There have been a few periods over this sabbatical during which time felt like it was shape-shifting. August was one of those times. A month in which I experienced back to back alternate vistas of arid, rocky, red dirt landscapes and rich, blue ocean saturated with life. The gentle creatures and destinations of ancient land and sea carved out, compressed and cultivated by time. My fleeting presence at each extraordinary location a mere blip on their evolutionary timelines and a month of experiences that will last my lifetime.
Grinding through 11 days of isolation in a Halls Creek donga finally came to an end at the beginning of this month. I’d long looked forward to seeing the Bungle Bungle ranges at Purnululu National Park and it was time to leave my bike for another couple of days in the shed and take off in a packed four-wheel drive.
THE BUNGLE BUNGLE RANGE, PURNULULU NATIONAL PARK, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: The Purnululu National Park is located 150km north of Halls Creek or 300km south of Kununura in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Eroded over a period of 20 million years, the striking beehive-like dome structures with horizontal bands of dark-grey bacterial crust are striking, rare and one of the reasons why the national park was World Heritage listed in 2003. Access is only permitted during the Dry season and requires a four-wheel drive as the corrugated, winding road leading into the park is marked by often washed-out waterways.
ECHIDNA CHASM, PURNULULU NATIONAL PARK: Echidna Chasm is one of the most spectacular sights in Purnululu National Park. The narrow gorge has walls that rise 200 metres high with sections as narrow as one metre wide. During the middle of the day, sunlight penetrates into the gorge cracks creating an incredible golden glow. If you look closely at the bottom of the chasm in the photograph above you’ll see a person standing just to the right at the base, which gives you a sense of the breathtaking scale.
CATHEDRAL GORGE, PURNULULU: Cathedral Gorge is an extraordinary natural amphitheatre of red rock, created by millions of years of water erosion. In the Wet season a waterfall cascades from the roof of the gorge down into a pool of water in the centre of the amphitheatre. This immense circular cavern is renowned for its acoustics, inspiring many to try out their singing voices.
On the walk into Echidna Chasm we were lucky to spot the nest of a great bowerbird. The nest or bower is a twin-walled avenue-type and most commonly located under a shrub or leafy branch. The ends of the bower are apparently often scattered with white and green objects – stones, bones, shells and leaves and small man-made objects such as plastic and bottle caps.
THE BOAB PRISON TREE [KUNUMUDJ], DERBY, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Leaving Halls Creek behind, I headed West for Derby. Believed to be 1500 years old with a circumference of 14 metres, the Boab Prison Tree is a culturally significant site for the local Nyikina people and important in the story of the early settlement of Derby and the region’s pastoral industry. Accounts from the early 1900’s documented on nearby information boards indicate that the tree had been in use by local Aboriginal people. The tree and adjacent Myalls Bore were also the last overnight stop for local pastoralists droving cattle to the port at Derby. The Boab prison tree was sadly also used as a prison, or as a holding area for Aboriginal prisoners being transported long distances to the gaol at Derby.
MOWANJUM ABORIGINAL ART & CULTURAL CENTRE, DERBY: The Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre is a creative hub for the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal tribes, who make up the Mowanjum community outside Derby, Western Australia. These three language groups are united by their belief in the Wandjina as a sacred spiritual force and the creators of the land. The centre hosts exhibitions with a variety of very old and new artworks, workshops and community projects, as well as the annual Mowanjum Festival, one of Australia’s longest running indigenous cultural festivals.
BROOME, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: I’d visited Broome once before on a family holiday. It’s a town that’s long been a favourite winter destination for Southern West Australian families, the grey nomads in caravan convoys and in more recent years international visitors seeking out pearls. However the state-bound, grounding affect of Covid has exploded both the visiting, temporary and permanent population. The streets teaming with people and four wheel drives with cafes, shops and supermarkets stretched beyond service limits.
After a couple of nights stay in a warehouse with basic facilities, I was lucky to find a rare campsite in a holiday park near Cable Beach for 4 nights as my visit coincided with the Broome Cup. The highlight of the Broome racing season and social calendar. Preferring to take my chances with the thrills and spills possible while riding a bike on sand, I took a wide berth from the Turf Club and headed for Gantheaume Beach.
WILLIE CREEK PEARLS, BROOME: Broome’s pearling history stretches long before European settlers accelerated the trade in Mother-of-Pearl shell in the 1860’s. Local Aboriginal people were the first to recognise the value of pearls and pearl shells, trading with fisherman from Sulawesi (now Indonesia) over 1,000 years ago. Founded as a pearling port in 1880s, over 300 luggers were working the rich waters of Broome’s Roebuck Bay by the turn of the century. A boom time that came to an end as a result of World War II when Broome’s foreign labour was sent to labour camps and much of the pearling fleet was burnt to save it falling into enemy hands. The world also discovered plastic in the 1950s, which marked the end of demand for mother of pearl shell; commonly used for buttons, cutlery, jewelry boxes and furniture inlays. Cultured pearling techniques were introduced by the Japanese soon after and quickly took off in Broome, which continues to produce the majority of the world’s finest quality cultured South Sea Pearls. Willie Creek is one of several producers and offers a farm tour which being very partial to pearls, was an easy spend.
