North Kimberley Part 2 – Mt Hart to Mt Elizabeth

Boab leaf
The Gibb River Road as it winds through the King Leopold Ranges
A small roadside creek still flowing was pretty.

From Mt Hart we wound our way back the 50 odd kms to the GRR & it’s corrugations, continuing eastward We had been told about a couple of pleasant free camp spots we were keen to check out. Dog Chain Creek & March Fly Glen. First up Dog Chain Creek. It was a tiny camp next to a creek which no doubt is pretty & a good swimming spot when it has sufficient water, but not unexpectedly it was not flowing & little more than a murky puddle. Probably not a bad spot for a late in the day overnight camp, but at 10am we were thinking it’s proximity to the road might mean getting covered in dust from any passing vehicle. As if to confirm our thinking a tour bus passed, sending its dust cloud directly toward us, & to turn injury into insult , it then pulled in & disgorged it cargo of passengers for their morning tea. We thought we would give March Fly Glen a look instead. Despite its name March Fly Glen was a pleasant location with several shady camp spots & other campers. It’s not far from Bell Gorge & is fairly heavily used, particularly as it is listed in WikiCamps & probably other free camping lists & databases. These useful tools have all but replaced what was once a face to face, word of mouth sharing between travellers resulting in more widespread knowledge of limited resources, and perhaps a lessened respect for them? I wonder if a personal recommendation makes a place ‘more special’ & therefore more likely to be looked after than a camp found via a piece of relatively anonymous info off the internet? Often rubbish, especially ‘dunny flags’ (used toilet paper blown around & fluttering in the bushes) reveals the lack of respect some have for these locations & for those who use them after they have moved on. March Fly Glen was to be honest not too badly abused, but we could tell it was a place where we would be sharing with a number of others & whilst happy enough to be sociable when in such situations, we do like to try to seek out spots where we can be alone. It helps us to feel closer to country around us if the birdsong is not interrupted by the noise & smell of a generator, or the sound of someone’s favourite music. Word of mouth had informed us of another site close to Bell Gorge & we decided to give it a look, returning to March Fly Glen as a ‘backstop’ possibility. We didn’t make it to the recommended spot.

At the top of a hill we were afforded a stunning panoramic view we remembered from 2010, mainly because we had stopped there to admire it & to take a photo of ourselves. We pulled over & re-created the photo. Little had changed but we have grown older!

Photo taken in 2009
And this 10 years later in 2019

Within a short distance luck shone upon us. We passed an unmarked narrow track made by vehicles through tall grass, decided it was worth a look, turned around & returned to then follow the track on foot to see where it led us & to ensure we would have room to turn our car & Tvan around. About a kilometre off the road the track ended at a large flat area alongside a shady & pandanus lined waterhole. Plenty of room to turn around & even a rudimentary fireplace fashioned from half a 44 gallon drum & a sheet of corrugated iron. Creek on one side & savannah grassland rising to hills opposite & well out of view from the road and …….. not listed on WikiCamps! Perfect. Having a few Red Necked Lorikeets passing as we set up camp was a bonus. A first sighting for us. Our afternoon & evening was divided between some chilled relaxing by the shady creek & well needed maintenance on kitchen & stove sliders suffering from a combination of gritty dust build up & a bit of corrosion. Months of no use whilst sitting in the very hot & humid environment back up on the Dampier Peninsula. Essentially this was only 5 days into using the gear after a 7 month hiatus.

‘Our’ hidden camp spot about 1km off the road on the Bell Creek
Had views across to the nearby hills
And plenty of shade alongside the creek.
Slightly ‘arty farty’ pic of the creek.

Although we had not intended to re-visit Bell Gorge our liking for this peaceful & private camp spot in close proximity to it changed our minds. Bell Gorge is a lovely & picturesque GRR feature & most folk stay at the Silent Grove National Park campground, driving from there to the Gorge. It’s an ‘ok ‘ campground , but often busy & dusty. Our camp spot was almost as convenient & far preferable from our perspective. And so we returned to Bell Gorge 10 years on, & back to our still private camp later that afternoon & we are so glad we did. Bell Gorge actually had a bit more water in it than on our last visit, was no less beautiful than we recalled. Stupidly we made the last couple of kilometres walk into the gorge itself without our swimwear. Still early in the season there were only a couple of dozen other people there, several having made the climb down to the main pool to swim. Some may recall that with the exception of Desert Queen Baths pool in Karlamilyi NP last year I am generally averse to getting into water which is not warm unless ambient temperatures are in the 40’s & there is no wind. I surprised both MrsTea & myself by skinny dipping in the icy Desert Queen Baths, & here at Bell Gorge did the same again, only this time modesty dictated I retained my undies. No tiptoeing in bit by bit (with the requisite ‘chicken attack’ just before the goolie line was reached) – this was an all or nothing plunge. 20 seconds after I thought my heart might stop beating I grinned to myself when I realised that not only was I enjoying myself, but was doing what I had regretted not doing on my previous visit! As it turns out it was just the beginning, with me later enjoying swimming in multiple locations across the Kimberley, both with & without coverings! MrsTea, usually the one in the water teasing me about my reluctance to join her & ‘counting me in’ often multiple times sat & watched understandably unwilling to skinny dip, but without the necessaries to swim nor to accept the offer of the use of the wet bathers another lady just out of the water & dripping nearby. I so enjoyed that swim!

