Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Doing the blog and R&R in Broome

The concept of “being in contact” has changed significantly over the past few years with emails, blogs and constant phone access becoming the norm.

We manage to compile and post our blog and do emails etc by making the most of every opportunity which presents itself to access the internet. The blog is written on a Samsung NC10 mini laptop which has the advantages of being very light and with a long battery life. Whenever we can connect to the Internet, either through WIFI or a network point, we send off a few chapters. All of the pictures and videos we take are transferred to the laptop very easily by inserting the memory card into a slot on the laptop and then we edit them down to a reasonable number and some go into the blog.

Access to the Internet is not universally available for travellers although most medium sized towns will have an internet cafe somewhere – costs vary from “Free at McDonalds” to $5 per hour (£2.50) as a typical price through to as much as $25. The ideal solution for us is somewhere where we can plug the laptop straight in thus avoiding the chance of virus infection which is prevalent at Internet Cafes. For such as large country, Australia has a very good mobile phone system and mobile broadband is widely available at a very high cost (therefore we do not use it). Our three mobile phones connect to three different networks (two UK and one Australian) and it is the Telstra 3G system which has proved to have the widest geographical coverage.  We chose a “rural Telstra T6 phone” which was sold as not having all of the bells and whistles but was a basic phone with good rural coverage. Other than a rudimentary address book, it seems to do all that an expensive UK phone will do and also is very good at accessing the internet (again at a price).

Keeping in touch by phone with the UK has been quite easy because Vodafone abolished their roaming charges for European countries for the summer period and decided that Australia and New Zealand were in Europe and so we can call the UK for 7.5p a minute (previously £1.70), receive calls for no cost (previously 70p per minute) and we have 600 free texts per 30 day period (previously 50p per text). The only disadvantage for us is that Vodafone is only accessible in the larger towns and we are avoiding many of those.

Australia Map Showing Exmouth

Broome (about 10 pm on the map above) is a target for many travellers in Western Australia. It has a reputation for being the home of “Broometime” – during “the dry”, a phrase which means that everything slows down nicely in a more agreeable climate (30 C as against 37 C a few days ago in the Kimberley and with manageable humidity levels) during the Australian winter.

The town is full – by that I mean that if you were to go to the Tourist Office and seek advice on where you could stay, their blackboard shows all caravan parks as being full and there are stories of people queuing up outside parks at 7 am to grab a space as someone leaves. The parks also charge a very high $39 per night much to the disgust of visitors.

We decided some weeks ago that we would have a few days luxury after such a long period on the road and booked ourselves into a hotel a few kms from the centre of town. It turned out that the reason this hotel had

The Oaks Broome 2

vacancies was that it had only been open a few weeks (i.e. was brand new) and as a consequence, we are experiencing a few of their teething problems (Internet not working, room safe not working, whine whine whine!!!!) To be in an air conditioned room with clean white sheets on a bed larger

Oak Hotel Broome

than our van is somewhat strange. We dared not sit on the bed until we had showered because we felt our dirt would be so ingrained after six weeks on the road and to our shame, some of that dirt soon showed on the brand new towels despite long showers.

Whilst here, the Van took the opportunity to go into a local garage for its 145,000 km service and to get a few faults fixed (it has at least 10,000 more kms to do with us and some challenging roads ahead). We also took the opportunity to get our hair cut (I need to go short again since I will be diving in a couple of weeks) and all of our clothes, van bed linen etc are now washed.

Although Broome is an old town (in Australian terms), most of the old buildings have been destroyed over the years in one of the numerous cyclones which roar through during the wet season. Hence it has a “new old” feel about it since they have tried to keep the original corrugated iron

Corrugated Building

appearance of many buildings and the airy verandas. Many buildings are now built on stilts to keep them above flood levels and all areas seem to have a cyclone disaster plan since it is in one of the most active cyclone areas of the world.

Broome is home to a few famous sites which we have enjoyed. The Sun Cinema opened in 1915 and showed its first talkie in 1933.

Sun outside

Sun posters  Paybooth 

The Box Office - $12 per ticket, not 1915 prices! It is an open

View from the screen

Deckchairs undercover

air cinema where everyone sits on deckchairs and the audience has to cope with planes taking off from the local airport and appearing just above the screen (since the airport is adjacent to the cinema). If you have seen the film Australia you will have seen the cinema (which then was supposedly in Darwin). Appropriately protected from the ravages of the local sand flies, we went one evening and enjoyed a film plus three jet takeoffs, one turbo prop and six helicopters.

