Friday, December 30, 2011

The Pilbara trip


Friday 7 October

The morning is spent doing final packing. We’ve already installed a metal roof rack on top of the Pajero and I've filled it with the second spare tyre, two metal jerry cans, a half sized plastic jerry can, two water bottles and the kangaroo jack. This is all in readiness for our foray into the Rudal River National Park, a remote park 270 kilometres east of Newman in the central Pilbara. Inside the vehicle I pack a toolbox, a box of emergency gear like a tyre repair kit, an Engel fridge, an esky of veggies, a box of food stuff, a box of cooking utensils, a hot pot, a two burner gas stove and gas bottle, a tent, a blow up mattress, two more water bottles, two suit cases, a shoe bag, two pillows, two iPads, my drawing folder and pastel pencils, a box of sample postcards, my camera, our personal bags and last, but not least, an outdoor kitchen sink. Will there be any room for us?

Sox, the half breed Corgi/Sheep dog cross, has to sit on the passenger floor until we get to Muchea where we leave him at Prideland Kennels. The rest of the journey to Geraldton is uneventful except for a stop to take photos of roly poly hay bales that stand out like sentinels in the late afternoon sun. The Best Western Hospitality Inn is a welcome stop.

Roly poly hay bales, Greenough Flats

Saturday 8 October

After breakfast we walk over the road to look at The Hermitage, a small building built by Father Hawse which he used as his Geraldton residence. Father Hawse built many churches and priest houses in the Midwest in style that mixed European fairy tale with practical hands on construction. You can organise a Midwest trip just around looking at his buildings.

The Hermitage, residence of Monsignor Hawes

We have to go into town as Lexie has to buy some bathers. While she is shopping I drop off sample Midwest Postcards to likely buyers then its back on the road to Carnarvon.

Main street, Northampton

The road meanders through farming country until we get to Northampton where two big dog sculptures in the middle of town take my eye. They’re really for advertising but we like them just the same. After we leave farming country the rest of the journey is a long straight road through flat country decorated with wildflowers and stubbly trees.

Wildflowers, North West Coastal Highway

We stop at Billabong Roadhouse for fuel and lunch and it's very busy. The parking area is full of trucks.

Billabong Roadhouse, NW Coastal Highway

It's a relief to get to Carnarvon and after checking in at the Best Western Hospitality Inn, I take the drive out to the one mile long Carnarvon jetty. The jetty train has been packed away for the day but some folk make the 1 mile trek to the end on foot.

One Mile Jetty, Carnarvon

Back in town Lexie and I go for a walk around the fascine in the late afternoon sun. This is the palm fronded, walled part of the estuary that gives Carnarvon its distinct maritime focus. Boats are moored in the estuary. People fish off the wall. The place is a picture. By the time we get back to our room the sun has set.

The Fascine, Carnarvon

Sunday 9 October

Fueling up at Nanutarra Roadhouse

It’s a straight through run to Nanutarra Roadhouse, 370 kilometres down the track. On the way out we pass roadworks and rebuilding after the devastation caused by the floods earlier in the year. The only stop is at Minlya Roadhouse for gas and a cup of coffee. Nanutarra is crowded with trucks and four wheel drives vying for space. I wait my turn to fill up with gas. We take lunch indoors, which costs us an extra $2.00 each for the airconditioned convenience.

Red sand hills, NW Coastal Highway

The road cuts though red sand hills that run east/west, a feature of the western desert.
After Nanutarra we turn right off the North West Coastal Highway taking the Nanutarra Wittenoom Road with Tom Price as our destination. Fortunately the road is bitumen so it’s a pleasant drive. We pass hills with European names like Mt Edith, Mt McGrath and Mt De Courcy. We take a shorter gravel road instead of going through Paraburdoo and pass Mt Samson until we get to the Tom Price Caravan Park at the foot of Mt Nameless. Seems they ran out of people to name hills after.

Pilbara hills, Nanutarra Wittenoom Road

Our accommodation is a green, one room dongar with kitchen and bedroom in one. It has an ensuite, air conditioner and TV so we can’t complain.

