September 1, Part 2

Giant termite mounds became more numerous, though these mounds were much different from those we saw back in the Northern Territory. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a different species of termite or if it has to do with different soil, but the reddish mounds here were rather grotesque—like a gross between the Venus of Willendorf and dinosaur droppings, rather than the tidy, pleated, gray mounds seen in the Top End.

Termite Mound

Termite Mound

Our campsite tonight, at “Fern Gully,” is beautiful, with water, pandanus, and white cockatoos in abundance. Before lunch, we had a dip in Bell Creek, which runs along the side of our camp. It is always a surprise to find how cool the water is when the air/sun is so hot—but perhaps it’s the contrast.
Fern Gully

Fern Gully

At 2 o’clock, we climbed back into the 4WD and headed for the start of the hike into Bell Gorge. It was a less strenuous walk than the hike into Manning Gorge, and only about 1 kilometer, but it was hard enough, with loose rock underfoot much of the way.
Bell Gorge was spectacular, with a waterfall in the middle, connecting upper and lower pools. We photographed and then swam for an hour. As at the last few gorges we’ve visited, we saw a water monitor, though rather than lazing on the rocks, this one was in the water with us.
bellgorge bellgorgefalls
When we finally emerged from the water, we sat for a while on the rocks, drying out before changing, and catching the huge, nasty march flies and feeding them to tiny, copper-colored lizards.
During the hike back out, I was more aware of the music made by the gurgling stream. The lowering sun set the red rocks ablaze. Another remarkable day in a glorious setting.
Back in camp, we made tea, enjoyed the sunset, and settled in for another amiable evening of conversation and stargazing.
We’re not quite as remote here as we have been, and there is a park ranger station not far away. Knowing we were camping in the area, a ranger dropped by after dark to let us know not to leave any shoes or small objects out, as there is a litter of dingo pups nearby, and they would be likely to steal such items. A few dingoes were sighted around camp, at the edge of our firelight, so I decided to sleep inside a tent after all.

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Trip 3:Friday, September 1, Part 1

September 1 is the first day of spring here in Australia. We rose at dawn, as usual, but had a leisurely morning, while John greased the truck and did a few minor repairs. (Those rough roads really beat up even rugged vehicles.)

It was another crystalline morning—clear, unblemished blue from horizon to horizon. The magpies, cockatoos, and crows set up their usual morning chorus. John says the crows in this region are the largest in Australia. That’s easy to believe. I had thought they were ravens, they’re so large.

Most of the group has wandered off to swim or take pictures. I explored for a while but then returned to camp, for a bit of tea, rumination, and writing. I have written extensively about all I’ve seen, but I should probably also note that those with whom I am seeing it are a remarkable lot and have added immensely to this experience. Everyone is well read, well traveled, both interested and interesting, fun, enthusiastic, and thoroughly enjoyable. I consider myself extremely fortunate in having such an ideal group of traveling companions.

I’ve been impressed with our guide, John, as well. He’s very tall, wiry, thin but strong, with shoulder length, wavy, dark blond hair. He is tremendously widely traveled and at times appears a bit world weary, but he is patient, resourceful, polite, and full of stories about his interesting life. Born in London, he left school at 15 and has spent most of his life wandering, mostly in Africa and then Australia. He rolls his own cigarettes and often seems to prefer smoking to eating. Amiable. Slow of speech but quick of wit. He actually delights in the challenge of the horrific roads, even though it means a lot of time fixing the truck, as he was doing this morning. So perfect—in fact almost iconic—for this setting and job.

Belinda came by as I finished my notes, and we hiked together down to the water hole, to photograph reflections and water lilies.
manning-reflections manning-waterlilies
By 9 a.m., John had finished working on our vehicle. We had a final coffee and biscuit break before heading back on the road at 9:30. (Had to push start the truck, which seemed reluctant to leave.)

We made a short stop back at Barnett River Roadhouse, for fuel, water, and treats. I had one of the wonderful fruit “ice lollies” they seem to have everywhere here, even in these remote spots—a frozen cream, passionfruit, and pineapple confection on a stick that was yummy and refreshing. Then we were rocketing along the dusty red road again, covering the 120 kilometers to Bell Gorge in the King Leopold Range.
When we stopped to stretch our legs at one point, I was delighted to see delicate flowers growing along the road. I thought they looked like Sturt desert roses. Someone else said they thought they were native hibiscus. So I grabbed one of the reference books on board and found out that we were both right – because the Sturt desert rose is a type of native hibiscus. Lovely flowers.

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August 31, Part 2

After lunch, we headed off on foot. It was a bit more than an hour to the gorge. Our route was challenging, but it took us through increasingly exotic, rugged scenery, with astonishing and often glorious views.

