The Croom in Broome
Knowing how much we love our jollies and hate working, it was high time for some adventure. So hold onto your hats dears- we're off on an epic journey right now! Exmouth, some few hundred miles up the coast from cold and rainy Perth (we have 60 days of gloomy weather a year here, life can be hard) was our first destination. The only real reason to go to Exmouth is to try your luck at swimming with a whale shark. These mighty beasts grow 5-12 metres on average, with the largest one on record measuring 17 metres! Fortunately, they are harmless to us humans and most other aquatic life as they are plankton- feeders and have a massive mouth to filter all the krill as the cruise along. They are officially the largest fish in the sea (they are sharks, not whales) and frequent these waters from March- June each year. Humans pose more of a threat to these amazing creatures as, unbelievably, they also
fall prey to the evils of shark-finning. This diabolical trade has reached gargantuan proportions and is currently one of the biggest threats to our ecosystem. For more info, go and see Sharkwater and whatever you do, do not patronise (Chinese) restaurants serving shark fin soup, or buy any other shark products. Without sharks, the top predators are removed from the equation, which is creating environmental chaos in our oceans. Sea Shepherd do a fantastic job of frightening away all the bad people who would rather earn their money slicing fins off live sharks before throwing them back in the ocean only to be eaten slowly by other fish. So, rather than send us any money for Christmas, please make a donation to Sea Shepherd instead!
Now it's still rather chilly up in Exmouth this time of year, but the good people at Ningaloo Reef Dreaming don't believe in giving you a wet suit as it can slow you down in the water when you are hot-finning after a shark. Setting out on boat, the calm water twinkling in the sunshine and the spotter plane above us, we knew we were in for a wonderous time. Perfect conditions and almost three weeks away from work! It wasn't too long before the pilot noticed a shark, and radioed the skipper. The boat then positions itself in front of the whale shark, everyone jumps in the sea and waits for its enormous mouth to loom towards you. As soon as you see it, you have to move to the side so you can all swim along together marveling in the wonder of nature.
It can be very scary waiting for something whose size you can't quite comprehend to find you. Suddenly, there she was - a 6.5 metre female, gliding majestically through the water as if expending no energy at all. We, on the other hand, had to swim as fast as our little Croom legs could go, just to keep up for five minutes. After this time, the shark was pretty much out of sight and so the next group jump in the their turn and so the cycle repeats for as long as the shark wants to stay with you. We managed to swim with her for a full hour - the maximum time the allow you by law. Lunching on the boat, two humpback whales decided to play near the boat just to add to our already amazing day. Another couple of days spent exploring Cape Range National Park, enjoying the nightlife of Exmouth (bars:2, restaurants:3, luxury accommodation:1). But really, why stay in the Novotel Resort when you can have Ningaloo Lodge complete with baby cockroaches to keep you company?
Broome is the gateway to the Kimberley region of NW Australia and lies another few hundred miles up the coast from Exmouth. July marks the beginning of the dry season in the Kimberley, making it the only sane time to visit. As the plane touched down from Exmouth, picture-postcard colours of the region - bright red pindan earth, white sand beaches and aquamarine sea struck us instantly. Established by Japanese entrepreneurs in the 1880's, Broome's main industry was pearling, and the town remains strongly influenced by it's Asian connections. Malay and Chinese joined forces with Aboriginal divers to man the lucrative but dangerous trade. Many divers died from decompression sickness as primitive dive equipment was used. The breathing apparatus consisted of a long tube leading up to the boat and the diver communicated with the boatman with a series of tugs on the rope. Many others were eaten by sharks or got Beri Beri, but somehow amongst the 400 peal-luggers, 80% of the world's mother-of-pearl originated from these waters.
Our first night in Broome consisted of us staying in yet more luxury accommodation. This time it was my doing, some dodgy backpacker place we could not escape quick enough from. So we headed straight out to Gauntethaume Point. Home to the best collection of dinosaur footprints in the world (apparently eight different types), we were more inspired by the beautiful sunset over the red rocks (see third picture) as the tide was in and most footprints obscured. We have since learnt that this spot is a sacred Aboriginal site and you aren't supposed to climb on the rocks. So sorry about that. Also sorry about the bottle of wine and cheese nibbles consumed in celebration of the next leg of the holiday...
