Our off road adventure now took us to the far north of The Kimberley region of Western Australia. This is a beautiful and rugged part of the country, where access is difficult but the rewards are worth the effort. The region is dissected by The Gibb River Road, which we had chosen not to take due to the National Parks along the road still being closed after the bad wet season the region had encountered. The main highway had taken us around the edge of The Kimberley allowing is to visit The Bungle Bungle and had now brought us back to the top of “The Gibb” at a place called El Questro.
El Questro calls itself a Wilderness Park. It is essentially a one million acre cattle station that has recently diversified into tourism after realising the thousands of head of cattle were wandering around some spectacular scenery. There are three different sites within the station with various types of accommodation. The Homestead, offers luxury rooms and suites, Emma Gorge offers safari style cabins and then there is a campsite which offers sites with power and sites without power. You can guess where we ended up!
This was probably the last of the major walking areas we would encounter on this section of our trip so we set about making the most of it. Steve, as ever, had come up with a plan to make the most of our time here and so we set about doing the three main walks.
By the time we got to the last one, El Questro Gorge, we were both quite tired. Although it wasn’t a particularly long walk it just happened to be one of the most technically difficult we have done this year. The majority of the trail involved scrambling over large rocks and boulders which had fallen in landslides from the steep walls of the narrow gorge. There was no clear marked path, but that didn’t matter too much as the only way was up.
At one point we were once again swimming part of the way and luckily we were walking close to another group who helped us to get out of the water and negotiate a huge boulder at the other end. Steve also had to pull Sarah up a couple of the steeper sections and by the time we reached the rock pool and waterfall at the top it had taken well over two hours to cover about three kilometres.
After a refreshing dip in the pool and a well earned sandwich we headed back and by the time we eventually reached the van, we had been going for over five hours, taken a couple of tumbles each, Steve had snapped a strap on his shoe, and we were both feeling well and truly battered and bruised!
One of the best things about El Questro was driving the trails between the camping and the walking areas. Our confidence in off road driving had been growing all the time as we had driven through more and more testing conditions.
On one day, heading towards a walk, we came to a river crossing. “We must have come the wrong way”, said Steve. “We can’t be expected to drive across there, it’s at least 200 metres across and looks pretty deep to me”. We were parking up when a group of Spanish tourists turned up and said they were going to leave their vehicle and walk across, hoping to hitch a lift to the start of the walk on the other side. We hung around for a little longer and an Australian guy pulled up in a similar vehicle to ours. He looked at the crossing, scratched his head and then said he would have a go at crossing and would wave us over from the other side if it was alright. Off he went, slow but sure through the water, rocking from side to side on the loose bed rocks. He got to the other bank and beckoned us across. Off we went, and within just a few metres the water was coming over the bonnet. “Whatever you do, don’t stop”, said Sarah. The campervan rocked and rolled and slipped around as we kept a steady pace. Eventually the bonnet started to rise up, Steve increased the revs and we bumped out onto dry land!!
We kept on going through the dirt and sand relieved at getting across and soon caught up with the Aussie who had gone across before us, only to find him with four Spaniards hanging off his truck.
After the walk we had the reverse crossing to do but having done it once we were pretty confident of making our return journey. Everything went OK except this time we lost a rear mud flap and our front number plate. “I wonder if we are insured for this sort of crossing”, said Sarah. “Umm, maybe we have pushed the limits on that one”, replied Steve.
After our bruising walk and river driving, we sat in the campervan and agreed it was time to find a campsite with some showers, toilets and maybe even a pool where we could do some serious relaxing. “I know just the place”, said Steve “and it’s only a couple of hundred kilometres down the road”. “Oh no, what has he got in store now?”, thought Sarah!
Lake Argyle is the largest man made freshwater lake in Australia. Basically 50 years ago, they built a dam wall between two banks of the river Ord, then they let it rain for a couple of years, and then they had this enormous lake (it rains a lot here in the wet season!). The water usage in the area is far below what the lake supplies, so a huge percentage is left to run off into the river. This does seem crazy when parts of the country are in severe drought, but apparently the cost of transporting the water is far too expensive.
We were quoted all sorts of facts and figures about the lake while we were there, but probably the one that was most impactive to us was its surface area. When full it is 1000 square km, compared to lake Windermere in The Lake District which is 15 square km. The other interesting fact is that it is home to approximately 25,000 freshwater crocodiles. Luckily they are the friendly ones!
There is only one campsite at Lake Argyle, so our choice was limited. Luckily, true to Steve’s word, it had toilets, showers and a pool. Not just any pool, but an infinity pool with views of the lake. On top of that, it had yoga classes every morning for Sarah. It was the best campsite we had been on for absolutely ages, if not the best since we have been in Australia.
