Monday, 28 July 2014

Debacles on the GRR with forays into Ellenbrae and Russ Creek.

The day started well enough, or without any real indication that it was going to be a bit of a crap one... Maybe the first sign was when we dismally lost a 'race' with the Doves to see who could pack up first at Home Valley Station- not much of a competition as they have at least two minions to do their dirty work like packing up chairs,whilst we have two hinderers who just sit on the chairs. (Actually Fiela and I have estimated that our breaking of camp takes at best half an hour longer than it should because of Marguerite and Caesar, what with the poo emergencies, fights, I'm Hungry's and the like.)

A green oasis in all the red dirt and dust, Ellenbrae Station.

Anyway,  we filled the tanks with water and headed for Ellenbrae, a station just off the Gibb River Road which has made itself an essential stop, not for the wonderful camping facilities or amazing toilet (you have to go to experience the toilet, there are no words for that special kind of yuck). Nope, Ellenbrae is a must stop for the scones.

And what massive scones they are, with oodles of jam and cream. We thought they were yum, whilst Mike, apparently a scone connoisseur, believed them to be too dense, or "just not fluffy enough" ( once we tasted Lizzie's scones, we could understand where he was coming from).

A sign we should have taken to heart...

I noticed at this point that we seemed to be leaking water from the camper trailer. Fiela had forgotten to turn the water pump off,  and the corrugations of the GRR had jiggled the sink's tap on, so we lost half a tank of water through the kitchen sink outlet. Not a major set back, but annoying in the mess inside from the flooded sink and the waste of water.

We said goodbye to the Doves who were staying at Ellenbrae, and headed further down the Gibb for a free camp at Russ Creek. Driving in we found it delightfully deserted and picked our site underneath a big tree on a nice flat spot. The  eucalypts  housed corellas and parrots, the creek whispered nearby and we sighed, here it was, a bit of the Kimberley we could explore on our own.

Peaceful Russ Creek, Marguerite trying to meditate the fire to life.

Jacking up the roof to set up proved fairly problematic though; initially I thought we'd left a clip (which holds the roof down onto the camper while we drive along) on, meaning that the roof was leaning awkwardly and something was about to break. On closer inspection (after lots of frantic shouting) we realised that the clip was definitely off, but that the one back pole was definitely not going up like the others. After a half hour of going through our options which included hanging around in Broome while our broken camper trailer was fixed, our Gibb River Road adventure over very early,  Fiela, being an Ideas Man, came up with a plan involving a stick and a milk crate. His bush mechanics certainly saved the day but it wouldn't save our trip,  which is when I sensibly consulted the Jayco manual to work out what exactly was the problem. Briefly, the pulley system which winches up each pole had failed for whatever reason on that particular pole. I also found out that the pulley  system was accessible, and after another half hour of taking the camper apart,  it was deemed to be a tomorrow job and we settled down to enjoy what little was left of the afternoon and our alcohol free night suddenly becoming laden with wine and whiskey. Fiela was confident but I'll admit to being slightly nervous that a slim piece of wood and a square box of plastic was keeping the roof from crashing down on us in our sleep.

Our camper propped up with a stick, the jack wrench in as support.
The other 'fail-safe', a milk carton and books.

Luckily for us Caesar is still a toddler and didn't care in the least that the morning of his 2nd birthday involved more pulling apart of the camper trailer. Fiela, our collective hero and keeper of our GRR Dream alive,  managed to find the source of our problem and fixed it fairly easily. It was as simple (and as scary) as some  bolts rattling loose  over the corrugations and that particular pole being no longer attached to the main pulley. Fixable with a wrench and some swearing. By mid morning we were back on our way.

Caesar's main birthday present- a balance bike. We gave this to him in Kununurra a week earlier, knowing we have extremely limited 'hiding' spots available to us. He needs to grow about 3cms for his feet to really touch the ground and for him to be away on it. I was disappointed about this at the start, now I'm quite thankful- he has hit the Twos with a vengeance!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Home Valley Station

The Uys Huis looking wonderous after another Pentecost River crossing,
the Cockburn Ranges in the back ground.

After the commercialism by El Questro of the natural attractions of the Gibb River Road, we were keen to get away from the crowds and experience some much quieter Kimberley camping. I didn't hold much hope for that at our next stop, Home Valley Station, which had the dubious selling point of having a pool and playground; not really what we were looking for in our foray into wild Western Australia. But onward we drove, through spectacular scenery as the Cockburn Ranges imposed themselves on the landscape.