The backdrop at the top end of Bell Gorge is a visual treat.
The falls themselves aren’t bad either. How good would it be to see them in full flow during the wet season?
Proof that not only did our creaky old knees manage the climb down to the pool below the falls, but that I am a brave & hardy soul who survived (& enjoyed) the (very) cooling dip!
The closest someone else got to the water. 🙂

After a second night back at ‘our’ camp ( which we later learned from a pair of young women employed at a high end GRR resort out & about on their day off, was one generally only known to locals – they sometimes used it themselves) we then moved on to the only place we have ever made a booking to camp at. Doing so is virtually the only way of accessing Mornington Wilderness Camp owned & operated by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, unless you get very lucky & find a vacancy ‘off the cuff’. They limit the number of camping visitors to just 25 (I think) vehicles at any one time.

En route we stopped at the tiny store at the tiny aboriginal community of Immintji. The store is operated by white managers & the community is away from the road & inquisitive prying tourist eyes. From the road it looks dilapidated & uncared for, but we know that such ‘book covers’ can hide unexpected stories. The tyre repair business which was next to the shop on our last visit was no longer there. In fact there was no evidence it had ever been there. We dropped off our rubbish at the Immintji waste facility, a cyclone wire enclosed yard with gates wide open, a cow foraging & mess everywhere made by the large number of crows which descended upon our small ‘offering’ even as we turned to return to our vehicle. Stock at the shop was very limited but we managed to buy some frozen bread & several bananas & topped up our fuel tank.

Mornington Wilderness Camp is about a 90km drive south off the GRR. The moment we turned off the GRR was like instant relief. I won’t pretend that it wasn’t dusty or billiard table smooth, but in comparison to the GRR it felt smooth as a baby’s bottom! A short distance from the turn off was a small corrugated iron shelter housing a radio microphone & instructions on the wall for its use. Every visitor is expected to announce their arrival prior to making the drive in, & anyone without a booking uses the radio to check whether it’s their lucky day. A loud & rather distorted response was, to me at least mostly unintelligible, but I believe I was being told to expect the 90km drive to take 2 to 3 hours & to ensure we left any gates as we found them. I expect there was other stuff to, probably welcoming us & offering further advice on the drive in but for me it was lost in the radio’s distortion.

It was a scenic & interesting drive in. The road mainly very good with just the occasional bull dust hole to keep me on my toes, & the occasional winding & tree lined dry creek bed to cross, we bemoaned the lack of water, commenting that not only would it ‘pretty up the view’ but would add to the ‘sense of adventure’ . Views were across wide open savannah & to seemingly never ending long mesa hills. Boab trees made an ever increasing appearance & provided a new interest for MrsTea who has really started to enjoy using her iPad as a camera. I ribbed her about her photographic obsession whilst feeling pleased she was enjoying what was on offer. She retorted by reminding me of a similar photographic obsession I had many years ago with sheep, not long after I bought my first ‘proper’ (& pre-digital) camera (An Olympus OM1). Good banter, & good road headed for somewhere we had high expectations of.

MrsTea’s favourite boab pic, mine too.
We were later told that this boab which was partially uprooted by floods a couple of years ago, so now ‘leans’ is over 1000 years old, possibly a lot older judging by it’s bulging girth.
Driving down to Mornington

We liked the place as soon as we arrived, it had a nice vibe & the campground was pleasantly situated alongside the Pandanus lined spring fed Annie Creek, with good basic facilities. Throughout our time there both in the campground & when out visiting gorges it never felt anything like crowded. Something about the whole setup encouraged respect for both country & others which felt special & valued. We set up camp whilst a number of Crimson Finches flitted from the ground around us to the nearby pandanus & back again. We had never seen them before. When booking in we were a little shocked by some of the prices in addition to the camping fees, but decided upon what for us was a ’splurge’. $60 each for a 2 hour early morning bird tour, $70 for canoe hire for the day in Dimond Gorge, (Usually it is possible to pay the same for a half day canoe hire in the Sir John Gorge, & this gets you exclusive ‘on the water’ use of the gorge – only the one canoe – but this was unavailable due to low water levels – a shame, but not something anyone can do anything about) & $60 each for a two course dinner – the latter to celebrate MrsTea’s 61st birthday due a few days after we left Mornington.We were booked in for 3 nights. All up our visit there cost us around $450 which by our standards is a lot ………. but we don’t regret it in the slightest.

