This is a record of my visit with my sister Gail Simms in Australia. It was a fabulous, life-changing experience that started with my first view of her straw bale house, so reminiscent of the adobe architecture where we grew up in New Mexico. The zia symbol is what you see on the New Mexico flag and license plates -- a circle with rays coming out from each of the four directions, representing the sun. Gail has lived in Australia since her early 20's, and is now an Australian citizen. She has two grown sons, Mason and Rembert Yarrick.
Here's the interior:
And here's where I slept the whole time I was in Australia, in the caravan, which we later took on our trip up the coast.
Gail's property is Zia Park, an Equestrian Centre whose business she has developed over the many years she's lived there. She boards (they call it agistment) horses, gives all kinds of riding lessons, does kids' camps, teaches coaches, and does judging, while presiding over a sizeable staff. It is an amazing place.
The property also contains gardens and citrus trees. I ate a pink grapefruit every day I was there from this tree. That was a particular treat for a Vermonter!
The Trip Within a Trip
Gail decided that we should have an opportunity to get away from the demands of her business and take off on a holiday. Our trip was planned by the wonderful and omni-competent Kylee Hathway, who created an itinerary for us, planned for 19 days, with two days at each stop. Kylee is Gail's neighbor on the property, and lives in the large house (where Gail herself lived before she moved to the small straw bale house), with her husband Keith and their children Matilda, Annabelle, and Caelin. Keith shaved down a roof rack that he installed on the Isuzu truck (called a "ute", for "utility vehicle"), and strapped on two sit-upon kayaks that were to provide so much fun on our trip.
We got a late start, leaving at noon instead of 10:00, so we really had to push it to cover the 573 kilometers before dark. So, as we passed through Geraldton I didn't have time to take a photo of the cool leaning trees that are bent over almost to the ground as a result of strong winds off the ocean.
So, I got this image from the blog gohavealook.
It was almost dark as we were approaching Kalbarri, driving into the setting sun, when we saw a woman flagging us down on the road. Her sister and mother were in the RV and they had run out of diesel and wanted us to give one of them a ride into town. So we had to get to the Murchison Caravan Park and do our first set-up in the dark, and then Gail drove her back (and told me that they expected HER to put the diesel in the tank! However, they did give us two bottles of nice wine the next day, which was nice, and most welcome). While Gail was gone, I cooked potatoes and when she got back she made rissoles with hamburger (mince) and we had some Greek salad she had bought on the road. And wine.
Next morning we went to the IGA down the road and got SPF 50 sunscreen and bug dope -- there are LOTS of flies that crawl all over your face. Gail says trying to brush them away all the time is called the "Australian Salute"!
We went to kayak in the Murchison River, which empties into the Indian Ocean right in Kalbarri. We drove up the river a bit, parked the ute near the water, and eyeballed a cell tower not far away so we could find our way back. Gail, who was new to kayaking, caught on quickly. Here we are with the river behind us.
An interesting thing about the water up and down the coast is that it's salty. The water at the mouth of the river was salty, and even further up the river, in the inland gorges that we visited the next day (see below), the river water was salty. In most inland places, even, the water that is drawn up from bores (wells) is salty.
And re: water, we drove down the coast that afternoon to the Pink Lake, which was so exciting to me -- the color was amazing and truly pink. It really IS this color -- even pinker, actually, because you can see that the surface is reflecting the blue of the sky.
As we were leaving Kalbarri the next morning, we popped into the IGA to buy a hand-held wire stove-top toaster and a plastic salad bowl, both of which were good companions for the remainder of the trip. On our way out, we stopped at one of the inland gorges (below) in the Kalbarri National Park. Like most (if not all) rivers in Western Australia, the Murchison starts and stops. In most places it looks like a dry gulch most of the year, with a few (and far between) sections with standing water. I heard later from a geologist that the rivers are actually running underground, and occasionally there's a rock shelf that blocks the passage of the water and forces it to the surface. Sort of like a reverse waterfall? And of course during the rainy season there's lots of runoff into the rivers and then they are filled with water over their length, even in the sections that are dry most of the year.
