the local Anangu people's perspective (more of that tomorrow) and learnt about the battle to get the land returned to them. It's now jointly managed by the Anangu and the Australian Government and it was only on 26th October this year that the Anangu won their battle to stop people climbing what they view as a sacred rock.
With the afternoon wearing on and with laundry to do, we made our way back out of the park to the resort and checked in to the Ayres Rock Campground, where we're staying for 3 nights. We attended to our laundry, did some shopping, then Tracy had dinner whilst I sat drinking rum and coke, before I updated the blog and we turned in for the night. We've set an alarm for early tomorrow to see if we can get up in time to drive to Uluru for the sunrise...
My last blog entry ended with us setting the alarm for 5am so we could get up and see the sunrise at Uluru (Ayers Rock). But as we're on holiday, we don't like alarms waking us up, especially when we're tired and haven't slept well. So just before it went off we turned it off and went back to sleep, not even waking up early enough to do the Ranger's Walk which started at 8am from a car park at the base of Uluru. As it was, we realised that we were both tired from all the driving and in need of some down-time, so we agreed that we would have a lazy day, until around 3pm, when we'd take a drive to see
The Olgas or Kata Tjuta as they're known (it means
many heads in Pitjantjatjara, one of the local Ananga languages. After that, we'd head over to Uluru in time for sunset, which was surely better than sunrise.
And so we had a very lazy day, relaxing in the motorhome and reading. I did some research on places to stay as we head south and then west towards Perth, but mostly we sat and read our books. I'm reading Bill Bryson's
Down Under : Travels in a sunburned country, which is all about his travels in Australia and I'm hoping to pick up some tips. Not in travel writing, because I'm clearly not in his league, but in places to visit as we go. Unfortunately, where I'm at in the book seems to always be either places we've already passed through (thus missing the opportunity to visit the exciting places he does) or not on our intended route. But I've picked up one or two that we've slotted in to our plans.
When we finally dragged ourselves away from the comfort of our seats, we unplugged the electric cable, turned off the gas, and drove out of our pitch and left the campground. Our 3-day pass allowed us back into the park with a simple show of the voucher on my phone to the reader at the barrier, and we then drove the 50Km or so around to Kata Tjuta. The first viewpoint was some distance away from this collection of rocks that jut out from the scrubland, affording us an excellent view of their size - they are very large indeed. They are actually taller than Uluru, at 546m and the 36 domes cover an area of 20 square kilometres. They were named
The Olgas by William Christie Gosse, the first person to climb Uluru in 1873 after Queen Olga of Wurtemberg. Which ever name you choose, they are an impressive sight, and would be much more enjoyable were it not for the bloody flies that persisted in harrasing us the entire time we were there. By now we were prepared, wearing our bush-hats and fly-nets and looking like lost bee-keepers, but the damn things wouldn't stop buzzing around trying to find a way past our defences. It seems that it's not just the more famous venemous Australian wildlife that is cause for concern, but these persistent insects. Unlike flies at home, or even in Europe, which would disappear for a while after being swatted with a hand, these buggers would return in an instant, fully intent on claiming a single spot in an ear, nose, mouth or even eyeball for themselves. They would return time after time, and nothing would deter them. They were starting to really p*ss us off.
In order to escape the flies, we moved on to the next viewpoint, where we had a closer look at the Kata Tjuta rock formations and took some more photos whilst swatting away flies. I can't say whether these were the same flies or not but they were equally persistent. And just as annoying. There really was no escape from them, except when in the motorhome when we could force any interlopers out the windows or exterminate them. They had begun to take our attention away from the wonderful experience of being around such historical rock formations. B*st*rds.
After leaving Kata Tjuta we headed back towards Uluru as the sun started to settle in the sky, rushing to make the
Car Sunset area in the hope there'd still be a space for us to park. We arrived as it was filling up and quickly grabbed a parking space and then rushed outside to place the camera on its tripod on the fence with a good view of the rock. Then we waited for the sun to set a little and change the colour of the rock. We had to reprimand the couple parked next to us when she crossed the fence into the clearly marked
Keep off the vegetation! area for a selfie - why do some people think it's OK to ignore signs and follow simple rules that are there to protect the environment they've come to see?
When our blood had stopped boiling we were witness to some spectacular colours as the sun set, with Uluru changing from a dull light brown to a vibrant deep red to a dull dark brown, all under the watchful gaze of a bright moon (just visible in the photo). And a crowd of people most of whom seemed more interested in taking photos of themselves than of the natural spectacle unfolding around them. Such is the curse of modern life.
When the sun had set and completed its artful display we left the car park and drove in the dark back to the resort, where we stopped at the Outback Pioneer Restaurant Bar Hotel complex to buy some bottled beer and pizza, which we took back to the campsite to enjoy. Apart from being massively overpriced (a pack of 6 small bottles was AUD$35.50 and the pizzas AUD$24 each), they were actually rather good. Once we'd had our fill and Tracy had FaceTimed Niamh and Quaid, we turned in for the night.
This time we woke just before the alarm at 6am, all ready to get up and go to join the ranger-led Mala Walk at the base of Uluru. I was first out of the motorhome and so it was me that found Tracy's handbag on the ground in front of it, and noticed the driver's door was open. Shit. We'd been robbed! Someone had opened the driver's door in the middle of the night, whilst we were asleep in the back and taken her handbag, then removed her purse and dropped the handbag. B*st*rds! In the purse was AUD$350 in cash, her driving licence, bank card and the Post Office Travel Card that's loaded with all her holiday money. Plus some stamps and some of her menieres medication. B*ST*RDS!
As soon as I told Tracy we jumped into action, freezing the Post Office Card (it's contactless so can be used without the PIN for small amounts) and then reporting her Halifax card stolen online. With the cards now useless we showered and then contacted the Post Office to organise a replacement card. Fortunately, we're dropping by to see a friend in Perth so arranged for the new card to be couriered there ready for when we arrive. The bank card is not needed here, so a replacement was ordered to be sent home. Then we packed up and went to the campsite reception to see if the purse had been handed in - we knew the cash and cards were likely to be long gone, but purses are traceable and so are usually just thrown away like the handbag had been. At reception we started to explain what had happened when the girl stood next to me, who was sifting through her bags, exclaimed that she, too, had been robbed. They'd taken her bags, which had just been handed in, and stolen her purse from them. It seems this is a real problem at this particular campsite. I've never felt the need to lock the motorhome when I'm in it, but should have listened to Tracy who wanted me to. I will from now on (bolting the stable doors well after the horse has gone!). We filled out a report of the theft and left contact numbers and email addresses, then went to the on-site Police station (this should have been a clue there was a problem!) but it was closed and there was no-one around. So we went to do the Mala Walk anyway, even though by now we'd missed the Ranger-led walk.
The Mala Walk starts at a car park close to the base of Uluru, and from where until 26th October this year tourists would climb up the rock. This has always been a contentious issue, as to the local Anangu Uluru is a sacred place and climbing it desecrates that. When they were given back the land in 1985, they started a campaign to discourage tourists from climbing the rock by educating them about its special significance to their culture. They succeeded to a point, and the numbers of people ignoring their wishes and climbing it declined. When the numbers dropped to below 20% of their original figure, they mounted a further campaign to get the climb closed for good, finally succeeding in November 2017, when the date for closing the climb was agreed. Looking at the rock, it's clear the mark the climb has left with a polished white mark dribbling down from the top, which looks like a scar. Now the climb is closed, they've removed the wire hand-rail that was bolted into the rock to help people as they climbed the steep slope, and hopefully over time the polished white stain will disappear also.
Having parked up in the car park we made our way to the base of Uluru and turned left to begin the walk - this is a short walk that follows the contours of the rock to a point known as Kantju Gorge, and at certain points there are information boards that explain a little of the Aborigine culture. The first of these explain why the walk is known as the Mala Walk and it goes a little like this: in the beginning, the Mala people came from the north and could see this rock (Uluru), they thought it would be a good place to stay and make inma (ceremony). The Mala men decorated and made Ngaltawata, the ceremonial pole, the inma had now begun. The Mala people began to prepare for the ceremony, with the men went out hunting, made fires and fixed their weapons and tools. The women gathered and prepared food for everyone, they stored nyuma (seed cakes) in their caves. In the middle of preparations, two Wintalka men (another tribe) approached from the west. They invited the Mala people to attend their inma, to which the Mala people declined as their own inma had already begun and could not be stopped. The disappointed Wintalka men returned to their people and told them the Mala had refused their offer, which enraged them so much they created an evil spirit - a huge devil-dog called Kurpany to destroy the Mala inma. As Kurpany travelled to the Mala people he changed into many forms - he was a mamu, a ghost. Luunpa, the kingfisher woman was first to spot him, and she warned the Mala people but they did not listen. Kurpany arrived and killed some of the men, in great fear and confusion the remaining Mala people fled down into South Australia chased by Kurpany. The story continues down south in other aboriginal sites. The ancestors are still here today - Luunpa still keeps watch, but she is now a large rock; Kurpany's footprints are imprinted in the rock heading towards the east and south; the men who are killed are still in the cave. The Anganu tell us that this story tells us to finish what we start and to watch and listen for warnings of danger.
Up close Uluru doesn't look like you might expect having seen it from a distance. It's covered in scales where the wind has eroded the surface of the rock, and peppered with caves and holes. There is evidence of waterfalls which have now dried up, the deposits staining the rock where they have carved cascades down the sheer surface. Our walk took us a short distance around the base, past an area with signs requesting that tourists don't take photos as the site is sacred - often with paintings that must only be viewed in-situ in order to have meaning, the Anganu believing images posted elsewhere will polute the message. Of course I respected their requests and confined my photography to the non-sensitive areas, of which there were plenty of interest. It was a hot walk, but not a long one, and soon we reached the Kantju Gorge, a dried up area shaded by trees where we were encouraged to sit and reflect in the peace and quiet. The Anganu used to hunt emu here, as they drank from the now dried-up pool at the base of the gorge. They would only ever kill the last emu to leave, so as to not deter the rest from returning. It was very peaceful and we sat for a good few minutes just taking it all in. Then we retraced our steps back to the car park, and from their back to the resort Police station.
This was still closed, but the notice on the door provided a number to ring, so Tracy rang it and explained the situation to the woman on the other end. Armed with a crime reference number should we need it at some stage, she also enquired about whether she was allowed to drive having had her licence stolen. The good news was she is, and if stopped the crime reference number is all she needs to quote to explain. Just as she was finishing up a police car turned up and a constable entered the rear of the building, then emerged at the door and enquired if he could help. We explained our situation to him and he took Tracy's details and said he was heading over to the campground as there had been other reports of theft. With that done, we returned to the motorhome and started the long journey away from Uluru, heading first back to the Stuart Highway. If you look at a map, it looks like Uluru is just a short distance south of Alice Springs and west of the highway. It's not. It's over 260Km back to the Stuart Highway, along a mostly straight road surrounded by scrubland. And not very interesting scenery, especially as we drove it in the other direction to get here. After 2.5hours we reached the Erldunda Roadhouse, famed for its disgusting toilets, where we stopped to refuel and use the facilities, which thankfully now had running water (the urinal tray was still 2 inches deep in piss, though!). It was then we noticed a sign that proclaimed this location as being the
Centre of Australia, which warranted a selfie.
Once we'd fed ourselves (on rather good wraps considering the state of the rest of the facility), we clambered back into the motorhome, pointed it south on the Stuart Highway and set the cruise control for 110kph once more. I won't bore you any more by describing the monotony of the journey south, but suffice to say it was very long and very tedious. We wanted to get south of Coober Pedy before stopping, in order to make the following day at least do-able, and were watching the time tick by as we headed towards sunset. As it happened we reached Coober Pedy just as the sun was starting to touch the horizon (on of the advantages of such a flat landscape is you have the full extent of the sky to play with before the sun disappears below the horizon), and as we filled up with diesel we knew we'd be doing the final few Km in the dark, not a prospect either of us was happy about, given the amount of road-kill we'd seen at the roadside. Leaving Coober Pedy we checked the Campermate application to find the nearest rest-spot and just then saw a sign stating it was only 40Km or so away. Heading there increasingly slowly as the sun set and the dusk closed in around us, we pulled into the parking area as it was almost dark, parking up in splendid isolation and breathing a huge sigh of relief. One other vehicle (a young couple with dreadlocks driving a Ford Transit van - she was visibly pregnant too - who we'd seen at the Uluru sunset the previous evening), pulled in and parked a distance away. We then had some cup-a-soup for dinner, wanting something quick and light in order to get into bed after an exhausting day and with another long one tomorrow.
