A Travellerspoint blog

The Savannah Way - Lawn Hill and the Gulf

(...or "Welcome to Queensland. You Better Have Booked Ahead.")

semi-overcast 30 °C
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===Part IV: North by Northeast===

Soundtrack: Not Alone by Suicidal Romance. Followed by more Maria Bamford...because Maria Bamford.

Crossing into Queensland is symbolic, at best. Coming the other way there are large billboards declaring a huge warm welcome to the Northern Territory. Going east however the only signs are those warning me against transporting banana, mango, or sugar cane plants or equipment across the border. Heavy penalties will apply.

Welcome to Queensland.

The road from the border is sealed in longer sections, the tropical flora slowly changing to plains of modest greenery with the occasional escarpment to break up the monotony. I stop by Hell's Gate Roadhouse because they have an espresso machine; the billboard at the road advertising "Real Coffee!". Even in these parts they are not entirely uncivilized.

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Later the road returns to classic Outback green on red with a fine layer of dust.

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Some way down the road just past an Aboriginal community called Doomadgee I have to make the decision as to whether I continue on my intended route towards Burketown or detour south to Lawn Hill National Park as advised. If I maintain my course and nothing goes off the rails I'll likely end up with spare time to allocate at Cape York.

But then I perform a very simple calculation in my head: the number of times I'm likely to be this close to Lawn Hill National Park in Queensland Australia in my life time is probably one. Now.

The gentleman in Borroloola described the road south from here to Lawn Hill as one of the better gravel roads he's traveled. It is relatively tame to be sure, but quite meandering, the minute details of which are hidden beneath the scale of the otherwise simple and straight lines in the road atlas. Once the road turns down into Lawn Hill Station it begins to straighten out in long stretches across grass plains but has several groves and creeks to navigate.

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Outback Solo Observation #5: recent studies (that I invented just now) have shown that on any given day there are approximately 70 giga-million flies alive in Australia. At any given geographic location, there will be about 40 million within the immediate ten square metres around you. And if you are travelling by yourself...you're their only target. (Also, and it may be my imagination, but Queensland flies seem much more aggressive than in other states).

In any case, the detour is worth it.

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First, Lawn Hill National Park has a small cellular bubble that lets me get my call home that I missed in Daly Waters. But mainly it provides a wonderful afternoon wandering through - and above - a gorgeous ancient tropical gorge.

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The day is overcast, this allows me to tackle the hike up to the top of the flat - and exposed - plateau that overlooks the gorge and jungle around it in relative comfort (compared to what it would have been in the direct sun; even in winter the sun here is intense and potentially dangerous if not properly prepared).

After descending back down I continue exploring the trails around the area, and at one point a snake slithers across the path ahead of me. It’s too quick, I don't get a usable picture...but I don't get bitten either. All I know is that it was black, and chances are that is bad. I could be wrong though.

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Queensland has a very rigid system for campground bookings in their national parks, and you cannot simply show up without reserving and paying for your site ahead of time. I arrive back at the day use lot, thinking since I need a place for the night and I'm already here I may as well try my luck and log onto the Queensland park site to see if I can snag a site. If websites could laugh at people, this would have been a textbook incident. But it was nice enough to recommend a bush-camp some 50 kilometres - and due to the roads, almost an hour travel time - south of here. Totally in the wrong direction.

Just outside the entrance to Lawn Hill National Park, about 10 kilometres from the gorge parking lot, is Adel's Grove taking full and well-deserved advantage of this meaningless red tape. And it is very much a grove, a large free-for-all camping area tucked under a thick umbrella of tropical vegetation beside the unearthly azure Lawn Hill Creek. I manage to squeeze into a small spot under gum and palm trees, and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening pouring sweat in the sweltering humidity.

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At least they have a patio bar.

***

I pull out in the morning having thoroughly enjoyed my time here. Adel's Grove is really pretty; it would have been a nice place to enjoy a couple days relaxing. Maybe in another life.

Soundtrack: Near You by Technoir. And Bill Burr.

Nothing interesting really happens today over the course of four hundred kilometres of driving, with the exception that at one point early on I catch air. Don't tell the hire company...I wasn't going that fast (honest!), but the road from Adel's Grove to Gregory Downs seems to enjoy peek-a-boo with its dust-lined pot-holes, and I manage to hit a particular one at the right angle and I good-ol'-boys it for a small distance…but since this is a lumbering Toyota Landcruiser, the effect is amplified somewhat when I land. Nothing breaks, but I swear I hear the truck sneer some very choice words under its constant rumbling.

Solo Outback Travel Observation #6: if you are travelling alone and don't have someone smarter than you helping you pack, don't bring light cream-coloured shorts for a trip through a country whose most abundant resource is fine iron-oxide dust.

I refuel and resupply in Normanton, and check into a local caravan park as the thought of carrying on and looking for bush camps seems a bit tiring. I chat with a nice couple from South Australia who provide enough tips about Cape York that I don't really remember, well, any of them. But they were happy to help, and very friendly.

I spend little time packing up in the morning; my road today may be hiding some unknown challenge.

Soundtrack: Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain) by INXS. In fact, I listen to INXS as much as I can before some song that stings the heart comes on and I have to change my selection. I move on to Bobcat Goldthwaite.

I leave the pavement again; the main road turning west towards the coastal tourist hot-spot of Karumba, me following the Burke Development Road north east-ish. The scenery is beautiful...

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...but the road itself is made of gravel with large patches of a very fine gray dust. It is also roadtrain-infested. A couple times I find myself slip-streaming in a cloud that leaves me completely blind in all directions. If I slow down or stop, someone behind me might not see me and slam into the truck...and I can't slide over to the right, I won't see oncoming traffic until it is too late. Thankfully I have the UHF radios, and several times I find myself chatting with these roadtrain operators - who once aware of me, happily help in finding safe places for me to pull around them. Super friendly and helpful, every one of them, mostly because I suspect they don't often get treated by other travelers with the respect they command (recall, these things are upwards to 50 metres long; the term *train* is not being used frivolously!) Least of by what I suspect they all think is a "Yank".

By midday I reach the point where the Burke Development Road and the Savannah Way turn harder to the east and slightly south towards Cairns, but I'm more interested in a short-cut to the Peninsula Development Road - a route called the Dixie Track that continues north-east across a lower-lying area of the gulf that can be tricky if not impossible after any substantial amount of rain. The weather seems to have been good in the area over the past while so the going should be OK.

Near the start of the track at the Mitchell River crossing I stop and converse with a local surveyor who shows me maps of all the station lands I'll be travelling through. He advises that if I need to stop along the way for the night, I should call into whatever station I'm in and request permission. Good advice, but hopefully not needed.

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I cross the very wide but thankfully shallow Mitchell River and follow the Dixie Road. It turns out to be a marvelous road, very good condition up to the last station on this side of the low lands that the road cuts through; it then shrinks down to a narrow track with several ruts and washouts that force me to maintain a casual speed. This is fine - I've seen worse, and besides, the day is still full and the road is unquestionably beautiful.

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Soundtrack: Set Out Running by Neko Case.

The road improves after passing Dixie Station and the last forty kilometres are just cruising through more serene Outback Queensland montages of gullies, forests and road-crest viewpoints.

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And as the afternoon shifts from earlier to later, almost before I know it, I arrive at the Peninsula Development Road.

I've reached the road to Cape York.

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Posted by stevecrow 23:01 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

The Savannah Way: Across the Top

(...or "Happy Canad-...I mean, Territory Day!")