The not so mighty Pentecost River.
It had been quiet a 'dry' Wet Season, and all the creeks and rivers were pretty low.

We crossed the 'hazardous' Pentecost River (though after daily crossings getting in and out of camp at El Questro, it really seemed pretty tame, just long) and turned into Home Valley,  which on first impressions did have a more authentically 'station' feel to it than our last campground. We decided to check out the unpowered riverside camp area, 4kms from the decidely busy looking main camp. What an excellent decision.

Crap photo of a crocodile on the opposite bank.

Not only was it much quieter, but the amazing views of the Cockburn Ranges, the now definitely mighty Pentecost River and crocodiles sunning themselves on the opposite bank were stunning. Fiela, salivating at the idea of fish for dinner couldn't contain himself past the camper being set up and was off, fishing in the croc infested waters, knee deep in mud and adrenaline.

The Pentecost River and Cockburn Ranges.

We spent our days gazing at the view, Fiela fished, the kids played (with the Doves and instant friends for all the kids turning up), I read a bit and we generally just decompressed from I don't even know what. There was talk of going up to the main camp for a meal and beer at the bar which actually looked really cool; the interior decorators had got it right which is hard to do with a big shed and horse riding paraphernalia. But we were too lazy to leave the delights of the riverside camp.

More river action.

Fiela took Max and Wilkie,  the older Dove children fishing, much to the anxiety of Lizzie and Mike, nervously watching their kids walk around mud flats with dead bait as crocodiles patrolled the river. I realised how blasé I've become in regards to my husband's at times reckless fishing habits, and became a little concerned for the boys' safety myself. Anyway, since you haven't seen us on some dubious current affairs program as an example of outrageous lack of duty of care, you can assume correctly that the fishing went off without incident or even lack of life (even in regards to the fish, with a catfish being the only thing silly enough to get hooked on their lines).

Fireside star and range gazing.

Lots of oohing and aahing occurred with every sunset and showers were had looking up at the Southern Cross. Suddenly we'd spent three nights at Home Valley Station and it was time to move on to more GRR Goodness.

Our sunset view of the Cockburn Ranges.

The Uys Huis, including Puppy Dog,


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Gibb River Road and El Questro

Beautiful gorges.

Everything's open on the Gibb River Road.
Fiela had proven himself time and time again in the 4WDing stakes, but it was still with some trepidation that we faced the Gibb River Road and all the accompanying lambast that came along with it. Take it slow and you'll be fine... It sorts the men from the boys.... It's just a dirt highway... The toughest road in Australia... Poor Gibb, he was certainly suffering from an identity crisis if not a full blown personality disorder. But still, I was excited and full of nervous expectation as we drove down the 'major' arterial linking the East and West Kimberley regions.

We eased into it from the Kununurra side (after a few days of shopping to survive the two weeks on the supply barren Gibb. I won't bore you, Kununurra has its charms I'm sure, we just didn't encounter any of them) with about 40kms of bitumen and amazing scenery straight off the bat before we even saw any red dust. Moody and majestic ranges of red ochre unfold themselves and take your breath away as you roll down the Gibb River Road (GRR) westward: the dawning realisation you are entering an area which is magical, hard and incredibly special is immediate.

Beautiful ranges, still beautiful bitumen.

So I've grudgingly been acknowledging Fiela's driving prowess, and as we had to cross the Pentecost River every day to see all that El Questro, our first stop on the GRR, had to offer, my knotted stomach began to relax and I could look at why, when  I had a competent driver and a car built to do what we were doing, why I was still so uptight with every engagement of 4WD. I looked at my role models- my father and my oldest brother- who had been the stalwarts of any off-roading I'd ever encountered. My brother is an excellent 4WDer,  but like me, can be a bit impatient on and off the road (strange but true) leading to the odd bog and string of swear words (yes, also strange I hear you murmur), but always triumphing in the end. But it is my father who is the reason I'm so nervous now. I remember sitting in the back of an old Landrover with Dad driving up the beach on Fraser Island, on the back of the tractor as he gunned it up a steep slope thick with slippery red mud... and through it all he never faltered or panicked or moved suddenly or with anger. Mum on the other hand often had little conniptions (yes, the repetition in behaviours is not lost on me!), but Dad just drove on. The difference with Fiela is that I've witnessed his 4WDing evolution,  unlike my father's, whom I assumed, as a child, just knew how to do it right. Anyway, I have reprimanded myself, and when I feel like the river crossings and the 4WDing is getting a bit much, I just put my head down between my knees and sing a little Kylie, it seems to get me through.

One of the creek crossings at El Questro, this one only 45cm deep.

