Category Archives: Life and things
After a few memorable days at Esperance, it was time to head East, which meant a detour north to meet the Eyre Highway at Norseman. The locals call this trip across the bottom of Australia “crossing the Nullarbor”. The Nullarbor plain takes its name from the latin – no trees. Which is true, but if you’ve been following the trip, you’ll know that happens in a lot of parts of Australia. In fact, the road doesn’t go through much of the Nullarbor at all, because it follows (more or less) the coastline with its towering limestone cliffs. The late, sadly lamented Douglas Adams wrote a wonderful essay about Australia, giving his notion of how the Bight was formed. Do go and read it. I’ll wait over here, shall I?
That was fun, wasn’t it? He’s wrong about the spiders, though. We don’t hold the record there. The snakes are alive and well, by some counts ten of the ten most deadly snakes in the world are Australian.
Moving right along. The railroad does go through the Nullarbor Plain and one of the great rail journeys of the world is the trip from Perth, at the Indian Ocean, to Sydney, on the Pacific shores. If you really think about it, you might be able to work out why the train is called the Indian-Pacific. We’ve done that trip and after the train leaves Kalgoorlie, you’d better have a good book with you. A piece of trivia for you – it includes the longest dead straight stretch of track in the world – 478 kilometre (297 mi). We encountered the train further along our journey. Here’s the loco.
Mind you, the road trip isn’t much more interesting than the train trip. It boasts a 146km dead straight section. Although I have to say the food is more regular on the train and you don’t have to stop. A few hardy souls run road houses along the highway’s length, knowing they’ll have a steady clientele. We booked overnight accommodation ahead at Border Village, right on the WA/SA border, a good day’s drive. We don’t drive at night – there’s camels, roos and emus out there, not to mention the min-min lights.
The plain is flat and featureless. For me, what makes it stand out from other places is it’s on limestone and there are no rivers or creeks. I don’t mean ones with water in them – just dry gullies. I’d guess that’s because of the limestone. The rain – what there is – just soaks through and joins the caves and aquifers. Some of you might have heard of the famous caves at Cocklebiddie. If not, there’s your chance.
Not far from Eucla we encountered about the only dip in the whole road, driving down an escarpment. It soon became evident that we were now driving along what used to be a beach, with the limestone coastal cliffs on our left. The real coastal cliffs were a few kilometres over to our right. Eucla itself is one of the few actual towns on the Eyre Highway. The original signal station at Eucla is a short drive away, being swallowed up by a sand dune you can see for miles. It might have been worth a detour if we’d had time.
We crossed the checkpoint from WA into SA and rolled into Border Village at (you guessed it) close on sunset. All I could see was a road house and I suggested we’d better drive on a bit further. But no. WYSIWYG. Please read the sign.
The accommodation at Border Village is small, simple, clean and entirely adequate. It’s a shower, a bed for the night and a roadhouse for dinner and breakfast. Outback places like this are full of characters and Border Village is no exception. We spent a pleasant evening in the pub, downing a beverage or three, bantering with the locals about the football and talking with some fellow travellers. The conversations are always the same.
“Hi. Just got in?”
“Yep. Heading East.”
“Oh, yeah. Where’ve you been?”
And then it’s their turn.
Next day we were planning to stop at Port Augusta. We had a bit of time up our sleeves so we detoured a couple of times to admire the mighty cliffs along the Bight. The second time a road led down to the Head of the Bight, where a sign proclaimed one could also indulge in a spot of whale watching from a platform. Off to the right (west) waves dashed against the cliff. To the east the more civilized beaches began their march around the coast. However, if you wanted to use the platform, you had to pay $15 per adult. This was to walk along a dirt path to the edge of the cliff where a viewing platform had been constructed. Thirty bucks to stand on a deck and maybe see a whale if you’re lucky? No way Jose. I think that sort of thing’s a rip-off. There are two other places you can admire the cliffs for free – and as for whale watching, I can get a much better view at home. So we drove off in a flurry of dust, snorting in affronted disbelief.
We reached Port Augusta at – can I hear you – sunset. Just a little after, actually, which was unfortunate. The town lies at the base of the Flinders Ranges which are spectacular in the last light of afternoon. Oh well. I saw that when we took a train trip to Alice Springs. But that’s another story.
