Published: November 1st 2009October 29th 2009
the signature tourist image of Broome - the sunset camel ride
We did this clever thing, not completely by accident, as we knew that northern hot-spots like Katherine, Kununurra and Broome turn hellish in the dry season - camping grounds chocker, shops overwhelmed, people turned away etc, as half of NSW, WA and most of Victoria flee their home states at the first signs of winter.
The plan was to stay in Darwin till late in the season to avoid this Grey Nomad feeding frenzy, leaving just before the ‘build up’ and start of the wet season.
So far it’s paid off - we’ve had waterfront camp sites, empty roads, free boat trips and special tour deals. Talking to fellow travellers it appears we got out of the Northern Territory about a week ahead of the oppressive humidity, cloud build up and storms.
Our first stop on the way west was Katherine - a crossroads town with probably the most famous gorge in a country that is almost as obsessed with gorges as it is with rocks.
After being underwhelmed by Kakadu (except for the art sites) I was prepared to be similarly jaundiced about the 13 gorges of the Katherine River.
The best way to see it is by tour boat
Unless you take a helicopter ride or are prepared to tramp for days through rugged country, the average tourist can only get to see three of the gorges, via flat bottomed boat.
So we dutifully booked the 3 gorge trip, hoping families with restless, squealing children would opt for the 2 gorge option. There were in fact kids on our small boat, but they weren’t a problem.
It was the “Party of 16” big people (some of them VERY big) - a group of Aussies out for a good time in all its politically incorrect glory - that threatened to spoil the serenity of the majestic scenery.
And Katherine gorge is undeniably majestic. Sheer rock walls tower 60 meters above the river, with mini rainforests clustering in the crevasses.
At the end of each gorge you change boats, walking over rocks which make it impassable for the boats in the dry. One of the major attractions of Katherine is that the river does have water in it all year round - unlike most central waterways.
Canoe hire is also a popular way to travel through the gorges, but since another main
attraction pointed out by our guide were crocodile tracks in the sandy banks (it was nesting season), this didn’t seem an attractive option to us.
In the wet season you can take a jet boat trip, that’s unless the river is in flood, in which case it can rise over 20 meters and flood the town. In the 1998 flood they had a saltwater croc floating around Woolworths... and he wasn’t looking for the frozen foods.
So yes, the Katherine gorge boat trip gets a big tick, although busy no matter what season you visit.
But from here we turn west off the Stuart Highway and by the time we reached the Geikie Gorge it was a different story. This is a very accessible gorge, about 20km from Fitzroy Crossing, but as Fitzroy Crossing is in the middle of nowhere between Kununurra and Broome, most nomads had travelled past on their way home.
Geikie is both beautiful and interesting, carved by the Fitzroy River through an ancient coral reef. How ancient? So ancient it’s a Devonian Reef system, bigger than the Great Barrier Reef in its day, but now exposed and eroded
the enticing beaches
have signs which read, "Crocodile breeding site DO NOT ENTER"!
like so many Australian rock formations.
We hunted with a singular lack of success for reef fossils and walked along the sandy gorge floor in 40 degree heat.
Rhys was keen to get back and sample the inviting caravan park pool - which was not infested with crocodiles - but I wanted a closer look at the river, so wandered down to the edge and saw the National Park rangers we had talked with earlier, scouring the banks for rubbish.
We exchanged opinions on how unbelievable it was that people could come to such a pristine environment and chuck their rubbish in it, then they asked if I’d like a lift back in the boat.
I was torn for a nanosecond - I’d told Rhys I’d meet him back on the track, but we’d not taken the guided boat tour as we’d forked out in Katherine, so how could I refuse the chance of a private guided tour?
The rangers zoomed downstream for a stunning close up view of the Devonian Reef walls, then back to the beach - where Rhys was waiting, and I could tell from a distance he was
Gorge No 1
the walk to the second gorge
But Mr Grumpy had to take a back seat when the rangers told him to jump in and we did the whole tour up and downstream while they pointed out the crocodiles, wallabies, jabiru and other birds and answered our questions. There was no one else in the entire gorge and we felt very special.