In the night it got windy. Very windy. At one stage Tracy woke me to ask if the motorhome could be blown over. I confidently told her
No whilst wondering if it was normal for it to be leaning over quite so much. The wind didn't stop all night and was still blowing hard when we got showered and breakfasted before sunrise in order to get an early start. It was surprisingly light outside before the sun poked up over the horizon, and shortly after it became fully visible we pulled out of the rest stop and back onto the highway. The reason for our early start was simple, in order to get to Perth in time for us to continue around Australia and reach Cairns in early December, we needed to put some serious miles in. We had chosen a stop at the start of the Eyre Highway at a place called
Streaky Bay (I kept referring to it as Streaky Bacon because it sounded better) where we'd booked a campsite with power. This fitted our pattern of one night free camping, one night campsite, but meant a very long 926km day. Which may not sound that long (it's only 575 miles after all), but with the roads so boringly straight and with little to keep your mind active, it becomes a real challenge. Add in a strong, blustering, cross-wind and it's a very long day indeed. That doesn't mean there's lots to write about, as there isn't. The road was straight, and had it not been for the kangaroos it would have been really boring. As it was, it was gruesome. The kangaroos we saw were all fresh road-kill. And there were a lot of them - I lost count at a dozen. We didn't see a single live one the whole day. In fact, the only live animals we saw were a few cows and some horses. No 'roos and no emus. But boy, was the drive a long one...
There was one highlight on the route, the small town of Kimba, which proclaimed itself to be
Halfway across Australia and had a big sign to draw tourists to stop and take photos. We did exactly that, and were then astonished when a few metres up the road was another must-stop-for-a-photo opportunity, a huge great big parrot. Both of these provided some much-needed relief from the monotony of the journey. Pity there weren't more!
Eventually, around 5:30pm, we arrived in the small seaside town of Streak Bacon, sorry, Streaky Bay, which is so named due to the streaks of seaweed that are visible at low tide. The town has one claim to fame, which is its long jetty. That tells you all you need to know about how lively or otherwise it was. We found the campsite and checked in, then went to the onsite kiosk for some local seafood, which we took back to the motorhome to enjoy. I had a fisherman's platter (it wasn't on a platter but in a polystyrene box) which had two pieces of Flake, some salted squid, prawns, scallops and a fishcake, all battered and with chips. Very healthy (but nonetheless, delicious); Tracy had two pieces of battered Flake and chips. It hit the spot and left us both feeling very full as we made the bed and fell into a deep sleep.
We both slept badly, possibly due to being over-tired from the day before or, more likely, due to the overload of deep-fried seafood. Whatever the cause, we had to put our sleepiness aside and get up and on the road as we were now heading west across the southern coast of Australia on the Eyre Highway. This is a road that I'd read lots about when researching our trip, as most travellers recount it as the most boring, mind-numbing, tedious, road in existence. It runs for 1,660Km to Norseman in Western Australia and passes across the Nullabor (Latin for
no trees) plain. With our plan being to complete this in two days, it was going to be something of a slog. As it was, the first section wasn't too bad, a bit of scrubland and another straight road with dead kangaroos to provide some visual stimulation. But soon the novelty, if it can be called that, wore off and the day started to drag. Driving in Australia so far has been a case of setting the cruise control shortly after setting off and only switching it off when we need to stop for a stretch some 3 hours later. We keep scanning the countryside to see if we can see kangaroos bouncing around, but the only ones we ever see are at the roadside and not capable of bouncing anywhere. It's all very depressing.
We stopped at the roadhouse at Nullabor for a drink and something to eat, with me opting for a healthy chicken salad wrap, but that didn't turn out so well. A few days previously, when biting into a Crunchie that we'd kept in the fridge, I'd felt my bridge-crown tooth move. It had held, though, so I had hoped it wouldn't fall out completely. No such luck, it fell out on the second bite of my chicken wrap, leaving me with a gaping hole and a smile that wouldn't look out of place on the village idiot. Fortunately, I'd packed the false tooth the dentist had made when I was waiting for the crown to be made, so I could close the gap even if it left me with a mouth full of plastic and a whistle when I spoke. I retrieved the crown and will now have to try and find a dentist in Perth to get it stuck back in place.
After what seemed like an eternity we reached the point on the map that showed there was a lookout just off the road. This provided some much-needed respite from the monotony of the Eyre Highway and we gladly took it. It was most definitely worth it, the views of the coastline quite spectacular. The wind had dropped a little and it was warm, but the incessant flies ruined the perfection of the moment. They really are rather tiresome. Back in the motorhome and having evicted the flies that tried to catch a lift, we continued along the highway to the next viewpoint for some more beautiful views, then on to the third and final one, the authorities obviously wanting to prevent tourists from having too much of a good thing. Shortly after the third and final lookout was the campground we'd chosen for the night. This wasn't our first choice, as our intention was to get to Eucla in Western Australia in order to have the clocks go back 2.5 hours (the time difference between SA and WA) late in the day as opposed to early in it. But we had noticed signs about the quarantine rules for all vehicles coming into WA, which would have meant throwing away the salad we'd bought for dinner, leaving us without food. So we pulled off the highway and onto a rocky outcrop where there were small areas for motorhomes and trailers. There were already some campers scattered about but with plenty of room we soon found a suitable spot and parked up with the rear of the motorhome looking out over the ocean. It was a truly beautiful place to camp for the night. We made and ate the salad, then watched the spectacular sunset before trying to stay awake and adjust ourselves to WA-time.
With the clocks going back 2.5 hours when we cross into Western Australia just 13Km down the road, we decided to make the change earlier and switch to WA time the night before. This was made easier as Tracy's phone picked up a GSM tower in WA and changed its time automatically, meaning her phone was 2.5hours behind mine. Regardless, we woke early as it was daylight and had breakfast whilst looking out over the ocean, which was perfectly calm under a bright blue sky. It was going to be a lovely day, at least weather-wise. We were on the road for 7:30am WA time and just before the border stopped to throw away all the fruit and vegetables we had, including the almost full bag of grapes we'd bought just a day or so ago. These damn quarantine restrictions are a real pain if you don't plan for them properly! At the border was a dump point, so we also emptied the toilet and grey water tank, as well as ditching all the foodstuffs we aren't allowed to carry across. Then we went to the border where the guard checked the fridge and cupboards to make sure we weren't smuggling anythine we shouldn't be (he didn't find the jar of honey I stashed in the safe, which will remain unopened until we are in a location where it's safe to eat it). Then we were into WA and continuing on the Eyre Highway.
Which meant more very long straight stretches of road, scrubland either side and no sign of kangaroos, emus or other interesting things to occupy the driver's mind. Dull it most certainly was. There were not even any scenic lookouts for us to stop and admire. Although there was one moment of high excitement when we spotted a couple of kangaroos bounding across the road some 100m ahead of us. We drove on for hour after hour, stopping at Cocklebiddy for an early lunch because we liked the sound of it, then swapping over to let Tracy drive for a while, whilst I fell asleep. She had the dubious pleasure of driving the longest straight stretch of road in Australia, some 146.6Km without even a curve or bend or undulation to make it interesting. I slept through most of it (good job I wasn't driving!). We swapped back over again and I drove the remaining 275km to the end of the Eyre Highway, but apart from a distant forest fire it was as dull as it had been all along. It was therefore something of a relief when we reached the small town of Norseman at the end of the highway, and drove to the campsite. We booked ourselves into a powered site and then drove into town to find a supermarket so we could replace the lost garlic and onions so I could cook a Bolognese for dinner. We also bought some more grapes, which were identical to the ones we'd had to throw away earlier, even being from the same supplier. Back at camp, whilst I cooked dinner, Tracy did the laundry and then we sat and chatted for a while before eating. I wrote up the blog, a mammoth task as I'd let it get too far behind and had failed to write anything yesterday as my laptop ran out of charge. But now it's up to date and the boring part of our journey is hopefully behind us. Tomorrow we head south once more to the coast and a 2-night stop at Albany, where we'll get some much needed rest from driving.
With the clocks having gone back as a result of us entering Western Australia, the sun now rises just before 6am, flooding the motorhome with light and negating any need to set an alarm clock. And any chance of a lie-in. It was as a consequence of this that we were up and showered rather early. So early that we decided we could afford the time to cook a proper breakfast for a change, so I rustled up eggs, bacon, beans and sausage for us both. I then had some toast and marmalade for good measure, making the most of being connected to the campsite's electrics which is necessary if we want to use the toaster. And setting off the motorhome's smoke alarm in the process (I like my toast properly cooked, which Tracy, being from Darn Sarf refers to as
burnt). I think the smoke alarm is from Darn Sarf also.
By the time we'd finished putting out the fire and getting going again it was 8:30am, which is when I realised that I'd made a slight miscalculation regarding the distance from Norseman, where we were staying, to Albany, where we'd reserved a campsite for two nights. I thought it was just over 600Kms, but in fact it's over 720Km. Everywhere in Australia is further from everywhere else than you think, and it takes longer to get anywhere than you'd like. The first stretch of road is a continuation of Highway 1 which loops around Australia and is the road we're following for the most part. Here it's also called the Coolgardie-Esperance Highway as it goes between those two towns, passing through Norseman as it does so. It's not that dissimilar to the Eyre Highway, being mostly straight, although it does pass through slightly more interesting countryside, with farms either side of the road (SHHEEEEEP!!!) and even has undulating sections that allow us to pretend we're on a rollercoaster (WHHHEEEE!!!). Both of which help break up the monotony of an otherwise uninteresting stretch of road.
After 205km (two hours) at Esperance, the road reaches the coast and that seemed as good an excuse as any to find a café and stop for a brew and a slice of cake. We found a lovely little café on the oceanfront which had a Toblerone Cheesecake which sounded interesting so I had a slice, whilst Tracy opted for a more sensible scone. The cheesecake was actually surprisingly good, although I did have to remove my false tooth in order to enjoy it. Once refreshed we returned to the motorhome where I used the 4G signal on my phone to check out dentists in Fremantle, where we will be on Monday morning (there being none open in Albany when we arrive or over the weekend). Having selected one and made an appointment to have my crown-bridge tooth glued back in place, we also booked a campsite in Fremantle for 2 nights to give us chance to have a look around what is reputedly a cool town.
Instead of just rejoining the highway we drove a short distance along the scenic coast road, first stopping at a viewpoint high on a hill which provided spectacular views out over the town and the ocean and islands beyond. But with time ticking and a long way still to go, we had to get back on the highway. By now I've got so used to driving in Australia - cruise on to 110kph, just steer - that I worry about not reacting should the wildlife that we're always being warned about suddenly appear in front of us. I needn't have worried, though, as once again the only animals we saw all day were some sheep, cattle and horses. Nothing remotely Australian, apart from the odd lizard-like creature crossing the road.
We stopped once more at a roadhouse for a coffee and ice-cream as well as fuel, but the day wore on with little change, except the forest got thicker and the clouds grew darker.as we approached the coast again at Albany. We drove into town from the south, passing lots of single-storey dwellings with neat front lawns, before arriving at the campsite around 5:30pm and very tired from another long day driving. We agreed that in future we need to try to restrict our driving days to under 600Km in order to allow more time for stops. Once checked in an pitched up in a lovely clean site we went to check out the amenities (very clean) and then set about rustling up something to eat. As we'd not had time (or the inclination) to go shopping, it meant using up what was in stock, so I made some hot-tuna for me and Tracy had the remains of the previous day's bolognese. As we had no beer we declared it a dry day and just had a brew instead. After dinner we read a while before turning in for the night. We were both looking forward to a day of rest the following day, determined not to drive anywhere for a change.
It might be a day off, but we still woke early due to the early sunrise, and then made full use of the hot showers on the campsite before once more putting the bed away and preparing breakfast. I made myself toast once more, waking our fellow campers with the smoke alarm, whilst Tracy had cereal. Then she went and put our bedding in the laundry whilst I washed up, before we got the chairs out of back and put them in the sun where we could sit and read in peace. Except Australia has a fly problem. A big fly problem. No sooner had we sat down than we were attacked by these most annoying of all insects, buzzing around our ears, landing on our noses and trying to sneak into our mouths. So annoying that I immediately retreated back into the motorhome, whilst Tracy, covered in DEET, seemed to cope a little better. Once inside the motorhome and having exterminated the few flies that followed me in, I sat down in air-conditioned comfort and worked on our plans for getting up to Darwin and across to Cairns by early December (without exceeding 600Km per day too often!). Then I got out my book and read, before the urge to get moving took hold and I went out for a walk. Tracy, meanwhile, had got p*ssed off with the flies and resorted to sitting outside with her fly net on, determined as ever to make the most of the sunshine!
Our campsite is on Middleton Beach in Albany, and taking the path opposite our pitch brought be directly onto the sand dunes and into the bay itself. It was rather breezy, but the beach is beautiful. I walked along it towards Ellen Cove, where I joined a boardwalk that runs up and around the headland. Here there were information boards about the visit of the Beagle on its 4-year trip around the world with the young Charles Darwin on board. It explained how the ship was in port here for a while, and whilst here, Darwin collected shells, barnacles, 10 species of fish and 66 species of insects, many which were unknown to British scientists at the time. He also captured an Australian bush rat which had not been seen or described before. I read the signs as I wandered up the boardwalk, listening to the sounds of the children playing on the jetty, and their shrieks as they jumped into the water. It was all very peaceful and, had it not been for the flies, perfect. I was going to walk all the way around the headland to the National Anzac Museum, but a quick look at the map on my phone said it was at least a half-hour walk and I hadn't set Tracy's expectations that I'd be away that long. So I turned round and went back to check out a little of the area and the 3 possible dining options for the evening. There are 3 pub/restaurants within easy walking distance of the campsite, and so they all looked very inviting. Having checked them out without succuming to the temptation to enter them (which would have proved disasterous as it was unlikely I'd have then made it back to the motorhome before dark and divorced), I walked back to camp, where Tracy was still sat reading in the sunshine. She was not amused when I brought my own swarm of flies to join hers.