On our first night we attended a nightly outdoor spoken & film presentation on the work & goals of AWC. The presenter, Donna, a young Phd ecologist was engaging & informative & helped to place our visit into context. We were to meet Donna & her similarly passionate & qualified partner Ash again later at Mornington & again un expectedly elsewhere. AWC is a not for profit organisation which operates solely on private philanthropic funds. They clearly have some enormously wealthy backers as Mornington, a huge property in it’s own right, is just one of many tracts of land they own or lease right around Australia. Their simple aim is conserving wildlife in a world where biodiversity is reducing at an ever increasing rate, at the hands of just one species, us humans. Of all the world extinctions over the past century 50% have been in Australia! AWC has, & continues to obtain land strategically to create what is essentially a naturally managed ’seed bank’ for wildlife, utilising applied scientific knowledge. The organisation came about as a result of the realisation of the amount of funds wasted (used without meaningful outcomes) by governments & government organisations. AWC boasts that 87% of their funds are used directly in the field (as it were). The Kimberley (& Mornington specifically) have been identified as a rare resource, a place where no extinctions have ever been recorded! Nevertheless many species are at risk & considered highly endangered. The primary (& simplified) causes of this are threefold. 1. Feral Herbivores. Cattle, donkeys, horses, buffalo etc. These damage & place enormous pressure upon natural watercourses which provide habitat too many species. Solution – Removal of feral herbivores & fencing to keep them out. This removes the pressure & damage to habitat & maintains the food resources for many ’specialist’ species which rely upon narrow or single food types. Eg. Gouldian Finches. 2. Inappropriate fire management. Every year 50% of the Kimberley burns! Mostly unseen. The real problem though is that much of this occurs as late season ( once fuel loads are at their maximum) very hot & damaging ‘mega burns’, wiping out habitat & food resources over huge areas. This takes with it diversity , eg. grasses return , but some dominate. In the Kimberley spinifex often dominates after these fires which is of no value to many Kimberley seed eaters, quite the opposite to Central Australia where mega burns see spinifex replaced by other grasses to the cost of the desert species reliant upon spinifex. Solution – multiple gps coordinated patchwork early season low intensity burns, retaining diversity & local resources the endemic species need, whilst preventing the fuel loads which enable mega burns from building. 3. The biggest threat to biodiversity however is ……… feral cats. Difficult to kill due to their stealthy nature which makes them hard to find, & on the ground research has shown that a killed cat is replaced by another very quickly anyway. A lot of research has been done utilising cameras fitted to feral cats. Results show enormous native animal casualty rates & feral cat numbers are apparently huge. In addition it has been shown that when areas burn in late season intense fire that cats, following the fire will move to burned our areas where their kill rate then increases dramatically again. There are strategies still in early stages to introduce a genetic means to the existing feral cat population to hopefully result in only male kittens being born, but for the time being the coordinated patchwork burning just by itself is reducing cat kill numbers noticeably. Cane toads also represent a threat & AWC are involved in a Kimberley wide ‘preventative’ programme. Nothing anyone has come up with has stopped the march of these poisonous toads across northern Australia. Animals which eat them, eg. quolls, goannas & crocodiles die. The strategy being used is to make cane toad ‘sausages’ without the deadly poison for dispersal from aircraft. Included with the cane toad meat is a mild poison to make animals that eat it a little unwell, but without killing them, hopefully to teach them an aversion to eating toads. It is a difficult to manage strategy requiring precise timing – just ahead of the main ‘front’ of the toads arrival, but not too long ahead, in order that the animals targeted for protection learn & remember at the opportune time. https://www.australianwildlife.org/sanctuaries/mornington-marion-downs-2/mornington-wilderness-camp/

The tallest straightest boab we have seen close to our camp at Mornington.

First morning at Mornington was an early one. The bird tour commences at 5:45am so we were up before dawn to meet up at the appointed place. We were not quite sure what to expect but of several people whom we have met who have done the tour all highly recommended it. We expected we would be walking but for how far we didn’t know. The bird tours are restricted to a maximum of 6 participants & like most offerings are in demand. We got lucky & just had 4, us & another couple Mark & Dee. (We have since met folk who were disappointed they were unable to be fitted in – Advice – book what you want to do when you arrive – also applies if you want a meal – we were only able to get a meal on our 3rd night but this suited us anyway. Our tour guides were Donna & Ash – the two ecologists. It was surprisingly chilly in the back of the open topped Landcruiser as we were driven to the location, but thoughtfully all were given warm blankets to add comfort. The location was a small waterhole only accessible to those doing the bird tour. It became clear that the entire ’tour’ would take place at this location & the idea of the early start was that we should get there & get comfortable before the birds commence arriving for their first drink of the day. We sat on provided cushions on rocks alongside the waterhole giving a comfort & a well positioned vantage point. The use of quality binoculars for each participant enabled close & detailed view of birds often little more that 10 to 20 feet away. Hot drinks & cake were thoughtful a touch. Somewhere we still have a list of the birds we saw come in to drink, plus a few we saw on the way there & back. It is quite a long list. From memory we only saw one species we have never seen before – a flock of Pictorella Manikins, but to only think in terms of ticking off species spotted largely misses the point of the experience. The real stars of the show were Ash & Donna. They were both knowledgeable, passionate & happy to share this with us, it gave us a new found comprehension of what an ecologist really is. Donna for example might say to to Ash “Did you hear that” & he would answer “Yes, they are early this morning”. Unheard to the rest of us & in among the still occurring dawn chorus they had picked up on the call of the Gouldian Finch. They knew the patterns of behaviour of all the different types of birds, including the Collared sparrowhawk hiding in the tree awaiting the opportunity to grab a finchy feed. It was their knowledge & familiarity with of so many facets which make up ecosystems & the interactions between them which engendered our respect & admiration. We truly felt lucky to share with them. We plus Mark & Dee watched, asked & soaked up the answers like dry sponges. It was clear that Donna & Ash were far more than the average tour guide & our interest was valued & responded to generously & with similar ‘hunger’.Ash later commented about how good it was to have a group like ours.
In short it was the best paid ’tour’ experience we have ever had. No camera taken so no pics.

Later we sat & chatted with Mark & Dee for a while at one of the tables near reception. Without being asked a staff member brought us a couple of bottles of cold water & four glasses. Another little example of the thoughtfulness which coloured our Mornington experience. Mark & Dee are wannabe adventurers, on the verge of taking that step that many tell them is madness, or “I would love to do it but…….” . They were interested in how we travel & what we had done to make it possible. We talked of the validating nature of meeting others either via the internet or face to face who have or are following their dreams. It seems an almost essential element for most people to give themselves permission to do what is in their heart, especially if it is not quite ‘mainstream’. We hope we managed to ’normalise’ what it is that Mark & Dee are dreaming of, just as we hope that writing this blog may make it in some small way easier for others to follow their travel dreams in their own ways.

