Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Kennedy Range

Half way between Mt Augustus and the coast, the Kennedy Range rises abruptly out of the flat plains. About 60km north of Gascoyne Junction, itself the tiniest of blips on the map, the ancient rocks that make up the small gorge system were once part of the ocean floor. You can still find fossils embedded in the rock, each layer like a window into another age. The gorge walks are all fairly short, but it can get hot inside the walls of rock in the midday sun. We stuck to early morning and afternoon for our forays into the canyons.

We found ourselves camped next to friends of friends from the southern forests, and the boys all remember the range as their favourite stop because of the fun they had playing with their three-year-old daughter. Spears were made, with rocks lashed to their tips. Many rocks were thrown into the pockmarked walls of Honeycomb Gorge. And baby - Thea's doll scavenged from the op-shop before we left home, who became the family mascot for the trip - was hurled around the campsite in a weird hybrid of football and happy families. She finished the trip stained a deep ochre, and was thrown into the washing machine with one of the dozen or so loads waiting to be shuffled through the laundry when we reached home.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

the outback coast

Our last stop, after a week touring the outback, was three nights camped on the beach at Shark Bay - where the red dunes of the desert meet the white sands and sparkling blue waters of the Indian Ocean. We pitched our tent on the edge of the dunes in Denham and headed out along the Peron Peninsula, on day trips to the beaches near the tip of the cape, and Monkey Mia on the gulf.

We saw an echidna scuttling across the road, sea turtles and dolphins cruising past the beach. I pulled on my wetsuit to snorkel over an onshore reef, drifting over coral and angelfish with always an eye on the shore and an ear on the squeals of my children playing on the beach. I was quite glad to be out of the water when a passing spear fisherman leapt out of the shallows in front of us. "The kids won't be going snorkeling in there - a three metre fucking shark just swam right in front of me," he barked. I had not even seen a shadow, and doubt very much it was as big as he claimed. The sensible part of my brain knows that the reef sharks are not interested in a human meal, but the primal part has no desire to be in the water with one.

We joined the hordes on the beach at Monkey Mia for the early morning dolphin feeding. It was not so terribly crowded - perhaps 80 people lined up along the shore - but out own stomachs were growling for breakfast so we headed back to a picnic table and ate paw paw, bananas and grapefruit we had bought from the plantations in Carnarvon, leaving the dolphins to their fish ration for the day. I wandered back down the beach once the feeding session was over and settled down to breastfeed Thea by the waters' edge, whereupon the dolphins magically reappeared and we had them to ourselves for a moment or two before the rangers and tourists descended once again. Grant got to hand-feed a dolphin but none of us noticed - the boys were looking the other way and I think I was busy photographing the pelican waiting for its fish next to me.

No holiday is complete for me until I have dipped my toes in the sea and dived back under the waves. But we have been a little bit spoiled since getting home. The sun has shone and we have been picnicking at the beach. I am quite certain that the water on the south coast is no colder than the subtropics - both require a wetsuit at this time of year. And the very act of stepping barefoot back onto the sand makes me feel I am still on holidays. I just need to dust off my surfboard and get back out there.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Ghost town

I was five years old when I first visited the Murchison goldfields. My aunt and uncle were teaching at the school in Cue and I spent a week during my first year of schooling in a class there with my cousin. There were two other white children, but the rest of the school's two classes were made up of kids from the Aboriginal community surrounding the town.

I was a very shy little girl and I remember feeling rather overwhelmed at being the outsider, and crying a lot. I cried because I had not brought any coloured pencils with me. I cried when a black girl with skinny legs and no shoes opened the door to my toilet and stared silently at me, pants dangling around my ankles, children skipping by in the playground behind her. I cried after falling face first into a mudhole while running away from an unseen pursuer during a game of hide and seek in the mallee scrub.

I remember running wild and free with my brother and two cousins over the red dome of Walga Rock, ancient rock art seared into an overhang beneath us. One night there was a feast, with snake and emu and kangaroo cooked over an open fire. They are among the most vivid memories from my early childhood; being yanked from white suburbia into the red earth and blue skies at the edge of the desert.

After decades of holidays spent clinging to the coast, following the beaches and coves of the Southern and Indian Oceans, I found myself drawn inland again. We travelled slowly; at a pace suited to our one year old. After a night at the farm and another in a roadside donga we reached Cue. As a girl I had called it a ghost town, but looking more closely at the map I realised the ghost towns were actually dotted around the surrounding plains.

We drove out to Big Bell, once a bustling town servicing the goldmine of the same name. A crumbling art deco hotel and the old chapel are the only buildings still standing. The rest were picked up and moved elsewhere when the mine closed down in the 1950s. We wandered the old streets and imagined the buildings back into being; the children clustered around the old concrete drinking fountain at the school; the picture theatre; and the green lawns which were said to front every home.

