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The Gibb River Road and beyond - a journey through the Outback of Western Australia


Soukous
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Almost exactly 6 years ago I joined a couple of mates for a 4wd safari through the Outback of Western Australia.

Over 3 wonderful weeks we explored the magnificent unspoilt scenery of the Pilbara and the Hamersley Range, finishing up with a drive along the infamous Gibb River Road through the Kimberley from Broome to Kununurra.

 

Since then we'd often talked of going back and revisiting the Kimberley, giving ourselves time to venture a bit further off the track to seek out some of the spectacular gorges and waterfalls that are so abundant in the region.

 

Finally, sitting around the braai in October 2013, we finalised the itinerary and set a date; June 2014.

 

Once word got out that we had a trip planned, we were contacted by others who wanted to join us and tag along. Things kind of snowballed and it did not take long before there were 14 of us.

Of course having that many people, and 7 vehicles, put a bit more pressure on us to plan. With just one vehicle we could be pretty spontaneous, but with 7 we needed to plan our overnight stops and our catering much more carefully.

 

It was going to be fun. I'd met most of the guys before, either travelling in Australia or in Africa, but this time wives were coming too, at least some of them.

 

For me the trip was supposed to begin in Kununurra. That was where we would all meet up as people made their way there from different parts of Victoria.

Somehow though, I had let myself get talked into going to Geelong first. Pat had asked me to spend a day talking to his sales team about India.

It wasn't a problem really, it just added about 3600km to my journey and it didn't take me long to figure out that, although the India gig was legitimate, what Pat really wanted was some company on the drive from Geelong to Kununurra.

 

There were some plus points though. Having some time in Geelong meant I had time to catch up with some of the people who had travelled with me in Tanzania and Kenya in Jan 2013.

We met for dinner at the Little River Hotel, in the town of Little River, between Geelong and Melbourne.

It was a super evening and talk soon turned to planning our next safari together; but that's a job for when I get home.

Luckily, because it was a week night, and because I had to get up at 4 am the next morning the evening was not a full on as it would otherwise have been.

 

Day -4

Geelong to Port Augusta

 

It had been raining last night when we loaded up the ute and when we set off at 5am, a thick fog made driving a bit tricky in the gloom before sunrise.

 

The Hidden Kingdom of Twaffle

As soon as I knew that I would be driving past Adelaide I had made contact with Twaffle to see if she was free for a brief get together. To my delight she said she would be home.

While Pat took care of some business in Kaniva, I called to get directions. It sounded complicated but, after a bit of driving around the Adelaide Hills, we finally found the Hidden Kingdom of Mr & Mrs Twaffle.

 

With a long drive still ahead of us I'd only planned to stay for an hour but excellent conversation (that mostly focussed on Africa) a bowl of wonderful soup and some super cheeses soon brought that nearer to 2 hours.

 

As it came time to leave Twaffle offered to show me some of her photographs. I knew this lady was talented but the images she's posted on Safaritalk only hint at just how talented. I was privileged to be shown a selection of prints that were being submitted for competitions. OMG! They were fabulous. I think I'll give up now.

 

The upshot of this was that we stayed a wee bit too long and got caught in the rush hour traffic as we navigated our way around Adelaide and it was almost 8pm when we eventually reached Port Augusta. The first 1000km was done.

 

In Port Augusta we met up with another 6 members of our party who had made their way from Echuca.

 

The motel was pretty ordinary but it didn't matter as we'd be leaving at daybreak for the 1200km drive to Alice Springs.

 

Day -3

Port Augusta to Alice Springs

 

This was set to be a long day; 1200km, driving on long straight roads with nothing much to break the monotony.

And that is how it turned out.

Not far north of Alice we hit Coober Pedy, a centre for Australia's opal mining. As we drove past we could see piles of earth everywhere, dumped after being sifted for opals.

After a quick stop for breakfast at Spud's Roadhouse we pretty much drove straight through, arriving in Alice Springs after dark.

 

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It had been a long, and boring, day and my arse was numb.

 

Day -2

I'd never been to Alice Springs before but we we made an early start and left while it was still dark. So I'd arrived and left without getting a look at the town.

We drove 200km before stopping for breakfast at the Ti Tree roadhouse.

We were starting to see more of Australia's famous road trains now and we certainly felt the blast of wind as these massive vehicles swept past.

 

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The Devil's Marbles / Karlu Karlu

Just south of Tennant Creek we stopped to look at the Devil's Marbles.

Karlu Karlu / Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve is located 105km (65m) south of Tennant Creek in Australia's Northern territory.

The Devils Marbles are of great cultural and spiritual significance to the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, and the reserve protects one of the oldest religious sites in the world as well as the natural rock formations found there. Karlu Karlu is the local Aboriginal term for both the rock features and the surrounding area. The Devils Marbles are large granite boulders that form the exposed top layer of an extensive and mostly underground granite formation. The natural processes of weathering and erosion have created the various shapes of the boulders.

 

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A number of traditional Aboriginal Dreaming stories have Karlu Karlu as their setting, hence its great importance as a sacred site. These stories are alive and well and are passed on from generation to generation of Traditional Owners. Only a handful of stories are considered suitable to tell to uninitiated visitors.

 

Tennant Creek was not much to look at, just a main street with a few stores and garage. We stopped to refuel and buy fresh vegetables and I was struck by the number of aboriginals on the streets. They weren't really doing anything, just hanging around, as if waiting for something. In the supermarket we learned what it was they were waiting for.

Apparently local laws forbid the sale of alcohol before 2pm and they were just waiting until they could buy booze. Pretty sad really.

 

With Tennant Creek behind us, the next task was to find a place where we could camp for the night.

Once we'd found a suitable spot it just remained to gather firewood and prepare dinner. A short day today, only 850km.

 

Yippee! A night in my swag under star filled skies.

 

Day -1

Luxury, a lie in until the first light of dawn at 06:15.

Only a short drive until we leave the tar and hit dirt roads. It's beginning to feel like the trip has begun.

 

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Much of the northern part of Western Australia is populated by cattle stations with pastoral leases. The land is not great for livestock so the animal density is not great and they are left to roam over millions of acres, unfenced.

Consequently it is not uncommon for them to graze by the road side and wander across the road.

 

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This presents a real hazard for motorists.

 

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We decided to stop for a beer at the Top Springs pub. It must be midday somewhere.

