August 30, Part 2

The sky filled with clouds as the afternoon wore on, and then (as has been true every day) began to clear again. There were just enough clouds left to make a spectacular display as we drove into Mt. Elizabeth Station at sunset. Mt. Elizabeth is a working cattle station, but it also has facilities for visitors. This station has been in the Lacy family for two generations. Frank Lacy, subject of the book The Rivers of Home: Frank Lacy–Kimberley Pioneer, was born in New Zealand in 1899 and came to this region in 1923. He took up the lease on this station in 1945. He is the father of the current owner. Both Frank Lacy and his wife, Theresa, are buried nearby.

Frank’s son, Peter, now owns the station, but he is out with the stockmen, mustering the cattle, so we didn’t get to meet him. We were met by Peter’s wife, Pat Lacy, and her niece, Kim. We actually get to sleep in beds here, and Pat showed us to our rooms. After I dashed off to photograph the sunset and the gravestones of the first Lacys, I enjoyed a cold shower and then dressed for dinner.
mount-elizabeth-station-lighter mount-elizabeth-sunset-lighter
We were introduced to another “family member”—a pet wallaby. Pat explained that the wallaby had been hut by a car, and the Lacys nursed it back to health. This actually happens with some regularity, so Pat knows what to do—and what to expect. As soon as the mating season is on, the wallaby will return to the wild.

I was surprised to meet another American there: Will Chaffey from Boston, who is up here doing a story for Australian Geographic. He has had some remarkable adventures up here, getting stranded in the wilderness and being reduced to the point of eating grasshoppers–“going feral” as he put it.

Pat Lacy served us a lovely, civilized dinner, with tablecloth and china, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

We chatted after dinner, sharing tales of our own adventures around Australia (some of ours more amusing than Will’s, be he won for hardship). Then we returned to our rooms before the generator was shut down for the night at 9:30.

Nights get surprisingly cool, now, though not until about 2 a.m. It’s amazing that is still gets so brutally hot during the day.

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Trip 3:Wednesday, August 30 Part 1

I awoke a few times during the night and, looking up at the stars and tree branches, I felt completely alone and removed from the world. It’s as if even the tent is a reminder of civilization, and peeling away that last layer made me feel completely free.

Dawn was beautiful and cool and musical. This area seems so beautiful this morning, though it is not really an area one would identify as beautiful. It’s just so perfectly removed from everything.

We rolled up our swags and gathered around the fire for tea and breakfast. I was warming my cup of tea over the fire when Shirley said, “Isn’t this when you miss your microwave?” Somehow, that intrusion of civilization, even just spoken, induced something between panic and melancholy in me. The thought of being anywhere other than the middle of nowhere, sleeping under the stars, seemed horrifying at that moment. I don’t know if it’s Australia I love so much, or this lifestyle, or if the two are so interwoven in my mind that there’s no way to separate them, but right now this is the only place I want to be. Anyway, I reminded myself, with gratitude, that I have five more days out here. (And yes, I do know that I would not survive for long in the wilderness, and that to a certain extent the wilderness would be less attractive if it weren’t balanced by “the real world,” but it’s where I need to be right now.)

We packed our gear and headed back down from the plateau, returning to King Edward River to pick up the trailer we’d left behind.

We hadn’t gotten much farther along when a loud thump got John’s attention, and we stopped to find a nut missing from the trailer hitch. Most of the group went in search of the missing piece, and we were stopped for a while. The nut was never found, but John and Don worked diligently to jury-rig an alternative.

Enforced Stop

Enforced Stop

About an hour later, we were on our way again, retracing the miles back to the Gibb River Rd. Green parrots, galahs, and butcherbirds accompanied us as we drove. Wonderful. We drove straight through to Drysdale Station, were we stopped for lunch. Here, John was able to buy a new nut and bolt for the trailer and got it repaired. (It is not unusual for people out this way to stock all sorts of things for repairing vehicles—though one would want to make sure to not drive out here in something rare and exotic—pick something common, and you’ll always be able to find parts.) We were soon back on the road—have to make up for lost time, to get to our evening destination (don’t think these are roads one would want to negotiate in the dark).