Getting down 300 meters into this gorge (and later at Karijini) was taxing. We became aware that we are in our 60's and not as spry as we once were. Nevertheless, we persevered, refreshing ourselves after we hit the road with coffee at the Billabong Roadhouse (with an Aboriginal barista).
Hamlin Pool Station was a great stop. We both liked the station (farm) caravan parks so much better than the Holiday ones. This station was one of those beautiful old structures with a tin roof and porches. We set up in 18 minutes (with about the same amount of time for the canopy).
Hamlin Pool Station had the amazing benefit of being sited on property that had a spring (or bore) coming up under high pressure. The station uses that pressurized water to generate electricity, and all the water, which is quite salty, accumulates in a large pond with black swans and green plants. The water is used for irrigation and watering stock, as well as water for showers.
It's amazing to see that color of green out in this arid landscape. There are also lots of feral goats on the property (Julie, the hostess, says "we prefer to call them range goats"). She says they round them up and sell them once a year.
This site is located adjacent to the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, which covers 2.2 million hectares. Shark Bay satisfied all four of the natural criteria for World Heritage listing: natural beauty, earth's history, ecological processes, and biological diversity. After setting up that first afternoon, we headed out to Hamlin Pool to see the stromatolites. Apparently this is one of only two places in the world where living stromatolites exist.
Both nights we were at Hamlin Pool Station I heard lots of birds in the night -- bush-stone curlews, with their wailing sound, but also a bird I have not been able to identify that vocalized about an hour before dawn (I heard it again at another stop) with the most beautiful, slow, complex, plaintive cry I've ever heard. It squeezed my heart and made me stop breathing to listen. I am usually not susceptible to music, but this was really so moving.
It was a long drive to Coral Bay, but we stopped briefly at Nanga Bay and bought some ice and some cotton hats with fly veils that came in handy from time to time. We set up at People's Caravan Village, a packed trailer park with high-end caravans and people who were there for the whole of their holidays (vs. people like us who were only there for a day or two). The next day Gail treated us to a snorkeling trip with Ningaloo Marine Interacations, led by a wonderful young woman named Briony. We swam with manta rays, Gail found and pointed out an amazing royal blue starfish under the water, and we saw a bridey whale. The coral and fish were spectacular.
Ningaloo Marine Park
We got some water in our big plastic container and left Coral Bay to drive toward Exmouth, seeing wonderful yellow clay termite mounds, then later deep red ones and even white ones. We got to Yardie Homestead Caravan Park, on the northern border of the Ningaloo Marine Park, around 2 PM. After setting up, Gail read her book and I went looking for the dump (tip), which Kylee had told me was the thing her kids enjoyed the most about their time there, and that sounded good to me! I have written about making art from the materials in the dumps there on my blog, ART ROLLS ON in this post. You can see me in the hat-and-fly-veil getup as I headed out seeking the dump.
Marie, in the office, told us the marine turtles (green turtles, in this case) were mating and laying eggs, and we should go up the road and have a look, and stay after dark to see this magical event. We pulled onto one of the dirt roads leading to the beach and found a young man coming in from sailboarding who said, "Yeah, there's a few shagging right out there." He was right; there were 3 or 4 in the water very near the beach, very energetically copulating.
We decided to take Marie's advice and go to Tardie Beach to wait for the females to come ashore. As we waited for night to fall, we saw the depressions in the sand from previous nests
and waited patiently for night to fall.
Unfortunately, there was no moon at all, and starlight did not suffice, even after our eyes adjusted. We were reluctant to sweep the beach with our flashlights (torches), and figured maybe we didn't have the right to intrude into this private experience anyway. So we left.
Next day we drove 60 kilometers down to Yardie Creek, and kayaked up to the top. It was awesome -- a beautiful, pristone gorge with clear water, red, grey, and white cliffs with barnacles at the bottom. We forgot to look for the rare rock wallabies (this being only one of two places where they are found). We were the only people on the water, and at the top (like so many rivers and creeks in Australia) it was totally dry. I was afraid to take a camera in the boat, so I have borrowed this photograph from the blog Nele & Andrew Around Oz. This was one of the most precious experiences of our trip.