I tried to sit outside but the flies once again drove me inside, where I had a light lunch and sat reading the rest of my Bill Bryson book (where he travels through Perth and up the Coral Coast, helping me get some ideas for places to visit). I then set about reorganising the blog (you may notice that this page no longer contains the whole story from when we left home, that's now been moved to a new page to reduce loading times), before it was time to go and tidy myself up ready for going out on the town.
We walked the short distance from the campsite to the Three Anchors, a pub-restaurant overlooking the bay and took a table with a couple of comfortable chairs after ordering a beer each. We were not alone, as there were a number of flies hovering by the window, but for once they left us alone. After we'd enjoyed our first beer, we asked to be moved to a table with chairs that would allow us to reach food on the table, and ordered dinner and more beer. I ordered a pot-pie with steak and mushrooms topped with garlic mash, and Tracy ordered the fish and chips. When the food came it was very good, as was the beer, so I ordered a 3rd pint, trying 3 of the 4 beers they had on tap. We then had dessert, a huge chocolate-covered ice-cream thing for me, and a piece of dry vanilla cake for Tracy. Then we were too stuffed to drink anything else, so settled the bill and waddled back to the campsite and flopped into the bed I'd made before we went out.
As it was only early when we went to bed (before 9pm) we both woke around 5:45am and with a long day ahead got up and went to the shower block to freshen up. A quick breakfast followed and then we packed everything away and were on the road out of the campsite by 7am. First stop was the dump point just on the outskirts of town where we emptied the loo and the grey water tank, then we joined highway 1 towards Denmark. Not the country, obviously, but a small coastal town just up the coast from Albany. We drove past the town on the highway, but the bay looked lovely and I'm sure it would be a great place to stay for a while, had we the time. Three months may seem like a long time, but Australia is such a big country that just travelling around it will take most of that. But we had plans for the day that included a long-ish stop in a seaside resort town of equal standing to Denmark, so we weren't too put out. The next major town was Walpole, and again we didn't stop but drove on through, passing the
Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk as we did so. This would have been a great addition to our list of things to do, but I only found out about it after I'd booked us in for one in Busselton at 1pm, which didn't leave us enough time. It's in the Tingle Tree Forest (which we drove through), which not only has Tingle trees, but also two of Australia's giant trees - the Jarrah and Karri (although the Jarrah is not in the vicinity of the tree-top walk). The latter two are types of eucalyptus trees that grow to significant heights and girth. I was keen to see them having read about them in Bill Bryson's book, but with time short we had to settle for seeing them from the roadside, or when we briefly stopped.
Fortunately for us, the road turns inland and heads north through the forest, twisting and turning and rising and falling as it does so. It was a great road and a real joy to drive on after the monotony of the straight roads of the past week or so. As we drove we passed through the centre of a large forest of tall eucalyptus trees - Jarrah and Karri mostly - which provided shade from the bright sunshine as well as a visual feast for eyes tired of looking at scrubland. We stopped at a lookout just south of Manjimup where there was a famous tree known as the
Diamond Tree, a Karri tree it stands over 50m tall, but that's not what makes it special. It's special because until this year it was a climbing tree, open to the public to climb to the fire lookout shelter located 49m up. The tree was used by the Department of Environment and Conservation from 1941 to 1973 to provide areal surveilance to look out for bush fires, one of 3 trees used for this purpose in the Southern Forests. It certainly looked a long way to the lookout post, and as I'm terrified of heights and too stupid to resist a challenge, I was very glad the climb was closed.
The road continued on through the forest all the way to just before Yoongarillup (I love Australian town names!) when the landscape changed back to farmland, with rolling green hills and fields with cows and SHHEEEEEP. It was almost like being back in England, except sunny. Then we past through some vineyards and it was like being in France, except we were driving on the correct (left) side of the road. Eventually we arrived at the coastal town of Busselton, and joined a traffic jam of around a dozen cars, the most we'd seen since leaving Adelaide. They moved relatively quickly and soon we were by the oceanfront and pulling up into the car park. A short walk took us to the start of Busselton's most famous landmark, it's 1,841metre-long jetty. Construction on this wooden-piled jetty started in 1864 and was necessary as the bay - Geographe Bay - which in 1839 had been proclaimed as the
legal place for the loading and unloading of goods is very shallow. At first it was only relatively short - 176m - but it had to keep being extended as the accumaltion of drift sands in the bay made it too shallow for vessels to dock. It reached its current length in the 1960s, but the last commercial ship docked against it in 1971 and it was closed to shipping on 21st July 1972. From then it fell into disrepair, due to intermittent fires, rot and general lack of maintenance. On 4 April 1978, Cyclone Alby swept south down the Western Australian coast from the North-West (a rare occurrence) and destroyed a large part of the shore end of the jetty. Subsequently, townspeople banded together to try to save the jetty and eventually persuaded the State Government and the Shire Council to provide some much needed funds for repair, however rebuilding the timber jetty proved expensive and funds soon ran out. The Jetty Preservation Society, formed in 1987, resorted to community fund-raising, but by 2001 had raised just A$14,000 — a rate of A$1,000 per year, not enough for serious renovation. Then in December 1999, a fire burnt 65 metres of jetty to the water-line incurring damage totaling $900,000. In 2001 a new community-development Non-Government Organization (NGO), named "The Busselton Challenge", assisted the Committee in designing and executing a new fund-raising project that raised A$220,000 in just six months — 440 times the previous rate of fund-raising - and the restoration project was kick-started again. Further storm damage occurred in 2004, but the project continued. When the jetty was re-positioned as an important state and national resource, it enabled the Committee to attract funding for a A$27 million refurbishment project and enter the jetty into the State Register of Heritage Places, thereby securing its future. The refurbishment project was completed in 2011 and the pier and railway were reopened to the public. In 2017 the train that runs the length of the jetty was replaced with a solar-powered electric vehicle. An underwater observatory was added to the end of the jetty in 2003 to further attract visitors, and this, coupled with the little train, were the reasons we were so keen to visit.
Our first impressions were that it was a very long pier. Being from Blackpool, which has 3 piers, I'm not normally impressed by such things, but this one is very, very long. The longest pier in Blackpool is North Pier, which is only 500m long, less than a third the length of the Busselton Jetty. Now one question is likely to arise here, is what is the difference between a pier and a jetty? If you look online you're going to see explanations that would make the Busselton Jetty a pier and Blackpool piers jetties(
Pier is for lading/shipping purposes while jetty is used to protect the harbor or beach from current or tide.), so I prefer my own explanation, which is a jetty is used for ships/boats to anchor to, whilst a pier isn't. That fits with all the piers in the UK and all the jetties I'm aware of. Whatever the difference, to all intents and purposes, Busselton Jetty is now a pier and functions just as those in Blackpool - it's for tourists to walk up and down and to be provided with some form of entertainment. Busselton Jetty also has the little electric train that runs its length, which is handy if you don't fancy walking 3.6Km to the end and back to visit the underwater observatory, which we didn't. And judging by the large queue that formed when it was time for our journey, neither did lots of other people (although there were also a large number walking down the jetty as well).
Once onboard the little train, the driver gave a shrill blast of his whistle and a toot on the train's horn and we were off. With barely a sound except the normal clickety-clack of the trains wheels on the rails. They're rather proud of the environmentally-friendly nature of the train, as it's totally powered by solar cells recharging the lithium-ion batteries used to propel it. As Australia has abundand supplies of lithium, they see this as a good thing. I'm not so sure, as mining lithium is notoriously damaging to the environment around the mines. But none of this should detract from the enjoyment of being transported by train out into the ocean on an old wooden jetty. And it didn't. Were it not for the ever-present flies I'm sure Tracy and I would have spontaneously exploded with delight. It really was rather good, and we had a great view of the young folk hurling themselves off the jetty into the shallow waters of the bay as we past. The journey took probably ten minutes (the train is barely much quicker than walking) and then we were at the end and joined the crowd for our guided tour of the underwater observatory. Claiming to be one of only 6 underwater observatories in the world where you can see marine life in its natural habitat (and we've been to two others - one in Milford Sound, NZ and one in Florida), it drops 8 metres to the ocean floor and has 11 viewing windows. These windows provide excellent views of the coral that has attached itself to the structure of the jetty, and our helpful guide explained about how they thrive here due to the warm Leeuwin Current which carries them here from the tropics. They were very colourful and clearly very healthy, although taking photos of them through 4inches of acrylic window is not easy.
Once we'd had our fill of underwater aquatic life, we wandered back up top and walked to the end of the jetty, just in time to see a pod of dolphins pass by. They were too far away and moving too fast to capture with our cameras, so we just watched them swim by. Also at the end of the jetty was a signpost pointing to various locations and with the distances on, including London at 14,518Km. I checked on my phone and discovered that Royton was 14,709Km (9,140 miles) away. Not that far, really!
Soon it was time for our return train journey back along the jetty and this time we made sure we got seats right at the front behind the driver. A few minutes later we disembarked and went in search of food as by now I was very hungry and wanted something to eat before resuming driving. We went to the restaurant on the oceanfront by the jetty, called SALT, and I ordered the Seafood Chowder (which was excellent) and Tracy had a Peperoni Pizza that was so big she took half of it home so I could eat it later whilst writing the blog (which I did, it was nice cold with extra crushed chillies added for flavour!). Once fed we went back to the motorhome and joined highway 10 north, which became a two-lane dual-carriageway (highway 2) and took us quickly the 220Km to Fremantle where we'd booked a campsite for two nights. It got very hot in the motorhome on the way, though, as the air-conditioning in the front of the van seemed to stop blowing air - the fan was going full belt but no air was coming from the vents. I stopped and had a look to see if the external filter was blocked but it wasn't so I turned the whole thing off and we drove with the windows open (old school style!). After a while I tried it again and it was working OK, but I'll have to investigate further in the morning. By the time we arrived at the campsite it was gone 6pm, so we checked in and parked up, then as it was beginning to go dark Tracy called Niamh and Quaid (her regular Sunday FaceTime session) and I frightened them by showing them my missing tooth. Hopefully I won't be able to do that again next week, as tomorrow morning I've an appointment with a dentist in Fremantle to get my crown glued back in (that's why we're here for two nights, and it'll also give us time to explore the town). Once the call was done I started writing up the blog and as mentioned earlier, finished Tracy's pizza. And now it's once again time for bed...
As is normal, we woke as a consequence of the sun shining through the curtains around 6:45am, with the faint sound of birdsong in our ears. Once up and showered we had our usual breakfast (porridge/cereal) whilst discussing options for the day. With my dental appointment at 11:10am, we opted to go first to the local Woolworths and get the shopping done before the dentist and then on into Fremantle to explore. Whilst at Woolworths we also popped in to the liquor store (supermarkets here don't sell booze), and replenished our beer/wine/rum supplies. Then the short drive to the dentists, where I went in and dutifully filled out the new patient form, most of which would be irrelevant as I had to provide details of my doctor so they could get my medical records, etc. Then I went in to see the dentist, a nice young chap with an Asian-Australian accent. He listened to the story of my crown falling out, then examined it and popped it back in my mouth in a lets-test-this-and-see kind of way. He then said something about taking some pictures, which I assumed meant x-rays, before inserting a long thin thing in my mouth, which made a clicking noise like a camera's shutter. As neither he nor his assistant had retreated behind a lead screen, I realised this was a normal camera. He then said
There are two things in dentistry I hate, the first is a Maryland Bridge crown, which is what you have here. He went on to explain that this type of crown almost always fails and that gluing it back in holds no guarantee that it won't fall out again at any point. And that he wouldn't glue it back in. If he did, it would cost AUD$200 and I may well be back at his surgery the following day to have it put back in again at another cost of AUD$200 and that he hates them so much he refuses to deal with them. And that he wouldn't be charging me for the appointment, as he'd not been able to do anything. He went on to explain that I should have an implant fitted instead as that wouldn't fail. I explained the history of my tooth dilemna and the
post and core crown that I'd had previously which had lasted years until the root of my tooth collapsed. He said that the Post and Core Crown was the second thing he hated. He went on to explain that his wife ran another dentists down the road and I could go and see if she would glue my crown back in, but that he didn't know if she would and ocne again explained that it might fall out again at any stage. But as he'd inserted it and it was held in place by the teeth either side, I decided not to bother and see what happens. If it falls out again, I may well search for a dentist that would do what mine back in the UK has done twice before and glue it back in (it usually lasts over a year). When I get home I'll see what more permanent solution my own dentist can provide. But for now, I have my smile back and the false tooth back-up (which I hate because all I can taste is plastic) is back in the tin in my luggage.