Swimming again. This time at a swimming hole named bluebush. During our drive there my stomach churned briefly when the audible alarm on our aftermarket oil pressure gauge sounded & its reading dropped to zero. Thankfully when I fitted it I also retained the car’s original oil pressure sender unit so a glance at the dash & not seeing the oil pressure light on was reassuring. Once we reached the swimming hole I searched under the bonnet for what I expected to be a connector having slipped off the gauge’s sender unit. No such luck, the sender unit had disintegrated, fallen apart presumably as result of corrugation induced vibration. It’s disappointing, they were not cheap gauges, I will get a replacement & talk to the manufacturer about this when we eventually reach a town with an auto electrician in a month or two’s time, nothing more I can do until them. Took me a while to get in the water, MrsTea already in encouraging me. Another jump in rather than the graduated woosie approach. Loved it whilst in, & the entry part is getting slightly easier each time!

That afternoon we drove to the Sir John Gorge. We think there must be more to it accessible only by canoe when water levels are higher, but we very much enjoyed what we saw on foot. Not a deep, high sided gorge but a channel in rock. We are far from being rock experts, but much of the flat, curved & polished rock reminded us of the small sections of glacier polished rock we had seen at Carawine Gorge in the Pilbara last year. We think the rock here may be flattened by the processes that laid it down & assume the polishing most likely by water ….. but we also think we could very well be wrong. Please feel free to correct us via comments below.

Sir John Gorge
Boab silhouette at Sir John Gorge.
The setting sun on the grass took my fancy.

A couple we spoke with in the campground whinged about having seen little wildlife. It was obvious they felt very different to us about the experience that Mornington was giving us. Later when MrsTea & I were reflecting together upon ours & their experience MrsTea remarked “It’s not a zoo’. She nailed it in 4 words.

On our 3rd & last day at Mornington we visited Dimond Gorge. We had hired a canoe, something we both had misgivings about. The last time we did such a thing was many years ago & the dominant memory for both of us was our inability to coordinate paddling it & much going around in circles , frustrated amusement, & capsizing in rapids & the resultant farcical chase over several kilometres for our lost belongings in a black dustbin liner floating down the river ahead of us!

We stopped at a lookout on the way for what turned out to be really quite a moving experience. The lookout was only a small rise in the middle of extensive grasslands surrounded by distant mesas & hills. On top of this rise we had a 360 degree view & standing there with the car shut off it was completely still, not a breath of wind & it was silent. These two aspects in the midst of the vast view were powerful in themselves, but added to this was almost a sense of being embraced by the hills surrounding us. I guess you really had to be there in that early morning light, but for us it is a moment we think will always stay with us.

Complete stillness -this panorama went 360 degrees around us, we felt ‘cradled’ by the hills.
Closer up the hills were even more impressive
The silver & knobbly bark of this tree stood out from the rest, by the side of the road to Dimond Gorge.
Ancient rocks folded in two directons. Among the world’s oldest.

Amazingly our canoeing exploits were not a repeat of history, we, without too much difficulty, managed the 3 man Canadian type canoe quite well, enjoying yet more awe inspiring silence & majesty of our surroundings. No Pics we weren’t game to take a camera in the canoe. In hindsight a phone camera would have been fine, but we weren’t to know we’d stay upright! Quite a different gorge to Sir John. Higher & deeper.

That evening we ate a lovely chef cooked birthday meal, describing it would probably fail to do it justice, but suffice it to say the chef’s ability to make the ordinary special ensured we both very much enjoyed it & returned to our little abode on wheels feeling we had received good value. For a few more weeks we will both be the same age again. 🙂

Canoe paddling aggravated the neck condition I have my shoulders were very sore the following morning. I’ve worn a cervical collar to sleep every night for years. This morning I wore cervical collar whilst packing up & driving which gave me the appearance of an invalid vicar.
Driving the 90 odd kms back to the GRR, we were surprised to hear a loud POP followed by regular & intermittent brushing noise. It sounded like we had hit something & picked up a stick or something , now hitting the mudguard with each revolution of the wheel. It transpired that we had hit something alright, but the subsequent noise was no stick, it was air escaping from our passenger side rear tyre. On an almost rock free section of track, out in the open, under a very hot sun, approximately 60kms north of Mornington we had experienced our first puncture. Bugger! If that were not bad enough it was an unrepairable puncture to an almost new tyre (bought in Broome 10 days earlier). Something had penetrated the sidewall leaving a 3” long gash. Double Bugger!

Bugger & double bugger! Photo of 10 day old but ‘cactus’ tyre. 3″split in wall at 11 O’clock position.

After a few choice (but calm) expletives had mingled with the airborne dust which sheds from everything on the outside the vehicle at the slightest touch we set about the process of replacing the now junk tyre with a spare. We learned immediately that with a flat tyre – which we had observed deflating when we stopped to investigate the noise we had heard, that everything is lower to the ground than it is when the tyre is inflated. Obvious eh? What had not occurred to us before then was that this would cause a problem in unhitching the Tvan (in order to reduce the weight needing to be lifted). The Tvan’s Jockey wheel could not be swung down fully to support the van. The solution – multiple blocks of wood we carry (‘which may come in useful one day”) piled on top of each other & our bottle jack on top to lift the van’s drawbar sufficiently (after I instructed MrsTea not to sneeze during the procedure due to the precarious nature of the timber pile) to allow jockey wheel to do it’s job. Actually I was joking about the sneezing, but I did say it! 😁 Haha.

