Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017

© Tourism Australia

The landscape surrounding Kununurra stays lush thanks to numerous springs and waterfalls.

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Hit the road

An epic journey through Western Australia serves up Outback landscapes, aboriginal art and amazing creatures

It was a witheringly hot day on the northwestern shoulder of Australia and there was no resisting the lure of the dusty, corrugated-iron-clad pub after 100 kilometres of scrub. My travelling buddy, Jim, marched straight through the swinging doors for the frosty Redback Lager that lay beyond, while I hurried to the outhouse. Opening the door, I found the cubicle already occupied: a creature resembling an extremely large rat was splayed across the floor around the toilet.

When my heart restarted, I realized it was a baby kangaroo. “There’s a ’roo in the loo!” I exclaimed to the barmaid at the Whim Creek Pub (North West Coastal Highway, Whim Creek; tel: 011-61-8-9176-4914), oblivious to the poetry in my outburst. Her face lit up. “Oh, that must be Rudy,” she cooed. “He likes the cool tiles when it’s hot out.”

Jim and I did our first road trip together around the eastern half of Australia in 1979 when we carried extra fuel cans and spare tires stacked on the roof of our beat-up ’63 station wagon for the hundreds of unpaved kilometres and dust-filled potholes ahead. Finally, years later, we were tackling the next stretch, from Perth in Western Australia to Darwin at the top end of the Northern Territory. We picked up a converted 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser at Britz rentals (britz.com), one with air conditioning, fridge, sink, camp stove and slide-down bunks that would be our mobile home on the range for the next 18 days, and headed out.

Highway One encircles Australia, roughly following the coastline. Our route would take us north along the edge of the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia (westernaustralia.com) through the iron-ore-rich Pilbara region into the wild red mountains and gorges of the remote Kimberley Ranges and, finally, into the Northern Territory to Darwin.

Through vineyards still lush with autumn grapes and groves of eucalypts exploding with red, yellow and white blooms, we left Perth. Recent rains had sent red Sturt’s Desert peas creeping along the ground beneath bushes of orange protea.

After 690 kilometres, it was time for dinner on picnic tables alongside the petrol pumps at the Overlander Roadhouse (North West Coastal Highway, Sandy Bay; tel: 011-61-8-9942-5916). It was also an occasion to become re-acquainted with Australian coffee shop lingo. “Will that be a flat white, short black or long black, luv?” the waitress asked about our coffee preferences. I opted for a classic Aussie burger with “the lot” — lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, fried egg, pineapple slice and beet.

Wonders of the deep

The Overlander Roadhouse marks the turnoff west to Shark Bay Marine Park (Denham; tel: 011-61- 61-8-9948-1208; sharkbay.org) and the famously tame troupe of dolphins at Monkey Mia who arrive each morning and afternoon for handouts. A mob of over 200 people gathered for the feeding, standing in the shallows as nine “regulars” nibbled snappers from their fingers. Among them was frisky young Piccolo, the fourth generation of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose to take up panhandling since local resident Alice Watts noticed a dolphin she named “Charlie” shadowing her along the beach every morning in the 1960s.

The marine park is also home to dugong (relatives of manatees) and a repertoire of shark species. There is also a rare stand of stromatolites, black mushroom-shaped forms covered in cyanobacteria that are, at 3.5 billion years, the oldest form of life on earth. Nearby is the blindingly white crescent of Shell Beach where the cockles have piled up five metres thick and become cemented over time into “rock” so hard it is quarried in blocks and used to build houses and garden walls!

We dined that evening in the dry river bed of the Minilya River. Above us, the canopy of old gum trees was adorned with so many corellas in the branches that the white parrots resembled candles. They screeched and flitted as the sun set and the cool dew-damp crept in, while I fried up fresh whiting we had bought at the dock in Denham, one hand cradling a cold West Australian white wine.

North of Carnarvon we detoured west once again onto North West Cape, a finger of land jutting into the Indian Ocean 1300 kilometres north of Perth. Not only are the waters protected as Ningaloo Reef National Park — the world’s largest reef so close to a land mass — but the peninsula itself is within Cape Range National Park (Exmouth; exmouthwa.com.au), a rugged place where the red sands of the Outback meet the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Jim and I donned flippers and leapt on command off the back of a boat into the plankton-rich seas.

Suddenly, looming out of the blue so big it made me bite hard onto my snorkel, a nine-metre-long whale shark with a smattering of white speckles across his broad head casually drifted like a submarine just below us. Not a whale, but the biggest shark in the world, it is a gentle, plankton-feeding giant that can reach lengths of 14 metres or more. Nowhere else do they appear so predictably or are seen so close to shore as at Ningaloo Reef.

The iron road

Back on Highway One, signs of human civilization quickly vanished, replaced by colonies of towering red anthills. Heat and humidity soared as we drove north into the tail of the wet season. Rounding the corner of northwestern Australia we turned east through the Pilbara, a vast inland region of iron-ore mines, remote aboriginal settlements and national parks located hundreds of kilometres down washboard desert tracks.

