(...or "Taking a Leak Through The Northwest of Oz")
19.06.2017 - 21.06.2017 24 °C
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The rock is almost mathematical in nature, stunning in its complexity yet soothing in its cool and stoic permanence.
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.
I enjoy the cool breeze that drifts off the water edge before heading back down the path that leads along the gorge floor.
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.
Eventually I reach Fortescue Falls with diamond clear water careening down into a deep sapphire pool. The air here is sweet and earthy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
...the top of a small mountain...
And after backtracking the full sixty kilometres, Python Pool.
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.
The Corellas in the cages in the courtyard say hello - literally. They also introduce themselves - literally ("HARRIET!")
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?).
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.