 

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We won't be seeing many other pubs on our route so it's a good excuse to see the inside of a legendary outback pub.

 

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We arrive to find that the generator is broken so there is no electricity and the fuel pumps don't work. Luckily the fridges are still cold and there is plenty of cold beer.

 

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While we are there a road train pulls in dragging a cloud of dust behind it.

 

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These road trains are up to 54 metres long. Just thinking about driving one scares me.

 

A lunch stop beside the Victoria River provides a brief respite from the dust clouds.

 

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We rejoin the Victoria highway just outside Timber Creek and begin looking for a place to camp for the night.

The official campsite is pretty full so we move a bit further on and find our own spot on the banks of Big Horse Creek.

 

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the amazing textures of a paperbark (Melaleuca) tree

 

Day 0

A pair of black kites watches over us as we eat breakfast.

 

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A short drive to the border between Northern territory and Western Australia.

There are strict regulations about the movement of fruit and vegetables between states and our vehicles are given a thorough search before we are allowed into WA.

Even though we had no fruit or veg we were told that even old boxes that had previously held fruit or veg was not allowed to cross into WA. This revelation brought on a short period of frenzied re-packing as we were using polystyrene boxes to store a lot of our frozen meat.

 

In Kununurra we meet up with the remaining 6 people / 3 vehicles. Mal and Peter were in East Africa with me last year so it's good to see them again. They are both big bird watching enthusiasts and I'm looking forward to picking their brains about the Australian birds we encounter.

 

We check into a hotel on the shores of Lake Argyle; it will be a while before we sleep in a bed again.

 

This afternoon we have booked a boat trip on the Ord River, from lake Argyle, back to Kununurra.

 

Kununurra is the most recently gazetted town in Australia and dates back to the 1960s when it was established as a base for those involved in the Ord River Irrigation Scheme.

 

On the way to the boat trip we stop at the old Durack homestead. The Durack's were one of the pioneering families of the region and Lake Argyle was created on what used to be the Durack's Argyle Downs station.

A highlight of visiting the homestead, for me at least, was the chance to see some Red tailed Black Cockatoos in the nearby trees.

They weren't especially cooperative and it was the middle of the day but they were a first for me.

 

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not a great in flight shot, but at least you can see the red patches on the tail.

 

An old construction camp which formerly provided accommodation for the workers has been turned into a fancy resort overlooking Lake Argyle, the largest freshwater lake in Australia.

 

The boat ride was interesting as we had a terrific guide who provided lots of information but I was very surprised at the scarcity of birdlife. I was not the only one who'd expected the river trip to be a feast for bird watchers and we spent some time discussing why there were so few to see.

 

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comb crested Jacana

 

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Green Pygmy Geese

 

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Australian Darter

 

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An Osprey using another bird's nest as a lookout

 

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Freshwater crocodile

 

We came up with 2 possible reasons: (1) there was so much water around that the birds did not need to concentrate in any one spot. (2) the abundance of freshwater crocodiles was a deterrent to ducks and other water birds.

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@@Soukous thank you for sharing your trip to northern WA. i've been to WA a handful of times but mainly from Perth and southwards. I've always thought the northern part had not much to offer except mining towns so it's going to be very interesting to see it through your eyes and pictures!

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I've been waiting for this report with some anticipation never having ventured into this country before. My father had many times and we actually almost bought some huge station up near the Ord. I don't know what my father must have been thinking!!

 

It is magnificent country and I will get there soon. Even soon now that I've just about run out of safari money. I'm enjoying the photos tremendously as well.

 

It was fun to have the chance to meet another Safaritalker, thanks for the kind words on my photos. All the ones I showed you have now been judged and did quite well which was a relief.

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Days 1 & 2

Today we depart Kununurra and begin our journey in earnest.

However before we join the Gibb River Road and head Eastwards there is somewhere else we need to visit.

 

The Bungle Bungles

One of the world’s most fascinating geological landmarks, the orange and black sandstone domes, known as the Bungle Bungles, rise 300 metres above the grass-covered plain of Purnululu National Park

 

Note: be ready for lots of photos of rocks.

 

The entrance to Purnululu National Park lies about 200km south of Kununurra and its most famous feature, the Bungle Bungle Range (most commonly referred to as the Bungle Bungles), is a further 50km inside the park.

 

As soon as we left the tar road the landscape started to change and the views became more and more spectacular.

 

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50Km of undulating winding road took us from the main gate to the visitor centre and after checking in we moved on to our allocated campsite.

Like most National Parks in WA, the campsites in Purnululu have toilets and little else in the way of facilities.

Routine day to day maintenance and chores around the camping areas is done by volunteers who come in on a 3 month posting. The volunteers have the pleasure of keeping the toilets in good order.

 

This was the first time all 14 of us had set up camp together and it was quite a sight. Because everyone had brought their own vehicles they'd also brought their own camping equipment.

Most had easy to erect tents, some brought stretcher beds as well, and Ray & Chris went even further and were a full camping trailer behind their Nissan Patrol. Me, I had a swag.

 

While the others were setting up their tents, Pat & I prepared lunch. Then those that were interested drove to the nearby Helipad to see if they could book helicopter flights over the Bungle Bungles. A helicopter flight is a great way to get an overview of the dramatic scenery.

 

The afternoon disappeared fast (it is mid winter after all) and it was soon time for us to head out to the Kungkalanayi Lookout for sunset. We packed up some nibble and a selection of sundowner drinks and made our way there.

There are a couple of other good vantage points for sunset, but Kungkalanayi was the most convenient for us.

 

The views were pretty good even though the sunset itself was a bit underwhelming, probably because it is winter. The drinks helped us enjoy it though.

 

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Purnululu is home ot 13 species of spinifex( a coarse spikey grass containing very little nutrition), more than anywhere else in Australia

 

Next morning we were up early – again – to visit Cathedral Gorge.

A lone Black Kite arrived to watch us have breakfast.

 

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He gradually moved closer and perched in a tree almost directly above where we were sitting.

I got my camera and waited, expecting him to lift off at any moment and glide above us.

What he did next took us all by surprise. He simply dropped from his perch, opened his wings and swooped down to snatch a piece of ham from on top of Maxine's slice of toast. He literally flew between her hand and her face, touching her face with his wingtip, grabbed his snack and flew on. The shock on Maxine's face was almost as good as the kite's aerobatics.

