TRAVEL with pat and lew

* Broome and the outback

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

“You can’t go to Australia for a month and not see the outback.”

We started asking on our first day in Perth, clerks in stores and at the Tourist Office. Kalgoorlie was recommended by some and disparaged by others. Everyone agreed on Broome.

We read the brochures and decided on a two day outback excursion. The guy at the Tourist Office, and others, said two days was not nearly enough. We should devote ten days, at least a week. But we know what we like, and for how long. Two days, we thought, would be quite enough. We weren’t wrong.

We book flights to Broome and a two day trip into the outback, one overnight to be spent in a place called Fitzroy Crossing. It’s an expensive two-day trip, with airfare, motel, and excursion amounting to $2500 AUD ($1800 USD).

To prepare, Pat buys an Aussie cowboy hat from our Hillarys Harbor neighbors Barry and Brian, who run a hat store in the adjoining shops.

“The balmy air of historic Broome is filled with the scent of frangipani. Vibrant colours of bougainvillea nestle amid unique buildings amongst the Coconut palms. A romantic vision come true.” So says the official Broome web site. We never found what they were describing.

sunset at Cable Beach in Broome

There is one sight in Broome, however, that is spectacular, the sunset over pure white sands at Cable Beach, with the green Indian Ocean beyond. We cut it as close as possible. Our Qantas flight arrives at 5:25 and the sunset is promised for 5:52. We make it with 8 minutes to spare, and it’s just spectacular. I take too many photos, which is always the case for me and sunsets, but several capture the breathtaking reality.

With the sunset come the camels. These are remnants of an estimated 12,000 camels imported into Australia and used as draft and riding animals by people pioneering the dry interior. Camels played a significant role in construction of the south to north transcontinental telegraph line, after the undersea cable arrived in Broome from Singapore in 1889. We flew from Singapore to Australia, and that’s a whole lot of ocean in which to lay cable. Some day I’ll look for a book that describes what must have been a very difficult and dangerous process.

Linda, our new friend (and book reader) from Fremantle, was once a cameleer at Cable Beach. I never thought I would know a cameleer.

We cab from the resort at Cable Beach, which is outstanding, to our motel, which is underwhelming. In our first room, we flip the light switch and blow the electricity. The desk clerk sends maintenance, but electrical uncertainties make us uncomfortable.

We ask for another room.

There are no other rooms.

“Then find us another motel and refund our money.”

“Well, there’s one guest who hasn’t checked in yet. We’ll swap rooms.”

The second room features lamps over the bed with only one working bulb out of four. The maintenance guy returns and fresh bulbs are installed. By now he’s our buddy, so we ask about living in Broome. Housing is expensive and limited, no surprise. Nobody stays long, also no surprise.

We dine outdoors, along Roebuck Bay, which we can’t see in the dark, but it’s nice anyway. We’re not hungry, having stuffed ourselves with junk at the airport and on the plane. Excellent bruschetta and wine, plus a great dessert (a good surprise), sticky date pudding with vanilla ice cream. The buffet breakfast is not exceptional and too expensive ($19.00 AUD).

Kimberly Wild Expeditions picks us up at 7:15 am. Andy introduces himself as driver, tour guide, and cook. There are seven couples on tour, on a bus that can hold 20, a young couple from England/Ireland, another from Italy/Scotland, two sisters from England, and three couples from Australia. We’re the only Americans.

One of the Australian couples is 5 ½ months into a caravan tour of Australia. He used to work for Telstar. Later, we hear stories about clearing a path for poles that were never used, and something about hush-hush capped oil wells in Central Australia. Have we learned a national security secret?

We drive for two hours and see nothing. I mean nothing. We reach the Willare Bridge Roadhouse, a general store with a few very minimal motel rooms, with the feeling of a movie western bunkhouse.

Andy unpacks our “morning tea,” which is chocolate chip cookies, a nice raisin cake, instant coffee, and, actually, tea. A cowboy comes by, perhaps from the bunkhouse, with photos showing the roundup and branding of cattle. Pat calls him a rustler. Maybe he is.