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Something I've been meaning to bring up. Something subtle, but undeniably significant. It took me a while to really take notice.

It seems that at some point, maybe in the past couple years, that the Australians all got together and collectively made a decision. A generation-defining cultural shift...something you only notice by actually being here.

I regret to inform you all that it seems that "G'day" has been universally replaced with "How-r going?" as the official Australian greeting.

There are, of course, some slightly more rare variations: "How-r-you-going?", "How-r you?", and I once even got something to the effect of "Howryarite?"...though I probably misheard. There has been the odd G'day said to me, but I can recall no more than two since getting here.

Further, one of the popular bits-of-advice-cum-urban-legends here in Oz is that you always check your shoes before putting them on. The point is, of course, some horribly venomous spider could very well have taken up shop in the dark recesses of your foot ware. I should make a point that at no time have I felt the need to scope out my shoes in the morning for any demonic arachnids, and hence have never bothered.

This morning, I slip my foot into my shoe and I feel something wet. I take my foot back out and notice my sock is in fact slightly damp. I lift my shoe and gaze into it, and lock eyes...with a sizable frog. It hops out to the ground, croaks, and casually hops away, pissed at the sudden eviction.

I'm simultaneously happy I didn't squish the little squatter, and at the same time...uh, that was gross.

By the way, welcome to the filler material...

Soundtrack: Can't (Halloween) by Scarling.

I leave Home Valley Station, cross the Pentecost River...

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(still an enthralling experience but it has unfortunately lost a bit of its novelty) and traverse the final stretch of the Gibb River Road, the last 80 kilometres or so from El Questro now completely sealed. I spend some time in Kununurra finding a glass shop that can replace my windscreen sooner than later because although I have a contingency plan if I need to spend the night here in Kununurra - and I should point out it is a lovely little lake-side town to spend time in if I did - I'd prefer to stick to my itinerary and continue east today if possible. There are only two glass shops in town, and thankfully one of them takes in my beaten truck immediately and drops me off in town to do some shopping while they perform the work, and picks me up afterwards. I'm back on the road by early afternoon.

My last stop in town is to fuel up before hitting the Victoria Highway. After paying for my fuel, I wander back out and find the motorcycle guy I helped back on the road to Mitchell Falls filling up his Kawasaki. What are the odds? Apparently very good.

Soundtrack: Chris Hardwick.

The Savannah Way is a designated and promoted tourist route of roads that connect Broome on the west coast to Cairns in Queensland on the east. It accesses several national parks and other attractions, and has several optional alternate routes along the way depending on type of vehicle, itinerary, and desired destinations. I've technically been on the Savannah Way since Broome as the Gibb River Road makes up the northern alternate section connecting Broome to Kununurra, the southern route being the sealed Great Northern Highway. I'll be primarily following the Savannah Way for the next several days until almost reaching the Peninsula Development Road leading up the Cape York peninsula.

And no complaints; I drive another two hundred or so kilometres today along the Great Northern Highway enjoying the noble hillsides and sporadic ornamental forests, the heights and thickness of both increasingly elaborated by the growing shadows as the sunset approaches behind me. I remember this stretch from my first trip; it is truly gorgeous.

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I do stop to gaze over the massive (and allegedly estuarian crocodile-infested) Victoria River from a pedestrian bridge.

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And so, in a small town called Timber Creek, dealing with a 90-minute time change forward that both screws with dinner time as well as potentially making the morning tomorrow a bit miserable, I find myself just slightly disquieted about the days ahead. I've pulled off some pretty amazing things so far but the roads to come and how well they will travel is not known. I knew what to expect in the western Australia deserts and through the Kimberly along the Gibb River Road. Now it's a bit of a rat race across the Northern Territory and the gulf region of Queensland to Cape York.

Of course, this is also part of the fun. Part of the discovery. I have plenty of time in the schedule if kismet toys with me.

I befriend a young man (if memory serves correct, 'Darren'), a drifter of sorts from Perth who travels around the north in the Dry and picks up work where he can, and just...well...drifts in between. He just completed a job back on the Gibb at Mount House and is now just relaxing with a book in the site next to me in the campground at the Timber Creek Hotel. I'm somewhat jealous, the idea of an existence that is defined solely by uncertainty, with no concerns otherwise - just him, his truck, and his swag under the stars. Simultaneously he's a bit envious of me and my tackling of what he refers to as 'gnarly roads'. A friendly and good spirit, someone I spend a bit of time with at the hotel bar talking about Australian Football before he drifts away and joins a pool game.

On the way back to my campsite I'm stopped by an Aboriginal woman - a few Aboriginals have been loitering around the outside of the bar since I arrived in the late afternoon. She is clearly drunk or otherwise, and asks where I'm from. I respond with Vancouver, and it isn't clear if she understands exactly where I mean. She introduces herself as a "local...born and raised", something that could be interpreted as pride in this even though the term 'local' is frequently used by whites in a less than endearing tone. She seems friendly enough through her slurred words. But any possibility of deeper understanding is discarded when she looks at me and asks in pretty much a single word "gota-any-booze?", and when I respond with no she's immediately done with me with a dismissive wave of the hand.

As Bill Bryson cited some Australians in his seminal travel novel "In a Sunburned Country": "It's a problem."

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The sun respects the time-zone shift and doesn't come up until after 7am so when I finally crawl out of bed I don't feel as bad about any commotion I make packing up.

I say farewell to Darren (?) and just before leaving unfurl my dollar store Canadian flags and place them on the dashboard. It's Canada Day...for me. You folks back home still have a few hours to go.

I head down the highway for a few kilometres and turn south at the Buchanan Highway that along with being one of the many alternate routes along the Savannah Way will provide a short cut to the Stuart Highway, saving me several hundred kilometres. The road is dirt of course, and despite the obligatory warning signs at the entrance it is a fairly good road. The corrugations are what I would call at this point "bitch, please!" corrugations, but the road surface is topped with a layer of very loose gravel and due to the time of day and the colour of the road, it is impossible to see the numerous holes and dips with any warning and this keeps the temptation to hit the accelerator at bay.

Soundtrack: When the Wolves Return by Ego Likeness. And David Spade.

This road is absolutely magnificent, I'm quite glad I chose it. My drive is decorated with red-rock escarpments, serene creek crossings (the odd one not completely dry) and passages through green desert groves. The highway leads down through the wide Jasper Gorge...

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...and back out into rolling flatlands of Northern Territory Outback. Past the mountain range, the road improves dramatically.

At the intersection of the Buchanan and Buntine Highways at a place called Top Springs I stop at the roadhouse to see about lunch. Upon entering the shadowy building, I find no one attending it. There is (fresh?) deep-fried goodies in the heat tray, so I know it is technically open for business, but after five minutes of gazing around the empty store/bar with no one investigating the obvious noises I make, I give up and head back onto the road and make a sandwich by a creek-side a few kilometres down the track.

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I reach the historic Daly Waters Pub by early afternoon, thankfully, because this place is packed solid. Luckily, I don't require power, because that part of the campground is bursting at the seams.

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When I check in I make a booking for their classic "Beef and Barra" barbeque ("steak and fish" if you are wondering) and the only time slot available is 8pm. This leaves me with several hours to waste. I enjoy a pint of beer - because I'm at the Daly Waters Pub - and then wonder what to do with myself. I can't hang out at the pub all day - by myself, because by the time my dinner is served I'll be shit-faced - likely still by myself. So I quietly make a small stand for my Canadian flag out of rocks and duct tape and hang out by my truck, reading.