 

As we neared the Piccaninny parking area, the scenery was getting more and more dramatic, with huge waves of layered rock and iconic domes.

 

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The foundations for the towering sandstone cliffs and domes that make the Bungle Bungles so distinctive were laid down some 350 million years ago. Ancient rivers flowing into a vast basin brought in sediments which gradually compacted to form sandstone and conglomerate (rocks composed mainly of pebbles and boulders and cemented together by finer material).

Over time these deposits were uplifted and incised with torrential floodwaters, carving out deep gorges.

 

The rounded sandstone domes are like fragile giants, each encased in a thin protective skin of orange bands of iron oxide and grey/black bands of cyanobacteria. The skin is deposited on the surface by water seeping through the sandstone. If the banded skin is damaged, the sandstone will rapidly erode away.

 

The hike into Cathedral Gorge was not strenuous and, due to the high cliff walls, the gorges were still in shadow and therefore nice and cool.

 

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Even if you've seen pictures of it, the sheer size of Cathedral Gorge takes your breath away. There is often enough water remaining in the pool there for a swim, but not today.

 

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After some time in Cathedral Gorge I backtracked and visited Piccaninny Creek and the Piccaninny Creek Lookout.

 

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Piccaninny Creek

 

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the view from Piccaninny Lookout

 

After lunch, those who had booked helicopter flights departed for the Helipad and some of the others drove to Echidna Gorge. I opted to stay in camp and get dinner ready. I also wanted to have an opportunity to try and photograph whatever birdlife might be in the vicinity of camp. Unfortunately there was practically none at all, just a couple of Magpie Larks (Grallina Cyanoleuca)

 

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Edited by Soukous
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Disappointing about the birds.

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Disappointing about the birds.

 

Yes, it was, but there was plenty to keep us occupied and every day brought new experiences.

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Looking forward to the rest of the trip! I once did Darwin to Perth in 3 months. I have many good memories about the Gibb River Road! Another highlight for me in WA was Karijini NP!

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Day 3

Purnululu to Home Valley, via Wyndham

 

The great thing about sleeping in a swag is that all you have to do is unroll it at night and then roll it up again the next morning. It takes about 1 minute, even in the dark. Which is just as well, considering the number of early starts we'd been making.

 

Today we enjoyed a leisurely early morning drive out of Purnululu and back onto the tar road that runs between Halls Creek and Kununurra.

 

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Pat was going into Kununurra to stock up on fresh supplies (fruit, vegetables, bread) as it would be at least a week before we had the chance to buy more.

While he did that, I took the rest of the gang into Wyndham.

Wyndham is the Kimberley's oldest town, Western Australia's northernmost town, and it's also Australia's hottest town.

(Marble Bar might claim the highest peak temperatures, but Wyndham has the highest year round average temperature...)

Recent years have not been kind to Wyndham. At one time it had a meat processing plant that employed thousands, but since that was shut down in 1985 the population has dwindled to just a few hundred.

The port is still in use for exporting iron ore, but it suffered another blow just a couple of years ago when Australian PM, Julia Gillard closed down the country's live export trade. Until then, Wyndham had been a key port for the export of livestock to Indonesia.

 

Wyndham's most famous landmark

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Without wishing to be unkind, there is not a lot to see in Wyndham, but we wanted to go up to the Five Rivers Lookout on top of Erskine Ridge - more commonly referred to as The Bastion - which gives panoramic views over the Cambridge Gulf and one can see the 5 Kimberley rivers that flow into the Gulf. The Ord, the Durack, the Pentecost, the Forrest and the King.

 

Looking our towards Cambridge Gulf from Bastion Hill

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Looking back towards the rivers, with the circular wharf in the bottom LH part of the photo

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The town itself is some distance from the port and has little to make visitors linger, although a lot of Aussies come and stay for the fishing in the gulf.

 

Just outside Wyndham is the Afghan Cemetery. With its gravestones facing Mecca it is here that the Afghan camel herders who provided the Kimberley's first freight service are buried.

 

Before leaving town we need to re-fuel. Unfortunately the only fuel station appeared to have run out of diesel. We had to wait until someone could be found to switch over the tanks.

 

the only fuel stop in town

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From Wyndham it was just 40km back to the junction where we would, at last, get onto the Gibb River Road.

 

The Gibb River Road

Originally built for the large road trains transporting cattle from isolated cattle stations to the ports of Derby and Wyndham, the Gibb River Road provides an alternative route across the Kimberley to the Great Northern Highway. It also gives access to many of the regions most spectacular natural sites.

It is unsealed for almost the entire length between Derby and where it meets the Great Northern Highway between Kununura and Wyndham.

 

The road is only really usable in the dry season, between April and November. In the wet season the flood waters rise so much that many stations find themselves isolated.

At creek crossings we see regular evidence of water running through about 6 feet above our heads and all the roadhouses have photographs of some pretty amazing scenes.

 

Because the road surface is mostly natural rocky dirt, the surface conditions depend largely on how recently the road has been graded.

Almost immediately we noticed how much better the road was this year than on our previous trip 6 years ago.

 

Almost as soon as we hit the GRR we noticed plumes of smoke rising in the distance. Bush fires are a constant threat in the area, both from natural causes and from arson.

There is a certain amount of controlled burning to try and limit the damage done by the fires but for some reason it seems that some members of the local population get their kicks by starting fires.

The fires were far off and no danger to us, but because they were filling the sky with smoke, the visibility was severely impaired and vistas that should have been spectacular didn't yield very good photos.

 

The scenery around us was spectacular though, with huge rock buttes rising up hundreds of feet.

We passed the Cockburn ranges and entered the Pentecost Range.

 

The 3 fingers of the Pentecost – 3 massive buttes – are one of the iconic Kimberley landscapes.

 

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A short while later we crossed the Pentecost River before continuing to Home Valley Station, where we'd be staying for the night.

 

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Home Valley Station

Australia's Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) purchased Home Valley Station along with Karunjie Station and Durack River Station on behalf of the Balanggarra people (Home Valley Station) and the Nyaliga people (Karunjie and Durack River Stations) of the East Kimberley, who are the traditional owners. Home Valley Station managers and staff are responsible for the cultural and business diversification of all three Stations, providing each with a viable business future while working with individual traditional owner groups to ensure sustainable outcomes are achieved which will benefit and respect their culture and way of life

 

Facilities are pretty good at Home Valley. Those who don't want to camp can stay in cabins and those who don't want to cook can eat in the station restaurant. There is even a swimming pool.