Cable Beach is a long stretch of sand on the western side of town much

Cable Beach

Mermaid at Cable Point

photographed and visited. The beach is lovely and the sea a unique shade of blue.

Gantheaume Point and Sea

Camels rides are available along the beach

Camel Ride on Beach 

and it is a popular sunset viewing point.

Sunset at Cable Beach

The origin of the town is related to Pearls and hence much of the town

Pearl Lugger

history is focused around them. Pearl Luggers were in use until the `980s and Hard Hat divers last dived for pearls in 1975 when scuba divers took over. There are numerous shops selling expensive pearl based products and museums describe the history of the industry. In the early days, Japanese and Chinese labour was used to harvest them and they have left their mark in the road names, numerous Chinese restaurants and

Japanese Cemetery Broome

also their own cemeteries where most of the divers who died from the bends are buried (33 in 1913).  It was not until 1915 that the concept of decompression was introduced for divers. The Broome Museum has a large section of the pearl industry and diving and the stories about the methods and deadly dangers of diving do not bare thinking about today.

Our assessment of Broome is that is very nice and with a lovely winter climate, we are not too sure whether all of the hype about it is justified but it gave us a nice break about half way through the trek.

The next week demands some significant kms (1400) as we are now travelling towards Exmouth (which is on the top far left of Australia) for some diving. We are however planning three days at 80 Mile Beach (so called because the beach is 80 miles long) where the camp site offers nothing  but sitting on the beach, drinking beer and listening to the sea. Travelling often is a hard life isn’t it!

Sam – here is a picture of a nice Chevrolet truck that we saw in Broome

Chevy Truck

We also saw some Dinosaur footprints preserved in the rock near the beach here.

Dinosaur Footprint Broome

Dinosaur Footprint 2

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Places to sleep – we arrive at the Indian Ocean

Australia Map Broome

Over the past six weeks we have become experienced assessors of places to stay although most of the faults and strengths of a camp site, hotel or wayside stopping point do not become apparent until too late. Tiredness at the end of a long day, and sometimes a total lack of choice can affect judgement.

Camping is such a way of life out here that nearly every town of any size has at least one camp site and if it is on one of the major roads going across Australia, then there can be up to a dozen to choose from. Some are members of one of the national chains but most are independently operated. Some take advanced bookings, useful if you know where you want to stay and the area is popular, others are simply “first come first served”. We have stayed at massive sites with hundreds of campers and small ones with only 20. Most seem to have some permanent residents whose pitch has over time, adopted a settled air with plants, sun shades, and even their own post box.

A typical campsite will have a mixture of:

unpowered sites which are popular with tent campers and those whose caravan has its own generator;

powered sites - you park your van and can then connect it to mains electricity at a nearby power pole (which usually has water as well) to run the aircon, fridge etc);

ensuites which are powered sites but with your own toilet and shower in a small outhouse (Pat’s favourite but not always available) close to the van

 Harvey Van Cobbold Gorge

chalets (small houses with a bedroom, bathroom etc)


a strange cabin (called a Dongar) made by subdividing a shipping container into a number of units, sometime without a window, just big enough for two single beds side by side


Caravans occupied by permanent residents which usually reflect the fact that they cannot afford much and are not going anywhere in the near future

Permanent Camping Site Resident

Most have wildlife around and in the camp. We have got used to frogs in the bowl or shower and the occasional wallaby in the toilets, the variety of bird life is a pleasure, the attentions of insects less so. The amount of shade available varies, an ideal campsite has shading trees for all campers.

Prices at Campsites we have stayed at for powered sites have ranged from $20 (£10) for two people up to $35 per night, and ensuites have been from $30 to $45. Chalet / Motel rooms are typically $110 plus. There seems to be no logic on pricing – isolated places or popular places can be cheap or expensive, sites can be very crowded with everyone packed close together or spread out with significant distance in between pitches (even in the same town).

Campsites usually have random combinations of: swimming pools, a cafe usually selling expensive meals, a camp kitchen where you can cook your own food, a pub bar, a small shop selling a mixture of some of what you might need and a lot of what you certainly do not need, internet access (sometimes wifi), fuel, lpg gas, tour bookings etc.

If campsites were allowed only one criteria for their quality score we would base it on the toilets, showers and clothes washing facilities. These items are not so important to large caravan owners with their own integral shower and toilets – all they need are dump points but for us, they are well used and important. Facilities have varied in quality from the appallingly awful where clenched buttocks are preferable to usage through to the average which are just tolerable to very good with paper towels, soap, constant hot water etc.