Those who know me would be aware that I’ll take any opportunity to go out and watch the whales in my own back yard. In August, the youngsters from last year’s crop show up. They’re young, sexually immature, curious and playful, so if you’re on one of the fleet of whale boats taking tourists out to visit, you’re sure to see a show. The boats are not permitted to chase the whales, or come in too close – but the whales are quite happy to approach the boats for a close-up look at the funny little air-breathers on the decks. I’m sure they do a LOT of people watching and as times have changed and they are no longer hunted, they’re happy to share the space with us.
But this year I was elsewhere in August, so now it’s September, which is mums with bubs time. The females stop in Hervey Bay’s warm, comparatively safe waters, to feed up their calves, building their fat reserves for the cold of the Antarctic waters. Whales don’t suckle. Their milk is extremely high in fat (figures vary so much – somewhere between 30% to 50% seems safe) and has the consistency of yoghurt. The female expresses milk into the water near the ocean floor and the calf scoops up the fatty fluid in its mouth. On this rich diet it puts on as much as 80kg per day. In contrast, the adult whales rarely eat on their migration, relying on the fat reserves built up on krill during the summer months, before the annual migration.
In between feeds the mothers teach their offspring how to do whaley things, like breach to find their way around. Baleen whales, which includes humpbacks, right whales, Minki whales and others, don’t use echo location like the toothed whales – Orcas, sperm whales, dolphins etc. Breaching is thought to be an important way the whales locate where they are. (Scientists also think they do it to knock off parasites and maybe discourage predators. What that means is the only reason we KNOW they do it is for fun.)
Later in the year you’ll see mature males chasing females for the right to mate. They don’t care if she has a calf with her, they’ll shove the youngster out of the way for a chance to get at mum. If there’s more than one male, they’ll fight, using their massive size to try to dominate each other. I once watched a group of five males wrestling, blowing noisy threats through their blowholes and damaging each other with the barnacles that soon attach to every whale’s body. They completely ignored the boat in the way.
Humpbacks are noted for their athleticism. Those incredibly long pectoral fins add to their ability to manoeuvre and seeing one of these massive creatures breach is a privilege. A beast the size of a locomotive launches itself into the air with a couple of flips of that powerful tail, performs some aerobatics and then crashes back down into the water. It’s a wonderful sight to see.
One last factoid – these are southern humpbacks. Their bellies are mostly white. Their cousins in the northern hemisphere are basically black all over.
Back in the car again we head for the hills. Literally. Perth is hemmed in to the west by the Indian Ocean and to the east, the Darling Range, an escarpment which rises abruptly, if not very high. We aim to stay a night in Albany on the south west coast, cutting off the bottom corner of Western Australia with its tall stands of temperate forests, boutique wineries, wild surfing beaches and spectacular limestone caves. I have fond memories of those places, but I’ve been there many times and this is, after all, a whip around Australia.
The landscape changes quickly, replacing the coastal sand dunes and limestone with gravel and rounded granite outcrops. Taller eucalypts form dense forests. This is the home of jarrah, a beautiful, fine-grained hard wood found nowhere else in the world. It’s heavy wood that when cut almost glows with the deep red of dying embers. When I was a kid the timber was used for fruit boxes and fences – and at our place, speargun handles, the shape roughly sawn and then carefully sanded by my older brother. Now, the trees are protected from logging but they are under threat from the soil born fungus phytophthora cinnamomi.
I spent many a happy hour in those forests. The climate here is mediterranean, with almost all the rain falling in winter. In summer the bush endures intense heat and rainless months. The trees shut down, leathery leaves hanging from branches, conserving precious moisture. It’s a time of survival where even the locals don’t budge until nightfall. But in winter, the hollows in the hills fill, the many streams begin to flow, and the run-off feeds the dams that supply water to Perth. It’s a magical time for children. While my father collected fallen timber to take home to burn, my brother and I would explore the streams gurgling through rocky beds softened by bright green moss brought to life by the rain. If we were lucky, we’d find rapids where the water chuckled and clattered over stones smoothed over centuries, or a deep, silent, shadowed pool. If we were even luckier Mum would have brought sausages, which we’d cook over an open fire and eat in a slice of bread. With billy tea, of course.
