Category Archives: West Australia

Mitchell Falls

The worst road in Australia leads to Mitchell Falls.  It is the Kalumburu Road.  It is a hard gravel road, corrugated so badly that the vibrations will find and shatter any weaknesses in the metal and plastic of your vehicle.  It is a rocky road, full of washouts and pot holes.  The rocks are sharp and pointed and cut through brand new tyres without a second thought.  It takes 2 or 3 hours to travel less than 100 km and at the end of it you feel like you’ve spent the afternoon rattling around inside your washing machine on quick spin.  

Hey, we know how to have fun!

It’s awful.  We passed top-of-the-range offroad campers with broken axles, 4WD utes with lost bullbars, overheated red-faced men changing punctured tyres and recovery trucks taking trusted vehicles for repair.  Inside our Land Cruiser, the bracket for the reversing camera fell apart.  Outside, our metal toolbox, welded to the ute tray, was hanging by a spot weld.  All fixed with some tape and strapping.  We were the lucky ones.

So, I hear you ask, why oh why would you do it?  

Oh it’s worth it.  It’s worth all this and more to take the walk to Mitchell Falls.  If you are visiting the Kimberley, this may well be the highlight of your trip.  It was certainly mine.

Turning with relief off the Kalumburu Road, we navigated the deep King Edward river crossing then stayed overnight in the nearby Munurru campsite.  This is a popular and attractive grassy site by the river, an excellent spot for weary travellers, with everything you need – swimming, fishing and good toilets.  We sampled some of these delights, but didn’t stay long, leaving early in the morning to take the Mitchell Plateau track up to the falls before the sun rose to high in the sky.  

This track was a rough one, but nothing like the day before.  Lush livistonia palms took over the vegetation as we rattled further north, vibrant green fronds covered liberally with paprika red road dust as we passed.  After a couple of hours we arrived at the car park, ready to walk to the falls.

It’s about a 9 km hike.  9 km of the most varied terrain imaginable.  It had everything, I loved it.  Let me count the ways… it had inviting swimming holes, ancient rock art, rock hopping over huge boulders, flat rocky plateaux with vertigo inducing drops, lilies, birdsong, inclines up and down, wading across a fast running river and then, at the end, the glorious Mitchell Falls, also known as Punami unpuu.

Looking for rock art at Mitchell Falls

Richard on the way to Mitchell Falls

 

You feel small before the mighty Mitchell Falls, even at a distance.  And you have to have that distance to take in the scale of the four tiered waterfall.  The Mitchell River hurtles over a precipice before crashing down into a vast rock pool, collecting there, then tumbling down again, and again, and again, before continuing on its way to the sea.

The natural energy released here is vast.  It’s tangible.  You can feel the air humming with its unstoppable force.  Looking across at the falls from my perch on the other side of the gorge, I couldn’t quite believe it’s raw, powerful beauty.  A photo will not do it justice.  

Of course, you can fly in by helicopter and hover above the falls without getting your feet wet, your brow heated or your clothes dusty.  But to me, the journey is a must.   I felt the same when I visited Uluru, you have to drive the corrugated road and walk the dusty track to feel the wild, remote power of these natural wonders.  

Tunnel Creek

It’s dark in here.  All I can see are some dancing lights ahead with the sound of water splashing as footsteps come towards me.

We are walking in a long dark tunnel carved through the Napier range by the waters of Tunnel Creek.   I am barefoot, feeling the crunchy coarse sand and cool water on my skin. I begin to make out the shapes of the people ahead as they splash through the water towards us.  The walls of the cave are ochre red and white.  Stalactites hang down and create amazing shapes in the shadows of the torchlight.  All is pitch dark except where the torches flash.

It’s impossible to see the depth of the water in this light and we are cautious as we step into a dark deep pool of water ahead.   It’s quickly up to, and then over my knees.  I hope there are no freshwater crocs in here.  We walk on.

We hear water falling into the creek to our left and point the torchlight that way to find a small waterfall where the creek water falls in a bubbling curtain over a marble white overhang.  We watch for a while.  Maybe that’s the head of a croc lying under the waterfall?  No, no, it’s just a stick throwing strange shadows.

