19th June, 2021: We’re heading out of the beautiful desert to the coast to Exmouth Gulf – but there’s no camping sites, in spite of many telephone calls over the last few weeks. So, after an overnight at Nanutarra Roadhouse (love these wacky remote spots) here we are at Bullara Station, 250,000 acres and 3,000 cattle – and 160 camping sites. It’s a quirky and spectacularly successful operation.
Off to spend the day exploring Exmouth and then Ningaloo reef in a glass-bottomed boat. Charlie is the issue, so we have to find a Jack Russell sitter for the day. The history, as we know, is interesting – the American base, the first centre of activity on the Peninsular, meant that you needed a passport, a few American dollars and to know how to drive on the right hand side of the road, to mingle. Today the site is abandoned, but the towers are still standing, taller, the locals boast proudly, by some six metres, than the Empire State Building.
The most famous wreck off the coast, the cattle-carrying Mildura, was, after its spectacular demise, responsible for both the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse being built and for the population of dugongs around Ningaloo, owing to the mating of some surviving swimming cattle and the local dolphins.
Shshshsh, Don’t tell anyone, but Ningaloo coral is grey, green and a muddy colour, but we ooohhed and ahhhed at the appropriate intervals.
Time now to go north again – back to Nanutarra, before joining the Great Northern Highway on the way to Karratha, Dampier, Port Hedland, Broome. Wish everyone out there would get they Jab! 😦
Newman, a rusty town. The roofs are covered in fine rust, the concrete gutters are rust-coloured instead of the original gray concrete shade, the ‘white’ traffic lines on the bitumen are – yes, rust coloured, and even the cockatoos have rusty feathers. Soon, our solar panels are rust-coloured and – there’s nowhere to stay, because BHP has purchased the only two caravan parks in town to use for their fly-in-fly-out workers.
The poor council, faced with a Covid-related boom of mostly grey nomads, has opened the Visitor’s Centre carpark to as many vans as they can fit. Naturally, when you confine a grey nomad, so used to open spaces, he/she is like any rat when crowded, pretty aggressive. Of all the places we’ve been, usually surrounded with gentle freedom-loving souls, we have never experienced the aggression of the nomads cramped into this Newman Visitor’s Carpark. ‘Your sliding door kept us awake all night!”. Quick as a flash: “ARE you going to pick up the poop your dog is doing?” , “Did you know your motor is still running?” “Who was watching television last night – THAT kept us awake!” “Someone’s got a noisy automatic step!”
…but the most important thing is getting Ted’s crimped back corrected and he’s found a great chiropractor. After a couple of days we move to the Council-owned Sports Oval, where they have made place for nine vans. Suddenly the grey nomads surrounding us are back to being gentle souls.
Not only that, but Ted, forever the architect, discovers one of the best building he’s seen in Australia, and here it is, in this out-of-the-way place. It’s the Pilbara Aboriginal Medical Centre – PAMS, a piece of art in itself:
In between chiropractic appointments, we wander the town, chat with the locals (not the nomads), visit the hilltops, mix into the vibrant shopping precinct, the only meeting place in town – and generally, Newman seems to be booming, but it’s time to move on…
To get to Tom Price, our next stop on the way back to the coast, we must drive the main road through Karijini National Park. We already notice the difference – there’s NO introduced European grass! There are miles of spinifex, those elegant bushes as round as half a planet, bright green, with their long yellow tassels – the ‘Pilbara Spinifex’. Then there are many kinds of ground cover between the trees, also usually cylindrical, growing out of the pebbly red earth. It’s almost an alien world. None of the plants are familiar – we feel as though we have landed in a space odyssey somewhere in the universe.
But we can’t venture further into the Park with Charlie, so we head for the Tom Price Caravan Park to have him baby sat for the day with the lovely Jessica, recommended by the Tom Price Visitor’s Centre.
