Category Archives: Photography

Crossing the Nullarbor – beware of tourist traps

Nullarbor signAfter 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.

The Indian Pacific rolls through a crossing

The Indian Pacific rolls through a crossing

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.

Camels wombats roos

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.

An ancient limestone reefNot 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. Border village 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.

GA bight

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.

Last sunlight on the hills as we approach Port Augusta

Last sunlight on the hills as we approach Port Augusta

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It’s whale time in Hervey Bay

A whale calf practices breaching

A whale calf practices breaching

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.

A whale does some people spotting, waving as it goes by the boat

A whale does some people spotting, waving as it goes by the boat

A whale exhales close to the boat

A whale exhales close to the boat

A whale lies on her back at the surface while her calf moves over body

A whale lies on her back at the surface while her calf moves over body

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.

An adult humpback shows how it's done

An adult humpback shows how it’s done

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.

Chasing rainbows

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance is down on the southern West Australian coastline, an absolute jewel for those willing to take the time to visit. Showers accompany us along the road from Albany and rainbows appear – on both sides of the road. By this time the Pajero’s windscreen resembles the surface of Mars, with a sprinkling of craters and two cracks that inch a little further every day. It has also acquired a patina of insect bodies but even so, this rainbow is a jewel.Rainbow 1

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

We’re staying with friends I haven’t seen for twenty years, but we reconnected via Face Book and I’m looking forward to the visit. Needless to say, our sat nav isn’t much help to navigate to a farm but we follow the instructions given on the phone and find the farm entrance just on sunset. Yes, this is the right track. Well graded gravel, even the zig-zags between the wide puddles. It has been wet wet wet here. A couple of kilometres from the gate we find the third house and I get out to check we’re at the right place. We are.

The canola crop is ruined.

The canola crop is ruined.

We stay for three nights. Joe and Charlotte and their eldest son farm 23,000 acres where they plant canola and raise cattle and sheep. Their machinery shed is mind-boggling. They have headers and bull dozers and road trains and ploughs and I forget what else. The big machines cost close to a million dollars each, mostly high-tech with computer controlled functionality and air-conditioned cabs (the headers, anyway). Pete is fascinated by the sheer scale of the operation. It costs $3 million to plant a crop, and they might make $5 million. If they get to harvest. This season will be poor. Australia runs in cycles of flood and drought, and this year has been the wettest for decades. The canola stands in shallow lakes, the yellow flowers reflecting prettily in the water.

There’s always work on a farm and Pete goes to help the boys bring in sheep while Charlotte and I go off to do the tourist thing at an area called Duke of Orleans. The scenery here is breath-taking. The granite outcrops are just as spectacular as they are in Albany, but the rock seems more colourful. The sea is turquoise blue, and the beaches are brilliant white, full of silicon. The sand literally squeaks under your feet as you walk. The islands of the Recherche Archipelago dot the ocean, steep granite mounds, such a contrast to the pancake-flat platforms of the Abrolhos Islands. It’s late in the day, and the showers have stopped, although clouds still drift across the sky in groups and the wind is fresh, whisking up the white caps. I manage a few reasonable pictures and then we head for home, talking all the while.

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Next day, Joe takes us out to a granite outcrop at the top of a hill to see if we can find some orchids. It’s quite an adventure. The paddock we cross is waterlogged and despite High rock Esperance1the four wheel drive, Charlotte is not the only one who wonders if we’ll be pushing the car. Oh we of little faith. We’re a little bit early for the orchids but a few have shown their faces. These outcrops are baking hot in summer. Only the toughest plants, like the dryandra, can survive. The delicate orchids wait their turn with the mosses and lichens, responding to the first rains. Charlotte tells me her oldest son was married here, overlooking the land. What a place for a wedding.

