Friday, 26 August 2011

The Last Stretch

The whales really were this close!
Driving down to Norseman and after photographing the last soldier’s grave on our list, we eventually began the long drive on the Eyre Highway which took us across the Nullabor Plain. We drove on one stretch of road which was perfectly straight and flat for about 145 kilometers. So long is this road, that we had several overnight stops.  Along the way there are some points of interest to encourage drivers to take a break from the many hours of driving. One of these is at the Head of Bight right at the highest point of the Great Australian Bight. This is a fantastic place to view Southern Right Whales at this time of the year. Like the Humpback Whales in north-west of Australia, the Southern Rights also swim north from the Antarctic to give birth – but only into the northern area of the Bight. These whales were named by the whale hunters because they are slow swimmers and when killed the carcases tend to float (because of their high amount of oily blubber), hence making them easier for the chasers. At the Head of Bight, there is a long zig-zag walkway to the edge of the cliff and from there you can see many of the female whales with calves quite close to the land. I estimate that we saw about 30 whales all swimming close by – diving, surfacing and expelling plumes of air. With brilliant blue skies and deep blue water, it was a magic sight and one to remember.

Driving on across South Australia, we travelled down the Eyre Peninsula through Streaky Bay (wonderful food at the local hotel!), to Port Lincoln. This is a major tuna fishing centre as the many large ocean going fishing boats attest. It is very prettily situated on Boston Bay and an early Australian outback explorer, John McDoull Stuart lived here for several years. There are many water related attractions - scuba diving, fishing, feeding tuna from a pontoon, and swimming with fishes. Have to admit we didn’t do any of these – I felt our recent whale and dolphin experiences really couldn’t be bettered. A walk over the rocks at a nearby lookout on Sunday morning was just lovely and Jessie, our dog, enjoyed it enormously. Another day trip and picnic lunch was had at the oddly named Coffin Bay not named for any macabre event, but by Captain Matthew Flinders who named the very beautiful bay after his friend, Isaac Coffin. The sheltered bay is now famous for its oyster beds.
During our trip Jessie, our dog, proved to be a magnet for doglovers, and a great ice-breaker as fellow travellers chatted. Most dogs in the parks were small, lapdog breeds, and an Australian Cattle dog always drew smiles and often "Oh, a REAL dog" comment. Must admit I'm surprised at the pets some people travel with. I thought one couple at Kalgoorlie were mad - they not only travelled with their two dogs but also a large cage of budgerigars. This morning at Tailem Bend however, what I first thought were the usual small dogs on leashes, turned out to be CATS on leads being taken for their morning constitutional.

Jumper for Huon
After 12 weeks on the road, I now have read eleven and a half books of the twelve I had brought with me, knitted two jumpers, stitched numerous framed hexagons for a patchwork throw, edited 'on the go' my family history society's journal (emailed the file to Officeworks at Mornington for printing), and so have run out of quiet time occupations.
Time to head towards our home town and our much missed family. We drove north-east from Port Lincoln and at Port Augusta we returned to one of the places at which we had overnighted at the beginning of our road trip. It has been an absolutely fantastic trip with great experiences, some gorgeous outback scenery and some long, extremely boring stretches where, even if the scenery was not picture-postcard, the cameraderie of fellow travellers at various stops and parks was a highlight of those days. I was astonished at the man-made Ord River irrigation scheme near Kununurra and the resulting hundreds and hundreds of acres of agriculture in the desert, also the amazing Bungle Bungles over which we flew. I'm in awe of our early explorers and the hardships they must have endured in desert conditions also the prospectors who, in the most remote outback places found vast amounts of  minerals, gold, silver and precious gems. I remember one day just outside Marble Bar we met a couple gold prospecting with a metal detector. We got chatting and of course asked if they had any luck.  With a rather wry smile, the answer was yes - but mostly coins which were saved up and then used to buy small amounts of raw gold! That's one way to do it, I guess!
I'll long remember stunning sunsets, gorges, the red outback soil, the wildflowers, the ghost gums, the strange boab trees and further south the gum trees with many branches from their base that looked like they were polished mahogany (salmon gums), the whales and dolphins and the various Australian native animals, the brilliant birds whose early morning chorus was a delight to wake up to. I adored the outback night sky - when far from town lights, it is vast, intensely dark with millions of diamond bright stars. Finally the glorious colours of the outback (I'm trying to incorporate these colours into a patchwork throw) - I love the Australian outback - raw and rough much of it is, but also sublimely beautiful. 
So, after 12 weeks travel to the very top of Australia and down the west coast of Western Australia, across the Nullabor Plain through South Australia, we are now back in Victoria. Tomorrow we will continue through Ballarat and down to Geelong, crossing Port Phillip Bay by ferry  to Sorrento on the southern tip of Mornington Peninsula and finally home to Hastings.
I hope any readers have enjoyed the trip through my notes. I wonder where our next trip will be?

