Far Away in Western Australia

Approaching Exmouth from the north gave us a taste of things to come; by 9AM it was 40°C. Exmouth was hot and dusty sprawl and apparently closed by 3, which is when we arrived, so we continued to the coast. Ningaloo is kind of a long way from anywhere, so no surprises to find a VLF array for talking to submarines. We didn’t come for that though, we were interested in snorkelling – or shallow free diving, for those of us that don’t use snorkels! Ningaloo is a fringing reef – so you can swim (or pretty much walk) out to it.

In terms of the practicalities, we had already bought a snorkel and some flippers/fins at KMart in Perth, and we had our tent, so we found ourselves a pitch in what turned to be a kangaroo tick ridden campsite. The camp sites are nice, with plenty of space in each bay for a car and a tent, with a scrubby hedge, and plenty of benches. There is lots of information at the visitors centre, which includes the tides and everything you need to know to see the best stuff at the best time. We managed to find a turtle paddling around at the Bay loop, before heading over to the Oyster Stacks, which was very shallow, so we could see everything close up, including an octopus which changed colour. Once we’d had enough snorkelling for the day, we checked out the birdlife at Mangrove Bay.

What're you looking at?
What’re you looking at?

Once we’d been death stared out by the local birds, we headed back to the beach and chilled.

Even the sun looks further away in WA, except when it's 40°
Even the sun looks further away in WA, except when it’s 40°

Next morning the sea was a bit choppy, but we snorkelled at Lakeside and managed to see a ray, before trying Turquoise Bay and the Drift Loop again. Drift Loop has a strong current so that all you really need to do is get into the sea and keep an eye on your position and get out at the right time; if you don’t you float off into the Indian Ocean and don’t come back. After an entire morning of that, we were up for a bit of a walk and wandered off into the Cape Range national park. There are a bunch of set walks around the gorges here, easily tackled even by people in flip flops. I wouldn’t want to do it in flip flops, but others did and survived.

Where the national parks meet
Where the national parks meet

Ningaloo is more accessible from the land than the Great Barrier Reef, but that bit of land is a bit less accessible – a long drive from Perth or Karratha, which are a long way from everywhere else themselves! I find in Australia, getting there is half the fun, but if you don’t, the Great Barrier Reef is definitely a lot less effort. However, where the Barrier Reef required a boat trip, we could just walk from our tent to the sea and dive in, and emerge for lunch, or a rest. We did get sunburned a lot, probably due to inexpert and insufficient application of sun screen. When the sun is out – it burns hot and long, and it’ll probably get you. Apart from a slightly pissed off looking octopus that I mentioned earlier, the only other annoyances were the wind, which screwed with our cooking and reduced visibility for snorkelling, and the Kangaroo ticks, which appeared in the mornings in groups and got into our stuff after Kangaroos has been nosing around our camp. Apparently they actually carry Lyme’s disease, so these need to be watched out for. There don’t seem to be any sharks in the area, and we didn’t encounter any poisonous snakes, though I expect they are there. If you want to do things on your own time, don’t mind a long drive, and enjoy the isolation – this is a great place to visit. I just wish I’d taken an underwater camera!

Business continues below ground

All the iron ore that comes out of all the giant mines in the Pilbara travels on private railways, on trains upto 5km long, or along the Great Northern Highway (it’s great fun being sandwiches between three-part road trains for mile after mile) to Port Hedland to be loaded onto huge ships. Iron ore built the towns in the Pilbara (Newman, Tom Price, Wickham) and Port Hedland is no exception – except that BHP, Rio Tinto and FMG are all working here. We watched the big ships in the harbour from BHPs public park, and watched the trains from the FMG lookout next to the highway. Train drivers here are setting off on quite a long, slow trip out into the baking hot desert to fill their massive trains – but they still wave at tourists on the way out of town.

One of them waved, can't remember if it was this one or not...
One of them waved, can’t remember if it was this one or not…
A mountain of salt nig enough to drive a bulldozer about on
A mountain of salt high enough to drive a bulldozer about on

Port Hedland isn’t much of a tourist destination unless you like trains, enormous road trains, or vast amounts of salt – but it’s only a minor diversion on the way up the highway to Broome – if you pass all the road trains out in the desert and wonder where they go, this is it.

If you’re interested in seeing things at Port Hedland, there is actually a lookout that you can see the trains from easily, and there is a park with a good view of the harbour. Port Hedland has a tourist office too, though it’s more useful for information on the (much) wider area than for the delights of Port Hedland itself.

