Saturday, September 25, 2010

Going Dutch

(7 September)

Given we were in this remote outpost of the Kimberleys, I took the opportunity to go even more remote and joined a day trip to Cape Leveque, some 200+km north of Broome on the Dampier Peninsula. The first 90km was over a bone-rattling, spine-jarring dirt road that is the only route in and out barring flying. The road occasionally widens to a conventional 4-5 lanes, which offers some opportunity to find the thalweg to lessen the jarring ride over the corrugation with the red dirt creating clouds of dust in the trail of the tour 4WD.

The peninsula is home to many indigenous communities, the prime ones centred around Beagle Bay and Lombadina, originally set up as missionaries. And as we travelled the peninsula, we pass through some native land and one huge cattle property.

Beagle Bay, our first stop, is home to the Church of the Sacred Heart – most famous for its mother of pearl features. The church was built from locally made bricks fired in a kiln built to erect the church, with the mortar created from crushed mother of pearl shell.

The altar is unlike any other you are likely to see anywhere, resplendent in a glory of shining mother of pearl shells brightened by the sunlight from the windows with clusters of other shells adding additional relief in the layout.

Our next stop was the town of Lombadina (Djarindjun), further along on the dusty track, where another church beckoned our visit. This time, however, you couldn’t have found a more contrasting structure from the church at Beagle Bay than the one here. Christ the King Parish Church, constructed of mangrove wood, and a roof of paperbark covered by corrugated tin, with unfinished verandahs on either side, offers an insight into the funding received originally by the missions in setting up their respective churches almost a century ago.

There is an arts and crafts co-op where locals not only create works using traditional methods, but also study and produce works in untraditional styles, screen-printing being an example we witnessed. On offer were polished shell bangles and necklaces, basket weaving, some bark paintings and decorated rhythm sticks.

Cape Leveque (Kooljaman) is located at the northern most tip of the peninsula, and is primarily a resort unlike any other you are likely to experience. There is the central building housing the reception, a ‘shop’ (of limited supplies), and a café/restaurant. The resort is spread out combining powered and unpowered camp sites adjacent to the reception building, with additional camp sites further away, each with their own split log shelter housing picnic table and benches. There are also a handful of well appointed huts which set you back a premium. However, all have wonderful views of the turquoise waters.

It was around the camping areas near vegetation regrowth areas that I laid my eyes on the bird flower – a strange little flower that do look like birds feeding from the bush.

The lunch break was along the northern beach away from the huts and campers, on our own stretch of pristine fine white sand. While Roger, our guide, prepped lunch, we were left to our own devices which were walking along the beautiful sands and snorkelling. Accompanied by some garfish, I snorkelled some 30-50 metres from shore and dove for shells as souvenirs for the tribe. By the time we had finished our lunch, the tide had receded some distance such that some of the area we snorkelled was now exposed beach and shells were ripe for the picking!

The highlight of the afternoon was a session of mud-crabbing amongst heavily clustered mangrove tidal flats towards One Arm Point. The location, within the local community meant we could only visit accompanied by an aboriginal guide (Vincent and some relatives). So off we went into the thick mangrove forest, shod in trés chic neoprene booties to ply our metal hooks into holes and between the exposed roots to capture us some succulent mud crabs.

The humidity in the mangroves is stupefying, obstacles are the roots that jut in all directions, a complex maze of tangled wood ready to trip a stray foot yet you clamber through to find those crabs as you are on a mission. Stand still just for a short time though, and you become a feedbag for the mozzies, yet you are compelled to stay rooted to a spot as you coax a crab from between the tentacled roots of the mangrove or attempt to hook one from its burrow.

It was through this experience that I now appreciate the high price to pay for crabs – testament to which I ‘collected’ at least 20 mozzie bites per arm as well as sweat buckets from the humidity.

In the end, we caught four crabs which were roasted on the open fire and shared between us. The tender fresh crab meat being our trophy for our troubles – and damn nice it was too! A tangy saltiness just cutting through the juicy morsels we feasted upon.