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In my mind, I had concocted a flimsy plan to visit this quirky Outback hub and celebrate Canada Day, possibly even evoking some brotherly spirit at the pub. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Today is also "Territory Day" when the Northern Territory celebrates the anniversary of self-governance that arrived on July 1, 1978. Suffice to say that charging into the pub and hoisting my little red and white flag by jamming it into an upside-down plastic cup or whatever would not likely have the effect I was hoping for, and in a word would rather be an ignorant act of foreigner "douchbaggery". Instead I eat my dinner, enjoy the live music (noting that Outback Australians seem to love Johnny Cash!) and hang out and watch the fireworks display with the other patrons and staff at the front of the pub. Perhaps not the cross-continental festivities I had misguidingly imagined, but I do get my fireworks.

Happy 150th Canada Day / 39th Territory Day, everyone.

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I don't necessarily want to say that the campground behind the Daly Waters pub is the worst campground I've stayed in so far this trip...but it pretty much is. In the park's defense, it isn't as though they tout a top-notch camping experience - it's more like a permanent back-country music festival. The park is so packed in some areas I wonder how people are getting their doors open, and even though I was fortunate enough to get a relatively wide-open area to myself on the fringes of the dirt overflow lot, the wafting acrid smell of the septic field is the price I pay. The icing on the cake - and again, not the park's fault - is that the already very weak cellular signal in the area completely disappears in the morning just as I'm about to call home. It never comes back, so I don't get to hear the voices of my favourite people back home. I'll have to do without until the next time, which is...well, I have no idea.

Soundtrack: Wake Up by Collide. Followed by Maria Bamford.

I set out east on the Carpentaria Highway, the southern alternative route of the Savannah Way; the northern primary route travels east from Katherine through Roper Bar before meeting up with the Carpentaria at Cape Crawford (which by the way is a curious name for a town that is land-locked by several hundred kilometres).

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The scenery is striking; I can appreciate the appeal of travelling the Savannah Way in its entirety. From the Stuart Highway, the first four hundred or so kilometres are mostly sealed road, the surface varying in width between full two-lane highway and narrow strip of bitumen up the middle of gravel. I encounter several roadwork areas still repairing the damage after the wet season. I stop in Borroloola at a small park beside a river for lunch and meet a nice couple travelling the other way from whom I gather advice on good places for over-night stops on the road ahead. The gentleman also, after learning of my route, strongly advises that I take a detour south after crossing into Queensland to Lawn Hill National Park, since I'll be close and it is apparently spectacular. Not the first time I've heard this advice, so it is definitely worth consideration.

The Wollorang Road from Borroloola returns to dirt, wide and slightly rough. Both the forest and the air around me becoming more tropical with each kilometre - wide, flat-leafed vegetation and palm-trees accompanying the increasingly stiff humidity.

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After a few more hours I start checking out all the make-shift camping areas set up on either side of each river crossing, of which there are many along here. Some are small clearings perched above a still-flowing river, others are flat areas of sand right in a dry or mostly dry bed. Many of these sites are occupied already, which is not necessarily a bad thing but I would definitely choose an empty site given the chance.

As the sun starts to hang low in the sky behind me I pull off at one of the more popular sites (at least according to my camping app) above the larger Calvert River crossing to find it surprisingly empty. The evening is still young and I could end up sharing the spot, but for now it's all mine.

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While gathering firewood I surprise a small kangaroo who hops out of the bushes and away...and it is unclear whose heart had to withstand the bigger stress test.

By after dinner no one else has invaded the site so I sit by my campfire playing guitar and singing, though at some points I'm not certain the fire was a wise idea; it is still bloody hot and humid even well after dark. I find myself backing away from the heat of the flames.

It's quiet now except for the sound of crickets and my typing, and the small stream running beside the campsite. I missed how awesome solo bush camps are, and I'm not sure how many more I'll get, so I'm going to soak it up for all it's worth.

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My morning drive begins with crossing through the Calvert River, and on my way up the other side I spot a couple of caravans camped on the beside the river. I wonder if my caterwauling made it to them? I suppose it's too late to care now, and besides they're the ones who have to live with the nightmares.

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I tread carefully, the road is frequented by small kangaroos, many of them still alive and not run over yet.

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There is also lots of cattle along the road. I also spot a large black feral pig but the rushed phone picture is less than quality. Also...it's a pig.

About an hour after breaking camp and 7,665 kilometres after pulling out of Perth, I cross the border into Queensland.

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Posted by stevecrow 14:14 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Return to the Gibb River Road

(...or "Spiders and Owls and...Bandicoots???...Oh, My!")

sunny 35 °C
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The early hours are smothered in a low grey sky; it may have even rained a bit overnight. The ground is slowly drying from sheer will alone but the moisture in the air clogs visibility in all directions. Definitely a good time to leave Broome, by mid-day this place may very well be an unbearable sauna.

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4,843 kilometres down. Only about five and a half thousand to go.

And I found the sock. The trip can continue as planned.

Soundtrack: half an hour is spent careening down the highway towards the entrance to the Gibb River Road searching for just the right song. I skip impatiently through a playlist thousands of songs long until the right one - or at least the most appropriate one for now as patience dictates - finally starts to play. Drive by Lana Del Rey. Agreed, quite contrived but it works - and besides, the song reminds me of my younger days as an aimless and very saucy hippie girl.

If only I could record some of the conversations I pick up, eavesdropping, on UHF channel 40. I have a difficult time understanding what is going on, what with the accents and the shitty speaker, but one conversation I'm graced with goes something to the effect of "....garble garble...the black button on the brake...garble garble...looks *fine* in that dress...garble garble garble...Billy?...Billy?...static. ...Fuckin' hell...."

I hope Billy is ok.

I pass the Roebuck Plains and the clouds part, dropping me into a brilliant and very warm Kimberly day to travel. A couple hours later I'm at the entrance to the Gibb River Road. Travelling east down the road I find it familiar but also feel that the road, once the bitumen ends, seems to be in much better shape than it was five years ago; very likely the result of both frequent grading due to the increasing influx of tourism along the route and my honed experience in much worse roads.

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Despite stopping numerous times for photos and firewood gathering, I reach Windjana Gorge National Park just after lunch. I find it, as it was the first time I came, already packed. Almost every tree in the campground has camping rigs clinging to it for shade. I find a vacant spot under a modest gum tree and get out to find, to my amusement, that I'm parked in the exact same place I was when I stayed here in 2012.

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After lunch, I head off to tackle the gorge, determined to see as much of it as possible, still angry at myself for wasting so much of my time here on my previous visit searching for my sunglasses that I dropped.

And would you believe...that I find my sunglasses???

I hope not. That would be pretty foolish to think that was even remotely possible. Unicorns aren't real, either. (Leprechauns are, though).

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I explore the first part of the gorge, and take pictures of the lazy freshwater crocodiles slumming it on the shore line. I then head down the trail, hoping to this time follow it to the end - or at least as far as I can go.

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At one point the trail branches at a long sand bar that I slowly trudge along, admiring the tropical vegetation and unearthly black and red cliffs lining the gorge. At the end of the sandbar I shimmy back up the bank and rejoin the trail and head further up the gorge.

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The trail starts to get rough - washed out in places, overgrown in others. It becomes difficult to even follow the right trail, wandering through flats of tall grass and sharp spinifex that slashes at my shins. The trail is starting to resemble some of my Outback roads.