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

While Joe and his son move another mob of sheep, Pete fixes Charlotte’s ride-on mower and Charlotte and I drive out to Cape Le Grande. You’ve probably noticed the French place names. The French poked around the Australian coast many times, in lots of places but they seem to have left their mark especially around that southern coast. Bruni d’Entrecasteaux visited this area in 1792, and named both Esperance and Recherche after ships in his expedition. The weather is stunning, with blue skies and light breezes, an absolute invitation to climb on the rocks and walk on the beaches. We admire the scenery and the wild flowers, and encounter a kangaroo fossicking around on the beach. She seems untroubled by our presence, apparently grazing on something. We have no idea what.Esperance beachA roo on beach

Looking over the sea at the islands I’m reminded of a story I read somewhere, that a black American pirate operated out of here. My recollection is correct. Here’s the story of Black Jack Anderson Australia’s only known pirate. And here’s a link to a book about him.

From here we’ll be heading for home, east across the Nullarbor. Join us, won’t you?

Heading for the hills

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.

Canola in the foreground and behind grazing sheep

Canola in the foreground and behind grazing sheep

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.

Albany from Google Earth

Albany from Google Earth

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.

Granite rocks line the edges of Albany Harbour

Granite rocks line the edges of Albany Harbour

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.

The sun, shining through breaks in the clouds, silvers the water

The sun, shining through breaks in the clouds, silvers the water

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.

The world has continued to turn

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.

The coastal plain north of Perth

The coastal plain north of Perth

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.

Fishing boats and a rocky islet

Fishing boats and a rocky islet

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.

Fishing boats against angry lightMy 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.

A model of the ship stands beside timbers from the real vessel's hull recovered from her resting place.

A model of the ship stands beside timbers from the real vessel’s hull recovered from her resting place.

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.

The remains of one of the murder victims on the Abrolhos

The remains of one of the murder victims on the Abrolhos

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.

The Duyfken (little dove), the first Dutch ship to visit Australia (1606)

The Duyfken (little dove), the first Dutch ship to visit Australia (1606)

And those threatening skies? They provide me with a perfect photo opportunity.

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Some motels are crummier than others

A panoramaPicking 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.

Horizontal Falls -an exhilirating freak of nature

A Falls2A 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.

A both gaps

A narrow fallsA tide flowTrips 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.

A reflections2

A reflections3A reflectionsWe 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.

We did other things on a very full day, but the falls were the highlight – as well as the flight over the Buccaneer Archipelago and its myriad of tiny islands. What a buzz. An unforgettable memory.A Buccaneer

Never smile at a crocodile

Salt water crocodiles. AuA croc headstralia’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.

A crocs

Up to 70 crocs, mostly male, share this large lake.

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…

“Charley? Charley!!!”
“What?”
“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. A leaving

Everybody settled down and dozed off, as old folks often do. Then we went to meet the rogue’s gallery. Here’s a few CVs.Croc signs

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?

A salty 5

This croc is up on a metre-high fence, lunging at our guide. He has shoved a stick down the beast’s throat to deter it.

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.

A gators

Gators waiting for fish carcasses

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.

Along the mighty Fitzroy

a stone crocNext stop on the Big Trip was Fitzroy Crossing, a comfortable 650km or so down the road – including a side trip to the old port of Wyndham which used to service the cattle trade and has now expanded into other areas. I was hoping to see a salty (salt water croc) but I was disappointed.

As usual, the road barrels along between low, eroded hills and passes over dry river beds. The bridges are narrow, with room for only one car so drivers have to exercise common sense if another car is coming the other way.

Everywhere you’ll see termite mounds, their colours reflecting the ground, sometimes deepA fire red, sometimes limestone pale. In between is the usual sclerophyll scrub, some taller eucalypts and the signature boab trees. The largest of those can be over one thousand years old. This one is framed by a grass fire, probably started by some vandal and quite uncontrollable.

The mighty Fitzroy River is among the largest in Australia – when it’s running, of course. We’re talking about Sydney Harbours of water pouring into the sea in the Wet. In the Dry, a series of deep pools keep the local wildlife alive.

In this land of extremes, it’s hard to get across to people from more equitable climates how dramatic those changes can be. These pictures of the Fitzroy at Fitzroy Crossing might give you an idea.

A concrete crossingNot too many years ago, all rivers were crossed using fords which later were at least cast in concrete. This one lane ford over the Fitzroy plunges steeply down from the river bank to the bed, then up the other side. At the height of the wet season, the road is impassable.

