Kimberley and Beyond

Thursday, Dec 04, 2008 at 22:20

Member - John and Val

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Kimberley and Beyond - The second of three reports of a 3 month trip June-August 2008. Originally appeared in Southern Trails, magazine of the Southern Tablelands 4WD Club.

After our enforced stopover in Kununurra we collected our repaired Troopy lunchtime Friday. Time for a test run out to Ivanhoe crossing, and all seems to be well, except that as our helpful mechanic had advised a fair amount of oil had leaked from the gearbox/transfer case. We will have to keep an eye on that. So now its time to pack up, do the final shopping and get on the road again tomorrow morning. The plan was to rendezvous with the others along the Gibb river road on Saturday. As we left town we tried to use our HF radio to confirm this but severe radar interference made contact impossible, so we’ll just go and hope for the best.


It was good to be on the road again with Troopy running smoothly. Soon we were on the Gibb River Road on a good gravel surface. We took a short detour into Tier Gorge, a pretty spot with a good swimming hole. Exploration of other tracks in the area was curtailed by signs advising that tracks in this area are controlled by El Questro and a permit is required to use them. So we continued along the GRR which was quite busy with a lot of traffic going to and from El Questro. Jim and Jane and Alan and Vivian have been exploring some of EQ but we will bypass it yet again in order to catch them up further along at Ellenbrae.


We were admiring the spectacular scenery of the Cockburn Range when suddenly we had a flat tyre, our first for the trip. With the wheel changed over we reached the (croc infested) Pentecost River crossing. The water was a little over 40cm deep, which detered quite a few travellers who were reluctant to go beyond the river. Certainly a prudent step for some travellers we met who were very ill prepared for remote area travel. Beyond the river the scenery becomes less varied but patches of orange flowering grevilleas and gums added interest. The road continued in very good condition, and since our last trip here six years ago quite a bit of bitumen has been added to steep sections of the road. By mid afternoon we were able to make contact with Jim on our UHF radio, so we checked into the Ellenbrae homestead and found our friends. Jane’s hot scones cooked over the campfire capped off a welcome reunion.


Next day we were on the road early and soon reached the Kalumbaru Road turn-off. Heading north towards Drysdale, there were some patches of corrugations but the road was generally in good condition. We saw our first brolgas and fan palms, refuelled at busy Drysdale Station and reached the Mitchell falls turnoff and the King Edward River crossing about mid afternoon. We found a great campsite close to the water and had time for a swim before getting the fire going. The next day was spent enjoying this beautiful place, swimming and exploring.


Then it was time to head off to the Mitchell falls. First there were two art sites close to the King Edward River campground to explore.


These are truly spectacular sites displaying both the elegant Bradshaw paintings and huge and dramatic Wandjina figures spread over quite a large area. A bit of scouting around added a sense of discovery, as did lying on our backs to see some of the figures.


Then on towards the Mitchell Falls along 80km of relentless severe corrugations. Tyre pressures were reduced, and reduced again, and shock absorbers rested and eventually we were at the busy campground booking our helicopter flight for tomorrow. We elected to walk in to the Mitchell falls, taking time to explore the art sites along the way. The art site under Mertens Falls was spectacular, and the cool damp air a pleasant respite in our walk. By the time we arrived at the Mitchell falls it was hot and a cooling dip most welcome. It is a bit of a scramble to reach the best viewing sites, but well worth the effort.



Even better views are had from the helicopter, an exhilarating first time experience for some of us. What a remote and rugged corner of Australia this is and we marvelled at the country below as our brief 18 minute flight took us over Little Mitchell falls and along another creek before heading back over Mitchell Falls to camp.


Retracing our steps back down the Kalumbaru road the corrugations claimed another casualty when a section of our UHF aerial snapped off. A section of Jims sand flag pole became an improvised splint to prevent further vibration and radio contact was restored. We were soon back on the GRR and heading in to Barnett River gorge and a camp beneath a huge boab.


These magnificent trees have great character and individuality and it was tempting to invent personalities for them.


Our next stop was Mt Elizabeth, preparatory for a planned excursion along the Munja Track that heads northwest towards Walcott Inlet. This track is reputed to be quite rugged and travels through very remote country. Another check underneath Troopy confirmed that we still had a potentially serious oil leak. We all really wanted to do the Munja track, but after a restless night and careful thought we all decided that it would not be sensible to do so in the circumstances. So the rest of our GRR adventure was confined to more established areas.



So we enjoyed the Hann river near Mt Elizabeth where there is a lovely sandy beach. We explored along the river, and some had a swim. Then on to beautiful Galvan’s Gorge, and along a rough track to Adcock gorge, both of which had waterfalls and big plunge pools, a swim offering relief from the hot afternoon.


Our next detour was down to Mornington, a wildlife refuge about 80km south of the GRR. The drive down was on a good road through very scenic country and with many boabs along drainage lines.