The tunnel is about 750 metres long.  The ground is rocky in places and I wish I had waterproof shoes to protect me from the sharp edges and uneven surface of the creek’s course.

Splash, splash.  We turn a corner and fierce bright sunlight pours through the end of the tunnel ahead.  Clambering out, squinting in the light we walk under the shade of palms and blood woods.   Howard calls and we look up to see him peering down from a limestone overhang above. “Up here.  Rock art!”.   

Indigenous people have used this tunnel for centuries.  But there’s a more recent story that conjures up ghosts as we walk back through the darkness.  

This tunnel is said to have been the hiding place of an aboriginal man known as Jindamarra, nicknamed Pigeon.   He appears to have been a kind of black Ned Kelly, an indigenous outlaw.   

Working for the police as a tracker, he is asked to round up men from his own people.   He does as asked, but then relents, kills the accompanying policeman and sets his compatriots free.  They run off with him and the gang hide in this mountain range for 3 years, raiding the local area for food and some say leading an armed insurrection against the police.  He becomes a hero to his people, who believe he has supernatural powers to avoid capture for so long.  The police are desperate to catch him, as a rebel, for killing their own, and as a turncoat who they had once trusted.  

Eventually they find their man, and he is injured in a shootout.   He hides in Tunnel Creek to nurse his wounds,  there they track him down and he is killed.

Wading back though the water with our 21 century torches, this tunnel is still daunting.   What a hiding place it must have been.  How deep into the tunnel in the dark did he hide?   How did his hunters discover him there?  What shouts and cries reverberated around this place?  Like all the best stories, many questions are left unanswered and so to our active imaginations.

We reach the stone waterfall.  Halfway back.  The torch shines under the overhang.  That stick? It’s gone.   It was a croc after all!  Splish, splash we hurry out towards the safety of the daylight ahead.   The story of Pigeon and the darkness of the tunnel lingering in our minds.

The prison tree

Outside Derby there is an ancient boab tree.   They call it the prison tree.  They say this tree is around 1500 years old.  It has watched many cycles of human history.  When boabs age, they become hollow inside.  Trees this old are big enough for men to stand in.

The story is that the boab was used as a staging post for captured aboriginal people in early colonial days.   Under the beauty of a Kimberley sunset lies the dark past of the region.   The original inhabitants were treated with cruelty and disdain.  Dispossessed of their land, they were made into indentured servants, little more than slaves or killed if they did not submit.  They were captured and tethered to trees awaiting their fate.

While the history of this particular tree as a temporary prison is apparently suspect, it symbolises this violent period of Australian and British colonial history.  

I found it a very disturbing place.  A reminder that this country was built on dark deeds.  

This boab tree is still alive.  It’s not a monument but a living individual, scarred by tourist graffiti and morbid attention.  Has it absorbed some of the evil that was done here?  Perhaps. I felt I needed to see and acknowledge its pain.   I needed to say sorry for what we’d done.

Call me a tree hugger.  Call me crazy.  But that’s what went through my mind when I walked around this old boab tree.  It is still imprisoned by our past.

Derby

Watch the sunset from Derby wharf.  Bring drinks, nibbles a comfortable chair and your camera, if you like.  Or simply your eyes and ears.

It’s not a big tourist town.   You won’t have to peer over the shoulders of Country Road clad holidaymakers from the big cities.   The wharf is simple, industrial.   Timber planking underfoot, walk out along the wide pier and watch the eddies of the tide swirl in the water.

Walk west along the wharf.  The water becomes translucent, rose pink, amber, shimmering.  The sun seems to grow larger, dripping its final molten rays into the sea.  I apologise for the flowery words, but it’s a beauty.

Broome 

In the dry winter months the sun shines on Broome every day and temperatures are always in the late twenties to early thirties.  Here the dusty traveller can quench her thirst with house fermented ginger beer from Matso’s, the local brewery.   Oh, it’s good.   Refreshing citrus notes fire up into a fierce ginger bite.  Perfect on a hot day.  Richard takes a liking to an angry ranga.   No, not a red haired Scottish barmaid, but a beer with a chilli kick. 