Monday 10 October

The plan today is to go out to Hamersley Gorge where I want to revisit some photographic shots and produce a drawing, probably of the waterfall further up the gorge from the main water hole. The gorge is about 70 kilometres north of Tom Price so we leave around 9.00 am to get here in good time. Most of it is gravel so we drive slowly to avoid problems. When we get to the turn-off to the gorge we are confronted with a Road Closed sign which doesn’t impress us. It would have helped to have a sign on the road out of town.

Hamersley Range, Hamersley Mt Bruce Road

We turn back and take the next turn off the Nanutarra Road that takes us along the southern edge of the Hamersley Range, eventually meeting up with Karijini Drive. We take the next turn down Banjima Drive which gets us to the Karijini entry station where we pay $11.00 in the honor box and then drive 40 kilometres to the Oxer Lookout parking area. The lookout gives a view where the three gorges, Hancock Gorge, Red Gorge and Weano Gorge, meet. It’s a spectacular sight that calls for a photograph or two.

Where the three gorges meet, Oxer Lookout

Back at our car we load up with water bottles, hats and cameras, and take the climb down into Weano Gorge. The water level in the gorge is higher than the last time we were here and I find myself walking through chest deep water holding the camera above my head. Lexie chooses to swim as she is using the water-proof camera. It’s good to cool down but after two forays through water we decide to turn back as I don’t want to get the camera wet.

Lexie swimming in Weano Gorge

I select a spot further back in the gorge for a drawing where there is a lovely water hole and we go back to the car to get my drawing gear. Lexie decides to stay and read while I make the long climb back down into the gorge to do my drawing. I’ve suggested that it’ll take me around an hour to sketch the main details onto my A2 sized drawing paper so I settle in on my little stool and go to work. It takes longer than anticipated and an hour an a half later I arrive back at the car. I really needed three hours so I’ll have to work from photographs to complete the task.

Weano Gorge pool

On the way out we stop at the Savannah Camp Ground and Eco Retreat to see if it might be a good place to bring a caravan and are pleasantly surprised. It also has a dining room and bar so we might look into it on our next trip to Karijini. The drive back has the afternoon sun shining on the twisted, white gum trees that are a feature of the Pilbara so we stop for some photographs. We get into town around 4.00 pm and pick up some more provisions and a bottle of red wine.

Gum tree, Karijini National Park

Tuesday 11 October

On the way out in the morning I decide that I want to take a photograph of Mt Nameless for possible postcards so we turn down the Mt Nameless Walk Trail until I get to a place where I can take a photograph. The morning sun is shining on the west side and it looks great. The road is rugged but we make it back to the bitumen and head for the Shell service station to fuel up.

Mt Nameless, Tom Price

After fuelling up, an Aboriginal lady points out that our front tyre is flat. It must have happened on the off road drive. We call the local Tyre Company and they promise to come and fix it. I put CRC spray on the wheel nuts but can’t move one of the nuts. Two hours later I try again and this time it moves. The Tyre Company hasn’t arrived so I take the tyre to them and they fix it there. I also get the wheel nuts loosened so I won’t have the same problem out bush.

Fixing the flat tyre, Tom Price

This has put us way behind time and we get to the Karijini Visitor Centre around 2.00 pm to have a look. The display features the Aboriginal connection and the environment which is very interesting. There is also a shop selling local Pilbara material. We decide to have lunch at the Dales Gorge car park. After taking photos of Circular Pool we sit in the shade and eat our lunch. It will take at least two hours to get to Newman where we have agreed too meet up with Scotty, our friend and guide into Rudal River National Park. We need to be there in time to set up our tent and camp at the Kalgan Rest Tourist Park in Newman.

Dales Gorge, Karijini National Park

We get in by 5.30 pm and Scotty meets us and we set up camp. It takes a while and in time we’re able sit down and catch up on news with Scotty.

Wednesday 13 October

Breakfast at Newman

Today we drive into Rudall River National Park so before we leave Newman we stock up on provisions and visit the Newman Visitor Centre to get some maps of the park. They kindly photocopy a handmade map which does help to identify some landmarks and where they are situated. After fueling up at the Capricorn Roadhouse, 8 kilometres out of town, we head north up the road to Marble Bar. About 50 kilometres along the road we turn right on the Ethel Creek, Jigalong Road and are now on gravel that has been newly graded. It’s a good road cutting through sparse, flat country. 

