Friday, 24 June 2016

Best of the west

Monkey Mia located in the heart of the Francois Peron National Park. It is a resort, conference centre and camping ground and is essentially there for one reason: the dolphins. They come in to the beach every morning to be fed by the staff.  We went down there about 7.30am to find about four swimming around and they were joined soon after by another two.  Each of them had a name and was distinguished by the shape of their fins.  It was amazing being so close to them and knowing that they felt completely comfortable being there.  We were able to stand in about a foot of water so they were literally swimming around our feet waiting to be fed.

Dolphin feeding at Monkey Mia

Feeding was at 8am so for half an hour the rangers told us about the history of Monkey Mia, its global research significance today and also about the dolphins themselves.  They only receive about 20% of their daily food requirements so they don't become dependent on it.  After they had received a few fish each they quickly lost interest and headed back out into the bay.  They do three feedings each morning that the dolphins routinely come back for so we went back about 10am to see them again.

The unique Shell Beach

On our way out of Shark Bay we stopped at Shell Beach for a quick swim.  As the name suggests, instead of sand the beach is a mass of millions of tiny white shells and more are being washed ashore every day.  Beneath all those loose shells there would probably be a great supply of coquina if they ever needed more.  That night we headed south and found a free camping area next to the Murchison River.  The only problem was the road into it was flooded so we found a flat piece of ground nearby and that became our campsite.

Count the flies on my face!

The tent came down in absolute record time the next morning because of a crazy swarm of flies, mosquitoes and sandflies.  We were under attack like I've never been before!  We were literally throwing things into the car to get out of there!  Our destination that morning was the Kalbarri National Park.  We were lucky in a way that the Murchison River was in flood because the gorges we saw are usually totally dry.  For anyone who's been there, my favourite spot was the Z Bend but I loved the unique rock formation of Natures Window also.

Floodwaters in the Kalbarri National Park

Down in the township of Kalbarri we got an appreciation of the flooding and how high the river was.  There was a huge volume of water spewing out and creating a huge brown shape in the otherwise blue ocean. Fortunately the town had been spared any flooding thanks to sandbagging and other precautions. The coast south of the town had a number of lookouts that reminded me a little of the Great Ocean Road - especially the Natural Bridge, which is a huge arch in the rock caused by many years of erosion.

We continued south through Geraldton and drove till it was dark; finally making camp near a little place called Green Head.  The last place we wanted to visit on this epic journey was the spectacular Pinnacles Desert in the Namburg National Park.  The Pinnacles are limestone pillars that rise from the sand rather like large headstones in a cemetery. Their lime rich sand originates from seashells that were compacted by rain and subsequently eroded.

Pinnacles Desert

The best time to view these is either morning or evening because the shadows they cast make them look even more impressive.  We arrived about 7am and got some striking photos of the pillars in the sun but with a dark grey sky behind them. After less than half an hour the threatening skies clouded over completely and we happily set a final course for the capital and largest city of Western Australia, Perth.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Cape Range National Park

We had a couple of snorkelling sets which proved invaluable over the next few days.  The first place we used them was at beautiful Turquoise Bay.  Along this stretch, white sand gives way to clear, warm water and of course the reef itself which was only about 100 metres from the shore.  The natural current here runs parallel to the shore so we could walk down the beach and snorkel back with a minimum of effort. Great when we didn't have flippers anyway!  The colours of the coral and tropical fish were stunning and easily comparable with the Great Barrier Reef.

The gorgeous Turquoise Bay

We camped at a place called Yardie Creek which was down the southern end of the park.  In the morning we had a swim and walked the Yardie Creek Gorge.  With water flowing in the bottom it was very picturesque and got a few nice photos.  By contrast, the Mundi Mundi Gorge was dry and although we could hike back through the bottom, it was nothing special.  The temperature during these few days was very hot so by the time we finished the second walk we were hanging out to go snorkelling again!

Yardie Creek Gorge

This time we went to a place called Oyster Stacks.  The fish life was even better than the day before but the location wasn't quite so 'user friendly'.  Waves crashed onto a rocky ledge instead of nice smooth sand but once that was negotiated, the reef was wonderful.  Cape Range National Park has a flat, barren appearance with very few trees.  After a bit of a search we found a couple to have lunch under before heading back to Exmouth for fuel and food.

Barren and sandy Cape Range National Park

Our destination that afternoon was the lovely sweeping white-sand beach of Coral Bay.  As the name would suggest, there was fantastic snorkelling and swimming in the bay.  We only had time for a short swim that evening but went for two hours the following morning to admire the amazing coral and fish life.  Just before we left we went to watch the daily fish feeding.  It was a good fun having dozens of large snappers swimming around our feet waiting for whatever morsels were about to drop into the water.

The clear warm waters of Coral Bay

We then headed south to Shark Bay World Heritage Park and, in particular, Monkey Mia.  On the way though we called into a place called Hamelin Pool.  This special place is one of the few places in the world where examples of stromatolites can be found.  At a glance they look like rocks but they are in fact micro-organisms that were built together millions of years ago. They have survived in this area because the water is twice as saline as the usual ocean water.  For those that believe in evolution, they are your 'Adam and Eve'.