By chance we are also in town to see the famous stairway to the moon.  We join other tourists who flock to the seafront to see the full moon rise over the water, its golden red reflection creating the illusion of heavenly steps leading away from this world and into the mystic.  It’s amazing to see people gathering to watch a natural phenomenon in the party atmosphere of a New Years celebration.   There’s no countdown, but we have a very precise time for the moon to rise, 6:31pm.  It’s there on schedule and despite hundreds of iPhone camera flashes, it is still quite beautiful. The huge red moon slowly rises and the shimmering golden steps appear.  In a few short moments it is over, it’s just another full moon and the crowds disperse.

It’s busy.  Both West Australia and Northern Territory schools are closed for holidays and Broome is bursting at the seams.  We retreat to a bush camp and spend two nights camping in the sand dunes at Quandong Point.   Steak sizzles on the campfire barbecue and we toast Broome as the sun goes down over the azure Indian Ocean.

The next day we walk the beach looking for whales and dinosaur footprints.  Whales 1 Dinosaurs 0.  We see a humpback whale out to sea, but no sign of dinosaurs.  It’s disappointing. This area of the coast is known as the dinosaur highway and apparently  has more dinosaur tracks than anywhere else in the world.  We decide the huge tides have hidden them from us.

Deep red cliffs edge the beach,  contrasting with the white sand and deep blue ocean.   It’s a landscape in primary colours.  As the high tide recedes, it reveals a pavement of black rocks, forming hundreds of rock pools where sea salt crystallises in the hot sun as the water dries.  We peer into the rock pools at tiny fish and slow creeping sea snails.   Our campsite neighbour, a Frenchman, found a small shark in a pool earlier and skinned and filleted for dinner.  No sharks for us.

Our walk ends at a palm fringed point where a rickety old plastic chair looks over a picture postcard ocean view.  An invitation to sit and stare a while.

Land of the Boabs

Freshwater crocodiles are becoming more aggressive in Geiki Gorge as they grow familiar with human traffic.  They soak up the sun on the sandy banks of the Gorge, mouths open in a long lazy yawn.  Occasionally one will slip into the water for a feed of barramundi or smaller fry.  Like their larger more dangerous cousins, the saltwater crocs, they are a remnant from the age of the dinosaur.  They proliferate here under the protection of the national park.

We take a boat trip along the Gorge with the Departmemt of Biodiversity, Environment and Attractions.  I think I’ve got that right, the park ranger stumbles over the clumsy new name.  We glide across the water in an unsinkable flat bottomed boat, 25 years old.   She’s to be replaced with a fancy upgraded version later in the month.  The new boat, costing millions, will have toilets, bow thrusters and a shiny paint job featuring smiling crocodiles.  This may draw in the punters, but the toilets and bow thrusters can’t be used in the national park, and the ranger will be sad to see old faithful go.  

The Geiki Gorge stands tall above us.   It is the remnant of an ancient Devonian coral reef.   The water has cut into the rock over the years, creating vast overhangs that shade the river.  A fig tree high up on a limestone ledge stretches its roots hundreds of metres down to dangle them in the cool clear waters below.  Pink and white, sculpted like the backbone of an enormous dinosaur, we marvel at nature’s artwork.

The crocodiles fascinate us.   Young ones lie in groups and slide into the river for safety as we pass. A grumpy old grandfather looks up to see who has woken him from his dozing, then closes his eyes again to dream of fish suppers.

It is late in the afternoon when we leave the Gorge and the sun is sinking rapidly.   Five o’clock is sunset this far north.  We drive back to Fitzroy Crossing where the local rodeo is in town.   Then head off on the road to Broome.  Howard is convinced he can find a little bush camp out of town.

The bitumen road to Broome holds little hope for the bush camper.   On and on we drive, as the setting sun drops lower and lower in the sky.  Finally the turn off to Tunnel Creek appears to the right.  It’s a gravel road.  Maybe there’s a place to stay for the night.

We drive along several kilometres of fenced road without luck.  Then, up ahead two boab trees stand sentinel either side of the road.   Their branches like arms raised in silhouette against the twilight.   “This looks promising”.   We find a clear spot near a fence corner, build the camp fire and set up for the night.   

