Blog 8 – We explore WA’s Murchison & Gascoyne regions, then have a first taste of the Pilbara – September 2008

Murchison River late afternoon – near campsite

Hello everyone.  Our previous entry was written in Kalbarri.  We spent several more days in the region, camped at the Murchison House Station on the banks of the Murchison River.  We had a lovely time there, enjoying campfires morning and night and heading off each day to explore somewhere else in the region.  And did we mention the wildflowers?  Yes, of course we have, over and over, but it’s difficult to get over such a display.  They were beautiful.

Apart from looking at the flowers, we did manage a few other things, including the 8km Loop Walk around the gorges along the Murchison River.  It was beautiful, with dramatic cliffs and rocks forming a backdrop along the walk.  Everywhere we looked wildflowers were in bloom (oops, mentioned them again).

Another day we explored the Z Bend – an aptly named part of the gorge, and ventured down a testingly steep track to the rock pools below.

Kalbarri is also home to Rainbow Jungle, a privately run breeding program for threatened Australian parrot species.  Nirbeeja was in heaven wandering around such a place.  We were both impressed with the quality of the facilities and the range of species – both endangered and more common – and particularly loved the large walk-through aviaries where the different parrots flew freely among the flowering native plants.  The birds all looked in excellent condition.

We left the Kalbarri region reluctantly, ourselves and our clothes smelling strongly of smoke from all our campfires, and decided to make the pilgrimage to the Monkey Mia area in Shark Bay.  Our trip to Monkey Mia and the nearby township of Denham was a short detour from our intended explorations in the Murchison and Gascoyne River districts (more on them later).  In Western Australia, a short detour is somewhat different to the east coast.  Our detour would only add about 300km to our travels.  We were to make a longer one later.

Monkey Mia, as you may be aware, is the place where ‘wild’ dolphins come to shore to be hand-fed by and interact with humans.  We had heard stories about the whole venture being too commercialised, but are happy to report that it was pleasantly low key, with everything geared towards the welfare of the dolphins. 

The rangers select people from the crowd to come forward and hand feed the dolphins.  We must have appeared pretty eager to be involved, because we were both selected for feeding duties.  It was a lovely experience, especially when one considers that these creatures are under no obligation to come to shore and only receive a small portion of their daily food requirements through this feeding.  We had the distinct impression they were as interested in checking out the various shapes and sizes of the humans as we were them.  We could imagine their swapping notes about the crowd later, if dolphins do such things.  One famous dolphin – Nicki – who features on most of the postcards of Monkey Mia, and by all accounts, on postcards for other regions of WA which she has never visited, was pregnant at the time of our visit and proudly rolled onto her side to show us all her swollen belly.

Joie de vie!!

There is a lot more to the Shark Bay region than Monkey Mia.  We visited Francois Peron National Park, where Peter was able to hone his sand-driving skills.  We ventured out to Big Lagoon –a peaceful place which supports a huge variety of sea-life including Dugongs.  We didn’t see any sea-mammals on the day but the contrast between deep red cliffs, white sand and blue ocean was spectacular.  Later we visited Shell Beach which, as its name suggests, is formed entirely by millions upon millions of tiny white shells.  We had expected to see a smallish beach but the beach is, in fact, some 120km in length along a shallow portion of Shark Bay.  Nearby Hamelin Pool was also interesting.  It contains an ancient lifeform called Stromatolites – rather unattractive dark lumps built over time by bacteria.  These are known as living fossils, as these are virtually unchanged from the earliest bacterial form of life known to have lived on our planet.  Shark Bay is a world heritage area and we can see why.  Another lasting memory for both of us was looking out over Shark Bay from a high lookout (Eagle’s Bluff) across whole meadows of sea-grass, the home to dugongs, turtles and all manner of sea-life.  It was an incredible scene.  We shared the view in silence with another couple, and as we all prepared to leave the other fellow said in a thick Spanish accent “It is so peaceful”.  It was.