The campsite at Home Valley was pretty packed, but no-one minded as we had access to showers for the first time in 3 days.

 

That evening we got chatting to some other people at the camping area and learned that we'd missed a trick at Wyndham.

Just outside the town is a wetlands reserve called Parry Lagoons which, we were assured, has abundant birdlife and hides for which to observe it. We'd seen the signs and driven straight past, thinking it was just another caravan park. Damn!

Edited by Soukous
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@@Soukous your TR and photos certainly highlight the vast emptiness and striking colours of the Kimberley.

 

Really enjoying your TR, my favourite photos so far are of the red-tailed black cockatoo, such a handsome bird. I travelled the GRR in 1990 and remember well the 5 rivers lookout and the Pentecost Ranges.

Edited by Treepol
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Yes @@Treepol, to someone living in Europe the distances one can travel without seeing anyone are a real eye opener. Although I did notice that as the grading of the road gets better year on year there are more and more people venturing out along the GRR, and caravans are now a common sight - unfortunately.

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@@Soukous in 1990 I travelled with AAT Kings from Alice Springs across the Tanami to Broome and then up the GRR to Darwin. We were in a Unimog from memory. Crossing the Tanami is probably the most isolated experience I have ever had - we saw less than 5 vehicles during the crossing - I wonder what it would be like now, 24 years down the track? I was amazed when a lone Japanese traveller on a motorbike turned up one night out of the darkness and gibber plain and wanted to camp with us!

 

Once on the GRR there were good patches of gravel, bad patches of sand and bulldust and these very challenging jump-ups that I recall as deep potholes (maybe a metre wide and deep) that had formed on steep parts of the road - the Unimog sure dipped and wallowed as we traversed these, at one point we were put out to walk up the hill - looking back, I think the driver did not want to be distracted by us.

 

I have friends due back in Hobart next week. They spent most of June driving the Kimberley including the GRR and they have been talking about the birds and billabongs which were a highlight for them - can't wait to hear more about their adventure.

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Day 4

From the Pentecost River to Drysdale River

 

5 minutes after leaving Home Valley Station we stopped at a lookout point for a view back over the 3 fingers of the Pentecost. The smoke haze had dissipated a bit but the visibility was still not great.

 

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Bindoola Creek, Bindoola Falls

About 20 minutes later we left the GRR and drove the short distance into Bindoola Creek. Even without water flowing over it, Bindoola Falls was still impressive.

 

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a pretty little billabong at Bindoola Creek

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There's a lovely 3 hour hiking trail along the Creek and the pools are great for swimming.

 

A short while later we crossed another of the great Kimberley rivers, the Durack.

 

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Our next stop was Ellenbrae Station.

Ellenbrae Station covers 1 million acres in the Kimberley. Predominantly a cattle station, it has become a popular stop over for tourists during the dry season.

 

One of the things that make Ellenbrae so popular as a stopover is the freshly baked scones and cream, enjoyed in beautiful shady gardens.

 

The bathtub under the boab, Ellenbrae

 

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Although they were hidden in the tree tops the resident birdlife was making a real racket and I was reminded yet again just how noisy Australian birds are, especially the corellas and cockatoos.

 

The remoteness of Kimberley cattle stations like Ellenbrae means that they need to be self sufficient. Which was just as well for us as when he got back to his vehicle after tea & scones Mal discovered that he had a flat tyre. Luckily Ellenbrae had all the equipment we needed and the repair was effected quickly and efficiently.

 

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The GRR had clearly been graded recently and the surface was in great repair, allowing us to travel at a good speed for the afternoon, reaching the junction where we would turn north towards Kalumburu in good time.

 

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From there it was only a further 60km to Drysdale River where we planned to camp for the night.

After a quick stop at Drysdale River Station for fuel we pulled up on the banks of the Drysdale river. (and I managed to get temporarily bogged in deep soft sand) We'd got as far as unloading the vehicles and starting a campfire when someone arrived and told us that we were not allowed to overnight by the river.

We had no choice than to repack everything and backtrack a kilometre or so to the Miners Pool campsite which meant that it was already dark by the time we set up camp.

 

Day 5

To King Edward River

One of the things I'd been noticing as we drove was the variety of trees and the ever changing flora along the roadside.

 

To protect themselves against the ever present threat – and reality – of bush fires, a lot of the trees had grown a thick layer of protective bark on the lower part of the bole.

 

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Bush fires usually move fast, burning the grass and low vegetation as they go. A lot of the trees in this part of Australia had adapted to counter this threat in two ways. Firstly the crown of the tree is quite high up, with little or no growth in the lower part of the tree. Secondly, the thick layer of bark provides insulation against the heat of the fire, allowing to to rush past the tree doing little damage.

 

Even the stumpy fantail palms could cope with the bush fires, re-generating after the fire had passed.

 

Every once in a while we'd see 'micky' bulls lurking in the trees by the roadside.

 

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They were mostly a tough breed known as Kimberley Shorthorn and they could fairly be categorised as wildlife.

With no fences to constrain them, these bulls had wandered off away from the rest of the herd and had never been mustered or branded. Once they had become 'wild' the station owners would not want them re-entering the herd and mating because their offspring would inherit the wildness and be hard to control.

 

We drove about 100km in the direction of Kalumburu, before turning West onto the road that would take us to the Mitchell River National Park.

Our campsite by the King Edward River was only a further 10km or so. Because we'd arrived quite early in the afternoon we could choose our spot and so we picked the one closest to the river itself.

 

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With no tent to put up I strolled the short distance to the river. Oh wow!

 

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What lay before me was a pristine stretch of fresh water that just begged me to dive in. So I did.

 

Our private swimming hole. heaven!

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The river gums that lined the bank were full of Little Corellas, screeching and squawking.

 

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After a swim we wandered along the river bank and discovered a small waterfall, with yet more wonderful swimming spots.

 

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In the distance we spotted 4 Brolgas, a large grey crane with a red patch on top of the head. I tried to get close enough for a phot but they took off and flew away. I was sure we'd see them again though as Brolgas tend to hang around in a particular area.