Once our crab barbeque was over, it was a quick dash back over the dunes and through the bush to join the road back to Broome – a three hour trip home. The journey in the pitch black darkness over the dusty corrugations was pretty uneventful apart from spotting an unidentified snake making its way across part of the road.

Uneventful on a dirt track is good mind you, as eventful includes wandering cattle that you don’t see until the last second in the high-beam that could be a life-changing experience if it doesn’t just mean a change of pants!

Broome Broome Broome or Another Bunch of Firsts (Week 2)

(2 September – 9 September)

One of the more interesting features in the town centre is the Sun Pictures open-air cinema which opened in 1916 and is the longest running cinema of its kind in the world, a marvellous venue to experience the silver screen with a handful of disused old-world projectors on display.

The seating, mainly deck chairs and some benches, has only a few rows under cover with the majority under the skies. The big tip here is to bring your mozzie spray!

Another aspect of the town centre is that most of the buildings are no more than glorified sheds of corrugated tin, even those selling pearls – quite a contrast to their respective retail outlets in Sydney or Melbourne.

An event as part of the Shinju Matsuri was the speedway racing with a variety of racing on the agenda including super saloons, quad bikes, speedway racers, road cars, and juniors. Most viewers had reversed their utes towards the safety fence and plonked themselves in seats on the ute tray. We dragged our camping chairs between the utes and the fence and ‘enjoyed’ countless mouthfuls of dust and dried mud spat out from under the tyres as the cars sped past doing power slides. This, plus the incredible noise and pungent smells of burning nitro made for an early exit as we only lasted about half an hour – the tribe were so excited about going, yet the reality was nothing like they expected thanks to their knowledge of motor racing being that of the movie ‘Cars’.

One thing you have to do at Cable Beach is a camel ride, which was another of these things that excited the tribe a lot until we actually got up close to the camels. They were so up for it, yet when it was time to climb onto the camel’s backs, the tribe were having none of it. After some quick coaxing, and amidst the tears of fright, we got all of them up, with M and the boys riding ‘Connor’ while the girls and I rode ‘Lazee Daisy’.

Once we were up and plodding along the beach, the tribe were in their element – the initial fears subsided soon after the jerky rise from the camel’s knees. So for half an hour, we rode about Cable Beach like Lawrence of Arabia, admiring the views of each other, the long shadows from the late afternoon sun, while M admired the view of the male nudist sunbather.

The Shinju Matsuri closing ceremony took place at Cable Beach in an amphitheatre-like setting above the beach. Again we were entertained by some of the folks who performed at the opening – some of the dancers and the like. Also we got to see Sammy the Chinese Dragon again as he farewelled the crowd until next year’s festival.

The feature of the evening including the fireworks included a performance by a group of Indian musicians accompanied by a didgeridoo followed by Dan Sultan and his Band. The former provided some wonderful grooves punctuated by some sonorous tones from the didge. Dan Sultan belted out some of his stomping rock ‘n’ roll, yet nothing actually bettered his rendition of ‘Nyul Nyul Girl’ from the film Bran Nue Dae, shot on location on the West Coast and around Broome.

So another bunch of ‘firsts’ for the tribe as it was their first concert and might I say, Dan Sultan is not too bad a choice as the first concert – I’m sure it would rate well with the Espy audience on Rockwiz!

Another first was their baptism of seeing fireworks (not on TV) that closed the festival, the dark sky over north Cable Beach lit up by the floral bursts of multi-coloured lights that brought lots of “ooohs” and “ahhhhs” from the crowd.

