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We wanted to drive across Australia's top end in a four wheel drive. But in February the top end weather is "unfriendly". Daily temperatures in the high 40's, 100% humidity, rainfall of 300mm/day and widespread outbreaks of Crocodylus porosus eating tourists. Also the roads and parks are closed due to flooding, the beaches are swarming with box jellyfish and... all of sudden it didn't seem like such a good idea.
But we were still keen on giving the whole four-wheel-drive experience a go. Looking at the map, we found a fair chunk of uninhabited country in the 500km's of coastline between Albany and Esperance in WA's south-west. We'd been there before and knew that there are spots that are inaccessible in an ordinary car, so a 4WD seemed ideal. How to find one though ?
We tracked one down at a hire company in Albany for about $500/week. I asked the agent what kind of 4WD it was. "It's a dual-cab," he replied. "Fair enough," I said, "but what kind of dual-cab is it?" Hesitantly he ventured, "It's a Tata". "A what?!??". "A Tata, T-A-T-A," he sighed, obviously used to the reaction. I vowed to get back in touch and scurried off to do some research.
We found the Tata web site and discovered the Tata Telcoline, designed and manufacture in India. Now we knew nothing, good nor bad, about the Indian automotive industry but the Telcoline looked okay - a 2.0L turbo-charged diesel engine designed by Peugeot, leaf springs and a limited-slip differential. The back country in India must be pretty rough, we reasoned, and therefore it should be fairly reliable. We booked it.
We planned our trip around the possibility of at least a week away from civilisation. The packing list went like this :
We also bought some maps and worked out a rough plan pushing west from Albany to Esperance.
Our first port of call was West Cape Howe NP, about 50km southwest of Albany. We'd read about West Cape Howe in a four-wheel-drive magazine so it seemed like a good place to put the curry wagon through its paces.
It turned out that our maps were last updated in 1986 and were therefore almost completely useless. We eventually found West Cape Howe by following a sign to "Shelley Beach" - which was a perfect location to start our trip from.
Shelley Beach is a narrow crescent of white sand set next to the glittering turquoise of the Southern Ocean. Beside the beach is a grassed area with four or five bays for caravans and campers. Two or three of them front onto the beach and the remainder form two large communal areas for camping.
A third of the way along the beach, a stream trickles out of the hills and into the surf. Even in the height of summer it was still flowing, sustained by winter rains stored in the limestone cliffs above. Off the shore, the beach drops away sharply into the surf and the Southern Ocean is very cold but clear.
We decided to try some 4WD exploration. Further up the hill we had passed a 4WD track which cuts across the peninsula to the west. We took the curry wagon up and tried it out. After about 50m we switched to low-range 4WD and stopped to deflate the tires to 22psi to give us proper traction on the sand. The Tata proved itself more than adequate for the job. Only on a 30cm rock-step did we lose any traction and some well placed debris and a bit of a momentum soon sorted this out.
Half way along we were overtaken by an old bloke in a LandRover who stopped to chat. He suggested we follow him down to Golden Gate Beach where he was going to fish for salmon. The only other track would take us out to the tip of Cape Howe, but last time he had been that way he'd nearly tipped his car over, he said. We gladly followed him.
As it turned out it was too rough for fishing so we had the beach for ourselves. There was a westerly blowing straight into the cove and we paused just long enough to have lunch.
From West Cape Howe we went 100km east along the coast to Albany. On the way we stopped to take a look at the windfarm on Sandpatch Road. It provides Albany with up to 75% of its electricity. Twelve pylons with bus sized motors sit 40m above the ground and the 35m blades swish over your head like giant seagulls. Much nicer than cooling towers and smoke stacks!
We stopped briefly in Albany to restock and headed east past Mount Manypeaks to the Waychinicup NP. Waychinicup is a recent addition to West Australia's National Parks and recently had a $40,000 dollar upgrade. Once again our maps proved useless and we were forced to detour around the park and enter from the east rather than the west as they indicated.
In Waychinicup the campsites are laid out with parking spots adjacent and a few more secluded sites overlook the inlet. We chose a more distant spot because of the view, even though it meant humping the gear from the car down to the tent.
