Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Hi everyone, just a note to say that starting early next year I'll be writing a new blog under this name, but based in New Zealand. Bull Dust will cover topical news events, current affairs and media, and it'll be hosted by www.stuff.co.nz, the main news website run by Fairfax New Zealand. Hope to see y'all there in early January!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Well, we did it. The Great Aussie Roadie is over. We made it to Perth in one piece.

Twenty-two thousand two hundred and  thirty two kilometres, four months and two and a half thousand litres of petrol after leaving our front door in Bronte, Sydney, we pulled up outside Katie's brother's house in Perth  yesterday afternoon.

After the magnificence of Shark Bay and our discovery of The Beach I doubted we'd have another highlight on our way south to Perth, but we did have one more good discovery.

Sandy Cape Recreation Reserve, on Indian Ocean Drive, was pretty cool. Only about 300km north of Perth, it's a beautiful spot, with a wild coastline, pristine white sand beaches, some good 4WD tracks for a bit of a play in the sand, and camp sites by the beach for $15 a night for two people.

Sandy Cape Recreation Reserve

There aren't any facilities besides a bush loo, but once again the 6km dirt road in puts a lot of people off so it's not too crowded even during school holidays.

We spent a couple of nights there just lazing around really, not wanting to leave as we knew it signaled the end of the Roadie. We visited the Pinnacles Desert in the nearby national park, which was interesting enough but we agreed we were pleased we had a national parks pass and hadn't had to pay the $11 entry fee.

The problem with seeing so many incredible things over the last four months is that you become extremely hard to impress.

The Pinnacles Desert

We found that in Kalbarri National Park, some 600km up the road from Perth. It's full of river gorges and wildflowers and while it's very pretty, it's frankly not a patch on Karijini National Park 1000km further north, or Litchfield back in the Northern Territory.

After Kalbarri we had a night free camping in some sand dunes we found a little south of the town before heading to Sandy Cape. Then it was time for a final night before hitting Perth, and we chose Guilderton, a lovely little seaside town just 90km north of the big smoke.

The coastline around Kalbarri National Park

The campground was heaving with families and it we had to pay $29 but we didn't mind. We wanted to be near a fish and chip shop and a bottle-o so we could have a final beer and watch the sun set on our great adventure.

Nature's Window, Kalbarri National Park
So here we are in Perth. Although to be honest we haven't actually seen it yet. We've spent the past 24 hours luxuriating in the novelty of being indoors. There's no wind. You don't have to go outside to go to the bathroom. Toasters. Electric jugs. A bed.

In the days to come though I suspect we might need a re-integration programme of some sort. Being on the road becomes addictive after a while. You fall into a rhythm; get up, make a coffee, eat breakfast, pack up the tent, drive, find a good spot, put up the tent, have a swim/walk, cook some dinner, read your book, go to bed.

Then get up in the morning and do it all over again.

Celebrating the end of our adventure with a beer and fish and chips, Guilderton

There are people who never manage to give it up, of course. Some travelers just keep on going, round and round. This country is so big you can spend years behind the wheel without ever driving down the same road. We stuck mostly to the coast and still managed to travel more than 20,000km. And that was only as far as Perth.

If you ventured more inland, onto the hundreds of Outback roads that run ruler-straight for thousands of kilometres across this brick-red land you'd reach six figures in no time at all.

The road goes on forever, and the highway never ends.

Smoke gives the appearance of storm clouds over the road to Kirijini National Park

PS I'll do a final, best-of post in a few days time, so stay tuned.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Everyone has a version of The Beach in their mind’s eye.

You know. The picture postcard-perfect white sand, blue-green sea, sun shining from a cloudless sky, lounging around with a good book, and best of all, no-one else around.

Shell Beach, Shark Bay, Western Australia

The days would be warm, but not too hot. The nights would be cool, but  not so cool you couldn’t sleep. The water would be refreshing and, although probably shark-infested, croc-free.

Not only that, but in this perfect scenario the beach would be in a national park – so no idiots on jet skis – with camping permitted for a few dollars a night.

And the beach would be down a long, very sandy 4WD only track, wiping out 99 percent of potential visitors at a single stroke.

It’s a funny thing about 4WD roads in this country. Almost everyone has a hulking great gleaming hunk of metal with enormous tires and enough chrome to plate a ship. Outside of Sydney, it’s considered almost un-Australian not to own a 4WD vehicle.

But here’s the thing. Most people don’t take them off-road.

Sitting back and taking it: Camping on The Beach

I’ve been staggered by the lack of adventurous spirit shown by many 4WD owners in Australia. Either they don’t want to get their pride and joy dirty or they lack the nerve. Or maybe they only bought one because their neighbours did. I don’t know.

But I’ve heard all the excuses. The wife and kids wouldn’t like it. I’ve just had my CV joints replaced. My CV joints are shot. I need new tires. I’m towing.

Well, old Chuckie’s CV joints are shot and the tires are worn smooth from over 20,000km of mostly off-road driving. But we’ll still give most things a go. Usually it’s OK. And if not, there’s always a spade and help close at hand.

Take the other day for example. I was trying to do a three-point turn in very soft sand, which isn’t easy. I gave it just a bit too much throttle and Chuckie shot backwards and next thing I knew I’d driven half-way up one of those bollards they erect to stop you driving on the sand dunes.

The car was basically impaled by the bumper, and no amount of acceleration would drive it off.

So swallowing my pride, I approached the only other two guys within a 20km radius, who were enjoying a beer and a spot of fishing, and asked for a hand.

