Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gibb River Road Adventure - Part 2

It's great to have some mobile coverage and to be able to get some of this down while it is reasonably current.

It's also been good to get back some radio coverage so we can catch up on all the important news.

I see that our fearless PM Kevin Rudd is in trouble again, reinforcing Australia's growing reputation as the new racist centre of the world by bidding Sol Trujillo a warm "Adios" as he departed from his job of running Telstra into the ground. I'm not even a T2 shareholder, but I'd have thought that "hacete cojer, hijo de puta!" would have been more appropriate and may have slipped under the radar (Greg, perhaps you could let me know if that doesn't quite hit the mark, and also how to get the upside down '!' that should probably go in front?). The downside of tuning in to a couple of bulletins is that I'm now not sure whether I should be more scared of pig flu or wayward North Korean nuclear missiles. Both seemed under control when we left Fitzroy Crossing.

Back to the trip.

We were both reluctant to move on from Mornington. Such a beautiful and peaceful spot, far enough from the Gibb River Road to keep out the non birding riff-raff, and just enough sun peaking through our shady camp to keep the solar panels happy.

After filling up at the Mount Barnett Roadhouse - $2.17/l - we couldn't spare the $12.50 each to see Manning Gorge so we pushed on a bit further and then made the big left turn up onto the Kalumburu Road and stopped for a wonderful bushcamp just over the Gibb River Crossing. I managed to sneak in some fishing and landed a gutsy little perch only slightly bigger than the lure I was using.

We almost had the place to ourselves, but some Germans pulled in after dark, no doubt attracted by the campfire I'd got going. Luckily these Germans were very polite and quiet, and remarkably managed to keep their clothes on for their entire stay. What is it about people from the central powers (and I'll include the Swiss in that) and the need to get their kit off in public?

After passing through Drysdale Station the road started to deteriorate a bit. The corrugations were pretty bad and there were some pretty big holes in the road.

We passed this casualty on the way up. A stretch Troopie which had overturned the day before after hitting a hole in the road resulting in four pensioners being flown by the RFDS to Broome. Chomleys may well be the Cape Leveque specialists, but they really do need to be a bit more careful with their elderly and no doubt fragile cargo.

The Mitchell Plateau Road turned out to be a little better, but it was incredibly dusty and the palm forests went right to the edge of the road. They were also backburning which reduced visibility even further so we took things nice and slowly (which of course makes the corrugations seem much worse).

The King Edward River crossing was pretty interesting. I remember uncharitably thinking when Si and Charl told us about their car leaking in deeper water that that was their fault for driving a Patrol and we wouldn't have the same problem.

Wrong. The water came over the steps, into the back of the car and I had a puddle under the pedals. The cameras and laptop came within millimeters of a terminal wash.

All good practice of course for when we get to Cape Yorke.

We tried to get an early night at Mitchell Falls campground so we'd be well rested for a big day of walking. Alas, a group of 'ferals' we'd passed on the road rolled into camp and were pretty out of order until well into the early hours.

As much as we love them, there is a time and place to listen to The Presets at full volume. Bondi Beach on new year's eve for example. Not when bushcamping. They were so out of order that I even dobbed them in to the Ranger the next morning, which was especially satisfying as I'd noticed they'd not bothered to pay their camping fees.

Bleary eyed, we set off on the walk to Mitchell Falls around 9am.

It's only a 3-4km walk to the top of the falls, but they recommend taking your time to take in all it has to offer. There was so much to see along the way.

First up was Little Merten Falls which we climbed down and then took the track that went behind the falls themselves to some pretty cool Aboriginal rock art.

We then followed the Merten river further along to the larger falls and then past the most divine pools and onto the top of Mitchell Falls.

Walking across the top of Mitchell Falls was a bit of a slippery (waste deep) wade but the water was moving quite slowly so we were at no risk of being carried over the falls. We stopped for lunch and then several cooling swims before the main event.

Our 4WD mentors (Savage & Lewis) had recommended ensuring you had enough money in the budget to get a helicopter ride from the top of the falls back to the campground. We had squirrelled away a little more and did the mudcrab tour (18 minutes, or three times as long as the 'taxi', for only 70% more cost - a no brainer, but it did cost the same as a flight from Sydney to Melbourne).