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August 29, Part 2

Our little chopper (smaller than the one at the Bungles) was once again devoid of doors that might hamper our view of the scenery below. Once again, my companions claimed the back seat, which delighted me. I had an amazing view and nothing to obstruct my photos.

The helicopter lifted off precisely on time, dipped slightly as it turned and, gaining altitude, headed for the coast. The ground below us alternated between rocky outcrop and tree-dotted savannah, before intensifying into a deeper greens as we neared the coast. Before long, the brilliant turquoise of the ocean appeared on the horizon. Islands floated on the sea. We edged out over the water at Crystal Point, searching the mangrove-lined tidal pools below us for crocs and the coastal waters for sharks and rays. We saw one huge manta ray surface, then dive. Otherwise, our pilot said, the tide was still too high for much of a show. Gray swirls of mud made curving patterns in the turquoise bays below, where the tidal rivers emptied into the ocean.
land-from-helicopter-lighter mitchell-coast-helicopter mangroves-and-river-outlet-helicopter
We followed the brilliant turquoise water and bright green mangroves and tea trees along the winding coast to the mouth of the Mitchell River, then followed the river up to the impressive falls. The river gorge was largely in shadow, but the sun caught the edge of the lower falls, making it a white slash in the darkness. Wonderful. We could see great flocks of cockatoos flying below us, and a pelican landing on the river. After giving us numerous excellent photo-ops, the pilot turned for the heliport and our “home” for the evening.
mitchell-falls-helicopter mitchell-river-homeward-helicopter
With the wind rushing past us in the doorless chopper, we were quite cool. It was a real shock when we landed and started walking back to the 4WD in the now stunningly hot sunlight. Very few of the customary afternoon clouds have gathered. I’m glad I did the hike this morning. A breeze makes the heat close to bearable, but only if you stay in the shade. It must be 110˚ again.

At the end of our flight, coming back down to earth also meant paying for the flight. It amused me when the pilot sat down on the ground, an old credit card device in front of him in the dust, and took our payments. Nowhere so remote that you can’t still take care of business.
Evening brought some relief from the heat, though the rocks retained much of the warmth. But compared to the heat of the afternoon, it seemed fairly comfortable. Enjoyed another evening of good company, good food, and dazzling star show overhead. Wonderful, rewarding day.


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Trip 3:Tuesday, August 29 Part 1

Rose to a beautiful but wet morning. A heavy dew covered the ground, the tents, and our bags. We shook things out and tried to dry them as best we could before packing them up. We prepared carefully, since we’re leaving the tents and our luggage behind. We’ll just take a spare shirt and socks, cups, sleeping bags, and swim suits. Our drive today will be much too rough to pull the trailer that carries all our gear, so we’ll really be roughing it tonight.

Flies are bad here—not as bad as at Menu Camp, but the worst since then. (We were told that there were two bad places, so this must be number two.) Hard to write and swat flies at the same time.

Packed and on the “road” by 7:30. Driving was much rough, and even without the trailer, the 4WD, and John’s driving skills, were put to the test. Then up and onto the Mitchell Plateau. Livistona palms—slender, tall palms with dark fronds that are also known sometimes as fan palms or cabbage palms—began to outnumber eucalypts.

After a couple of hours of driving that was more reminiscent of bronco busting, we arrived at our rather desolate, rocky bush camp. We locked up the 4WD, then most of us started along the track to Mitchell Falls.

The three who did not join us on our hike headed for the helicopter pad nearby. They will get a one-hour tour, out over the wilderness and along the coastline, then will be dropped near the top of Mitchell Falls in time to join us for lunch. Then after lunch, three others (including me) will board the helicopter for our one-hour tour, ending back at the heliport near camp.
The hike in was fabulous, if rugged. I’m recovered enough by now from both jet lag and my fall in Kununurra to manage the climbing and scrambling quite well. The climbing was up and down huge boulders, which were generally in the shade. Only the flat parts of the hike were really hot and unprotected.

Hiking In

Hiking In

It took us about one and a half hours to reach the river above the first part of the falls. (Mitchell Falls is actually a series of increasingly impressive waterfalls.) The spot was spectacular, with shattered and worn rocks all around, and pandanus and paperbark trees in spots along the water.
mitchell-river-waterfall mitchell-river-with-waterfall
Our long walk was rewarded with a dip in the clear, cool river. (We had our swimsuits in our day packs, so were prepared for this.) The water was as clear as crystal. Even while swimming we could see the bottom. We got out for a few minutes, to eat a light lunch, then had another quick swim before dressing for our helicopter ride (or the hike back for those not taking to the skies).