Broome is famous for it's iconic white sand Cable Beach. It is actually closer in proximity to Indonesia than any other Australian state and it's sense of isolation is palpable. A must-do is a sunset camel-ride and a must-have photo is the camel train plodding along the beach. Our camel was called 'Rusty,' a wayward creature who didn't like to be stroked (as he was likely to give you a nasty nip) and he did a lot of wailing. So we trotted up and down the beach for an hour, with some poor girl whose job it was to pick up all the camel poo as we went along (bare hands!)
An annoying couple on the camel in front insisted on trying to stroke Rusty, even though they had been told not to with his biting history. I was envisaging the beast becoming enraged and throwing us to the ground in a hilarious but deadly episode of Death-by-Camel-Toe, but all he did was grind his big yellow teeth. Andy almost came a cropper as he was dismounting as unruly Rusty tried to stand up. He managed to regain control and Rusty received a sandy carrot as a treat.
We then headed off in our 4WD camper on our roadtrip. First stop was Cape Leveque, on the Dampier Peninsular (4th picture). Most of this remote region is Aboriginal Land and you need to have permission to be there. Within half an hour of leaving Broome, we found ourselves in the outback. The red, corrugated unsealed roads took some getting used to and driving on them can be quite hazardous. Being the organised (read paranoid) types though, we had about 60 litres of water, two full tanks of fuel and enough food to feed Rusty for a month.
I know I might have a natural tendancy towards drama, but you do still hear of people being found dead in their vehicles, having run out of supplies! Good job we had our satelite phone (scarily complicated to use, would have been no use in a proper emergency), on loan and a couple of mobiles with no reception. Before long we encountered a dead cow lying in the road, it's stomach contents spilled all over the road and in a sorry state of decomposition. Thus began our 3,500km roadtrip, interrupted only by the need to return to Broome to go to the ATM! All that organisation and we hadn't even thought about bringing any money with us. Oh dear...
Derby is famous for it's enormous baob 'prison tree,' used as a lockup for Aboriginal prisoners en-route to The Old Derby Gaol (photo 7). The tree is thought to be over 1,000 years old and measures 17 metres round. Derby also marks the start of the notorious Gibb River Road, a track so lumpy and bumpy, only 4WDs are allowed. Baob trees are synonymous with images of the Kimberley. Found also in Madagascar and Africa, the trees store water in their massive trunks to see them through the dry season. According to Aboriginal folklore, the tree formed too high an opinion of itself, which made the gods angry, causing them to pull the tree out of the ground and throw it back in upside down.
Baobs are used locally for shelter, food, water and medicine. Approaching the prison tree, I noticed a small fire in the bushland nearby. By the time we had taken several photos and had conversations surrounding imagining how horrific it might be to be locked inside a tree in the desert heat with a load of snakes, the small fire had progressed to a massive bush fire (photo 5). It made a very eerie backdrop with lots of crows circling the scene, smoke, red earth. I felt quite eager to escape the scene, rather that be left burning in the middle of a fire, but it seems we had to get sufficient footage of the incident before moving on.
The Kimberley is gorge country, and an area of astounding natural beauty, with each gorge presenting very different geological features. Windjana Gorge, and Tunnel Creek offered our first taste of the gorges. Tunnel Creek is a 750m-long passage which is pitch-dark in places. You have to take a torch and there are bats, so the wade through the icy water is quite scary. This is croc territory, so you have to be careful as some gorges have saltwater crocs ("salties,") i.e. the dangerous ones, some have freshwater crocs ("freshies") i.e. the harmless ones and some have neither. And if you can't see them, it could be that they are waiting on the waterbed for you! Windjana is home to hundreds of freshies, some of them quite big and menacing-looking. Beautiful Bell Gorge (above, right), fortuitously tranquil and devoid of tourists on the way in... shame we encountered a bus-load of Americans on the way out.