With the dentist sage concluded, we went off to visit Fremantle Prison, where we were lucky enough to be able to join the excellent guided
Convict Tour at noon. This tour explains the history of the prison during the convict years, but actually started before that, in 1829 when the Swan River Colony was first established by free-settlers (i.e. not convicts). They struggled to establish a colony and it soon became evident that they needed a workforce, and despite their original intention to remain a free colony, they knew the only way would be to ask the British Government to send convicts to help. The small round-house prison was built to house local criminals and those who arrived unexpectedly on ships, but the first convict ship, the Scindian arrived unexpectedly on 2nd June 1850 (the sailing ship sent ahead to warn of its arrival had been blown off course). As the Round House was full to over-flowing with criminals already, these new convicts were set to work building a new prison. There was also no prepared accommodation for the warders, pensioner guards, Captain Edward Walcott Henderson (Comptroller General of Convicts), or his clerk, James Manning. Rents for accommodation in Fremantle quickly rose due to the sudden increase in demand, leaving Henderson paying more for his basic lodgings in Fremantle than for his house in London. Eventually Henderson leased two properties in Essex Street for £250 per year, at the site of the modern-day Esplanade Hotel. He used his convicts first to convert the buildings into a temporary prison, and then to construct a more permanent prison. He eventually settled on a site on a hill overlooking the town, and set them to work. As the hill was predominently limestone, the convicts first had to quarry out flat area and then use the stone excavated to construct the prison that would ultimately hold them. Conditions, as you can imagine, were quite harsh, but security was relatively lax - the convicts had nowhere else to go and would soon return, even if they returned to hard labour. The prison followed the design of Pentonville prison, with a main entrance gate surrounded on either side by two two-storey towers that provided accommodation for the governor and warder. The main blocks of the prison were intended to hold up to 1,000 men (there were no women convicts sent to Fremantle). With the convict ships kept arriving from 1850 until 1868, the total number of convicts sent from Britain reached 9,000. These convicts were mostly petty theives (stealing bread was sufficient for a 10-year penal servitude sentence that could see someone sent to Australia permanently), although in the latter years a large number of Irish political prisoners were also sent here. In 1886 the prison was formally handed over to the colonial government for the housing of local prisoners and was used as a prison all the way until 1991. The most striking fact about this is that there is no plumbing in the cells, so prisoners had to use a bucket as their toilet - right up until the prison closed just 28 years ago!
The tour was fascinating and gave a real insight into the convicts that were used as labour to establish a colony here. Many worked hard in order to be granted their Leave of Absence (the equivalent of modern day parole) which allowed them to eventually become upstanding members of society. They were not like prisoners in modern prisons, confined to their cells for long periods of time as they were put to work immediately, and were treated extremely harshly for even the most minor transgressions. In their first 9 months in the prison they were prohibited from talking to, or making any form of communication with, their fellow prisoners. They had mandatory Anglican church services thrust upon them (until the numbers of Irish Catholics forced acceptance that allowed the convicts to build a Catholic Church inside the prison grounds). Having attained the coveted Leave of Absence, which might take, say 4 years of their original 10-year sentence, they were still obliged to repay the government the sum of £1 for every year not served - a debt that in those days meant that no-one had any chance of repaying and so no hope of ever returning to Britain or Ireland. Once
free they had no choice but to settle in Australia and help build a new country. The final stop on our tour was the Flogging Post, where convicts were fastened to receive their punishment of lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails. The guide explained that there was always a doctor in attendence to ensure the poor soul being flogged didn't die (they wanted to preserve their workforce after all), intervening if he was about to expire, then covering the wounds in salt to prevent infection before transferring them to the infirmary to allow them to recover. If they'd not yet received their full allocation of lashes, they would, once they'd recovered enough, be brought back to the post to get their next batch and the process repeated until they'd had their full allocation. Harsh punishment indeed.
When the tour was over we had a drink in the café and bought a fridge magnet from the gift shop, then drove around Fremantle to have a look around. It looks like a really cool town, with lots of old buildings proudly displaying its heritage. We parked up by the harbour and had a wander, passing the Esplanade Hotel mentioned above, then walked down to the harbour where there were lots of restaurants offering seafood, which had me regretting my decision to have a biscuit in the café and buying steak to barbeque this evening. Our walk took us around the beach, where in the distance a helicopter was hovering out to sea, in what looked like a rescue operation. It was too far out to tell, and besides, we were distracted by the dolphin that was swimming in the bay. As we walked on we came to the Round House, the old prison building and so went inside for a look around. A small round building (hence the name) it had small rooms in the walls, each a cell that would have housed prisoners before the prison was constructed. This was the first permanent building constructed in the Swan River Colony and opened on 18th January 1831. It cost a whopping £1,603.10.0, and was used as a lock-up until 1899.
After the Round House we walked around the harbour to the National Maritime Museum, where for just AUD$15 we were both admitted (according to their website it should have been AUD$15 EACH). Inside were several displays of nautical equipment, including the boat, Australia II, that won the America's Cup race in 1983. Of more interest to me was a display of a replica submarine conning tower - this was from the HMAS AE2, a submarine built in England and commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy in 1914 in time for the outbreak of WW1. It was the first, and so far as anyone knows, only vessel to navigate the Dardonnelles Straight during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, dodging mines and Turkish defenses at the start if the sea campaign that proved so deadly to the British Navy. It's success was the main reason why General Hamilton decided to instruct the Anzac forces who landed on the Gallipoli peninsular to dig-in. In reality it wasn't that successful being given orders to
run amok once behind the enemy lines it only did so for 5 days before being forced to surface due to a mechanical fault, at which point it was attacked and its crew were forced to scuttle it to prevent it falling into enemy hands. It lay at the bottom of the Marmaris Sea until it was discovered in 1998 and remains on the sea-bed to this day, too damaged to be raised. As I visited the Dardonnelles earlier this year to pay homage to my great-grandfather who was killed during the campaign, it was a highlight of the museum for me.
As neither Tracy nor I are particularly nautical, the rest of the museum was somewhat lost of us, so we didn't linger and were soon making our way back towards the motorhome. We stopped for a coffee and ice-cream at one of the harbour-side restaurants, before collecting the motorhome and making our way back to the campsite, where I sat outside as the wind picked up, drinking a cold beer and making some notes on the blog, before cooking dinner. We'd picked up some steak and sausages at Woolies, and cooked these with a salad. We had intended on using the BBQ and eating outside, but the wind had picked up and so we ate inside. After dinner we read a while before turning in for the night.
We followed our usual early morning routine before packing up the van and departing Fremantle for Perth city, with just one of its many attractions on our list for the day - Kings Park. This is one of the largest city parks in the world, covering an area of over 400 hectares. Originally called
Perth Park (those imaginative early settlers again), the area was set aside for the benefit of all in 1895, but the name was changed to Kings Park in 1901 to mark the accession to the throne of King Edward VII. Whilst it is in the city, and access to it involved driving through the city, it doesn't feel it, as the main entrance is situated on a hill with spectacular views over the river and the Elizabeth Quay area of the city. It's a beautiful park, but our main reason to visit was to see the Botanical Gardens, which comprise flora and fauna from all over Western Australia. As there are free ranger-guided walks available through the gardens, we opted for one starting at 12 noon, which gave us a little time to kill looking at the war memorial and over the city. The war memorial is an impressive sight, with a permanent flame burning in a display on the walkway leading to the memorial itself. The lower level of the memorial is covered with the names of the dead from Western Australia in WW1, and around the outside are bronze plaques listing the names of the WA dead from WW2. It's a little-known fact that Australia suffered greater casualties in relation to population in WW1 than any other country, over 60,000 killed and 150,000 injured from a population of just 5 million. The memorial, overlooking the calm waters of the Swan River was a poignant place to reflect on their sacrifice.
At noon we met Fiona, our ranger guide, and with a group of perhaps a dozen other tourists we walked into the botanic gardens and she began explaining about them. The gardens are initially laid out like the state, with the first plants being from the south west, then as you move further into the park you move north through the country all the way to the Kimberley region. The first part was dominated by the eucalyptus trees, and she explained that the name eucalyptus is derived from the Greek eu
well and kaluptos
covered because the unopened flower is protected by a cap, and that the cap is forced off to reveal the stamens when it flowers. We eagerly sought out these flower buds, trying to spot one that was in the process of having its cap shed. We then moved on to the
Mallee area of WA, which is named for its trees (members of the euacalypt family) that have a clever adaptation to the dry conditions by storing nutrients and seedlings in an underground chamber called a lignotuber. They typically have multiple stems arising from this base, and the adaptation allows them to survive in the event of a bushfire as they regrow from the undamaged lignotuber. From here we continued our walk into the desert regions and then on to the wetter Kimberly, from where a giant baobab tree was brought. The story of the tree is interesting in that it was in an area being redeveloped, and rather than see it killed the local indigenous peoples donated it to Kings Park, who then had to arrange for it to be craned out of the ground and transported the 1400Km to the park, where it was planted complete with underground watering system to mimic the wet season up north. From here we walked further into the park, and past some Jarrah and Karri trees and then via a raised walkway (which did wonders for Tracy's fear of heights!) back to where we started.
The walk took over 1.5 hours and by the time it was finished so were we. So we went to the cafe for some refreshment and a burger, which came with the largest portion of potatoe wedges we've ever seen. The latter went in the bin, as we simply couldn't eat them after the burger. With lunch over and the weather closing in we found some shelter and I fell asleep for an hour. When I woke again it was time to head over to our friends' house on the outskirts of the city. But first we dropped by the visitor's centre to buy a fridge magnet and a book for our friends' 16-month-old daughter, Mahale. When we arrived at Jeff and Kerrie's house we were welcomed like old friends, despite us only seeing them once since Jeff was the van-man on my 2009 Trans-Americas trip. We had a lovely time chatting with them whilst watching Mahale run about, and I think she was rather taken with Tracy (and her handbag!). We had dinner of pizza as we were not very hungry after such a large lunch, then finally retired to our motorhome exhausted. I had a lovely dream that somehow I'd managed to transport Jeff's shed (man-cave) to the UK and it was now mine...
It's testement to how much we enjoyed our time with Jeff, Kerrie and Mahale that I didn't take a single photo of them or their beautiful home. I was simply enjoying myself too much. But now I'm kicking myself as I don't have a reminder of how big his shed really was, or how cute Mahale is. I guess I'll have to wait until next year for the latter, when they're due to visit the UK again (Kerrie's mum lives in Huddersfield of all places!).
It rained during the night but by morning it had stopped and was simply slightly cooler, less humid, and overcast. I woke early and laid in bed listening to the sounds of the morning, the birds singing and then the sound of a Norton starting up as Jeff prepared to head off to work. I managed to haul myself out of bed sufficiently to wave goodbye through the window as he rode off, then put the water heater on so we could have a shower. Jeff - if you're reading this, you locked the shed door as you left so we couldn't take advantage of the en-suite facilities! (I must get myself a shed like his, with an en-suite bathroom and guest bedroom!). Once showered and dressed we walked quietly to the front door and knocked gently, unsure whether Kerrie and Mahale were up and about. When we got no response we knocked again slightly louder and were horrified to hear a little cry from inside, but then Kerrie and Mahale appeared at the door, keen to explain that the cry wasn't due to us waking them up! We had a brew and a chat, once again entertained by Mahale, then bid our farewells and hit the road.
Our route from Ferndale was via Perth and out onto highway 2, a road that confused the GPS, then onto highway 60 or Indian Ocean Drive as it's also known. Our plan for the next few days is to head north around the Coral Coast to Broome before heading on to Darwin. The first port of call wasn't a port but a desert. Now you may think that based on earlier blog entries we'd have had enough of deserts, but this one promised something different. Called the
Pinnacle Desert, it's another of Australia's unique geological features, a sandy desert with tall pillars of limestone popping up here and there. Located 200Km north of the city, the dessert covers and area of some 190 hectares and there are thousands of limestone pinnacles, some of which reach 5 metres tall. The were formed some 250,000 years ago after the sea receeded and left deposits of sea shells, which over time had compressed into limestone. The coastal winds them removed the surrounding sands, leaving the pillars exposed to suffer erosion at different rates, creating some fantastic shapes.
We arrived at the desert shortly after lunchtime and once we'd paid our national park admission fee headed to the information centre which promised refreshments, having delayed breakfast. We had hoped for a cafe with some nice cakes, but all they had was a fridge with some unappetizing sandwiches and a coffee machine, in amongst the souvenirs. So we bought a fridge magnet and headed back to the motorhome, where, parked in the car park, we had a nice brunch of cereal and marmalade sandwiches and a brew. We did get some odd looks, but nothing new there!
Once we'd stopped our stomachs from growling, we drove into the park and took the loop road, which ran through the desert marked by small stones placed either side. Immediately we were faced with an alien landscape, bright orange sand with strange grey pillars everywhere. Further into the drive the pillars changed to the same colour as the sand, but grew taller and weirder, with some pitted with holes whilst others were almost polished smooth. It was a bizzare sight, and one that had us stopping frequently to take photos. Quite an extraordinary place.
Once we'd completed the drive around the desert we drove back to the main highway to continue our journey north. At one stage Tracy got out her glasses to check the map, only to have one of the arms fall off as the screw had come out. As she doesn't have a spare pair we will add finding an opticians to our list of things to do when next in a sizeable town, but for now it means she's got a good excuse not to navigate. On reaching Geraldton we found a supermarket to stock up on meat for the next few days as we head into more remote areas, then continued a little further to a rest area where we could free-camp. This took us off the road and into the bush a little way, the rest area being by a river and very large. We found a suitable space at the far end, away from the other campers, and set about making ourselves comfortable. For dinner we cooked the large porterhouse steaks we'd bought, together with a healthy salad and washed down with some rum and coke. Dinner done it was time to resume the Pass-the-Pigs tournament, the games initially not going in my favour but I rallied and ended up winning the last 3 of the 5 games we played, leaving me still in the overall lead. We restrict ourselves to 5 games a night so as to not overdo things. With the sun now set but us not yet ready to turn in we watched another episode of Criminal Minds, a reminder to me to ensure the motorhome was securely locked before turning in for the night.
