It was time for our now party of five to saddle up and start heading South. The West coast stretch was a little intimidating at this point, with the best part of 2 and ½ thousand kilometers until our next decent stop-off in Fremantle. We felt a little sorry for Nanna Boo crammed in the back between two car-seats, but she seemed to relish the time in close contact with her two grandkids. It was great to have some in-built entertainment for the kids on this long stretch of driving as Boo-Boo became chief song singer, book reader and snack provider. And on a number of occasions it brought a smile to our faces to see all three back seat bandits sleeping soundly together as we whittled away the kilometers.
First stop on our South-bound journey was the thriving village-like caravan park at Eighty Mile Beach. The turn off is literally in the middle of nowhere on the long stretch of road between Broome and Port Hedland. But the 10 km dirt road in was a welcome change from pounding the tar, and we drove up the last rise expectantly as everyone was ready for a car break. The park really is an impressive facility for such a remote location, with tidy sites and a well stocked camp-store. The kids quickly noted that they had ice creams for sale, while the adults were impressed by the mobile phone coverage thanks to a nearby Telstra tower.
Eighty Mile Beach is a fisher person’s paradise. A number of the residents had impressive fishing rig-ups on their 4WD’s, while there were quite a few specialised 4-wheelers that would allow the owners to traverse the wide sandy expanses in search of the best spot for the day. Chatting to some of our friendly neighbours, it became clear that quite a number of residents set up camp here for 3 or 4 months through the dry season every year. A short walk over the dunes to the beach and we were greeted by an endless stretch of sand, and a busy shoreline full of eager anglers. Pretty much straight away we watched with interest as we saw one lucky fisherman reeling in what looked like a big one. It ended up being a baby shark which he promptly brought over to show the kids before throwing it back to sea. While we had been told the beach wasn’t the best for swimming, this quickly confirmed our ‘PADDLING ONLY’ policy. The area is also known for its vast array of sea shells, we picked up a lovely hand illustrated poster from the camp-store with all the shell varieties to be found. We had a nice couple of late afternoons foraging on the beach, trying to complete our shell collection, and watching the amazing light show as the sun set over the ocean.
From here we marched onto the Pilbara mining town of Port Hedland. For a town of about 14,000 people, the complex network of highways and train tracks, busy with road-trains and endless stretches of train carriages, made it seem more like we were entering the Western Suburbs of Sydney. Port Hedland has a relatively bleak, harsh landscape, and it’s hard to separate the effect of the mining industry from this. While money is clearly pumped back into the community with a number of modern, well kept parks, walkways and metal sculptures proudly installed along the waterfront by the big miners, it is hard to say it was a nice place to visit. And thoughts of our one night stay in Hedland still brings back mixed feelings oscillating between the dramatic environmental impact of mining and having the privilege of living in a wealthy, prosperous, lucky country.
Our next stop in the Pilbara region was the polar opposite, showcasing the rugged, natural beauty of this unique corner of Australia. As we drove towards the protected confines of Karijini National Park, the scenery gradually became more and more stunning, and amazingly unlike anything we had seen on the trip so far. You can literally see the rich mineral deposits in the rich colour variations of the banded Hamersley Ranges, skillfully framed by the green shrubs, wildflowers and perfect blue skies. We had a night to kill so we headed for a free camp at Albert Tognolini Rest Area, which quite unexpectedly turned out to be our best camping spot to date. Located in an elevated escarpment, it was quite a treat to pull into a totally unpopulated area overlooking a picturesque, rocky valley. While the sheer drop into the valley had us watching the kids like a hawk, it was certainly an unforgettable experience camping here. We were able to have our own little campfire, were treated to a full moon rise over the escarpment, and watching the morning sun re-light the landscape was also well worth the early rise.
Only a short drive was required the next day where we set up in Dale’s Camp for a couple of nights. While not quite the spectacular outlook of the previous night, it was certainly a handy location to explore the dusty, rugged, but amazingly beautiful Karijini. The first afternoon we completed an easy warm up walk and swim at Circular Pool, followed by an evening viewing the constellations and having our minds bent by the amazing Remtrek Astronomy session. The next day it was onto Weano Gorge for our hike down to Handrail Pool, and looking back, we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Like many of the gorges here, they tend to catch you off guard, as you will be walking along looking for the start of the walk and then bang, a whopping great hole in the ground appears. A steep initial descent followed by an reasonably easy meander along a wide, rocky gorge took us to the halfway point, where there was an option for a set of stairs back to the car park. But hey, we had our confidence up and thought we would keep going for a bit. Soon afterwards we were teetering on rock ledges and wading through knee deep water, and it was clear we had stepped up the trail difficulty somewhat. On a positive note, Kass’ new waterproof boots proved very effective … at keeping the water inside. Towards the end of the walk, the trail narrowed and we had to squeeze through a number of amazing chasms that had been smoothed out by water flows over many thousands of years. The tricky final hurdle was a 10 metre vertical climb down a slippery rock face to the very serene handrail pool. With tired bodies, and the kids fading, we decided it was safer to give this a miss. That was until a hot and bothered Sullivan, in the carrier on Matt’s back, decided to spit the dummy, literally. We all saw it land, splat in the shallow, but fast flowing stream, then career over the edge like it was slow motion … noooooo! We were all suitably distraught, with Sullivan’s hearty complaints echoing loudest off the chasm walls. And this is why Matt got to experience Handrail Pool, in rescue mission style, to retrieve the bobbing dummy. And why Sully will probably always remember his trip Karijini.
Our two nights in Karijini were neither easy or relaxing, especially with the kids in tow. It was hot dusty work, but looking back it was a particularly rewarding and enriching experience. For now, it was time to move on and get ourselves cleaned up, but we definitely hope to be back again. Driving into the mining town of Tom Price we did a collective double take as we passed a bright yellow coffee cart in the middle of town. It turned out not to be a mirage, and it was good to be re-caffeinated and be back in civilisation! It was also a good spot to have a meeting with a travelling photographer who was on the road North, as we travelled South. Nina Williams had been in touch and somehow the planets aligned so we could share a coffee, and swap stories about the road ahead, as we were both about to more or less trace each other’s tracks. We have since followed Nina’s very funny blog posts and we hope to see her as part of the Austockphoto community very soon.
Following our coffee cart pit stop, we had a short drive further on to another mining town; the quirky Paraburdoo. We checked into the Rio Tinto owned caravan park to find a park so ordered and spotless, it was almost comical. Far from being a lush, welcoming oasis, the empty park coupled with the harsh, mountainous landscape actually made it seem more like we had entered a deserted army base somewhere in Afghanistan. However, it did have a kids playground, and the real reason we had targeted this park was for the free washing machines and dryers. At one stage I think we had four of each whirring away at one time as we fought to eradicate the pilbara dust before heading back for the coast. Thanks Rio!
Check back again soon to hear about the next phase of our West Coast adventures, including the our time on the Ningaloo reef, and with a decent dose of misadventure thrown in for good measure.