In Waychinicup we encountered plenty of wildlife : what we think were a pair of butcher birds, some splendid wrens, a friendly quokka and plenty of lizards after dark. Richard was pretty sure we even got a visit from a bandicoot in the night (due to the sound it makes) and the ranger later confirmed that this was likely.
We spent the next couple of days exploring Waychinicup and did some fuitless fishing. The glorious weather deteriorated a little and we headed off in search of some sunshine.
We headed inland towards the Peak Charles NP, north of Esperance. We went north and east 150km to Jerramungup and then another 110km east to Ravensthorpe. We did some shopping, refueled and consulted the tourist bureau. On their advice, we stopped off at the Pallinorup nature reserve, 50km north of Ravensthorpe and 20km short of Lake King. The reserve wraps around a small lake just off the main road. We rolled out the swags by the shore, fired up the stove and whistled up a quick red-beef curry for dinner.
Eager to get on the road before the heat of the day kicked in we were up at the crack of dawn. At Lake King we turned east and onto the Norseman road. The last time Richard had been this way the road had been impassable due to flooding but this time it hadn't rained out there for months.
In fact, the landscape was tinder-dry and we could see a column of smoke which indicated a bushfire nearby. Down the road we passed the Lake King airstrip where a light airplane was taxiing for takeoff. Further down the road we came to the state barrier fence which stretches from the north to south of WA and separates various pests from farming lands in the west (also known as the dingo-proof fence or the rabbit-proof fence).
We were getting closer to the fire we had seen earlier and it was a BIG fire. We considered our choices carefully because the Lake King-Norseman road is a 200km stretch of gravel with exactly four corners and no options. If the fire were to cut the road, we would be pretty much stuck.
Just then, we came across the local ranger who was organising to fight the fire. Out there, they don't mess around. He had four guys with two bulldozers and a couple of hundred square kilometres of dry bush. They were going to drag a chain about 250km down the side of the Frank Hahn NP to cut a fire break. As the ranger pointed out the fire on a map, the plane we'd seen earlier flew overhead, marking trails in the bush for the guys and spotting for the fire.
Reassured by the Ranger's description of the fire and the direction of the wind we continued to Peak Charles. About ten kilometres down the road we encountered a rare sight - what we think might have been an Australian Bustard. That's right B-u-s-t-a-r-d. It's a kind of large ground bird which looks a bit like a stunted emu (or ostrich if you prefer). The bird, affronted by our dusty, 100km/h arrival glared at us and, before I could bring my camera to bear, buggered off into the bush.
We pushed on to Peak Charles, keeping an eye on the fire. The nearest thing to Peak Charles is Norseman, the jumping off point for a Nullarbor crossing, about 200km away. The park is flat and scrubby with a single lonely peak rising out of hundreds of kilometres of brown scrub.
By the time we reached the isolated peak it was just shy of midday and the sun was baking. The temperature was about 40°C if not 45°C. There was no wind and the country was as dry as a paraffin martini. The ranger had said that they'd had no rain for over a year. We rigged up a tarpaulin over the truck, sat in the shade, sipped water and contemplated the scorched landscape.
We weren't totally by ourselves though.
A lizard, possibly a Bearded Dragon, came to keep us company. He scampered around our feet devouring the ants which came out when the sun went behind a cloud. To keep his belly off the hot sand, he scooted across the sand on his hind legs in a kind of bow-legged sprint. He'd snap up an ant or two and then race back to the shade of a nearby tree to cool off.
Eventually the sun crept behind the peak and a long shadow dropped over the truck. It was now cool enough to set up the tent and organise dinner. Dinner that night was a no-frills affair of fatty sausages and beans, made more than a little difficult by the hordes of flies that descended on us. We were probably the only moist thing they'd seen in months.
It was so hot that between us Richard and I drank about twelve litres of water in four hours, and that was sitting the shade.
To cool off and to give us a chance of sleeping through the sweltering night, we rigged up the shower. Then we got the soap out and while one of us retired to a safe distance the other one got clean. Showering under the stars, with nothing but lather between you and the cosmos is an experience, I can tell you.
Deciding we'd had enough sunshine we headed for the coast again and went south-east to Esperance. We stopped in a park in Esperance for a second breakfast (no hobbit jokes please) and a cup of tea and headed out to Cape Le Grand.