Smoko stop, Ethel Creek Jigalong Road

A left turn down Balfour Downs Road gets us to a right turn down the Talawana Track which will take you all the way to the Canning Stock Route. We have been following Scotty in his Toyota Hi Lux as he knows the way.

A bit further down the road Scotty pulls over near a windmill and tank and shows us the Len Beadell cairn and plaque. Beadell was the surveyor who surveyed the Tallawanna Track and other tracks in the western desert. I remember reading his books as a kid about his exploits in the desert and found them fascinating.

Len Beadell cairn, Talawana Track

After a lunch stop at the Oakover River, just a dry, sandy creek, we continue on until we get to the Rudall River turnoff, around 310 kilometres out of Newman. On the way we have counted 17 dead cars by the side of the road.

Desert oaks, Talawana Track

We pass two Park Ranger 4 wheel drive Toyotas filled with Aboriginal people who kindly get off the road to let us pass. It’s just a two wheel sandy track. The first stop in the Park is at the Handpump which has been installed by Rio Tinto Mines to give travelers a ready source of water. There is a grove of twisted, white gum trees and a camping area but we decide to press on.

The road is fairly rough but I stay in 2 wheel drive as we have two back tyres that are bigger than the two front tyres; an oversight by our garage. This means that too much use of the 4 Wheel Drive function could damage the transmission, or so the tyre man in Newman reckons. We get to a very sandy section and we start to drift so I stick it in 4 WD and manage to get out. All a bit hairy! We pass two more Ranger vehicles and when we get to the Rudall River Crossing we see that they have just apprehended two renegade Bush Turkeys as their feathers fill the sandy riverbed. There’s no water here so we press on to the Desert Queen Baths turnoff, with a couple of stops for photographs of the limestone cliffs that glow in the evening sun.

Limestone cliffs, Rudall River National Park

The road now gets really rough and we slow to a crawl. Scotty is looking for a good place to camp and finds one in a grove of trees off to the left near Compton’s Pinnacle, a distinctive, limestone hill that is featured on the hand drawn map. To get in we drive across spinifex and park under the trees. Scotty clears away some grass and we set up camp. Lexie is too tired to cook so I cook up some spuds, sweet potato and green beans, plus baked beans from a can and Scotty cooks his steak. We are a tired bunch of campers but the beer and glass of red make up for the full day.

Compton’s Pinnacle

Track into Desert Queen Baths

Thursday 15 October

Today we are going into the Desert Queen Baths. It’s only about 11 kilometres from our camp at Compton’s Pillar but the road is so rough that it takes a good hour to get there. A break in the sandstone range reveals our destination. We’re not alone as there are two 4 wheel drives parked under trees along with tents. We park and walk a kilometre into the first water hole which has an impressive red cliff backdrop. Folks are swimming in the pool and it looks inviting.

Entrance, Desert Queen Baths

Our destination is further up the boulder strewn watercourse so, shouldering our loads, we press on. Scotty has kindly agreed to carry my drawing board kit. I’m carrying my pencil kit, my folding seat, camera and waterbottle. Lexie is carrying her bag, camera and waterbottle. It’s an arduous trek. We pass waterholes where we take a break, but Scotty assures us that the main waterhole is worth the walk. At one point Lexie stops and says she can’t go forward and she can’t go back. What are we to do? After a rest we push on.

Rockpool, Desert Queen Baths

It takes abut an hour and a half of stumbling over rocks in the hot sun before we reach our destination but it is, indeed, worth it. There is a big pool that is surrounded by high red rock cliffs with white gum trees growing out of the crevasses. We strip to our bathers and jump in for a very refreshing swim. The water is great.

Top end pool, Desert Queen Baths

I take the underwater camera and swim across to the other side of the pool, clamber up and go exploring further up the gorge. There are a couple of smaller pools and then it’s just more rock so I make my way back trying not to hurt my tender feet too much. Back on the other side I set up to do my drawing and begin. It’s a fairly complicated scene and after an hour and a half I’ve had enough. I’ve got a good sketch and will need to finish it off at home.