And how did the tribe handle all these ‘firsts’? Well, with Dan Sultan, the girls did a lot of dancing to the boogie stomp until Saffiya got a little too self-conscious that people were watching her. As for the fireworks, they just couldn’t get enough as they were calling for more long after the end of the damn fine display. The camels, well the jury is still our on whether the tribe would like some as pets. Lastly, the speedway action – fine as long as you are Kaydin and not close enough to hear the noise, smell the exhaust and get hit by flying dirt spray!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Broome Broome Broome or A Bunch of Firsts (Week 1)

(26 August – 1 September)

Broome. Well, here we are for a fortnight and timely too for it is their Shinju Matsuri – the Festival of the Pearl. Running over ten days, we enjoy the festival at the opening and closing and parts in between. But first, what is Broome like, you ask.

After our drive from the NT it is a welcome stop – a town by the coast with the famous Cable Beach, a place not too big and not too small, with enough on offer to keep you interested and engaged for at least a week, if not more.

Much is written about its history, from the days it rode on the back of the pearl and mother of pearl, an industry that was responsible for 80% of the world’s button production and cutlery handles until plastics became mass produced. The bombing by the Japanese in WWII devastated the community – ironic in that the Japanese were significant in originally developing the pearling industry. And now, it is still the centre of Australian pearl interests (think Paspaley, Willie Creek, etc) yet tourism per se is now key with Broome being a base for travels around the Kimberley and the Dampier Peninsular. It’s a sizeable town 100s of km from any other decent sized town. Yet it must be the only place in the world where you can walk from an international airport to the centre of town in 10 minutes.

And of course, Cable Beach – the beautiful pristine fine white sands that go on forever and turquoise waters is a site that will always be easy on the eyes. The only thing it isn’t, is easy on your pocket if you were looking to buy property as the median price for a house is well above that of Sydney.

Not long after setting up camp in the caravan park did we experience our first meeting with a frill-necked lizard. It (for we don’t know how to tell gender) didn’t get its frills out however it did its funny run on its hind legs, head held high in the air with the frills flopping back like a horse’s mane and its small forearms dangling by the sides. It climbed a jacaranda and tried to camouflage itself on the tree trunk.

We were timely also to be able to see the ‘Staircase to the Moon’ phenomenon where the rising moon’s reflections at night over the tidal flats of Roebuck Bay create a staircase like imagery – something that occurs with the combination of the full moon a few evenings a month with a low tide only between May and October. Also, with the low tide, we were fortunate to be able to find dinosaur footprints in the rocks below Gantheaume Point – although the first morning we seeked and failed to see them as there are no signposts directing your way – you just have to clamber the rocky foreshores in the hope you chance upon them.

For the tribe, it was their ‘first’ experience of a moonrise at night, plus a first in seeing dinosaur footprints. The latter was first for M and I too!

The festival’s opening takes place on the oval behind the information centre, and is comprised of entertainment from local community groups and performers, some of whom had partaken earlier in the street parade. The community spirit is strong with the audience of locals and tourists alike enjoying and showing huge support for the performers.

The tribe met Postman Pat and Spot the Dog as well as marvelling at ‘Sammy’ the (Chinese) Dragon who is the mascot for the festival. While Postman Pat and Spot were friendly, Sammy was a little too loud (banging drums and symbols) and scary-looking – but the tribe were cool with that.

They shook their tooshes to the music on offer, as well as marvelling at the dancing – the traditional Indonesian dances were of particular interest for Saffiya and Soraya as well as those performed by the local dance schools.

The Town Beach playground and waterpark is big hit for the tribe as is Cable Beach with its wide stretches of sand and shallow water – a perfect combo for the tribe to run amok, mucking about in the water and making muddy pies.

As a change from the norm of being chauffeured about in the car, the tribe also took a couple of bus trips about town – such a simple yet highly enjoyable novelty for them. Also, they took in the story time and craft activities at the local library, making a donkey the first week and a sheep in the second week. (A good tip here is that the library also has a small and limited range of books to swap instead of borrow).

A special treat for the tribe was a visit to the cinema to see ‘Toy Story 3’ – a first time experience in the cinema for Kaydin and Zak. Initially they complained at the loudness of the sound, but were soon settled into the film and the enjoyment the big screen brings. Afterwards, they exclaimed to M that they saw the movie on a “really big TV!”.

