The Desert and the Sea - Carnarvon to Karijini

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August 31st 2011
Published: August 31st 2011
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Hello again!
Inland from Exmouth in the Hamersley Range in the heart of the Pilbara is the beautiful 60 thousand hectare Karijini National Park. And if you were to wander through Dales campground right about now now, you would find me sitting in the shade of a Windsor Rapid caravan under a cloudless blue sky. You'd see that the sun is shining and that the thermometer is reading a glorious 32 degrees. You'd see that I am gazing upon spinafex grass and low trees with a deep red soil beneath my feet. You'd see butterflies dancing past and would hear nothing but the rustle of the breeze through the leaves and the tweet of little birds as they fly past. And would you see a contented, relaxed smile upon my face? Sure would!!
Everything now is covered in red dust including us, but it makes a bit of a wash in half a bucket of water in the cool evening breeze seem like the greatest of pleasures! My skin seems to be turning a shade of honey-brown and I'm not sure whether that's the effect of the sun or a layer of red dust which won't wash off!
We have had two days walking the rims and canyons of spectacular gorges. The red stone walls of the gorges are sheer vertical cliffs, some more than 100 metres high sculptured by millions of years of erosion. The gorges are full of waterfalls and rock-pools and at the end of a long, hot scramble over rocks down into a gorge we were thrilled to see an inviting rock-pool and swimming there was heaven! The water was fresh and chilled and it was divine to look up and see blue sky and gum trees overhead. It is a sacred place to the Aborigines and we are privileged that they are so gracious to share it with us. The signs asked us to enter the water quietly in respect, but many did the opposite - jumping and yelling - which was so disappointing. There has also been great effort put into grading the walks/climbs, so imagine our amazement to see so many people climbing/hiking in thongs! One young couple even had board-shorts without even a shirt (he) and shorts and a bikini-top (she) without even water-bottles! Some people!!
Karijini is managed by the local Aboriginal people whose ancestors have been here for more than 30, 000 years. There are competing demands however, between conservation, tourism and (as the park consists of millions of dollars of iron-ore), mining. We spent quite some time talking with a lovely 60-something year old Aboriginal ranger who told us something of his life. We heard that many of the local children are again learning their Aboriginal language and initiations and the Aboriginal Law is being taught, which is so heartening to know.
But once again, let me back-track to where I left you last…
Once we left Carnarvon we headed to the beautiful Coral Coast of Ningaloo Reef fame, an area which has recently been given World Heritage Listing. We stayed at Coral Bay where we dug out our snorkels and masks and willingly waded into the 23 degree water. The white sand and clear turquoise waters looked rather like the images of the perfect beach you see in tourist brochures. The only thing missing was the supermodel posing in the shallows! There was just us! Oh well, at least we weren't mistaken for whales and harpooned by a Japanese whaling boat… a possibility we had been quite concerned about!!
Having been fortunate enough to have snorkelled over brightly-coloured coral in the past, we were somewhat disappointed with the coral. The shapes and patterns were amazing but the colours were mainly browns and greens. We were given two explanations for this. The first being that due to global warming the ocean temperatures are rising and that coral will die (known as bleaching) at temperatures greater than about 28 degrees and that the Ningaloo reef has been getting ocean temperatures greater than that in recent summers. The second being that this was simply a different kind of coral which does not attract the algae which give coral the vibrant colours. I tend to think it is likely to be the first explanation as we were told later that most coral reefs have been affected by bleaching to some extent and that in 20 years or so the vibrant colours which can be seen on the Great Barrier Reef, for example, may no longer be seen. What a tragedy if this turns out to be so because snorkelling (and diving) over a coral reef is one the most amazing things I have ever done in my whole life. A whole new incredible breathtaking other world is there just below the surface, so do it, at least once before you die, if you possibly can!!!
Anyway, though the corals weren't vibrant in colour, the fish made up for it - hundreds of all colours, shapes and sizes. The bright blues and yellows were my favourite as well as the tiny cute black ones with white spots! How amazing it is to have a school of hundreds of big fish gracefully swim by, always just out of reach!
We headed off to Exmouth and on the way heard a loud "pop". We decided to pull over and heard a loud hissing noise while we watched one of the van tyres go down before our eyes. Just as well we pulled over immediately or we'd have soon been driving on the rim and no doubt, been swaying all over the road! So we went about taking it off and putting on the spare, but very soon we were joined by a grey nomad couple and, of course, the man insisted on doing the job! Unfortunately his wife stood behind exhorting him to "let the girls do it" while saying, "I don't want you to have another heart-attack"!! After a great deal of huffing and puffing but no further heart-attack we were on the road again! Consequently we arrived at Exmouth too late to have the tyre replaced. And the next morning we were off at 7.15am for a whole days boat-trip to swim with the whale sharks, followed by a quick exit to Cape Range National Park where our site awaited us (we had been very lucky to get one at all - we had booked on-line. The other option is to queue at the rangers' station from about 5am and hope to get a site at about 10am at check-out time ). So we headed off to Cape Range, keeping our fingers crossed we'd have no further trouble as we now had no van spare!! And what happened? As I was reversing into the site I heard a loud exclamation from Sue! The other van tyre had almost no tread left on it!! Another km or so and we'd have had another blow-out!! Fortunately we were safely on our site, so the next day with the spare on one side of the van and the other side jacked up, we drove 140km's return to town and had both replaced!! How uncanny, two tyres gone in two days! (While putting the two wheels back on, we were joined by no less than three men, one of whom insisted on doing the job! This time there was a little less huffing and puffing, and fortunately again, no heart-attack!!). And no further trouble, we hoped… But pulling into Karijini visitors centre after some corrugated dirt road we hopped out of the car to hear an all too familiar hiss. Yes, it was a car tyre going down before our eyes. So now we have to hope we get to Port Hedland with no spare, where we can get it fixed.