 

Day 6

Mitchell Falls

At breakfast, we were joined by a variety of birds.

Blue Faced Honeyeater

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Pied Butcherbird

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A Black Kite

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and a Whistling Kite

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Although there is a camp site in the Mitchell River National Park, we really liked the spot we already had and so we were going to drive into the park, hike to Mitchell Falls and then drive back again.

The distance we had to drive was less than 80km, but the road was much - much – rougher than what we had travelled on so far and our progress was pretty slow. In fact it took us 2.5 hours to cover that 80km.

The road took its toll on one of our vehicles. Ray had brought an almost new Nissan Patrol on the trip and he was the one towing the camping trailer. For the drive into Mitchell River NP he'd left the trailer in camp and we all thought that he'd enjoy the freedom of driving without it.

But when he pulled into the car park at Mitchell River it was clear that he had some problems. 2 of his shock absorbers had given up the ghost and were leaking fluid, the aerial for his 2 way radio had snapped off and his exhaust had lost its bolts and fallen off.

I'd always believed that Nissan Patrols were one of the best vehicles to use for rough road conditions but clearly Ray's vehicle was not.

The walk from the car parking area into Mitchell Falls is about 3.5km. What a lot of people do is walk one way and then take a helicopter flight in the other direction. Not only does it save a 3.5km walk but you get to see these spectacular falls from the air.

Several of our party wanted to do the helicopter flight and so our first stop was and the helicopter operator's office. They all wanted to walk in a fly back out.

The hike into the Falls was not particularly easy and we saw several people struggling a bit as they scrambled over rocks and forded streams. Not easy but very enjoyable, with plenty to look at.

There are a couple of smaller Falls along the route; Little Mertens Falls and Big Mertens Falls. Big Mertens was impressive in its own right.

Big Mertens Falls

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Looking back from the top of Big Mertens Falls

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Eventually we reached the Mitchell River. We could see the helipad on the opposite bank with small helicopters landing and taking off almost constantly.

We'd been advised to wear sturdy shoes for the walk but no-one had mentioned that we would have to cross the river to get to the actual falls.

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It wasn't far, but the river was fast flowing and the rocks were slippery. I had 12kg of camera equipment on my back and I did not want to fall in.

I'd got about halfway across when someone crossing in the other direction handed me a stick. Nothing fancy, just a broken off branch, but that made all the difference. On the way over 3 of our group slipped and fell in the water. Luckily no-one was hurt and nothing valuable was lost.

Once on the other side of the river we started walking over the rocks to find a place where we could get a decent view, and photograph, of the falls.

I hadn't gone very far when I found myself looking down on the falls.

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It was a spectacular sight and I was surprised that there was no-one else standing where I was.

I looked around and noticed that there were people on the rocks in the distance. I figured they must be there for a reason and set off to join them. It was a bit of a scramble but eventually I emerged out onto a small rock ledge almost directly opposite the Mitchell Falls. Compared to my previous vantage point I could now see an extra waterfall and the main pool at the bottom.

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I have to say it was one of the most impressive waterfalls I have seen.

I didn't enjoy the walk back as much as I'd enjoyed the walk to the falls. My backpack was starting to feel heavy and upsetting my balance as I clambered over the rocks. Despite this, I made it back to the car park half an hour quicker than my outward journey; I suppose because I wasn't stopping so often to take pictures.

Once all the helicopter riders had arrived back, we started heading out to return to the campsite.

Without his shock absorbers functioning as they should, Ray's Nissan Patrol was wallowing like a boat on a heavy sea and he could only drive really slowly.

We agreed that if he hadn't reached camp half an hour after the rest of us, we'd come back and look for him.

My first priority when I got back was a swim. I was hot, sweaty and covered in dust. I just jumped straight into the river, clothes and all. It felt wonderful.

Ray finally made it back about 45 minutes after the rest of us. I'd been trying to raise him on the 2 way radio without success until someone reminded me that his aerial was broken.

By the time he got back all 4 of the Patrol's shock absorbers were shot.

There was not much that could be done, other than to bolt the exhaust back on again. We had no signal for mobile phones and there was no garage.

The closest place where Ray might get assistance was Drysdale River Station.

Because his Patrol was fairly new, it was till under warranty so Ray wanted to make sure he did nothing that would invalidate the warranty. That meant using genuine Nissan parts.

He spent the evening going through his RACV policy to see what his options were.

Everyone liked the spot where we were so it was decided that we would stay an extra night here before moving on. Our next stop was to be beside the Gibb River, which was a super spot, but this was better.

Edited by Soukous
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I agree, those falls are spectacular. It's surprising how busy it is up there with tourists, but I suppose it is the season.

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Day 7

King Edward River, Munurru

 

A free day today. No need to get up early, but we all did. We'd just got into the habit.

 

Apart from swimming, we had 2 things planned for the day: 1> This morning we were going to visit 2 sites of Aboriginal art at Munurru; the first just a kilometre or so away from our camp. 2> A 500 tournament. For those who are not familiar with 500, it is a card game, vaguely similar to Bridge, but much more fun.

I had a third objective: to get photographs of the Brolgas. I had heard them this morning and knew that they spent a lot of time by the river.

 

At the same time as we left camp to visit the aboriginal art, Ray and Chris were setting off to go to Drysdale River Station. From there they would be able to make phone calls and arrange for some kind of recovery for their ailing Nissan. If they managed to get the repairs done quickly, they would rejoin us later on.

 

The sites feature 2 distinct styles of aboriginal art; Wandjina and Bradshaw.

 

I wasn't really sure what to expect so when we got to the first location I was pleasantly surprised.

 

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Excerpt from “Wandjina – Rock Art of the Kimberley” on the Brolga Healing Journeys website. (http://www.brolgahealingjourneys.com/?p=443)

 

“”The Wandjina represents the creator spirit for the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley region. These striking figures, some dating back thousands of years, are found throughout the Kimberley in rock art sites. The Aboriginal people treat these sites with respect and caution, indeed often approaching Wandjina sites with a wariness bordering on fear. The Aboriginals tend not to stay at the sites for long, for they believe that the Wandjina are present at the sites, and you don’t want to anger them by overstaying your welcome. Initiated elders were responsible for refreshing the Wandjina figures in their tribes’ sacred sites in traditional times, in other words, repainting the figures. This still occurs in a handful of sites but many images are now fading due to the loss of traditional ways. The Aboriginal people believed that the Wandjinas were responsible for bringing the annual rains and storms to the region, and thus the people refreshed the images annually to maintain the power of the Wandjinas and ensure the return of the rains and renewal of fertility to the area. The image of the Wandjina is reminiscent of the enormous storm-cloud formations which bring rain to the Kimberley each Wet season.