Willie Creek Pearls is owned and operated by the Banfield Family who were originally wheat and sheep farmers in the WA wheatbelt. The tour began in their purpose-built hatchery learning about the collection and spawning of oysters in the purpose-built hatchery after which a boat ride on the massive tidal-governed beautiful blue waters of Willie Creek offered the chance to see live oysters suspended in their natural environment.
CABLE BEACH, BROOME: Famous for camel rides, the odd saltwater crocodile visit and a resort, Cable Beach is a wide, 22 km long stretch of sand named after the telegraph cable laid between Broome and Java in 1889. On the late afternoon I took a long walk, four-wheel drive vehicles were winding their way back to the resort while other guests were attempting to cool off in the warm waters.
SANDFIRE ROADHOUSE, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Leaving Broome for Port Hedland, a long 610km stretch, I decided to make an overnight stop at the Sandfire Roadhouse, which is on the Western edge of the Great Sandy Desert. Along with fuel and standard truck-stop meals it offers a caravan park, basic self-contained donga rooms and a spectacular sunset.
JOFFRE GORGE, KARIJINI NATIONAL PARK, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: After a short stay in Port Hedland, the iron ore capital of Western Australia, I continued further south into the Pilbara region to camp 4 nights at Karijini Eco Retreat within the Karijini National Park; the second largest national park in WA. The stunning Joffre Gorge is easily accessible from the camp sites via a 20 minute walk trail followed by a laddered 100 metre drop down into the gorge.
The types of rock that can be seen especially well in the gorges are the banded iron formations, dolomite and Mount McRae shale.
The Karijini Visitor Centre provides an informative display of the Park’s geological evolution. The Karijini landscapes started over 2500 million years ago, when fine, iron-rich sediments accumulated on an ancient seafloor. Over millions of years, further sediments were overlaid, creating immense pressure on the sediment layers and transforming them into tough layers of rock. Horizontal compression caused the rock to buckle and crack before rising up out of the water to form dry land. A drop in sea level caused creeks and rivers to cut down through the rocks, creating the deep stunning gorges.
CHEELA PLAINS STATION, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: After Karijini, I continued West, heading back towards the coast. Along the way I stayed 2 nights at Cheela Plains Station; a family owned and managed working cattle station in the semi-arid, pastoral Pilbara range lands located halfway between the Ningaloo Reef and Karijini National Park.
Originally part of the bigger Wyloo Station, in 2001 Evan and Robin Pensini established Cheela Plains as its own individual station with a vision to be industry leaders in sustainable and renewable pastoral practices. With tourism booming, they offer a variety of accommodation and camping options, a simple home-cooked country-style 2 course set dinner is offered nightly around a shared long-table.
SHORE THING, SAIL NINGALOO, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Upon reaching the coast, I had the privilege of spending 3 nights on a catamaran to experience snorkeling on the magical Ningaloo Reef; Australia’s largest fringing coral reef. At over 300 kilometres long, it’s the world’s only large reef located on the western side of a continental landmass. At its closest, the reef is just 100 meters from shore and at its farthest point, less than 7 kilometres away.
NINGALOO REEF, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Ningaloo Reef and the surrounding waters became Ningaloo Marine Park in 1987. This pristine aquatic park is home to sharks, manta rays, dolphins, whales, dugongs, marine turtles, more than 250 coral species, and over 500 tropical fish species.
The Reef’s many different species of stunning coral represent over 50% of the Indian Ocean’s entire coral life. Each day we had the opportunity to snorkel and dive in different locations along the incredibly rich-with-abundant-life reef, guided by and taken care of over the 3 day journey by the 3 wonderful staff on Shore Thing. Previously having no experience snorkeling, with very basic swimming skills and prone to seasickness, this boat trip was a complete revelation and unforgettable experience!
SAL SALIS, NINGALOO, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Back on land and a 3 night stay at Sal Salis followed. Owned by Australian experiential tourism group Journey Beyond, Sal Salis is a luxury eco-safari camp located 50 metres from the Ningaloo coast in Cape Range National Park. The camp is open from March through to November and has been designed to operate in tune with the fragile environment of the national park, employing strict principles of minimal impact and sustainability. The Lodge (above) is the communal dining and meeting space from where a variety of daily tours and activities are organised together with an adjoining library and a self-service bar.
Designed to blend in with the natural environment, the 16 off-grid, luxury safari tents are on platforms connected by a boardwalk leading to The Lodge and beach access.
One of the most exciting experiences while snorkeling was seeing sea creatures including blacktip reef sharks, octopusus and blissed-out majestic turtles going about their daily travels in their natural habitat.
Masses of healthy blue staghorn coral, here photographed on a morning snorkel at Turquoise Bay, are home to many different damselfish and a sign of a healthy coral reef.
CHARLES KNIFE CANYON, EXMOUTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Behind the beach dunes along the Ningaloo coast lies the Cape Range National Park. Rugged limestone ranges, gorges, bays, creeks, deep canyons and trails dominate the park’s 50,000 hectares; its northern boundary situated 40 kilometres from Exmouth.
The Charles Knife Road turn off is 22km south of Exmouth. A winding road along the top of the range offered spectacular views of this ancient terrain that lies between the Ningaloo coast on the west and the waters of Exmouth Gulf on the eastern side of the Exmouth peninsula.
From this point on the map my travels were nearing my final, return destination back to Fremantle mid September. The route following the coast further and further south back to where it all began.