Anyway, El Questro was our first stop on the GRR, and what a slick operation it is. I can imagine that having travelled from the Western side, arriving here after a few weeks of drop toilets and cold showers must be like entering an oasis of forgotten luxuries, like a bar, upmarket restaurant, some non-dusty groceries and hot water.... You'd be constantly opening your wallet in an attempt to gorge youself on civilisation. They even have their own line of shirts and singlets, which I was tempted to buy straight away but in a strange fit of sensible shopping decided not to. The property is a 'working' cattle station, but is more like a camping resort with some pretty amazing natural scenery within its boundaries (El Questro is not a National Park and so can capitalise on its assets as it sees fit).

Manicured grass at El Questro... we were unaware that this would have induced hysteria three weeks later. 

El Questro camping.

We eventually found a site in the non powered section ($60 per night being a bit rich for our tastes at this stage for powered) and joined in with the rest of the plebs in trying to find a spot which wasn't on top of someone else. To say it was busy would be a bit of an understatement but it was a long weekend and school holidays were tantalisingly close for everyone. No sooner had we set up than the Doves (the collective pronoun for our Purnululu friends) zoomed by looking for their own little piece of quiet. We spent the rest of the afternoon not talking to our 'Brought Their Own Friends' neighbours (please refer to the note at the end), swimming in the creek running through the property and trading notes on what we'd seen thus far on our collective trips over drinks with Lizzie and Mike.

El Questro Gorge.

We awoke the next day to hundreds of kettles whistling their morning corrals and set off soon after for El Questro Gorge. We came across our first 4WD victim on the Gibb, a much Greyer now Nomad had managed to bog himself in sand coming across the opposite side of the river. When he was finally dug out and the rest of us could get past, he was sucking back on a cigarette so hard I was surprised he hadn't inhaled the filter. It just goes to show that while the GRR might not be that tough anymore, stray off onto a sideroad and you WILL be 4WDing.

Walking up the creek bed into El Questro Gorge.

Anyway, so we got to the gorge and walked up its rocky creek bed to the first swimming hole. It was only a kilometre, but with all the rock hopping and creek crossings it took well over an hour. The gorge was beautiful though, with high cliffs and green green foliage dappling the creek with what little sunshine could make its way from the top of the narrow walls to the bottom.

El Questro Gorge.

A little snake chomping on a frog.

The swimming hole was pretty small, fairly cold and the massive boulder blocking the creek meant there was just time for a dip and some fruit before we walked back out.

The swimming hole and Fiela on a rock.
Quiet woodland fairies.
More rocks and water at El Questro.

We arrived back at El Questro to find four families of camper trailers travelling together had parked themselves next to us, and so for the next few days we endured poolnoodle fights, flying footballs and hissy fits metres from our bed. I had a small moment when at 7.05am (after the dawn joyflights had taken off 200metres from our camp. Note the plural on 'joyflight') I exited our camper to find a creche of little girls sitting under our annex playing with Marguerite's small box of toys. I really felt like the camping grinch.

Alright, it wasn't all bad at El Questro!

We traipsed into the unfortunately named Zebedee Springs with every other person from the campground and for once had the advantage by combining forces with the Doves and comandeering one or two of the warm rockpools for ourselves. The springs are beautiful,  but only accessible to 'the public' between the hours of 7am and 12pm, after which time the people staying at the $1800 per night accommodation up at The Homestead can have their champagne in the pools without those pesky plebs about. Another perk for the winners in the Game of Capitalism. That aside, the water is always around 30 degrees, and I'm sure this is what landscapers are trying to achieve when they imitate nature in their rainforesty water features, with gorgeous water cascading from one small pool to the next.

Beautiful Zebedee Springs.

Livistona Palms and red ochre at Zebedee Springs.

Then it was Emma Gorge time, supposedly the most beautiful on the GRR. The walk in is certainly not easy,  but the reward of water cascading over walls surrounding a circular pool, with green ferns and rainbows colouring the cliffs is wonderful compensation. It was spectacular,  one of my favorite moments was lying on my back, looking 60 metres up and watching droplets fall through sunlight to the cold deep water below. There is a thermal spring running into the swimming hole, but it does little to heat what is a shaded and deep pool. My chin was numb after a 10 minute swim.

Starting off at Emma Gorge.
Emma Gorge.
More Emma Gorge, that's my head in the water, bottom left.

Playing mermaids in the sun with Phoebe, a friend from camp.
Post Emma Gorge, not feeling very photogenic after a number of stacks on the way out.

