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DUSTY DETOURS TO DARWIN

By taking a major detour, we were able to visit some of the more out-of-the-way places

WORDS BY LORRAINE HOLLOWAY, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN AND LORRAINE HOLLOWAY

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After spending almost two weeks on the dirt and dust of the Gibb, we arrived at Kununurra, where it took us almost a week to clean up. We cleaned the 4WD and both inside and outside the van, caught up on washing, and then started looking for our next dirt track adventure.

While we were at Kununurra, we visited all the usual tourist spots – including a hike in nearby Mirima National Park, to see the “mini” Bungle Bungles and Kelly’s Knob Lookout, where we had panoramic views over the town, the Ord Valley and Lake Kununurra. Saturday markets kept us busy, as did visits to the Sandalwood factory and the Hoochery, a local distillery, where we tasted their spirits and ate barra and salad for lunch. We enjoyed it all… but by now, we were champing at the bit to get back on the dirt roads and travel further afield!

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We drove about 10km west out of Kununurra on the Victoria Highway to find the Parry Creek Road. This is a 4WD track that winds across the grazing country of the Ord River flats, past Black Rock Ralls, Middle and Valentine Springs, and the popular camping spot at Mambi Island. The stony rutted track eventually takes you up to the old telegraph station on Telegraph Hill, where in 1914, the Wyndham Wireless Station was built. Once an important link in communications between Perth and the rest of the world, it is now only ruins, an 800 metre walk meandering through the foundations of buildings that originally housed the workers who operated the station. From Telegraph Hill, views over Marglu Billabong tempt you to visit the wetlands below.

At the billabong, part of the Parry’s Lagoon Nature Reserve, there is a boardwalk across the wetlands and a bird hide, from which you can enjoy some amazing birdlife – jabirus, jacanas walking on the lily pads, pelicans cruising into the water like jumbo jets or ibis and herons stalking fish in the shallows.

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From Kununurra, we had a choice to make. Should we travel about 40km east via the Victoria Highway, and arrive in Northern Territory and on to Darwin, or travel about 250km south and visit Purnululu National Park and the Bungle Bungles – tackling the Tanami as far as Wolfe Creek Crater? We had no deadlines to keep, so the southern trip won the toss of the coin.

The Great Northern Highway is good quality bitumen, with some great spots for overnight stopovers, however it did not take us long to arrive at the Bungle Bungle Caravan Park at the entrance to the Purnululu National Park. After setting up our van in the bush camp area of the park, we set out on the 80kms into the national park to Piccaninny Creek and Cathedral Gorge. There is camping available in the park, however, caravans are not allowed; the dirt road in is corrugated, narrow and undulating with many twists and turns.

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Renowned for the colourful banded domes, this is the world’s most exceptional example of cone karst formations. Sandstone, eroded by creeks and rivers and weathering over the past 20 million years, has been carved into domes, and spectacular chasms and gorges rise up from the creek beds below.

We hiked the 1 km into Cathedral Gorge, where we caught up to a tour group on our way in. Another joined us while we were there, but despite the crowd the gorge was beautiful; the pool in the middle reflecting the colours of the cliffs above. This gorge is actually a huge natural amphitheatre. Apparently, the acoustics are fascinating (if there are not too many people around), with sounds carried around the walls – if you turn your head in the right direction, people on the opposite side can hear you speak. We spoke with one traveller who had been there during an event when an opera singer sang.

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Not far from this gorge is Piccaninny Creek Lookout, providing views across Piccaninny Creek, winding south through spinifex hummocks towards the Ord River. The Domes walk, an easy 700 metre loop, gets you up close and personal to some of these beautiful banded domes, towering majestically around you. Once inside the gorges, you are too close to really appreciate their beauty. If you can afford it (we could not warrant it at this stage) a flight over the area will give you that perspective.

16km south of Halls Creek you will find the turn off to Wolfe Creek Crater, on the Tanami Road – more dirt and corrugations! After we reduced the air pressure to about 30psi, the corrugations were more bearable and there was a reduced chance of a puncture. Even the local constabulary are not immune to the torture of the road – we passed a police vehicle with the junior constable given the job of changing the tyre!