We snorkeled at Pilgrimata (where we discovered that the National Parks have a great camping system, in which there's a volunteer "campsite host" at each location who oversees things and in exchange gets a free campsite and access to a satellite phone) and Turquoise Bay, where we were too chicken to do the drift (DANGER signs everywhere), but the fish in the bay were beautiful.
We had a hard time finding Pilbara Holiday Park, which had apparently changed location since it was listed on the map we were using. It was our first introduction to the intense mining industry in the Pilbara region. The park was reminiscent of military barracks, with a grid of housing units, and a few spaces for caravans. These housing units, some of which appeared to be for housing families and others for individuals working in the mining and other extractive industies. The area has huge salt operations, a gas plant, the Rio Tinto iron ore operations, and, at nearby Port Hedland, Australia's highest tonnage port that supports all these industries.
We had to go to the Visitor Center and pay a "gold coin" (meaning a $1 or $2 coin) to see a 15 minute film about traveling on the Tom Price rail road, a private red dirt road the Rio Tinto mining company built to provide maintenance access to their railway, which carries huge amounts of iron ore on trains that are each around one kilometer long -- they seem to go on forever. The purpose of the film was to put the fear of god into you about the road and its dangers, and to remind you to be sure to have plenty of water and two spare tires.
While at the Visitor Center we asked about the Aboriginal rock carvings on the peninsula and got a very unprofessional 3-fold computer printout called Directions to Deep Gorge that was quite a contrast to all the fancy 3-color brochures about other attractions in the area. We drove up to find the site in the afternoon (after buying provisions for our upcoming trip on the Tom Price road) and found this site, with signage that was decidedly underwhelming, and pretty much impossible to read:
There were rock carvings everywhere. Here's a link to the Friends of Australian Rock Art site with a video that tells what an incredible world legacy this is.
And right across the road, as we were leaving, is this huge mega natural gas plant that, they told us at the Visitor Center, burns off flares that are a tourist attraction in the night.
Millstream Chichester National Park
We packed up early, got fuel, and headed out on the Tom Price Railway line, 90 km sealed, 10 km unsealed, and another 15 km on the Pannawonica road to Millstream. It's definitely past the high season, so we checked ourselves in by inserting our money and identifying information in a slotted box, and set up at the Miliyanha Campground (#6). We were the only people there; it was pretty barren, and crawling with tiny, biting ants. So we took a drive around the loop of the park, passing the pipes that carry fresh water to the cities of the north, with beautiful designs etched on their sides by blowing weeds.
And then we found the most fabulous place at Crossing Pool, right on the Fortescue River, a km long pool surrounded by trees. It was like finding Paradise. Another couple, Sue and Paul, arrived while we were swimming, and said they would save our spot, and we went back, packed down the caravan, and moved to Crossing Pool, under huge paperbark trees, so beautiful!
I made Planters Punch drinks for us all, and after dinner Sue and Paul said, "Come look at the sky. The sun went down over there, but over to the left there it's all red." As we kept looking we realized that there was a fire, and we wondered whether we should abandon camp and leave. We decided that Gail and Paul should drive out to find a ranger and ask his advice. They found him at the fire very near our first camping site! He said it was OK, we should just stay put and they would come and extract us if necessary. The next day we drove over and found many acres of blackened soil, ashes and embers, and some small fires still burning.
kayaked to the top of the pool, and saw black swans, snake birds, cockatoos, magpies, and wagtails. That night I swam in the dark and looked up at the stars. It was the most beautiful place we stayed, and the highlight of our trip.
Karijini National Park
We took our sad leave of Millstream and traveled the red dirt road to Karijini. About an hour into the drive, Gail saw in her rearview mirror something fly off the camper. We stopped and saw ragged, loose wires hanging down and shredded (the cover from the wiring harness must have flown off and dragged the wires down). I took my trusty black wire and wired them into a tighter knot so they wouldn't drag, and we had grim visions of not having any more electricity in the caravan -- which has a battery that stores power generated by the wheels when we're driving and then is available even when there are no mains to plug into.
As though to compensate for our minor disaster, we were amazed to see a herd of wild camels in the road ahead, and they slowly ambled away into the spinifex on the side of the road, giving me plenty of time to fumble out the camera and take their picture. Gail said this was the first time she has seen a herd of wild camels!
