Sept 18 - 23 The Kimberley
We are now in Kunnunurra, gateway to the Kimberley Mountain Range and the famed Bungle Bungles. Kununurra is an attractive small town on the banks of Lake Argyle, reported to be Australia’s largest freshwater lake. Our caravan park is right on the lake, the peaceful sound of water lapping at the banks is what we exchange for the occasional roar of speedboats and the frequent buzz of mosquitoes.
The town boasts it’s own “Mini Bungle Bungles” called Hidden Valley or Mirrima Park. 15For $9 per car ($3 for seniors) you can go into the park and enjoy some easy walks around the beautiful red sandstone escarpments. This is very worthwhile even if it is stinkin’ hot, at somewhere between 37 to 38 degrees.
In the evening we also went up to Kelly's Knob Lookout to watch the sunset. This is an escarpment that sits up over the town and has a nice view. There was quite a crowd of us up there, all sitting quietly, reverently waiting for nature to reveal herself when from the valley floor blow, up comes Brooks and Dunne. Loud. Proves Steve's theory that sound travels UP.
Nice, albeit not spectacular, sunset. As we left, the sun fully set behind us, the kids of the town started arriving with their beer and boom boxes. Seems every small and not-so-small town has a Kelly’s Knob.
Next morning we are up at 6 am and heading for Turkey Creek Roadhouse where we'll be picked up for a helicopter tour of the Bungle Bungles.
The Bungle Bungles are quite impressive – as you would expect a natural phenomenon nominated for World Heritage status to be. “Beehives” of striated sandstone, red and black (or green according to the season) hump together in an other-worldly landscape. The caverns and gorges running through the area are full of life: shrubs and trees and grasses and flowers. There are quiet pools and waterfalls and obvious streambeds. You can see where the water flows in the wet, although the pilot mentioned that the earth here is so porous that after a big rainfall there will be flash floods but the water is absorbed very quickly.
More than the Bungles Bungles, however, I enjoyed the opportunity to see what was on the other side of the road, to speak. This part of Australia lies on a massive horizontal fault line and you can clearly see where the earth’s plates shifted over each other forming massive “ski jumps” as they call them. These “jumps” are on a massive scale, continuing for hundreds of kilometers.
Then there are the vast planes of “nothingness” with the thin red ribbon of a dirt track meandering for hundreds of kilometers over these massive cattle stations. It’s not all red though, as these roads attest to the changing soil conditions, slicing through the overbrush to transition from red to orange to tan to grey and back again – like variegated ribbons.
Helicopter tour was 45 minutes and cost $250 ...well worth it to me.
Geikie National Park
Spent the next night in Fitzroy Crossing and started the morning with a visit to Geikie National Park - once part of the Devonian "great barrier style" coral reef 350 million years. Took the short walk that goes through towering reef rocks balanced against each other – interesting walk, sometimes along easy-to-navigate hard-packed sand, sometimes over loose, unstable sand, sometimes crawling through rocks and between narrow passages in the rocks. There are many crevasses and caves in the rocks – homes to lizards, snakes and bats.
Also walked along the Fitzroy River - looked deep and green with foot long fish idling through the shadows. I turned back after 20 minutes because it was so hot but Steve kept going for another 30 minutes coming to a place where the river dried right up to sand and he could walk across it. It’s as if this whole land is in waiting for the wet – you can just feel it ...waiting.
During the wet this whole place floods to the extent that the river rises up over its 20-foot banks. Marching up the walls, over the beams and up to the roof, markers inside the Visitor Center demonstrated that the worst flood in recent years was 2002 when the Visitor Center itself was covered.
From Geikie Park we carried on down the Great Northern Hwy, making lunch at a rest stop called Ellendale - lots of red bowl dust and flies. Also lots of pretty pigeon-like birds. These are an elegant, shiny grey colour with lots of fluorescent highlights – greens, blues, purples, pinks. They have a dark-coloured comb standing up on their heads – like a jay. But are the size and behave like pigeons. Saw some of them in a mating dance with the male erecting his tail feathers like a mini-peacock, following the female around making seductive, cooing sounds.
When we were in Australia last time I bought books for identifying birds, flora and fauna ...and left them at home so I'll have to wait to get home again to correctly identfiy the birds we are seeing.
The landscape is ever changing - at times totally flat but within 10 minutes the terrain begins to undulate, species of trees and other foliage changing constantly. That massive ancient tree we came to love in Africa, the baobab is much in evidence here, although they refer to them as boabs. They flourish throughout the Kimberley area where the soil is dry and sandy.
Have gotten interested in termite mounds - and started taking more photos of them - all different shapes and colours. Asked about these at the visitor centre in Derby. The young woman at the counter didn’t have a clue – but she hunted around in her file cabinet and came up with a “paper” which she gave me a copy of. It seems these termites are called “Spinifex Termites” and build two basic styles of mound – vertical, columnar mounds or rounded “dollop” mounds.
These mounds can exceed seven meters in height and contain many tons of earth. The “dollops” are built within one night then the entrance sealed off so intruders cannot get in. The termites work only at night and access their mound through underground tunnels. I learned tons more ...which I won’t bore anyone with here! One last thing though, these mounds can last 100 years!