The upper reaches of the Fitzroy River run through some huge gorges on Mornington, so we spent a few days exploring this spectacular place. We hired canoes at Dimond Gorge, but a strong wind and current turned a leisurely paddle into something more like jet boating and we had to paddle hard on our return trip into the wind. Vivian went bird watching with some success, though the rare Gouldian finches kept out of sight. The campground at Mornington is well set up with flushing toilets and hot showers, but no campfires are allowed. So we had a night without a campfire to farewell Vivian and Alan who had to depart on their long journey back home. They had a plane to catch and an overseas trip awaiting them.


So now we were just four, in two vehicles. Bell Gorge was next, a beautiful but very busy place. The water was cold but swimming in the company of a water dragon was irresistible. We were lucky to get a campsite at Silent Grove close to the clear, swift flowing Bell Creek (more swimming) for a day of relaxation before completing our trip along the GRR when we turned south to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek.


The western section of the GRR is more rugged and scenic, especially through the King Leopold ranges with their sharp peaks, jumbled black rocks and big granite rock faces. The limestone Napier Range, by contrast, is narrow, with sharp and jagged peaks. The Windjana National Park in the Napier Range is one of the highlights of the Kimberley, so the campground is very busy, though campfires are allowed. Just as well as the nights have been cold with frost some mornings. We delighted in our walk down Windjana Gorge, admiring the soaring limestone cliffs and their reflections in the water. The freshwater crocodile population seems to thrive on tourism, and we counted over 50 crocs in places. They are very tolerant of humans so it is possible to approach closely, though seeing toddlers allowed to pat them (despite the warning signs) gave us goosebumps.


Then on to Tunnel Creek which also was very busy – there were probably 50 or more people in the tunnel with us. Another scramble over rocks at the entrance, but from then on the walking is easy, provided your torch batteries are fresh. There are stalacmites and glistening limestone to admire as well as the bats and small fish that inhabit the caves.


From Tunnel creek we kept driving east along a very scenic boab infested road, heading for a campsite in a quarry where the road intersects the Oscar Range. After a bit of searching and putting our planned OziExplorer route to good use, we found an excellent campsite. It was so good we returned here after a day trip into Fitzroy Crossing and Geike Gorge. We spent some time exploring the limestone formations there, as well as enjoying wildflowers and abundant birdlife. Its not every camp where the toilet is alongside a bowerbird's bower, with the bowerbird in attendance arranging his decorations!



From there we headed back to the bitumen, heading west to Derby. We stopped for morning tea at the BIG Boab, a mighty old tree, hollow with age and over 20 metres around at the base. A bit of a commotion among assembled travellers there and a rush to the roadside revealed an approaching semi trailer carrying a boab tree from Fitzroy Crossing all the way to King’s Park in Perth. Apparently this project attracted nationwide media coverage, but we hadn’t heard of it until then. What a rare sight!


After an overnight camp beneath big paperbarks on the banks of the Fitzroy River we arrived in Derby with plenty of time for washing, shopping and sightseeing. John had to pay a visit to the local hospital as he had nasty looking infections from a couple of scratches. Turned out to be the “Kimberley Staph” and a course of antibiotics was required. Derby is on the brink of major expansion to service the resources boom, and the town’s caravan parks were full to overflowing. But by sharing a site we could get accommodation without booking.


We had booked an overnight trip to the Horizontal Waterfalls, and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. We flew out in the afternoon in a 10 seater floatplane. After landing on the water we were picked up from the landing pontoon and taken by boat to the houseboat where we would spend the night. We just had time to offload our bags before getting back onto the boat – a rigid hulled inflatable with a pair of big outboards, before setting off for the “waterfall”.


This is caused by the huge (8 metres on our day) tides backing water up into bays with a narrow entrance. As the tide changes the water rushes through the two narrow gaps. Our boat took us through the wider 15 metre gap and up to but not through the narrow 7 metre gap. This was an exhilarating experience, the surge of power from the boat, rushing white water and wind, shrieks of elation and (terror?) from passengers. After that adrenalin pumping experience we had a spot of fishing to quieten us down – John even managed to catch a few fish. Then it was back to the houseboat, feed the “pet” sharks, keep a wary eye out for a patrolling saltie, then settle down on the top deck to watch the sunset and enjoy an excellent dinner. We were very well looked after; all of the people responsible for our well being were not much over 20, and all were thoroughly competent, charming and entertaining. The following morning saw us back in the air flying low level over countless islands, coral reefs and turtle rookeries on our way back to Derby. A wonderful experience, but one to save up for.


Leaving Derby we headed for the Dampier peninsular, taking the less used back road rather than the main Cape Leveque road. This road is OK but has some corrugated stretches, and as the peninsular is flat there is very little scenery of note. At Beagle Bay the bitumen is back for a while. After admiring the church decorated with pearl shell we took more corrugated back roads up to Middle Lagoon. We booked in there for 3 nights, and as it was quite windy found what seemed to be a sheltered spot in among some dunes. During the night the wind strengthened and shifted direction making our camp very uncomfortable, so we found a more sheltered spot back among the trees – no ocean views, though we admired a big cruise vessel anchored just offshore, and watched a spectacular sunset.