Another peaceful night in a remote location under a blanket of stars meant I woke refreshed. The rum and coke had perhaps taken more of a toll on Tracy, who woke with a mild headache, but was in equally high spirits as we made our traditional camping breakfast of cereal and porridge. Once breakfasted we were once again on the road north, heading up highway 1 towards the turn-off for Shark Bay Road (also known as World Heritage Drive, the whole area being a World Heritage site). Not long after the turning was a sign to Hamelin Bay Station, which we took with glee. We were very excited about what we were going there to see (or at least, I was), this being one of only 6 locations on earth where there are lifeforms dating back over 3 BILLION YEARS! But the road was closed. I was very upset about this, and stomped about in a huff whilst staring at the gate with its chain and
Closed sign. Gutted, I got back in the motorhome and checked the GPS, where I discovered another road leading to Hamelin Bay just a bit further along from where we'd turned off. Happy again, we drove on and took the second road. This took us to the bay, where there was a car park next to the beach. We walked down and onto the boardwalk and there was the most incredible sight - stromatolites - lifeforms without which there would be no complex life on earth, us included. These coral-like formations consist of cyanobacteria almost identical to organisms that existed 3.5 billion years ago. The formations are formed by millions of these microbes and form wierd shapes, but it is their role in life on earth that makes them so special. Back when the planet was still young, these cyanobacteria evolved the ability to photosynthesise, taking energy from sunlight to turn carbon-dioxide (which was a lot more abundant in the toxic atmosphere of the early years of our planet than it now is) and water to form carbohydrates (for their energy and to use the carbon to create shell-like bodies) and as a by-product released oxygen into the atmosphere. Over millions of years, the oxygen they released increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere to around 20%, which allowed other, more complex, forms of life to evolve. Including all animals, and therefore, us.
Here at Hamelin Bay the water is very shallow and also due to the geography of the bay, very high in salt. This prevents other creatures from living here, feeding on the stromatolites, as they do elsewhere. As a consequence, this is one of a few locations on earth where they still live. We felt very honoured to be there to see them. It was very peaceful and we spent a good while just sat on a bench there looking out over the bay.
When we finally dragged ourselves away from the bay, we drove back down the path and to the old postmaster's house. This is now a café and sounvenir shop, so we had a brew and a slice of carrot cake (both very good!) and a chat with the owner. I had read about these buildings in Bill Bryson's book, and was keen to see the Old Telegraph Station for myself. When we'd finished our snack and bought the obligatory fridge magnet we asked about whether the
museum was open. It wasn't, but the guy working there got his friend to open it up for us (as he had for Bill when he visited). Just as Bill had done, we watched a short film on the stromatolites and the history of the post office and telegraph station, which included the story of how it was still used in the 1960s to relay messages relating to the passing of spacecraft for NASA. Also in the building was the photograph Bill mentioned of the linesman, Adgee Cross, who was captured stark naked atop his ladder, repairing a telegraph line. Bill recounts the story that he took his clothes off to swim across the river, complete with ladder, in order to keep his clothes dry. He also mentions he's wearing his boots. But there are issues with this, not least the fact he's not wearing boots (or anything else) in the photo. There are also other people visible, plus the fact that someone was there with a camera to take the image, none of which fits with Bill's story. We asked about this and were told that the story they knew was that he was on the way to a wedding when he noticed the damaged line, grabbed a ladder and, determined not to damage his wedding suit, stripped naked and climbed up to repair the line. Whatever the story, and where or not simply working naked was normal for old Adgee, I don't know. But it's a fun photo and the one on our latest fridge magnet. I didn't take a photo of the photo for obvious reasons, but I've found it online here.
Also in the museum were some interesting diaroma-pictures of ships from the early days of the settlers, all around the internal walls. These were most likely made by the people who lived and worked in this remote location, to help them pass the time. It must have been one hell of a life, stuck in the heat out here in the middle of nowhere...
After leaving Hamelin Pool, we drove back to the highway and continued around Shark Bay towards our destination of Denham. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints en-route, including Shell Beach, a beach where the
sand isn't sand, but the shells of the Fragum Cockle, a small cockle that creates a very small, white, shell. These shells cover the beach. I'm not talking about there being a few of them scattered about the beach, the ENTIRE BEACH is made of these shells. They're very small and very white, creating a blinding beach that's crunchy underfoot (and painful if you don't wear shoes), and once again the bay has a very high saline content, hence these are the only creatures that can survive here. Yet another example of Australia's unique geology and the diversity of life that this creates. Another lookout was Eagle Bay. This is worthy of mention because from the boardwalk high on the cliff overlooking the bay we saw sting-rays and sharks. From our vantage point they were very small and hard to see, let alone photograph, but I was glad we were on the cliff and not in the water with them. That said, one of the shark species known to frequent this bay is the
Nervous Shark (Carcharhinus cautus) which is so called due to its timid nature around humans. I didn't want to see if this nick-name was well deserved. Regardless, it was a spectacular sight, and Tracy and I stood leaning on the railing looking down into the shallow waters of the bay and spotting several sharks swimming gracefully by. What a sight!
We had to drag ourselves away, however, as we wanted to get to the campsite in Denham in time to ensure we got a pitch and so we could do laundry. We chose the Denham Seaside campsite at the far end of town as it has direct beach access, and it proved to be a good choice. At check-in there was a board that read
Today's Teaser: I'm as light as a feather but can be quite strong, however no-one can hold me for more than a minute. What am I?. I got it immediately, but have you?
We checked in and got a discount for being Maui/Britz customers, then I cheekily asked if we got a further discount for knowing the answer to the riddle, but even though I was right, we didn't. We drove to our pitch, which we only found after much searching due to the confusing array of numbers displayed at each pitch. Ours backs up with a great view of the ocean just 50m away, and it didn't take long to break out the chairs and for Tracy to find a spot next to the motorhome in the sun to enjoy a beer and read her book. After putting the laundry on, of course! While she caught some rays I brought the blog up to date, then we caught a quick FaceTime session with her mum and dad (so glad everything at home is OK!) before I dashed out to grab some photos of the sunset. Once the sun had gone I rusted up a chicken jalfrezi, which as I type is trying to burn in the pan on the stove. I'll sign off now to attend to it and open another bottle of wine as the first one seems to have evaporated...
Once again we woke early so that we could get on the road to see something, ahead of the long drive north to our next destination. The sight this morning was one we both had mixed feelings about - Dolphin feeding at Monkey Mia. A short drive across the peninsular from our campsite, Monkey Mia is a resort town on the coast which used to be a small fishing town. Many years ago the fishermen began sharing their catch with some friendly dolphins that came close to shore in the shallow waters near a beach in the town. Word that dolphins were coming close to the beach spread, and this brought the tourists to the town. In the less enlightened times of the 1970s and 80s, the tourist dollar resulted in the dolphins being over-fed and becoming dependant on the beach-feeding. This caused some problems for their population, when only 4 out of 15 calves were surviving as they hadn't been taught to survive properly in between beach-feeds. To halt their demise, a number of rules were introduced to manage their interactions with the humans that came to see and touch them. Now tourists are prohibited from touching or swimming when the dolphins are near the shore, and the amount they are fed has been reduced to sustainable levels. An adult dolphin will typically consume 10Kg of fish in the wild, and now only the adult dolphins are fed near the beaches and for a maximum of 900g over a maximum of 3 feeding sessions. The wardens keep a close eye on the health and well-being of the dolphins and know how to recognise each one - they have distinctive shapes to their dorsal fins - and each has been given a name. All that said, it was still a very touristy thing to witness, with a crowd of perhaps a hundred people there as well as us. We had to wait on the boardwalk for the alloted time when a warden would brief us on what to do and what would happen before we were allowed onto the beach in the area where the dolphins were already swimming, clearly anticipating being fed. The warden duly arrived and explained the history of the dolphins in Monkey Mia and then invited us to come and stand on the beach by the water's edge, then to wade in a few feet. It was understandably chaotic as people rushed forwards and jostled for positions near the front so they could see better. The wardens were in deeper and the dolphins simply swam up and down, passing close by and lifting their heads out of the water so they could get a look at the crowd looking at them. After the warder had introduced us to the five dolphins that were there, pointing out that one of the young had lost half her tail fin in a shark encounter, she got her helpers to get volunteers from the crowd to feed the dolphins. Each was given a small fish, which they held down to one of the two adult dolphins. Only these two were fed and with only three small fish each. Once done, the crowd was asked to return to the beach so the dolphins would know feeding time was over, which they obviously did because no sooner had we returned to the beach than they had swam away.
The experience felt quite natural, an encounter with a wild animal in its own habitat, but with a sense that the wild animal was happy to interact with the wardens and the visiting tourists. It didn't seem at all like exploitation, especially as the dolphins were not enclosed and were free to come and go as they pleased. The warder explained that there were some regulars who came daily and even several times a day, as well as others (including one of the adults we saw) who only visit occasionally. It was worth the visit, even if it meant we were a little delayed getting on the road north.
After a visit to the gift shop we drove back out, and back along the road towards Denham, where we stopped at the Water Corporation to fill up the fresh water tank. As the peninsular is so remote, the water here is very precious, being drawn from a well and processed to remove the salt. As such the only place we can fill up is here, where there is a machine similar to a parking meter with a tap on the side. Put in you coins to the value of AUD$1 and open the tap and the machine dispenses 20litres of desalinated, filtered, drinking water. We filled the tank which took around 35litres, not much considering its a 120litre tank, and we'd both had showers since it was last filled up. With water on board, and empty toilet and waste water tank and a nearly full tank of diesel we were ready to go.
The drive took us first south to the bottom of the peninsular and then east, past Hamelin Pool where we saw the stromatolites yesterday morning and back out to highway 1, where we turned north once more. The road was the usual straight road through the same scenery we've travelled through so far - scrubland with a few small trees. We stopped at Wooramel Roadhouse for a brew and a pasty, amazed at how clean and tidy it was. Once inside the white building with its café counter, clean tables and neat souvenir display we could have been in a seaside café on the south coast of England. Well, except for the fact the souvenirs had pictures of kangaroos and maps of Australia emblazened on them!
Back on the we continued northwards, passing through Carnarvon (with a
v not an
f like its Welsh namesake) where we filled up with diesel. Then onwards once more, the hours and Km ticking by slowly as we drove straight with the cruise control on and eyes on the heat-haze horizon. The temperature guage showed 40degrees at one stage, and inside the air-conditioning was doing its usual trick of periodically stopping blowing. The only way to solve this is to switch it off completely for a few minutes (during which time the temperature inside the motorhome rises rapidly) then switch it back on again, when it seems the vents open fully and we can get a proper blast of cold air from the dashboard. Opening the windows is not really an option, as there seems to be a smell of bad eggs that lingers around the van and enters whenever we open them. Despite these minor annoyances we drove on, then just past the Manilya Bridge Roadhouse we turned off highway 1 and onto Manilya-Exmouth Road. About 25Km down this road we saw the
Tropic of Capricorn sign at the roadside and stopped to take pictures. This is the second time this year I've crossed the Tropic of Capricon heading north - the first when on my own in Namibia, heading up to Nairobi.
With the photographs taken we continued on, the landscape chaging once more to become more undulating and dotted with hundreds of termite mounds. They were everywhere! Unlike those I saw in Africa, these were fatter, with larger more rounded bases, yet still some were as tall as a grown man. They looked like a small army of warriers, hunched-up and pulling their blankets around themselves for warmth (though why, when its this hot, I don't know). Some appeared to have faces on them, but I put that down to the heat and boredom of the driving, until I saw one with a head of grassy hair and a face drawn on it!
By now we were both getting a little tired, as it was around 5pm, and we had been on the go since before 6am. We looked at options for stopping earlier than our intended campground in the Cape Range National Park, but the only real option was Exmouth, which was still 80Km away and would only reduce our journey by 50Km. So we continued on and when passing through Exmouth stopped at a garage for an ice-cream and to stretch our legs. We read up online about booking the campground in the National Park, and whilst I drove the final leg of the journey Tracy booked us a space at the Mesa Campground, one of the first we would reach. When we entered the national park the sun was low in the sky and we saw a kangaroo at the roadside (one of only 5 live ones we've seen since we left Kangaroo Island), so we drove the rest of the way slowly and in a state of high alert. We reached the campground just as the sun was starting to set, parked up in our alloted space and then showed the volunteer warden our booking. Once parked up we collapsed with a beer and watched the sun set over the sand dunes behind our motorhome, before I cooked us some spicy chilli con-carne (it said
Spicy Chilli Cooking Sauce on the packet, and spicy it was! We ate that, then sat and watched an episode of Criminal Minds as we were too tired to play Pass-the-Pigs, then turned in for the night. It was almost pitch black outside, the stars looked wonderful against the night sky, and it would have been just perfect had it not been for the French couple shouting at each other just a few yards away. Fortunately they stopped around 10pm, or perhaps I just fell asleep regardless...