Big Lagoon, Francois Peron Ntl Pk

It was time for us to head inland again.  After retracing our steps out of the Shark Bay district we headed due east through the Toolonga Nature Reserve – about 80km across – towards the inland reaches of the Murchison River.  The nature reserve was beautiful, full of flowers, birds and deep red earth.  The whole reserve was teeming with life, and it was great for us to see such a relatively unspoilt inland area.  Our travel through the reserve was quite slow – not because of the state of the road, and certainly not because of traffic, but simply because we kept stopping the car to marvel at all the wildflowers.  Late in the day we found a lovely spot to camp beside the red-dirt road and were entertained by a large flock of Zebra finches, constantly flitting here and there, squabbling amongst themselves.  We travelled along that stretch of road for the best part of a day, and saw but one other car, quite a contrast from the main highway and its constant stream of traffic up and down the coast. 

The next morning we ventured into Murchison Settlement, certainly not the largest town we have seen.  There was a roadhouse and a shire office which doubled as a museum.  We met the manager of the roadhouse, in other words, half the local population.  Nonetheless, the settlement was surrounded by large trees and was a pleasant stop for lunch. 

We had planned to stay beside the Murchison River at a campsite just south of town, but some inconsiderate farmer had erected a fence across the track we had been instructed to take by Alick (for whom we house-sat in Geraldton).  Undaunted, we changed course and headed north to another campsite he had suggested. This was only a stone’s throw up the road – about 60km.  The shadows were getting longer, and our fingers were crossed hoping we’d find the turnoff to Breberie Lake (an “intermittent” lake according to our map).  Well, we are fairly certain we found the site, but the lake proved to be nothing more than a large puddle.  We are not complaining however.  Just as we finished setting up camp, Peter heard a loud exclamation from Nirbeeja, which usually means she has made our first sighting of a bird species.  But not this time – instead, right next to our camp was a Sturt’s Desert Pea, its gorgeous flowers radiant in the late afternoon sun.   Next morning, fearing we had found the only specimen in the region, we walked along a nearby river bank and were relieved and thrilled to find literally hundreds of plants laden with their stunning flowers.  The area also turned out to be a haven for birds – Galahs, Corellas, Crested Pigeons, Australian Hobbies (similar to Falcons), Butcherbirds and many others.

We stayed a couple of nights before continuing our journey north along the road, stopping at Bilung Pool.  This is a beautiful spot, a sacred waterhole of the local Wajarri people.  We can see why.  In an arid landscape, this deep waterhole surrounded by sheer cliffs and white barked river red gums would have provided permanent water and food.  Birds were abundant, and Bilung Pool gave us our first sighting of the beautiful Spinifex Pigeon. 

In an ancient tradition, the Wajarri people introduce themselves to their country and its custodians by approaching the waterhole and making themselves known to the Gujida (rainbow snake) who inhabits the waters.  They throw some sand into the water to appease the snake and show it respect, and advise that anyone who visits Bilung Pool does the same.  We did.  An information board at the carpark showed photographs of Wajarri men in full ceremonial dress.  They looked incredibly fit, and dare we say, fearsome.

We camped nearby along a creek (thanks again Alick for the directions) – a gorgeous spot except for the wind that buffeted us all night.  But lots of birds, seemingly the norm in these parts, made it worthwhile.

Bilung Pool

Next morning Peter consulted the map and came up with a proposition – “How about we go to Mt Augustus.  The round trip will only add 450 Ks to the journey.”  We had watched a travel special on Mt Augustus in our living room in Canberra while this trip was still a dream, and we had both remarked at the time that we’d love to visit there one day.  So the spirit of adventure grabbed us and off we went, along a rough, corrugated dirt road.  The closer we got to Mt Augustus the worse the road became. 