Once they had stopped laughing (and this took quite a few minutes) they lifted one end of the bumper while I floored it, and this gave me just enough traction to drive Chuckie off. We were on our way again, although I must admit the bumper is now a little askew.

Sunset from The Beach

Anyway, I digress.

We’d been searching for the perfect beach for the past four months as we’ve driven around Australia. And, just 800km north of Perth and a week away from the end of our journey, I reckon we’ve finally found it.

We’ve been here for three days now, watching the shags swoop and dive over the ocean, the sun coming up and going down, the rhythm of the tides, going for swims and beach walks and the odd adventure drive.

Although it’s the middle of the school holidays, there are just three other groups here, plus a smattering of day-trippers. The nearby town, only half an hour’s drive away, is crawling with families.

I’d always been on the look-out for such a place on our travels, but to be honest I’d almost given up hope of finding it.

We’ve been to many places of spectacular beauty over the past 14 weeks. Gorgeous beaches, stunning lakes, amazing rivers, awesome gorges, breath-taking vistas.

But there was always something that stopped it from being The Place. You couldn’t swim. It was too cold. It was too hot. It was raining. It was too busy. Or too expensive. Or you couldn’t camp there. Or you could camp there, but only in a Hi-Di-Hi holiday park.

Yet we persevered. And we found it. The absolute ultimate beachside slice of paradise. Great swimming, amazing sunsets, cheap-as-chips camping, and almost no-one to bother us. The thought of having to leave pains us greatly. In fact, I’d consider living here if I wasn’t about to run out of money to buy beer.

So where is it, you ask, reaching for the phone to book your air ticket to Perth and your 4WD rental.  
Where can I find The Beach?

Ah, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it. Didn’t you read the book? If I tell you, you’ll tell everyone else, and the next thing I know someone will be blathering about it all over the internet and in five years’ time 
there’ll be condos and a sealed road in here.

So I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you.

View near The Beach

PS If you really want to know, email me at cespiner@gmail.com. But just don’t tell everyone, OK?  

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Well I knew Australia was big, but seriously. WA really does take the biscuit. You can drive all day out here and barely make an indentation on the map - just your wallet, with the price of gas nudging $2 a litre.

I'm writing this from a little spot just out of Exmouth, which is a sea port around 1200km or so north west of Perth on Australia's west coast.

We're camped in a lovely little strand of pine trees right on the beach, just next to a large 'No Camping' sign, which we're hoping doesn't apply to us.

Since my last post we've logged another 1000km or so behind the wheel, and really all we've done is nip down to Karajini National Park and back out to the coast again.

Karajini is awesome. If you like canyoning, you've got to go to Karajini. Huge chasms split the hillsides, with deep ravines and crystal-clear swimming pools. It's hot, but then the pools are really cold, so it sort of balances itself out.

Stunning canyon in Karajini National Park

Karajini is one of those places you don't want to be in a flash flood. We read several stories of heroic rescues of tourists who went beyond the signs that say 'Don't go any further' (we do listen to those sort of signs) and either fell or got stuck.

In one tragic case a few years back, a bunch of rescuers who were waiting for a chopper in one of the canyons after picking up a stupid tourist who broke his leg got swept away by a flash flood and one of them drowned.

His memorial  is in the park.

Sunset at Cape Leveque

We also loved Cape Leveque, just above Broome. Amazing red cliffs, white sand, and blue blue ocean. Koolaman Resort, right at the end of the road, is to die for, if you've got the cash to splash on a room. We didn't - we camped instead - but it was still amazing, with a beautiful white sand swimming beach.

After Karajini we headed through Tom Price - yes, there really is a town called that - and had our photo taken next to one of those mammoth yellow mining trucks. Rio Tinto pretty much owns all the land around there, including its own railway, Pilbra Iron.

We got a permit to drive down Rio Tinto's railway access road, which is a short-cut back out to the west coast. All we had to do was sit through a very painful 20 minute DVD, which explained how dirt roads can be very dangerous, how taking drugs and drinking alcohol is not a good idea when you're driving (who knew?) and that one shouldn't look at the big trains while driving for fear of getting distracted!

We followed most of the advice but couldn't resist waving to the drivers of the mammoth iron ore trains, each some 2km or more in length. We even got a blast from the engine's horn for our efforts!

Free camping along the coast

We wanted to visit Millstream Chichester National Park on our way back to the coast, but a massive Outback fire had closed the road, so we ended up having to do a detour north to the mining town of Karatha, just to add another couple of hundred k's to the odometer.

We're really looking forward to Cape Range National Park, which is just beyond Exmouth, which promises coral reefs and some good snorkeling.

The westernmost point on the Australian mainland is just south of there, so we'll have to bag that on our way down to Perth.

Now THAT'S a 4WD!!!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Gidday from Broome, Australia's pearling capital, although these days this far-flung hamlet surrounded by a sea of red dirt makes its living from tourism, in particular the backpacker market. Pearls before swine, you might say.

It's a funny little place, Broome. It's civilisation, of a sort - there's mobile phone reception, supermarkets, a couple of decent places to get a bite and even some plush resorts if you've got the cash.

But it's the wild west, nonetheless, as perhaps befits a town that's still some 2000km from Perth and 1800km from Darwin. Everyone has travelled an awful long way to be here and they're determined to have a good time.

Broome has a wild past too. The colonials used to force aboriginals to dive for pearls because they were too scared to do it themselves, and grew fat off the profits. A lot of aboriginals drowned.

Nice to sea ya: A sunset dip in the briny at Broome's Cable Beach

Then the Japanese came along with a diving suit they'd invented and pretty much put the colonials out of business, much to the relief of the land's original inhabitants.