Karijini is equal to any of the world’s great geographic sites, certainly any I have seen, even with the greatest ambition, with the added benefit of never having been overrun by Western agriculture or non-marsupial grazing animals. We visit several sites, all magnificent (Dales Gorge, Kalamina Gorge and Joffre Falls) – I shall have to let the pictures tell the story – they do it much better than I could. You can climb down the rocks in places to swim in the cool waterholes, but recently air stairs were installed as ‘there were too many helicopter rescues!’ We needed at least a week, but we only had a day, as the WA coastline is waiting.
5th June, 2021 … but after the drama of Peace Gorge, there’s not much in Meekatharra. The only people on the streets seem to be other grey nomads and the windows on every shop front are barred. Ted tries to purchase a couple of bottles of red to keep us going, but “one bottle per person, sorry Sir, no exceptions“, so I have to be brought in to be the second purchaser. Let’s keep going north.
Soon we’re again mesmerised by the landscape, low mulga and saltbush, peppered with other nameless bright green bushes, set against the red, purple, black and yellow land. It changes constantly – one minute we’re in shining white gibber plains, then in clay pans, but they can’t be clay, because they’re red and black. Ranges rear distantly on the right – Ted’s reading the map. “Glengarry Ranges,” he calls. Now there’s Robinson Ranges in the north west, now we’re surrounded by acres of bright yellow knee-high grass. A wedge-tail eagle takes off in front of us with something like a snake dangling. After a while we pass a sign: “Latitude 26 – Welcome to the Northwest.” Ted the photographer is snapping constantly, but the beauty of the vista around us is hard to capture.
The country changes again – dark red ant nests rise, sometimes on the verge of the highway, and everywhere our beloved mulga trees and saltbush. More black desert, and, wonder of wonders now there are blue mountains ahead – there must be eucalyptus trees on that range, something we haven’t seen since, well, South Australia, I think.
The road is now infested with road trains, some heralded by three or four escort vehicles, and they take up most of the road. Cowed, we veer onto the verge and stop, signalling our submissiveness, to allow them to pass.
We stop at the Kumarina Roadhouse, advertising food, parking space, showers and laundry. What a culture shock – we’re among the miners now and the fifo staff of the roadhouse – hardly another traveller. There are dozens of demountables housing the miners, they’re fed en masse in a brightly lit cafeteria. Doing the laundry is an interesting experience.
Long walk back to reception: “I’m sorry, I put the tokens in, but the washing machine won’t start.’
“O really, Jarred might know.”
Jarred: “Oh yes, it works, you just have to bang it with your hand.”
Long walk back to reception: “Hello again, I am sorry to keep worrying you. I’ve been banging it until my hand is sore. Is there an electrician or plumber on hand perhaps?”
Jarred: “I’m the nearest thing to an electrician or a plumber you’ll see around here. I’ll come and have a look.”
Jarred’s hand becomes sore too. “Mmmm, I think maybe I know someone…” The drama goes on all afternoon, with multiple washing machines in different buildings, finally the staff laundry. The upside is I get to know the ‘fifo’ staff – Sophia is from Vietnam, Jarred from Sydney, Lars is from Germany, his girlfriend Antonia is from Peru, Ricard is from Chile, Sammy from Sydney. They’ve all been flown in to this isolated roadhouse, seeking to save money. “Maybe if I stay six months I can get a deposit for a house,” says Sammy hopefully. Her purple streaked hair looks distinctly Sydney. ‘But mmm, I don’t know, six months here?” She leaves the rest unsaid.
They’re a great, if odd collection of young people with good senses of humour, and we leave inspired with their enthusiasm for life and living.
But oops, Ted has ricked his back, so we’re searching for a chiropractor in Newman, our next stop…
26th May, 2021, to Moorine Rock Hotel: It’s east again now, to avoid the coastal, urbanised, holiday resorts to the north of Perth – rather back into the glorious outback, red dirt again, the soft blue/gray/greens of saltbush, mulga trees, the occasional eagle. The vista is broken, though, where colonists prevailed, with vast wheatfields, square mile after square mile of treeless plains.
