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Travels in Australia

We are firmly into the zone of big drives between destinations now. We follow the WA coast to the north-east, across the Tropic of Capricorn, with a couple of free overnight camps on the way. The skies are big and full of kites and eagles. Supply stop at Karratha, which is a minerals town (mining, gas plant). It seems modern and nicely kept, with a good shopping centre, a great library and a fantastic brunch in a Asian themed cafe. Drinking water costs money though.

Millstream National Park is another old pastoral station. WA government seem to be slowly buying up unprofitable pastoral leases, and converting then to NPs or reserves. The camp kitchen is good, and volunteer camp hosts are friendly, as usual. At dusk, T spots a very large Mulga snake soaking up last of the warmth from the toilet doorstep. We wander around the old station homestead, which has some fascinating family history. In the next campsite over, we meet up with friends from Mt Augustus, who are also recovering from the same COVID outbreak. The landscapes here are beautiful, but stark and hard. Coach bolts are better than tent pegs (good tip Dan!).

Billabong

The quickest way to the town of Tom Price (more of which later) is down the access track for the iron ore railway. I have to complete a very dull on-line corporate training course to get permission to drive on it. On to Karijini National Park for a few days. This is the mecca for lovers of geology, has exciting hiking through epic gorges, and lots of chilly swimming in rock pools. An amazing location, definitely worth the trip. Avoid the blue asbestos though!

Gorge

After several months on the coast, it's time to head inland again. Destination is Mount Augutus, which is bigger than Uluru (depending on your definition of “rock”, “monolith” or “inselberg”).

T needs more rocks (always!) so we stop at Gascoyne Junction where Mookaite is reported to be found. It would be pushing it to call this a town, but the locals are friendly, and the pub food good. The community focus (apart from the pub) is a combined council office / post office / museum / Medicare office / library. They kindly lend D2 some books for a couple of nights.

We then hit the dirt road, heading to the Kennedy Ranges. More simple camping under a massive escarpment, with rockpools and hikes galore. Some interesting characters join us around the communal campfire, sharing travel stories and tips.

Kennedy

On to Mount Augustus Tourist Park, part of the cattle station. This is well set up, with grassy campsites, and a little tavern for sustenance. But the weather is cold, and at one point the whole mount is hidden in the mist. The next day is better. D1 babysits D2, while we make the 5 hour return climb to the top of Burringurrah / Mount Augustus. Amazing views in all directions.

Mt Augustus view

This is real bush, but the bitumen road is slowly creeping east year by year. This is probably a good thing for the communities in the Gascoyne, but it will change things, with more tourists and probably mining too.

We follow our tracks back to Carnarvon, for more supplies, then northwards towards Exmouth for whale sharks encounters & more diving. T starts to feel unwell. OH NO COVID! We are unceremoniously kicked off the campsite at Bullara Station. WA Health provide some assistance, and find us a motel in Carnarvon where we can isolate for a week. Not the most fun week of our lives, but realistically this was going to happen at some point, and at least it's not an ICU.

The coastline around Kalbarri has epic cliffs, and not much safe access to the sea except for the Murchison river. We camp by the river at the beautiful and rugged Murchison House Station. At 350,000 acres, this is twice the size of Singapore! It's crisscrossed by 4WD tracks; the sharp limestone really gives our new tyres a serious workout but they hold up well.

Further up the river, in the National Park, we visit the Skywalk, which has steel platforms jutting out above the river gorge. I'm a bit skeptical about this kind of tourist infrastructure in the wilderness. What's it really for? Who will maintain it in 20 years time? Still, it's fun and the views are amazing.

Next stop up the road is Shark Bay. I finally get a dive trip in. The dive was shark free, but the skipper easily attracts some reef sharks by revving the engines and slapping the water with a line, pretending to be a fishing boat. On the cruise home, we see a fever of 30 manta rays, feeding on the surface. Next day, the tyres get an even harder workout, with a drive out to Steep Point, the most westerly point of the Australian mainland. It's all east from now on!

We hit the road north from Perth, for several months exploring the WA coast and interior. This is a massive area; WA is the second biggest sub-national region in the world.

Sandy Cape is a beautiful arced bay, with bush camping alongside. This is a great spot to ease back into wilderness travel and long drives. The Pinnacles are a very interesting desert rock formation. Nobody seems to be exactly sure how they formed; maybe related to ancient trees, maybe not.

Pinnacles

Lobster fishing is a big local industry, with cheap meals at the Lobster Shack. Is this a mashup of the B52s' songs” Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster”? Tasty, anyway.

Lobster shack

Sadly my dive trip to the Abrolhos Islands is cancelled, due to bad weather. Another time maybe. I'm happy not to have four days being seasick on a tiny dive boat, anyway. Instead we check out Geraldton, which is a bit average to be honest, but has a good museum and at least one decent restaurant. T does another market stall. Next stall over is an election stand for various right-wing fringe parties. This is is not a progressive town, that's for sure.

North of Geraldton, the distances between stops get bigger, and the places get smaller.

We treat ourselves to a week in the Margaret River. This is one for the grown-ups really. Sorry kids! Lamb feeding and free-range guinea pigs at the camp site slightly make up for it.

Lambs

If you are not Australian, and don't know about Margaret River wines, then you really should. It's all class, no swill. Our highlight is a day's minibus tour, with a really knowledgeable guide, interesting group, and some new wine styles we have never tried before.

