Tag Archives: Travel

Rock Art

It sends a shiver down my spine.  I see strange elongated figures dancing, wearing tall headdresses, limbs swaying to the beat.   They share a space with crosshatched echidnas, giant kangaroos and striped thylacines.   I almost hear the voices from the past, ancient humans communicating across tens of thousands of years.   The rock art in the Kimberley region is unforgettable.

On our way back from Mitchell Falls, we find two aboriginal art sites.  The land here is flat and sandy, dotted occasionally with stacks of quartzite boulders.   The cultural sites at Munurru are well marked and easy to find from the road.   The well beaten path from the car park leads the way, but then you are on your own.  There are no signs telling you where to look, or even what to look for.   We become explorers, searching the jumbled pile of flat rocks and rounded boulders for the best place to paint.  We look for a hidden recess, the underside of a rocky overhang,  the roof of a small cave – a flat piece of rock, easy to reach, well protected from the elements.  We try to think as the artists did, to adjust our eyes to look for a red, white or yellow line that is man made.  And suddenly the art begins to reveal itself.

Echidna

Echidna rock art

The paintings are drawn in red ochre, yellow, black and white.   Many are overpainted.    Some are clearly recognisable human figures, animals and plants.   Kangaroos are easy to recognise.   There are root vegetables, maybe yams?   A striped animal with a straight tail has to be a thylacine, the Tasmanian Tiger, painted thousands of years ago when he still lived this far north on the mainland.  He’s sadly now extinct.  Two huge birds painted lying horizontally, head to head, look like brolgas.  Thankfully these elegant birds are still with us.

Human figures wear what appear to be grass skirts and pointed head dresses with tassels.  They are shown moving, with bent knees and elbows, I assume in a dance.  They are beautifully painted in a very distinctive style.  Apparently they are examples of the famous Gwions or Bradshaw figures that are found throughout the Kimberley region.  People are also painted more simply, carrying bags or boomerangs and wearing skirts.  Pictures of daily life.

Leaving the obviously human figures, we move on to panels of otherworldly creatures.  Odd squatting frog like figures appear in one shelter.  I learn later they are child spirits, the first sign of new human life.  When a woman is found to be pregnant it is believed her husband has dreamed of a child spirit and allowed it to enter his wife.

Wandjina

Wandjina rock art at Munurru

It is said the child spirits came originally from the Wandjina, the mythical ancestors who sang the land into being.  The Wandjina panels at Munurru are eerie.  The ancestors have stark white alien faces with large blank eyes that stare impassively back at the observer.  They guard a burial site where a human skull and bones have been placed on a rock ledge in the sacred site. A common practice in this tradition.

A cooling wind blows gently through the boulders, but the air is heavy here with human history, with stories of the oldest surviving human culture on the planet, with images representing powerful myths that have endured for millennia.

Research continues, but recent dating of artefacts in the Kakadu indicates that aboriginal people have lived on this continent for 50-60 thousand years.   Imagine that.  It’s humbling.

Kimberley foundation:  Kimberley Foundation on YouTube

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.  

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.

Halls Creek

On the way to the Bungle Bungles we stop in Halls Creek for provisions.   Our second battery, the one that powers the fridge and lights on the camper has not been charging and we ask around for a repair shop.   Halls Creek has everything a passing traveller needs and we soon find Reados Repairs.  

Reado gets stuck in straightaway.  Multimeter at the ready he checks the electrics, announces the second battery is not charging, but the main battery is good.   He can’t replace the Redarc charging unit that he thinks has failed, but jury rigs a bypass that will get us on our way.   Bush repair job done we wander into the Main Street.

The township has a bakery, a huge IGA, a butcher’s shop and a groovy new cafe next to the information office.   We guzzle down flat whites and mango smoothies.  They are rare delicacies after our days in the Tanami Desert.

At Halls Creek two worlds collide.  It’s a busy town.  Grey nomads are everywhere.  In their uniform of shorts, tshirts and caps, they fill up on diesel, water and free sugar, lifted from the local cafe.  There’s a large local population of indigenous folk too.  Groups of aborigines sit under shady trees as they have for thousands of years.   They watch the campers and caravans drive by with as little interest as they must once have watched birds fly from tree to tree.  I wonder what they think of the incessant busyness of the white man.  

School is out and indigenous children play on bikes or with footballs.   One grey nomad in tight blue shorts tries to cross the cultural divide.   “Lovely place this”, he calls to a tall bony local boy with a shock of black hair, baggy jeans and a loose football shirt.  The boy grins, shakes his head and looks around puzzled, as if to work out what the white fella could be referring to.  “Do you like living here?”, asks Mr Tight Shorts.  Another sheepish grin and the boy shrugs and slopes off, bare feet dragging in the dust.