Wandjinas also gave the traditional law to the people. The Wandjina therefore forms a central part of the culture of the region. Wandjinas are usually portrayed with a halo-like ring around their head and no mouth; they are all-seeing and all-knowing and have no need for speech.

Most Wandjina sites are located under rock overhangs, which have served to protect the art from moisture and wind. The predominant rock throughout the Kimberley is the King Leopold sandstone, smooth, hard and pale, and therefore perfect for rock art.””

 

The Bradshaw style is very different, with more stick like figures. Until recently much Bradshaw art was thought to be very recent – ie fake – but has has apparently been authenticated.

 

It was incredible to find so much art in such a small area.

I was also fascinated by the way the trees have adapted to grow on the rocks, with their roots and stems winding and twisting through the narrowest crevices.

 

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The second location was about 5km in the opposite direction.

Once again we found ourselves following narrow paths into clusters of rocks to find the paintings.

 

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As well as the rock art we also found a snake. It was tucked into a crevice in the rocks and its presence was only given away by the fact that a shed skin was hanging from the rocks and catching the breeze. Opinions about exactly which snake it was vary, so I won't try and name it.

 

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This aboriginal site also had a small tomb, where skulls and bones could be seen.

 

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The 500 tournament begun after lunch. Pat & I were paired together. We won our first match.

 

Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis)

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In the afternoon we ambled along the river bank towards the waterfall.

 

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Some wanted to swim in the large pool under the fall; I was hoping for a good sighting of the Brolgas.

 

Whilst we were clambering over the rocks near the waterfall we came across a water monitor (lizard) sun bathing on the rocks. It took no notice of us at all.

 

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As we were walking back towards camp I spotted the Brolgas flying overhead. The Brolga, (Grus rubicunda) is a large grey crane with a red mask around its head and face. They stand about 1.3 metres tall and have a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres.

 

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While the others wandered back, I decided to stop and wait on the river bank, just in case they touched down.

After a short while they did land; but on the other side of the river, where they disappeared in amongst the bushes.

I waited.

Eventually my patience was rewarded when they emerged from the undergrowth and walked along the opposite bank. Unfortunately they were in and out of shadows and did not present a really clear shot.

 

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I watched them until they took off again and was very pleased to get some decent shots of them in flight.

 

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When I got back to camp the Little Corellas (Cacatua sanguinea) were making a huge noise and flying around.

 

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Two of them landed in a tree not too far away and started poking around. We reckoned that they were checking it out as a possible nesting site.

 

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Edited by Soukous
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Days 8 & 9

Gibb River

 

It was a real wrench to leave our beautiful camping spot by the King Edward River, even though I knew that where we were going was also delightful.

 

The next couple of days were going to be fairly leisurely. We weren't travelling very far and we had decided that we needed to stay 2 nights at our Gibb River camp.

 

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Later in the week we were supposed to be going to Mornington Wilderness Camp, but we had only recently found out that we need to make an advance reservation as the number of people allowed to stay at Mornington was strictly regulated. We needed to make some phone calls from Drysdale River Station and get the office to make contact with Mornington to make sure we would be able to get in. So there was no point in rushing, we needed to allow a bit of time then check back with the office to find out is all was OK.

 

Drysdale River Station is a typical Kimberley cattle station. When you arrive at the main buildings it looks more like a caravan park or sprawling motel than a cattle station. The actual cattle are spread out over about a million acres of pastoral land.

 

Drysdale River Station

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As soon as we reached Drysdale, Pat headed for the telephone while the rest of us found out how Ray and Chris had got on.

Apparently we'd just missed them. They'd arrived mid afternoon the day before and made contact with a recovery service and a truck had arrived from Kununurra. They'd left just half an hour before we got there with their Patrol on the back of the truck and their trailer being towed behind. Once they reached Kununurra, they would have to try and get hold of the spare parts they needed.

 

The Magnificent 6

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After re-fuelling we drove the short distance, 59km, to the Gibb River where we picked a place to camp right on the river bank. We would have liked to go deeper into the bush to put ourselves further from the road, but the sand was very soft and with 6 vehicles the odds of at least one of us getting stuck were pretty high.

 

Camping by the Gibb River

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With a free afternoon to fill I went off in search of birdlife.

There wasn't a whole lot around.

 

A Rainbow Bee Eater was hunting from a branch high above our heads. Unfortunately the light was heavily dappled sunslight/shade.

 

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– and for a while there were a pair of them hunting -

 

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a Great Bowerbird was making noises in another nearby tree, a Little Woodswallow was perched on a tree stump and there were Little Corellas squawking in the trees across the river. That was about it, until a Blue Winged Kookaburra arrived later in the day.

 

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The heat of the afternoon was passed either swimming or playing cards in the shade.

The next day brought more of the same.

 

I tried to catch up with a pair of Brolgas that I heard further downstream but had no luck.

I did mange to get better shots of the Blue Winged Kookaburra quite early that morning. I was still obliged to look up at him from a pretty steep angle but at least the light was good.

 

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and we found the Great Bowerbird's bower.

The Great Bowerbird is an intriguing character.

He is quite a noisy bird that spends a lot of time gathering stuff to build and decorate his bower. The bower is not a nest, it is simply an elaborate construction to win him a mate. The bower is intricately constructed from twigs and then he decorates the area in front of the bower with stones and other bright objects.

We found the bower by accident but once we'd found it we spent a lot of time sitting and waiting.

 

The bower of the Great Bowerbird

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The Bowerbird was obviously aware of our presence as he never flew directly to the bower. Instead he would first land in a tree a few metres away, then gradually fly/hop from tree to tree making his way closer and lower until he eventually dropped to the ground in front of his bower.

 

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We were very curious about his collection of stones, so when he was not there we moved a couple of them to a different position. When he returned he cocked his head and stared at the stones; clearly something was not right. He then picked up the exact 2 stones we had moved and replaced them in their correct positions.