Broome ended up a mash-up of cultures and peoples seeking their fortune at the north-western tip of The Big Empty, as they call this part of Australia.

So don't be fooled by Broome's marketing as a resort town. True, it's 30 degrees in the middle of our winter and the sea is a beautiful aqua marine blue. But there's a strong local culture too - and by the way, we counted three large crocodiles just off the main swimming beach this afternoon, which you won't read in the tourist brochures either!

We got here by travelling 1000km or so from Kununura, where I signed off my last post, along the Gibb River Road.

Now, some of you may have heard of the Gibb River Road. It's billed as Australia's greatest 4WD adventure drive; the last truly remote frontier in the country in the 21st century, and a road upon which danger lurks beneath every pothole.


Here's the truth: If you have any 4WD experience, or even if you just possess modest driving ability and a reasonably decent vehicle, you'll find it a highway. I reckon I could have done it in my nana's Mini.

It's a shame really, because the marketing department has really been allowed to run away with all the hyperbole spouted about the GRR. The reality will disappoint those really looking for a remote wilderness experience but delight those whose idea of roughing it is a few miles down a corrugated road and a bit of dust before retiring to a luxury wilderness lodge for the night with crisp bed sheets and full board.

If you want a real 4WD experience, try one of the deserts like the Simpson, or of course Cape York, where they measure corrugations by the foot and their idea of fine dining is a roadhouse mince and cheese pie.

An idyllic camp spot on the shores of Admiralty Bay

We managed to spice things up a little by driving some 250km north from the GRR along a back-road to Mitchell Falls, which are well worth the journey, and then down a pretty rough track until we reached the sea  at a place called Admiralty Bay - the first time we'd seen the big blue since leaving Darwin a month or so back.

We camped overlooking the bay, hundreds of miles from anywhere and all by ourselves, watching the crocs cruise up and down off the beach as the sun set. Magic.

Yeah, she's a big country all right

Also amazing although more touristy was Tunnel Creek, well worth a diversion off the GRR. Tunnel Creek is an incredible underwater cave system that runs beneath the Napier Range in the Kimberly. You can walk/wade all the way through to the other side if you've got a good torch and you're not scared of bats or crocodiles.

Seriously, we were wading through the river by torchlight and we came face-to-face with a croc. Fortunately it was a freshie, deemed 'mostly harmless unless provoked' but that doesn't calm the nerves much when you make its acquaintance at close quarters. I mean, has anyone told fresh water crocodiles that they're harmless? They still have big teeth.

We've had two days of recovery in Broome, and tomorrow we're heading up to Cape Leveque on the north coast to stay in an aboriginal-owned community campground before turning south to drive across the Big Empty to Port Headland.

Magnificent Mitchell Falls, off the Gibb River Road

From there it's briefly back inland to visit Karajini National Park before heading back to the coast for the final  1500km run down to Perth and the finish of our journey.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Well I've been through the desert in a car with a name.

I can't say it felt good to be out of the rain, given it hasn't rained on us in about three months now. It would have also been quite surprising had it rained, given we were in the Tanami Desert, which has negative annual rainfall if you count evaporation.

But it was still an experience.

It took us three days to drive the 1000km across the pancake-flat Tanami. You could do it in two, but we found driving at 80 km/h on a fairly rough corrugated road was hard enough without pulling really long days.

A highlight was camping under the stars with a big bonfire. Amazing how clear the sky is without any light pollution, except for the odd road train that came thundering through on its way to one of several mines we passed along the way.

Camping under the stars

We're back up in the Top End now, in Kununura, a pretty little service town in the Kimberly, Western Australia, which serves as the stock-up place for everyone about to head west along the Gibb River Road or east along the Victoria Highway towards Darwin.

It's been an eventful week or so since my last post. From Uluru we took a rough 4WD track through the amazing Finke National Park to a place called Boggy Hole (incidentally, if you're wondering why it's called that, it's because most people get stuck in the sand driving through there...and we were no exception!)

Palm Valley

We camped on the Finke River as wildfires raged all around us. That night I counted 16 separate blazes in the distance. Pretty scary stuff, but fortunately none came near us. My escape plan had been to drive into the river!

Then we headed into Palm Valley, an amazing canyon that somehow has allowed palm trees to grow in the dry thanks to underground streams and plenty of shade. It was spoiled only by a tour operator who gave us another reason to hate them, allowing his guests to pitch their tents all around our own camp. I asked one guy who was setting up directly under our awning if he'd rather sleep in our tent too! I don't think he got my sarcasm.

Digging out Chuckie in Boggy Hole!

Complaining didn't do much good as it turned out the group, from one of the big roading companies, had been invited by the local aboriginal elders. That explained why they didn't understand camp ground ettiquette, but it didn't put any more hot water in the tiny camp ground's solar shower.

Most of the time we've stuck to bush camping, which has the advantage of being free and allows you to avoid the hoards as much as possible.

Not sure how we'll fare in the next week though - the Gibb River Road is a highlight in any 4WDers itinerary, although luckily we're through the peak winter season now, and many fellow travelers are starting to head south.

It's really heating up - Kununura was 37 degrees yesterday, and the forecast is for 38 today. Ouch.

Sunset in the Tanami Desert

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Uluru:  Even the name sounds mysterious, grand, remote, awe-inspiring. A red rock rising nearly 350m out of the desert plain, hundreds of kilometers from anything and anywhere – surely the most recognisable natural attraction in the entire country.

No matter how many postcards you’ve seen, Uluru is still breathtaking, particularly up close, where the fissures in the rock look like pockmarks on suede and its colour deepens as the sun goes down.