Gail wanted to modify the route to go through Wittenoom, an abandoned blue asbestos mining town, tucked in under the north side of the Hammersley Range. It was odd to drive through the town, where apparently a few people still live (Wikipedia says 3 residents still live there), as flowers are still blooming in the gardens, and bikes sit on the porches. I guess like many ghost towns, the residents left suddenly, taking little with them. In this case, everything must have been regarded as contaminated. The backdrop of the Hammersley Range was striking -- it looked like there were buttresses holding it up, or terraces carved into the slopes.
We stopped for gas and ice at Munjira Roadhouse, and paid $7.50 for a bag of ice (though a shower could be had for $3.50...), and proceeded to the Eco Retreat in Karijini, where we had booked a caravan site.
After setting up (and discovering that only the directional signals were affected by the shredded-wire disaster, and not the interior power), we headed over to the east again to have a look at the Dale Campground, and stopped by the Visitor Center, an architectural tour de force that had no signage anywhere crediting the designers, Woodhead architects (from whose website I took this image).
More adventure on the way back to the Eco Retreat: A flat tire. We had no manual in the truck and it took Gail awhile to figure out how to access the spare tire, but shortly (with the help of our trusty saddle blanket with the roadrunner design, seen on the ground), we had it changed. The tire was completely destroyed. And now we had no spare and miles yet to travel on dirt roads.
Much of the journal I kept during the trip (which I haven't really transcribed here) had to do with the great food we (well, mostly Gail...) made. So I will tell you that that night, after washing our hair in hot showers at the retreat, we feasted on tandoori lamb shoulder, grilled asparagus, and salad with blue cheese and pears!
The next morning I saw that the right front tire was going flat -- and no spare tire. Luckily a nice young man named Gene from the Eco Retreat took it off at their residence and plugged the hole. Over the next several days Gail called all three places in Tom Price (the closest town) to try to find tires. It was a good thing we weren't at Dale Campground (which was a check-yourself-in-and-out kind of place), because the Retreat had a telephone and let us use it (not to mention hot showers, which was a real treat). Finally she found a place that had four tires the right size, so we drove carefully into Tom Price and she bought four new tires AND took the caravan to Amar Auto Electrics to have the light harness fixed. Note the ubiquitous red dust on our truck cover at the left, and the guy fixing the wires on the (popped-down) caravan.
Our itinerary had planned for us to go from Karijini to Mount Augustus, the largest monolith in Australia, surrounded by mulla mulla flowers at this time of year (image below from Tourism Western Australia). But we'd have to travel 480 km over unsurfaced roads to get there, and another 460 km to get out going southeast to Cue. But it was getting hotter every day, and even though we had four new tires on the ute, the caravan itself was not backroad-worthy (and only had one spare tire) and it was getting pretty shaken up. So we did some internet research while we waited for the wiring to be fixed, and decided to go spend the night at Eagle's Rock Pool, on a 4WD track, sit in some water, and decide about where to go next. So we hit the road again
and turned off several hours later on what we thought was the (rough red) road to Eagle's Rock. We realized we were being pursued by a white vehicle (the whole north is thick with these mine-owned 4WD vehicles) and stopped to talk to very nice mine guys, who said the road didn't go there anymore (a mine had apparently taken it over). They said we should go to Kalgan Pool instead -- through Newman and up the Marble Bar road. We turned around and saw this wonderful sign as we approached the road:
We followed the route, which called for travel up a railside road for 13 km, but after almost 30 km there was nothing but the dusty red road,
and it was getting dark, so we turned around and headed into Newman for the night.
Newman is a mining town, with all the qualities of a boom town. Our atlas listed two campgrounds in Newman, and as soon as we got close enough to town to have reception, we called Dearlove's Caravan Park for directions. We were ready for a sweet spot to nestle into for the night. It sounded like a different name when they answered, and when we got there it was a whole new experience! The space devoted to a few slots for campers was dwarfed by the apartments for miners that went on and on, with quarters for FIFO (fly-in-fly-out) workers, who fly in to work on various schedules, such as 3 weeks on/ one week off (when they fly back to wherever they actually live). This apartment block (a very nicely designed structure that we heard is made in China and then shipped to sites in many parts of the region) was planted next to the office, looking like a spaceship.