 

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Days 10 & 11

Barnett River Gorge and Mornington Wilderness Camp

 

Not long after we set off towards Mt Barnett station (and in Australia that is pronounced Mt Bar-NETT, with all the emphasis on the last syllable) Mal got another flat tyre. That was 2 for Mal and none for the rest of us.

 

We detoured briefly to visit Barnett River Gorge. Not the most spectacular gorge we'd seen but a really rugged drive in with the vehicles clambering over lumpy rocks. After a short walk we came to a fantastic swimming spot.

 

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On the way back to the cars I managed to photograph a pair of Little Corellas, clearly unfazed by all the people hiking past.

 

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When we reached Mt Barnett station, Pat dashed for the telephone to find out if we'd managed to get reservations at Mornington Wilderness Camp while the rest of us shook our heads in disbelief when we saw that Mal & Roz had another flat tyre, their second for the morning.

 

Mt Barnett Station

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They had no more spares and the station did not have a tyre repair service. We were told there was one 15km down the road.

A short while earlier we had advised a bloke towing a caravan that he should not take it into Barnett River Gorge.

He pulled into Mt Barnett Station just after we did. He came over to look at Mal's predicament and we discovered that his business was selling and repairing tyres.

He was a great help in getting a temporary repair on Mal's tyre.

 

 

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Great news, we'd managed to get into Mornington for the 2 nights we wanted.

 

We stopped to make the 1km hike into Galvan's Gorge,

 

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yet another lovely pool for a swim, and then went in search of the tyre repair place.

Sure enough it was there just as promised. There was even a brand new sign on the road letting motorists know it was there.

 

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We were all very relieved that Mal & Roz could get their tyres properly fixed.

 

I've already mentioned that the Gibb River Road had been recently graded and was in excellent condition. The downside of this was that a lot of people drove too fast.

The dry conditions meant that even travelling slowly a vehicle threw up a huge plume of dust in its wake. Travelling fast the dust clouds obscured the road completely and left drivers practically blind. It could very quite unnerving.

 

It was usually a bit like this...

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but then when vehicles drove fast it became like this...

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Mornington Wilderness Camp

After we left the GRR and turned onto the private track leading to Mornington Wilderness Camp.

Mornington Wilderness Camp is owned and operated by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and is located within Australia's largest non-government conservation area. Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary covers 322,000 hectares in the central Kimberley, protecting a range of tropical ecosystems and a great diversity of wildlife.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is an independent, non-profit organisation which aims to deliver effective conservation for all Australian animal species. AWC is funded primarily by donations from the public, which are invested directly into conservation in the field.

 

The drive into Mornington was through some very spectacular landscapes, dotted with the most Boab trees we'd seen in ages.

 

After our week in the bush, arriving at Mornington was a bit like re-entering civilisation. We drove in past the area designated for visitors to erect their own tents, past the showers and toilets and parked within easy walking distance of the Reception area. There was also a bar and before the last arrivals had even shut off their vehicles, the first ones had drinks in their hands.

 

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We were in Australia after all.

 

In addition to the bar, everyone was excited by the prospect of the first shower since Home Valley Station a week ago.

 

After putting our names down for Kayaking in Dimond Gorge the following morning, we went to set up camp.

 

We found a secluded spot right at the edge of the camping area. I say secluded but in reality the whole place was not overcrowded.

Being a private camp, Mornington can - and do - restrict the number of people camping at any one time to a maximum of 55 people.

 

Just as I was selecting a place to roll out my swag I noticed something I'd never seen before on the trees beside my chosen spot.

 

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I certainly didn't want those things crawling all over me during the night.

Then when I looked closer I realised that they were not alive, but just the abandoned outer husks of some creature.

 

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None of us knew what they were so I made a point of asking Dianne, the manager, when we went back to the bar for a drink. I was very surprised that she did not know what they were either, but she promised to find out.

Edited by Soukous
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I'm finding this quite fascinating. You managed some nice birds despite the challenges and certainly those empty husks of a mystery creature is really interesting.

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True we have had some lovely sightings of birds I've never seen before but I guess I just expected more. Every park I walk through in Sydney or Melboure or Perth has colourful birds in every tree and flocks of lorikeets and cockatoos flying around.

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@@Soukous oh how. Oh you torture the poor bowerbird so.......

 

That kookaburra is lovely. It immediately reminded me of the song I learned as a kid -

kookaburra sits on the old gum tree,

merry merry king of the bush is he,

laugh kookaburra laugh kookaburra,

what a life you lead.

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teased a bit, not tortured. And all in the name of research.

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Day 11

Mornington Wilderness Camp, Dimond Gorge

Its amazing really. For the past week we had been bathing in rivers and creeks and no-one had lamented the lack of showers, but as soon as there was a hot shower on offer everyone wanted one. I was no exception.

 

This morning we were going to visit Dimond Gorge; a major Kimberley attraction that lay on the Mornington property. The difference was that we were going to spend the morning canoeing.

 

Dimond Gorge is about 24km away from the main camp area and we'd been told it would take us about an hour to get there.

Because we were in an area owned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy we had high hopes of finally seeing some good birdlife and were encouraged when we spotted a pair of Australian Bustards walking down the road in front of us.

 

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Australian Bustards look remarkably similar to Kori Bustards. I thought they looked maybe a bit smaller, but when I compared the information on the two variants it transpired that they are practically the same size.

 

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A short while further on we spotted more bustards; four of them this time. In fact when we stopped to try and get photos we kept seeing more of them until we had a total of 7. Unfortunately they had wandered off into the cane grass and all we could see was the top of their heads.

 

We detoured to a lookout from where we got a magnificent panorama of Fitzroy Bluff.

 

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We saw no other birds after that.

 

We parked up at Dimond Gorge and followed the trail over the rocks carrying our paddles and life jackets to where the canoes were beached.

 

Sheltered by the high rock walls of the gorge the water was beautifully flat and it didn't take too long for even those with no previous experience to get the hang of canoeing.

 

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We had a great morning on the water and finished off with a swim.

 

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I think we'd swum in pretty much every gorge we'd visited.

 

When we got back, Dianne rushed over to tell me what she's found out about the empty husks on the trees.

Apparently they were the abandoned hard outer skins of cicada nymphs. (well done @kittykat23UK)

 

Now here's the educational bit.