Moorine Rock Hotel is a welcome stop overnight – we love pulling up behind these roadhouse hotels for the night, melting into the local pub social life for dinner. When we arrive at this one I am doubtful, though as it looks abandoned – broken chairs on the verandah covered in dust, fifty years at least since it was painted, but by nightfall, the locals have arrived and the smiling publican is everywhere and welcoming.
27th May, to Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie:Coolgardie is the site of one of the most daring feats of mine rescue ever recorded, when back in 1907 after a storm burst and flash flooding, Italian miner Modesto (Charlie) Varischetti was trapped in an upward slanting shaft, ten levels below ground. A miner who just happened to be an experienced deep-sea diver reached him after five days with food, water and an air pipe. After nine days of draining the water out of the mine the water level was low enough so that the 160 miners who had escaped safely were able to help him walk out. With the technology of 1907, it was a near miracle – such an extraordinary story that Italian film makers made a film about it, which explains the Italian used in this diagram – but you get the picture. Coolgardie’s buildings reflect the colour of the landscape and the impressive museum, their pride in their mining past, in the ‘slide show’ below – click the arrows.
It’s a wonder they didn’t call KalgoorlieHannantown. Paddy Hannan discovered gold here in 1893 and just happens to be Ted’s friend Jack Hannan’s grandfather. There’s the main street, Hannan Street, then there’s Hannan Hotel, the Hannan Club, Hannan statue, Hannan plaques everywhere, the Hannan Mine, even Hannan beer. The next slide show is all Hannan memorabilia:
All the old iconic buildings are still there, hotels, brothels (well, historic – if there are real ones they’re well hidden from tourists like us) and pit heads of mines across the horizon. But ya’know, it’s freezing still and the rain keeps falling. We hunker down in the warmth of the van, get on our bikes when the sun allows to visit the amazing Kalgoorlie mine museum – but can’t wait to go north into the warm! Another slide show below:
1st June, 2021, North to Wiluna and Peace Gorge: Ah we’re driving north through the wild garden again but with no Western agriculture. The ‘red’ dirt plains are many, many colours between black and white – purple, orange, cream, kaki, burgundy, salmon pink, neverendingly changing. Sometimes there are fields of yellow grass, then great plains of white gibber stones, shining in the sun. Again there are empty red-dirted lakes, then low saltbush so prolific that there’s no ground visible of any colour – then the bushes turn into trees and the yellow grasses come back. The beauty is impossible to catch on camera – at least by us!
However, the road trains are 60 metres long, longer than I’ve ever seen, scary, thudding the air against us as they pass, seemingly way over the speed limit, and we ride for minutes in the dust of their passing.
Wiluna is a mostly indigineous town, with wandering dogs and broad dusty streets. Years ago, my daughter’s friend emerged from a car one day during a land trip into one such town accompanied by her small fluffy dog, which was dead within 15 seconds of the car door opening, so we’re very wary. Everyone’s friendly, but warn us that the road towards Meekatharra is mostly dirt and ‘broken up by them road trains’.
The local art gallery is stunning – I want to buy three paintings at once, and so does Ted, but a different three – his expression says he hates mine and I think his are boring, so we buy some postcards and leave. It’s time to hit the dirt again, this time literally, no bitumen!
Peace Gorge, previously called The Granites, is so-named for the soldiers who didn’t come home from the First World War. What a memorial to those unworldly volunteers, spirited volunteers, who died so ingloriously in the mud of the trenches.
We wander in awe among these red granite rocks, resting where they fell, millions of years ago. One of the greatest campsites we’ve had on the journey. Ted collects dead mulga wood for the fires we have each night.
… but the local ranger warns us (again) about the dangers of 1080 poison to little dogs, so it’s either teach our 11-year-old Charlie never to eat anything that is not in a plate or a hand, OR we bring out the muzzle we have been saving for this area of the world. What to do!?