Lexie cooling off, Desert Queen Baths

We have lunch and after, another swim, start the long walk back. It doesn’t seem so far this time but it is still hard scrambling over rocks. Back at the first pool we have another swim to cool off and then join Scotty for a coffee boiled on an open fire. It’s around 3.30 pm when we set off for camp and get back around 5.00 pm. After setting up camp I go for a walk to photograph Compton’s Pillar glowing in the late afternoon sun. It’s good to rest and chat over dinner.

Turn-off sign, Desert Queen Baths track

Friday 16 October

It's time to leave Rudall River National Park, so we pack and head out on the track to the Desert Baths turnoff. We take a photograph of the makeshift sign to help us remember where the turnoff is should we feel inclined to return. We stop to look at the cairn above the Rudall River crossing which tells us the Aboriginal name for the river, which is Watururra/Karlamilyi.

Southern hand pump, Rudall River National Park

I use the 4 wheel drive facility more and the drive to the hand pump is easier and seems quicker. We wash our faces in the water from the pump, fill our water containers and drive out to the Tallawanna track. The drive back is good as a grader driver is out grading the road. A fairly lonely job I imagine. We stop for lunch at the Opthalmia Dam on the Fortesque River which supplies Newman’s water needs. It’s a pleasant break before the drive to the Capricorn Roadhouse to fuel up.

Fueling up at Capricorn Roadhouse, Newman

We’ve made the decision to drive to Meekathara where we’ve booked a room for ourselves and one for Scotty. It’ll be nice to have a shower. We’re driving into the sun and find ourselves competing for space on the road with countless road trains carting dongas and machinery for the mining industry. The shear number of trucks on the road indicates just how enormous is the growth in mining in the northwest is. I give up trying to pass the trucks and settle in behind a truck with three dogs. It’s a long run through very flat country but we make it into Meeka by 6.40 pm in time to shower and order dinner. The receptionist tells us that orders close soon after 7.00 pm and last meals are served by 7.30 pm so there’s no time to lose. We’re seated by 7.15 pm when Scotty arrives and heads off for a shower. It’s a nice way to finish the trip even though the bottle of red costs $35.00.

Mulla Mulla, Great Northern Highway

Saturday 15 October

We pass on breakfast, except for a grapefruit and an orange, and after saying goodbye to Scotty, are on the road by 7.00 am. The Mulla Mulla wildflowers our out in strength adding colour to the roadside. The next town is Cue, a particularly interesting place full of old buildings from the glory days of gold. We detour to photograph the Cue Masonic Lodge which has been restored to its former glory. I think it’s probably the only Masonic Lodge I’d bother to photograph as they are generally appallingly morose buildings.

Cue Masonic Lodge

Payne’s Find Mine

A stop at the Mt Magnet Roadhouse yields us a hideous toasted egg sandwich and cold coffee. When will they learn? The Payne’s Find Roadhouse looks deserted and the Payne’s Find Tourist Centre is closed, another victim of changing times. The gold battery is still standing, a testament to another age.

Roadtrains taking mining gear north

Oversize trucks with escorts cause us to pull over often and at one of these stops we pull up at the Rabbit Proof Fence or what’s left of it and I take a photo of the newly erected plaque. The notion of building a fence across this vast country to keep out rabbits still amazes me.

The Rabbit Proof Fence

The wildflowers are out as we pass through Wubin. We try for lunch at Dallwallinu but they don’t have anything we can eat at the local cafe. We try again at New Norcia but the roadhouse doesn’t serve lunches after 2.00 pm. The next stop is Bindoon Bakery and we luck in here. It is now called Bindoon Bakehause and is in new premises. The range of food is wide and we are served at a counter with a touch screen that adds up all the ingredients that we will have in our wholemeal roll. This is city service in the country. Now all we have to do is pick up Sox from Prideland Kennels and then head for home.

Other blog travel articles
Sydney trip January 2011
Melbourne trip April 2011

Joel Smoker

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