I'd never been in a helicopter before (Ness had a couple of times). What I was at least expecting for the money was that it would have a door on it, but no. I spent the first five minutes holding tightly to my harness as I was convinced I was going to topple out every time the pilot banked to the left.

Anyhow, short story is that Lewis & Savage had been bang on the money. We enjoyed amazing views of the Plateau, down to the coast and the many islands of the gulf.

A trip I will remember for a long long time, and very different from my usual Qantas experience going down to Melbourne.

Some of the rock art we saw on the Mitchell Plateau. Not really sure what it all meant, but it was nice all the same.

We stopped for a bush camp just over the King Edward River crossing, disturbed only by a Swiss couple who quickly disrobed and made a dash for the river. Thankfully they put their clothes back on before coming over to ask to borrow our tin opener. We also stopped again for a night at the Gibb River Crossing, which we did have to ourselves, other than the water trucks that kept coming to pump water out of the Gibb to then spray on the grading work further along the road.

The Pentecost River crossing provided a great view of the Cockburn ranges. The crossing itself was a few hundred meters across and was rocky, but the water was not quite deep enough to get in through our doors.

Some young Americans who'd crossed in a conventional car were not so lucky. Water had gotten into their electrics and shorted the batteries. It's reassuring to know that even though there's a new smart guy in the Whitehouse, the average American is still as dumb as the old one (based on my random sample of two American's I've seen in the Kimberley).

We should be very grateful indeed that so few Americans have seen Baz Luhrmann's epic which was largely filmed around these parts. From what I saw when I was there a few years ago, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has turned the south island of NZ into a US retirees 'must do' destination. Not so here, and long may that continue. Nudity aside, the Europeans are generally polite. They also drive their hire 4WDs like they're still on the autobahn so will no doubt die off eventually.

Me relaxed and all contemplative in the Zebedee (hot) Springs. We climbed up a little way to escape the throng of tourists below and found our own private pool.

We stayed four nights at El Questro Station Wilderness Park. A one million acre property bought for $1m in 1996 by an astute aristocratic Pom who sold out to the (now failing) Voyages Property empire at the height of the market. It's for sale again now and there's talk of the previous owner buying it back as his Aussie wife has been frosty since they sold up. Accommodation options ranged from private bushcamps along the crocodile infested river, through to $5,000 for a two night package in the luxurious homestead. Pretty hard to justify when we have to make that much last us six week, but maybe next time.

The vision of the former owner had been to open up the cattle station so intrepid tourists such as ourselves could access the numerous gorges, springs and riverside beauty. Some of the walks involved getting seriously wet and clambering which we decided to leave to our new friends Warwick & Ann who we'd shared the Mitchell Falls helicopter ride with.

Ness had been dying to have a dinner party so we had Warwick & Ann over for dinner for a nice spot of what we had left (not much), some lovely chops from their freezer, and a perfectly cooked damper.

We took a relaxing afternoon cruise along the Chamberlain River. We were lucky to have Buddy Tyson on board, aka the Black John Laws of the Kimberley (due to his local radio show), film star (including 'The Silver Brumby') and general all round local legend.

The cruise was not quite what we had been promised but it was a lot of fun nonetheless, and we also all somehow managed to get served three glasses of champers rather than the one we were expecting so everyone was pretty tipsy by the end.

We didn't learn much about the gorge or the area, but Buddy also got stuck into the champers which meant his stories got more animated as the afternoon wore on. We particularly enjoyed the one where he was a stunt man for a whitefella and how at his suggestion they'd put flour all over him to whiten him up for the cameras. Bizarre afternoon, but well worth the admission price.

The blue-winged Kookaburras up here are bit special.

Our grand finale at El Questro involved a 4WD track up to the Saddleback lookout which promised 360 degree views of the station. We'd considered walking up some of the way as the track was for experienced 4W drivers only, but then we realised that in some respects we are now experienced 4W drivers. Into low range she went and before long we were looking out over a beautiful Kimberley scene in the late afternoon sunshine. Perfection, and the driving was nothing like what we'd done in the Victorian High Country when we certainly didn't have the proper experience.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Gibb River Road Adventure Part 1 - In Search of the Freudian Grinch

It's been an age since we've had phone reception (and a shower for that matter) which explains the blogging hiatus. As well as denying all our die hard followers a regular update it is really tough to encapsulate the feelings of the moment nearly 3 weeks after the fact. I am keeping a journal therefore I get leg one of the Gibb River Road. This adventure too vast for one blog entry.
*The GRR-Fairfield Leopold Downs intersection East of Derby. The beginning of our Kimberley Grand Tour.