Mornington Wilderness Camp had come highly recommended and so we luxuriated in a two-night stay! Normally we move on each and every day, which can be pretty exhausting as you are either driving or walking. The main excitement of Mornington is the presence of a bar, something quite rare in these parts. When I say luxuriated, I mean we stayed in an eco-camp, devoid of flush loos, sat absolutely freezing on a small stool listening to a Sandy Toksvig-lookalike talk about the importance of saving shrews and promptly gave myself food poisoning from a dodgy kangaroo steak. We both ate the same thing, but of course I had to have mine blood-rare and we were cooking by crappy torchlight, so it could have been crawling with maggots for all I could see. Next morning I was feeling rather weak, but my husband being of a caring nature made us go out on a canoing expedition through Dimond gorge (above). Cruising up the mirror-still water, I soon got over myself and we had a great day. All the driving had taken its toll on the van, though as we discovered a flat tyre the following morning. Andy did a great job changing the tyre and the mission to get organise a spare only altered our course slightly.
This gave us the opportunity to take a flight over the Mitchell Falls from Drysdale Station. Personally, I had more fun experiencing life in the outback than I did on the scenic flight... there are some strange people who choose to live in absolute isolation from the rest of the world. But the beer was cold, they had a spare tyre and they were a very friendly bunch, if a little scary. Andy was in his element, humming the tune from Deliverance at every opportunity. Not the best way to make friends.
Beautiful Galvans Gorge (left) proved to be a hidden beauty and revealed our only glimpse of Aborignal Rock art. Nestled underneath a stunning waterfall the safe swimming hole was only really safe if you pretended not to notice the spiders sitting in massive webs over the water. Of course, I'd left my bikini in the van and was boiling hot so had to swim in my pants. We then got chatting to an old couple who were, surprise surprise from Brighton. Of course I couldn't exit the water until Andy had finished his 40 minute conversation with them as I was partially-clothed, but perhaps I shoudln't have been so prudish as the old boy stripped off completely and dried himself in front of us! This is when the training comes in handy and I managed not to drown with fright, having seen many such beauties in my time. I'm sure Kununurra would've been nice but we were so tired by this point, it was all we could do to collapse in the campsite with a bottle of wine and our books. The Mirima National Park remained unexplored and we conserved our energy for the final leg of the tour...
The Bungle Bungles, within Purnululu National Park is probably one of the biggest drawcards of the region. The orange-striped limestone domes stand in their thousands and resemble huge beehives. They are the result of millions of years' weathering and are one of Australia's most distinctive landscapes. A World Heritage Area, the grey and orange bands are the result of iron oxide and blue-green algae. We had been told that the road to Purnululu was horrendous, but we weren't to be outdone. Our bushcamper van was tiny for living and sleeping in, but did the job required on the pretty awful unsealed roads. So while it was only a 52km journey, it took us 3 hour to reach the national park.
A series of different walks take you to the main sites; Echidna Chasm, Cathedral Gorge, and Piccaninny Gorge. The Mini Palms Track, featuring tall palm trees protruding from sheer rock faces and dramatic scenery. Termite mounds are a feature all over the Kimberley and are seen clinging in precarious places over the Bungles Bungles. Weaving through the tight crevasses of Echidna Chasm, where the steep walls obscure the sky, we wondered if Purnululu might have been better observed from the sky, just to appreciate the size of the place. There was much excitement to be had when Andy spotted a large snake in the road. Closer inspection revealed it to be deceased, the victim of a hit-and-run escapade. Referring to our invaluable Snake Guide, I decided it was a non-venemous, much to Andy's disappointment.
The disappointment continued when it became apparent that the 7 hour side-trip to Wolfe Creek was not going to be possible due to time constraints. But really, it would have been far less a terrifying ordeal than spending the night at
Halls Creek. The campsite was totally feral and lacking any green at all. We only stayed there because we were too knackered to drive onto Fitzroy Crossing. There we were, sat wrapped all cosy in our sleeping bags watching a film on the laptop, when we became increasingly aware of a disturbance in the park next door. There was a huge row going on and lots of barking feral dogs. It was kind of distracting as we were trying to watch the film, but the ranting became louder and louder. Next thing we know, a group of blokes start throwing stones into the campsite and for some reason seemed very cross. We locked ourselves in the camper and turned the lights out to observe a young bloke running for his life past the van. It turn out they had been taking photos of some locals having a fight. I mean, and this had started all the drama. How stupid can you be?!!? Suffice to say, we were very glad to leave Halls Creek bight and early the following morning, even if we were camping next door to a bull mastif and an old feller who owned a double-barelled shotgun!!! After a few more gorges thrown in for good measure it was thankfully time to return to Perth for a good rest. Next time it's 5* luxury the whole way and I am doing the planning!