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August 28, Part 2

We finally stopped at a remote spot where incredible rock formations surrounded us. We were here to explore Wanjina rock art. The Wanjina are mythical ancestral beings, elemental spirit beings that originated in the sea and sky. It is believed the older paintings are at least 4,000 years old, though some paintings in this region are made or renewed even today. The figures are alien-looking beings, with large eyes and no mouths.

Wanjina Spirit Figures

Wanjina Spirit Figures

After spending a fair bit of time examining and learning about the paintings, we continued exploring the area. The rocks are astonishingly shattered and worn, with roots prying open cracks and trees perching on ledges. One rock looked to me like a huge face. We saw a gigantic spider–bigger than my hand, even with fingers spread—and gave it wide berth. (We were later told that it was not a type we needed to worry about.) Everything else was fascinating and quite wonderful.
mitchell-rocks-1-lighter mitchell-rocks-2
Then on to our campsite, which was not far beyond, at a site on the King Edward River. Here, rocks jut up at one end of camp, and the river runs along one side of the small bit of flat area where our tents are to be put up. Pandanus and huge paperbarks cluster along the riverbanks, and rock slabs rise up from or slope into the water in various places. Large numbers of ducks sat on the far shore, watching us was we set up camp.
King Edward River

King Edward River

With camp up, it was time for a dip in the clear water. The submerged parts of the rocks along the water’s edge were covered with some sort of moss or algae that made them unbelievably slippery. If a rock was at a slant, you couldn’t stand, or even sit in one place—you’d just keep sliding. It made getting into and especially getting out of the water a bit challenging–though it was definitely worth the effort.

As the sun began to approach the horizon, more birds began to arrive and/or began singing. Butcherbirds, whistling kites, cockatoos, and myriad unknowns joined us in camp. Other than the heat and flies, this could be paradise.

The sunset was beautiful. The moon was the tiniest sliver in the darkening sky. The cockatoos have squawked good night. Mim is preparing damper for us to enjoy after dinner.
The heat from our cooking fire drove a big spider out into the open, and it disappeared in the dark. Then a grasshopper jumped down the back of my neck. These generated a half hour of bug and spider stories. But then conversation returned to adventures in Australia–those we’d all had and those we anticipated in the morning. Nice evening.


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Trip 3:Monday, August 28 Part 1

Dawn on the Durack. We were camped at the water’s edge, so the scene was spectacular. Flocks of black and white cockatoos circled overhead. The light crept down the red cliffs and reflected on the water. Glorious morning.

After packing up camp, we had a leisurely morning, hiking up and down the river, admiring the birds and the view, sitting in the shade and chatting. John had to change a tire, which is the activity to which we owed our leisure time.

The spot was of such beauty that it was hard to leave. The river was clear, with a few waterlilies along the shore. The birds were astonishing: hundreds of white cockatoos, plus butcherbirds, kites, willy wagtails, and others I don’t know, including tiny brown and white shore birds, little yellow flower eaters, and more. I startled little lizard, who then posed for a photo. Some of cockatoos dropped in for a visit. The paperbark trees were in bloom. All quite wonderful.

Durack River

Durack River

As we departed, hundreds of cockatoos burst into the air and accompanied us for the first half mile. It was another spectacular day.

Off again across the vast green and gold emptiness. Gusts of wind kicked up puffs of dust from time to time, but it was otherwise a still, cloudless, blazing day.

Forded the Gibb River–the river that gave its name to the road we have been following–then stopped to take photographs and stretch our legs. Then onward again.

Gibb River

Gibb River

Into Drysdale Station at King Edward River, for fuel and soft drinks. A rather grim, utilitarian place carved out of the bush: broad, dusty yard surrounded by utes, jeeps, steel drums, water tanks, trailers, and corrugated-iron shacks. A few decorative trees seemed to be afterthoughts–a scattering of mango trees and sausage trees, all rather dusty and tired looking. But then, it is the end of the dry season. I suspect much in this area is a bit dusty and tired. Then back on the road.