After almost an hour of fighting a trail that becomes more aggressive and increasingly elusive, and just as I give myself five more minutes at most before I turn back, I come across an old worn out sign nailed to a post in the middle of the trail.

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It basically says that the trail is closed after the second sand bar...I assume this to be the one I walked and rejoined the trail from, and this is about a kilometre back. I must have bypassed a previous warning, and I may have wandered out of bounds. This explains a lot.

Sweating profusely from the heat, I make my way back. I intentionally timed the walk so there is very little chance I'll lose daylight before exiting the gorge, but the possibility I've walked into an area I'm not supposed to be in keeps me at pace. I get back to the sand bar about 45 minutes later but find no warning sign anywhere. I suppose I'll never know if the trail I took really was closed...or just not maintained very well. A trail not well travelled, I suppose.

After sunset, dinner, and fending off some minor heat exhaustion from the walk, I hunt around for an available fire pit to burn the wood I spent time and effort gathering. The fire pits here are designated concrete rings, and were mostly ignored earlier in the day when people were claiming spots because they are all out in the open. But now most of them have been circled by convoys of vehicles. I look over to one that I had noticed earlier as not being surrounded but some people have pulled their chairs up and started a fire. But 2017 Outback Steve walks up and basically invites himself to their fire (ok, I politely ask if I can join them if I offer my wood, and they have no problem with this).

They were a lovely family from Holland (two grandparents, two younger parents, and two little ones, a boy and a girl) who emigrated to Sydney; we exchange travelling stories and I get to learn lots of cool things about Holland. I tell them about my travels through the Outback and the younger dad is amazed and perhaps somewhat jealous. Maybe I planted a seed.

Soundtrack: When the Wolves Return by Ego Likeness.

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I'm back on the road before 8am and very casually make my way up the Gibb. I found a spot on the map the evening before - a bush camp by one of the lesser known gorges, but it's small and if I get there too late the four or five usable spots will be filled and I'll have to find somewhere else for the night.

Still, I don't rush. I continue stopping for pictures, and take a sidetrack down to a gorge I have either not heard of or don't remember, called Adcock Gorge. I'm happy I did, as this gorge turns out to be quite remarkable, with a deep aquamarine pool beneath a tall waterfall pouring down a black cliffside.

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I fill up with diesel at Mount Barnett Roadhouse which is also the entrance to the Manning Gorge campground, and decide that if there is no room at my intended destination, I'll head back here. I've seen Manning Gorge but a repeat visit won't be a bad thing - it was one of my favourite gorges the first time.

I stop a few times to gather wood, and then find the turn-off, an unmarked road leading off the Gibb. The fact it's unmarked may either be a good sign as people won't notice it...or I'm not on the right road. The gps is convinced however, so I proceed (with caution...remembering she's likely still trying to kill me).

It is a semi-rough road for about three kilometres in and when I reach the end I find a small cluster of campsites tucked up by the Barnett River, and one of the sites by the river is being vacated as I drive in. Perfect timing.

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This is the Barnett River Gorge. First, I make my way up to the top of the gorge for pictures...

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...and then down to the river for a swim. I dive in and swim up the gorge maybe a couple hundred metres to some small water falls. I climb up and explore the creek and find several rapids cascading down long rocky plateaus.

I don't have my camera, so all of this is just for me.

Outback Solo Observation #4: have you ever had an entire river gorge to yourself, as though nature has given you your very own natural water park, without screaming children, uncomfortable line-ups, and no pot-bellied white middle-aged guys ruining the vibe? Well, fine...one pot-bellied middle-aged white guy.

I sit under the small waterfall for what seems like forever, just letting it pound me in the back. I have no desire to leave - no 'next thing to do' on my mind, absolutely nothing clouding or occupying my thoughts. It is an incredible feeling to not be thinking of where I came from or where I'm going, only where I am. No moment exists except the one I'm in now.

The only thing on my mind is how lucky I am to have gotten here, what an amazing place this is, and what a wonderful life (and wife!) that allowed me to find this place.

Back at the campground - if you can even call it that - I chat with some people camping in off-road trailers who have done many of the same roads I have. They are mildly impressed with what I've accomplished in only 3 weeks, and recommend I seek out some of Len Beadell's books; apparently, he was a good writer and possessed quite the wit.

The following morning, I break camp as quickly as I can. I have a very long day ahead: the trip to Mitchell Falls National Park. The way to the park starts off the Gibb River Road about 80 kilometres from where I am, and then travels north beginning as a long wide road riddled with vehicle-decimating corrugations for about 160 kilometres...and then another 80 kilometres west-ish along a narrow, winding, unmaintained road that leads to the park. I have to admit I have developed some amount of confidence with rough roads, but still I'm not taking any chances. I don't want to have to rush.

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Soundtrack: Alcubierre Drive by Psy'Aviah.

I'm thanking myself now. The road from the Gibb River Road to the Drysdale Station is 60 fairly terrible kilometres. I have taken some air out of the tyres but this is still pretty bone-rattling. Not quite as bad as some parts of the Canning Stock Route, but what this road has that the Canning didn't is lots of traffic, headed both ways, many of whom are whizzing along at a fair clip. At some of these ridiculous velocities I imagine you don't really have a useful thing commonly referred to as 'steering' (you're coasting over the corrugations so your wheels have very little, if any, contact with the ground). I putter along at a comfortable speed with some vehicles passing me like I'm standing still.

I pull into Drysdale Station to check it out, and find a beautiful little homestead with a campground, fuel, a store, and an outside restaurant/bar. I only buy a bottle of non-alcoholic ginger beer since it's only 10:30 in the morning, but make a note to perhaps stop here for lunch on the way back if it times right.

I continue up the road and only a few minutes later come across a very large puddle in the middle of the road perhaps 10 metres long. It isn't a creek crossing, and the water is a cloudy brown and there is no way to really tell how deep it is. On the other side of the water hole there is a person who appears to be struggling with a motorcycle. I get out and lock into 4wd just in case, and then slowly start to drive right through the centre of the puddle...to find it might be really deep. Probably not deep enough to present any real challenges to my Landcruiser, but there is no point in taking any chances. I back out and inch my way along the right side until I reach the other end. Once on solid ground I get out and find that the guy with the bike is bogged about 3 metres from the edge of the puddle and can't get his bike out. It takes about 10 minutes for the two of us to haul his deceptively heavy Kawasaki out of the mud.

Once I know the guy is ok, I continue on. Some people are still driving fairly fast but I just let them pass me. Then, coming the other way, is a huge Outback Spirit tour bus - a massive tank-like 4wd 'bus'. He's blazing along I don't know how fast. And then...

SMASH!!!

The behemoth whizzes by me and in doing so fires a large rock straight into my windscreen. It hits right at the top: another couple of centimetres up and it would have missed...another few centimetres down and it may have gone right through. A huge dent shows up in the glass, tiny glitter-sized particles of sharp little windscreen shards raining down on the passenger seat. Three long cracks in three different directions radiate out from the impact site.

The windscreen needs to be replaced. The only question is whether I can drive like this until I drop off the truck or if it will need to be dealt with sooner. I'm guessing the latter - it may be drivable at the moment but it will not likely withstand another direct hit.

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I reach the turn-off to head towards Mitchell Falls National Park and after a short drive in I stop at a campground by the King Edward River and duct-tape the large crater in the windscreen for now. I'll call the hire agency next chance I get but isn't likely to happen before I leave the Gibb.