As new to the map as Port Hedland and the other Pilbara mining towns are (some only appeared in the 1960s and 70s), the town of Cossack is old enough to be a ghost town already. Settled in the 19th century, it’s now deserted. It’s one of the better preserved ghost towns I’ve seen in Australia, not completely ruined, and with a little bit of signage. You can go inside some of the buildings, but they’re not restored like a museum exhibit. We wandered around a bit and then went to the beach…

It looks lovely...
It looks lovely…

…but then we remembered it was tropical WA and probably crawling with salt water crocodiles and decided to stay out of the water!

The Final Frontier

I was looking forward to going to Broome as some sort of remote frontier, complete with camels, crocodiles and presumably some kind of uninterrupted view all the way to India or something.

Broome - the final frontier
Broome – the final frontier

I couldn’t see India and I didn’t meet any crocodiles. But the beauty of not doing proper research (or not paying proper attention while someone else runs through the plan) is often pleasant and interesting surprises when you get there. And the camels were on the beach at sunset where they were supposed to be.

Lost camels...found
Lost camels…found

Broome was full of surprises though. Despite a dry and relatively arid looking landscape, the atmosphere was hot and humid (driving the last hour or so, it had been 40 degrees outside the car). And despite being deep into tropical Australia, we could go in the sea and swim at Cable Beach. So we did.

We also took in some of Broomes unexpected attractions – like the dinosaur footprints!

A blast from the past, or at least a stamp
A blast from the past, or at least a stamp

There are a few of these around at a particular beach and their exact locations are only vaguely given, so at a certain point in the tide when they become visible, you’ll find a horde of tourists roaming around looking for them. We managed to find them without too much difficulty though. Broome was a bit expensive (even to camp!) so we were keeping our costs down as best we could – cooking at the campsite and eschewing the urban sophistication, but we did manage a few sundowners.

Next day, we took a walk out along the coast to see what else Broome offered. Broome is another place where red Australia meets the blue ocean – even more so than at 80 Mile Beach.

Red meets blue
Red meets blue

We were walking distance from Cable Beach at our campsite, so we were able to enjoy a sundowner on the sand and then wander home, but we moved for our last night to a campsite in town so that we could see the staircase to the moon. This is an effect of the combination of the rising moon and a certain state of the tide on the mudflats, leading to a staircase effect out across the bay, all the way to the rising moon. Thanks to the clouds, it didn’t happen – but we did get a nice tropical lightning storm instead.

Ultimately going to Broome was a lot about the journey, but the town at the end of it has some nice sights to see, and a good beach in the right season. And how often do you find a beach in northern Australia that’s safe to swim on?

What's not to like?
What’s not to like?

The beginning of the end

So our ski season is nearing its end (not much happens after the school holidays, which we’re now halfway through) and most people are looking forward to their next adventure. We’ve got plans to visit Australia, Indonesia, Denmark and Holland. But how has this season gone, and how has it compared to our last season?

The Weather

The weather has sucked. It snowed very little before the season, the opening was delayed, but somehow we (eventually) got enough snow to actually run the place. It took some serious damage in September when a run of very warm days was followed by destructive rain and the snowpack never really recovered. In our last season, we had similarly destructive rain, but it was followed by big dumps of snow right up to October.  We’ve had a lot of closed days (particularly on my days off!) and a lot of miserable ones with poor visibility and rain – but we’re still going, and people still come.

I'm not saying it wasn't cold at times...in the morning usually.
I’m not saying it wasn’t cold at times…in the morning usually.

The Skiing and Snowboarding

I did find the time to go skiing once, and I’ve been out on my snowboard a bunch of times, and have improved my technique and regained the confidence lost after 18 months away from the mountain. When the snow turned to lumpy slush in spring, I found bumpy trails where I could do small jumps and ride down the side of chutes without losing control – on the whole I can’t complain, but it would have been good to have been out more. I tried videoing from my snowboard, but when I watched it, it was disappointingly slow and boring – I’ll have to try again!

This counts as working, riding back down is more of a grey area.
This counts as working, riding back down is more of a grey area.

The Work

This I can’t complain about the lack of, I’ve done 60 hour weeks and extended my skillset in networking and specific applications, so work has definitely been good, if not as much fun as my last season when I helped implement ticket gates and VLAN partitioning around the mountain.

My office, or part of it. One of the better parts.
My office, or part of it. One of the better parts.

The People

It’s a shame when you come back to a place and some of your friends choose not to, but they’ve all gone on to better things, so I’m happy for them. I’ve got on well with people here and felt accepted, so I’ve been happy. This year we’ve had housemates, so we’ve been quite social – and it’s gone well.

What Else?