After the long drive yesterday, coupled with the French revolution going on nearby as we tried to sleep, it's perhaps not surprising that we slept in a bit. Well, until 6:30am if you call that a lie-in. I put the water heater on and snoozed for 20 minutes whilst it did its job, then had a shower and put the bed away whilst Tracy had her shower. We then had a very leisurely breakfast, before deciding to investigate the beach. With towel packed and swimming shorts on (that's me, not Tracy), we walked onto the beach and stood admiring the clear water before going in for a dip. It was lovely, not too deep and not at all cold, but the current was very strong so we didn't go out too far. When cooled off, we went and laid on the beach, but not for too long as we all know how strong the sun is here. Well, I say not for too long, but as we discovered later, it was too long. Even though it was not much over 40 minutes, we both ended up getting a bit red. Bugger. At the time we thought we'd been good, returning to the motorhome and changing back into normal clothes so our wet ones could dry off. We had some lunch and read a little about the places we're due to visit over the next few days. Whilst we were washing up and discussing these, my tooth fell out again. Damn. Now I need to find a dentist in Broome (our next 2-day stop in a town) who hopefully will agree to glue it back in place.
As I'd been feeling a little out of sorts, the tooth dropping out certainly didn't help my mood, but we decided to drag ourselves away from our slumber (Tracy even fell asleep for a while whilst I was doing some research) and investigate the reason we'd driven so far the day before. That was because Jeff had recommended we see the Ningaloo Reef, which is just off the shoreline here in Cape Range. Just down the road from us is a visitor centre and south of that is Turquoise Bay, which has a
snorkel drift. It sounded fun, so much so that I'd bought a mask and snorkel at Monkey Mia yesterday in preparation. The visitor's centre had a little information about the currents and dangers of snorkeling along this coast, but I'd also read a lot about the
snorkel drift experience and was keen to go and have a look at least. Armed with another fridge magnet and some after-sun gel (we were feeling the after effects of our over indulgence by now) we headed on to Turquoise Bay to investigate. Having parked up, I got back into my swimming shorts and put on an old t-shirt (my red chest would have frightened any wildlife away) and grabbed the mask and snorkel and off we waddled onto the beach. Unlike the one close to the campsite, this one had other people on it. Several of them were in the water, laying face down and with snorkels popping up as they drifted about above the dark mass visible below the water. They were some way out, and I'm no longer a confident swimmer (and am acutely aware that swimming is not recommended exercise for those with a weak heart), so I opted to stay closer to the shore. Tracy sat down to watch (and to get redder), whilst I waded in and started to practice trying to breathe through a plastic tube stuck in my mouth whilst my head was under water. At first it was hard work, and I had to concentrate on remaining calm, as I consciously breathed in and out deeply through my mouth and not my nose. I tentatively floated about, popping my head up and standing up frequently to reassure Tracy (and myself) that I was still OK. Gradually I relaxed and started to enjoy the experience, but the current was very strong and just floating caused me to drift along the shore. I got out, walked back up the beach a lot further, passing Tracy and telling her I was fine but hadn't seen any fish yet. Then I got back in the water, some 50m up the beach from where Tracy was sat, and there, in the water just a few metres from the shore, were lots of silver and white fish! They were perhaps 10cm long and swam towards me, then stopped a metre or so away. I quickly put on the mask and snorkel and put my head in the water for a closer look. They were inquisitive, but kept their distance, and I watched them for a short while before wading deeper. Once I was far enough out I began snorkeling again, this time staying with my head down for much longer as I floated along with the drift current (the reason it's called a
snorkel drift!). I passed over a small clump of coral, dark green and brown and surrounded by small black fish. I also saw a larger black fish swim by, then another shoal of little fish. I was really enjoying myself, just floating along, and breathing nice and relaxed. Sadly, due to my lack of confidence, I didn't go out to the main coral area as I was concerned the effort required to get back to shore would be too much, but I was happy enough where I was. I surfaced once I knew I was past where Tracy was sat and she was stood at the waters edge with a stranger, gesticulating in my direction. I waved and gave her the
Thumbs Up!, but I could see she was worried. I was a tad cross that she'd involved someone else, probably instigating some mild panic, for no reason, but didn't tell her off too much. I reassured her I was fine and just enjoying myself, then encouraged her to come for a paddle and see the fish close to the shore. Once in the water, I gave her the mask and snorkel and explained how to use them, then helped her crouch down and put her head under to see the fish. She was thrilled! When I finally managed to wrestle the mask and snorkel back off her, she waded back to shore content, whilst I waded out for one last drift over the coral mound I'd seen earlier. This time I saw a huge white fish with pink stripes that must have been a metre long. It saw me and swam away, into the current, and I couldn't swim after it - the current was too strong so it took all my energy just to stay over the coral mound. I gave up and let the current carry me away, scouring the ocean floor for more fish. It was simply a magical experience. Once I'd drifted far enough, I stood up and waded ashore, where Tracy was still buzzing from her fish encounter and recounted my own story, which in the retelling sounded like a typical fishermans tale -
honestly, it must have been this big!.
We then left the beach and returned to the motorhome, where we changed into dry clothes before heading back to the campground, my mood now very much lifted. A much needed beer followed as we both tried to stay away from the sunshine, each of us giving off enough heat to warm a small cottage.
Inside the motorhome it was warm, even after the sun had set, largely due to the two glowing bodies inside. I made the situation worse by finishing off the remains of the spicy chilli con-carne, whilst Tracy was sensible and had a cooling bowl of cereal. Not that it made much difference as we both kept complaining about our sore bits, which covered most of our bodies. We really should have known better, and I definitely did, being well aware that the Australian sun is more intense due to the thinner atmosphere. A painful lesson learnt, we turned in for an early night, knowing that the following day would be a long driving one.
To say we didn't sleep terribly well would be something of an understatement as neither of us could get comfortable or turn over due to our sunburn. It's worth noting that I've never really been sunburnt in my life before, as when I was younger I would regularly expose my body to the warming rays of the sun and tanned easily. After my beach body turned into a beached body (think whale), I hid it from the sun and it seems to have lost its ability to tan. The skin on my upper body was not only a bright red, the colour of a bad bottle of rosé, but also three sizes to small for my ribcage. The skin on my forehead was so tight I resembled David Guest. Tracy was faring little better, and she's also not one to burn in the sun, as normally she turns the a beautiful deep brown at the slightest sight of it. We were both not very pleased with our mistake. But life goes on, albeit painfully, so we got up, showered (boy, did THAT sting!), then got moving without breakfast, hitting the road by 7am.
Our plan was a simple one, to get some of the nearly 800Km drive done then stop at the Nanturra Roadhouse for a proper breakfast. First we had to drive the 60-odd Km to Exmouth, where we could use the Dump Station to empty the toilet and waste water tank and use the free drinking water tap to top-up our fresh water supply. We also filled up with diesel, which meant we were ready for anything. Even the very long drive back down the peninsular, past the endless fields of termite mounds to the turn off onto Burkett Road that cuts across undulating scrubland for another 78Km to the North West Coast Highway (NWCH), or Highway 1. Here we turned north, once more on a road with no discernable horizon for 110Km to the roadhouse. By the time we got there we were both hungry and still complaining about our sunburn. From the outside the roadhouse was nothing special - a slightly delapidated wooden building besides a fuel station - but inside it was air-conditioned (bliss!) and the cafe area was clean with formica tables and plastic chairs. We went to the counter and I asked what the
Nanturra Big Breakfast consisted of and was pointed to the detailed menu. It sounded good, so I ordered one with a cup of tea and to my suprise, Tracy ordered the same. When the breakfasts came they were not big. They were HUGE!. On the plate was a pile of bacon, a long sausage, two eggs sat on top of very light bread muffins, a cooked tomato, some beans, some mushrooms and a hash brown. I got stuck in straight away, as did Tracy, and I soon cleared my plate leaving one of the muffins and the tomato (I don't like grilled toms). Tracy made a brave effort, but her appetite (read: greed) isn't like mine and she was defeated just over half way through. Stuffed, we waddled back out into the heat and clambered aboard the motorhome once more.
The next section of the NWCH to the Fortescue Roadhouse (where we filled up with fuel) and on to Roebourne then on to Port Hedland was as memorable as any highway in Australia. That is, it wasn't. It was mostly straight, and although the landscape changed occasionally from scrub to small trees to bushes to desert, it was not the most interesting road I've ever driven. I won't be coming back to drive it again any time soon. As we approached Port Hedland we passed by a huge iron-ore mine off to the right nestled amongst the red sandy hills. There looked to be a large camp made of portakabins and shipping containers, but the lay of the land made it difficult to see. We also encountered a lot more road trains, most with the full compliment of 4 trailers, all belting along as though their lives depended on it. Port Hedland is an industrial town and Australia's busiest port, in terms of tonnage passing through it. It exported almost 520 MILLION tonnes of Iron Ore in 2017/18. That's a lot. Unsurprisingly, the area around the main highway was very industrial and busy, but as we wanted to get beyond the port before stopping for the night, we just topped up the diesel and continued on our way.
We were aiming for a 24-hour rest area called De Grey which was approximately 100Km further up the road, and sun was low in the sky as we drove away from the industrial mess and back into scrubland. As we got closer to the rest area we saw a couple of yellow road signs that said something about a Biohazard and had De Grey listed on them. They were typical of the information-giving road signs here in that they had too many words to read when passing by at the speed limit, and they weren't repeated, so once you'd past them you realised you didn't have a clue as to what they were saying. In this case, the second one was close to the rest area and I saw it in sufficient time to slow down a bit to get a closer look. It still didn't make any sense, just the words Biohazard area and a list of 3 places, including De Grey. We looked at each other and at the same time said
if the area is a biohazard area, the rest area will be closed - and we both knew there wasn't another for miles. When we got to the rest area there was nothing to suggest it wasn't open - no signs, barriers or tape across the entrance. We drove in and around, noting immediately that there were no other campervans present. We saw a small sign on the fence by the river, which warned of salt-water crocodiles and said something about a weed they were trying to control. In small letters at the bottom of the sign it read
De Grey Rest Area is Closed until Further Notice. Bugger.
We got out the map and also opened the CamperMate app to check for the next place to camp. All that was listed was a campsite in Pardoo or the Pardoo Roadhouse. We read the comments and reviews, none of which were good, and the price seemed excessive too. We had been keen to free-camp, as that's the whole point of a self-contained motorhome and we like being in the middle of nowhere. But with no apparent alternatives (we weren't about to go back to Port Hedland as that would increase the distance we needed to travel the following day), we rejoined the highway and sped on into the dusk. After a relatively short distance (maybe 50km) I saw a lay-by parking area and pulled into it. There is confusion over whether or not it's legal to camp in rest areas in Australia, but as there wasn't a
No Camping sign and it was almost dark, we decided to stop. I parked where we could be seen clearly should someone drive into the rest area and we set about making dinner. We had a packet of chickpea curry to which I added an onion and a tin of lentils and we enjoyed that whilst commenting on how hot it was. The outside temperature during the day had been steadily rising, to the point where I saw 45.5degrees on the dashboard temperature guage, and it was still in the high 30's. Even after the sun had long set it was still very hot, and with the motorhome's air-conditioning only working when connected to mains power, all we could do was open the roof vent and window and sweat. I don't think our still-glowing sunburnt bodies helped either. Once we'd cleared up the dishes we made the bed, leaving the quilt packed away and just a sheet for cover - which was still too much for me - and we laid down to try to sleep. It was only 7:45pm but what the hell, we were knackered. Not that either of us could sleep as turning over was painful and even lying still in the gentle breeze blowing through the motorhome was
sufficient to cause us to sweat. It was a bloody hot and somewhat uncomfortable night...
Sleeping in a lay-by by a main road might conjure up images of endless truck noise but the reality was that it was very peaceful. The occasional road train did thunder past, but the only other sounds were our own groans as we tried to turn over in bed, the sunburn unrelenting in its torture. The exertion involved in trying to turn over in the heat often resulted in us making sufficient racket to wake each other up, resulting in neither of us getting much sleep. With the sun rising early too it's perhaps a little surprising that by the time we'd got up and showered and were ready to set off again that it was almost 8am. We'd skipped breakfast once more, as we had no fresh milk (there'd been nowhere open yesterday when we decided to try and buy some), and with the Pardoo Resthouse only 50km away we opted for another cooked breakfast. This time there was no
Big Breakfast option to tempt us to stray from our normal healthy eating (!) so we ordered bacon and eggs with beans and mushrooms. Which came with a huge pile of bacon, two eggs and half a load of bread. Each. Good job I've got the appetite of a small army, although I doubt my cardiologist would approve. Never mind, in all the heat I'm probably sweating out 1,000 calories an hour.