It’s big, sure – 3.6km long by 2.4km wide, and old – around 600 million years they reckon.

But it’s not the size that matters, on this occasion anyway. There are plenty of other big pieces of rock in Australia.

Uluru at sunset

It’s partly the fact that it’s such a surprise. There is literally nothing else around it. The Olgas, a small group of hills that look like something out of a story book by Dr Suess, stand some 70km away, and there’s Mt Connor, an even larger, flatter mountain that many visitors mistake for Uluru as they head towards it.

But in an area that comprises hundreds of thousands of square kilometers, that still adds up to two-thirds of sweet nothing.

It has been of huge significance to Aboriginal people for millennia. The traditional belief is Uluru was created by two boys playing in the mud.

And it’s also the journey itself. Even Alice Springs, the geographical centre of Australia, is still 400km away. It seems to take forever to drive there. And much, much longer to walk.

On top of the world - well, Uluru, anyway

Perhaps that’s why Uluru has attained such mythical status. For if it’s still possible to undertake a pilgrimage to the heart of the Australian dream in the 21st century, Uluru is such a trip.

It’s a rite of passage for young Australians, and a bucket list opportunity for the grey nomads. Tourists flock here, backpackers congregate in their vans alongside the road to gape in awe, 4WDers combine it with a trip through the Simpson and Tanami Deserts.

And like any good pilgrimage, it has controversy. To climb, or not to climb? That is the question.

The Aboriginal custodians of Uluru, the Anangu, ask you not to. Signs everywhere plead with you not to climb the rock. To them, it’s a culturally insensitive.

To non-aboriginals, it’s an opportunity to climb the most famous rock in Australia, with the reward of incredible sweeping views of the desert plain.

In the middle is the Australian Government. So far, the rock remains open to climb – some days. It’s often closed due to a variety of reasons (some say excuses) – wind, temperature, or by Anangu request.

It's a long, and very steep way up and down

Many believe Uluru won’t remain open for climbing much longer. There are no signs showing you where to ascend, and the local park headquarters doesn’t even mention it unless you specifically ask.

There is, however, a large sign listing the health risks of climbing, and warning that 35 people have died trying.

We chose to climb. Without wishing to invoke the wrath of whatever Aboriginal spirits hang over the place, it’s just too tempting to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It’s a bloody tough walk. The route goes virtually straight up for the first 600m. There’s a chain you can grab to stop you slipping to your death. Your lungs ache, there’s no shade, and it’s over 30 degrees.

But the elation at the top, 843m above sea level, is worth it. The views are incredible. Interestingly, there’s a plaque at the top describing it as Ayers Rock, a name used as little these days as Taranaki is called Mt Egmont. It was erected in 1973.

It seems to me another indicator the Government is planning to shut Uluru in the not-too-distant future.

If you’re keen on seeing what all the fuss is about, plan your trip there soon.

Pockmarks on the velvet surface of Uluru


Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Do you remember the last time you were really, really sick?

I'm talking puking your guts out, here - writhing on the bathroom floor in agony as your stomach tries to find the very last piece of bile left in your system.

Remember? Well now transplant that bathroom floor to the dusty Outback, on your hands and knees in the dust and prickles, 32 degree heat, no shade, dry retching.

That was me yesterday, courtesy of a dodgy  barra burger at the Daly Waters pub, a popular watering hole about 600km down 'The Track' as the locals call the Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs.

I just wanted to curl up in a ball and die quietly, but unfortunately that wasn't an option in the middle of nowhere so we had to keep going until we could find a motel room where I could lie in air-conditioned comfort and feel sorry for myself.

Daly Waters pub, home of the dodgy barra burger

There was one just down the road, actually - well, 500km away, which is just down the road around here.

It took nearly five hours even at the speed you're allowed to drive on the open road to get to Tennant Creek, where I'm now propped up in bed while Katie fusses over me.

You can travel at 130km/h in the Northern Territories on some of the highways. Until yesterday, we'd stuck to 100, mostly because the cruise control I self-installed resolutely refuses to go any faster (I reckon it was made in NSW) and I can't be bothered sitting with my foot on the accelerator all the time.

But yesterday we felt an exception needed to be made. The road stretched in a thin straight line until it met the horizon, shimmering in the heat. Other vehicles roared past us as if we weren't even moving. In this landscape, at the legal open road limit in New Zealand you seriously feel you could get out and walk alongside the car for a bit to stretch your legs.

Local sense of humour

So we had a little chat to Chuck the Truck about going a bit faster, and it turned out that while he wasn't overly keen on 130km/h he was happy enough with 120.

After leaving Darwin a week ago, we headed through Litchfield National Park, which was absolutely jammed with NT weekenders making the most of the amazing waterfalls and plunge pools to beat the heat.

We couldn't help comparing Litchfield to Kakadu, the NT's two famous national parks. The conclusion we came to was this: If you like swimming and waterfalls, go to Litchfield. But if you want grandeur on a truly large scale, then Kakadu is for you.

Wangi Falls, Litchfield National Park

We're now only around 400km south of the Red Centre, Alice Springs, which is as far south as we're going on this roadie before we turn and head up through the Tanami Desert to Halls Creek and the amazing Kimberly, home of the infamous Gibb River Road.

Well, I hope it's infamous. I do like a challenge.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Darwin: What does it mean to you? We've all heard of it; most of us have never been there. It's one of those far-off places you never really need to go to that's not really on the way to anywhere.

Until recently my experiences with Darwin had been refuelling stops.