In our previous seasons we had some little adventures, like doing the Tongariro Crossing with snow on the ground, running a motel, falling off a cliff, and throwing up in a friends garden at Haloween (I may have been drinking). This year has been a bit calmer; we’ve house sat a pony and trained the neighbours dog to attack my colleagues.

And What Next?

Well we’ll be out of here at the end of October, flying from Auckland to Gold Coast, driving to Sydney, Flying to Bali to see a bit of that end of Indonesia, before flying on to Bangkok and then to Copenhagen, to get the train and ferry to England through Amsterdam. Hopefully there’ll be a little bit more skiing and snowboarding between now and then, a few drinks, and a few parties to say goodbye to all the people who we might not see next year.

Goodbye Mount Ruapehu
Goodbye Mount Ruapehu

Turtles – Part 1

80 mile beach probably hasn’t changed much in millions of years, and neither have the marine turtles that nest on it. During the nesting season, they crawl up the beach, leaving tracks wider than a truck tyre, and dig a hole in the sand, deposit their eggs, and crawl back down the beach. We were excited as we drove down the dirt road from the main highway to the campsite at 80 mile beach – powered by generator and apparently completely off the grid. We were already in the wilderness, the tropics, the top end – we had come from Karajini and this was our only stop between here and Broome. In late October, the humidity –  mixed with the salt air – was high (at least to us) and oppressive, but this was to be our first sight of the Indian Ocean, and we were arriving as the sun was beginning to set. We found a pitch and dashed onto the massive beach.

Where the red centre becomes the beach, and then the Indian Ocean
Where the red centre becomes the beach, and then the Indian Ocean

Over dinner, some of the other campers told us what times they had been out the previous night and when new turtle tracks had appeared (they hadn’t actually seen any turtles). We stayed up late and walked along the beach in the full moon, but no turtles appeared. Some of the existing nests seemed to be distressingly below the high water line. The signs also informed us that predators like foxes could be expected to come and dig up some of the nests to get at the eggs. A few practicalities at 80 Mile Beach – this is northern Australia, lots of things are dangerous here – there are tropical creatures in and out of the water, and its a very long way from anywhere – the road goes to a campsite attached to a cattle station; there isn’t a town as such. The beach isn’t patrolled, and has strong currents so it isn’t really safe to swim (all the best beaches aren’t – looking at you Fraser Island). It isn’t a cheap campsite, and nothing there is cheap – bring your own food. When we visited, the water was drinkable, but this may be a changeable situation. It’d be a bit odd to take the drive to 80 Mile Beach from Port Hedland or Broome without a day or so of drinking water anyway.

Things looked better in the morning
Things looked better in the morning

We left the beach the next morning to go to Broome, but as the Great Northern Highway and the coastal highway (route 1) converge near South Hedland, we were back again a few days later on our way south to try again at finding turtles. We stayed up later and went out with a torch to sit quietly and wait for turtles to emerge. Unfortunately the turtles seem to base their movements on the moon, which had risen a lot earlier, and they seemed to have been and gone, leaving fresh tracks and the usual collection of depressions in the sand. Well we know now, turtle watching needs a bit of research and commitment.

Turtle tracks - wide as a truck tyre
Turtle tracks – wide as a truck tyre

It’s getting hot in here

Our first night in Karajiji was insanely humid, we just about finished cooking and eating before we were engulfed in complete darkness, but just before we lost the light, we saw a pair of dingos trot casually past. The tropics then served up an impressive lightning storm – I think there was even ball lightning that night. Sunset seemed to drive the humidity up and sleeping was pretty much a case of lying still trying not to let any body part touch any other body part, while the dingos howled outside. Sleeping bags were only useful as a barrier between the body and the rubbery airbed.

We had consulted the camp hosts when we arrived, and they had given us a lot of information – so we sprang (or slopped) out of bed the next morning and drove round to Mount Bruce (either some other people got up even earlier, or they free camped there. They seemed to be starting to wake up at that moment, so we started our walk to try and get ahead of them). We’d been expecting the temperature to hit 40 degrees by mid morning and force us to abandon our walk without reaching the top. I don’t know if it did, but we managed to reach the summit, which included a climb up a flue in the rock face, without expiring of heat exhaustion. We met some people as we headed down; they might have expired of heat exhaustion, but they seemed confident. At various points along the walk, we could see the mine complex at Marandoo, with enormous trains heading in and out all day long.

As we arrived back at the car, a minor whirlwind whipped up the dust and rubbish in the carpark – just another bit of northern WAs wild weather.