Toilet Pine Creek 2

At Pine Creek the toilets were built from adobe brick (mud and straw),

Toilet Pine Creek 1

despite the plumbing problem which led to flooding, the gents were tolerable, the ladies (best not shown) were “clenched buttocks”.

There are the occasional surprises however. Halls Creek is a very run down town in the Kimberley with major Aboriginal community problems and the campsite in town looks awful. The person running it however is delightful and the toilets etc are some of the cleanest we have every seen with chairs to sit in if you have to wait your turn and books to read etc. This facility was enough to make us stay a second night rather than go on to a rough desert campsite.

We appreciate that maintaining communal facilities is a thankless task, and certainly some campers leave them in an appalling condition but in our opinion, they make (or break) a site for those that stay there.

Fitzroy Crossing – a town in the middle of nowhere in the Kimberley had the most astonishingly good camp site – the best we have ever stayed at. Just outside Broome however, we found the worst one so far but had to put up with it because this part of Australia is full – the Northern half of Australia attracts campers by the thousands during the winter because of the nice climate, and Broome in particular attracts them.

Broome Camp Site

You can always strike up a conversation with your fellow campers who provide a source of information on routes, what to see and not see, fuel availability, booking need etc. Most assume we live in Australia and are truly surprised and pleased at what we are doing.

At one camp site (Halls Creek) in an old gold prospecting area, our next door neighbour told us that he was now a full time gold prospector and

Raw Gold 

showed us the results of his efforts to prove it. The above are nuggets of raw gold, some relatively pure, others embedded in mineral.

The drive across the Kimberley (known as Australia's last real wilderness) to get to Broome was one of the most boring we have done with only the occasional enormous Boab Tree to brighten up the road.

Boab Tree and Pat

When one talks about long straight boring roads with nothing in the countryside, this is what we mean.

Road East

Where we have come from.

Road West

Where we are going to.

And so after some 6000 km we get to the Indian Ocean at Broome

Paddling in the Indian Ocean

and we are looking forward to four nights in a hotel in the centre of town. We had always promised ourselves some nights of luxury and half-way through the trip, we are having some. Clean sheets and a double bed awaits us together with a chance to get haircuts, go to the cinema (Broome has a famous outdoors cinema which you will have seen in the film Australia masquerading as one in Darwin) and other hedonistic things which old travellers are entitled to from time to time.

Sam, here are another set of pictures for you – a Jeep used by a Gold Prospector

Gold Prospectors Jeep

and some Road Trains - we are seeing a large number at the moment. The biggest has 88 wheels.

Road Train 1

Road Train 2 

This Road Train is not long but it is carrying an enormous truck used in the mines to carry rocks.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Camping in the Bungle Bungles

Over the past few weeks, whenever we have said we were going into the Bungles, whomever we were talking to says things like: “in that?”, “I suppose you might make it”; “the rivers are not more than 600 mm deep at this time of the year” etc etc. It took me some while to realise that few of them have actually driven in and even the person we were talking to last night who was talking very knowledgably about it this year, suddenly  admitted he had not been in for a couple of years. So we got to the turnoff

Bungles Turnoff

for the Bungles and went inside with a certain amount of trepidation but

Pat opening Bungles Gate

assuming that a combination of the strength of the van, careful driving and the 4WD training we had received would get us there with little worry. And dear reader – that was the case.

The track is certainly very rough and bumpy and some of the river

First River Crossing

crossings are tricky mainly because the banks have been worn away at the entrance and exit and what remains is quite steep. The hardest thing to do at river crossings is to keep your foot away from the clutch and the brake – the technique is to decide on your route (having assessed the crossing and any difficulties first before becoming committed to the actual traverse), change gear stick two into “Low 4WD”, get gear stick one into second gear, foot off the clutch and away from the brake and let it move forward, never stopping and using the accelerator if it shows signs of halting. Once across, crawl up the exit incline to the top, then stop and breath again.

Despite the rigours of the track, we managed to make a steady 40 km/hr and in under two hours we had got to the Visitor Centre where we registered and paid our overnight fees for sleeping in the park ($10 pp per night). The greatest hazard on the journey was vehicles coming out of the

Vehicle Dust

park driving at higher than advisable speeds on every side of the track. Whenever there is a vehicle a few hundred metres in front or one passes going the other way, the road ahead disappears in a cloud of fine dust which can take ages to disperse. At that point, the only safe thing to do is to slow right down or stop.