The forests give way to farmland, wide hectares of canola and short, arid-tolerant wheat interspersed with sheep and cattle. Sometimes we find a small town, almost always next to a river. The road is good, and despite the increasing showers, we reach Albany by lunchtime.
It’s a pretty little place with a spectacular natural harbour formed by low granite hills. Two islands in the outer harbour (King George Sound) protect the town from the pounding gales of the southern Indian ocean. I note with interest that the narrow passage into the harbour is called Ataturk Entrance. The reference is historical. Troop carriers loaded with Australian soldiers left for WW1 in 1914 from this port, for many their last glimpse of home. Those soldiers went to Egypt to train for the campaign against the Turks at Gallipoli – where the Turkish army was led by Kemal Ataturk. The name was given in 1985 as part of a reciprocal arrangement with Turkey to honour the dead on both sides of that pointless conflict. Nice.
The weather still threatens but the breaks in the clouds allow for some great photo opportunities, the water silvered by sunlight. In the distance, ocean rollers crash against the outer islands. The seas are rough, and rich.
Whaling was a major industry here, and indeed, was a reason the area was colonised. It’s sobering to learn that the last whale was taken as late as 1978. Now, whale watching has replaced whale hunting but I can do that in the warm, calm waters of Hervey Bay at home. There’s a whaling information exhibit (whale world) where they used to process the whales, along with the last whale chaser, Cheynes II.
Rather than risk getting wet trying to find a place for dinner, we book into a motel with a restaurant. Dinner proves to be less than a foodie’s delight. It can sometimes be hard to get as many vegetables as we’d like when travelling, so we order the soup of the day, which we are told is minestrone. Except it is shredded chicken and mashed vegetable. We eat it, but point out the error to the wait person, who explains that he simply told us what the chef had written down. Uh-huh. For main course I order the chicken caesar salad, correctly described in the menu. But the kitchen used iceberg lettuce, not cos, and there is no chicken. Pete is unimpressed with his pork chops and even less impressed with the soggy vegetables and salad offered in the help yourself bar. I can’t help but feel that our complaints are seen as a nuisance more than anything else, although the cost of the soup is removed from the bill.
That’s one hotel crossed off the places to stay list. Never mind. Tomorrow night, we’ll be staying with friends.
It’s always interesting returning to a place you knew very, very well. You have a picture in your head, a deep memory in glowing technicolour. The beach, sunset on the river, summer days, winter storms, road junctions, how to get to places. But it’s a moment in time, a photograph. Since you recorded those memories the world has continued to turn.
That’s how it is with me and Perth. I grew up there, lived there, worked there until I finally left in 1996 and haven’t been back since 2005. Even then, it had grown, creeping up and down the coastal plain between the Darling Ranges and the Indian Ocean. So we head out of Geraldton along the coast road, into increasingly familiar territory. Down there, the red sandstone gives way to limestone covered in bright white sand. Grass trees (black boys in my day – politically correct can be so inane) share the scrub with cycads and low, gnarled banksia trees. Spring is beginning and the yellows and purples of early flowering species brighten the drab grey-green of the tough Australian bush.
The ocean is as I remember it. Reefs and low islands line the coast, providing safe nesting sites for sea birds, rich grounds for fishermen – and a deadly snare for one Dutch ship. We drop into the small fishing village of Leeman for a comfort stop. There’s a story in that name – I’ll tell it to you later. But even here, the whisper of the approaching, encroaching city is in the air. Properties for sale for half a million? Out here? In the scrub?
We have fish and chips for lunch at Jurien Bay, sharing the last chips with the seagulls. Back home in Hervey Bay the ibises are the scavengers, but here the sea gulls hang around, awaiting their chance. A pile of chips disappears under a squawking, screeching flurry of grey and white wings. But only for a few seconds. The food gone, they disperse.
On to Lancelin and Two Rocks. Back when I was a girl, coming out here was a bone-shuddering odyssey through farm land to a deserted beach where the spear fishing was good. Not anymore. Suburbia has created a beach head. The freeway and the railway follow close behind, providing the logistical feed from the city by the Swan.