We also walked Moonshine Gorge another day, which was probably not one of our brighter moments. It was not a shaded gorge, required a lot of dexterity in that there were many rocky creek crossings and the path being creek bed itself; I ended up carrying Marguerite for quite a bit of the way, such was the difficulty of the terrain. The swimming hole at the halfway point was not as spectacular as those we'd seen thus far, but it was refreshing as we readied ourselves to walk up and over the saddle of the ridge, back to the car park.  I was knackered after this walk, I think we all were.

Swimming hole at Moonshine Gorge.
More Moonshine.

Negotiating the terrain... slowly.
The view from the Saddle at Moonshine Gorge. 

One afternoon we decided to drive up to the Pigeon Hole Lookout with the Doves for sundowners overlooking the Kimberley and the Pentecost River. Of course getting up there in time for the sunset was problematic, what with Fiela and the Dove boys feeling the need to ride their bikes across the Pentecost a few times... Anyway, we made it just in time to really piss off every other person there hoping to find their moment of Kimberley Quiet, what with four adults and five children ranging in age from 11 to 2 years of age all hungry and ready to fight over camembert and carrot sticks, scrambling around a small lookout.... Aah, so peaceful. The sunset was lovely, but we all agreed that children,  whilst enriching our lives in priceless and innumerable ways, are not especially conducive to quiet times and sundowners.

Sunset at Pigeon Hole.

Enjoying the sunset, having got rid of every other person there...
Sunset over the Pentecost River and the Kimberley.

El Questro had been a good introduction to the Kimberley, but I felt like we'd managed to miss something sitting diamond-like  underneath all that touristy gloss. I couldn't put my finger on it or words to it; I think I'd glimpsed it at Emma Gorge staring up at those fat droplets cascading down, maybe heard it over the noise of the kids at Pigeon Hole Lookout... Either way, we would have to keep searching the GRR to find whatever it was, that Kimberley feeling.

Note. 'Brought Their Own Friends' is a label Fiela and I came up with fairly early on in our trip,  and refers to the types of fellow campers who are travelling in a group, and therefore feel it unnecessary to exchange any information or pleasantries, nary a hello over the water tap, with other campers: they have brought along their own pre-approved people with which to make social niceties with and thus had no need of us. We found this type of behaviour baffling in the beginning and even quite disheartening. Afterall, what's not to like about us, we conjectured, we're smart, funny, a little dirty maybe but we don't smell much !? Now we realise the Brought Their Own Friends are just a bit rude and lacking in social skills, karma will get them in the end,  which it definitely did to these El Questro people when half the group left and suddenly the leftovers were all over us like a rash. Too late dipsticks, too late.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Purnululu National Park

Kununurra feels a bit like Katherine, though perhaps the acres and acres of crops and orchards courtesy of the Ord River catchment and Lake Argyle surrounding it dispel the air of dejection and listlessness. There certainly is a booming seasonal worker industry going on,  something we witnessed on our first morning as we feasted on homemade cake and coffee at the Ivanhoe Cafe, as troopies of weary looking backpackers were ferried from one pumpkin patch to another.

Caravans everywhere at Leycester's Rest.

We stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables at the steel bar decorated Coles and headed down the Great Northern Highway to Purnululu (Bungle Bungles) National Park, our next big stop. I wasn't really sold on the whole beehive rock formation thing but Fiela was insistent that it would all be worth it.  Just the drive down was worth it as we passed the Argyle Diamond Mine ("Of course I'd love to buy you the biggest diamond I could find..." He didn't even try to sound sincere about following through on that one) and hours of beautifully stark scenery of escarpments and distant hills.

A bower bird nest at Purnululu- these were everywhere. We found this right next to a walking track.

We realised we wouldn't have time that day to drive down to the National Park (being 53kms off the highway and supposedly taking around two and a half hours due to the rough road) so decided to freecamp just at the highway at Leycester's Rest. Did I say the camp at Big Horse Creek was busy?? Ha! The Uys Huis clearly didn't know what busy meant. This free camp was packed full; we managed to squeeze into a spot much to the chagrin of the Grey Nomads next door who tried unsuccessfully to direct us to our 'friends' (sorry, no they're not our friends?) about 100 metres away, then explained that they wouldn't be able to back out if we parked there (no problem we'd be gone early), then suggested the smoke from their fire might hassle us... Turns out they were 'hosting' the drinks for the cool Nomads later and we were kind of cramping their style. That's free camping I suppose; sometimes it's idyllic and sometimes you've got annoying young'ns next door with filthy kids who really should be working 9 to 5 somewhere. Needless to say little love was lost, especially after a few further comments on our parenting style. It just goes to show that dickheads also have caravans.