*A boab forest- these trees can be huge and have that incredible prehistoric and very distinct profile. The Kimberley is an ancient landscape with many formations billions of years old, a lot of weathering has gone into the creation of gorges and bluffs. The end result is a stunning and striking wilderness of vibrant colour and life. Reds, blues, green and yellow dominate the vista interupted by the perferct white and sulphur of a flock (ought to be called a screech) of corellas.

The Gibb River Road (GRR) is considered one of Australia's great 4WD treks, it follows the old beef road established in the 1950's to open up the pastoral country to road transport. It traverses some 700kms through the central Kimberley Plateau from King Sound at Derby to Cambridge Gulf at Wyndham - just for the record we started from Broome and have finished in Kununurra where it is currently RAINING.This section has been a major focus for us over the course of the trip and we were itchy to get off the tarmac again. Impassable in the wet season, the road is generally good enough for towing trailers and off road caravans - though why you'd bring a conventional 2WD option out here beats me. Some sections had been just graded, in particular the western end was mostly good, corrugations aside. We've had some pretty deep river crossings and numerous shallow creek crossings. We lost 2 from a dozen eggs to the corrugations. The troopy is full of powder fine pink-red dust and makes a funny squeaky sound after passing through deep water. Average speed for us was 60-80km/hour no matter who is driving. Road trains and livestock are just a few of the many hazards on these roads but DUST DUST DUST is the big danger. It's like driving blind for a good minute or two after passing another vehicle especially if they're doing 110km/hour - and some of them do. They must hate their vehicles.

The iPhone is showing signs of stress and various nuts and bolts have vibrated loose and some have come clean off. All that aside the GRR has afforded us an amazing tour of the Kimberley region with it's stunning gorges, waterfalls, rivers full of crocodiles, semi arid savannah landscape, incredibly coloured and ancient ranges and new birds for the bird-nerd to tick off.
*Geike Gorge near Fitzroy Crossing.

After stocking up good and proper in Broome we said goodbye to Rob, Woo, the beautiful baby Eddie and the little brown dog and made our way to Fitzroy Crossing. A bit of a must do for us as Mikky worked there for a few months last year. It also served as a convenient jump off point for Geike Gorge, Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge NP. We did drop past the Crossing Inn twice, the first time potentially for a beer. Both times the punters were swinging and the second time every copper in town was in attendance. We gave it a miss.
*Tunnel Creek - you can walk right through but it required much wading in fairly deep and very cold water. I was being a little precious about my shoes and didn't feel entirely comfortable with the wading in freshie infested water.

After a lovely night at the Fitzroy River Lodge we made an early start for Geike. We missed the boat cruise so walked the couple of kms in sand up the gorge in the hope for crocs. Not a one. We also stopped at Tunnel Creek armed with head torches which turned out to be unneccessary due to a tour bus being ahead. We didn't go too far in though we've since heard from some who did go in that they saw crocodiles in the underground creek system. Spooky.

*Windjana crocodile sign - the first of many.
Windjana had crocodiles. Heaps of them. Everywhere. These are the freshwater variety, Crocodylus johnstoni , and Payniac has started to call me freshie.

*A couple of freshies sunbaking at Windjana.
Relatively harmless apparently unless you start pulling tails, they eat fish and turtles and such small fare. Both Mikky and Mr.Ranger said sure you can go for a swim, just walk on up the gorge and jump in. Too many crocodiles for this little scaredy cat. We stopped at Windjana for two nights as it was a lovely shady spot with the camp ground a very short walk from the camp ground.

*More freshies at Windjana.
We also encountered our first Great Bowerbirds at Windjana, they build cool little houses and collect all manner of white things as well as various fruits and pretties for a bit of home decoration to attract the ladies. Funny birds.*The Bower of the Great Bowerbird - these birds were noisy and very active around the camp ground collecting jewells for their displays.