We swear a lot at the god-awful GPS in the car which seems to think we give a rats about what servos there may be near the freeway to the extent said information covers half the screen, with no findable option to turn the feature off. Because we want ROAD DIRECTIONS we resort to an old, printed map and sign-reading to avoid the city. We only just manage to avoid having a major, in-car war but sense prevails and we make the eastern suburbs without spilling blood on the car seats. I’m coming down with a cold. What bliss. Being ill on the road isn’t nice, and I have no wish to share my germs with my relatives, who are in complete agreement.
Sunday is with us. I try hard to stay in bed and rest but I’m not sleeping and the antihistamines are masking the worst of my symptoms so we head on out. If I infect anybody, they won’t know it was me. The city to surf ‘fun run’ is on, so we avoid the city and King’s Park. I have to wonder why they’re called fun runs. This one claimed two lives. Anyway – off to Fremantle, Perth’s port.
My dad worked there when I was young, a grimy, sleepy, industrial port with some lovely old buildings nobody noticed. Then Alan Bond won the America’s Cup and Freo became all the rage. The old buildings were cleaned up, the markets became a Mecca, boutique breweries, quaint shopping precincts in quirky lanes, all kinds of restaurants rose up to support the pre-existing fish and chip shops at the fishing boat harbour. I wonder how much the years have changed her.
I’m pleased to see that Freo is all of those things, only more so. The city is packed with people enjoying the day, despite (or maybe because of) the threatening clouds on the Western horizon. We buy coffee at the fishing boat harbour, which now boasts sit-down venues with fancy fish tanks. Back in the day, you bought your chips wrapped in paper and took them back over the walkway to the park to eat them on the grass under the pine trees. They cost a lot less then, too.
We go and visit the Maritime Museum (what a surprise) and see the mortal remains of the Batavia’s hull on display with its ballast cargo, a portico destined for the fort at Batavia.
And here I encounter an old friend, a skeleton I first saw when I was about ten, the victim of Jeronimus Cornelisz’s thugs. I recalled that long-ago meeting when I explained why I wrote To Die a Dry Death. I also think about my recent visit to the site of the tragedy, the Abrolhos Islands just off Geraldton. This man died far from the green fields of his home land.
We are too late to get on board the replica of the tiny yacht Duyfken but we can at least marvel at the size of the ship which had arrived on Australia’s northern shores from Amsterdam in 1606. Wow, those guys were tough.
And those threatening skies? They provide me with a perfect photo opportunity.
This is usually a non-political blog but sometimes the soapbox positively nudges itself under my feet, especially when I’ve spent many, many long hours in a car with not much for company but the radio. For non-Australian readers, be advised that the election from hell is nearly upon us. We’ve been listening to political discussions since Julia Gillard announced the election about six months ago. I’m not sure what the Australian people did to deserve such cruel and unusual punishment, but there it is. We’ve been in de facto electioneering mode ever since. With the demise of Julia and and the resurrection of Kev* the rhetoric has picked up in frequency and volume. Like every other Western country, we have our share of problems. Our economic surplus has disappeared in a flurry of spending so that now we owe hundreds of billions, our health care system is creaking at the seams, education needs an overhaul, we should be considering food security instead of selling the farm, the climate is changing… etc etc. All important issues which will impact the lives of future generations. But what is the one issue which just about everybody spouts on about?
Marriage, we are told, is a ‘traditional’ union between a man and a woman. It says so in the Bible so it must be true.
Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks here. Forget about messy emotions like ‘love’, when we talk about ‘traditions’ going back thousands of years marriage is about procreation and ownership. Carrying and raising a human child is an exhausting business which leaves a woman vulnerable, so she needs the assistance of someone to help protect her and provide for her. This person is usually a male, who in return gets to donate his sperm to the embryo in a rather enjoyable way. The same sort of thing happens with gorillas and horses. But a male can’t be expected to care for the offspring of some other male, hence we have a contract, called ‘marriage’, between the man and the woman.
Take it a little further, and children are needed to help run the farm and later, to provide for the parents in their old age. Great economic reasons for such a union. But take it a little further. Women soon became commodities to be bought and sold. Marriage was about strengthening relationships between families and gaining rights to territory. The endless wars between French and English armies after 1066 were the direct result of such unions.