At one point in the journey we saw smoke in the distance - as we came closer we saw hundreds of raptors circling and swooping over the fire. Then it came to us - they were watching for small rodents and lizards to be flushed out. This is a very rich environment for birds – we see so many hawks and falcons and eagles. There is plenty of food here for everyone.
We settled in Derby for the night. Very pleasant here. Not too hot - no bugs to speak of.The attraction here is the second biggest tides in the world - second only to the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. But it is much whoop about nothing because there is nothing to measure the tides by as there is at the Bay of Fundy. There is just a jetty and sure enough, at high tide there is lots of water. But the surrounding area is mud flats so when there is low tide there are just MORE mud flats.
Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek
The next the morning we head off on the Gibb River Road. This is the 4WD road that traverses the upper Kimberley Mountain Range, a route we regret not being able to take with our 2WD campervan. This 400 km “tour” is a compromise. We’ll be seeing the Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek.
Tour guide was Andrew - very knowledgeable and encouraging in the rough bits. He and his schoolteacher wife came up here for a two-year posting but are now in third year with no intention of leaving soon. Loves the wet season best - so green, so fresh, loves the smell, loves the afternoon storms. That's a recurring theme when talking to locals at the Top End here - love of and fascination with the wet season - a kind of awe that they have for the power of nature. "It's kind of an institution around here in the wet season," offered Andrew, "sitting around in the late afternoon, watching the storm clouds gather, speculating on where they will dump, then watching the lightning show."
As you approach it, the Windjana Gorge is a magical place of steep charcoal grey escarpments. A five-minute walk down the trail and you’re squeezing through a narrow gap in the rock walls and into another world.
These rock faces are actually a continuation of the Devonian coral reef that was situated off northern Australia millions of years ago. The soft grey walls offer up the calcified fossils of shellfish as evidence. Rippled and folded and pockmarked with the patterns of an aquatic history, the walls within the gorge fascinate.
But there is more – the river running through the gorge is spotted with dozens of "logs" that as you get closer and closer, turn out to be freshwater crocodiles.
As Steve creeps in for some croc close-ups, Andrew reassures me that we don't have to worry unless the croc hisses. On cue, the eight-foot croc hisses so loudly its audible even to me, 20 feet away.
"No worries," continues Andrew, "You only really have to worry if the legs are facing forward. If they are, he can launch himself at you faster than you can blink." Fortunately, the croc stayed relaxed with his legs tucked behind him.
I mentioned that these crocs at 4-5 feet didn't look big enough to kill
any of us. Andrew set me straight on that. "They would have you
in the water and gone in moments."
From Windjana Gorge we carried on to Tunnel Creek. Basically, this is a cavern with a creek running through it extending some 750 metres underground. During the wet season the stream torrents into a whitewater river, churning through the sandstone caverns, sculpting the stone into fantastical shapes. Freshwater springs and dripping seepage add their own artistic contributions to create an other-worldly environment. I felt like I was walking through the movie set for an Indiana Jones movie.
But "walking" is not the right descriptor. To get into Tunnel Creek you start down a path that has you scrambling around, over, and through some good-sized rocks. These rocks themselves are pretty interesting. They started as a coral reef, then transitioned into limestone which volcanic pressure transformed into marble. A beautiful, pink and white-streaked marble, smooth and lovely to touch.
Which touching I did a whole lot of, because the next part of getting into the cavern was to climb down and between humongous heaps of rocks into knee-high water at the bottom, then continue scrambling from rock to rock through the water, trying desperately to avoid a dunking, not so much for self as we'd just left an above-ground heat in excess of 40 degrees and the cool water felt wonderful, but to avoid dunking cameras and the torches we'd need to navigate the tunnel length.
Traveling through the tunnel itself is fairly benign - a combination of wading through the stream, walking over soft sandbars, and picking your way though dumps of smallish rocks.
Benign, but absolutely beautiful. We waded through still pools of small fish and bigger eels. The eels were attracted to the lights from our torches, undulating seductively through the water towards us but disappearing with a flash of their tail if you tried to touch them.
And yes, there was a resident croc. Andrew was keeping a watchful eye on him, keeping himself between us and the croc but on our approach the croc re-settled himself in the distance, under a hot-water spring
We saw lots of bats - tiny little mouse bats, big black fruit bats, and carnivorous ghost bats. The ghost bats have translucent-looking creamy-coloured wings, so in flight they do look ghostly indeed. Most of the walk is done in total darkness, by the light of flashlights.
It was a wonderful experience - with even the final climb back out a triumph to be savoured. It's one thing to slip and slide your way down those smooth marble rocks on the way in, another to hoist yourself back up them on the way out. I looked at them and figured, "No way. They are going to have to bring in a helicopter and winch me out."
But Andrew wasn't suggesting that and tourmate Avis, at “nearly 70 years of age” had just made it out ahead of me so I gave it everything I had ...and here I am, above-ground to tell the story.
Now, we are off to Broome with the intention of finding
a pub with a big screen. The Australian footy final begins at noon –
Sydney Swans for the east versus Perth Eagles for the west. Our tour mates
explained the basics to us so we are pumped and ready to participate in
this iconic Australian cultural event.