In years gone by it was not so relaxed.   Alcohol took its toll and the community struggled with addiction, poor health and education.  New controls on alcohol sales seem to have helped.  Now police wear native designs on their shirts and their relationship with the black population  appears good.  For now the two worlds coexist.

Europeans first arrived here in the nineteenth century when Halls Creek was the centre of a gold rush.  There’s still gold in these parts if you know where to look.  At the caravan park we meet a couple of treasure seekers – modern day prospectors, looking for gold.   Ronnie is a wiry leathery skinned Croat with dyed jet black hair.  He speaks of gold with a passion and in an almost indecipherable accent.   He describes diving into rivers to chase an old seam and hunt underwater for the hidden gleam of yellow metal.  At Halls Creek he’s using a gold detector and a shovel.   He literally dreams of gold and has had some success.  He found 1 kilo last year.  Enough to pay for the occasional trip back to the old country.  His wife smiles indulgently.   It takes all sorts.

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.


The Tanami

Author: Richard McSephney

The Tanami has a reputation.

It’s very rough, not very interesting, it’s only a shortcut.

Well, I have to say I thought it was great. Maybe finding a couple of ripper bush camps helped?

I have to admit to being a real truck fan so for me watching out for the enormous road trains was an added bonus. These beasts are truly gargantuan. Think of a normal semi, or as others may call them articulated trucks. These beasts have four of those trailers joined on the back so your looking at about 60 meters long being towed along by a 600 horsepower Kenworth.
These trucks are made in Victoria from an American design modified for the harsh Australian conditions. Around 50,000 of them have been manufactured since their introduction in the 70s but out here they are truly the king of the road so imagine my surprise as I see one in the distance, let’s say 2 km away. My eyes must be deceiving me. It’s on my side of the road.
Now what is the etiquette in these circumstances?
It’s very easy. Move over and let him go any where he wants! I did and that’s why I’m still able to write this piece.
To be fair it was an extremely rough piece of track and he was trying not to turn to a cocktail the 100,000s litres of fuel he carried. He was plying his trade from Alice across the Tanamai to points north and west. This is the north west’s life blood. We certainly found that out when we arrived in Halls Creek and found closed signs on the diesel pumps.
What do we do now asked a visitor?
Wait until the Roadtrain arrives! When will that be? When he arrives!

I really enjoy the drive, we keep a distance between the vehicles. The dust hangs in the air making forward vision almost impossible. I mean for at least 60 m of zip if a Road train passes.

We approach Wolf Creek!
Now I’m not a horror fan but for those who like to entertain themselves with fear, this location is the site of an horror film par excellance. I’m just not into that entertainment. In fact I’ve been known to cause great entertainment to others who find my easily alarmed nature amusing.
Take the other night.
We walk in darkness to a local hotel in Halls Creek. Two Aboriginal ladies join us and give us direction to the hotel entrance. I lead and as we walk up the path there’s some rustling in the undergrowth. My alarm level rises and unlike other circumstances where the rustling recedes, It doesn’t this time and continues toward me. Well I start hopping about squealing and carrying on like a pork chop ( for non Australians that means acting like a fool). Then a large cane toad appears. My dance pace increases with steps that at audition for Michael Flately’s troupe would have me touring with them in a flash.
I reach the hotel entrance and safety only to hear the chucking of our Aboriginal guides, muttering to each other about this dopey white fella. They of course are probably crocodile wrestlers and can’t understand what the ridiculous fuss is about. Still probably gave them a story to tell their pals who I could envisage all shaking their heads in disbelief.
I learnt my dance steps from earlier experience s with frogs. Whenever I saw a frog in the garden when the kids were young I would hop about like a complete idiot explaining to them that I just didn’t want to step on the poor chap. I think they never swallowed that either!
So Wolf Creek horror film would never be for me.
I think briefly that I should suggest we camp here for the night out of sheer bravado and so I could say to anyone who won’t “chicken eh?” but can’t think of a sound excuse for withdrawing my suggestion if anyone actually agrees. So I dare not raise it.
If you’ve seen the film you’ll realise that the acting from those who should be awarded an Oscar doesn’t actually come from their skills learnt at acting school but the realistic terror is real. They had no idea what was going to happen and were really terrified. I can’t help but laugh….from a great distance with the lights on!
The crater is astonishing, written about elsewhere in the blog.
I fly the drone to about 100m altitude and take some photos. There’s a blip and the vision signal is lost. I see the drone so ignore the auto return to home and manually fly it back, re boot the system and set off again. A second warning ⚠️ sounds and again the return to home is triggered. I grab a couple of quick shots and land wondering if maybe my drone has caught my sense of spookiness.
I pack it away and we’re on our way.

As we approach Halls Creek I reflect on the previous couple of days in the desert.
I don’t care what’s said about the Tanami I loved it.

 

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