Please don’t imagine the common folk didn’t do the same thing, marrying off their children to the most eligible family. In most all human societies that I can think of, property and inheritance is paternal. To put it another way, who did your mother belong to? Not so long ago, the marriage ceremony exhorted the woman to “love, honour and obey” her new husband before he put that band of ownership on her hand. Excuse me while I puke. Girls of my own generation were encouraged to keep a ‘glory box’, collecting baby things and items for the kitchen etc so they would be well-equipped when the time came for them to move into their ‘traditional’ role of wife/home-maker and mother. As the song says, what’s love got to do with it?
Don’t get me wrong. Love is an enduring, powerful emotion which sometimes helps and sometimes hinders more contrived relationships. After all, even if you are simply a commodity to be traded for power and influence – or maybe the value of your dowry – it’s easier to accept if you quite fancy the fellow. Sure, it’s a two-way street. A man might be expected to marry a woman he doesn’t like, let alone love. Certainly, a loving relationship is more likely to result in monogamy. But men (by dint of not having a womb, and by social acceptance) can get away with a bit on the side, while that release has only recently been an avenue open to women.
These days, love is supposed to be the overriding reason for people to enter the state of marriage. People choose not to have children (raises hand). Marriage is simply a social statement of a relationship, a commitment to another person.
Which brings me to the nub of this rant. Why do we give a flying fuck who marries who?
Why are we wasting our time debating an issue which is nobody’s business but that of the two people concerned? Why should we care if the social commitment (with its attached legal safeguards) is between two men, or two women? Homosexuality is increasingly accepted. This last, old fashioned, repressive bastion is absurd. Just pass the bloody bill and concentrate on things that matter to everybody.
Pant pant pant. Thank you for listening. I’ll get off the soapbox now.
* Kev – Kevin Rudd, Australia’s current prime minister
A visit to the Abrolhos Islands has been on my bucket list for a long time and now I’ve finally done it. On a picture-perfect day we flew out of Geraldton airport on a small plane, headed for the Abrolhos archipelago, 55 to 60 km off the coast.
I’ve seen the maps and other people’s pictures but seeing the place for yourself is very different. The islands are spread over a long distance, organised in four groups. We flew over the Pelsaert Group and the Easter Group before heading for the Wallabi group, which is where the VOC ship Batavia was wrecked in 1629. That was my focus; how well had I depicted the setting in my book To Die a Dry Death, and what effect would this place have on me.
To start with, we flew over West Wallabi, where the soldiers under their inspirational leader Wiebbe Hayes, defended themselves against Jeronimus Cornelisz’s thugs. There, I took a picture of the ‘fort’. Fort is the wrong word, I think. They probably built a shelter to protect them from the everlasting wind. Our visit took place on a rare day when the wind didn’t blow.
Then we landed on West Wallabi. If anything, I think I underestimated the term ‘High Island’. Certainly East and West Wallabi are much higher than anything else out there – but most of the islands are pancake flat, little more than reefs left exposed above the sea. The High Islands are low sandhills built on a limestone platform. That said, they’re positively spacious in comparison to Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard), the Long Island and Traitor’s Island. Wildlife is abundant. We saw lizards everywhere, a number of the resident wallabies, sea birds, dolphins cruising the reefs, every variety of fish. Because of the Leeuwin current, the water is warmer out there, so coral gardens grow in the shallow water.
The plants on the islands are another story. All the growth is stunted, with most bushes not much more than knee high. A few plants grow a little higher but shade would have been hard to find. I stood on the highest point of East Wallabi and looked across the sea to the line of bright sand which was the Long Island and the smaller low island which was Batavia’s Graveyard. Yes, I’m sure Wiebbe would have posted lookouts here when he learned of Cornelisz’s reign of terror.
We flew over Batavia’s Graveyard on the way back and also saw Traitor’s Island, where the survivors were first landed from the shipwrecked Batavia. It was from here that the ship’s longboat, loaded with all the senior officers, set sail for the city of Batavia (now known as Jakarta), leaving the rest of the survivors to fend for themselves. The fishing shacks on the islands are now empty and the plan is to remove them so that this island where so many horrendous events took place, can be properly excavated and its ghosts left in respectful peace.
After nearly 400 years, the hole the Batavia gouged in the reef is still visible. The Dutch ships Batavia and Zeewijk are just two of a large number of ships wrecked on these treacherous islands. On a normal day, when the white caps would cover the ocean, it’s easy to imagine mariners in peril of running onto these reefs. At night – well, it’s hardly surprising.