The first time I was travelling with Prime Minister Helen Clark and her party on our way to East Timor to join in the independence celebrations. I remember it was boiling hot, and we were accommodated not in the salubrious abodes I had become accustomed to following around the PM, but at the Darwin Air Force barracks.

I was assigned a tin shed for the night. The air con didn't work and the bunks had no sheets or pillows. There was nothing for it but to go out and get hopelessly drunk, which I managed so well that I couldn't remember which hut was mine when I finally staggered back from town.

Darwin's sunset market

I ended up breaking in to another barrack, fortunately unoccupied, collapsing unconscious on the bunk, and finding my way back to my own assigned hut the following morning just in time for roll call.

 The second time was slightly less boozy but for the same reason - a refuelling stop on the way to Bali for a winter holiday.

Indeed air craft have used Darwin for this purpose for yonks. Qantas used Darwin as its major fuel stop for all flights heading to Asia and Europe right up to around 30 years ago.

The Japanese also found reason to stop in Darwin - just long enough to drop bombs on the place during World War Two. It's a little weird to think our neighbour, so close to home, was bombed during the war, but then Darwin is a lot closer to Bali than it is to Bondi - let alone New Zealand.

There's a big memorial to the devastation caused by the Japanese on Darwin's spiffing new waterfront complex, down on the harbour. It makes for sobering reading.

The redeveloped waterfront in Darwin - complete with wave pool and shark net

Darwin is a city that's used to being flattened, sadly. The Northern Territory Museum up here has an amazing and quite heart-wrenching exhibit on Cyclone Tracy, which tore through the city on Christmas Eve, 1974, smashing the place to pieces.

More than 90 percent of the town's houses were destroyed, more than 70 people lost their lives, and something like 19 boats sank during wind gusts of over 270 km/h.

It's amazing Darwin recovered, but it has - and that brings me to my third visit here. Finally, I've left the airport, and the drinking strip on Mitchell Street (which I couldn't remember anyway). And I've been pleasantly surprised.

Darwin isn't really a city, even though it calls itself one. It has a few high rises, but they're all apartment blocks, and the CBD is only three streets wide. But it's big up here, and when you've been driving through the Outback for a month and the most impressive sign of civilisation you've seen is the pub in Borroloola, it may as well be Sydney or even London.

There's a laid-back vibe, befitting a tropical capital. The locals stop work at 5pm, and good luck finding much open before 9am. The sunsets are magical, the beer's cold, and there's plenty of pubs doing a decent barra and chips - or a curry, if you'd prefer.

Darwin's proximity to Asia means the cuisine up here runs the full Pacific Rim gauntlet - Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, Indian - take your pick.

Last night Katie and I went down to the sunset market at Mindil Beach; a must-do for any visitor to Darwin. Every Thursday and Sunday evening, the entire town it seems congregates on the sand to watch the sunset, while in the park behind food stalls and markets set up selling every conceivable dish and bric-a-brac.

Life's a beach: Sunset on Darwin's Mindil Beach

The place is a mess of tourists, locals with their kids, vendors touting their wares, screeching birds, and some old bloke blowing on a didgeridoo. It's magic.

We've used Darwin as a bit of a refuelling stop ourselves. Chuckie got a long-overdue service and its third windscreen since we set out and we managed to replace some of our camping gear that broke or got smashed along the way.

Tomorrow we're heading for Litchfield National Park, to the south-west of Darwin, before plunging into the Red Centre for a few days in Alice Springs.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Australian Wildlife – An Occasional Series

The Grey Nomad: ageus caravanius

Natural habitat: Victoria and South Australia. Found in the winter months throughout Outback and northern Australia. Mostly docile, but can turn vicious when provoked.

The Grey Nomad spends summer in the southern states of Australia, mostly out of harm’s way, watching the races, knitting socks for the grandchildren and betting on the pokies.

But come the cold winter months they take flight and head en masse for the warmth of northern Australia.

Flight is hardly the word, though, for this particular bird. With a girth equaling the Titanic, a voice like that doomed ship’s foghorn and an accent that makes Julia Gillard sound like she’s taken elocution lessons, the Grey Nomad can be quite an off-putting sight.

Usually travelling in flocks, the Grey Nomad likes company. So much so, they will pull up directly beside your tent in an otherwise empty campground and proceed to set up camp. This usually takes several hours and involves the careful placement of a washing line, a shower, and a satellite dish.

Yes, Grey Nomads have cable. They also have more money than you. So while you wash the dishes by torchlight, you can listen to the Grey Nomad watching the Olympics.

The other advantage of the Grey Nomad’s love of proximity is the chance to learn more than you ever wanted to know about which health insurer has the best cover on hip replacements, which colostomy bag works best in a caravan, and the merits of corned beef over spam for dinner.

The Grey Nomad might be nomadic, as the name suggests, but they also love to stay awhile.  They have nothing better to do, and after all, they’re spending your inheritance.

So when you pull up at a particularly tricky river crossing, you can be sure there will be a bunch of Grey Nomads sitting on the other side, deck chairs out, drinks poured, ready to see whether or not you make it across.

Yes, alas, the Grey Nomad does come in a 4WD variant. This sub-species exists thanks to off-road camper trailers, which allow this otherwise bitumen-dwelling creature the chance to truly spread their wings to the dirty roads of Outback Australia.

Which means that just like the blowfly, they are pretty much everywhere.

Even when you are parked up for the evening in the most isolated spot imaginable, it’s usually only a matter of time before Ron, Esther, Harold and Mabel round the bend, ready for a good game of scrabble.

And as you drift off to sleep at night, the last thing you’ll hear is a debate over whether tonight is a wooly singlet night – conjuring an image sure to stalk your dreams all night long.