Port Hedland is a no-frills, red-dust-stained town and Australia’s biggest port where the Pilbara’s iron ore heads offshore. I’d read a mention of a small Courthouse Art Gallery (16 Edgar Street, Port Hedland; tel: 011-61-8-9173-1064; courthousegallery.com.au) in town and was intrigued. Curator Kathy Donnelly took us on a tour and explained that the venue was jointly owned and run by the town and the local aboriginal community. “They insisted on a traditional smoke cleansing ceremony to clear the courthouse and adjoining jail of bad energy before it was converted into a gallery,” she said. “Many people had less than pleasant memories of this place.”

The gallery also organizes music nights, the most memorable, Kathy recalled, being a jam session between aboriginals, local jazz musicians and a group of Iraqi refugees who had recently arrived from Indonesia with a few traditional instruments. “People were crowded on the former judge’s podium, in the witness box, kids sleeping on the floor,” she remembered. “And the room was filled with haunting, spontaneous music from around the planet.”

We took time off from behind the wheel to lounge on long empty beaches, poke through small-town museums and indulge in Devonshire teas beneath sprawling fig trees. Driving days were long, but inevitably punctuated with moments of Outback weirdness. We stopped once to allow a yard-long goanna to sashay across the highway and again for a hefty python. We found far-flung cattle stations that had created roadside art out of their mailboxes: one was a wildly painted refrigerator, another a 44-gallon drum done up like a bull complete with horns.

There were crazy events like the Black Rock Stakes in which men, women and children joined in a race, each pushing 15 kilograms of coal in a wheelbarrow for 130 kilometres from Whim Creek to Port Hedland. And then there were the locust plagues: a broken staccato of bugs pelting the windscreen. Every few kilometres we took turns scraping the windshield and the air was filled with a high-pitched whine and the smell of baking bugs.

Self sufficient, we camped alone on dirt tracks, at well-organized highway pull-offs, on deserted beaches and at the occasional “caravan park” where we indulged in hot showers and laundry facilities. The halfway point of our trip we spent alongside the great, empty expanse of 80 Mile beach after having driven 1750 miles.

Pearls and meteors

After 10 days, we pulled into the sleepy tropical outpost of Broome, a former pearling mecca with an Asian flair imparted by the Japanese and Chinese who'd come to Australia in the last century to gather the world’s biggest pearls. I was keen to go scuba diving, but nervous about sharing the waters with saltwater crocodiles. As the tides were at their lowest that time of year, I walked out onto the mud flats to see the partially submerged wrecks of some of the 15 flying boats shot down in 1942 by Japanese Zeros. We indulged for a couple of nights in the much-needed luxury of the Asian-themed Bali Hai Resort (Cable Beach, Broome; balihairesort.com; doubles from $124 with kitchen), where we washed not only our clothes, but also our locust-encrusted Landcruiser.

We hiked the Kimberley ridge’s red-walled Geike Gorge and lunched near the homestead of Fossil Downs, one of the small country-sized cattle stations in the area. At Wolfe Creek Crater, the second biggest meteor crater on earth, the bulging trunks of boab trees looked pregnant alongside svelte white gums. We watched the sun set as we barbecued kangaroo kebabs.

The 650-kilometre run between Fitzroy Crossing and the town of Kununurra is one of the most remote in Australia. At each small community along the way, I prowled the local offerings of aboriginal art, finding the best at Yarliyil Arts Centre (tel: 011-8-9168-6007) in Halls Creek. The Western desert people were the original creators of the well-known aboriginal pointillism style and artists come from far-flung settlements to sell their paintings here. In front of the building, a barefoot Tiny McCabe sat on the lawn telling her tales in dots. The diminutive grandmother’s work has appeared in posh Sydney and Melbourne galleries.

As usual before heading out of a community, we checked road conditions ahead. “Telegraph Creek had people stuck for two days recently,” we were told. We stocked up on food and pressed on. We splashed easily through shallow waters at Cockatoo Crossing, Emu Creek and Dingo Springs, but were indeed stopped dead by the brown torrent of Telegraph Creek. We set up a picnic and waited. When the rains stopped we waited two hours more until the creek dropped then headed on towards Kununurra where we arrived well after dark, tuned in to a radio station from Indonesia.

A brutal 55 kilometres of dirt track led to a strange eroded formation called the Bungle Bungles, “discovered” when the highway was paved. The best way to see them, though, is from the air — a good thing since the track into Purnululu National Park was flooded. The small sight-seeing plane bumped along the Kununurra airstrip before soaring above a bizarre cluster of domes, giant sandstone beehives striped orange and black.

After nearly 4000 kilometres on Western Australian roads, we crossed the state line into the Northern Territory. In Gregory National Park, we hiked amid Livistonia palms up to the face of an escarpment at Joe’s Creek, ducking behind waterfalls that had attracted flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos. It was a magical afternoon following cliff walls covered in aboriginal paintings of emus, turtles, frogs and snakes.

In Katherine, we met up with the transcontinental north-south road linking Adelaide with Darwin. We turned left to Darwin and made one more stop, in Litchfield National Park, for a day of waterhole hopping. Then suddenly, the suburbs of Darwin were around us. After 9000 Outback kilometres, we weren’t quite ready for the cultural shock of a restaurant, so we set up one last barbecue on Mindil Beach to the mournful sounds of a sarong-swaddled local puffing on a didgeridoo.

Unpacking that evening in an air-conditioned hotel room, I unzipped my duffel bag. A small lizard leapt out and bolted across the carpet. In this part of the world, it seemed, there was just no getting away from the Outback.

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