And me? What did this trip do for me? It was sobering. It was so easy to imagine people from another world landing here, maybe grateful to be alive but faced with the enormous problem of survival in a harsh, uncaring land. Complicate that with a psychopath and you have a horror story that no novelist could have dreamed up in a nightmare. Yet it’s also a story of great courage, ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit. Seeing what those people faced all those years ago simply highlights those qualities.
If you’d like to know more about the wreck of the Batavia, check out my history pages.
Picking motels from the internet has its pitfalls – especially as you pay when booking. We chose to be careful and booked a motel room in Karratha online from Port Hedland. We’re staying two nights so we can do a day trip to Millstream in the Chichester Range. Nice place. I’ve been there before.
We found the address – but not the motel. Rather than go and ask at the rather inauspicious hotel where the motel should have been, His Highness assumed a mistake had been made in recording the details. To cut a long story short, I ended up asking at the aforementioned hotel, at the front bar. I had my doubts pretty much immediately, walking over sticky carpet to a bar where a handful of chaps in dayglo safety jackets perched on barstools. The barmaid didn’t know, neither did the bloke she was chatting up – but the other fellow sitting beside him did. Next door, it seemed.
We eventually found a tiny sign for the motel – but we were sent back to the bottle shop in the pub to book in. When Pete mentioned a sign in the road for the motel might have been nice, the manager fellow said the council had complained because the sign was 10mm too long. So we booked in. This place is clean, but very, very tired. The faux floor boards are peeling, the bedspread needs replacing and a few glasses to go with the chipped, not matching mugs would have been nice. Need I add that the internet wasn’t working? We found out why the faux floor boards were lifting when we had a shower. The water oozed through and soaked into the backing, so you squelched your way across the floor.
We’ve stayed in some pretty ordinary motels in the past and this isn’t the worst, but it sure is up there, especially for the cost. Still, we can live with it for two nights.
Having said all of that, there’s always a bright side. We ended up chatting with a fellow inmate, and sharing a table for dinner at the pub’s restaurant. It was unanimously agreed the food and the company were both excellent. And I sold a book. We promised to catch up with Mick in Perth, where I would sign To Die a Dry Death for him.
Millstream turned out to be HUGE disappointment. It’s changed in 30 years or so. Hell, I probably have too. A little bit. But the Chichester Range and Python’s Pool made up for a lot.
Back at the motel, the room hadn’t been serviced. But dinner was every bit as good on the second night as it was the first.
We said goodbye to Karratha with no regrets. It’s a town of transients who come here to work. Looking at what they work at was certainly interesting. The massive ore trains, the mountains of coal and salt and the LNG plant offered lots of work, but the demand has waned a little. I get the real impression that people can’t wait to get out of here. We can’t say we disagree.
Moving on down from Broome. It’s about 620km down to Port Hedland – a pretty comfortable drive. Just as well, because there’s not much to see. We’re back to flat scrub as far as the eye can see. Round about the half way mark, we reach Sandfire Flats roadhouse. Gee, that brought back memories. I was there in 1975, just before Gough Whitlam was sacked (Australian politics, folks, please ignore if you don’t get the reference).
Back then, the road to Broome was unsealed. It was a wide, red-dirt track riddled with pot holes and the trip from Port Hedland was wearisome in the extreme, especially in a bog-basic land cruiser with roll-down windows air con in the breathlessly hot November days leading up to the Wet. Covered in red dust, we rolled into the road house about 6pm, intending to eat a hot meal and then go off to the Eighty Mile Beach to camp for the night. My companion, who I’ll call Steve (not his real name) and I staggered into the dining room, having dodged the (mainly black) locals in the rudimentary bar, where the air was blue with profanities, body odour and beer fumes.
We sat down and waited for a while, searching the walls for some sort of a menu. A girl aged maybe late teens appeared at the table and giggled at us.
“Um. Can we see the menu?” Steve asked.
She giggled. “There’s mutton. With vegetables.”
Steve and I exchanged a glance. This ‘waitress’ was either pissed, or flying high on dope. “Is there anything else?” I asked.
She giggled, shaking her head. “Nope.”