We also went out on the lake on a boat tour. It was more enjoyable than expected and we saw rock wallabies which dance across the steep slopes of the lake as agile as mountain goats. We saw Archer fish in action too. They are the ones that spit water at insects in the low lying branches, knocking them off and having them for supper. We were also taken to a corner of the lake that is inhabited by hundreds of golden orb spiders. These are pretty big arachnids that weave intricate webs on the dead trees and the whole are looked like it had been seriously decked out for halloween, and with the occasional freshwater croc drifting by it made for a very eerie scene.
On the way back, the driver stopped the boat and said we were all invited to go in for a swim. Steve was straight up and first into the lovely warm water. As he was not immediately eaten by crocodiles most of the other passengers jumped in too.
The driver opened some beers and bubbly, and placed some floats in the water with nibbles and dips on them. We were all soon bobbing about in the water in an unbelievable setting, watching the sun go down, eating and drinking! We really have some fabulous memories and constantly remind ourselves how lucky we are.
Our planned two days at Lake Argyle had very quickly become four, but when we looked at the map we realised we had a seriously long way to get back to Cairns. We were still in Western Australia and we had to drive across The Northern Territory and all of Queensland. There were also a couple more places we wanted to visit on the way, so we packed up, buckled up, refuelled the van, and set off on another of those multi day drives that we are starting to get used to.
The first day took us back into the Northern Territory. This is a sparsely populated area in a sparsely populated country. We drove for most of the day with very little signs of life and eventually arrived in the town of Katherine. With a population of around 6,000 people it ranks at number three in the busiest places in the State, so we made the most of civilisation and did a good restock of food, water, and fuel. Katherine also marked a significant point in our trip. Although, by now, we were approaching 50,000 kilometres of campervaning around Australia, our route had left a section of the country we had not covered. When we drove into Katherine the last section was now done, so we had joined up the dots, and completed a full circumnavigation of Australia. We had done what they call here, ‘The Lap’.
We made our way back South through the Northern Territory, stopping at a couple of places we had enjoyed when we were here last year. This included a dip in the hot springs at Mataranka and an overnighter with a beer at the historic Daly Waters pub. We also found a couple of new places to stay, the pick of which was camping at the disused Uranium Mine at Mary Kathleen.
This was a strange place where the entire village has been demolished leaving only the foundations behind, which are now used as lovely flat camping pitches. We also drove up to the mine along yet another road, that became a rough track, that became a rocky trail, that became a cliff edge!
Our next and final significant stop on this section of our trip was at a place called Cobbold Gorge. This was somewhere we had wanted to visit previously, but the 90 kilometre drive from the highway along the unsealed road is pretty unsuitable for two wheel drive vehicles. But now we were armed with our 4WD campervan (minus mudflap and number plate), off we went.
Cobbold Gorge was almost a cross between El Questro and Lake Argyle but on a much smaller scale. It is a working cattle station, diversifying into tourism, with a very smart campsite with yet another infinity pool. “These infinity pools are like buses”, said Steve. “You don’t see one for 18 months and then two come along at once”.
It was Sarah’s birthday while we were there. It is pretty difficult in remote places to plan anything special and surprising but we did do some Stand Up Paddleboarding plus a walking and boat tour as a treat. It was pretty low key, and a lot more relaxing than it sounds, but with a couple of hours sitting in the sun by the pool thrown in, she had a pretty good day.
One thing we have noticed about the tours we have done is that they vary considerably in quality and professionalism, including the guides. Some are excellent and full of knowledge, while others are, shall we say, not as excellent and try their best. Part of the problem has been the pandemic. Due to the International borders here having been shut for well over a year there is a severe lack of immigrant workers which Australia relies on. This includes competent guides or people capable of becoming competent guides so this has resulted in anybody passing through being able to get a job doing pretty much anything. It would have not been much of a problem, if our visas allowed and we were that way inclined, for Steve to be a paddleboard guide and Sarah to give tours explaining the various uses of native plants and berries!
So we drove the 90 kilometres back to the highway enjoying the last of our four wheel driving in Australia and continued our journey across Queensland. Six hours later, we had crossed the Atherton Tablelands, where they grow almost every tropical fruit you can think of and some you have probably never heard of, and we were descending through the rainforest back down to the East coast.
Seven months after we left Clifton Beach and said our goodbyes to our landlord John, his wife Sheree, and their dog Rosie, we were back knocking on their door again. “I don’t suppose our old apartment is available for three weeks?” was our question. “It sure is”, was the reply. So we unpacked and settled into our apartment, surrounded by a plethora of life’s luxuries including, a washing machine, oven, electricity, running water (hot), TV and a real bed with a mattress. Oh, and so much space. It was going to be a good few weeks!