Marandoo Mine as seen from Mount Bruce
Marandoo Mine as seen from Mount Bruce

The land around Mount Bruce stretches away red and flat, and after a good mornings climbing above it, a dip was in order. Karajini has lots of pools, and they’re cool enough to refresh, and warm enough to be comfortable. They also don’t have crocodiles in, despite this being tropical northern Australia. There’s no access from the sea, and its quite a long way inland. We still seemed to have some energy left, so we headed down into Weano Gorge to Handrail Pool. This is one that you need to climb down to, with a helpful handrail. We had more fun at Hancock gorge though. I slipped and had to swim along holding our bag above my head to keep it dry, while I got soaked. There are a series of pools in this gorge, but signs and ropes discourage going too far. I also found the pools got progressively colder, hopefully not due to people weeing in it!

Taking the bull by the horns
Taking the bull by the horns

After another sweaty night, we oozed out of our tent and hauled ourselves to Fortescue Falls – essentially for a wash, although the falls were pretty cool too.

Having a bath WA top end style
Having a bath WA top end style

The walk back along the bottom of the gorge led us past some big lizards…

Big Lizards
Big Lizards

…and small lizards…

Small Lizards
Small Lizards

…to Fern Pool for another bath.

After lunch we high-tailed it through the Pilbarra to 80 Mile Beach, but more on that later!

On The Road Again

Arriving in Perth is a civilized experience, they run a bus to the CBD which costs a normal (ie $4.50) amount (unlike Melbourne) and isn’t a big secret (like Sydney). The hostels of central Perth appear to be mainly inhabited by long term residents, which makes sense, given their surprisingly reasonable prices and the high rents in Perth. The mining boom may be over in WA, but the mining industry still casts a long shadow over Perth – the airport departure board is full of internal flights to the Pilbarra, the airport itself is full of FIFO workers, and the BHP building looms large in the city skyline.

No escape from BHP!
No escape from BHP!

Nonetheless, Perth is a nice city to wander around (hot, even in October) and has a good domain (where I was hoping to see Red Kangaroos, but didn’t). It also has the Western Australian museum, covering all things WA, from the geology to the aboriginal culture. I also found a history of the Fortescue Metals Group in our hostel (who says backpackers don’t care about big business?) which gave an interesting insight into the recent history of WA’s enormous mining sector. All this was a good setup for what we had planned.

Even more so than the coastal route, the Great Northern is a proper long distance Australian outback road. If you’re looking to rent a car and drive off into the outback; this is your road. After passing through some small towns in the Perth area and into the Western Australian wheat belt, the road becomes increasingly remote and the landscape more sparse. We rented our car in Perth and headed out of town, stopping for the night in a free campsite near Wannamal, before starting the long drive north. Despite the simplicity of the road layout, we managed to get lost quite quickly leave the highway somewhere north of New Norcia, ending up at Buntine rocks. These are actually pretty cool and give a great panorama of the huge, flat, scrubby landscape that you’re driving into. And it wasn’t too difficult to find our way back to the highway.

Buntine Rocks - didn't mean to go there, but stayed for the view!
Buntine Rocks – didn’t mean to go there, but stayed for the view!

We had been planning our first proper stop in a place called Cue (reputed to have a nice caravan park with real grass), but instead kept going as far as Meekatharra. Meekatharra is a small town, apparently based around a very large hole in the ground, which used to be an open cut mine. Now it’s the administrative centre for the area, an area of very sparse population and minimal development. Aside of appreciating the remoteness of a real Australian outback town, there’s not much to do here. It’s redder than Buntine though, it’s real red dirt country. We climbed the spoil heap, and walked along beside where the stream would be if it had any water in it, and made our dinner as fast as possible in the fly infested kitchen (even in October the flies are starting to increase wildly).

Meekatharra, a speck of civlisation in the midst of the outback dust.
Meekatharra, a speck of civlisation in the midst of the outback dust.

Next morning, we got back on the Great Northern and headed for the Pilbarra. After picking up petrol at Kumarina Roadhouse, where we got a good look at some enormous road trains as they stopped for fuel, we crossed the tropic line (having spent 2 1/2 years south of it).

Kumarina, it's just a petrol station. A nice one though, if you like red dust and road trains (which I do!)
Kumarina, it’s just a petrol station. A nice one though, if you like red dust and road trains (which I do!)

The Great Northern passes through Newman, the biggest town in the Pilbarra and the first place of any size between Perth and Port Hedland. We didn’t stick around to inspect it in too much detail, we bought food, petrol and national park passes, so we could enter Karajini. We did all this as quickly as we could and reached Karajini in time for a swim at Circular Pool before sunset. Our first night camping in the tropics…