This is semi-desert country where water sources were obviously precious for the local Aboriginal people.  En route to Mt Augustus we visited some gnamma holes – once hidden waterholes – of the Wajarri people, marked by ancient engravings in nearby rocks.  Long after the last rain had fallen water would remain trapped in these rock holes and the Wajarri would visit them as they travelled.  We couldn’t help feel a great sense of loss that these gnamma holes – used for centuries if not millennia – are now no more than a stop-off point for inquisitive travellers. 

We rattled off along the road to be greeted, at last, by the unforgettable sight of Mt Augustus.  The state of the road was immediately forgiven.  The Wajarri name for the mountain is Burringurrah.  In the Dreaming, a boy named Burringurrah was undergoing his initiation into manhood.  The rigours of this process so distressed him that he ran away, thereby breaking the Aboriginal law.  Tribesmen pursued the boy, finally catching up with him and spearing him in the upper right leg as his punishment.  Burringurrah fell to the ground; the spearhead broke from its shaft and protruded from his leg.  The boy tried to crawl away but was hit with a mulgurrah (fighting stick).  Burringurrah collapsed and died, lying on his belly with his left leg bent up beside his body.  His final resting pose is visible when you approach Mt Augustus from the south.  The spear stump in his leg is today known as Edney’s lookout, while geological fracture lines at the western end of the mountain indicate wounds inflicted by the mulgurrah.

On the strength of that story we decided, wherever possible, that we would abide by Aboriginal law and tradition in this district!

The modern scientific understanding of Mt Augustus is far less colourful, but nonetheless fascinating.    Mt Augustus is four times older than and twice the size of Uluru (Ayers Rock).  The mountain is anticline – rock layers that have been folded into an arch-like structure.  The rocks consists of sand and gravel that were deposited by an ancient river system around 1600 million years ago.  This river system flowed over a faulted and eroded surface of 1800-1620 million year old granitic and metamorphic rocks.  The river deposits consolidated to form sandstone and conglomerate, and were then buried beneath younger marine sediments which were laid down when shallow seas covered the region between 1600-1070 million years ago.  The rocks were buckled into their present-day structure about 900 million years ago when movements along faults in the underlying granitic and metamorphic rocks caused localized compression.  The marine sedimentary rocks that overlay the sandstone and conglomerate have since been eroded from Mt Augustus, but now form surrounding, much lower hills in the district.  Enough to make the human lifespan seem quite insignificant really.

Burringurrah (Mt Augustus) at sunrise from campsite

Burringurrah (Mt Augustus) at sunset
Unlike Uluru, Mt Augustus is covered with tenacious vegetation, birds, reptiles and marsupials.  The amount and variety of life on the mountain is surprising because there appears to be nothing but rock on which to grow.

We stayed four nights at the Mt Augustus Resort, a fancy name for what was a very pleasant grassy campsite, with hot showers, a bar and limited basic supplies such as diesel and frozen bread.  The Resort took the record for the most expensive diesel to date on our trip – how’s $2.35 per litre grab you?!  We were fortunate to arrive the day we did – apparently the previous day the Variety Club Bash – consisting of some 250-300 people, was ‘in town”. 
The campsite was dominated by views of the mountain, and the sunrise views were gorgeous.  We had a busy time on and around the mountain.  We safely made the return walk to the mountain summit – some 12km in all and a rise of 650 metres from the parking spot.  We had worried about offending the traditional custodians of Burringurrah (Mt Augustus) by climbing it and checked whether that would be okay.  The message was that it was fine – they just couldn’t work out why anyone would bother because there is no water or food up there!  From the summit, the view to Lyons River and the surrounding, distant ranges was breathtaking (as was the climb).

We also completed a number of other walks around the base, the most interesting of which visited some aboriginal rock art sites – mainly petroglyphs (engravings).  One site was particularly interesting, with the petroglyphs underneath a huge slab of granite/flint (thus the name ‘flintstone’ for the site, though the Aboriginals call the site Beedoboondu).  This is considered extremely old art.  None of the local tribes bordering Mt Augustus claim that particular art-site as their own – each apparently saying it belongs to the “other fellas”; suggesting to us that it may pre-date all of them.  Certainly, the patterns engraved under that rock were quite unusual. 