I putter along the last stretch to the park through a spectacular tropical forest along the plateau. It's a beautiful drive though rough and with no shortage of stress due to some of the on-coming vehicles Autobahn-ing the track. After more than one 'could-have-been-a-head-on' I really begin miss the desert.

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I reach the campground and pay for two nights, my only planned multi-night for the entire drive - though I won't rule out others. A wise decision: I find it took me well over 4 hours from Drysdale to get here. there was some time spent when I stopped and ate and had to apply ugly gray Reject Shop duct tape on the windscreen, but that is still a long drive. Also, the walk to Mitchell Falls is upwards of 2 hours one way from the campground, so I'll want to take that casually, and then maybe spend the afternoon relaxing...and doing laundry.

Outback Solo Observation #5: ever sat in a small warm rock pool at the top of a massive waterfall (safely away from the edge of course) by yourself at sunset with the Kimberly sky in front of you radiating with lavender and sapphire and platinum, with a vast lush green and copper below?

My fire is dying, many people have retired for the evening...when I hear a small crash beside me in the dark. I scramble for a light, finding only my phone, and search the ground, expecting to find a dingo. What I find instead is a white owl, perched on a tree in front of me. I quickly take a lousy picture on my phone, and then inch forward to look closer.

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What I find is perhaps the most evil looking owl I have ever seen in my life. They don't make them here like they do at home.

It isn't frightened of me; I step forward and quietly greet the creature. It responds with a roll of the head and the mouthing silent owl words from its beak. Evil looking perhaps, but utterly fascinating.

I step back and appreciate the moment. Not sure if it did.

It was still there when I went to bed over an hour later.

  • **

I embark from my campsite towards the falls around 7am the following morning, the air still cool-ish, or at least as cool as a Kimberly morning up here will get...meaning it hasn't quite hit 30 degrees yet.

The first part of the trail passes by the top of Little Merten Falls (little...as in 30 metres or so straight down little...) where I enjoyed the sunset from the evening before, and down to the gorge below the falls.

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Behind the waterfall is an ancient Aboriginal rock art site. Amongst the ornate drawings are handprints...captured by a person thousands and thousands of years ago. I stare at them quietly. Then make me feel very small in comparison.

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The walk continues through shady forests and then over rock plateaus, leading to another Aboriginal art site.

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As I walk I can hear the constant thundering of the tour helicopters that take visitors from the campground directly to Mitchell Falls. Odd, I think, for a supposedly eco-conscious park that highlights sacred Aboriginal sites (remembering a common aspect of Aboriginal culture is to treat these sites with respect and quiet) to not consider the impact of noise pollution on the environment. But what do I know, I've never ridden in a helicopter - it's probably really fun.

I emerge along the top of Merten's Gorge (the 'Big' falls) that cascade straight down well over 100 metres.

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Later I can hear the roar of Mitchell Falls as I approach. The trail leads through the Mitchell River - a shallow part of the stream that requires wading across. Easy enough now, but likely difficult or impossible earlier in the season when the river is higher.

I pass by the helicopter landing pad and over cliff sides, and finally arrive at the main lookout spot for the falls. And the walk, the drive, the glass shards, the potential owl hex...all worth it.

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I sit and quietly admire the falls for a while, they emit a quiet magic that helps one appreciate why this is a sacred place.

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I spend quite some time just absorbing the experience before I climb back up to the river above the falls and cool down with a swim in one of the pools before heading back along the trail. On the way, I detour back under Little Mertens Falls for a second swim in the gorge. Here I find the most unique looking spider hanging on the underside of a large rock.

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When I get back to the campsite I find it mostly empty except one vehicle right next to me that was here the night before. I hand wash some laundry, and then just sit back and relax with the entire afternoon ahead of me.

Ok...with no small amount of hypocrisy I walk back to the helicopter booking booth and inquire about rides. It's not as if me boycotting the helicopter ride will in any way contribute to them ceasing operations. And besides, I've never ridden in a helicopter before. They're probably fun.

I find one drawback of solo travel - they simply cannot accommodate a single person in any of their bookings. They do offer that I can purchase two tickets if I want. How generous of them.

Minutes later I'm hanging out under my awning and playing guitar. It is so peaceful here, apart from the distant heli-noise briefly drowning out my out-of-practice noodling. What a beautiful afternoon.

That's when the tour group arrives.

I'm in the designated tour group camping area, but had forgotten this minor detail until now. They all climb off their military-grade monster bus and spread out over the area like a virus - I suppose an unkind and unfair comparison but it conveys the appropriate image. Only moments later there are tents everywhere, the entire area occupied.

I admit that when they first started snooping around for spots I *may* have started playing louder...and much worse (if that is possible)...*maybe* on purpose. But these folks were all cool and friendly, and very aware that they were seemingly invading despite them technically having more right to this area than me and my neighbours. The people who set up their tents closest to me make sure they aren't blocking me in or in any way inconveniencing me. I don't stop playing, but I tone down the awfulness as much as I have the skills to.

On the way, back to camp after another sunset swim below Little Merten's Falls I see a furry creature hiding under one of the rocks. It is small and gray, with large black eyes and a long tail. We stare at each other for a moment before he scurries away into the rocks. At the end of the trail I consult the info board to hopefully learn what I just saw. I want to believe it was a bandicoot, because that would be awesome. It is far more likely that it was a possum. But let me believe.

I stop by the dunnie (for you Canadians, the shitter) on the way back to my site to find the most beautiful spider and web. So later, on my next visit I bring my phone and snap a picture.

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That's when I notice some legs protruding from just under the overhang. I look closer...and just when I'm about to try for a picture, I sense movement behind me.

I come face to face with my first good sized huntsman spider. It is perhaps the size of my palm - definitely larger than any spiders we have back home. I snap a quick picture, and then try to put my hand up to it so I can take a comparison photo. The beast quickly scuttles away along the wall. It is so big I *hear* it walk on the metal siding. It may be a nothing experience for an Australian, but I'm profoundly happy to have found one.

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This picture, as photos of Huntsman spiders tend to be, indulgently makes it look *way* bigger than it actually is. Honest. Also, please appreciate me sharing this, because I just erased any possible hope of my wife accompanying me on any future trip to Oz...evah!

Tonight I over-hear my neighbours trying to start their vehicle with no success; apparently their battery has bit it. I wander over and offer to jump them in the morning. Fine folk from Tazzie, and very grateful as well. So many people here in Australia have stopped to help me, I need to pay it forward.

Karma or not, the owl doesn't return.

  • ***

My alarm is the sound of dozens of tour group people tearing down their tents, at around 5:30am.

Knowing I have to deal with the long road back to the Gibb I swing into high gear as well, and I'm pulling up and helping my neighbours with a jump start around 7am. Once they are good to go, I'm on the road and heading back down.

I'm partly thankful I have to take this route again, because it really is gorgeous. I pass a grader in the opposite direction on the way, after which the road gets much smoother. If only he had started work two days earlier.

Just before crossing the King Edward River close to the intersection with the road leading back to the Gibb, I encounter my first snake, under very unfortunate circumstances. For the snake, not me. It is mid-sized, and black with coloured rings. I'm not sure exactly what colour the rings are...or were...because I only get a brief glimpse of it as it slithers across the road...right in front of me. I hope I didn't flatten it, but I have my doubts.

I don't really see any attractions to see today, instead I'm concentrating on the few hundred kilometres I want to cover by sunset.

By late afternoon I make my way to a lookout, just west of my destination, that overlooks the Pentecost Valley.