Goodnight all – it’s off to Meekatharra in the morning!
Wandering the foreshores in Flinders Bay near Cape Leeuwin is great for pondering, as well as walking the Jack Russell. Take the humble seaweed. Seaweed and other sea plants are a vital resource for oxygenating the planet – up to 50% of the air we breathe comes from them – and in some countries, a popular and wonderfully nutritious source of food for humans. Yet we, in Australia, with over 1,000 varieties, all edible, do almost nothing about harvesting this natural wonder – all the seaweed in my larder comes from Chinatown!
Food for thought (pardon the pun) High mounds of seaweed left on Flinders Bay beaches – not raked off for the sunbathers.
Travelling north, a first sight of pure Indian Ocean is worth careening down a sandhill to get a photo.
We visit the last of the manually operated lighthouses in Australia, at Cape Naturaliste, not as spectacular as Cape Leeuwin, but a sight just the same. It was converted to automatic in 1978, but the last lighthouse keeper stayed until 1996
Now we’re on our way through country wild with Blackboys to the Margaret River region for a few days. (Blackboy? Isn’t that politically incorrect these days? – although the alternative, Xanthorrhoea, does sound more like a disease than the ebullient grass-trees they are)
The country gradually grows audaciously, recklessly rich and clinically beautiful, seen with eyes still used to the frugality of the Nullarbor and the rough beauty of the great Tindle and Karri forests. The well-kept green grass and spreading grape and olive groves, the well-behaved Angus cattle and the very neatness of the signs, seemingly around every corner, pointing to the hundreds of wineries, are almost decadent.
For camping, we find a wedding venue – which is not allowed to have weddings (local councils from one side of Oz to the other seem the same) – blissful camping is this, at Spring Waters Estate. We’re not on a wine tour, but we’ll hang around for a few days, maybe take in a Degustation meal or two.
Perth is a necessary stop – our Sprinter van is up to its sixth – yes sixth – recall since purchase in November 2019. There’s also a better attachment for the bikes I want, and Ted wants airbags above the back axle. But there’s an escape from all this urbanisation – we find a home on a sheep property/apple orchard and cidery, in a place called Carmel – no not California, in the Perth Hills.
What a delight in store – Julian n Joan, our buddy Sprinter owners/commiserators, old sailing friends and now Dungog residents, turn up unexpectedly at the Carmel Cidery and we sojourn in the nearby Kalamunda Pub.
The weather is still bleak, but we find ourselves now into giant tree country, whimsically called ‘The Valley of the Giants’, travelling for miles enjoying the rich colours and fertile grazing land, a shock after the sparseness of the desert plains we’ve been on for so long.
The majesty of these mighty Tindles (no not Karri), their height, the vastness of their numbers and the richness of their colours finally has us mesmerised. On an impulse we take a remote gravelled road detour called The Great Forest Trees Drive, gasping a little as we round each corner.
But the pinnacle of the journey (pardon the pun) is the Tree Top Walk through the high crowns of the Tindle forests. As one olive farmer remarked ascerbically (no doubt because he had run out of olives), ‘They’re actually good for nothing except being trees – no good for houses, no good for furniture, no good for firewood – just big trees! Hmph!’
That didn’t stop the tree walk, 70 metres above ground on a metallic pathway that shuddered with your every step, being an exhilarating experience.
Meanwhile, one of the much anticipated highlights of our journey is to visit one of the Great Capes of the world, Cape Leeuwin, in the far southwest corner of Australia, which divides the Southern Ocean from the Indian Ocean. So, after many weeks of travel we’ve finally reached sight of the Indian Ocean and the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse itself!
It’s time to visit the lighthouse – and climb the 186 steps to the top, a privilege for sailor Ted Nobbs, reminding him of his own time in the Southern Ocean.
We find a snug camping place nearby in Flinders Bay, just behind the beach again, so even Charlie is happy!