The Grey Nomad, like most birds, awakes early, with a clattering of pots and pans.

Then it’s off the next destination – and it’s the same way you’re going.    

A grey nomad in the wild. Note the satellite dish on the right. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Wow it's hot.

I'm sitting here at one of those park bench tables they have in campgrounds, willing the sun to drop so it will cool down a little.

A stilt takes a walk through the wetlands of Kakadu, Note the interested croc on the left!

We're in Kakadu National Park, Australia's stunning, 20,000 sq km icon, a place of waterfalls, rivers, escarpments, billagongs, wetlands, walking trails, and heat.

Kakadu doesn't do cold. It has six seasons, according to Aboriginal lore - cool dry, hot dry, stormy, hot wet, misty, and monsoon.

We're in the hot dry. It's 34 degrees in the shade - what there is of it - and it's a dry heat. So dry I went and stood in the campground shower before with my clothes on half an hour ago and they're dry again already.

Apart from the heat, Kakadu is nothing short of incredible. The park supports hundreds of varieties of birds and other wildlife, picturesque lakes and rivers, stunning waterfalls with plunge pools you can dive into without any fear of touching the bottom.

And crocs. Lots and lots of crocs.

We went on a riverboat cruise today on South Alligator River (named by some European who thought the crocs were alligators). There they all were, dozing in the sun, 5m-plus of lethal killing machine.

Our tour guide told us just how powerful the jaws of a crocodile are. I can't remember exactly how many pounds per square inch it was, but it was a lot. The locals say if you are either unlucky enough to fall in a croc-infested river or stupid enough to swim in one you've got about 30 seconds from point of contact with the river to goodnight nurse.

Fortunately, there are those plunge pools, hundreds of metres up above the rivers, where you can call off - although even then, the signs make it perfectly clear that you swim at your own risk.

The thing is, when it's boiling hot and the water is lovely and cold, it's sometimes hard to make a rational decision. But so far we've been OK.

Kakadu sits around 300km or so south of Darwin. We got here through the back roads, through Limmen National Park, another awesome stretch of Northern Territory wildnerness. It was around 400km of nothingness, but it had its own fragile beauty - particularly Butterfly Springs, an oasis in an otherwise barren and dry land.

A big saltie!

The Northern Territories does things its own way. It's the only place in the country where mining is permitted in national parks for example - cue hue and cry from the greenies - and it has an open road speed limit of 130km.

Until 20 years ago, there was no speed limit at all - the locals weren't very impressed with the imposition of 130km, although I have to say the average vehicle around here doesn't look capable of it anyway.

It's also the first place I've come across where there's a limit on how much booze you can buy in a day. Basically, it's a couple of bottles of wine, or a bottle of spirits, or a slab or two of beer. The details are entered into a computer, matched against your licence, and if you try to buy any more anywhere in the state on the same day, you're out of luck.

Kakadu wetlands on the South Alligator River

A plunge pool above upper Edith Falls in Katherine Gorge National Park

The system was originally introduced to try to curb alcoholism among aboriginals but it now applies to everyone, and unless you're planning a massive party I think it's a pretty good idea.

We've now reached the half way point in our journey to Perth and we've already covered 9,100km. I can't wait for Alice Springs and the Tanami Desert, while my girlfriend is looking forward to the beaches of western Australia.

So little time, and so much to see.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

It’s been a few days and quite a few miles between posts. This is partly because it’s been too darn hot and dusty during the day and too dark at night.

But mostly it’s because Telstra, while it might be the Government-owned phone company, doesn’t have very many repeater stations once you get out in the bush.  As for the other networks, forget it. If you don’t live in a main centre, you don’t exist as far as they’re concerned.

Sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria from Karumba

Seriously, Australia is a truly massive country. And there’s not very much of anything once you get off the beaten track.

A slow day on the Mitchell River crossing

The Normanton croc - at more than 8m, the biggest ever captured

It’s funny what you get used to. Only six weeks ago I’d stop at traffic lights in Sydney and wave away window washers who wanted spare pennies to clean your screen.

Now I stop at river crossings, don the jandals, and casually stroll across to check the depth before driving over in the truck, one eye out for crocs and the other for potholes. Such is life in Outback Australia.

I’m writing this at Kingfisher Camp, an Outback station in rural Queensland, near the border with the Northern Territories.

It’s 630pm, still light, and about 26 degrees.

Today we drove up from Lawn Hill, a fabulous national park in a limestone river gorge inhabited by aborigines (and the odd fresh water croc) for thousands of years. Last night at sunset we walked up to the top of the Constance Range, which overlooks the gorge, and watched the colours change on the stone and bush as the sun set a fiery blaze of orange in the west.

It’s so hot and dry here. At night the temperature drops below 10 degrees and we shiver in our sleeping bags but by 9am the mercury is heading back towards 30. The sky is a constant, cloudless blue.

And the dust. Oh, the dust. We were warned about the bulldust. But it’s hard to comprehend it until it’s in every crevice of your body and everything you own.

It gets everywhere. Chuckie is now a red truck rather than a white one. And I’m not sure my tan is genuine either.

I signed off my last post from the tip of Cape York. Suffice to say we made it down again OK, although our windscreen is about to fall out from all the rattling. It’s currently held in with blu-tac and wads of paper.  Hopefully it will last until Darwin.

After we got back down we headed west across the Gulf of Carpentaria to (Ay) Karumba!, a town on the Gulf Coast whose main claim to fame, apart from the fabulous sunsets and the fishing, is that it’s the only town with sealed road access on the entire, 1000-km stretch of the gulf. Think about that.