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And the lookout has cellular service from Wyndham almost 200 kilometres away. This allows me to email the hire company about the windscreen so that perhaps they can arrange something for me in Kununurra tomorrow. This poor vehicle...

I check into Home Valley Station, and struggle with the choice between the main caravan-park style campground - close to all the amenities - or the river-side bush-style campsite about 4 kilometres down a side road. I ultimately choose the former and decide to spoil myself with a shower.

I also make a booking at the restaurant, an outdoor Country-Western-themed bar and grill with live country music. I could do without the American-ese country-western, but I appreciate not cooking and cleaning for the evening.

While I sit at my campsite waiting for my reservation time at the restaurant (*bookings essential*) a friendly bloke from the next site wanders over and offers that if I haven't eaten dinner yet to join them since they have some extra food. Extremely grateful, I decline, but I continue to be amazed at how friendly and neighbourly this country can be.

I finish this entry as the warm evening wind begins to pick up. Once again, as I did many years ago, my heart is heavy at the thought of leaving the Gibb River Road. But the time has come for new places and new discoveries.

Like if, sometime tomorrow, I'll have a new windscreen.

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Posted by stevecrow 05:22 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Intermission: Broome

(...or "Apparently There's An Ocean Here...Somewhere...")

sunny 30 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

===Part III: North by Northwest===

My alarm is the sound of ocean waves, followed shortly by the distant rumble of large mining vehicles. Distant, but not enough. The ground-shaking turbulence melds with the waves, recreating the sound moments before a tsunami wipes us all away.

This bleak comparison that does not reflect just how peaceful these moments are just before the sun rises over the far east reaches of sand. Standing on the beach waiting for the main event, the oncoming of which is preluded with a lavender aura across the ocean. I wade into the tip of the gentle waves. The Indian Ocean is not as warm as I remember, but still consoling.

The Eighty Mile Beach caravan park is one of the nicer I've been to. It is still a caravan park, quite packed, not very private, and definitely does not compare with a clearing on the side of an abandoned road somewhere between nowhere and anywhere, but I don't regret coming. I feel recharged already, and I haven't even reached in the resort waiting for me in Broome.

Soundtrack: Near Fantastica by Matthew Good.

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The drive just under 400 kilometres to Broome from Eighty Mile Beach is only moderately less eventful than the countryside I travel through. The panorama is mostly flat, but flaunts a beauty that can only be appreciated by experience. Pictures tend to do these areas very little justice.

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I arrive in the Broome town centre at noon in a cloudless thirty-degrees, the air seems uncharacteristically dry and missing that oppressive humidity I remember. I park downtown and look for the classic Roebuck Bay Hotel for lunch. When I find it, I'm somewhat surprised to find a reasonably modern building with varying levels of accommodation and a fairly generic bar - I believed it to be a heritage building of sorts. Regardless, I call in for a beer and some lunch before heading off to Cable Beach to find the Bali Hai Resort and Spa.

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With a simple polite request, I'm pleasantly surprised to be given a room upgrade to the deluxe villa accommodation free of charge. The room is spectacular, and really wasted on just me.

I'd love to entertain you with the wonderful and/or quirky and/or embarrassing things I did in Broome this afternoon. There were no such things. I hole up, attend to a metric tonne of laundry, relax, write, read, and do nothing. I don't regret a moment of it.

Dinner is at the local tavern where crowds of people have gathered to watch a football game. If we as Canadians are perhaps a bit snooty when characterizing our ice hockey as fast paced non-stop action - particularly when comparing it to American football, soccer, or even basketball (and *especially* baseball) - I suggest we take note of Australian Football. I get exhausted watching what these men perform in the span of thirty seconds. I wish I knew the rules, because it looks like a sport I might get behind. If the boisterous swarm around me is any indication, it must be incredibly exciting.

As I hinted at, my room is over-qualified to house 2017 Outback Steve. A Balinese-themed villa with lush tropical greenery, soft coloured lights, fountains, and a statue guarding the entrance.

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And just outside, I have my own Pazuzu (or whatever it is) keeping me safe - hopefully.

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The next morning is bright and comfortably warm as I trudge into town after dropping off the truck at the repair shop. They appeared very optimistic I can pick it up later today. If true, this is comforting news.

I explore the entire downtown area, even ducking into the numerous pearl shops - this is one of the big draws for Broome, aside from (or more accurately coinciding with) the local tourism. I am blissfully ignorant about pearls, but I enjoy admiring the exquisite designs and very expensive pieces, occasionally engaging with the proprietors - who very quickly ascertain that I am not in the market for a $20,000 necklace - but chat with me anyway.

Arriving back at Cable Beach on the bus I finally view the ocean and have lunch at Zanders - a restaurant boasting both an idealistic location perched above the beach and much a less than reputable review score on Google. The service, food, and view are all splendid just the same.

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The truck is done by 3pm as the repair shop promised and everything seems back on track. After missing the sunset at Cable Beach for the second night in a row I dine at the restaurant at the resort, a cafe that holds itself in fairly high esteem, requiring prior reservations ("bookings essential"). It was good but I'm not convinced it was entirely worthy of the purported reputation.

I spend the following morning exploring the 'Courthouse Markets' - a collection of local artisans, businesses and food stands set up at - surprise! - the town courthouse. It keeps my interest for some time, many of the handcrafted curiosities unique and interesting, but nothing really screams to me that I should take on the extra weight and drag it home.

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However, I almost buy a plant. I'm not sure exactly what I'm thinking - I suppose I'm thinking that carrying a small plant or flower on my road trip would...I don't know...keep me company? More likely give me another worry when I try to keep it alive - in a pot - for over 5000 kilometres, only to abandon it at the end of the trip. And I haven't, to this day ever in my life, cared for a plant successfully. Thankfully (for the poor plant) the very obscure idea dies out after only a few minutes.

As I make my way back to the truck I pass by an Aboriginal man shuffling down the sidewalk. I greet him with good morning, and he stops and replies "Hey, mishta! Mishta!" I stop, wondering exactly what business we might have, but as a cheery Canadian tourist I give him a moment of my time. "Lemme ashk you sumthin," he says. Like many visibly down-trodden - and the fact he is Aboriginal means nothing - he has been robbed of any visible age; he could be 25 or 55, but the fact is he reeks of cheap beer and it isn't 10:30am yet. "Where you goin'?" he asks me, and I reply that I'm headed to my car. He pauses a moment, and then unexpectedly asks "can I come with you?" Truthfully, and considering this could have been some white person on the street back home, I have to process the request; I expected him to ask for money. I reply, no I'm sorry, you can't come with me, and I wait for the response, not knowing what to expect. He nods, and carries on his way.

I try not to think too much into what just happened, because it would be impossible to figure out whether there was any good way to deal with the situation. Pity could be just as much a detrimental reaction as indifference. All I know is that Broome has a dynamic where the influx of seasonal tourism comes together with a very visible population of disenfranchised Indigenous people, and as much as I want to believe there must be a solution somewhere, it's possible there simply isn't one.

I lunch at a local brewery and then get to work - I have to resupply, fuel the truck and fill the propane canister, but I vow not to miss the sunset at the beach tonight. I walk into the Woolworths near Cable Beach - the same grocery store I experienced a minor panic attack at on my first trip - and as usual shopping takes far longer than I plan or want. After this I fill the truck and ask the attendant where in town I can get a gas bottle (the propane) filled. He answers with two places, but informs me that neither will be open until Monday. And it's Saturday afternoon.