We head ever further west, going southwards now, through a town whimsically called Denmark. It’s lush country, trees getting thicker and taller round every turn, wineries everywhere, walking trails and romantic natural beaches, but colder and colder – so we head to Peaceful Bay which sounds, well, peaceful. We both laugh as we look at the Bay entrance. As an ex-cruising sailor, I am horrified – very narrow, between rocks and hard places, scary.
The caravan park is hardly such – we are in natural surroundings behind the beach bushes, parked beside a tiny freshwater waterway full of ducks, seagulls and other waterfowl, with oyster catchers on the beach competing with the hordes of seagulls.
This is such a difficult entrance that all night the horns on the navigation buoys whoop mournfully, while Southern ocean roars and the birds in our small enclave chirp and twitter. The biggest building on the coast is the sea rescue station. Happy to be in a van, not a sailing boat!
Charlie is in seventh heaven on this beach, tears off like a bullet, then rips back even faster, belly to the ground. The wild freedom gets to him as much as to us. It’s freezing, though, even for Charlie. Winter soon, time to go north..
3rd May to 6th May, 2021: Now we leave Norseman, we have also officially left the Nullabor Plain, and are headed through ever increasing fertile land and on to coastal waters, Esperence – now a vast metropolis, very different to the much smaller village I visited last time, but still with the longest esplanade of any town I can remember.
But we have only one day in Esperance, as it’s booked out, so we’re headed for Albany via Ravensthorpe, where we stop in a pleasant midtown Rest Area for the night. We try to spend some money in Ravensthorpe, but everything seems shut. Even the local pub is shut! An old local restaurant-owner explains, while sitting dejectedly outside his closed restaurant:
“No staff, that’s why we’re shut. We depend on backpackers here, and there’s been none of those for a while – all this Covid stuff… everything’s shut here, bloody dismal.”
He tells us where the only place in town is open. We empathise, then move on, feeling helpless, but glad to ‘drop a little money in the town’ before moving on, headed for Albany.
I had always thought that the Mallee was something remote and unique, in Victoria – but when we were just searching for a good place to have coffee, we discovered that the Mallee spreads across half Australia – see map above, showing both the Nullabor and the Mallee Scrub area. The Yongergnow Malleefowl Interpretative and Research Centre at Ongerup was started by a woodcarver who, while searching for Malleefowl so that he could carve a sculpture of one back in 1992, saw a startling decline in numbers. So the Mallefowl Preservation Society was started – and today you can see the breeding pairs in a very well funded centre, along with the history of animals in Australia for the last 50 million years.
As we’re headed for Albany, we must pass the Stirling Ranges, and are lucky to witness one of the most amazing storms I have ever seen (and most amazing storm photos – taken by Ted of course:
Albany is such a delight. It has grown from the small ancient whaling village I once knew to a friendly and thriving seaside town, beautiful in both natural and man-made attractions.
30th April to 3rd May, Norseman: Charlie is not only happy to roll on grass for the first time in many days, he also meets his twin – not even a Jack Russell. We’re told that Suzy is a Tenterfield Terrier.
Norseman is another old gold mining town, with broad streets and still some of the early miners cottages. The story goes when Laurie Sinclair – a pretty desperate prospector – had his horse go lame. Getting off to find the reason.,, he found a large lump of gold stuck in the hoof. The horse’s name was – you guessed it – Norseman.
But the saddest thing about Norseman is the tailings dump – in 1992 they finally promised to remove it, but it still dominates the town. The work is “ongoing”. Does this somehow remind you of the Hunter Valley?
We go to the top of a nearby hill to see the vast salt lakes that virtually surround Norseman wherever you look. But it’s time to move on, time to find the coastline again.
24th April, 2021, Venus Bay to Ceduna: It’s an eventless dry trip through more wheat fields alternating with saltbush desert – can even wheat grow here? Ceduna is a sophisticated relief after the dishevelled shanty town of Venus Bay, even though the sight of the beginnings of the Great Australian Bight were exhilarating. We’re still after oysters though, and the hotel does us proud with large, fresh, juicy natural oysters.