The distances out here are mind-boggling, particularly for Kiwis. I’ll look at the map and say, ‘’that looks like a good spot, let’s just whip down there.’’

My girlfriend will peer over my shoulder and say “sure, that’s 580km away’’. Everything is a long, long way away. And sometimes the landscape doesn’t change much for hours at a time. But it has its beauty, especially in the twilight when the temperature drops and the setting sun bathes the land in a warm glow.

Tomorrow we’re headed back in time, literally, over the border into the Northern Territories. Time to put the clocks back and then check out Limmen, Australia’s newest national park – approved just two weeks ago.

Then it’s onto one of Australia’s oldest, the famous Kakadu, before finally hitting the tropical NT capital of Darwin, still some 1000km distant.

It's a wide open road

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Well,  we knocked the bastard off, as Sir Ed was wont to say.
OK, it wasn’t exactly a 12,000 metre mountain, but Cape York was our Everest.
Standing by the somehow strangely nondescript sign informing us that we were at mainland Australia’s most northerly point, it was almost an anti-climax after six weeks and over 5000 km of driving on everything from tarmac to bulldust, sand to rocky river beds.
But it felt pretty good all the same.
The last few days have been spent traversing the OTL, which stands for the Overland Telegraph Line, or as the locals call it, The Track.
It isn’t for the faint hearted.
I have to say there were quite a few times when I thought Chuckie was unlikely to make it.
For the uninitiated,  the Telegraph Track is a very rough single lane route taken by the original telegraph cable that ran all the way to the tip of Australia until it was replaced by a microwave link in the 1980s, and now by Telstra fibre optic cable.
The original track was mostly navigated on horseback and later by 4WD, and the 120km or so of it that still remains is not maintained, except by the drivers who use it.
It ranges from pretty reasonable to downright hair-raising, with steep drops down river banks into gullies, stream crossings that go over the bonnet, and sandy, corrugated tracks.

Chuckie navigates the notorious Palm Creek crossing

I should have known what we were in for when we arrived at the first major creek crossing to find an audience in attendance. People had placed deck chairs along the top of the banks, poured themselves drinks, and had sat back to watch those brave enough to try to get across.
I’m not making this up. You could have sold tickets.
Those who made it received a round of applause. Those who got stuck got an even bigger round of applause. Those who knocked bits off their vehicles got whistles and cheers.
We weren’t sure if our humble little truck would make it, so we decided to camp by the river and sleep on it. Surely it would look better in the morning, we reasoned.
It didn’t.
 But a nice bloke called Tom and his lovely girlfriend Bella offered to winch us out, if we got stuck. That was enough of an insurance policy for me, and I inched Chuckie down into the creek.

On the Telegraph Track

The drop in was so steep I mostly slid down, but managed to avoid nose-diving into the bog at the bottom. Just.
A round of applause.
Then it was just a matter of getting up the other side. I had a few goes, but only got a handful of metres each time before sliding back down. A kindly old chap with a spade dug some sand in behind the wheels for me and then lent through the window.
“Kick her in the guts, son,’’ he advised.  “Give it heaps.’’
Throwing caution to the wind I floored the truck and to my surprise (and everyone else’s) Chuckie clawed its way up the other side and out, to a standing ovation.
Much bigger vehicles than ours had required winching out, so we were pretty pleased with ourselves.
We spent the next three days traversing the OTL, camping by the crystal-clear streams, swimming in the croc-free water, and marveling at our surroundings, which ranged from dense rainforest to scrub and savannah. It was bliss.
Finally we emerged from the OTL onto the main bypass road (still corrugated dirt of course) to the Jardine River ferry and The Top.
You can cross the Jardine in your vehicle, if you don’t like it very much. Around 100 people a season try at the old ford crossing, apparently, and most end up at the bottom of the river. It’s about 1.5m deep and around 100m wide, with a sandy bottom. And a few rusting car wrecks.
Another bone-jarring 100km on dirt roads saw us to the top.
From the tip of Cape York you look out on the Gulf of Carpentaria where it meets the Coral Sea. Due north is Papua New Guinea, less than 200km away. Bali lies 3000km to the north west; Darwin 1300km to the west. Wellington is 4000km due south.

Lunchtime on the Telegraph Road

The sun beats down from a cloudless blue sky. The sea is a beguiling turquoise. Beguiling because while it looks picture-postcard perfect, it’s teeming with sharks, crocodiles, and stingrays. The 30 degree heat and the white sand beaches tempt you, but no-one swims in the sea up here.
I have to make do with dipping my toe in the sea instead.
After the obligatory round of photos we head back to our camp at Loyalty Beach, where we’ve set up right on the beach front. Tonight we watched an orange sun sink into the sea – a treat for east coasters like us.
Tomorrow, it’s time to head all the way back down the cape before striking west, across the Savannah Way, to Darwin, some 2000km away by road.
Even though we’ll take the bypass roads back down the cape (they avoid the OTL) it still seems an exhausting prospect. Much of it will be on Australia’s ubiquitous outback roads, and already we and everything we own has turned a deep reddish brown from the bulldust.
What was it Sir Ed said about mountaineering? Getting to the top is easy. It’s getting back down that’s the hard bit.

Cape York, at the most northerly point in mainland Australia

Friday, 27 July 2012

A warm wind blows through the Gulf savannah, sending fresh plumes of bulldust into the air. The dust chokes you, the heat is intense, the flies downright annoying. Welcome to Cape York.

Well we’ve made it as far as Coen, a one-pub town about halfway up Cape York, after driving some 500km from Cairns, most of it on unsealed, potholed, dusty ‘roads’ – although creek beds would probably be a more apt description.