Now we don’t carry any more than the small 6 tonne bottle jack & the original Nissan supplied mechanical wind up jack. We had left the exhaust airbag jack at home as we found , contrary to advice from others, that it was very difficult & cumbersome to use, as well as taking up valuable real estate inside our canopy. Likewise we had also left our mechanical high lift jack at home, not because of the warnings one reads everywhere about the risk of injury whilst using them, but because of it’s significant weight & difficulty in finding somewhere to carry it in our set up. It was about now that I was wishing we had the high lift jack with us! Instead I was faced with laying in the dust underneath the vehicle, using two small jacks, one at a time, to lift the vehicle enough to remove the wheel, with painfully restricted neck & shoulder movement. Bugger again! Well whaddaya know …… along drives Wayne & his mate, who do what anyone out bush does in such circumstances …… he stops to check if we’re Ok, & to ask if we need any help. Goodonya Wayne & thanks. It may have helped that my invalid vicar appearance, conveyed by the thick white cervical collar I was wearing brought out Wayne & mate’s sympathy , but I reckon they were just a great couple of blokes. “Nah, we’ll be right” I said “Although if ya gotta high lift jack it’d make the job way easier”. Well sure enough they had one, but they being far younger & fitter than I, also had good hearts, & whilst I faffed around trying not to get in their way they had the whole thing sorted & ready to roll in short order. Our heartfelt thanks were nonchalantly accepted with a wave of the hand & “No worries mate, it’s just what ya do out here”. Good people. We would have managed without them, but they made it easy & far quicker.

Our plan on leaving Mornington was to head for the Mt Barnett Roadhouse & Manning Gorge campground, stopping at a couple of smaller gorges along the way. Adcock Gorge & Galvans Gorges for a look see & a possible dip to cool off. These are a pair of swimming holes less frequented than the likes of Bell & Windjana gorges which are the ‘big ticket’ attractions for the tight schedule tourists. You see these folk in the campgrounds. A week or less to ‘do’ the Gibb River road, sees them up & out at first light, fitting in as many attractions as they can in a day & arriving at their next overnight stop just on dark, only to repeat the following day. We understand that people need to work & have time restrictions, & if we were in their situation may well choose to do the same, but it must be really hard yakka, tiring & a recipe for disenchantment with the iconic natural wonders of the ‘Gibb’. 3 weeks to drive 5000kms there, ‘do the Gibb’ & drive 5000kms home, often with young kids in the back seat is just not enough. It just adds pressure to both vehicle & relationships. We can take our time, & many folk seem able to find a middle way. And so at places like Adcock & Galvans if you don’t have the place to yourselves, those you meet are far less likely to be the folk in a rush. This in itself conveys a different nature to such places.

We initially thought this was Adcock Gorge, but whilst pretty with it’s lillies, it didn’t look look good for swimming.
The previous pic was Adcock Gorge, but a little further exploration & rock climbing took us to it’s swimming pool.

Adcock Gorge was a very pretty pool of clear green water surrounded by steep cliff faces. If we managed to follow our instincts inherent in the previous paragraph we would have stayed longer, but camping is not possible & we needed to keep moving, so what should have been a relaxing half day in a place which screams “chill out” at anyone who drives the rough 5km track in from the Gibb River Road, realises that the first lily covered pool is not the goal, & clambers over rocks & boulders to discover a little slice of heaven was only a short stay for us. You see we had decided that if the Munja Track from Mt Elizabeth Station to Walcott Inlet were still open (we had received conflicting advice about this from folk who were both certain) that we would need to replace the spare tyre used to get us mobile again earlier in the day. We carry 3 spares to cover the 6 wheels on car & Tvan, all the same but two are half worn. We had put the unused one on the car. The only place to get a tyre in the Kimberley between Derby & Kununnurra is halfway between Adcock & Galvans Gorge.

Nev has lived up here 12 months of the year for over 20 years. He came up to work as a mechanic on the cattle stations, but set up the tyre repair service at Immintji 20 years ago, & moved to his current location since we were last up here in 2009. He was lucky enough (& persistent enough by his account) to get a lease on a 10 acre block just off the GRR, originally set up for missionaries of one flavour or another, sent out to convert the natives. Nowhere in the Kimberley, outside of towns, is freehold. It is all government owned but privately run under lease arrangements, mostly pastoral leases or Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) leases of 99 years, but this tiny 10 acre lease is an anomaly, both size-wise & in that it has a 10 yearly renewal. In a nutshell Nev scored something that is unique. He runs his tyre & mechanical repair business there during tourist season & helps out on stations along the GRR during the wet season when river levels allow. He loves the life of extremes that being cut off during the Wet in the Kimberley affords him with a passion. Along the way he met his partner who was just another tourist in trouble passing through, but who stayed, & they now have a pre-school age daughter. His partner is a school teacher so we imagine home schooling is on the cards for little girl. We spent a couple of hours there, feeling a degree of commonality with Nev as well as some envy at the life, tough though it is, that he has carved for himself. We felt privileged to be taken ‘out the back’ to be shown around his home & a little sorry not to accept his offer of a beer as daylight was getting away from us & we still had a way to go. Tyres in such a remote location are far from cheap. In fact the new tyre, same as purchased in Broome just a week & a half earlier was just short of double the price, but we chose to purchase it to afford us a greater sense of security if we are able to get on the Munja Track, & given the costs involved for Nev who operates what is a small business without bulk buying discounts we did not feel he was ‘gouging’ us unfairly. If/when we return to the Kimberley again (to experience a proper Wet season here) we will without doubt accept Nev’s invitation to stop by for longer regardless of whether we have need to or not.