But back to our boat trip… it was AMAZING!!! To keep it brief (no scoffing!), with the help of a spotter plane, we snorkelled three times for about 10 minutes each time with a 4-metre female whale shark - the largest fish in the world (and I think she smiled at me!!). Little is known about these gentle giants (which can grow to 18 metres) but the most common sightings are of young males so our sighting was a rarity. As with the dolphin feeding at Monkey Mia, there are very strict controls and it was pointed out that under no circumstances is anyone to attempt to touch or ride a whale shark!! We were also only allowed to swim at her side (more than 3 metres away) and never to swim in front of her. Unfortunately, Sue's vision of her was obstructed by other snorkelers and Sue looked up to see herself face to face with the whale shark at a distance of about 4 metres and closing fast! She had her mouth wide open (the shark, not Sue!) and Sue had to make a very hasty right-hand turn to get out of her way! In fact, they are plankton-feeders and Sue was at little risk of doing a Jonah impression but I've never seen Sue move so fast in all my life!! What normally happens if the sharks are uncomfortable with human company is they simply dive down (they can dive to a depth of 1800 metres!) at which time the disappointed pesky humans get back on the boat - so hopefully we weren't of too much bother to her. Fortunately they are protected in Australian waters - but not so in other parts of the world where they are hunted. A second high-light was to see numerous enormous hump-back whales at close quarters, including a mum and calf who swam right up next to our boat with the cheeky baby flapping her tail continuously and rolling over and over. It was so special. So, at end-of-season more than half-price discount, with perfect weather, we had the best experience possible!
At Cape Range National Park we snorkelled over coral reef just 40 metres from the beach at the aptly named Turquoise Bay. The current running parallel to the beach was very strong, so we'd walk up and drift down. We saw a few reef sharks swim by, but with so many fish for them to feast on we were assured they would not be interested in anything as difficult to tackle as a human (too big!). Still, when I saw the first I attached myself to Sue's leg so that, to the shark, we might look like one really big scary human! Later I turned and saw that I was only 2 metres from another and was moving very fast on the current towards it! It was then my turn to do a hasty right-hand turn and Sue had never seen me move so fast in her whole life!! I also saw an enormous sting-ray which was about the size of a small car with a tail (and barb) about 5 foot long. I tried to keep my distance, but in a moment that current swept me right over her. Luckily the water was deep enough and unlike some people (Steve)I left her well alone. We also saw a giant sea-turtle which calmly swam by only a couple of feet away, with her little flippers gracefully moving on the current. Unbelievably we saw a family standing on the coral bombies so in a huge indignant huff I swam out and told them not to! Some people!!
Later in the Information Centre we saw a stuffed 240kg giant sea turtle thought to have been around 100 years old when he died. Sadly they eat jelly-fish and often mistake them for plastic bags which leads to their death. In fact, at the Information Centre we learnt that according to Clean Up Australia, over 1 million sea-birds and 100,000 whales and turtles world-wide are killed by plastic rubbish each year. In the stomach of one washed up whale, 6 cubic metres of tightly packed plastic was found. In another instance, a pelican was found dead with 17 plastic bags in its stomach. According to Clean Up Australia, there are approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in each square mile of our oceans. Seems unbelievable. So don't forget those cloth bags when you next go to the supermarket!!
One evening while having dinner in our van we heard a "lap, lap" sound and opened the door to find a small kangaroo drinking fresh hand-washing water from our bucket! Another evening Sue inadvertently left half a bucket of tomatoes outside (they had been given to us in Carnarvon) and we woke the next morning to find only 3 half-nibbled ones left!! I imagined a poor little kangaroo lying somewhere in the bush with a really bad tummy-ache, with his Mum saying, "I told you not to eat all those tomatoes"!!
Leaving the warm waters full of coral and tropical fish, it was surreal to see the scene just over the sand dune. It seemed so out of place to be standing wearing bathers and a snorkel and mask in a dry, arid semi-desert! As we left Cape Range we realised we had seen Euros (small kangaroos), emus, brumbies, dragon lizards, a live snake, a dead snake, an echidna and real live Sturt's Desert Pea in full bloom. I was so excited!
We returned to Exmouth - a town which was purpose built in 1963 to support the US naval base there. Back then, the currency in Exmouth was US$ and people drove on the right hand side of the road! Now the Americans have gone but the towers built to communicate with submarines remain. There are thirteen but because of superstition, they are named zero to twelve! The highest - tower zero is over 380m tall - the second tallest structure in the southern hemisphere and taller than the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building!
On the way to Karijini, we stopped in the mining town of Tom Price, again built in the 60's but this time to support Rio-Tinto iron-ore mines which opened up and which made Lang Hancock so rich! We did an interesting tour of the enormous mine where 25 million tonne of iron ore is mined every year (and shipped mainly to China). The trains which transport it out at 2.4km's are the longest trains in the world! (senior train drivers get 240K) and the trucks that haul it are absolutely huge. They cost 4.5 million to buy, have a 4-5 year life-span and use 20 litres of diesel for every km! A new tyre costs $80,000! Apparently women drivers are favoured as they are more gentle on the trucks (known as Tonka-trucks!), so if anyone is looking for a job?! Initially they thought there was enough iron-ore for the mines to last until the 1990's, now they believe the mining will continue for at least another 100 years.
Nearing Karijini (1380km's from Perth), we were delighted to see that many of the wild flowers are blooming, and we were seeing splashes of red, purple, yellow, pink and white wherever we looked, as well as the purple hues of the distant mountains and the deep red soil.
And that's where we are now.
The sun is setting and it's time to go.
Hope you are all well.
Ros (and Sue)
PS Scroll down for a few more photos!

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