There aren’t many cows out there. The land is seasonal. For months it rains and floods, then it’s incredibly dry and hot. Not much can live in that, except crocodiles and termites (see below).

We’re just now, in October, at the end of the dry season, with torrential rains expected in the near future. When the storms come, much of the ground we have seen and will see, including the roads we’re driving on, will be under water.

Protruding like weird monuments from the desert floor are thousands of large mounds. They look like droppings from pre-historic dinosaurs, which Andy says was the explanation given by several only ‘somewhat intoxicated’ Aboriginal people. Actually, they’re termite (white ant) homes, formed over the ages by the mucous and excrement of billions of insects. Ugh!

Two hours further along the endless dusty road, we boab trees, found only in Western Australia. Some are over 1500 years old. Aboriginals used the giant trees for shelter, food and medicine. For the white settlers, they served as easily recognizable landmarks and meeting points.

Several of the huge trees, dead and hollow, have an unexpected history as impromptu prison cells. We stop on the road to see one such prison tree, with even less creature comforts than the cells at Fremantle Gaol.

Our first major destination is Geikie Gorge National Park, 390 km from Broome.

While Andy sets out a lunch of cold cuts, potato salad, and cheese, we take a short walk. The sky is stunning, rich blue, with powdery clouds, high cliffs, rugged trees, and a bright sun.

There’s a sand bar where we’ll go to swim. Change? Some (me) use the bathrooms, some go behind a tree. Pat opts out completely, and later, one of the other ladies asks, “You couldn’t find a tree wide enough to change behind?” Embarrassed immediately when she realizes what she has said, she quickly apologizes.

This was the first time we understood that our travel agent had failed to give us important information. Others had some sort of brochure which listed things to bring, such as a towel, since we’re going to swim this afternoon before we go to our motel.

The water is very warm, shallow, and contains no crocodiles. The flies are infuriating, and the insect repellent I bought at the Willare station seems to be an insect attractor. Later, someone asks if I went in the water. I answer “yes, but if you blinked, you missed it.”

That night, I see the mimeo sheet for the Geikie Gorge National Park, which says “Fresh water crocodiles do live in the Gorge although they are not usually a threat to people. Swimming is at your own risk. Beware of submerged logs.” Needless to say, had I read that first, there would not have been even a blink’s worth of me in the shallow river.

After the swim comes a river cruise. In the hut before the trip, we notice marks on the walls showing how high the floods rose, some 20 feet above our heads. The water comes quickly and stay for weeks or months.

“Make sure to take bottled water with you in the boat,” we’re told.

“Can we buy water here?”

“No.”

Thank you again, travel agency, for the brilliant way you prepared us for this trip. Another couple (the Italian and the Scot) gives us a bottle of water. We get into a flat craft, filling all the seats.

The gorge is white limestone, carved out by the raging river over millions of years. The formations are stunning. We see a few birds, one wallaby along the bank, no crocs. The sky framed by the high orange cliffs is astonishing. The color looks like it’s been painted on.

Aboriginal families are camped along the banks, cooking over open fires.

On our way to the night’s accommodations, we pass the almost dry Fitzroy River just at sunset. Andy stops on the bridge for photos. The motel at Fitzroy Crossing exceeds expectations.

I have to elaborate on this, because everyone – Mark and Annemarie, Fran and Claude, all the many others they told – burst out laughing uproariously when they heard that Americans actually spent a night in Fitzroy Crossing.

But it wasn’t bad, certainly better than Broome. There were three choices of accommodations – tent, cabin, and motel. We had wanted a cabin, but there were none available when we made our reservations, so we got the motel. Lucky choice.

Our room is fine, although it takes hours to get the a/c down to where we want it. There’s an excellent pool. We take a cooling dip in the dark, followed by quick showers, and feel human again. We pass up Andy’s barbeque in favor of the motel restaurant.