Another first for us was an attempt at fishing from the jetty – we could see some big fish around the pier posts and we got a good nibble on Soraya’s and Zak’s lines to the extent we lost the hooks (and of course the bait). One of the locals fishing was using a mud crab as bait to catch whatever was big enough to gobble that. Mainly, there was to be family-dinner sized catches of barramundi

The markets at the old court house were fun with the usual array of gifts, knick-knacks and food – but more so for the entertainment by the couple who juggled and performed acrobatics with a healthy does of comedy thrown in. The tribe were a little frightened of the fire juggling, but were in awe of the overall performance.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our Amazon and the inland reef

(21-24 August)

The massive floodplain that is the Fitzroy would be an impressive sight at the height of the wet season, where the river extends up to 40km wide and the volume of water through Fitzroy Crossing is second to that of the Amazon, being able to fill Sydney Harbour in five hours. Alas, we’re here in the dry season and good reason too as we would not be able to drive around much of the Kimberleys.

The Fitzroy River Lodge, on the eastern banks of the Fitzroy River is an inviting oasis along our drive along the edge of the Kimberleys. And after three days of solid driving (around 1200kms) since leaving Katherine, we feel like a break – and we owe it the tribe after all that time cooped up in our car.

Nearby is Geikie Gorge, one of three reef gorges (the other two being Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge, accessible from the Gibb River Road) - created during the Devonian period (the age of the fishes) when much of the far north west of Australia was a coral reef within an inland sea.

We take a fascinating cruise down the Fitzroy through the gorge, enchanted by the ranger’s commentary, full of interesting information covering the geology, ecology and history of Geikie Gorge. The tribe get to spot some freshwater crocodiles, some brolga and whistling kites but alas, no sawfish or stingrays which are reported to breed in the river. Any alteration to the ecology of the river will affect the breeding capabilities of the sawfish and stingrays to the extent they would head down the path of extinction such is their current fragility.

The cruise commentary described the devastating affect of the cane toad – where it takes a generation or two of the local native animal to realise not to eat the toad. The fact is around 80% of the annual freshwater crocodile birthrate is decimated by natural causes in addition to the cane toad effect. So far, there are no toads around the Geikie Gorge, however it won’t be long. There are swathes of native flora being strangled by the South American passionfruit vines.

The temperature is already in the high 30s and it’s only the mid-morning when the cruise ends so we opt to return for a walk alongside the reef cliffs the next morning. When we do return the next day, it’s very warm and the tribe get a bit annoyed that we end up taking a longer walk - just an extension to the short walk we set off on. We don’t complete the walk as it’s too hot and the walk, while level is not easy in sand for small feet.

During our stay at the Fitzroy River Lodge, we take to the pool a couple of times a day to cool off – the pool is set amongst trees and shade and is amazingly cold despite the surrounding ambient temperature. A real pleasure and wonderful way to relax in the heat.

Derby is our final port of call before our long scheduled stay in Broome. Located on King Sound, it is also the start/finish for the Gibb River Road, and a base to see the Buccaneer Archipelago. Reported to have the highest tidal range in Australia – in the region of around 11 metres, we only see the mudflats, so we are obviously only wandering about when the tide is out.

I wonder about some of the property overlooking the mudflats – sold on the days when the tide was in to maximise the “waterview” spiel perhaps?

We spend the afternoon at the local pool, which has a great little water park and gym-exercise area, where the tribe run amok and the girls develop their confidence in dunking their heads underwater, holding their breath. Later, we enjoy a spectacular sunset from the jetty, where locals and travellers were casting lines for their dinner. A barra perhaps?

Just outside of town is a prison boab tree – a reminder of the cruelties of the colonists, and now a sacred indigenous site.