*An Australian Bustard - seems to be fairly common in this part of Aust. It's the largest flying bird in Aust weighing in at ~12kg.

From Windjana we headed into King Leopold NP hoping to visit Lennard Gorge (where a tourist recently fell to his death) and camp at Bell Creek camp ground. Both were closed for different reasons and we opted for our first bush camp in ages. Bell Gorge was very pretty with a lovely waterfall - swimming OK above the falls but not below, apparently crocs don't climb waterfalls.
*Bell Gorge and cascades.

I did see a crocodile in Bell Creek as we crossed - there will be no more wading across rivers and creeks to check the depth. We'll just have to take our chances and hope the troopy can take it.

*Bell Creek with our first lily pad pond. I'm sure we've got lots more of these but they're so pretty.

*Bushcamping on Bell Creek

Providing you're self sufficient bush camping is great fun, really increases the chances of having the spot to yourselves. What it really means for the Payniac is FIRE. He busied himself making a beautiful fire which I justified by roasting the last (already!) of the fresh veggies and made a damper. Delicious.

*Damper - yum. There was enough left over for toast in the morning which was a real treat as we'd already run out of shop bread.

*Imintji Store. The cheapest diesel on the GRR at 197c/L. We also managed to get a loaf of (frozen) bread. Apart from Aboriginal communities there are really no towns along the GRR so roadhouses play a vital role. Most can help you out with mechanical repairs and tyres although this isn't Sydney, they generally close from 1-2pm everyday for lunch and are closed from midday on Saturday until Monday morning. The ones we stopped at also had a great collection of images in some corner showing people who had come unstuck over the years. One of my personal favourites was titled the "Kimberley Car Wash" and involved several vehicles stranded in the middle of a swollen river. Another showed what happens to your car when you hit a bullock at 60km/hour - it's bad news for everyone. These 'disaster corners' serve to remind us tourists that this is a remote area and although people are generally only too willing to help it might be hours before you can be assisted- by which time the Kimberley Car Wash will have done the interior as well.

From Bell Creek we headed to Mornington Wilderness Camp.

*Sir John Gorge

This was a must stop after getting the heads up from Andy's boss, whose parents said it was incredible. And it was! Purchased by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy only a few years ago, they've destocked and de-weeded the property along with other management strategies to revert the land to it's natural state in the hope of conserving habitat and therefore halting the extinction of Aussie critters (we have a very bad record). We had 3 lovely nights at Mornington with no shortage of stuff to do; canoeing down the Fitzroy in Dimond Gorge, one of the Kimberleys most stunning, a glimpse of Sir John Gorge, bird watching to your hearts content with many endangered birds on the list including the Gouldian Finch a.k.a the Freudian Grinch.

*Dimond Gorge (left) and Cadjeput Waterhole where we found another canoe ripe for the paddling.

*Crimson Finch - the common cousin of the Goldian Finch.The Gouldian proved elusive but I am hoping to see them at another hotspot ahead.

*Reflections on Dimond Gorge. We spent a few hours messing about in a boat on Dimond Gorge. A lovely way to see the gorge and very good for sneaking up on birds. We pretty much had the gorge to ourselves so we just soaked up the silence.

Although you see a lot of the country from your vehicle the Kimberley requires a bit of effort. There's lots of walking and scrambling to be done and you're generally rewarded with amazing views or incredible waterfalls. It's hard country and I have respect for the folk that make their living out here - both the indigenous people and the pastoralists. It's much wetter than I thought it'd be, lots of water in the rivers and most falls - that's one advantage of coming early in the dry. The Kimberley has been unlike my expectations mostly because I didn't know what to expect. It's very easy to see why people fall in love with it. It is a fantastic wilderness, rugged and unforgiving. And the climate is perfect!

Once we left Mornington we continued East along the GRR but not without an exciting side trip up the Kalumburu Road which Payniac will cover in GRR-Part 2. We're both a little sad that this leg is over but the end of one adventure heralds the beginning of another. We have 2 weeks to get to Darwin via Purnululu and Wolfe Creek as Candi & Steffen are coming to join us on our all Aussie Adventures for a week.