We had lunch at the edge of the Drysdale River. Gorgeous spot. Paperbark trees and pandanus surrounded us. Red dirt, green water, blue sky. A black ibis and a white-faced heron waded nearby, no doubt with eyes focused on the tiny fish we could see darting about in the clear river. Dragon flies danced among the plants growing around us.

Drysdale River

Drysdale River

White-faced Heron

White-faced Heron

Continuing on, we crossed an area that seemed more like parkland, or a back paddock, than wild bushland. Taller trees were wildly spaced across a region of shorter grass (anywhere from ankle- to knee-deep, as opposed to the 7 foot-tall spear grass we’d seen earlier).

Many areas are blackened by the annual burn off, but new growth is evident in all but the most recently burned (or currently burning) places. Did see a few fires, as well as a lot of sand palms and 5 or 6 brumbies (wild horses).

Burn Off

Burn Off

The road became not simply worse by unbelievably worse. However, the wilder the road, the more spectacularly primitive and exotic the scenery became.


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Trip 3:Sunday, August 27

Beautiful sunrise. Flocks of red-tailed black cockatoos and caroling butcherbirds greeted us. The rising sun painted the pale-trunked ghost gums and curving humps of spinifex in changing pastels.

Bush brekkie, bush loo, then back on the track. I am endlessly impressed by the skill with which John handles the seemingly impossible (and sometimes undiscernible) “roads” that we are traversing.

After a couple of hours, we rejoined the highway, turning north again, retracing our route toward Kununurra. The boabs reappeared as we neared the coast. There were none farther inland. It’s a trade-off: the spinifex that was so abundant inland has now disappeared. However, there are always eucalypts and termite mounds.

Approaching Kununurra, we passed Lake Kununurra, which is in fact a huge reservoir created by the damming of the Ord River. Having previously seen it in the dark, it was nice to see it in daylight. Easy to see why it’s a popular holiday destination.
Lake Kununurra
We had a couple of hours free in Kununurra, while Kate shopped for food and John had some work done on the truck. A few people did laundry. I wrote all my postcards and got them into the mail. And we all had lunch. I had a meat pie—my first this trip. Delightful.

I took a few photos of “downtown” Kununurra and of some of the local flowers (including the insanely fragrant plumeria-frangipani pictured below). Then it was time to hit the road again, headed for the legendarily rough car-wrecker, the Gibb River Road and the remote and still largely untouched Kimberley region.
Fork-tailed kites, whistling kites, and sulphur-crested cockatoos became more common as we got farther from town. We passed the entrance to El Questro Wilderness Park, which is home to everything from campsites to an incredibly posh resort, where you can sleep in luxury and still wake to the rugged beauty of the Kimberley. But we’d be going far deeper into the region than this.

The scenery remained utterly spectacular as we continued along the Gibb River Road. The remains of huge, ancient plateaus towered above the increasingly arid, hilly landscape. We stopped at the Pentecost River crossing, which cuts across the road. This is one of those places that reminds you why you want to have a good guide and driver—because it’s not entirely clear that there is a way across. Rocks and water and no sign of a road. It is, however, a beautiful spot, with egrets wading nearby. After a few photos, we continued on, with John skillfully negotiating the crossing—and, happily, making it, since this is a tidal river, which means saltwater crocodiles, so we wouldn’t want to wade.

Pentecost River crossing

Pentecost River crossing

As we continued on, a few clouds appeared, making shadows on the landscape. Next stop was the lookout over Home Valley, facing the Cockburn Range. Incredible. Like looking at the ruined fortress of an ancient civilization, only more wonderful.
Home Valley-Cockurn Range Cockurn Range
A few more stops along the way, and then on to the Durack River. What a beautiful spot. The sun was setting beyond the hills, and the clouds and water were dusted with pink and violet. I managed to get a couple of photos while the light lasted, then we set up camp.
Durach River Sunset
The campsite at which we had stopped had showers, though no lights and only cold water. But it was running water, and we enjoyed cleaning up after a couple of days of being hot and grubby.

The stars were incredible, and the frogs, night birds, and river supplied calming music. Bats were delighted with the insects drawn to our camp light (there is one lantern on the 4WD), and we could see them swooping through the edges of its beams. A gentle breeze made the evening more perfect still.

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