Walking toward the restaurant, we’re disturbed to see a huge fire, right where we’re heading. We begin to re-think the advisability of Andy’s barbeque, but nobody else seems upset, and the soaring flames turn out to be a controlled brush fire.

We have a cold beer on the restaurant porch with the England/Ireland couple, and are joined by an Aboriginal man from the next table, who wants to know if we’ve been fishing. He and his family have the darkest skin we’ve ever seen, with a distinctive facial look and hair. The man talking with us is quite pleasant and inquisitive.

Influenced by the fire, still smoldering, we decide to eat inside. The menu was amazingly good, and the meal likewise. Nobody in civilization believes us when we say that, but it’s true. I had pan fried barramundi.

Barramundi, native to Northern Australia, is considered to be among the premier freshwater angling species in the world. A little known fact: The barramundi becomes a male at 3 years. When it reaches the age of 5, it changes into a female. I have no information on the sex of the fish I ate, but it was delicious.

Pat asks the waitress where people live in Fitzroy Crossing, since she hasn’t seen any housing. The waitress points to a group of people at a nearby table.

“They work in the hospital here and the hospital has built housing for them. They would have to provide housing or nobody would come.”

“And once they come, they stay for awhile?”

“Oh no. Nobody stays. Maybe a year at most.”

We go to bed at 8:30 – the room has cooled appreciably – and we’re up at 5:30 am. We walk to the campsite to join the rest of the group for breakfast. Andy’s got a fire going in the brick barbeque, a sheet of aluminum foil for making toast, and a large pot of water to boil for coffee and tea.

We’re told that the cabins and tents were comfortable, with a cool breeze through the open, netted windows. We don’t believe it.

Our first stop on the second day is Tunnel Creek Park, a large bat cave where we will walk through pools of cold water. Those who had the brochure have two pairs of shoes. So does Pat, who always takes two pair of shoes. Not me.

We drive two hours on the bus, the last 45 minutes on a bumpy dirt road. We exit the bus to an extreme midday heat, which Giorgio (Italy/Scot) later informs us is 39.5 degrees Celsius (103 degrees Fahrenheit).

Her running friends from New York will never believe that Pat, habitually lost even in the familiar turf of Central Park, leads the way into the dark caves, pointing her flashlight and climbing over rocks. The tunnel is 750 meters long, some of it pitch dark, with two natural cuts high above providing minimal light.

One of these openings is adjacent to the screeching bats (actually flying foxes). Some of them fly above us. Some swoop in from the outside, wings fluttering much louder than expected.

We walk through the pools, the deepest of which comes to mid-thigh. Some of the passages over the rocks are difficult. One person (an Australian) slips and cuts his leg. There are no crocs. We see a rock in the water, and Andy pretends it’s a crocodile, but soon tells us it’s a “rockodile.”

The return trip through the cave goes faster. Pat and I are brave enough to go ahead of the group for much of the way. After the cool cave, it feels even hotter outside.

Another hour or so of bumpy roads (and for me, wet shoes) brings us to the Windjana Gorge National Park. Lunch outside, on camp stools in whatever sparse shade we can find, followed by a walk through the gorge.

The river is almost dry. Hundreds of white cockatoos fill the trees and screech as we pass. And there are crocodiles, dozens of them, wallowing in the shallow pools of water near the banks along which we’re walking. We let them alone and they do likewise. We lounge in the shade along the river, look up at the spectacular gorge and sky above it, all the while keeping a careful eye on the crocs nearby.

An hour later, we’re back at the Willare Bridge Roadhouse. Who could ever believe that such a place would be a familiar sight! An ice cream, a coke and a cup of ice for the road.

It’s about 5:00 pm. I remind Andy that he’s supposed to drop us off at the airport for our 8:00 pm flight, and he says that’s fine with him, but he never heard it until I told him. Our complaint list for the travel agency is growing.

It darkens, and the return trip is uneventful. We reach Broome precisely on schedule at 6:45 pm, are dropped at the airport at 7:10, and are through security by 7:15 pm. Virgin Air to Perth.

Two days. Some spectacular sights. Long enough.

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