So they built a bridge. Now, towardA Fitzroy rivers the end of the Dry, the pools still trickle from one to the other. I’m standing on the river bank taking the picture.

Far below me, a Jabiru flies over the pools looking for breakfast. At the height of the 2011 floods, the water would A flying cranehave been over my head – and over that bridge. Bear in mind we’re a long way from the river’s mouth into King Sound. Further down its length we crossed three major channels funnelling the Fitzroy’s water to the ocean. I’ve included a picture of the 2011 floods from the visitor centre at Geikie Gorge to give you some idea of what I’m talking about.

A floodOf course, the Fitzroy has its share of spectacular gorges formed at rocky ground where deep water can last. A GeikieTwenty kilometres from the town of Fitzroy Crossing is such a place – Geikie Gorge. This is a very special place. The rocks are so different from most in this red, sunburnt land. Yes, it’s limestone but it’s steep and sharp. This little article about the gorge is eye-opening and accurate about the park’s current condition. And they’re expecting cane toads to arrive with the next flood. Those introduced toads will decimate the unique wildlife. The gorge contains sawfish and stingrays which have evolved to survive in this very different environment. Read more about the place here.

I’d like to see more done about preserving these incredible places. When we were there work had commenced on cleaning up the area around the visitor centre but much more needs to be done to clear away the introduced weeds choking the trees and covering the rocks. Because the land must cope with extremes in its own way, it is very fragile, unsuited to coping with the introduced species.

We didn’t have time to take the two-hour boat trip to look at the gorge from the water. A pity. But it won’t be the only thing I’ll miss on this trip.

Ord River buzz

A lake ArgyleThe highlight of our visit to Kununurra was a trip on the Ord River. After all, without the Ord River, Kununurra wouldn’t exist. The town was created in the sixties, when one of the visionary Duracks, who originally opened up the area, persuaded the Government to dam the river. If you’ve been following my journey, you’d know that year-round water is a huge problem up here. There’s the Wet and the Dry, and the Wet is very, very wet and the Dry is very, very dry. In between there’s fire, which clears the land ready for the next wet. But traditional crops like wheat, cotton and sugar cane don’t grow like that. So a dam was built and Lake Argyle was created. You can read all about it here.

It’s hard to give an idea of size when talking about lakes and things. I’ve often heard descriptions involving Olympic sized swimming pools and football fields. But sometimes even they become insignificant. In Australia we have our own term of measurement – Sydney Harbours. Sydney Harbour holds a big lot of Olympic swimming pools (don’t ask me how many) so we have an idea that’s an enormous amount of water. Lake Argyle holds about 15 Sydney Harbours in normal times. At the height of the 2011 floods it held 44 Sydney Harbours and the flow over the diversion dam that feeds the irrigation area is also measured in Sydney Harbours.

Yes, there’s irrigation, but the other use for all that water is hydro electricity, which requires steady water flow over the turbines. So the line of isolated waterholes that used to mark the course of the Ord River in the Dry is now a fast flowing, all year river.

That’s it for context, folks. Let the journey begin. We caught a bus up to the main dam, stopping for a scenic glimpse of the lake. From there, we piled onto a jet boat – very fast, with very shallow draft to get over the shallow, rocky bits, but able to drift very comfortably in the deep bits. And off we went. The very knowledgeable driver stopped often to let us take pictures of wildlife and reflections.

A rock wallaby3

A rock wallaby watches us from high on a vertical rock wall. They are very agile little critters.

A reflections6

Red rock, blue sky, water. Gorgeous.

A reflections5

We stopped for afternoon tea. This was taken from the river bank in late afternoon light.

A reflections1

Paperbarks line the bank.

A pelicans

A pair of pelicans enjoy the sunlight

A croc

A Johnson river crocodile basks on a reed bed

Guys, this was the bestest trip. Loved the boat, loved the river, loved the red rock almost glowing in the sunlight, loved the reflections, the bird life, the crocs, the botany lessons. If you get a chance, go do it. And at the end, back at Kununurra, we watched the sunset from the boat.

A sunset1