As it was we found that Galvans gorge was only a short walk off the GRR, which allowed us to have a quick but cooling swim before moving on to our camp for the next couple of nights. Galvans & Adcock are similar, but time of day saw Galvans largely in shadow & the waning sun dipped below the steep cliff face es which surround it. It was cold, but not too cold & the swim made more interesting by the fact that we shared the water with a crocodile! It was however a ‘Freshie’ & a small one at that (compared to the 3 metre freshies we had seen along the banks of the Fitzroy River at Langey crossing. This fella was no more than about 800mm long & just lounged on top of the water, his feet hanging down, whilst he watched our 61 year old naked torsos moving through the water with far less ease than he/she could manage. MrsTea kept a constant watch for ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’ or larger siblings but we saw no other. As we left the water he/she effortlessly, with just the slightest movement of its tail glided over to where we had been just moments earlier, turned & watched us dress.

Galvans Gorge was similar but a little smaller than Adcocks. It was late in the day when we arrived & we had the place to ourselves.
Well almost to ourselves – we skinny dipped with this little fella

The GRR corrugations continued relentlessly, restricting our speed to no more than 40kph much of the time & sometimes down to walking pace. How some can travel it at 80kph is almost beyond us. They must be prepared to trade speed for a much reduced vehicle lifespan. We are not. Turning off the GRR to find relief from corrugations is becoming a pattern. We drove in & out of Mt Barnett Roadhouse & on to the comfy Manning River Campground , the biggest & most used to date. Flushing loos, hot showers & washing machine. Seniors discount. River right at camp. 5 km hike/climb to best swimming location to date. The photos show the location but what they can’t show is the sandy ledge under waterfall where we could stand comfortably out of the sun in chest deep water. I’m not a strong swimmer & this was a real bonus for me allowing me to stay in the water for far longer than normal.

Swimming was pleasant in the river close to our camp, but to wal;k to the main swimming hole oner first needed to cross the river in this small punt, pulling the rope to get across.
Manning Gorge swimming hole.
Some of the younger ‘wild life’ proved to be quite entertaining.

We camped alongside a ‘clump’ of 3 huge Boab trees (possibly they count as a single tree with multiple trunks?) – probably 1000 years old. The Noddies (Remember Noddy from Carawine Gorge last year?) had been at it again unfortunately, carving their cheap graffiti disrespectfully & thoughtlessly into the trunks. We discussed what it was that we dislike about this practice. Is it disrespect for the tree itself or lack of care for those who are only able to view defaced magnificence later. We concluded it was both.

Boabs, as far as I know only grow in Australia’s Kimberley, somewhere on the African mainland & in Madagascar. They really are very special & I can appreciate MrsTea’s liking for them.

Simon & Joan are a couple of poms travelling Australia for a couple of years in a bespoke built 4wd Mercedes truck, after which they intend to ship it to South Africa for a south to North trans Africa crossing. (I was a little envious, but not MrsTea). We’d met at Mt hart, again at Mornington & now here at Manning Gorge Campground. We wondered how they would go with such a large truck in a few places, but surprisingly to us they seem able to get to all the places we have.
At Manning we also met Geoff & his wife (ex nurse who’s name we are both embarrassingly unable to recall – sorry if you are reading this) & chatted whilst lounging in the river. Later we exchanged camp recommendations as one does, Geoff told us of Towns River camp in the Limmen national park where we’ll be in a few months time, & gave me a couple of fishing lures which he guaranteed would catch me a Barra (barramundi) when there. I told him of several of our favourite spots on the Dampier Peninsula & en route to Broome. We are a couple who enjoy our own company but we do enjoy meeting kindred spirits on the road from time to time, albeit briefly.

After a couple of days socialising we were ready for some more private time & drove no more than 10 or 15 kms from the Mt Barnett Roadhouse (Entrance to Manning Gorge campground) having first stopped to purchase a few groceries & topped up our fuel tanks again. The grocery prices were very high, but stocked more extensively than the store at Immintji had been. However very little in the way of fresh fruit, just a few bananas & a handful of shrivelled oranges. The weekly supply truck was due in the following day. I enquired of the manager as to whether he knew if we would be able to refill our drinking water tank at Mt Elizabeth, because if not we would fill up from his supply at the roadhouse (but didn’t want to carry the additional weight if unnecessary). Kindly, he offered to contact Mt Elizabeth for us, so I also asked if he could find out whether the Munja Track was open or not. Yes was the answer to both so now we had confirmation of the track being open direct from the horses mouth. Yay

Our next camp was another great find. Although it is listed in WikiCamps, directions to it are not great & subsequently we had it to ourselves for 5 nights barring a couple of Aboriginal families bringing their kids to the nearby swimming hole for a day visit & a couple who camped out of sight from us on our final night. Jigngarrin is a lovely spot on Aboriginal land. A sign part way along the 4km track off the GRR says ‘Private Property, visitors may be told to leave if not respecting country’. “Fair enough” we said to each other as we read it. Our camp was in a lovely spot between two large Boab trees which had trunks with girths large enough to provide us with day long shade to sit in, just move our chairs around with the shade. More silence & stillness. The billy & camp oven got a good workout with us going gas free throughout our stay. Several times we remarked just how easily we had, after a 7 month break, dropped back into travel/camping mode. Going to bed shortly after dark & rising at first light. MrsTea reads in bed most nights, I tend to fall asleep – often as early as 7:30pm but listen to the ABC radio sometimes when we can pick up a signal. Mostly if our 2 metre whip antenna can pick up a signal the broadcast fades in & out, tends to be better at night than in the morning, & better still during footy or rugby broadcasts on Friday nights & at weekends.Unfortunately listening to footy on the radio is not of great interest to us. At Jigngarrin we had a signal most evenings. Rising at dawn to watch wildlife (& occasional small groups of ‘Killers’ (untagged feral cattle which represent a source of meat for locals) come to drink as the first rays of sun filtered through the trees.lighting the savannah grasses below them for as far as we could see never failed to thrill. The light & colours are something to savour. We kept thinking of snippets of ecological info we had picked up at Mornington.