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Swimming with dolphins and other adventures

At Monkey Mia, a little further down the coast, we came hoping to see the famed dolphins that come into the shore each day for a little snack of fish. The story is that about 15 years ago a fisherman would throw some of his fish to the dolphins each day and soon they realised free fast-food was available at Monkey Mia. These days the feeding is strictly managed and wild-life rangers make sure the dolphins are protected however people can stand in the knee-deep water but are not allowed to touch them. A few lucky people are then called on to handfeed a dolphin. Sometimes up to 20 come in each day around 8am, have some breakfast then disappear in family groups for an hour or so and then return once or twice throughout the morning for more snacks. These are wild dolphins and so are not fed much food – they still do their own searching for fish further out from the beach. We are told that the ‘feeding’ section of the beach is out-of-bounds for swimmers, fishing and boating. However a section of this beautiful beach left and right is available for the public to use. We watched as they dolphins swam in and interacted with the rangers and were eventually fed before swimming out to sea again. It was quite a sight. We were told, however, that the dolphins rarely came back into the shore in the afternoon.

Later that afternoon, with the weather still just warm enough for a swim, I wandered down to the beach. The water was freezing, and I was the only person silly enough to go for a dip. After about 15 minutes I noticed two or three dolphins further out and eventually they came further into shore not too far from me. A group of people on the beach walked along watching as the dolphins headed further up along the shore and towards some boats and I thought they were gone. Next the watching crowd turned and began walking back following the dolphins as they made their way towards me. I stood in waist deep water, delighted to see them come so close. The two (mother and calf) swam past either side of me and I could easily have reached out and touched them. One little boy on the beach said rather plaintively “Oh, she is so lucky!” – and I certainly consider I was.

We spent a few days here, but eventually had to move on and as we drove south the bushy landscape abruptly seemed to change to cultivated land not far from Geraldton.  I had read some time ago Randolph Stow’s classic Australian novel “The Merry-go-round in the Sea” which was set in post-war Geraldton and so was curious about the area.  I don’t think Mr Stow would recognise it today – it has grown enormously from the beach-side town it once was. Another group of Soldiers’ Graves at Geraldton was photographed, before we headed inland towards the old Spanish missionary town of New Norcia.
This is an astonishing place – An outback aboriginal mission begun by a small group of Spanish monks in 1846 and still owned and maintained by a dozen or so Benedictine monks. Now they employ about 70 people to provide all the services needed to keep this remarkable little town and district operating for travellers. The Spanish style buildings throughout the town are quite a sight in the middle of the Australian bush. All money generated goes to further the work of the monks and to maintain the many wonderful Spanish style buildings that comprise the town – 27 of which have National Trust listing. In the morning we gathered with a group of other interested people and were taken on a walking tour of the town. A very knowledgeable guide showed us around and told the story of the Mission. Later I visited the well laid out Museum and the wonderful art gallery of religious paintings. (Remember in 2006, the gallery was famously robbed of many of its valuable paintings, however all except one was recovered although much restoration needed to be done).  The town also has a very big hotel – built especially grand in 1926 as it was expected that the Spanish queen (benefactress of the Mission) would be coming for a visit. Unfortunately, ill-health prevented the royal visit, and the hotel was used by parents of children at the mission boarding school. Abbey Ale, the Mission’s local brew was given the thumbs-up by Peter when we fronted up for our evening meal.

The century-old bakery has been restored and locally milled flour is made into wonderful bread baked in the Mission’s wood-fired ovens. If I had a freezer in the caravan, I would have stocked up – it was really beautiful bread.

