Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Kimberly Chronicles

Some people spend their whole lives searching for perfection.

If you are Japanese, you might be searching for the perfect cherry blossom. For the Brits, it might be a search for a perfect football premiership. In America, it’s a search for the perfect super-sized hamburger meal deal.

Kris Flanagan’s search for perfection began in Western Australia, for it was here that his life’s purpose was revealed…the search for the perfect boab tree. His journey began in Purnululu National Park, famous for its hundreds of massive black and orange sandstone domes.

Walking amidst the towering 200m high beehive-shaped domes, it was hard to imagine the titanic natural forces that had once been here shaping these magnificent structures. But what better way to appreciate them than on a 20km overnight hike (of course). Hiking through a sandy and pebbly river bed for 20km is not an easy day at the office by any stretch, but when you finish the day sleeping out on a rock with a million stars as your canopy, the reward far outweighs the effort.

Unfortunately for Kris, his perfect boab remained elusive at Purnululu so it was on to our next destination, the Kimberly’s famous Gibb River Road.

The Gibb River Road is synonymous with beautiful scenery, dusty roads and classic Australian off-road adventure – all 3 of which we found in abundance. We were thrilled to discover that the million-hectare El Questro station was not the tourist fiasco we’d imagined it would be, but rather an adventure playground with amazingly beautiful gorges and waterfalls, indulgent hot springs, secluded camping and one of the most breathtaking views we have seen on the trip.

Kris was in photography heaven so it was with great reluctance that we continued on our way west, still searching for the elusive perfect boab.

Next stop was the remote Mitchell Falls, a multi-tiered waterfall in the far north-west of the Kimberly. As you’ve probably come to expect we didn’t see Mitchell Falls as any ordinary person might otherwise do - to capture the falls in a photographer’s perfect light required being at the falls by sunrise.

The falls are a 3.3km hike from the campsite, which rather inconveniently (for me) meant a 4am start and a hike along a rocky track in the dark by torchlight. The hike was going smoothly until we reached a river crossing, requiring us to walk 50m over slippery rocks in thigh deep water to reach the other side.

Now, that’d be fine in the bright light of day when you can see where to put your feet, but not so much fun when attempted in the dark. I knew there were no crocs in that part of the river but thanks to my previous Pavlovian croc conditioning (ie: water = death by croc), my mind was working over time till I was convinced we were completely surrounded by crocs. Unfortunately in my haste to get to the other side I lost my footing and a thong with it. Kris gallantly tried to save it only to fall off a rock and drench himself up to his waist, along with his precious camera bag (I can hear you thinking “fight, fight!”).

So it was two wet, soggy hikers that arrived at the lookout half an hour behind schedule, but we think just in time to see a green thong glide lazily over the falls. On the upside, it was a beautiful sunrise and basking in the warmth of those early morning rays we had the entire falls to ourselves for one whole glorious hour. (An early bird might lose a thong but it definitely catches the worm).

After so much excitement we moved on looking for the still elusive boab, eventually finding our way to McGowan Island Beach. Oh what bliss! - white sandy beaches, turquoise water, fiery red sunsets and really terrific company. The only catch was the presence of a resident saltwater croc and five of our former high school teachers! (What are the odds of that?!)

Kris discovered his own piece of paradise when he heard of an island nearby with an abundance of oysters. Reaching the island required wading through croc-inhabited water (“Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you” we were assured by the owner) but the call of fresh oysters proved too strong for Kris. Together with another camper he set off to claim his prize, thankfully returning with all four limbs still intact and 5-dozen magnificent oysters the size of his hand. (For all you oyster fans, Kris made sure he had enough oysters Kilpatrick and Mornay for all of you).

Despite our wonderful time at McGowan Island beach, the search for the perfect boab was falling behind schedule so we packed up and continued along the Gibb River Road, visiting lovely waterfalls and gorges, covering some seriously dusty kilometres and finally reaching the road to Cape Leveeque.

A local had told us of a shortcut and assured us the road was in great condition. All was fine until we rounded a corner 50kms into the track and were greeted with a flooded roadway. Assuming the track was as muddy and impassable as it looked, we agreed on a path around the flooded area and drove on.

Lesson 1: It is generally better to drive straight through a flooded road than drive around it.

An enormous bog hole and the remains of a recent campfire should probably have rung warning bells that the ground along the side of the track was not as solid as it seemed; someone else had obviously spent the night camped at the side of the road while their car had spent the night trapped in a mud pit. The Big Red Truck lasted a short 20 metres before sinking to its rear axle in mud!