Each steep climb...

Each steep climb…

...led to a great view.

…led to a great view.

With the temperature over 100˚ again, the steep climbs and drops seemed more arduous than they might have seemed at a lower temperature, but each climb was well rewarded—with the final reward for the toughest descent being Manning Gorge, a spectacular slash in the red rocks with wide, incredibly clear pools running along the bottom of the gorge, connected by tumbles of water and short rapids.
manningrivergorge1 manningrivergorge2-alt
We changed into our swimsuits and were in the cool water in minutes. A short swim to the worn, black rocks at the far end of the central pool and a scramble over the rocks, and we reached another pool, where a waterfall spilled over the cliff high above us. We swam across the pool and under the falls and stood on the ledge behind the descending water, looking out at the red walls and pandanus and brilliant water. Standing directly under the falling water, I drank the sweet water as it came over the edge. Everything about it was magic.

We were in no hurry to leave, but eventually we had to—too far to hike to not leave while we still had some energy—and some daylight. When we got back to the point where we’d entered the water, I dressed quickly and then retrieved my camera gear and took photos of the gorge (though, alas, not of the area farther up, with the waterfall). I also photographed a water monitor (a lizard) that was sunning on the rocks nearby. Then we refilled our water bottles from the clear stream and began the long hike back.

Monitor lizard

Monitor lizard

The hike back was made even more beautiful by the lowering sun. The red of distant cliffs was highlighted. Everything was thrown into sharper relief. The late sun picked out the trunks of what appeared to be young boab trees. I was torn between the desire to stop and photograph everything and the very real need to get back before sunset, since the steep climbs and balancing on rocks across streams would be impossible in the dark.
Back in camp, we prepared for the evening, trading our hiking boots for flip flops, putting the billy on to boil for tea, and slapping on mosquito repellent (always the down side of water—no mozzies when there’s no water). Then, we all settled in for another amiable, star-lit evening. (I’ve been pleased to see the Southern Cross every night on this trip, and shooting stars on several nights, so stars have definitely been one of the joys after sunset.)

As I have discovered other places I’ve wandered, being far from civilization does not always mean quiet. There is no sound of civilization, but the tree frogs, bats, and owls made it a surprisingly noisy night. But it was still wonderful to lie on the warm ground, no tent between me and the sky, gazing up at the brilliant star show overhead.


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Trip 3:Thursday, August 31 Part 1

A bit of a sleep-in this morning. We awoke with the birds, but we didn’t have to get up right away, since breakfast was set for 7:30.

The Lacy home is a wonderful, airy place, so perfectly designed for this climate, with a high, pitched, corrugated iron roof, a wide veranda, and stone walls that do not actually reach the roof, which permits air to circulate. There is a manicured lawn bordered with hibiscus, frangipani, and palm trees. It’s a lovely spot.

Inside Lacy home

Inside Lacy home

We learned at breakfast that where we are staying is the new homestead. The old homestead is, we were told, about 20 kilometers down the track.

Because Peter Lacy is off mustering, we’re not getting a tour of the station, so John is taking us to a swimming hole, to make it up to us. On the “road” again by 8:30. Huge clouds of black cockatoos and smaller flocks of white cockatoos rose into the air around us and swirled about.

We stopped at Barnett River Gorge, another wonderful spot carved out of the red rock, lined with greenery. It is always a strange but delightful thing to come upon these hidden oases in the midst of the hot, dry land, splashes of tropic splendor amid the arid savanna and barren rocks.
barnettrvgrg-1 barnettrvgrg-2
We hiked to a lookout and then climbed down to a spot where we had easy access to the water, where we enjoyed a brief, refreshing splash. However, this was just a short stop, since it was in lieu of the tour of the station.

On the road again—and the road was truly awful. Probably not the worst place, but it’s endlessly amazing that any vehicle survives this.
Stopped at the Barnett River Roadhouse, where I was able to get a cold drink and buy a good map of the area. (Cold drinks—generally lemonade or iced coffee—or frozen fruit juice on a stick became minor addictions as the hot weather continued.)

On the road again, and on to Manning River Gorge. We actually didn’t drive to the gorge, but rather headed for a campsite that was within hiking distance of the gorge. Here, we set up camp and had lunch before heading off on a hike. The site was surprisingly lovely, with a serene stream and abundant trees. Several of us had gotten “hooked” on sleeping outside—that is, without even using tents—and we decided we would continue to do so. This made setting up camp much easier, since putting up tents has always been the major endeavor involved in creating camp.

Our evening campsite

Our evening campsite

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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, but 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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