Nirbeeja had her birthday at Mt Augustus.  We had planned a big celebration for her, but she spent the day feeling pretty miserable suffering from a  stomach bug, which we learned had been kindly left behind by the Variety Club visitors.

Not bad camouflage – Ring Tailed Bicycle Dragon at Burringurrah

Look out – here comes Nirbeeja, Burringurrah in background

Zebra Finches at Burringurrah

Fortunately, she recovered quickly and so off we headed towards the Kennedy Range National Park.  This took us on a beautiful drive largely following the course of the Lyons River, through pockets of shrubs and flowers, the fragrance of which was overwhelming.  We were greeted on our drive by magnificent Tall Mulla Mullas in full bloom, each shrub looking like an upturned chandelier, Splendid Wrens, the males in their brilliant blue colouring for spring, a flock of Spinifex Pigeons at the Cobra Station, and other tall flowering shrubs. The drive was spectacular.

It was another rugged stretch of road, and we were grateful to have put heavy duty offroad tyres on the Diva (our name for our Pathfinder) and to have invested in an offroad camper trailer before we left Canberra.  This decision was reinforced when we came across a couple of young backpackers stranded with two punctures and only one spare for their ford station wagon. Their conventional tyres had been torn to shreds by the rough rocky road, and their mobile phones were useless so far from civilization.  We couldn’t bring ourselves to leave them stranded there, so we gave Franzi a lift to Gascoyne Junction – 130 km away – to get a replacement tyre and have one repaired, and then a lift back out to Dustin who had waited with their crippled car.  Then it was back to the Kennedy Range National Park campsite for us, to collapse somewhat later than we had expected.   As an aside, we had initially called Gascoyne Junction using our satellite phone to see whether someone could bring out tyres for the stranded travelers, but they declined (we later learned that they thought the other drivers were ‘blackfellas’, an unfortunate reminder for us that racial problems and discrimination are all too common out here).

We spent a few days exploring the dramatic Kennedy Range – a mesa some 75km long, 25km wide, and rising straight up 100 metres from surrounding countryside. The range consists of an ancient seabed that was forced upwards by movements in the earth’s crust, although at 250 million years old, it is young by comparison with Mt Augustus.  The Kennedy Range is a remnant of the land surface that elsewhere has been eroded away.  The edge of the range is dotted with steep gorges and canyons, and fossils are common.  From our campsite, we had a magnificent view of the range and were dazzled by the colours of the range at sunrise. 

Sunrise at our campsite, Kennedy Range Ntl Pk

Peter looks up in awe at Honeycomb Gorge, Kennedy Range Ntl Pk

Kennedy Range contains some dramatic rock formations.  Names such as the Temple and Honeycomb Gorge give some impression of what to expect.  Indeed the Temple would not appear out of place in Egypt.  On a walk to Draper’s Gorge we spotted three fledgling Butcherbirds, patiently waiting as their mother came and went to feed them.  We also marvelled at some elaborate, ancient Aboriginal engravings on a large boulder near the start of that gorge.  Like many engravings in this region, the meaning has long been lost.
We departed the Kennedy Range and headed via Gascoyne Junction to Carnarvon, stopping en route at Rocky Pool on the Gascoyne River. 
Interestingly, most of the rivers out here flow underground except after heavy rains upstream.  No kidding, they really do.  The water flows beneath the sand, breaching the surface at the occasional pool along the river.  The Gascoyne River near Carnarvon provides a great example. The river contains a lot of water – the town takes its supply from the river – but the river itself appears from the surface to be nothing more than a wide expanse of sand.