Fortunately we DID have our recovery gear with us on this occasion (unlike a certain previous blog entry way back in January). Naturally the recovery gear was located in the most inaccessible parts of the truck but once it was retrieved we set about a textbook 4WD recovery manoeuvre. Unfortunately nothing we did was able to budge the Big Red Truck from its boggy hole so our only remaining recovery option was to winch ourselves out.

Lesson 2: Winching a 4 tonne truck out of a boggy hole requires a good anchor point.

The only anchor point even remotely suitable for winching the BRT backwards onto solid ground was a feeble looking tree. This attempt was quickly thwarted when the tree pulled straight out of the ground under the strain! So forwards we winched, jubilantly escaping the bog but driving ourselves into more trouble...up ahead lay another 600 metres of water across the road. This time to avoid any further boggy dramas, Kris waded through the water to check the depth and road surface.

Lesson 3: Be selective about which water you wade through.

Kris had covered about half the length of the water-covered road when he realised the floodwater actually fed into a creek, which fed into a river, which fed into a croc-infested bay. Not wishing to find out if any crocs had strayed into the area, he hot-footed it back to the truck and we decided to try our luck driving through the remaining untested water ahead. (The last lot was OK, how bad could this section be right?)

Lesson 4: Never ask how bad something can be.

For every 10 metres we drove, the Big Red Truck sank deeper and deeper until water covered the headlights. Surely this was the deepest point? Surely we would start to rise out of the water soon? But no, the truck sank deeper and deeper until water washed up over the bonnet and lapped at the windscreen. Onwards we drove, desperately willing the truck to rise out of the water and imagining a breakdown and a night spent in the middle of the flooded road in our roof top tent with crocs circling hungrily outside. Eventually the truck did rise out of the water…about 400 metres later!!

(Unfortunately we don't have any photos of the water over the bonnet but the photo below is how things looked at the start).

But our trials were still not over…ahead lay yet another 500m of water! Not wanting to turn back we proceeded forward and again we found ourselves swimming in water over the bonnet! By the time we reached the other end, the carpets in the truck were soaked through and the dashboard had lit up like a christmas tree with warning lights. How we made it through that flooded crossing without car catastrophe or croc carnage is anyone’s guess.

By the time we got to our destination we limped into camp looking like we’d just gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson (minus the bitten off ear) – covered in a thick layer of red dirt, mud and grass curled around the springs, number plate hanging on by one screw, a half deflated tyre from a slow leak puncture, cracked hose in the engine and a shock absorber dragging along the ground!!

But made it we did and it’s here that I find myself tapping away on my computer keyboard from our beautiful beachside campsite. Luckily for us we’ve been able to spend a few days giving our beloved Big Red Truck the TLC it deserves while enjoying spectacular sunsets over the majestic Indian Ocean (these west coast sunsets must be seen to be believed).

Our journey is almost complete now, having achieved our goal of reaching the west coast of this enormous country. It is with reluctance that we must turn our eyes eastward for the very long journey home.

Oh, as for the perfect boab tree, the search continues…

In the next edition of Where’s the Big Red Truck - Two becomes three.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Lajamanu Teenage band

I wake up and roll over to check the time. It’s 2am. Disorientated by sleep, I listen to the noises outside and try to remember where I am.

I can hear the howl of camp dogs in the distance and the sound of rubbish blowing in the desert wind against the fence outside. I hear conversation in an unfamiliar tongue, yelling, and a car being driven off into the dark.

I’m in Lajamanu.

Lajamanu is a large Aboriginal community located somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It’s place you’re unlikely to visit unless you have a damn good reason. It’s a place you’d find on a map and wonder who in hell would live in such a remote and isolated spot. 800 people call this home way out here in the heart of the Northern Territory.

There’s a solitary store selling everything from fruit and vegetables to hamburgers, curried chicken, bicycles, kids jumpers and diesel. There’s a school, two policemen and an overworked health centre coping with the needs of 800 residents. There are no doctors, just nurses having to deal with any affliction that happens to walk in through the door (or is wheeled in from the Toyota Landcruiser ambulance) – runny noses, chesty coughs, ear infections, medications, lice infestation, psychiatric illness, suicide attempts, road trauma, broken limbs, cuts needing stitches and even just someone in need of some social company and a cup of tea.