 

Cicadas apparently have the longest life cycle of any insect; ranging from 2 – 17 years.

 

Stage 1, the cicada lays an egg

Stage 2, the egg hatches into a nymph (the larval stage). The nymph burrow into the ground near a tree root and start sucking the tree's sap. This stage can last up to 17 years.

Stage 3, when the nymph is fully grown, and the temperature is optimal, the nymph tunnels to the surface and sheds its hard outer skin, emerging as an adult..... which – if it is a male - then proceeds to make an almighty racket by vibrating two drum like membranes called tymbals.

 

After whiling away the hottest part of the day we drove to Cajeput, another creek on Mornington where we'd been told the birdlife was good. It wasn't, so we had another swim instead.

 

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Day 12

Silent Grove, Bell Gorge

Our drive out of Mornington was uneventful but the scenery was magnificent and I did stop to take some photos of the amazing Boab trees.

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The Boab (latin name Adansonia gregorii) is a relative of the Baobab tree seen in Africa (Adansonia digitata). Like the baobab it has nicknames like 'the bottle tree' or 'the upside down tree'.

Like the baobab, the Boab lives a long time and there are examples of trees 1500 years old. In some places, in the early days of settlement, old Boab trees were hollowed out and used as prison trees.

Rejoining the GRR for a short while we stopped at the community owned store in Imintji

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for supplies before turning of the GRR again to drive to Silent Grove, the camping area for those wishing to visit Bell Gorge.

The campsite itself is nothing special but it is convenient.

We set up camp and had a simple lunch before driving to Bell Gorge for the afternoon.

To get into the gorge requires a hike of about 1km, and then some climbing up rocks and then down a steeper cliff into the gorge itself.

It is well worth it. The gorge is spectacular and, naturally, it is an excellent place for a swim on a hot afternoon.

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After a leisurely afternoon at Bell Gorge we returned to camp for our last night in swags/tents.

Edited by Soukous
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The Little Corellas would entice me to visit. They are beautiful.. I may need to have one of those photos!

 

What a great adventure and thankfully full of gorges to swim. (I would not be a happy camper with three days of no showers!)

 

That red dust looks hot. Suppose that is why there are "red rocks". :mellow: Loved the Boab tree. It looks unique - the same, but a wee bit different than Africas', don't you think? I love looking at trees when traveling.

 

Bush bars - inviting to say the least if you can grab a COLD one!

 

So jealous you visited Twaffle. Thats worth a trip to Oz IMO.

 

Very enjoyable trek and thanks for posting maps or I'd have NO idea where the Outback is located.

Our Outback is a restaurant :( faking Australian style food I imagine (have not been)

 

Really enjoyed seeing this report; thanks for sharing.

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The Little Corellas would entice me to visit. They are beautiful.. I may need to have one of those photos!

 

 

@@graceland just tell me which one you want and I'll send you a decent sized jpeg

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@@Soukous

 

You are so kind; thank you for your offer. The last one on post #15 seemed to capture my (slightly weird) imagination, as if they were "people watching" the birdwatchers - or whatever was in the distance. It reminded me of my Dh and myself, when he says, "Don't YOU see - its right there" Just look! (along with a few chosen "words); as I am straining with frustration through binoculars trying my best to spot anything. Even that tree bark was pretty.

 

Inside joke with us; I guess you'd have to be there. But when I saw that shot I just laughed thinking it was about to start up again with us this Sept. Would be a nice gift for him before we go!

 

All the bird shots here are lovely; he has just started his" twitching" obsession. I guess Africa does that to you! Unfortunately we do not own those L-O-N-G lenses and rarely get good bird photos. But happy just to be in the moment. :)

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Days 13 & 14

Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek, Jubilee Downs Station

A full day ahead.

Almost immediately after crossing the Lennard River we turned left (South) onto the Leopold Downs Road that would take us to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek.

The first thing we all noticed about Windjana Gorge was that it was hot, baking hot.

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Despite this it was the first gorge we had visited where none of us felt inclined to go for a swim.

The water looked a bit green and stagnant and there was another reason too.

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Although we were continually being assured that freshwater crocodiles were no threat to humans and had a diet of fish and birds, we weren't convinced.

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From Windjana Gorge we followed the road to Tunnel Creek.

The tunnel component of Tunnel Creek has a length of approximately 750m (2,460ft) that runs underground and it one of the oldest cave systems in Western Australia. The reef was first exposed around 250 million years ago and the first cave systems began to form, the present cave systems were created about 20 million years ago.

The cave reaches a maximum height of 12m (39ft) and has a maximum width of 15m (49ft). The creek was once known as "The Cave of the Bats" with at least five species of bat inhabiting the cavern. There are large pools of water on the floor of the cave in which freshwater crocodiles have been found.

 

Entering Tunnel Creek

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Light at the end of the tunnel

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Aboriginal art

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We actually saw one floating in the water, after a the beam from a torch picked up its eyes.

Various aboriginal paintings have been found in and around Tunnel Creek - although the ones we found were not as impressive as those we'd seen at Munurru - and in the 1890s an aboriginal bandit called Jandamarra (also often referred to as Pigeon).

 

Jandamarra

Jandamarra was an indigenous Australian of the Bunuba people who led one of the few organised armed insurrections documented against European settlement in Australia. He had formerly worked with the police force as a tracker and been involved in the capture of many aboriginals. Eventually though his tribal loyalties kicked in and he freed several captives, killing a policeman in the process.

For several years he waged a guerilla war against the police and European settlers, evading all attempts to track and capture him by using the caves of Tunnel Creek to hide and escape. He was eventually shot dead at Tunnel Creek in 1897.

 

The walk through Tunnel Creek was interesting. Due to fairly low rainfall the water only came just above our knees and was not flowing. As mentioned, we did see a freshwater crocodile lurking in the water but he kept his distance.

 

The scenery alongside the road as we approached and left Tunnel Creek was stunning; a high rock cliff dotted with Baobabs like huge sentries.

I should have stopped to take photographs – mea culpa.

About an hour after we left Tunnel Creek, we joined – though only briefly – the tar road that runs between Fitzroy Crossing and Derby. We were on the road for less than 5 minutes before leaving it again to enter the Jubilee Downs Station.

Jubilee Downs is a working cattle station and we were staying for 2 nights.

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I am really enjoying this trip report Martin!

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