Well, what do you do? We ordered mutton and vegetables for two. After a short wait, two plates arrived, stacked high with greasy meat floating in congealing fat, soggy potatoes and overcooked frozen peas and carrots. Steve ate his and some of mine. But he couldn’t stomach the toilet. He came back to the table rolling his eyes. “It’s disgusting,” he said. “I’d rather risk a bush.”
Camping on the Eighty Mile Beach was very much better. I remember lying on my back counting satellites passing overhead in a magnificent Southern starscape. The stars fairly blazed in a mild night. The following morning we went out to the edge of the advancing tide. It lapped at our heels as we walked back to the beach.
Back to 2013, the toilet is clean, the sandwiches are a reasonable cost but (needless to say) the landscape is much the same. But now we’re heading South, you can see the blush of spring. That picture at the top has splashes of purple and yellow punctuating the grey-green foliage. There’s been some rain here, too. The river beds contain large pools, which isn’t the norm up here at this time of year.
If anybody’s interested what we do to amuse ourselves on these long hauls, we listen to news radio – when we can get a clear signal. Very often we can’t – another minus for the new car. An aerial in the back window is fine in the city – not so hot in the outback. We can listen to a CD, or plug in the iphone. But the iphone reception isn’t good. Many tracks jump. “I spy” isn’t a good option in these parts. But we do buy newspapers each day, and do the crosswords. I write and call out the clues while Pete drives. Keeps the mind busy.
So here we are at Port Hedland, which basically ships ore from the Pilbara iron mines to Japan, China and India. It’s red, industrial and not very picture-skew. So tonight is a shower and a bed. Tomorrow, I might have something a bit more interesting to show you. Stay tuned, Mouseketeers.
A horizontal waterfall. The very concept is strange. How can water fall horizontally? It can and it does, provided you have the intersection of a number of factors. That combination occurs in the Kimberley in remote north west Australia. It’s rugged country, characterised by eroded, ancient mountains and thousands of tiny islands where those same eroded mountains were drowned when the ocean rose. Here, ten metres of water, the second highest tides in the world (after Nova Scotia) surge backwards and forwards twice a day. In some places, the water rushes through narrow canyons to flood a valley at high tide, and rush back through the gap at low tide. The phenomenon happens in several places – but none so spectacularly as at Horizontal Falls. Think of water going through a funnel and you’ve got a good analogy.
We started our day early. Pick up was at 0530 to catch a seaplane to Talbot Bay. The alarm went off at 3am, courtesy of a person who shall remain nameless, who set the alarm on a phone still on Australian Central time, which was an hour and a half earlier than Western time. What? Nobody’s perfect. And I’m sure I’ll never hear the end of it.
The sun was rising as the plane took off for the flight over the rugged Kimberley hills, the light glancing off mist-filled valleys lying between bare cliffs. Then we were descending into Talbot Bay. The pilot banked, performing a low level turn over the falls. Those gaps looked narrow from up there. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling a prickle of adrenalin.
Trips through the falls are dependent on the tide and we headed out immediately. The first gap is twenty meters wide. The powerful jet boat raced forward, going up the flow, bouncing and pitching across the churning water. The skipper held the vessel at the point where the water looked smooth before it tumbled into chaos. Going back through was even more exciting as the boat literally fell off each wave top. We did the trip back up again and took a look at the second gap. To be honest, I was scared he’d take the boat through that. The canyon is only seven metres wide and some of those sticky-outy bits looked as though they were just waiting to eviscerate a boat that tried the trip. But our intrepid skipper didn’t relish the thought of all the paperwork if anything went wrong, so we headed back for breakfast, given a promise we’d go through when the tide had dropped.
We went back during that hour when the tide has lost its power and the water in bays were at equilibrium before the great rush started again. The contrast is stunning. The boat ran easily between the cliffs, revealing bays ringed by red-gold hills, mud flats and grey-green scrub, all reflected in mirror-flat water under an impossibly blue sky. The only sound was the creaking of the boat and our voices.
Salt water crocodiles. Australia’s greatest predator. Ancient, wily, aggressive and absolutely deadly. I didn’t get a chance to see one in the wild. Here’s a bit more technical info about the crocs. Mind you, there are tours that can guarantee a sighting because they feed the giant reptiles, but that wasn’t anywhere we were going. So when we reached Broome we visited Malcolm Douglas’s wild life park.