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The crater is believed to have been formed around 300,000 years ago by a meteorite that crashed to earth. Given the fact that the crater is approximately 875 metres in diameter and 60 metres from rim to the present crater floor, estimates put the meteorite at around 50,000 tonnes. We hiked the steep 400 metres to the lookout and John continued down into the crater for a further look around. For me, the unformed track was way too steep, so I stayed at the lookout for a while before heading back to the van.

We stayed at Wolfe Creek for three nights, before heading back along the Tanami towards Halls Creek, where, if you needed to top up, you had to pay 20c per litre for water from the information centre. We decided instead to stay at the caravan park for $36.00 per night (which equates to 180 litres) where we could top up, do some washing and recharge batteries!

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Six kilometres out of Halls Creek, the first attraction along the Duncan Road is China Wall, a natural vein of white quartz. Some ridges rise up to 6 metres above the surrounding country. The formations appear and disappear over many kilometres in this area. It is important that visitors shut gates, as the access road is through a pastoral lease. The Duncan Road is a dirt road travelling from Halls Creek to the Victoria Highway, about 11 km east of the WA/NT border. The road was started in the 1950s & 1960s to help the developing beef industry in the Kimberley Region and was originally classed as a highway, but was decommissioned in in 1976 and reclassified as a local road.

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Halls Creek has not always been where it sits today. Originally about 15 km out of town along the Duncan Road, it was moved when the Great Northern Highway bypassed it back in the 1950s. Known today as “Old Halls Creek” the old township flourished after gold was found by Charlie Hall in 1885. More than 15,000 people flocked into the area, but the gold rush lasted only around 3 months. After that the town became a trading centre for cattle stations, aboriginal communities and miners who stayed in the area. Lack of water and inhabitants made it an easy decision to move the township to its current location, next to the newly formed highway, and in 1954 the old town was abandoned. A few ruins remain at the old site now, along with a bush camp called Old Halls Creek Lodge. The carefully preserved remains of the post office, built out of a mixture of termite mud and spinifex, still stand today, protected from the elements by a recently built awning ad!

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We travelled further along the Duncan Road meeting the Buntine Highway at Nicholson, enduring more corrugations and bull dust. Our crossing into the Northern Territory was marked with no fanfare other than the rattle of the cattle grid and a lonely bottle of honey on the NT side – you are not allowed to take honey into Western Australia.

The first fuel available after Halls Creek was at Kalkarindji Roadhouse, an indigenous community about 230km from Nicolson, where we paid $2.43 per litre for diesel. At Kalkarindji, the dirt track becomes a narrow bitumen road. The highway continues generally trending north, crossing attractive waterholes and providing opportunities of spotting wild flowers, birds and wildlife, before hitting the next crossroad.

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Top Springs, at the intersection of the Buntine and Buchannan Highways, doesn’t offer much more than a pub, roadhouse and camping area – all at the same address. We found it a pleasure to be off the dirt and camping on grass – we had almost forgotten what it felt like to have grass beneath our feet! We utilised the free washing machine in the laundry, and chatted with other intrepid travellers who were about to tackle the outback tracks.

Finally on the Victoria Highway, about 400 km from Kununurra (yes we definitely took the long way round), we camped at the Mathison Rest Area. This was our first highway rest area in Northern Territory and we were impressed with the condition of the covered picnic areas, toilets and amount of skips. We were to find, the following morning, how useful these skips might be. The site filled quickly with caravans and motorhomes, camper trailers and camper vans. Even into the night, latecomers arrived. The following morning, one of the motorhomes had issues with its wind-damaged awning – the skips came in handy as friendly grey nomads banded together to help the couple out.

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We passed through Katherine, just in time for the Saturday Markets, then on to Pine Creek, where we stayed our last night before heading into Darwin. Another gold rush town, Pine Creek offers a trove of heritage buildings and mining sites. A small museum and preserved railway station give more information about this historic village.

As I write, we are camped at Humpty Doo, a rural village about 50 minutes out of Darwin, where we are fortunate enough to have family on an acreage. We are set up amongst the rainforest trees, enjoying their hospitality, and (like Kununurra) cleaning up after the bulldust driving. We arrived in time for school holidays and cracker night, and enjoyed the winter in Darwin.

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