Cape Le Grand is another national park close to Albany. We found a secluded spot near the beach and settled in for our seventh day on the road. The campsite at Cape Le Grand was well appointed, with gas barbecues, a shower block with hot water and the nicest camp toilet ever built - a flushing toilet in a jarrah shack with a tiled floor. It didn't feel like camping at all.
Wildlife was in abundance. There were wallabies scouting around the campsite and splendid wrens in the bushes and a few of our little scaly lizard friends. The beach was inviting but the weather was inclement so we skipped a swim and tried out the solar powered showers (chilly!).
The next morning we staggered up the steep-sided Frenchman's peak which overlooks the park. The lying-bloody-maps said it was only 260m high. It felt like the Matterhorn. The peak topped by a cave made some millions of years ago when the sea level was a bit higher. Inside the cave the wind whistles through but the rocks trap moisture and a fair amount of plant life thrives on it. The view is also fantastic.
From Cape Le Grand we headed back west to Fitzgerald River National Park.
Our journey was interrupted by the same fire we had passed two days earlier. Still burning, and now much larger, it had been pushed 100km south by strong winds. While the front was still 100km away, the plume of smoke had reached the highway and blotted out the sun along.
The light was surreal. The cloud overhead blocked out the light and sunlight filtered through horizontally from the surrounding sky, giving everything a sharp, knife-edge illumination. At one point visibility was down to 30m.
We later found out that the fire destroyed nearly 275,000 hectares of bush, most of it uninhabited crown land (about the same size as Luxembourg). There was little the rangers and fire fighters could do to with such a blaze in country as remote as that.
We reached Ravensthorpe and stopped for lunch in "Ray's Country Cafe". Ray was probably Raylene - the lady behind the counter. Although the food was good we had to sit through 45 minutes of crooning from some Val Doonican wannabe. There was a good view of the fire however and we reflected about how happy we were to be out of it. This was not our last brush with the fire however.
We reached Point Ann, inside the Fitzgerald River NP later that afternoon. We arrived just in time for shift change at the Park and Richard had to swerve the two-and-a-half tonne curry wagon to avoid a lizard crossing the road. Unfortunately one crossing the other way went to meet his maker.
Point Ann is a beautiful stretch of coastline which is justly famous for the visits of right and humpback whales during winter. There were to be no whales now but there was a plentiful supply of wildlife : lizards; roo's; birds and an assortment of flora. There was also a brief but impressive thunder storm.
We ventured out from Point Ann and around the inlet to Point Charles, the next bay east. It took a good hour of spine-cracking corrugations in 4WD to muscle through to a beach which looked almost exactly the same as Point Ann. We drove around the beach for a little while and headed back to Point Ann for dinner. On the way, we spotted a new fire front, close than before and probably started by the thunderstorm. This one looked smaller and closer but still not close enough to worry about.
At about 7pm that evening a friendly looking-local rolled up in his four-wheel-drive and advised us that he'd been ordered to evacuate Point Ann. The fire was pushing east of us and was still about 20km away but with no guarantee of which way the wind would blow, there was a distinct possibility Point Ann would end up a little warm for comfort. We packed up all our gear and headed out on the road.
It quickly became apparent that the red glow on the horizon was not the sunset. As we crested a hill we could see the bright, flickering flames along the base of a fire front which filled about a third of the horizon. We realised that this might be a bit more serious than we had thought and became acutely aware of the consequences if I failed to take one of the corners correctly and, say, punctured a tyre. Not stopping even to take photos, we headed out of the park and stayed the night in a motel at Bremer Bay.
From Bremer we went inland again heading for the Stirlings north of Albany. The weather here was so disappointing that we decided it was time to call our vacation to a close. We dropped off the curry wagon with an extra 2000km on its clock, collected Richard's Subaru and trundled back to Perth.
The whole 4WD experience left me distinctly underwhelmed. While there were a couple of places we couldn't otherwise have gone, most of where we went was accessible with an ordinary two wheel drive car or a 4WD hybrid like the Subaru. If I was living on a farm, I might consider a 'proper' 4WD but the high price, horrible ride & handling, shocking fuel consumption and low tech design leave me thinking there are better cars to buy.