In the morning we wake to see that our sentinel trees mark the start of boab country.   The landscape is dotted with these incredible bottle shaped trees.  Their trunks are a shiny elephant grey, skin stretched over a knarled skeleton.  Some are huge and ancient, covered in warts and with misshapen limbs.  Others are young and supple, lifting graceful bodies to the sky like ballerinas.  A couple stand together, entwined in each other’s arms, trunks leaning close, whispering sweet nothings.   

The boab is more than the average tree and this is their country.  Boab country.

The Bungle Bungles

The road to the Bungle Bungles is rugged.  We turn off the bitumen of the Great Northern Road and drive fifty kilometres of wilderness track.   It’s sandy.  It’s rocky.  The road twists and turns, climbs and drops.   We turn a corner and are faced with a river crossing.   The cars driving towards us from the other side hurtle across, scarcely slowing as they enter the water,  bow waves washing over their bonnets.   Caravans rocking along behind.  It’s deep, but with a firm base.   Easy!  But unexpected.

The map says we should allow 3 hours to drive this fifty kilometres, but its not as slow as that with Richard at the helm and in 90 minutes or so we catch our first sight of the Bungles.   The towering red rocks sit on a lush landscape.   Silver gums, blood wood, spinifex (of course), black spear grass, yellow flowering acacias and red holly grevillea grow on the flat plains of the Purnululu National Park.  The afternoon sun casts long shadows and deepens the outback colours.  Beautiful West Australia.

We choose the unpowered campsite and find a shady spot for the night.  There are waterless toilets and bore water on tap.   All the mod cons we need.  Next door the site is set up for a family of six.   Five swags are laid out in a row.  Mummy and daddy bear have a double swag at the end of the row, followed by a swag each for the four little bears (teenagers all).   A shower stands at right angles to the double swag and a flood light is angled across the site.  Such a neat set up convinces me they must be Germans, and I’m a little disappointed to find out later that they come from Darwin.  German ancestors maybe?

Early in the morning we head off for the northern side of the Bungles.   Every viewpoint is dramatic and otherworldly.  We walk through the famous sandstone domes, striped red and black by the action of ancient bacteria on the soft stone.  They say the Bungles were formed 300 million years ago.  Impossible to imagine such a passing of time.  The path leads us over the pebbles of a dry watercourse towards Cathedral Gorge.   The rocks change colour, blushing pink as the hot Kimberley sun rises higher in the clear blue sky.


Cathedral Gorge is awe inspiring.  A vast cavern cut into the side of a towering chasm.  The floor is sandy and holds a pool of water.  Black traces high on the red rock tell of the waterfalls that cascade in to fill the chasm above head height in the Wet season.   Every footstep, bird call and human voice echoes around and around the rocky chamber.   This is why we build cathedrals with such high ceilings.   We can’t help but feel small in such vastness.   We can’t help but think of powers greater than ourselves.

We walk on, up a broad path with a pavement of huge flat slabs of stone.   It’s another dry water course.   It must become a white water river in the Wet.   When we make it to the lookout we are greeted by a bus tour crowd keen to capture a group photo.  Richard obliges.   ” Just one more”. “And for me”.   Cameras are passed back and forth until the appetite of the crowd is sated.   The final must-have photo is of the tour guides.   He leans away awkwardly while she snuggles up close and grins happily.
A quick sandwich, a few lemon cream biscuits and we’re ready to tackle Echidna Chasm.   Once again our walking boots crunch along a dry rocky watercourse, this time of pink, white and red pebbles.  The sun is higher now.  It’s hot and the cool shade is welcome as we enter the chasm.  Incredible orange red colours play on the flat walls.   Sturdy palms and vines cling on, their roots dangling down in search of water.  As we move deeper into the rock, the passageway gets narrower.  We can see the end.  “Not much further now, Beryl”.   I look up and the girl in front of Howard has disappeared.  I look back and Howard too has disappeared.   Like a magic portal, there is a gap in the rock that hides the final stretch of passageway.  I clamber through and walk the last few metres to view the end of Echidna chasm.

We take the afternoon off to relax at the camp.  Tomorrow we’ll tackle Mini Palms Gorge.  We’ve seen enough to know  it will be spectacular.   The Bungle Bungles are the Kimberley’s wonder of the world.