Jigngarrin. This was a lovely spot to camp. We spent 5 days here by ourselves, chillin’ swimming & hotwiring!
Jigngarrin swimming spot
Campfire cooking
Intriguing tree
A shy early morning visitor coming for a drink in the Manning River.
The distant storm created impressive light.We thought we might get wet, but nothing transpired.
It turned out that rain did fall , but quite some distance from us. We met a couple who had got the rain whilst on the Munja Track, but only over about a 15 to 20km stretch.
Being surrounded by this, knowing it stretches away from us for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. It just doesn’t get ‘old’. Solitude & nature like this are the exception not the rule on this human colonised planet. For us it is what makes Australia different & we love it

We had unhitched the Tvan from the car & were moving the car a short distance a couple of times a day to keep it’s rooftop solar panels in full sun to maintain good charge to our auxillary batteries & our food in the fridge & freezer cold/frozen. One morning the car would not start. I wrote the following at the time.

Car ignition problems . Turn on power, dashlights illuminate as normal. Occasionally (not every time) when turning the the key further to start, the lights go out & power is lost. Sometimes when it does start car runs fine but gauge lights flicker, giving the motor a few revs helps to stabilise the flicker. Sometimes it starts & runs with no issues at all. It seemed clear (to me ) that the problem is a loose or poor electrical connection or a damaged wire somewhere. Infuriatingly each time I undo, or check a connection the problem appears resolved, only to reassert itself after a few more test starts. Navigating the Nissan workshop manual we have on the iPad is a slow & frustrating process. Eventually my best deduction is worn contacts inside the ignition switch barrel. Impossible to confirm without substituting a known good one, & an item most likely requiring ordering from a Nissan dealership – with the nearest being at least 400kms away & well out of mobile phone reach. The dilemma is whether to continue on our planned route, taking us ever further from any source of parts & auto electrical expertise, & risking being stranded, or to proceed with fingers crossed.

After much deliberation we feel that continuing on in the hope that the switch is the problem, but with a fallback position should the switch fail completely.

I must have missed the ‘How to be a car thief’ classes at school, having no knowledge of hot wiring cars other than what I have seen in occasional movies over the years, but it seems to me that being able to bypass the likely culprit may represent a reasonable ‘Plan ‘B’. Having accessed & disconnected the plug on the rear of the ignition barrel I was faced with 6 wires to choose from. Working out which two to join to actuate the starter motor was relatively easy, but that is all it did. I still don’t know what all the the other 4 wires do, but wiring diagrams & an ‘educated guess’ suggested that the blue wire needed to be powered & bingo, with this added into the mix the dashlights came on, the glow plug timer did its thing & when I touched the 3rd terminal with my home made hotwire apparatus the car fired up & kept running just fine.Woohoo… “MrsTea Come and witness what a hotwiring genius I am & join me in a celebratory jig around our trusty vehicle”!

So now we have the means of making the car go if the switch fails …….. if it is the switch which is the problem of course. I am confident in my belief, but the lack of definitive evidence still carries a seed of doubt, but for now we think we will continue. As if to cement the confidence I had convinced myself I was feeling we left the car & went down to the river for a swim.

Next morning. We have been discussing our forthcoming foray along the Munja track to Walcott Inlet, 440kms return over what is reputed to be a ‘challenging’ 4wd track with a number of steep boulder strewn climbs & descents to be negotiated. How steep & how boulder strewn remains unclear, but I have awoken thinking about how to ‘re-manufacture’ my hotwire arrangement in case the ignition switch should fail mid hill. The solution was to lengthen the wires & to fix one contact to the dash, so I could operate the ’starter’ with one hand, in gear if necessary. I also realised that in ‘hotwire mode’ the vehicle’s diff lock did not work, but found connecting a 4th terminal into the mix resolved that. I then proceeded to demonstrate my workmanship to the ever tolerant MrsTea. It failed – in precisely the same manner that the ignition switch had failed ….. almost. Only this time no amount of re-tries could even get the dash lights to illuminate – it was dead. Just as though the battery was completely flat. Battery voltage measured a healthy 12.7v though. No time for breakfast – gotta get this sorted. I tried jump starting from our ‘house’ batteries & the motor fired right up. I congratulated myself for having installed the ability to ‘jump’ via the turn of a switch – the first time I had used it. I was still puzzled as to why the crank battery would do nothing on it’s own though?

Two Rainbow Bee Eaters

And so back to our ‘Munja discussion’. It seemed timely to offer MrsTea a lesson in use of the winch in case it was needed. In particular if we are stuck halfway up a steep incline with me sitting in the cab holding my foot hard on the brake pedal for all my worth to prevent us rolling backward. I needed to remind myself about the use of the winch too, never having actually needed to use it in a recovery situation, only to to pull fallen trees around. So plug in the winch controller to demonstrate. The instant I hit the the controller’s switch, the motor, set at a fast idle ………. died. This was not a good situation & instead of recovery techniques our conversation turned to how we might best arrange for a tow truck to make the 800km round trip from Kununurra to rescue us. We have a satellite phone & were hopeful that the RAC might come out along the GRR – an unknown – or whether we might be up for thousands of dollars to arrange a truck to carry us. Our good friends Julian & Ali were in precisely this predicament (with a blown motor) on the GRR last year, and we thought calling them for advice would be the best course of action, especially as they are seasoned travellers familiar with the vagaries of satphone use.