All around us, going in 3 directions (as we saw the next morning), were grey trailers with air conditioning units poking out their sides. At 4:30 or 5 AM there was a tremendous ruckus, as trucks started up to head out to the mine, and other workers, about to fly out, walked by in shorts pulling rolling suitcases, headed for the airport and a brief stay at home.
The caravan park was now called Whaleback, after the HUGE mine just outside Newman, the largest open pit mine in the world. Here's a video about the mining industry up in this part of the country. It is staggering. Everything is computerized -- the trucks, the loading into trains, unloading at the port. And the place is awash in money. When you work for the mine they pay you REALLY good wages (starting at around $35/ hour, I hear, and that goes to time-and-a-half after 38 hours each week, which you hit quickly when you're working 12 hour days). Plus they put you up, pay for all your food, and even subsidize your drinks, and fly you in and out from wherever you live for your work shift. In exchange, they do frequent drug testing and have a zero tolerance for alcohol during work hours. You're fired on the spot if you are found with substances in your blood or breath.
Economic activity here, and up and down the highways, is overwhelming. The ore itself travels by rail, the workers by air, but all of the equipment (including this huge piece of machinery that required other traffic to pull off the highway so it could pass) goes up on the highway.
And lest you think that it's THEM, not US, I'm talking about, Gail's son Mason works for a consulting firm that works on information systems for the mine, and it turned out that he was flying into Newman the morning after we arrived, so we decided to stay another night so we could hang out with him and invite him for dinner (having run into him unexpectedly in the parking lot of the shopping center where we'd gone for groceries and he and his workmates had gone for lunch!). In the background you can see a bunch of AFS students who rolled in for the night and slept in gender-specific rows on the ground.
Our next door neighbors in the campground were a couple living in a tent named Raj and Harry, who were fun to hang out with. Harry worked in development for the Red Cross, setting up a table each day in the local shopping center to solicit donations. His wife, Raj, stayed in the park and watched Indian soaps on her computer.
and hung out in the park's small pool during the heat of the day. It got up to almost 45 degrees Celsius that day, which is 113 degrees Fahrenheit, but the pool wasn't covered, and the sun was beating down, so I pulled out an umbrella from the ute to create a little personal shade, which we shared.
We drove out to visit Opthalmia Dam, a shallow, smelly puddle, then tried to find Kalgan's Pool in the light of day -- again unsuccessfully. We were wilting. It was time to head home.
I had stayed overnight in Mount Magnet when I visited Australia with my children in 1989, and so we hit the Great Northern Highway headed south, stopping at Kumarina Roadhouse, which was full of aviaries and birdcages, for coffee, .
And outside, roadtrains getting fuel. This one is pulling three long gas tankers.
Mount Magnet was not as I remembered it, though still dry and dusty. The new wrinkle was that the mosquito fogging truck came through THREE times, spewing gas, but I didn't get a photo of it. It was Wednesday, and not raining.
A few hours shy of home, we stopped by the Benedictine community of New Norcia and went into their museum. It was such a contrast to every other place we'd driven through on our 18-day trip, it was like a warp in space-time.
Then through the wheatbelt, where harvesting was happening.
and home. After that, I put up an installation with my nephew, Rembert, which is documented on my blog.
And the final piece of travel was a two-day trip that Gail treated us all to in a Heritage Cottage on Rottnest Island November 12-14.
We packed up again, stashing the gear and kayaks in the back of a horse float (trailer). Here are Gail, Annabelle, Caelin, Rembert, and Matilda.
And on the boat from the port in Fremantle. Kylee is on the left (not a good photo of her, but the only one I've got...).
Rottnest Island is famous for its cute little marsupial quokkas.
We swam, ate, and went on a 10 km bikeride around half of the island, when we saw several dugite snakes on the road. Keith (below, with his children) joined us for one day.
And then, back at Zia Park, there was only one thing left to do (on the last day of my visit).
Thank you, Gail and family and friends, for your incredible hospitality, generosity, kindness, and for sharing your beautiful country.