It’s a town where the nearest doctor is a flight and another world away. 24 hours a day the nurses are expected to triage their patient and make the tough calls - either patch them up and send them on their way home, or fight with some faceless voice on the other end of a phone line to have them airlifted out just to receive the very basic medical treatment that anyone in this country has a right to expect. The people working out here are absolutely incredible.

Just yesterday there was a public outcry over some Vietnam Vet discovered living in lice infested conditions in Queensland. How could this happen? Why hasn’t someone stepped in to help this man? How could our country let this celebrated war hero down? Then I recall stories from the Lajamanu nurses of Aboriginal kids walking through their clinic doors day after day after day with chronic lice infestation and I feel shame that a crisis on this scale is not newsworthy enough for our ‘illustrious’ media outlets. Shame on us.

But tonight as I lay here in my bed, I’m not thinking about all of that. There’s a sound rising out from the community that grabs my attention. It’s the sound of band practice wafting through the night sky and waking me from my dreams.

It’s the sound of the Lajamanu Teenage Band.

It’s not easy to be a member of the Lajamanu Teenage Band. Certain characteristics are a must if you want to succeed in this dedicated outfit:
* You must be able to attend band practise (hours are anything from 2pm to 3am daily).
* You must be able to sing the same song at least 20 times per practise session.
* Singers must be able to sing out of tune (essential).
* Being a teenager is optional.

For the past 3 nights my dreams have been interrupted by this 2am cacophony. I’ve listened to tone-deaf singers belting out tunes that would make any Japanese karaoke bar proud. I’ve listened to a heaving mass of instruments rumbling away in unison. I’ve listened to voices ringing out in a language that I don’t understand.

But tonight is different. I lie quietly in the dark and listen intently. What am I really hearing at this small hour of the morning? Is it just a group of clumsy community kids strumming away amateurishly on their instruments, or is it something more?

Could it be the sound of hopes and dreams? Is it the sound of something transcending the physical boundaries of the community? Is it a hope of living past the age of 60 and defying the life expectancy of most Australian indigenous persons? Is it a wish to cease this cycle of cultural breakdown and social stigma?


Or maybe it’s just as simple as a group of kids indulging their love of music. One can only wonder. But tonight, lying here in my bed, there’s just the sound of beauty and rhythm and soul and passion.

There’s just the sound of the Lajamanu Teenage Band.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Tales from the Territory


I’d been eagerly anticipating this day since our adventure began and after thousands of kilometres, I was finally about to realise a dream. This was my rite of passage, the quintessential journey I was destined to take from the day I was born. It was time for my pilgrimage to the holy lands of the red centre.

I'm talking of course about Uluru. It's about as Australian as it gets; it’s like meat pies and sauce, AFL, lamingtons, Boxing Day tests and the Dole. Driving to Uluru is the Aussie equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca. Your whole life you see pictures of The Rock, read tales of mystery and intrigue about its origins and dream that one day you, too, will get to stand in its awesome presence.

And you know what? It’s even better than yo
u can imagine!

When you see it you can’t quite believe you are there. It’s just so huge. One minute it’s not there and then wow, there it is in all its glory and you wonder how you could’ve missed it. You rub your eyes, blink a few times, turn your head away and glance back just to make sure you aren’t dreaming, but no, it’s still there and it’s still magnificent!

When you’re right up next to it, it completely dwarfs and overwhelms you and you feel a reverence for it that is inexplicable. I LOVED IT!

But the Red Centre is not just about The Rock. It’s about stunning gorges and waterholes, isolated palm valleys, dingoes and wild camels and emus, ancient Aboriginal culture and gorgeous red ranges stretching as far as the eye can see. It truly is a spectacular part of the world.

Rather than taking the standard tourist route, the Big Red Truck took us through the Red Centre Kris Flanagan style (of course!). Now, a 200km shortcut that takes 5 hours longer to complete than the mainstream alternative will give you some idea of the kind of track I’m talking about.

When the signs all say “Extreme 4WD’ing”, “Must be driven in a convoy”, and “High likelihood of getting bogged”, then I’m kind of inclined to listen to them. But for Kris the word ‘extreme’ is an invisible force immediately pulling him in the direction of high adventure.