Leaving New Norcia, we headed out towards the Wheatfields of Western Australia to photograph a lone grave of a returned soldier at Mandiga Siding. This small settlement no longer exists and it took quite a bit of ingenuity and help from local people at nearby Bencubbin before we were able to successfully photograph the last resting place of Private James Freeman. The grave was finally located in the middle of a wheat field some miles away from Mandiga.
On towards Kalgoolie – famous as a gold town with quite a wild reputation.  The goldfields 19th century architecture is stunning with many of the old shops/hotels restored and still in use. The town streets are exceptionally wide originally this width to allow an ox and dray to turn but nowadays the majority of small businesses are support industries for the big mining operations.  The one ‘must-see’ sight in Kalgoolie is the stupendous Super Pit from which gold bearing soil is extracted. Enormously deep, the huge trucks look like tiny toys at the bottom. It is one of the richest gold bearing mines in the world.  At nearby Boulder we photographed more soldiers’ graves before heading to the very large Kalgoolie Cemetery for another dozen or so. We were rather taken aback at the extent of this cemetery but fortunately a very nice office lady in the cemetery office identified for us the position of each grave and supplied photocopied maps. Her kind help saved us hours of frustrating searching and so later that day we returned and presented her with a box of chocolates as a thank-you.

Friday, 5 August 2011

From Broome to Carnarvon

Leaving Broome, we began the long drive south, but detoured off the Great Northern Highway,  to visit Marble Bar – its distinction being once the hottest town in Australia. It is quite a neat small town with sealed roads and kerbing – unusual in outback towns. Probably the nearby mining companies provide much of the infrastructure. The marble bar which gave the town its name, is in fact an outcrop of jasper. The river and waterholes nearby are most welcome on a hot days, and the area is still popular with holidaying prospectors (gold and semi-precious gems).

The low hills in this area of the Pilbara – usually so arid – are sparsely covered in soft green vegetation (a legacy of the massive amount of rain earlier in the year) but the tops of the hills all look like they are sprinkled thickly with dark brown rocks looking all the world like chocolate sprinkles on cupcakes.
Moving on to our next stop which was Roebourne – surely one of the most depressing towns we had travelled through. A big population of aboriginal people live there, but despite the facilities provided (training/business guidance centres, art centre, aboriginal community rooms, men’s meeting rooms, youth centres, welfare and health centres and child-minding, etc., etc.,) the town has a run-down look with many residential streets littered with broken glass and rubbish.

We had a day trip to Port Samson on the coast and also Cossack, an old gold-rush town which was formerly the pearling centre before the industry moved to Broome. There were some lovely old restored buildings there and the scenery was just gorgeous. I was surprised it hadn’t been developed more as a tourist resort area.
Leaving the caravan park laundry and heading for the clothes line with  a bag full of just washed clothes, I noticed a movement on the steps of the laundry just as I was about to descend. Oh, I thought, a gecko – but then realised that geckos had legs and weren’t quite so long and slim. It was a snake a little over a metre in length and brown at that! It disappeared beneath the laundry and so I continued to the line. Several people were purposefully walking past towards a nearby caravan annexe and so I called out to them about the snake. The hunt was on and eventually one of the men despatched the very dangerous King Brown snake with a shovel while an interested audience kept their distance.   “I don’t know how I did that” said the rather shaken hunter, “I usually have to get the missus to remove spiders at home!”

Further south along the highway, wildflowers began to appear with soft mauve shrubs with conical blooms along with low creamy white bushes and splashes of bright red Sturt’s Desert Pea interspersed. Quite lovely amongst the red soil and the white trunks of the eucalyptus trees.
Along these long stretches of remote outback roads and highways there are areas set aside for 24 hour parking/camping. These free sites are of course without power or water and most have just a very basic toilet facility. Nonetheless, they are popular with travellers and up to twenty or so caravans, campers, tents gather at some spots at the end of a day’s travelling. If you’re lucky there are shady trees and sometimes a river (occasionally dry!) but always spaces for campfires to brew up and to cook your evening meal. Sitting outside at night in the silence of the outback is a special feeling and hours can be spent gazing up at the brilliant night sky. Banjo Paterson got it right with “… the air is clear as crystal and the white stars fairly blaze…”