Without LPG, I'll soon be eating sandwiches for dinner and drinking cold coffee since there is nowhere on the Gibb River Road (or between here and there) that services gas bottles.

Did I mention how prepared I am? (Yes, Steve...many times...sigh...) I have a link to a website that shows all the places in any specific location in Australia that provides propane service. After checking out three different spots on the map I find they all have only canister swap service for the large gas bottles that won't work with my stove (without a bunch of adapters and fittings - that I'm sure I could buy...on Monday morning).

I call into the very last station on the list before I resort to visiting all the caravan parks in town to see if they can help. And the sun is already setting. I cannot believe that I am, again, racing the sunset...and I'm not even travelling! How does this happen? If only this were a marketable skill.

At the station, I find a cheery Steve Irwin-ish bloke who very happily tells me he can most certainly fill my bottle, frowning and shaking his head when I tell him what the attendant at the other petrol station told me. He fills my bottle and I'm ready to hit the Gibb River Road.

But I still need to get to the sunset at Cable Beach.

I make it just in time and join the hundreds of other people gathered around to appreciate just what a dazzling display the sunsets here are. I wander down to the waves and walk into the water as the sun ducks down behind the distant horizon.

My thoughts turn to my amazing wife at home, as they have many times already, taking care of our children and living out life as it would be if she had no husband. She would absolutely adore this beach, this sunset, since she is a child of the ocean. I miss her tremendously but I know that no matter where I go I have her with me. We may be tens of thousands of kilometres apart, but we will always be two halves of a whole. No matter what happens that will never change.

(That said...if any of you guys are thinking of taking a run at her while I'm gone, I'll help you out a bit. What really turns her crank is if you offer to clean the garage. And replace the fence in the backyard. Oh, and help finish painting the living room...and go through all my socks and toss out all the ones with holes. Also, build a porch beside the retaining wall in the back. And for God's sake, get those kids and the dog out of the house for a while and give her some time alone. Her heart will be in your hands in no time. You're welcome.)

I have missed my darling this entire trip (fun fact: by the time I get home we will have been apart longer than any other time since be started dating *as teenagers*). But I expected to miss her, so perhaps I was more emotionally prepared this trip and I've managed to stave off the homesickness so far.

But I do feel sad about something. I realize this may be the last time I see (and touch) the Indian Ocean in my life.

Truthfully, I could have been thinking the same thing about everywhere I've been in Australia but I've been focusing on enjoying each individual moment rather than spend time regretting any possible future or wallowing in any past. But perhaps the Indian Ocean is just something so massive and meaningful, I can't ignore the reality of my situation.

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I say goodbye to Cable Beach...maybe for good...and spend the rest of the night cleaning up and packing for the second leg of the road trip. Even as I eat again at Diver's Tavern and enjoy the boisterous crowds yelling at the football match, I have that deep pit of remorse that won't quite go away.

But I'm here now and that is what really matters. Enjoy every moment. Appreciate every second life gives you. And never regret anything. And if I ever get the chance, I'll come back here in a heartbeat.

But later in life if I have no heartbeats left to get back to Broome and the Indian Ocean, or to Australia, I'm happy I made it here one last time.

I'll hold on to that.

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PS.............and then, it happens.

I've survived getting lost, getting sidetracked, getting stuck, and driving a leaky vehicle. I've travelled through some of the harshest and most unforgiving territory on Earth all alone. But now misfortune finally springs up, grinning with evil malice, and drops on me when I realize in utter horror...

...I've lost a sock.

Posted by stevecrow 01:47 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

The Pilbara

(...or "Taking a Leak Through The Northwest of Oz")

semi-overcast 24 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

It seems staying in a caravan park has thrown off my 'Outback Time': waking up just before the sun rises between 5:30am and 6am. For all intents and purposes, a sizable portion of the day is already gone when I crawl out of bed.

I have humble plans today though. I enjoy one last long, hot shower, it could be the last for the next 3 days. I also take advantage of being in cellular reception to first call home, and then my father. It is Monday morning for me, but still Father's Day back home. This is now the third Father's Day I have spent on the other side of the world away from my boys. I'm grateful they seem to understand.

It is well past 9am before I see Kalgan's Rest caravan park in my rear-view mirror, but I have fewer than 200 kilometres of driving today.

The lower Pilbara region is grand and vast as I head north. The hills and valleys a contrast of green tops and sharp, flat red sides.

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Soundtrack: Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode...really loud (who hasn't done this, thinking themselves quite clever?).

The drive today, by my standards, is quite brief. I reach Dales Campground in Karijini National Park by noon. The campground and much of the park feature a flat expanse of burned out forest, and this tends to intensify the sunlight despite the temperature being no more than mid twenties at best.

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I'm assigned a campsite which I consider upon arrival to be one of the ugliest spots in the whole place, but this is just the way I think. The whole campground is burnt out, the last wildfire appears to have decimated the place, and really all the sites are under or in between blackened skeletal trees with no real foliage.

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After failing to set up my awning to provide some suggestion of shade (my truck is oriented completely wrong for this to work), I head out towards Dales Gorge, a short walk from the campground. I follow a trail that leads around the campsites through the graveyard that once must have been a thick and lush forest. The ground all around the charred trees has become coated in hundreds of different kinds of emerald plants and flamboyant desert flowers. According to the camp host, many of these flowers will only been seen after a brush fire, playing a major role in forest rehabilitation.

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Numerous termite mounds are dotted around, monoliths of immense proportions. The trail has several black streaks across it; upon closer inspection, I see they are actually ant freeways leading between their hives and spinifex bushes.

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Without warning the ground ahead of me gives way to an enormous gorge, at least 100 metres deep and much wider. The steep red cliffs are almost overwhelming in their height, swallowing my field of vision in front of me. The gorge far below has its own ecosystem - plentiful with olive-leaved gum trees and blocky shaped boulders.

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I descend carefully down the semi-natural steps to the water holes below.

The air is fragrant with hints of lemon and vanilla, the water gathered in pools of milky green and murky charcoal. I follow the first path to Circular Pool, along the way climbing over flat ledges and over stepping stones across the water.

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The rock is almost mathematical in nature, stunning in its complexity yet soothing in its cool and stoic permanence.

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Circular Pool is fed by several trickles of water streaming from somewhere up the rock. It is a popular swimming hole, but undoubtedly cold as it appears to get very little sun due to how it is tucked in amongst the cliffs.

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I enjoy the cool breeze that drifts off the water edge before heading back down the path that leads along the gorge floor.

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Along the way I am treated to golden grass, still pools, small waterfalls cascading down stair-like rock formations, and more clambering along stony cliff sides.

And as if there aren't enough things in Oz trying to kill you, apparently you need to be weary here of mountains that could turn into horrible monsters and eat people.

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Eventually I reach Fortescue Falls with diamond clear water careening down into a deep sapphire pool. The air here is sweet and earthy.

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I climb up and continue on, finding a colony of bats high up in the trees. These bats are smaller than the ones in Sydney, but much more vocal. I had no idea bats could be so grating and noisy.

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The last stop is Fern Pool, a place held sacred by the local Aboriginals. It is fed by a small waterfall and has a small dock with a ladder leading into the water to allow swimming without diving in as it is considered disrespectful to create too much commotion here.

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I retrace my steps back to Fortescue Falls and climb out of the gorge, following the edge back to the campground.

The stars are dazzling tonight, the cool night air finding its way through every fibre of clothing. I may regret that I decided to sleep in the tent tonight.