Coquina quarry, Hamelin Pool

The other interesting part of Hamelin Pool was the coquina quarry.  Coquina is millions of small shells which have been bonded together by mineral calcite to form a solid mass. For conservation reasons the quarry is only used now for repair and maintenance of historic buildings. A good example is the church in the nearby town of Denham which has been constructed from blocks of this unique material. The lovely little town also has the distinction of being the westernmost in Australia.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Karijini National Park

In a happy coincidence, I met up with Johannes who was another friend from Darwin. So I joined him and another guy for my trip to Perth. They were good company and Johannes was a model of German efficiency with his planning and organisation. We would often be up at 5.30am to get the most out of each day. A contrast to the leisurely journey I’d just had but I enjoyed it.

We wanted to camp our first night on Eighty Mile Beach on the north coast of WA, but the road into the camp ground was closed because of flooding.  Apparently 93mm of rain fell the previous night! So we travelled a bit further down the highway and went into a nature reserve called Cape Keraulden.  We had to negotiate some huge puddles along the road but virtually had the whole place to ourselves and ended up camping right on the beach.

Beach campsite at Cape Keraulden

The following day we stopped at Port Hedland for food and fuel. In all honesty, that’s about the only thing that most tourists do here because it’s not the most attractive place. As the name would suggest, it’s a huge deep water port that services the Pilbara mining area. The harbour area is a skyline of railway yards, iron-ore stockpiles and huge ships. Through the dry season it can also be a dusty place and the wet season can bring with it tropical storms and even cyclones. We pushed on towards the beautiful Karijini National Park.

Lots of clear road needed to pass a road train!

As we progressed that day, we were very concerned that the bearings or suspension were failing. Fortunately it was only the tyre giving up and it eventually punctured as we were entering the park.  A quick change and we still had the tent up before dark.  The tent was a huge thing that I could stand up in and best of all, it was waterproof! I could now relax and not have to worry about how the weather would affect my night’s sleep.

Fixing the puncture

The whole next day was spent exploring the narrow breathtaking gorges and sculptured pools of Karijini National Park.  We were fortunate to get a lovely day and had three swims in various places.  The water was a bit cooler we expected but it was nice.  Our favourite walk was probably Kalamina Gorge, although I loved the view from Oxer Lookout down into Junction Pool.  It's here that four different gorges converge and it is described in my Lonely Planet as 'one of the great sights in Australia'.

Huge water monitor lizard in Kalamina Gorge

We had a thunderstorm that night but woke to a dry morning.  Our main concern was that water already over the road had risen and we'd be stuck in the park for a day or two but there wasn't a problem.  That day saw us complete the journey out to the coast again and to the town of Exmouth.  I imagined an idyllic place on the end of the peninsula but it’s not really. Originally established as a naval communication base, the town now acts largely as a gateway to the Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef which was our next destination.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Kunnunara to Broome

Kelly’s Knob lookout provided us splendid views of Kunnunara town and surrounding area before we went exploring the fascinating layered sedimentary rock formations of the Hidden Valley National Park.  Aside from the eroded gorges and brittle red peaks, the park is also home to Spinifex grass, boab trees and a variety of wildlife. It is often referred to as the 'mini' Bungle Bungles after the more famous rounded rock towers of the Purnululu National Park. I'm happy to have visited Hidden Valley because Purnululu was closed for the wet season.

Rock formations of Hidden Valley

The following day we visited the Zebra Rock Gallery.  This rock is totally unique and only found in the Kimberley region of Australia.  As the name would suggest, its appearance is rhythmic patterns of red bands or spots that contrast with a lighter background.  In the workshop they were creating various items that were then polished and sold in the shop.  Outside, we took some bread down to the river to feed the catfish and turtles. We also watched as a couple of freshwater crocodiles circled around the area.

Zebra Rock Gallery

On a short detour, we were able to marvel at the spectacular sight of enormous Lake Argyle. Created in 1972, it is the result of the season Ord River being dammed and is Australia’s second-largest reservoir. It has the capacity to hold the equivalent of 18 Sydney harbours and provides year round downstream irrigation. It is also now and important wildlife habitat for migratory birds, freshwater crocodiles and even marsupial colonies. After taking in the views from the lookout we also drove across the dam wall.

Dam across Lake Argyle

Our next night was spent a night at Halls Creek which is an aboriginal community that sits between the Kimberley to the north and the Great Sandy Desert to the south. It was an adventure just getting there after getting delayed by the Ord River being a full metre over the road.  Fortunately we only had to wait two hours for it to drop 70cm to get through.  A long line of vehicles and people had been waiting all day for that to happen! The frustration of waiting was too much for some and we watched in amazement as a vehicle attempting to cross drifted slightly downstream before coming to a rest.

Trying to cross the flooded Ord River

It was a dry night dry but it started raining in the morning again. Wet season just isn't a good time of year to be travelling with a tent in the top end of Australia!  If the rain doesn't get you the mosquitoes probably will! We considered going to Wolf Creek Crater Park but the risk was that the rain may bring the river levels up to a point of being stuck there for days.  After having seen the movie, the thought didn't have much appeal so we continued west and made camp in a rest stop near the rugged little town of Fitzroy Crossing.

Storm clouds gathering over Cable Beach

The next day brought us to Broome and the beautiful Cable Beach.  Contrary to the regulations we camped right on the sand and had a swim in the morning.  I did a 16km run down the beach which was great, even if I got rather sunburnt doing it.  Broome is a nice place although it was very quiet in March.  From May to October tourists and backpackers virtually double its 14,000 population.  The town has an interesting pearling history and learnt a lot about it by visited the museum there.