Hill country en route to Gascoyne Junction
Anyway, we headed back to civilization to replenish our supplies and collect our mail.  Carnarvon is a lovely town with a low-key relaxed feel.  It is a heavy producer of fruit and vegetables, accounting for around 70 percent of Western Australia’s requirements.  The preponderance of fruit and vegetable plantations gives Carnarvon a softer look and feel than many of the other towns we had visited with their emphasis on mining and industry.

Nirbeeja, having grown up in Buderim in Queensland among banana trees, mango and paw paw trees, immediately felt at home and said that more than anywhere else on our journey, she felt she could settle in Carnarvon.  We stayed a few days, enjoying the local Farmers Markets with their lovely fresh (and cheap!) produce.

Beautiful but dangerous coastline near Blowholes

We explored some of the local coastline around Carnarvon.  It was dramatic.  We visited the Blowholes north of town, and yes – they lived up to their name.  One huge blowhole went off occasionally, while a smaller one (‘only’ reaching 10 metres of so in height) went off regularly; other still smaller ones tried to do their bit.  The waves in the area were large and signs warning of killer waves didn’t seem too much of an exaggeration.  We travelled a little further exploring the coast, encountering more wild surf.
We stocked up and packed up, and headed north towards the real Pilbara – at last!! – one of the places we longed to explore.  Our first day was spent on the road – a long drive – and we watched as temperature climbed into the mid 30s, quite a change from the 6 degree temperature in Carnarvon shortly after dawn that morning.  The countryside began to change and we encountered beautiful rugged outcrops, and large dry river beds.  We crossed the Ashburton River and were surprised to see water flowing.  Next we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, the most northerly point of our travels so far.  It was a reminder that yes indeed, we were heading north, and into the tropics at that!

We saw no towns all day – just a couple of roadhouses.  We camped that night at House Creek, a free camp, and found lots of other rigs there too. So many, in fact, that we were lucky to find a spot.  We didn’t feel quite so remote any more!    Nonetheless, it was a lovely spot, beside the creek bed, among gum trees.  There were Budgerigars everywhere, chattering, ducking into their nests in tree hollows, and generally keeping us entertained.  It was lovely to see them flying wild, when we are so accustomed to seeing the frustrated little things cooped up indoors in small bird cages.    We also saw Kangaroos, Painted Firetail Finches, Peewees, Spinifex Pigeons, Cockatiels, Galahs, Twenty Eights, and Blue Winged Kookaburras.  We both felt grateful to encounter such lovely free camps in WA in these remote areas.  The road toll is high in WA and travel expensive, so it is refreshing to see they are doing something to help motorists.

Next day we travelled east into the Pilbara, through quite mountainous terrain, with far more vegetation than we had expected.  Everywhere was dark red rock; in other areas it was the colour of dark chocolate (okay, perhaps this is a bit of projection on our part).

Thanks again to directions from our mate Alick, we found the largely hidden campsite at Kusput Pool, and had it all to ourselves for two nights.  This was like the Garden of Eden – a pristine pool surrounded by bright green reeds, birds everywhere, fish abundant.  Nearby, by all accounts, was a campsite used by the explorer Gregory, though we could find no trace of it. 

We were entertained by a flock of Spinifex Pigeons periodically making their way to drink at the water’s edge near our camp.  One would perch on sentry duty on an elevated rock while the others made their way in safety to and from the water.  These birds are similar in shape to Crested Pigeons but have gorgeous colours and are amazingly well camouflaged for this area – we nearly stepped on several as we wandered around the campsite.

We were greeted by a beautiful sunset on our first night – the deep reds, purples and ochres mirroring the stunning colours of the Pilbara.

A Pilbara sunset, from Kusput Pool

Kusput Pool

At one point Peter began to worry that we may not be able to drive out from the campsite. We’d been collecting some amazingly coloured rocks; some streaked red and black, others with gold and black, oranges, greens and blues, many veined with haematite.  Nirbeeja announced one morning that we should take them all with us.  Now that would test out the pulling power of the diesel engine, not to mention the suspension!