The following morning as I dust myself off and prepare to leave, I encounter my first real 'oh shit' of the trip - and consider for a moment to this point I have gotten temporarily lost in an abandoned homestead, had to bush-track my way around a lake, and dig myself out of a wash-out.

The front of the truck is leaking. Something dark and greasy smelling. It isn't engine oil or diesel or coolant, but I don't know what it is. I just found out what will be on my mind from now on.

I drive down to the Karijini Visitor's Centre, partly to take a quick look, but also to see how the truck drives and how bad the leak is. When I return to the truck I see the leak is slow and steady, not spitting...not stopping either. The truck seems to be running fine, so I press on; I don't really have much of a choice. I'll keep an eye on it, and also keep track of my shortest routes to any town with a mechanic if things go south.

I repress my anxiety into a painful little ball and follow through with my plans for now. I stop at Kalamina Gorge, and casually (this takes effort) climb down into the gorge to explore the water falls and a short length of the path down the river.

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Returning to the truck I find the leak persistent but at least predictable. Still, I find no adverse impact on how the truck runs.

I continue on through the lower Pilbara and the park, crossing broad valleys that no picture I take can properly capture.

I make my way to the west side of the park and north to Hamersley Gorge, a natural waterfall and system of pools that look as though they were hand-made as part of some eclectic amusement park.

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At the top of the gorge is a rest area that has, of all things, a remote wifi hotspot. So I type into Google the words 'Toyota Landcruiser front axle leak'. Every hit says the same thing: front differential. Wondering what this really means - and thinking to myself that not knowing what this means should completely disqualify me from even being allowed to operate one of these machines - I hesitantly approach a couple that are driving a similar vehicle and ask whether or not they happen to know much about these trucks.

Of course, every second person in rural Oz knows about these trucks. You don't live in such a remote country without being at least minimally competent in simple vehicle maintenance, and the gentleman immediately confirms Google's suspicions. This means is that I don't really have 4wd capabilities anymore until it can be repaired. The good news is that I shouldn't need to off-road anywhere between here and Broome...the bad news is that it needs to be fixed before I carry on from there.

I email the hire company to let them know; hopefully they will have some suggestions once I can check back with them.

My road leads north straight through the gorge and along the west side of the park. Once I start veering east, I find that every gps I have now thinks I'm driving through nothing, the road I'm supposed to be on is apparently several kilometres north. I guess someone moved the road. I get confused when the intersection I expected to find to take me north just simply isn't there. Thankfully some wide-load road trains come barreling through and I radio them on channel 40 and ask for advice. They very kindly point me in the right direction, and I'm soon back on track.

I'm headed towards Millstream National Park to see more of the Pilbara. I'm barreling along a wide but very corrugated dirt road when something I had once been listening for - and had over time had forgot about - happened.

FLOOMPH.

I'm not sure how to describe the actual sound, but the consequence is immediate. I've blown my first tire. This poor truck.

I pull to the side of the road, and confidently get out to assess the situation. The rear driver-side tire is flat. No problem, I think, as I look through the truck for the jack. I don't find a normal jack, but I grab the Kangaroo Jack - a large steel contraption useful for getting unstuck - figuring this might be overkill but should do the trick.

The damn thing will not engage and raise. After messing around with it for ten minutes, getting dirtier and blacker each second, another vehicle pulls up and asks if everything is ok. Embarrassed - keeping in mind I practiced using one of these back at the rental depot - I ask if he knows how this stupid thing is supposed to work (I paraphrase, I was far more polite and probably pathetic than that) and he pulls over and hops out to help.

Turns out I'm not a complete moron - neither of us can get it to work, and finally he is kind enough to loan me his normal jack and after a few more minutes the wheel has been replaced. They happen to be headed to the same park, so I promise that if I see them at the campground I'll bring the beer.

I reach one turn-off into Millstream National Park that leads west, but the spot I had picked is further down the road, about forty kilometres. Further on I drive through a network of dry creek crossings and then along a winding road through small mountains and lookouts.

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The sun is just starting to gear up for its exit when I reach my destination, a place called Python Pool. And I am greeted with a very prominent NO CAMPING sign.

Every map I have shows this as a campground. Of course, standing here and arguing with no one will not solve the problem so I evaluate my options. I could carry one down the road, but this looks iffy as once I leave the park I end up in a long stretch of Aboriginal reserves and station lands. There were several pull-outs in the mountain pass I saw along the way but technically I would be camping in a national park illegally. So that leaves the only other option. I sigh, and point the truck back the way I came. Racing the sunset. Again.

It is a bit over sixty kilometres back-tracking to the now only official campground in the park, for many of the last twenty kilometres when I turn west the sun makes me pay each moment for my ill-informed decision. My bug-stained windscreen redirects every ray of sunset directly into my eyes.

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I pull into the Miliyanha Campground just after sunset and settle in for the evening...in the dark. A gorgeous campground, I suppose...in the daylight, with friendly camp hosts who inform me that camping has been discontinued at Python Pool because 'the Locals' used to make a habit of driving in at night and trashing the place. "They ruined it for everyone," the host sighs, and I reserve any comment. I never know where the real story lies between discrimination and truth and I'm not in a position to judge.

The following morning a fellow I chatted with at the camp kitchen the night before who just happens to be a diesel engine mechanic takes a look at the leak and once again confirms the diagnosis, and acknowledges that I should be fine provided I don't need 4wd. I'm finding this country full of amazing awesome and helpful people.

He also helps me find the real tyre jack in a semi-hidden compartment at the rear of the vehicle. I try not feel like a complete idiot, but it isn't easy.

I take in a bit of Millstream before heading towards the Great Northern Highway. A lookout over the river...

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...the top of a small mountain...

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And after backtracking the full sixty kilometres, Python Pool.

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Soundtrack: Beautiful Girl by INXS.

I reach the highway and stop for lunch at a pub called Whim Creek - on the advice of the folk I met the night before back at Millstream ("You have to call in at Whim Creek for a beer"). I don't normally drink beer unless it is after a long day of travelling, but I follow their tip, and it is thoroughly enjoyable. A couple at the table next to me are bottle-feeding a baby Kangaroo that they picked up after the mother was killed on the highway.

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The Corellas in the cages in the courtyard say hello - literally. They also introduce themselves - literally ("HARRIET!")

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I phone the rental company, and they have already booked me into a mechanic for Friday morning - can these people get any more fantastic? This lets me spend the next lengthy stretch of highway driving through the flat expanse of north of the Pilbara in relative ease.

Soundtrack: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash (this really works when soaring through the endless plains of northern Australia...but is also a bit creepy, since it makes the perfect opening credits song for the next Wolf Creek. But now I'm wondering...am I the victim, or the villain?).

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And now the soundtrack is the muted crashing of the waves of the Indian Ocean just over the dune between me and the shore here at Eighty Mile Beach. It's a caravan park, and not the best camping, but it is comfortable and did not require 4wd to reach.

The climax of the evening was the sunset, everyone scoping out a place on the beach to watch the water briefly burn with the last tendrils of sunlight. The air is warm and humid. Even though it is quite definitely not the Outback, it is still peaceful and reassuring. I've made it this far, relatively unscathed.

I'm definitely doing better than the poor German brothers set up in the camp next to me - they just totalled their car on the beach, bringing their aspirations of an epic trip through Oz to a grinding halt.

Leak or no leak, things could be much worse for me.

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Like...*much* worse.

Posted by stevecrow 01:29 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

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