The international surf competition is on while we are there, but we don't seem able to get to see any of it, due to weather and scheduling conflicts.

We hire bikes, and hit the trail from Cowaramup to Margaret River. This is 25km return on forest trails, so both girls are super tired by the end of the day. They did it though!

Bikes

Wine fans will know that terroir is critical, and that limestone is good. That means there will be caves below. We visit two, both amazing.

At the bottom left of Australia, the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse stands at the boundary of the Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Another wild location. The lighthouse itself is under repair, but the old keeper's cottages have informative historical displays. From the farthest south-west, we are now travelling north, for quite a while.

Easter is an extended catch-up with our friends from Fremantle.

First, camping in the jarrah forest at Lane Poole, near Dwellingup. Lots of eating, drinking, tree climbing, four-wheel driving, kayaking and general relaxing.

Happy Campers

Then to their holiday house at Yunderup. Even more relaxing, and good chance for some vehicle cleanup. The Easter bunny leaves a suitably large amount of chocolate.

Then to Fremantle. Metro Perth is our first big city since Adelaide, which seems like half a lifetime ago. The kids love the WA Museum. We love all the brewpubs and cycling on the foreshore. Perth is nice, but still feels like the edge of thw world, especially since the extended WA COVID lockout.

A relatively short drive back down to the coast, to another caravan park on the edge of Albany. it has good facilities and nice staff, but once again we are packed in like sardines. I have to move our car out off our site, just so someone else can park their caravan opposite.

Time to clean up and secure the camper trailer after a mini mouse plague (yuck). T hooks up with an old uni friend and her family, who are very welcoming. Great food and chat.

Albany is the oldest port in WA, and had the last whaling station in Australia (closed in 1978), which is now a open air museum. It's a fascinating picture of a relatively small industry in its death throws, due to declining markets and environmental lobbying. Some things to learn from as (hopefully) the Australian fossil fuel industries go the same way.

T does another market stall. Then we head inland to a great bush camp at Northcliffe. The region was developed for logging native forests (another industry about to cease). Most of the remaining forests are now protected. At Pemberton, T and D1 climb the Gloucester Tree, which is impressive and somewhat scary. and take a ride through the forest on on the old tramway.

Tree

We also check out the local dunes.

Dunes

You know that feeling when you plan a trip just looking at marks on a map, and when you get there and actually see it, it is exceptional?

We stay at the Stirling Range Retreat, another low key bush campsite with good environmental credentials. The ranges would not look out of place on a Hebridean island. Apparently Australia does have some real mountains; who knew!

Mount Hassel, like most of the peaks, is short and sharp. D1 and I make the top. It's a little too steep and exposed for D2 at the end, but she makes a valiant effort.

View from Mount Hassel

This is Australia, not Scotland, so of course there are vineyards. A nice winery lunch is followed by the Granite skywalk. I dislike hanging off these man made walkways; the summit cliffs feel much safer to me.

Granite Skywalk

The highlight of the stay is a sunrise hike up Bluff Knoll. There are a dozen or so people at the top, and the sunrise is spectacular.

Bluff Knoll Sunrise

Back through Kalgoorlie, and south to the coast.

At Norseman, T fails to find gold dust, but the dendritic agates at the free fossicking site out of town are more than good for her. Another market stall pays for some stones to be shipped back east for future polishing.

Esperance has the first grassy campsite for what feels like a long while. The beaches along the WA south coast are renowned for their beauty. At Lucky Bay we play beach cricket. While T & D2 swim in the surf, D1 and I walk up the sands, and are flagged down by some stuck 4WD drivers. They have pretty much done everything wrong for beach driving: tires still fully inflated, front diff not functional (so only 2WD working), no recovery gear, no shovel, their towbar is rusted on and digging into the sand, and no idea of the tides. Very luckily, they are stranded above the tideline. Some locals pull them out. We climb a peak on the way home.

Frenchmans

Now we head west along the coast. An overnighter in the Fitzgerald NP is illuminating. The flora here is really like nothing I've seen before, and is internationally significant.

Hakea

Then to Bremer Bay, staying at another bush camp (Tozer's). This was farming land, which has reverted to bush. Another scuba diving day, this time with D1 in tow, to do a “try dive”. This went well, including an encounter with a pair of curious sea-lions. Bremer Bay is lovely, but the nearest decent shop is 200km away.

Next big stop is Kalgoorlie, the 4th biggest town in WA and the biggest goldmining town in Australia. Mostly friendly, good for supplies, but a little dusty. Our booked site at the caravan park is way too dusty, and we move to one with some shade an a little grass.

Two hours north, the Great Western Woodlands start to turn to desert country. Our goal is Lake Ballard, a salt lake and sculpture park.

A simple campsite is on the sands by the edge of the lake. Scattered across the lakebed are dozens of 80% life size bronze humans. Watching? Guarding? Waiting for something?

Sculpture

They definitely need to be seen at sunrise & sunset, to get the full effect of their shadows. We survive a day in what shade we can create in our camp. In the evening we walk 5km across the salt to the very outskirts of the bronze crowd. A full walk to visit them all would be much longer, but unwise as the evening temperatures are still high.

Sculpture

This was totally worth the journey. Exceptional artwork, in a wild and remote location. Now back south towards the coast.