Now I’m aware that if I write about all the gorges we’ve seen, this will turn into a very boring blog, but in between these two gorges, there were some VERY SPECIAL gorges - so special we had to take another budget-blowing tour to get to them.
The Bungle Bungles - what is now known as Purnululu National Park - were only ‘discovered’ by white fella in 1983 (they had of course been a favourite upmarket resort for aboriginals for 40,000 years.)
We wanted to take a 4WD drive tour in, as the 80km very rough road needs a high clearance vehicle and takes 3 hours, but that option had finished for the season and the only tours involved flying in a small plane. Cool! said me, but Rhys was not so enthusiastic.
which featured in the film Jedda
However, we doped him up with travel pills and were picked up at 5.30am from Kununurra’s cute little airport.
The one hour flight took us over lush irrigated farmland and sandalwood plantations, the Ord River and Lake Argyle, formed in the 1960’s by damning for the Ord River irrigation scheme.
The lake is bigger than Lake Taupo and pretty impressive from the air. Australians get quite excited by it, as they’re not used to seeing large bodies of fresh water and there is a booming tourist industry in Kununurra for river and lake tours.
On the way back we flew over the Argyle Diamond mine, the world’s largest and producer of the famous pink Argyle diamonds.
In Kununurra I’d ventured inside a couple of the glamorous diamond showrooms to see how much they cost. The cheapest single diamond, not made up into any jewellery - just a little pink shiny dot in a box of black velvet - was $15,000. There was a bigger one, but it was $125,000.
I took photos of the diamond mine to send to son’s girlfriend - that’s probably the closest we’re going to get to
Our tour boat
at the end of the third gorge
giving her one.
There’s a fascinating story about how they found this huge pipe of diamonds in the ancient Kimberly landscape - if you’re interested go to - http://www.costellos.com.au/diamonds/industry.html
But the highlight of our time in the Kimberly was the fascinating rock massif that is known as the Bungle Bungles. I love their cute beehive shapes and could have spent all day walking round, through and over them.
As tour groups go this was excellent; only 13 on the 4WD bus which took us to various well known geological highlights - Piccaninny Gorge, Cathedral Gorge and the awesome Echidna Chasm - and gave plenty of time to walk the tracks and enjoy the architectural splendour of what water and sand-laden winds have created from aeons of layered sandstone.
The stripes of the ‘beehive’ formations are caused by algae growing on the more moisture retaining layers (black stripes) and oxidation of iron in other layers giving the orange colour.
More about the Bungles at http://www.kimberleyaustralia.com/bungle-bungles.html
A quick word about Kununurra. It helped having a campsite by Lake Kununurra (also created by the irrigation scheme) where we could watch spectacular sunsets with
another of those lovely beaches - we could see the crocodile tracks in the sand
our evening drinks and talk to freshwater crocodiles each morning as they basked on the side of the lake, but we enjoyed our week there very much.
For a town that was only formed in the late ‘60’s for the irrigation scheme, it has tried its best and is green, welcoming and interesting, with fabulous art galleries. Oops - blown the budget again.
We were looking forward to Broome, mainly because nearly everyone we had spoken to here has raved about it.
It’s one of the main migration stations for holiday makers and Grey Nomads, the only negative comment we’ve heard is that at the height of the season you can’t get into caravan parks - there are ‘overflow’ areas like sports grounds where people camp then arrive at the camping grounds at 5am and wait for people to leave. Also, with a town of 14,000 swelling to 45,000 at the height of the season, it’s understandable that other services get a little stretched.
Broome has only boomed as a tourist destination over the last decade, starting out in the mid 19th C as a base for the mother of pearl and later pearling
The Gregory Tree
Boab tree engraved by explorer Augustus Gregory in July 1856, Gregory National Park, NT
industries and having fluctuating fortunes since then. The tourist brochures prattle on about the harmonious intermingling of diverse ethnicities, but if you read any historical background it tells another story.
This was yet another tourist destination where we had unnerving cultural experiences such as browsing in a high class pearl jewellery shop attached to the large visitor centre, while a group of drunk aboriginals sit in the park right outside, getting drunker and throwing bottles at one another, or on the beautiful Cable Beach, where everyone likes to drive their 4WDs down the sand at low tide and witnessing a screaming domestic as a car load of locals hurl full beer cans at their own car, (breaking the windscreen) and each other, while the well dressed guests of the Cable Beach Club pretend to ignore them and watch the camel safaris backlit by the setting sun.