After some animated discussion about the pros and cons of tackling the track (pros argued by Kris the adventurer; cons argued by Sarah the voice of reason), we set off. And once again as has happened so many times on this trip, we were rewarded with stunning isolated scenery with not another soul in sight for the entire day. As for the 4WD’ing, I have to admit that it was great, but as with all great things, there’s only so much one person can take…



Have you been dreaming of a testosterone-fuelled 4WD mega adventure? Do gravity-defying tracks and croc-filled creek crossings make you salivate with excitement? Do bone jarring corrugations and sand dune Saharas get your pulse racing?

Well here’s a word of advice for all you adventure enthusiasts out there…

This may be the 4WD adventure you’ve been dreaming of since you got your first Tonka truck, but for your partner stuck in the ergonomically challenged passenger seat, driving thousands of kilometres on corrugated outback tracks is akin to being stuck inside a paint shaker at Bunnings for 8 hours, but worse…at least Bunnings has air conditioning.

Throw into the melting pot a billion flies, mercury-breaking temperatures, lack of sleep and whiplash as the car is suddenly and unexpectedly brought to a screeching halt by the driver to take a picture of a rock or a tree, and you have a powder keg just itching to ignite.

[So far we’ve managed to keep the match away from the fuse but there’s still 2 months left to go…watch this space!]

You might start noticing that the animated, deep and meaningful conversation you were having 2 hours ago has regressed to one word, short, sharp responses. It might look a little something like this:

“Are you OK?” – “Yes

Are you sure?” – “I’m fine”
(Even the astronauts on the international space station can see that I’m cranky)

“What’s wrong?” – “Nothing”

(I’m really cranky that you don’t know why I’m cranky)

“Is it something I did?” – “No”
(Obviously yes. Why can’t we be like normal people and drive on normal roads for a change? This is not a Sega Car Rally championship you know.)

At this point it might be a good idea to stop the car, have a cool drink, placate your partner with words of encouragement (“You really are the best babe”) and, here’s a novel idea, try driving on bitumen for at least 10kms. You’re partner will start talking to you again (it might take awhile) and your car will love you for it!


No journey to the Northern Territory is complete without a visit to the Top End. Darwin, Kakadu, Litchfield, Katherine Gorge, it’s all there waiting for you with dazzling, glossy-brochure promise and adventure.

With what can only be described as ‘immaculate’ timing we managed to reach the Top End just in time for the tail end of the wet season. Somewhere between Alice and Darwin, you cross an invisible line that delineates hot-and-dry from hot-and-wet, and when you step over that line you instantly feel the change.

For those of you that have never experienced a true wet season, imagine yourself sitting in a sauna with 3 thousand mosquitoes and no way out. Then imagine someone throwing a swimming pool of water on you. Then imagine climbing back into the sauna to do it all again.

Those are the images that come to mind when I think back to those first few days in the Top End. But what stands out for me are the ever present CROCS…

Everywhere you turn, warning signs indicate your imminent death-by-croc should you get within breathing distance of a drop of water. It’s safe to say that after my 45th warning sign I was so paranoid I was half expecting to find crocs perched at 50m intervals along the side of the road waiting to pounce on unsuspecting tourists. (Thankfully there were no roadside croc ambushes for us.)

We did, however, manage to get up close and personal with a few wild crocs on a boat cruise and trust me when I say that these things are prehistoric killing machines! Lying there in the dark waters of a billabong they look like hard, cold statues but their steely eyes betray a hint of the terror that can be unleashed with the flick of a tail and a chomp of their mighty jaws.

As we cruised the beautiful waters of Kakadu, we came across a fisherman in a tiny aluminium boat. A number of times we watched this man reach elbow-deep into the croc-infested waters to collect his fish. Maybe it was the tour operator mumbling, “You’d never see me doing that here”, or maybe it was the huge croc lying patiently in wait 40m away, but I couldn’t help wonder how long it would be until the fisherman, himself, ended up as catch of the day on the specials board at the local croc bistro.

Unfortunately for us our time in the Top End was marred by wet season road closures, feral animal culls and the presence of rogue saltwater crocs in most of the main tourist hotspots, effectively shutting down most of the national parks and preventing us from appreciating fully what this marvellous place has to offer.

On the upside, we did manage a few refreshing dips in some beautiful croc-free waterfalls, saw some incredibly ancient Aboriginal rock art, and watched a spectacular sunset from atop a rock ledge in Kakadu.

As we continue ever onwards with our journey, the diversity and enormity of this country continues to amaze and overwhelm us every day. To be here and to see these iconic Australian places firsthand is truly a privilege and a blessing.


In the next edition of Where’s the Big Red Truck: the Lajamanu Teenage Band