Another day, another lookout.

Anyway, after we made sure the kids made tonnes of noise early the next morning, we drove down to Purnululu. The road was rough, we crossed six or so creeks and wound our way around tight corners down into the National Park, rock beehives noticeably absent. We camped at the northernmost camp site of Kurrajong, a lovely spot with big grassy spots,  shade and non-stinky drop toilets.

Our first walk in Purnulu, Echidna Chasm.
Echidna Chasm.
We set up and in non Uys Huis fashion had enough time to do one of the major walks in the afternoon. We drove up to Echidna Chasm,  both silently trying to work out how beehive could be applied to the stunning rock escarpments running up and down the length of the park. We arrived at the same time as a tour bus- further reinforcement that the days of deserted attractions were over for us. Anyway, the gorge is stunning, becoming gradually slimmer until single file is the only possible way to walk through it. Alas, they were fixing the stairs at the final ampitheatre, so we trudged back feeling a little jipped.

Entering the Chasm, stop laughing.

Looking out.
Further trudging up to a lookout, and I almost had a quiet Kimberley moment where red and green colours almost enveloped me, and all I almost heard was the sounds of wind and birds in eucalypts... But I have children so really that moment was just that- momentary.

Beautiful rock formations at Echidna Chasm.

Successful group shot.

Unsuccessful group shot.
The view from Echidna Chasm Lookout.

Lookout at camp over the Purnululu Ranges.
Knowing full well our time in Purnululu was metered, we came back to camp, grabbed some drinks and headed to the lookout a handy few hundred metres away for sundowners over the ranges. Aaah, great plans. Shame about those plan destroyers #1 and #2. Anyway, the view was amazing and as the sun dipped the colours changed continually, reducing us all to oohs and aahs. And the occasional "What are you doing?", "Get away from there!" and the completely impotent "You'll go in the naughty that rock." Solid parenting in general it was not, which was fantastic timing for the rest of the campers, who could pat themselves on the back with a 'job well done' as they witnessed first hand our kids being little buggers, their own angelic offspring watching on. Enter Lizzie, Mike and their three children behaving like cherubs. Marguerite had fun encouraging their daughter to be just as belligerent as she was, and there were tears as we parted ways. There were even more tears as Marguerite held a hillside standoff, not willing to return to camp with us, preferring to visit her newly acquired friend. We made it 300metres to the bottom of the hill in fading light, just in time to hear something dingo-like squawk, and watched as our darling screamed and started scrambling down the track. Oh but she wasn't finished, only deigning to actually walk with us when she realised she was hungry and we were the only meal ticket around. It was a very early night for us all.

Beautiful colours as the sun sets.

So after freezing our way through the night (5° celsius) we packed a lunch and headed to the other end of the park and Picaninny Gorge, where the other big ticket walks were. The ranges continued the whole way down and became more beehive like: maybe we were close to seeing what all the fuss was about.

Beehives- finally!

Elephant Rock on the drive in to Picanniny Gorge.

The fuss is pretty cool. Impressive rock, striped domes of ancientness stood up randomly around us as we drove through to Picaninny Gorge. It was stunning.

Picanniny Gorge.

We did the shorter walks, and luckily it was quite cool as there was little shade and you could feel the heat bouncing off the enormous rock walls and the sandy floor. What an amazing place. Had anyone said the highlight of my trip would be a walk through sand and rock I would have scoffed at them, but this really was a big moment for us all. We had lunch looking out over those beehives and had to pinch ourselves.

More beehives.
There were lots of termite mounds built high up on the rock face,
with thin 'walkways' going down to the gorge floor.

Picanniny Gorge.

Back at Camp Uys, I took Marguerite around to Lizzie and Mike's for a play, and learned they were doing a similar trip to us, just in a shorter time frame. It was lovely to finally meet people doing what we were (though with a bit more panache I must say), who understood the rigour travelling with children can have on your mental state. Over drinks and travel plans we made friends with these beautiful people, ones whose path we would cross gratefully many times in the coming months.

Purnululu, tick.

Walking through the domes.

At Cathedral Gorge, a spectacular gorge cutting its way through the rock, with a mirror like pool. It even smelt like a church.

Cathedral Gorge.

Looking out of Cathedral Gorge- my camera (skills!) don't do this amazing view any kind of justice.

Yay for non-tear-inducing group shots.

And just so you know it's not all beer and skittles, but more like shits and giggles, Fiela dealing with an ill-timed poo of Caesar's.