We dragged ourselves away from Kusput Pool and went further east to the mining towns of Paraburdoo and Tom Price, staying for two nights in the latter.  Both towns surprised us – we had expected hot, dry, dusty places but instead encountered heavily treed, attractive towns.  The mining companies certainly look after their own!  The supermarkets in both towns were well stocked and prices very reasonable; possibly through subsidies from the mining companies.  Whatever the reason, we weren’t complaining.  And the weather was surprisingly mild; indeed it poured for most of our first night in Tom Price and it grew so cold we seriously considered resurrecting our heater from deep in storage. 

In Tom Price we caught up with our friends Cate and Seamus, who are working in the town, and their daughter Zoe.  They too are from Canberra (Cate was one of Nirbeeja’s yoga students) and have been on a similar journey around the country.  It was fantastic seeing some familiar faces again, swapping stories about where we had been and where we were hoping to explore.

The town of Tom Price is interesting, and is named after an American Thomas Moore Price who was instrumental in establishing mining in this region of the Pilbara in the 1960s.  Apparently, he returned to America in 1962 and died from a heart attack at his desk only two hours after being advised of the very rich ore deposit discovered on the mountain which now bears his name.  The Tom Price Mine is one of the biggest in the world and has, in effect, levelled the mountain.  The fact that the mountain was regarded as a sacred place for men’s business by the traditional people for thousands of years didn’t seem to deter progress.  Now don’t get us wrong, we are not against mining and ‘progress’ per se, and we certainly love the technological fruits of our modern age; we wouldn’t be on this journey without them.  It’s just that we feel strongly that there should be a better balance between the almighty dollar and the softer voices of traditional culture and the environment.

The township of Tom Price is nestled beneath a beautiful mountain with the Aboriginal named Jarndrunmunhna, meaning ‘place of Rock Wallabies’.  This is a sacred women’s Rock Wallaby Dreaming site.  Let’s pray they don’t find an extensive ore body within this mountain as well.   And in a true sign of cultural insensitivity, the non-indigenous name for the mountain is Mt Nameless.  We think one local tribal elder beautifully summed up this sad state of affairs when he said that all the white settlers had to do was ask the traditional people the name of the mountain, because they had known it for thousands of years. 

Jarndrunmunhna, late afternoon

We went on a guided cultural bush walk around the town of Tom Price with a traditional owner, medicine woman Wilanah (whose white name is Vivienne).  She was taught by her great grandmother, grandmother, mother and her aunty, all formidable women by the stories she told us.  Wilanah is a Law Woman but said she is not yet considered an Elder.  Her people have come back to the area with the intent of returning their traditional ways to the region and preserving their culture, and to bring about mutual respect and understanding between our cultures. 

We were greatly impressed by Wilanah’s positive and sharing attitude, and were very fortunate to have her all to ourselves on our walk.  Wilanah spoke with knowledge, authority and great heart about the medicines, culture, people and stories of her country.  Her stories about her ancestors were inspiring.  This was a tremendous experience for us and greatly deepened our understanding of the region.  Peter was fascinated to learn the uses of many traditional plant medicines in the area.  Wilanah also took us to the birthplace of her great grandmother and grandmother, at a nearby spring, and showed us the rock art at this Freshwater Turtle Dreaming site.  We would thoroughly recommend going on the walk with Wilanah, should you ever find yourselves in Tom Price.  We were pleased to learn that the local mining companies now require all staff to attend a full day cultural awareness program with a local indigenous guide such as Wilanah.

We are now staying in Karijini National Park, one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited.  Writing about this special place would make this blog entry far, far too long (if it isn’t already!), so we’ll sign off for now and take up the story next time.

Wilanah, Nirbeeja & Peter on Wilanah’s Walkabout

Cheers for now. 

Peter & Nirbeeja
11 September 2008