Broome is known for its sunsets over the west-facing white sand Cable Beach, turquoise sea and red pindan soils. It’s where the desert meets the sea and these startling colours seem to be a major feature of the Broomemania that hits around May each year.
There is the
with the quarantine post in the background - WA takes this very seriously (it will take all your fruit and vegies as well)
romance of the pearl diving history - 80% of the world’s pearls are still farmed around Broome and this forms a significant part of the current tourist industry. There are a dozen jewellers and galleries selling very expensive cultured pearls in unnecessarily ornate gold and diamond settings.
There is fishing, a bird observatory to view the apparently thousands of migratory birds which gather in Roebuck Bay (there must have been a bird convention somewhere else on the day we went), a rather depressing looking crocodile park, the tourist-must-do camel ride on the beach, shopping for pearls...and...well, that’s Broome.
Apart from sitting with a wine watching the sunset on the main beach walkway, knowing we would be lucky to get a spot during the height of the season, our highlight was taking in a movie at Sun Pictures, the longest running ‘picture garden’ in the world according to its own publicity.
You sit in old fashioned deck chairs underneath a large veranda, but open to the night sky between audience and big screen. Enhancing the drama on screen are low flying jet aircraft coming into land at the airport in the centre of town,
over Lake Kununurra
and bats flying past. Since it was Tarantino’s latest we went to see, these didn’t seem out of place at all.
While Grey Nomads settle in for three months, a week in Broome was plenty for us, so we endured a 375 km drive on what must be the most boring road the country - dead flat and bordering the Great Sandy Desert - to a caravan park we’d heard of called 80 Mile Beach.
On the map it looks like the Great Northern Highway hugs the coastline of Indian Ocean, in fact you never get to see the sea between Broome and Port Hedland unless you call into 80 Mile Beach, down 10km of badly corrugated dirt road - but it’s worth it.
The white sand, turquoise sea beach looks like it goes on forever let alone 80 miles, has wonderful tropical shells and is a turtle rookery. I saw plenty of turtle tracks up into the sand dunes, but as they come up to lay their eggs at night and high tide was 1.30am, I only spent an hour stumbling around the beach with a rapidly fading torch before giving up without
celebrating one year on the road at the Pumphouse restaurant, next to our campground
There is nothing else in this area except barren cattle stations, unless you count the Sandfire Roadhouse, which was so outstanding in its ghastliness that we have agreed to use it as a threat to any grandchildren we may acquire; “Stop that screaming or we’ll send you to the Sandfire Roadhouse.”
Everything we’d read about Port Hedland convinced us we did not need to spend a night in a mining town claim to tourist fame is the port which supplies 34% of the world’s sea borne iron ore trade.
So we zoomed past on our way to Point Samson, which is a tiny beach oasis in the middle of the Pilbara mining area.
A day trip through Karratha and Dampier, towns created for the mining industry and servicing huge ports that export ore, process natural gas and all manner of yucky mining things, convinced us this only needed to be a stop-over.
Here was another of the strange juxtapositions of old and new that Australia is so good at. On the Burrup Peninsula north of Dampier is Deep Gorge, which is not very deep, but full of jumbled rocks, many
dawn over Lake Kununurra
Just the darter and me...
bearing aboriginal petroglyphs - images gouged into the rock faces. The estimate is 10,000 individual carvings so it’s been a popular camp over the last 20,000 years.
But as you leave the gorge you can hear the hum of industry, drive over the brow of the hill and there is a huge gas processing and exporting plant dominating the landscape and obscuring what would be a vista over an azure bay. The Pilbara has a harsh beauty, but the Aussies have made it harsher still.
So after an even longer haul of 550km on straight roads through red dusty scrub (although this time an occasional ancient flat topped stump of mountain range could be seen in the distance), we’ve crossed the top of the continent and reached Exmouth on the Coral Coast. From here it’s due south on our way down to Perth.
There are more photos below