<<< More 'Opinionated Traveller' stories
Saturday 2nd July 2005
The winter this year seems to be particularly cold and wet in southern Australia, with temperatures and rainfall more suited to a London winter than an Antipodean one. My girl and I decided to skip winter headed to the Top End for some sunshine.
I left Veronika in Sydney to finish her exams and headed for the Top End via the fastest route possible. I eschewed the well-trodden route up the coast and went inland via Narrabri and Goondoowindi. I've seen most of that coast.
Veronika was supposed to join me in Cairns once I'd found the sun and a place to stay. However, around Condamine, west of Brisbane, things went horribly wrong. As I slowed down for the 60km/h zone in town I heard a familiar rising whine and pulled off the road so I could bang my head into the steering wheel a couple of times. A recurring gearbox problem had surfaced again, threatening to derail our whole trip.
With some moral support from my girl and some phone support from my emergency family mechanic I managed to limp into Toowoomba to have the gearbox replaced in a Subaru dealership. We had to wait for parts so I was marooned in Toowoomba for a week and I drifted aimlessly around admiring the trees, taking pictures and trying to stay sane. After five days Veronika flew up to Brisbane and caught the bus into Toowoomba to help me and two days later we were back on the road again.
To see even half of what we planned we had to abandon Cairns and head straight for the Northern Territory via Roma, Cloncurry and Mt Isa. In two long days of driving we reached the border and in four we reached Elsey National Park near Mataranka. We camped in this pleasant little park and went next door to Mataranka to luxuriate in the thermal springs there. We met a man later in the Katherine springs who swore that Bitter springs near Mataranka was better by far and that Douglas springs on the road to Darwin was even better.
We spent a week near Darwin visiting Kakadu, relaxing in Litchfield National Park and luxurating in thermal springs around Katherine. In Kakadu we submitted to the obligatory but exhilarating dawn cruise on Yellow Water Billabong. As the sun rose over the paperbarks we were treated to whirling displays of Magpie Geese, Jabiru storks and White Breasted Sea Eagles, as well as an impressive array of crocodilians.
Later we went to see the aboriginal art at Nourlangie and eavesdropped on a ranger-guided tour.
At one point he explained how David Attenborough came through Kakadu in the 80's with a film crew in tow. They brought an aboriginal elder to demonstrate traditional cave painting on a wall at Nourlangie. This caused immediate uproar because the elder was not a local man and it was a severe breach of protocol. The film crew fled but left the new painting and a perplexed parks authority who immediately screened off the offending painting. During a meeting between the authority and the local aboriginal council to discuss what to do, a local elder strode up, kicked the screens aside, spat on his hand and scrubbed the painting off the wall.
We found Litchfield park to be more personal and pleasant than Kakadu though less spectacular. We swam in the waterfalls and made side trips to the secluded Lost City and an abandoned tin mine at Bamboo Creek on the western fringe of the park. The most popular falls is a Wangi falls and there scores of locals brush past the crocodile warning signs to swim in the crystal clear water.
South of Darwin we stopped off in the Gregory National Park at the Vic River roadhouse. I find roadhouses in Australia to be expensive, noxious establishments with dogboxes out the back for sleeping in. Vic River was pleasant surprise and had a lovely expanse of grass next to the river where we camped. Gregory NP also looked inviting and had we more time I would have explored it some more.
Crossing into WA, we reached Lake Argyle, a green oasis with an immense expanse of water but few places to swim! We found the nearby Durack home-stead to be a pallid memorial to one of the families that 'opened up' the North West for cattle farming, but the fertile garden teemed with Kimberley birds of all kinds.
From Argyle we went west through Fitzroy Crossing to Broome. Here it started to rain and the weather may have dampened our enthusiasm somewhat for we found Broome to be lacklustre in the extreme. We found everyone (with the exception of the attendent at the Sun picture house) to be surly and uncooperative, the town to be uninspiring and the beach to be mediocre. Maybe it was a bad day in Broome because other people certainly rave about it - but we were unimpressed. The most interesting feature of Broome is the fact that they've built the main runway for the airport at the end of the Woolies car park and every five minutes a jet screams over your head.
From Broome we came south and stopped off at an isolated but beautiful spot on the road between to Port Headland, the tiny nature reserve at Cape Keraudren. Located at the bottom end of Eighty Mile beach, it's quite popular now and is worth visiting for the views, the sunsets and the wildlife.
Port Headland and Karijini National Park
At Port Hedland we turned left and headed inland along the Hammersley range to the ochre gorges of Karijini National Park. These are beautiful and haunting. In the gorges of deep red Pilbara earth, bleached-white eucalypts lurk at the edges of your peripheral vision like ghosts. The days were warm in Karijini but the nights were cold, freezing the water in our drinking bottles.
The highlight of our trip was four days spent in and around Ningaloo reef at Coral Bay and Exmouth. This low-key paradise rivals the Barrier Reef in beauty and fragility. Although it is composed of hard corals, not the colourful soft corals of the Barrier Reef, it has more friendly fish per square metre and is much easier to get to, lying barely 20m off shore in some places. The locals are friendly and the atmosphere is decidedly laid back. We stayed in a new backpackers in Coral Bay that was clean and comfortable, and in the campsite at Yardie Homestead just outside Cape Range National Park. You can camp in the park but sites are limited and they are often full during holidays. I can recommend Yardie to anyone though, it was a lovely place to stay.
South of Coral Bay the weather turned and we beat a hasty retreat to Perth and the comforts of home. We stopped off briefly in Geraldton where we stayed in a rather clinical backpackers built in the old hospital and dined at an establishment called Skeeta's that couldn't tell its 'paella' from its 'risotto'. I ordered one and got the other, but they let me have it half price to ease the disappointment.
I estimated the total distance for the trip as 9800km but in the end we did considerably more, covering 11,212km in our 25 days on the road. We averaged 450km per day, which is quick but still comfortable. The Subaru drank down about 1025 litres of petrol along the way and we spent most of our time camping beneath the stars, retreating only occasionally to a motel when I couldn't hack they great outdoors.
The Top End has more hidden gems than a sultan's treasure trove and this time of year the wildflowers will be just coming in to season. Sitting in the cold in Perth writing this I can almost see them nodding in the sun and have half a mind to join them.