The rainforest of the east coast has given way to eucalyptus , tussock, and rock, and the clouds to a bright blue sky and blazing sunshine. This is winter, but it’s 30 degrees in the shade. Even the crocs look hot.

Yip, we finally saw one – a little freshie, not more than a metre long, lazing on a rock in the sunshine. Freshwater crocodiles are mean to be harmless, unlike their estuarine cousins, but we gave it a wide berth all the same.

Along the trail we stopped in at Cooktown, Queen of the North they say, where Captain Cook beached his Endeavour when in need of repairs in 1770 something. He was the first white man the locals had ever seen, and when he sailed away again he was the last they saw for another 90 years.

A gold rush in the late 1880s soon changed all that, and for a while Cooktown had 30 pubs and 100 brothels (or it might have been the other way around). No more though – it’s now got about three pubs and I couldn’t see any brothels, although I must admit I didn’t investigate this.

The girlfriend and I stopped in for a meal and a game of pool at the Top Pub (we were rubbish) where the cook produced the finest chicken curry we’d had in years. Turns out she was Indonesian. A reminder that Cooktown is actually closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney.

Cooktown is the end of ‘civilisation’ when you’re heading to Cape York – from there it’s a jarring, dusty, and sometimes hair-raising 700km or so to the top of Australia, where we’re headed.

The old Laura Homestead, on the road from

Cooktown to the Telegraph Track

So far all the creeks we’ve had to cross haven’t been more than half a metre deep, which is really good, since our Chuckie isn’t equipped with a snorkel – de rigeur in these parts. But we’ve had our fair share of bumps and bangs, yet so far fingers crossed, Chuckie just keeps on truckin’.

Tonight sees us by the banks of the Coen River, in a little free camping spot with a swimming hollow. We asked a local aboriginal if there were any crocodiles and she roared with laughter. “Nah, you’re sweet’’ she said.

Good-oh, we replied, leaping in.

“You’s might want to watch out for those water snakes though,’’ she added with a grin. She tells us three weeks ago a young girl needed to be airlifted to hospital after being bitten by a snake exactly where we were swimming.

Bugger it, it’s 30 degrees, we’ll take our chances, we reply.

Tomorrow it’s on to the start of the fabled Overland Telegraph Line, the OTL, and the route to the top of Australia. 

Monday, 23 July 2012

Today we went from the sublime to the ridiculous and then back to the sublime.

Such is Queensland - one minute it's over-the-top tourist hell on earth, the next you're in the middle of nowhere with some small-town cobber offering to buy you a beer.

Since we left Townsville a few days ago we've had three fantastic nights camping in state and national parks, at minimal cost ($10 for a campsite is the going rate in a national park). The first night was in Murray Falls, a gorgeous grassy spot by a waterfall complete with swimming hollow around 100km north of Townsville.

From there we pushed on north up the Bruce Highway before heading up onto the Atherton Tablelands - an incredible, vast area of tropical rainforest and farm land, rivers and lakes, all around 800m above sea level.

Camping at Fong On Bay, Dunbarra State Park

We spent the night at Henrietta Creek, another great national park spot. I'd barely switched off Chuck the Truck when this woman in a velour tracksuit came stamping towards us. And I mean stamping.

Boy, she's mad, I thought. I wonder if I ran over her dog?

"I don't know if you're the nervous type,'' she said. I assured her I wasn't.

"It's just that I saw a 6 ft red bellied black snake go past where you're planning to camp.''

"Oh,'' I replied. "Are they, erm, poisonous?''

"Very,'' she replied with a look of grim satisfaction, and stamped off.

Apparently stamping lets the snake know you're there, although I would have thought it was pretty obvious already.

We decided to stay anyway, and put up the tent with a lot of stamping.

Next thing, an old bloke stops by our camp in his 4WD.

"Well are ya coming to the pub with me or not?'' he asks as by way of an opener.

Murray Falls

Since we'd only met that second, I politely declined. "Well can I get you anything while I'm there? I've got a few numbers to check on in a raffle.''

Well, actually, we didn't have any tonic, if he wouldn't mind?

"Hold on, I've got some of that in the back of the bus,'' he says, disappearing for a minute before returning and proffering a full bottle of Schweppes' finest.

I try to give him $5 but he waves it away. Well, what he actually says is: "Nah, stick it up your bum.'' Which I decide was his way of saying it was a gift.

The following day we drove across the tablelands before arriving at a gorgeous and virtually empty lakeside campsite, called Fong-on Bay. A local wag had changed the 'F' to a 'B' so it read Bong-on Bay, which I thought was pretty funny.

Me and the golden gumboot in Tully, Australia's wettest town where 

7.9m of rain fell in 1950

A fire beside the lake under a starry sky - life doesn't get much better.

Today we descended briefly into tourist hell when we came out of the tablelands and down into Cairns and Port Douglas. Suddenly we were surrounded by camera-toting tour bus loads full of pasty gawping tourists on day trips from their hotels in the surrounding area. We got out as fast as we could.

We found a tent site at Wonga Beach, a tiny little settlement just short of Daintree, about 60km north of Cairns, near the start of the Bloomfield Track, a notorious 4WD only 'short cut' to Cooktown, the last stop on the public highway before the roads turn from bitumen to gravel as we head towards Cape York.

Of course we're going to take the short cut.

Still no crocs, but the woman at the campground advised us not to go swimming, as they have been sighted around here. There's also warning signs everywhere, which puts a bit of a dampener on the sunset beach strolls.

More soon, assuming there's mobile phone service further north.

A friendly butterfly was keen on our breakfast