Further out and along the Gibb River Road (the part that is still tarmac), we visit the Mowanjum Cultural Centre to view the local arts and crafts – the paintings were mainly of Wandjina the supreme spirit, while there were some fine examples of boab nut carvings. The centre itself offers gallery space and workshops, is an impressive building which has been unfortunately unfinished due to the builders disappearing before completion.

Farewell NT, Hello WA

(19 – 21 August 2010)

After a final dip at the hot springs at Katherine, the next phase of our trip takes us west towards the Western Australia border and another time zone. We stock up on food before leaving Katherine then later refuel at Timber Creek where we are introduced to the boab tree. Strangely, while the town is reported to have the most eastern location for the boab we quietly suspect that boabs were planted within the immediate 10km west of town as there is a good concentration here then not a single boab to be seen from the road – nada, zilch, nothing for some distance – but hey, it could be just nature up to its old tricks.

Nevertheless, the tribe think the boab look strange, or funny. Or as Billy says in ‘Are we there yet?’ – “It’s an upside down tree”!*

Being surprised by our progress despite our leisurely start to the day, we end up at Saddle Creek for the night, just 70kms from the border so we stuff ourselves silly on fruit and vegies which can’t be taken over the border due to quarantine restrictions. In the end, we are unable to eat all the fruit and vegies (and honey) so we donate/offer/give away to fellow travellers heading east.

Arriving at the border early the next morning, we stop at the quarantine for a short check on our car and camper-trailer. Questioned on whether we had any fruit, vegetables, honey, flowers, seeds and sticks, we hand in our manuka honey and dump an apple core.

Kununurra, the first town we hit, is a bustling town just 35km from the border – and the Coles looks like it does a roaring trade in fruit, vegetables and honey for those coming over the border like us. There’s not much to write home about apart from Hidden Valley in Mirima NP. Sure the town or nearby featured somewhat in Baz Luhrman’s ‘Australia’, there is the Ord River Project and Lake Argyle. It’s a good spot to refuel and stock up for the Gibb River Road (a 4WD track that travels through the Kimberleys towards Derby and shaves some 300km off the tarmac route, yet takes quite a few days longer), a place to organise flights to the Bungle Bungles, etc.

We grab some food and head to Hidden Valley to see the ‘mini’ Bungle Bungles, as the real thing is only accessible either by tour or by 4WD, neither of which are on our agenda. The stratified rock formations of ‘beehive-like’ mounds are of interest in the sense of how weird and why here? And why the distance to the Bungle Bungles and nothing like these between? Geology and landforms are a mind-boggling thing.

Heading along the Great Northern Highway, we pass by the King Leopold Range (a little connection to Belgium) to the west beyond Warmum (Turkey Creek) where I get flagged down for a breathalyser test. The first after 10,000km of driving!

Part of the area around Warmum is named ‘Violet Valley’, and by quirk of timing, we drive by as we head into the sunset hour whose fading soft light provides a violet hue across the vista. Our stop for the night was a little further at Spring Creek – a glorified caravan parking lot for those heading to the Bungle Bungles as caravans are banned on the dirt track into that NP.

Another refuel, this time at Halls Creek, the next morning – the town buzzing with life as locals head to the polls for the federal election and travellers refuel or stop for a snack. The town, much like a few others along the Great Northern Highway seem purely to exist to service the surrounding aboriginal communities and provide refuelling opportunities for travellers.

A further 100km from Halls Creek is the Mary Pool rest area where we stop for lunch. It is a large shady area with many camp spots nearby the Mary River and despite the croc warning by the river, the setting is inviting enough for us to momentarily consider this an over night stop. However, we changed our minds on two counts: one, we hadn’t driven far that day, and two, the wandering cattle (bulls included) could be a problem when they venture between your site and the toilets. So we nix this and head onto Fitzroy Crossing.

* 'Are we there yet?' is a kids book based upon the three-month trip around Oz by the writer's family where featured locations and experiences seem to be a coomon theme for us.