Next stop was Exmouth on the north-west cape.  This lovely area abuts the Ningaloo Reef which stretches 260kms from Coral Bay to Exmouth. We found a dog-minder for an afternoon and then joined a group of about 20 others on a whale-watching expedition.  There was quite a large swell in the ocean once we had passed out over the reef but fortunately no-one was sea-sick.  Around this time of the year, humpback whales swim up from the Antarctica to the warmer waters of the Kimberley area to give birth. I think all up we would have spotted around 20 whales and it certainly was fantastic to see them breeching. Motoring back into shore as the sun fell into the sea behind us gave us a most brilliant sunset. Take-away Chinese food that evening completed a really lovely day.
Moving on after the necessary washing and cleaning up was done, our next stop was Carnarvon with its Earth Tracking Station dish (used by NASA in tracking the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab space projects). This town had been hit quite badly by floods earlier this year and the widespread acres of fruit growing plantations were still recovering as were the residents. Nonetheless, in spite of its obvious agricultural wealth, the town – to us – seemed in general to be rather down at heel.  Again the insurance companies here mostly seemed to be able to wiggle out of paying up for the flood damage, so much tidying up and restoration still needs to be done.

Next stop – Monkey Mia.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Halls Creek to Broome

At the remote caravan park at Halls Creek, we were surprised to find old acquaintances from home (well, Somerville). Jenny and David had been off-roading for a few days and had come into a park for the necessary washing and cleaning up. It was lovely to see them and we enjoyed their visit in the evening for a nice natter.

Next stop along the way was at Fitzroy Crossing and we stopped at a nice shady park near the old Crossing Inn which had been the original stopping place for travellers for over a hundred years. Even better, the Inn had a very nice buffet meal available in the evening and we sat out under the stars enjoying the good food and a nice glass of wine. Had a walk by the river with Jessie next morning before setting forth again towards Broome.
We took a side road beforehand and drove up to Derby (pronounced DERby in Australia). This remote town with its extremely long jetty jutting out into King Sound seemed to me to be the very top of Australia but, of course, its not.  Sunset at the jetty is a favourite attraction for visitors and the setting sun really is spectacular. There is a restaurant/take-away cafĂ© right by the jetty and most people seemed to stop here on their return for the famous fish of the north – Barramundi and chips. Not a bad way to end the day. Just 7kms outside Derby is the Boab Prison Tree – used in the old days as a temporary stop on the way to Derby.

Broome was a place I had always wanted to visit and unfortunately so did everyone else escaping the southern winter. No parks in Broome had vacancies and so we ended up staying at a new park – only 2 weeks old – at Broome Gateway (about 20 minutes out of Broome). The amenities block was beautifully architect designed and had lovely hot showers, however the layout of the park was not finished, nor were power and water connected to the sites. Nevertheless we survived the red dust and used our auxiliary power for light in the evenings. During the day we drove into Broome to stock up on supplies and see the sights. The town has grown enormously since its famous Cable Beach Resort was established in the 1970s. The architecture of the newer buildings throughout the town is almost exclusively corrugated iron and is surprisingly very distinctive and appropriate in the hot, tropical setting. Cable Beach itself is beautiful – great stretches of smooth white sand with some rocky outcrops. Three companies were doing a roaring trade giving rides on camel trains up and down the beach. The main attractions and indeed many of the stores were selling pearl jewellery. The pearling industry had long been a major industry here and the Broome Museum had a wonderful display of early equipment that the divers had used. It was a perilous way to earn a living though, as the separate cemeteries to Japanese and Chinese pearl divers who had perished, testifies. These are beautifully maintained, however I thought it sad that the Broome European cemetery was not in a very good state at all.
At the weekends, a lovely outdoor art and craft market operates from the tropical garden surrounding the Court House. The variety of stalls and the entertaining magicians were a lovely way to spend a few hours.

In the afternoons we headed for the beach – not crowded Cable Beach, but nearby Riddell Beach which was similar but not so nearly crowded. A swim in the azure blue Indian Ocean was just brilliant and Jessie, too, enjoyed a paddle although she loves taking a bite at the white wave tops, resulting an hour or two later, with one rather ‘green’ looking dog.