With breakfast attended to we continued the long and somewhat boring drive along the North West Coastal Highway, which we agreed should be renamed the North West not-quite-coastal Highway as it was rare to get a glimpse of the coast all along its length. We stopped again at the Sandfire Roadhouse for fuel and to use the facilities, almost fainting in the heat when we opened the motorhome doors. Whilst the cab air-conditioning sometimes fails to blow as hard as we'd like, at least it had been keeping us cool. Back on the NCWH the scenery remained the same but different - the bushes were brighter green in places and there appeared to be the odd farm here and there. We even saw a herd of cattle - to choruses of
Bonjour, les vaches!. But little else apart from road trains, pick-ups and the odd camper. As we'd broken the back of the journey from Exmouth to Broome yesterday, today was a relatively short driving day, and we hit the outskirts of Broome around 1pm. We pulled over so I could search for and call a dentist to try and make an appointment for early in the morning (I succeeded) and then we went in search of a Woolworths and a BWS and stocked up on beer and some basic food (milk, bread) as we decided on a dinner of hummous and cheese-and-biscuits as it was too hot to contemplate cooking. We then drove to the Discovery Parks campsite on the shore of Roebuck Bay, checked in and then drove to our waterfront pitch. With a great view of the bay from the back of the motorhome, we plugged in the electricity cable and switched on the air-con to try and cool down the interior. Then we put on our laundry and retreated back into the motorhome whilst it was done. It was too hot to sit outside, so we sat inside and drank a cool beer or two. Or three. Or so. Not long after the sun had set we closed the remaining curtains and made the bed - with just a sheet again - and then collapsed once more. We knew we were in for another uncomfortable night as we were both still sore - but we could see signs of improvement as now we could move without screaming in pain. At least, some of the time we could...
You can always spot the days when we're too exhausted to go sightseeing, as we don't take many pictures - like yesterday when I had to steal the 3 photos Tracy took. Or today, when neither of us took any. We will try harder, we promise!
The main advantage of staying on proper campsites is that we can plug the motorhome into the mains electricity supply and use the onboard air-conditioning to cool the interior, particularly important when the temperature and humidity outside is borderline unbearable. The air-con may be noisy, but it did help us sleep, our still recovering lobster-like skin benefitting from being cooled down to below boiling point. We woke very early as the rear of the van was facing the bay over which the sun rose around 5am, then ate breakfast whilst running through our plans for the day. First on our list of things to do was the dentist, with my appointment being at 8:45am and with a request to arrive early to complete the medical questionaire.
We drove to the office of Bruce Rudeforth, a single-storey wooden building tucked away behind a large retail establishment that looked more like a residence than a business, and parked up across the road (the motorhome being too big for his small car-park). Bruce has been a practicing dentist here in Broome for over 30 years and runs his small practice with his wife and a couple of dental assistants. No, his wife is not called Sheila. We walked up the ramp and into the air-conditioned reception area, where we were greeted by Bruce's wife and receptionist, Fran. After she'd remarked that my smile, complete with huge gap at the front where my tooth used to be, was
lovely, but we can't have you walking around like that!, she gave me the form to fill in. It didn't take long, then we sat and waited for a few minutes before Bruce came out and introduced himself. A charming man in his late 50s, he sat opposite us in the reception area and we had a chat about the reliability of Maryland Bridges (the type of crown that's the reason for my visit), which he remarked were very reliable.
They always fail!. But unlike the dentist in Fremantle, Bruce was happy to try and glue it back in for me, and hoped that would see it stay in place, at least until I got home. We then went into the back room where the dentists chair awaited and a short while later, I emerged with my tooth firmly back in place and not just wedged there as previously. I was very happy. Even when I paid the bill - AUD$253 or about £140. Back in the reception area I gave Tracy a big smile to show her the job was done and she looked pleased at not having to look at Goofy any more.
After the dentist we went for a bit of a drive around Broome, first to the Roebuck Bay Lookout, which is a covered seating area on the oceanfront with a roof made of a sheet of metal with lines cut out that cast interesting shadows on the bench seat underneath. The artwork surrounding it has been painted by the local Aboriginal community in conjunction with 12-year old art students from the local school. It wasn't that remarkable to look at, but it provided some shade, which was most welcome as the sun was already high in the sky and very hot. We looked out over the bay and took a couple of photos (which are now starting to look very similar to other
bay shots) before returning the to motorhome and setting off across town to the town's most famous landmark, Cable Beach. This 22km beach was named in 1889 after the telegraph cable that runs between Java and Broome and was critical in improving communications between Britain and its colonies on the continent. According to the tourist information map, it's the only beach in Australia ranked in the world's top-5 beaches (though it only ranks 22nd out of the top-25 in the world on TripAdvisor, so I'm not sure which list they're looking at. My list has Cleveleys beach, across the road from the house I grew up in, at no.3 in the world). Either way, it was worth a look, so we parked in a car park close to it and walked up the boardwalk for a look. It was by now scorching hot, the sort of day when a quick swim in a crystal clear turqoise ocean from a pristine white sand beach would have been perfect. The beach and ocean delivered just that, but the sunburn on my chest prevented me from doing so. We had to be content with standing watching as the handful of people actually daft enough to strip off into swimming attire did it for us. They looked very happy. I hope they only stayed out in the sun for a few minutes or they won't be for very long.
Taking out disappointment at not being able to enjoy the delights of the beach, we drove back into town to attend to the next jobs on our list - getting something to try and neutralize the dreadful smell of bad eggs that permeates through the motorhome on occasion. This has been a problem since Uluru, and seems the appear shortly after we set off for the day, sometimes lingering for an hour or so. If we stop and set off again, it re-appears after a short time once more. When we arrived at Jeff's in Perth and he came out to greet us, we'd just set off from the petrol station round the corner and the smell was particularly bad - he thought it was me! We've tried investigating the starter battery as the Internet chat forums list this as a possible cause, but it doesn't seem to be, so our theory is that it's connected to the grey water tank. We had a similar problem in New Zealand and putting some cleaning chemicals into the tank cured it, so we headed to the large camping store in town. Here we chatted with the staff about the problem and bought some stuff to add to the tank with some water for 12 hours. Then we went to Woolies to get some fresh prawns and salad for dinner before returning to the campsite. After adding the newly purchased chemicals to the tank, we got out the guide books, map and computer to plan and book some stuff for the next week or so. This included deciding to delay our arrival in Darwin by a day so we could spend 2 nights in Katherine in order to take a boat trip up the Katherine Gorge, and booking the campsite in Darwin. The plan called for 2 long driving days to get us to Katherine, but we were OK with that as we had to keep moving if we're to get over to the east coast, and Cairns, for early December.
Once we'd sorted out the plans and booked the things we needed to, we drove back out again to have a look at Chinatown in Broome. Originally known as Japtown, or the Asiatic Quarter in official documents, in was renamed in 1942 after the outbreak of WW2. It consists mostly of a small alleyway, Johnny Chi Lane, with wooden shops leading to a courtyard with other small artisan shops on each side. They were all closed for the
wet. This area has two seasons - dry and wet - and we're on the cusp between the two, so whilst it's not wet, it's also not the season for tourists, so a lot of businesses are closed. Still, we had a look around, took some pictures, then walked to the Ginreab Thai restaurant (Ginreab means
clean plate) where we had a very good meal consisting of: vegetable spring rolls and chicken wings to start, red prawn curry and rice and chicken Pad Thai for mains and some weird minty-medicine flavoured drink (they didn't have any jasmine tea and offered this an alternative!). Following the meal we made our way to Sun Pictures for our evening's entertainment. Sun Picturs is the world's oldest continually-operating open-air picture house, and opened in 1913 (it started showing films in 1916). Showing tonight was
Ford vs Ferrari, a film about battle between Ford and Ferrari in the 1964-1966 Le Mans races. The cinema is an experience in itself, an old wooden building with the screen out back under the stars and the chairs being rows of deckchair-like seats. We grabbed a drink and some nibbles and took our seats, along with the other patrons (all 6-10 of them). Just before the adverts came on there was a huge roar as a plane came screaming overhead, no more than 100feet up, heading for the local airport. Quite dramatic! As the sun set and the stars began to appear the film came on, and we sat engrossed (or at least, being a petrolhead and familiar with the real story, I was). It was a great experience and by the time the film ended it was well past our normal bedtimes, so we drove directly back to the campsite, reconnected the electricity and turned on the air-con and collapsed in the bed we'd sensibly made before going out.
We got up early as we had planned on getting on the road and eating breakfast at a roadhouse an hour or so out of Broome, but once up and showered we changed our plans and ate some cereal instead. Much healthier. That meant it that by the time we'd emptied the grey water tank, filled with diesel and left Broome it was around 7am. Disappointingly, the rotten egg smell was still present, but thankfully it cleared after a short while and as we were on a mission to cover some distance we didn't have to stop and start again any time soon.
The rest of the day passed with almost continual travelling, the scenery having a bit of everything we've seen so far. Straight roads with scrubland, straight roads with trees, straight roads with farmland, straight roads with gentle curves, straight roads with undulations. There were some things that were different, including the termite mounds, which were now even more abundant but no longer fat and squat but small and square, looking like fields of tombstones. They were everywhere, in the scrub, in the trees, in the fields. We passed a herd of skeletal cattle, who seemed oblivious to the fact that their fields were dotted with termite tombstones.
One thing that we did see that gave us plenty to talk about were the wonderful baobab trees. There were lots of them and many were in the first stages of coming back to life after winter. They had small bright green leaves and lovely yellow flowers, similar in shape and colour to a daffodil. They looked majestic, and we discussed how they also reminded us of pantomime trees - they look like they've got a human being inside their trunks, making them fat and then the branches and leaves have to pop out of the top. Some were split down the middle, making two trees that looked like they were dancing with each other. I think they're now my favourite trees.
We drove through Fitzroy Crossing, stopping for fuel, the small groups of sullen-looking aborigines shuffling about or lazing about under the trees in the park lending it a desperate feeling. Halls Creek was no better, the local white Australians going about their business and ignoring the aborigines as though they didn't exist. The groups of deeply dark-skinned, thick-bodied, scruffy-looking aborigines hanging around everywhere gave the town an menacing air, and we could appreciate Jeff's advice not to camp here. We did stop, though, to check on CamperMate for campsites near to the Bungle Bungles (a series of odd layered rock shapes just off the highway). The only one listed was a pay-site and it was expensive and we wanted to stay close to the highway so we could get to Katherine the following day, so we selected one that was a little further up the road. Back on the road we drove on, and on, and on. It started to go dark, then out came the kangaroos, including one who appeared smack bang in the middle of the highway, just standing there looking at the white Mercedes van approaching at speed. I started to make the necessary calculations - approach speed vs braking distance, likely trajectory of the kangaroo given it was facing left to right, space to the front of it, space to the left, etc - and hit the brakes to scrub some speed, then swerved around it. Just as I did so, it looked at me as if confused, turned slowly and bounced away as we disappeared into the distance. After that, we cruised ever slower until we finally reached the Dunham River Rest Area, pulling in with the last of the light fading, having covered a total of over 950Km (590 miles). A very long day, indeed.
Whilst my eyes adjusted to normal from their out-on-stalks night-time spotting-wildlife position, Tracy rustled up a prawn salad with the fresh prawns we bought in Broome. They were absolutely delicious, and the bottle of Reisling we washed them down with was perfectly chilled. Which was more than we were, as it was very hot and we had no electric hook-up to which we could connect the motorhome, so no air-con. We were in for a very hot sweaty night, and not in a good way!
I slept reasonably well despite the heat, probably due to being very tired from the long drive yesterday. We were up, showered and breakfasted early, getting back on the road ready to cover the remaining 520km to Katherine by 8am. Our route took us past the town of Kununurra, which we'd seen has some very interesting scenery in the national park, but we stuck to the main highway. This took us through some forests that had suffered from bushfires, the normal thin-trunked eucalyptus trees burnt black but showing the first signs that they were still alive, buds adorning their brittle branches. In the middle of one field of black ash and thin trees was a large baobab tree, resplendent with a canopy of verdant neon green leaves and bright yellow flowers. It would appear the mighty baobab survived the bushfire almost unscathed. A quick check reveals the bark of the baobab is fire-resistent. A handy trait when you're surrounded by fire-loving eucalyptus trees!
Crossing back into the Northern Territories cost us 1.5 hours, not due to a delay at the border but because we crossed a time-zone. This meant we arrived in Katherine around 4pm, and we made our way directly to the local Woolworths to stock-up on supplies, including some burgers for the BBQ we had planned for dinner. The latter was necessary because the on-site Bistro at the Katherine Holiday Park, where we're staying for two nights, is closed. As are most of the amenities blocks on the site. Fortunately for us this means the park is almost empty, giving us pick of the powered sites, so we chose one in the shade of a large tree and parked up, plugged in and got the A/C blowing maximum cold. We then sat outside and had a beer. And another. Several beers later we realised that it was getting late and we had better start cooking or we'd be trying to BBQ our burgers in the dark. I cooked the burgers and an onion on the BBQ attached to the van whilst Tracy prepared a salad, and then we ate outside as it went dusk. When we went back inside the motorhome it was lovely and cool, so we poured ourselves a rum and coke each and sat and watched some episodes of Criminal Minds before turning in. As I did I glanced at my phone and was surprised to find it was 11:30pm - the latest we'd stayed up for a long time!
Waking with something akin to a thick-head I wobbled unsteadily over to the amenities block for an invigorating shower, in which I could try to clear my head and shed a couple of layers of now-dead skin. My sunburn is almost healed, and now instead of looking like a cooked lobster, I resemble an inmate from a leprosy colony. I hope it clears up fully before we get to the east coast, or I'll be frightening the tourists off the beaches.