We love the stay, wandering the streets, also gearing up in a Caravan Park on a powered site for the next few days across the Nullabor where fuel, water and food might be hard to get. A new best friend and neighbour Jim, travelling with his wife Venra, a veteran of dozens of trips across the Nullabor, warns us that the Western Australian Government is very strict about quarantine. I spend a day cooking and freezing all our fresh fruit and vegetables, glorying in the plentiful electricity to cook them.
27th April, 2021, Ceduna across the Great Australian Bight.
Now there’s a famous Pink Lake in Western Australia, which we hear is not pink any more, but Jim tell us there’s one in South Australia as well. So we find ourselves in a VERY corrugated road for far too long to find SA’s Pink Lake, a salt lake on the edge of the Southern Ocean. Charlie is keen in his Jack Russell way, as usual, to get out of the van when we arrive there, but when I open the door he shrinks back from the hard stony ground “You think I want to jump down THERE? You have to be kidding!” – has to be lifted down. Spoilt dog? Nah, not really.
Next we’re headed for the Bunda Cliffs, a hundred metres high, facing the Southern Ocean, one of the few places where you can drive right to the shore. The way is either salt bush country or wheat fields, but mostly desert vastness.
I realise what I realised so long ago when sailing oceans – it’s the sky that makes the experience so enthralling. Impossible to capture with a camera, impossible to convey no matter how good the movie, impossible to describe – so little land, so much sky. Below, down here is wheat stubble, pink sand and saltbush, but above is 80% of our world, a mysterious, life-giving, infinity.
When we get to Bunda Cliffs, however, it’s exceeds everything I had imagined, borne of photos and videos watched across the years. For me, it’s better than seeing the Pyramids, better than the first time I rode the lift to the top of the Empire State Building, better than seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. The adrenaline is high, but all I can show you here is the photos – so inadequate. Certainly the highlight of our journey so far!
April 29, 2021, Bunda Cliffs, Border Village to Cocklebiddy: Sure enough, the small quantity of fruit and vegetables that I couldn’t cook up – a lemon, an onion, the remains of a lettuce – is carried off by the police at the border. We have our digital passes ready, however, so make them very happy.
So further and further west we go, eating up the miles. Cocklebiddy is going to be a convenient stop, but we have no idea what to expect. Still the vastness of the sky, the sparse flatness of the land, subtle colours, blue-greens, yellow-greens, olive greens, always against the glow of the pink sands and the wild clouds above amid the blue. Several times we pass over the “piano keys” before we realise the road has turned into an airfield for a thousand feet or so – emergency strips that are scattered across Australia for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. We drive over four of these
Well, Cocklebiddy is just another roadhouse, but at least they have a sense of humour.
Sometimes I wish I were still a journalist – one meets so many interesting stories. This English girl, Alice, from Birmingham, is creating her own Wonderland, by riding her bike around Australia. I met her sitting ‘under shade for a while’ on the loo verandah in Cocklebiddy. She left Melbourne a couple of months ago and that’s her entire kit you see beside her. But no time… Ted and Charlie are waiting, time to go. I wish her luck and am sad I can’t ask her much more.
30th April, 2021, Cocklebiddy to Norseman: The Nullabor is made up of thousands of caves, or blow-holes, which breathe softly in and out with the winds – sometimes gentle, sometimes up to 75km strength. There are signs warning the danger of going searching for the caves as they are not stable. We get to see one ‘owned’ proudly by Cocklebiddy.
We’re almost at the end of the Nullabor Plain now, and travel the longest straight road in the world (we’re told, not just Australia) – 146.6km without a turn.
Finally we arrive in the old gold-mining town of Norseman and find an RV field for self-contained vehicles which is covered in – to Charlie’s delight – grass! – probably the first grassy field we’ve seen since we started the traverse of the Nullabor. Everyone’s happy and Charlie is running in circles!
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