Malcolm died in a car accident a few years ago, but here in Australia he’s as much of an icon as Steve Irwin – and he never said ‘crikey’, but he did say g’day. Malcolm used to be a crocodile hunter up here in the north. In 1973, when crocs were protected, after most of the big ones had been killed, Malcolm became a conservationist. He started a croc park/croc farm near Broome and learned how to trap the big males in the wild. He was often called to catch and remove dangerous crocs from the northern waterways. They were transferred to his breeding farm to live out their lives siring handbags and harassing tourists.
When we arrived at the park, having entered through a stone crocodile’s jaws, we reached an enormous, weed covered lake. Several suspicious logs drifted about. However, the weed-covered crocs basking in the sun gave the game away. The lake contains seventy crocs, mainly male. The reptiles are usually highly territorial but these guys get along fairly well because they were all brought up together – so they’re not the rogue males I mentioned earlier. I’ll get to them.
Our host Chris started proceedings by handing around a few very young crocs (jaws taped despite their tiny size – which says something in itself). After photo opportunities, he threw chickens and fish carcasses to the big crocs. They weren’t very interested. Chris explained that despite the mid-thirties (centigrade) temperatures, this was cold for the crocs, who prefer the forty+ of the summer. They’d rather lounge in the sun warming their bones. But… you could almost imagine the conversation…
“He’s here again. Brought those whatsits. And he’s throwing nibbles around.”
Charley half opens an eyelid. “I’m not hungry. Go back to sleep.” He smacks his jaws and tries to settle.
“No. Go on. I did it yesterday. It’s your turn.” Nudge. “Get on with it.”
Grumbling, Charley lifts his head and tries to look interested. A few moments later… “Okay. I swallowed a nibble, leave me alone.”
However… never smile at a crocodile. One croc was much more animated. He fixed a beady eye on Chris and advanced with intent. Trust me, it was obvious. That reptilian golden eye glittered and the move was focused. Unfortunately (for the croc) he stood on a few heads and bodies, and woke up some large neighbours who objected and told him so. He was forced to retreat into the lake, literally walking over everybody to do so.
Yes, they’re a bit dopey and cold and not very interested. But that doesn’t mean they’re nice.
As mentioned, the males are very territorial, so each has his own pond with a female in attendance. Sometimes the crocs were basking on the bank. Sometimes there was no sign of them. In one such case, Chris threw a round, black, supposedly indestructible float onto the water. The resident crocodile exploded out of the water, jaws agape and all the spectators took a step backwards. Crocs are stealthy hunters, endlessly patient and much smarter than they look. It’s said in the Territory that if you go fishing at the same spot three days in a row, that third time a croc will be waiting for you. And if you don’t get them with a tranquiliser dart on the first try, you’ll never get close enough to try again. Did I mention they can climb, and jump, and run fast over a short distance?
Apart from a high-powered rifle bullet, they have few weaknesses. They can actually withdraw their eyes into their heads to prevent damage, so don’t bother trying to gouge their eyes if they latch onto you. Those teeth are not sharp but the jaws are powerful. When a croc catches hold it tries to drown its prey, performing a ‘death roll’ to force the victim underwater. The only weak point they have is at the back of the throat, where a flap closes so they don’t get a lungful of water. Oh, and that death roll? One of the big rogue males was missing a front foot. It seems he got too close to the missus’s mound where her eggs were deposited. She attacked the massive male, (much larger than her), grabbed his front foot and performed a death roll, tearing the foot off. Interestingly, despite the dirty water they prefer, the injury didn’t set the croc back at all. We may have something to learn from them about infection.
Chris demonstrated the totally different temperament of the freshwater croc by actually walking into the pen with them. Normally, he said, they would have disappeared into their pond when he approached, but only one did that. None showed any sign of aggression.
The park also had a few American alligators. Like the crocs, they were dozy, but not as dozy as the salties. It seems alligators can stand much cooler temperatures than crocs. Chris explained that while a few parks had gators, they were not bred from and all the park’s animals were males. The last thing anybody wants is for gators to become yet another feral species in Australia. While our crocs are confined to the tropics, the alligators would be capable of spreading down into the southern waterways of the continent.
So what’s the smart thing to do around crocs? Keep away. Take care. Talk to the locals who live with them. And never, never smile at them. They’re imagining how well you’d fit inside their skins.