After breakfast I got out my laptop to start writing the blog, as I was now 3 days behind, but couldn't concentrate so just made some notes and gave up. I then tried to work out how long we should stay in Cairns for and which tour would work best for us to visit the Great Barrier Reef. I susprised myself by actually being able to think at this point and so we booked ourselves in for a campsite with en-suite shower block for four nights for the price of three. We then had a snack lunch before heading out and driving down to Katherine Gorge where we were due to join the 2pm tour. This being the not-quite-wet season, the tour was not exactly busy, with just a father-and-son from Cairns and a couple of young women, also from Cairns as well as us. We checked in and walked to the waiting area in the shade of some overhead canopies and began swatting away the flies. Just like those we'd encountered further south, these little buggers were determined to get into every available orifice. Mouths, ears, nostrils, eyes, they were everywhere. They even followed us as we met our guide and walked the short distance down to and onto the boat. Even after we'd set off and our informative and knowledgable guide had started talking about the various trees and their indigenous names and uses, the flies persisted in trying to get our attention. Dragging myself away from the task of swatting the little buggers, I listened attentatively as our guide described how one tree's bark was used as a mosquito-repellant by burning it and standing in the smoke. Sadly I didn't catch the name of the tree, nor did I spot which one she was pointing at (she was stood behind us at the back of the boat). I did catch an explanation of the importance of Jedda Rock, a large rock that was used as a set in the 1955 film Jedda or Jedda, the Uncivilised as it was called on its release in the UK. This was the first film to use aboringal cast members and the film's final scene involves the main characters jumping from the rock.
In addition to explaining all about the flora, fauna and geology of the gorge, our guide also explained about the crocodiles. The gorge is home to some
freshies or fresh-water crocodiles which are the less-harmful kind, as they have smaller jaws and softer teeth than the more fearsome salt-water crocodiles. She explained that freshies are timid creatures that feed off small prey and are only likely to attack humans if cornered and threatened. She explained that occasionally salties found their way into the gorge system and that they were trapped and moved to safer places - they had removed 2 the previous season and 3 the year before. There were none believed to be in the gorge now. That was a relief, as the salties have been known to attack and kill humans who happen to enter their territory. Most notably perhaps, in March 1987, Ginger Faye Meadows, an American model was killed by a crocodile while standing under a waterfall in the Prince Regent River near Broome. They're not to be messed with!
The cruise up the gorge was peaceful (once out of range of the flies), but due to the low water level we had a short walk between the first and second gorges (there are 13 in total, we only got to see the lower 2). On the way we passed some aboriginal rock art, showing the significance of the area to the indigenous peoples. The second gorge was so low that we had to take another short walk and get into our 3rd boat for the final part of the journey before returning the way we had come. On the way back we approached a small crack-like cave which had some tiny bats nestling in it, but they were very hard to photograph (see below).
When the tour was over we returned to the motorhome and drove back to the campground, once again accompanied by the horrible smell of rotten eggs. Back at camp we added a second packet of the chemicals to the waste tank to try and clear it before making another prawn salad, which we followed with a cheesecake whilst watching some more Criminal Minds and cooling off under the air-conditioning. We both agreed it had been well worth staying the extra night in Katherine to visit the gorge.
Another good night's sleep courtesy of the air-conditioning saw us wake up later than normal before heading to the amenities block for a cool shower. It was already hot and humid, so by the time we returned the motorhome we probably needed another shower, but had breakfast instead. Just as we were packing away we noticed the distinctive-looking black and white bird that had visited us as we ate our dinner last night. It was alternating nest-building with its partner, high in the tree above our motorhome. The nest was a bowl-shape, and both birds were taking it in turns to fly off and return with a muddy twig, which they then placed in or around the nest. We watched them for a little while before we had to get moving - later I looked them up and they are Magpie-Larks, which are indigenous to Australia and, despite their name, have nothing in common with magpies (apart from being black and white) or larks.
We drove out of the campsite (accompanied after a few minutes by the inevitable bad egg smell) and drove the short distance up the Stuart Highway to the turn-off for Edith Falls. This is a small series of waterfalls and pools that are dedicated swimming pools (i.e. free of crocodiles), and whilst it was too early for us to go for a swim, we wanted to have a look as we were passing by. They looked beautiful, the water very inviting, but the ever-present flies once again made the experience one that we couldn't linger and enjoy. After a few photos, we rushed back to the motorhome, closed the windows and sprayed some fly killer to get rid of the ones that had followed us inside. Then we drove back to the Stuart Highway and turned north once more, heading via Pine Creek - where we plan to stop on the way back down - and up to Hayes Creek. This section of the Stuart Highway is nothing like the southern section, being surrounded by greenery and a little twisty, making for a much more enjoyable drive. When we saw a sign for the
Scenic Route to Adelaide River (the next town on the Stuart Highway going north), we decided to take that instead, even though it would add a little longer to the journey. The Dorat Road, as it's called, proved to be a very enjoyable one to drive, narrow and single-track in most places it wound its way through a forest of bright green eucalyptus trees. In amongst them were termite mounds. But not like either the squat, fat, termite mounds of the Exmouth peninsular or the tombstone-like termite mounds of the Victoria Highway from Broome to Katherine. These were more like the termite mounds seen on nature programmes featuring Sir David Attenborough - huge and with buttressed sides. I stood next to one so Tracy could take a photo (see below) and it was much taller than me - others further into the forest were even taller. Most impressive!
At Adelaide River we stopped for a snack and an ice-cream before driving the remaining distance to the outskirts of Darwin and the Discovery Parks campground. Just as we pulled up outside around 2pm, my phone pinged (I'd not had a signal for most of the day) and I was surprised to receive a message from the campsite advising us that as we were arriving after check-in had closed we'd need to follow the late check-in process and retrieve details of our site from the night safe. Confused, Tracy went to get our envelope from the safe, but it wasn't there. Just as we were debating what to do next, the receptionist appeared, apologised for the message - check-in was still open - and explained the site's layout to us. Our site lacks shade (as do all the others) and with the sun directly overhead it was too hot to sit outside, so we plugged in the electric cable and got the air-con on quickly. We then attended to some laundry, before having a cold beer and relaxing. I used the afternoon to update the blog whilst Tracy read, then cooked our dinner which we'd bought from the Woolworths on the way into Darwin. We had some stir-fried vegetables cooked with some thin beef strips marinated in a thai sauce (bought like that from Woolies), a bit disappointing as the sauce the beef was marinated in wasn't that good. I opted to avoid more beer or wine and followed dinner with a brew, before we both ate lots of cheese-and-biscuits to make up for not enjoying the stir-fry. Just before bed I went to use the facilities in the amenities block and discovered a dead mouse on the floor, so was fairly quick as I didn't want to encounter whatever had killed it and left it there...
Wow. It's the First of December and outside the sun is shining and it's around 30degrees. And it's only 8am.
We're both struggling to get our heads around the fact that it's the first day of advent and its not freezing cold and wet and miserable. So we did what any rational people would do, and had out breakfast outside. The side of the motorhome had created an area of shade and for once the flies had disappeared, so we had our cereal sat in the warmth and remarked on how fortunate we were to be able to travel. Gradually the sun moved further overhead reducing our patch of shade and raising the temperature further, so we packed up our breakfast things and put away the table and chairs and got ready to drive into Darwin. We had done some research on the city, and I was surprised to find out about the Japanese raid on the port in 1942 and was keen to know more. I discovered that there is a new museum on the wharf where the attack took place that has the story in more detail, but even more than that, it's also the museum for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and that was of interest to us both. So we headed into town to check it out.
Downtown Darwin looks like any modern city, but it also looks different. It's very clean and the apartment tower blocks around the harbour area look new. That's because most of the city - some 70&percent; of all buildings and 80&percent; of houses - were destroyed when Cyclone Tracy hit between 24th and 26th December 1974. The cyclone killed 71 people and caused AUD$837 million in damage (1974 dollars approximately $4.79 billion USD in today's money). It left more than 25,000 out of the 47,000 inhabitants of the city homeless and required the evacuation of over 30,000 people many of whom never returned. After the storm passed, the city was rebuilt using more stringent standards "to cyclone code". That explains why it all looks so new - most of it is a good 10 years younger than me.
The RFDS Darwin Tourist Facility is located on Stokes Hill Wharf, which sticks out into the bay from Darwin harbour. On 19th February 1942 the Japanese attacked this area with over 200 aircraft flying in two separate raids. These were the first raids on Australia and came almost as much as a surprise as the attack on Pearl Habour two months earlier. Moored against the wharf was the freight ship the MV Neptune, which was unloading ammunition at the time of the raid. Also in the harbour was the USS William B. Preston, a US-Navy seaplane tender that was captained by Lieutenant Commander Grant, whose story features in the museum. The raid killed approximately 250 people, including 21 dock workers on the wharf where the museum now stands. Inside the museum is a little confusing, as it contains a central display area where there is a flat horizontal screen raised on a platform in the centre of the floor near the front, opposite a screen on a wall - here they display an overview of the bombing raid. To the right of this is a hologram viewing room, much like a small cinema which shows two holographic films - one of John Flynn (founder of the RFDS) and one of Lt.Cmdr. Grant (covering the bombing raid). Moving further back into the museum there is the gift shop, selling RFDS-branded souvenirs and clothing, then at the back is a decomissioned RFDS aircraft, along with some chairs arranged around the outer walls for using the virtual-reality headsets to watch two stories about the RFDS. Back at the front of the museum, on the opposite side to the holographic viewing room, is another set of chairs and virtual-reality headsets showing the story of the bombing.
At first, it was rather confusing, as we watched the display on the screen in the floor and wall (about the bombing) then went into the holographic room to see John Flynn come alive and tell us the story of the founding of the RFDS. The Reverend John Flynn OBE was a Presbyterian minister who founded the Australian Inland Mission, and whilst ministering to remote outposts got the idea for an aerial medical service after he received a letter explaining how the use of aircraft could help provide medical services to remote areas. This letter was written by Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a medical student from Victoria with an interest in aviation. The young airman was shot down in France during WW1 and died aged 24, never knowing that his letter became a blueprint for the creation of the Flying Doctor Service. The service has evolved a lot since the early days when the radio equipment used at the remote outback stations had to be powered by pedals. The service now has its own fleet of 77 aircraft and helps over 300,000 people every year. The holographic John Flynn was enthusastic, as I assume he was in real life to convince people to get the service going, and the presentation was very interesting.
After the show had finished we walked to the back of the museum to look around the airplane. A decommissioned RFDS Pilatus PC 12 aircraft this is kitted out with two stretchers and bears more than a passing resemlance to the Lear jet that flew Tracy and I back to the UK from Slovakia following our accident in 2007. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Tracy could only manage a short look inside, I suspect the vague memories she has of that flight making an unwanted resurgence. When I'd had a good look around, we sat and watched the virtual-reality stories - the first was of a patient, Gene Hildebrand, and showed footage of his flight in an RFDS airplane. His story was remarkable - he had felt unwell at work in Pine Gap, which is a half-hour drive from Alice Springs. When he arrived at the hospital there, the medical staff realised he was having a major heart attack and so called in the RFDS. Whilst he was on the 3-hour flight to Adelaide where they could treat him properly, he went into cardiac arrest and had to be shocked by defibrillator no less than 54 times! He had a stent fitted at Adelaide Hospital and survived. The second story was a pilot's story and showed footage from inside the cockpit of one of the RFDS planes as it flew across the red centre. The virtual-reality headsets allowed us to look around and see different perspectives as though sat next to the pilot - pretty cool.
Having exhausted the story of the RFDS and the displays in the museum we visited the shop for a fridge magnet, then moved on to the displays surrounding the bombings, first attending the 20-minute holographic film introduced by an actor playing Lt. Cmdr. Grant. His story was that just before the raid he had left his ship and gone ashore to arrange for its reprovisioning, then watched in horror as the raid took place. At one point a shock-wave blew him into the water and he had to cling to a mooring buoy to survive. The imagery of the raid and the way the story was told made it very real, the holograph providing a true 3D experience. After the presentation finished we went to the virtual-reality headsets, where we could experience the raid almost first hand. Tracy had a problem with her first headset and had to move to a second one, so my show finished first, which gave me the chance to enjoy watching Tracy looking around with the headset on, flinching as bombs exploded nearby and looking most scared.
After the show was over we thanked the museum staff for their excellent museum, probably one of the best I've been to for a while. Outside we walked down the wharf, past a memorial to the 21 dock workers killed there, and under a dark grey sky ate some fish and chips from one of the eateries on the wharf. As we walked back to the motorhome it started spitting with rain, and we were optimistic we might get a proper downpour to clear the air, but it never came. On the way back to the campsite we stopped to fill up with diesel ready for an early get-away tomorrow. Back at camp we arranged our trip to see the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns next weekend, then set about having a proper chill-out. I even had a snooze.
Some time later, I cooked the burgers and sausages on the BBQ whilst Tracy prepared another salad, then we sat outside to eat. For about 2 minutes, before the bl**dy flies arrived and did a passable impression of the Japanese attacking Darwin. We quickly retreated inside the air-conditioned motorhome and closed the doors and windows, thus enabling us to eat our salads without added insects. They really are rather annoying. After dinner we washed up and then watched some more of our Criminal Minds DVD collection before turning in for the night.