Despite the empty shopfronts and footpaths you could safely drive a car down, Cue seemed busier than it did 30 years ago. The caravan park was full of grey nomads keen to try their hand at prospecting, and there was a business or two having a go of it. It is a beautiful town, built on the back of the goldrush in the days before fly-in fly-out workers were even dreamed of.

The shire run caravan park had just opened a swish new ablution block, and taken the showers out of the cells in the old gaol, which had doubled as a shower and toilet block until very recently.  Graffiti in the shower stalls marks where uncles and elders were chained. I was glad I did not have to wander across there with my boys for a midnight dash to the toilet.

The old Freemasons' Lodge, currently undergoing renovation, is said to be the biggest corrugated iron building in the southern hemisphere. I am sure there is a reason it never caught on as a building material for homes in the desert. Imagine those freemasons in their shirts, ties and jackets, sweat running down their collars and dampening their palms as they made their secret handshakes behind those searingly hot iron walls.

We could no longer run wild over Walga Rock - but there was fenced access to the rocky overhang where the rock art gallery is still remarkably well preserved. No one is sure how a painting of a tall ship, with lines of Arabic script beneath it, came to be there some 350km from the coast. So many stories still echoing along the songlines. The desert is positively thrumming with them. We can't wait to go back.

Friday, 25 July 2014


If someone asked you where the biggest rock in Australia was what would your answer be? Uluru? What about Burringurrah? You have probably never heard of it because this mountain in the Western Australian outback is still generally known by the name given to it by a white explorer, who named it after his brother, Augustus. 

Mt Augustus, known as Burringurrah to the Wadjeri people, is twice the size of Uluru. A big sign near its base proudly proclaims it to be the "Biggest rock in the world." But it gets a bit more technical than that, because Uluru is actually the biggest monolith, or single lump of rock. Burringurrah is a monocline, attached to a bigger body of rock beneath the ground. Biggest monocline in the world just doesn't have the same ring to it though. 

The rock rises 715m from the surrounding plain and is covered in soft green vegetation, with groves of white river gums lining the gullies around its base. When the first rays of daylight hit its slopes it glows molten red.

We drove four days to reach this remote desert outpost; watching the landscape change from farming to station country, goldmines and ghost towns. The dirt road which heads north from Meekatharra has a station or two dotted along its rocky length; an abandoned police station and lock-up and a remote Aboriginal community. And then, suddenly, from out of the endless plains there rises a mountain of rock. 

We set up camp not far from its base and spent a day exploring the rock art dotted around the mountain's base; hiking up gullies and gorges and watching flocks of budgerigars flit around a permanent waterhole. We lit a campfire and cooked damper on the coals, listening to the drone of the didgeridoo vibrating through the still night air from a neighbouring campsite.

But the moments which took my breath away were sunrise each morning, when I would push open the flap of our tent and step out into the pre-dawn light before anyone else had crawled out from their sleeping bags. Putting the kettle on to boil I would watch the sky lighten from purple to pink, the rock still cloaked in shades of green. When the sun crept over the horizon the rock suddenly took over the show - red, orange and ochre dominating the landscape for a few brief minutes, before the greens and blues crept back into the mountain's palette.

Unlike Uluru, the traditional custodians of Burringurrah do not mind people climbing the mountain. The Wadjeri people believe the rock was formed when a boy who ran away from his initiation into manhood was speared and died. They do not go onto the mountain at night, when they believe his spirit still roams the slopes. Our boys were keen as could be to climb to the mountain's peak but it takes a good six to eight hours - likely longer with children - and we really didn't think they would make it all the way up and back again without a lot of help. I was quite happy to stay at ground level, drinking my morning cup of tea and looking at this from the comfort of my folding chair, while they played in the dirt of a dry creek bed nearby.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

two little pixies

I finished knitting my second attempt at a pixie hat for Thea not long before we left for the big skies and red dirt of the Gascoyne. Tying the bonnet around my baby's sweet little face,  I was happy to find I had at last made a hat she could not (immediately) rip off her head. I tucked the beautiful teal bonnet I had knitted her away in the cupboard, after trying to unsuccessfully wrestle it onto Quinn's head on more than one occasion. He was not happy to oblige. So I was quite delighted when Darcy, the most elfin of my children, asked where it was and then took to wearing it everywhere.

I let Darcy take charge of packing his case for our road trip and was dismayed to find on our first morning that he had neglected to include a single jumper. He did, however, pack three different hand knitted beanies, and took to wearing them, one on top of the other, to ward off the early morning desert chill. It was only once I was casting off the stitches for my second little pixie hat that I realised I had made the pixie point on the first one twice as long as it was supposed to be. His pom-pom fitted inside the pixie point quite nicely.

Both little pixies ravelled here.