The next day we headed north to visit Bruce and Alison, who are family connections of Jim and Jane and who run a pearl farm near One Arm Point. Its still windy but that doesn’t mar what turns out to be a most enjoyable day. Bruce and Alison entertained us with lunch including pearl meat and a trip around the extensive farm. The wind prevented the boats working the long lines from which are suspended wire baskets containing the pearl shells. Still we were able to see the facilities where the shells, are implanted, cleaned and Xrayed to measure pearl growth and finally harvested. Bruce also showed us the graves of seamen from the early days of the pearling industry. Finally we saw some of the farms produce, beautiful large lustrous pearls! Our hosts suggested we complete the day with a visit to the hatchery and beautiful coastline near Bardi.


Arriving back at Middle Lagoon with the wind still strong we found an unpleasant surprise. We had attempted to reserve our sheltered campsite next to Jim and Jane’s camper by putting out our table and chairs, plus a clothesline with clothes on it. It was a rude shock to find our gear bundled aside and a tent erected in “our” spot. The novice campers responsible for this dastardly deed may not forget their camping etiquette again after hearing what we all thought of such a move!


Finally it was time to leave. Jim and Jane had to head for Broome where they had booked a service at the Toyota dealer. We spent a couple of days exploring the beaches north of Broome, swimming and whale watching. While going into one beach along a sandy track Troopy bogged in deep sand and had some trouble getting out. We didn’t think too much about it at the time, but we were soon to be reminded that all was still not well with Troopy. And to cap it off, as we headed into Broome we noticed that the speedo was not working – broken cable. What else can go wrong we wondered? Still, OziExplorer provides a good speedo substitute.


In Broome we were amazed by the development that has taken place since we were last here in 2002. There seem to be new roads, housing estates, and tourism developments everywhere. Cable Beach is the same, colourful and busy with lots of 4WDs heading off for a drive north along the sand. Everyone is friendly and helpful and we soon had our wrecked tyre replaced, some welding done on an exhaust bracket, shopping and washing done.


We were ready to depart the Kimberley the next morning after a quick look at the big weekend markets. We headed back to the Roebuck Roadhouse from where we turned south heading towards the Pilbara and the next stage of our trip. The day was hot, the road flat to undulating running through scrubby country. When we saw some vivid flowers we stopped to have a look, only to notice an ominous sound from coming from under the bonnet. Boiling radiator – here we go again. So after the inevitable wait we topped it up and drove on before checking it again. This time the water level had fallen and there was water in the oil. Has the new head gasket failed? All sorts of awkward possibilities cross our mind.

The Barn Hill campground was close by so we headed in there to regroup and ponder our options. We were surprised to find Barn Hill full with caravans and their 2 and 4 legged occupants, many of whom had been there for several months, and who repeated this routine year after year after year. It must have been the fishing as we saw no particular attraction in the long stretch of empty beach. Needless to say the “locals” were somewhat possessive of their sites, not to mention the position of their satellite dishes. Blow-ins like us must learn the local rules and learn them real quick! Jane was amazed to find, as we departed the following morning, the local craft market in full swing. Apparently there is a big demand there for toilet roll covers, decorated coat hangers, knitted dolls and hand painted greeting cards.

This was where we learned the benefits of a reliable mobile phone service. With just enough signal we were able to use our Next G phone to book back into the Broome van park that we had just left. We were able to go online to drop a question onto the ExploreOz forum to seek suggestions about our predicament. And we did a bit of web surfing to see if there were any secondhand Troopies in the vicinity – there weren’t.

So back to Broome we went in a carefully planned convoy aimed at keeping up the supply of water to Troopy. We timed and measured the distance we could go on one top-up of water. We left the radiator cap loose so that pressure didn’t build up, so every 15 minutes or so we stopped. John opened the bonnet and took off the radiator cap. Val and Jane leapt out and handed over 3 litre bottles of water while Jim topped up empty bottles from his water tanks. Amazingly this bizarre process worked, so that the 80km back to Broome only took a couple of hours. “We didn’t expect to see you until late this afternoon” was the comment from the manager of the Tarangau caravan park who had helpfully juggled bookings to fit us in for the four days that we guessed we might need. ("You were more optimistic than we were" we thought!)



By now the ExplorOz forum had provided several helpful suggestions, but Jim, who had found the service manager at Toyota to be very helpful, suggested that a call first to Toyota might be worthwhile. And it was. He recommended a $10 bottle of “Seal-UP” that should do the trick. Just to be on the safe side put two bottles in. So we bought 4 bottles. Then began the long process of flushing out the radiator, accomplished by again driving out towards the Roebuck RH stopping at intervals to add more water. Finally it was time to add the magic liquid, then drive some more anxiously watching the temperature gauge. It worked! What a relief. Toyota did an oil change for us the next morning and after just 2 days in Broome we were away again, past the turn-off to Barn Hill, heading for the Pilbara.

Next - The Pilbara

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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