I suspect that one of the reasons the track into the Bungles has is left very rough, full of potholes, bull dust (very fine talc like dust filling holes in the track), endless corrugations designed to shake the vehicle constantly and a number of difficult rivers to drive through is to discourage people from going into the Bungles. This does not stop however quite a few cars making the trek each day plus too many tourist 4WD coaches bringing in day trippers.

Our campsite is a part of the bush where the Park Rangers have cut back

Camp Site in Bungles

the trees and undergrowth to create a single vehicle lay by. There is

Long Drop Toilet

a “long drop” toilet near by (a waterless loo where everything drop a long way down and is composted") and bore hole water to supplement the 50 litres we have brought with us.

It starts getting dark about 1645 and as it does so, thankfully the temperature starts to go down. As in all arid areas, it is very hot during the day and very cold at night. Our plan is to eat about dusk (Pasta and Sauce) and then go to sleep around 9 pm and get up at dawn for a walk through one of the canyons before the heat gets up.

Because there is absolutely no light pollution in the Bungle Bungle, the Stars are the best we have ever seen in our lives – the Milky Way goes

Stars from the Bungles

across the whole sky and there are so many stars, naming any of them is impossible for us (above is an attempt at a long exposure picture of the stars).

Even though we are over 100 miles from the nearest town and in one of the most isolated areas of Australia, my small Roberts radio manages to track down a very distant station broadcasting the second test from Lords – the signal keeps fading but I manage to hear the moment when England win the Test Match thus ending more than 70 years of Australian victories at Lords – something to crow about over the next few days whenever I meet an Australian. It is strange to think of James probably listening to the same broadcast in the UK at the same time and being just as delighted as I am even though over 10,000 miles separate us.

We need to do a certain amount of driving each day in order to keep our 12v  van battery charged (the one that powers the fridge and cabin lights) and therefore we are staying at two camp sites some 50 kms apart over our time here and swapping between them each night.

The Bungle Bungles themselves

The Bungles look from the ground just as they did from the air – very strange and quite awesome.

Bungle 1

The reason that the rock looks as it does is because 300 million years ago, rivers deposited layers of sand which in time were compressed into sand stone. Geological movement created mountains which then eroded and weathered into the shapes seen in the park. Some layers of sand have higher levels of clay than others and because they hold moisture better, these support an organism called cyanobacteria which lives in the top few millimetres of the sandstone. This creates the dark band. Orange bands come from sandstone with lower clay levels without bacteria which oxidise to become a rusty colour.

Being Sandstone, there has been lots of erosion over the past millions of years. Cathedral Gorge is absolutely amazing example of this. One enters

Entrance to Cathederal

a ravine running through the rock of the Bungles and this winds its way into the rock face for about 500metres. Then it opens up into the most

Cathederal Cavern

enormous space, part hole through to the sky some 200 metres above and part cave and in the centre is a rock pool. It is large enough to hold a couple of cathedrals and all created from natural rock movements and

Cathederal Cavern 2

water erosion over the past millions of years. There are trees seeming to grow upside down out of the cliff face, roots at

Upside down Tree

the top hanging onto the rock for dear life and trunk hanging down the cliff face and the colours of rock and banding goes on forever into the sky. It is very cool in there and a welcome relief to the very hot midday sun outside.

Echidna Chasm is in the same chain of Bungles and is a very different affair. This time you walk up a stream bed into the face of the mountain and gradually the walls close in on you and get higher and higher until in

Echidna narrowing

some places, the chasm itself is barely wider than your body but it towers

 Narrowing Echidna

over 200 metres above you where you can just make out light. There are

Pat in Echidna

also some larger openings – all with a very eerie feel about them.

The Kungkalahayi lookout provides a viewing point for the face of the Bungles at sunset and this goes through the most amazing set of colour changes. The sequence below will be stitched together when we get back to the UK to create one long picture but in the meantime, try to imagine these as one photograph.

 2009_0721australia0098 2009_0721australia0099 2009_0721australia0100 2009_0721australia0101 2009_0721australia0102 2009_0721australia0103


And so we left the Bungle Bungles – the same way we came in, along one of the bumpiest roads we have driven – both absolutely amazed by what we had seen and agreeing that it would be up the top of our “greatest places in the world”

Leaving the Bungles

We were surprised to find out that the number of visitors per annum to the Bungles (some 40,000 per annum) only just exceeds that to Antarctica. That we have been members of both groups this year is a privilege.

Question: Why is it called the Bungle Bungle? Answer: No one really knows.