Not one to easily admit defeat though, I thought a re-examination of things electrical would be wise before taking any other action. Feeling well ‘under the pump’ had me checking everything I had previously checked with even greater rigour. I believed there had to be a reason why an apparently healthy, well charged starter battery was behaving like a flat, dead battery & still considered a poor connection somewhere to be the most likely culprit. Just before we left home last July I fitted a screw type quick disconnect type battery terminal. This had been my first suspect & I had checked, cleaned & tightened it several times. What I hadn’t checked however was the secondary terminal adapter it connects to. It was brand new last July, & the original terminal was perfectly tight. I hadn’t considered it could be anything but Ok, but now it too was dismantled – with the aim of removing the quick disconnect ability & just replacing the original connector onto the battery terminal. The moment I removed it my heart had a little flutter …. not the Left branch bundle blockage – just joyful hope!
Both the inside of the original connector & the round terminal section of the quick disconnect were filthy & black. Could this be our electrical gremlin? How could it possibly have got like this when it was fitted brand new, using dielectric grease for better electrical flow, & still as tight as the day I fitted it! Cleaning it all up & replacing it dispelled the gremlin & returned a fully functioning electrical system to us. Woohoo – another little jig performed, & instead of a swim I chose to eat the breakfast I had bypassed in the drama. And so we were now had a fully functional car plus the added bonus of the knowledge & ready made means of hot wiring a 2006 Nissan Patrol should the need ever arise! Yay! 🙂 The only thing I can attribute the black gunk to is some sort of reaction between the dielectric grease & the plated surface of the quick disconnect’s terminal section? If you have thoughts on this, please share.

And so off to Mt Elizabeth station. Another short drive , only about 40 kms, 10 kms of GRR (bump bump bump) & 30 kms after turning north on the Mt Elizabeth access track. Still bumpy, but again it felt so smooth in comparison.

As we turned off the GRR the trailer brakes locked up briefly. Not normal behaviour, confirmed by flashing light error code on the electric brake controller on the dash. Except the flashing light codes kept changing, initially indicating an electrical short in the brake light system, but a short time later becoming more erratic making diagnosis via the controller handbook impossible.

We stopped at Dodnun, a small aboriginal community a few kilometres before the station to get some eggs & bread at their tiny store. I asked the whitefella behind the counter how long he’d been there, as generally most in his position have a time limited contract – maybe 6 or 12 months. “Over 20 years” he replied to my surprise! Turns out Dodnun had been created as a community (15 families) 13 years ago, with his help, & prior to that he had the lease for the property where Nev has his tyre service on the GRR. A christian missionary who once went out to proselytise in a variety of small aboriginal communities, trying to save their heathen souls from eternal damnation had decided that he (& his wife & daughter) would rather be part of such a community. This really is not an easy goal to achieve, but they found a way. On Mount Elizabeth Station there had been an Aboriginal ‘outcamp’, something once common on outback stations. Small groups of families living in 3rd world conditions within a few kilometres of the Station homestead. Most likely ex station workers living a relatively traditional lifestyle, with occasional work or handouts from the station owners. Unseen & unheard by most beyond the station boundaries, exploited badly or treated well depending upon the the will of the station leaseholder. Importantly, maintaining connection with country where the families ancestors had lived for many thousands of years. The missionary, one way or another had together with these people negotiated with the Lacy’s, leaseholders of Mt Elizabeth for 2 or 3 generations to ‘donate’ an area of land for a new community to be established. Leases were changed & funding from the government was obtained to build basic accommodation for the 15 families, & so the community of Dodnun was formed. Although we (MrsTea & I) feel that the notion of ‘converting & saving the natives’ is arrogant & misplaced, we have no doubt about the genuine good will that these missionaries have brought to this remote area, & discussion with the chap & his daughter suggested that they have not only tolerated difference, but have bent to accommodate it. This was our impression formed from a 20 minute meeting, so if any readers have anecdotes or passionate feelings about such matters feel free to add your comment – respectfully please.

Mt Elizabeth was run by the Lacy family for many years, renowned for their welcoming hospitality. In recent years however, the last Lacys on the Station retired & the lease was sold to a Chinese owned company/consortium. Online rhetoric bemoans the loss of Lacy’s welcoming hospitality, & questions whether foreign ownership & a management company will ever come up to their standards. We can’t compare, never having visited during the “Lacy days’, but can comment that we were very pleasantly surprised by the welcome we received. Not only was the campground a very comfortable one with brand new shower & toilet facilities (the best showers we’ve had since leaving home last July!) the manager, Peter, visited our camp personally to welcome us & to spend time chatting with us. We think he did this with all new arrivals, but seemed in no rush to move on to the next camp. Little things like this make a big difference! We told him of our plans to drive the Munja Track (which begins on Mt Elizabeth Station) but first needed to try to sort out our electric brake controller problems. He left us to it, with an offer of help from one of the station mechanics if we needed it.

Symptoms suggested another poor, most likely corrugation induced, connection to me & the most likely place seemed to be the 7 pin connector between car & van. Having found a single wire (brake light wire from which the signal for the brake controller is taken) partially broken in the connector plug, just one strand of wire remaining, I was confident the cause had been found, fixed it & took the car for a test drive over a few kilometres. All good, proportional braking working again & no more error lights. So off on the Munja tomorrow. 🙂 Later that evening whilst at the station office paying the track access fee, & the returnable deposit for key to the padlocked gate at the start of the track Peter the manager saw me, remembered my name when he came across to ask me if I had fixed the brake problem he was interested in what the cause had been. Again this reinforced the positive ‘vibe’ I had about the place.

Next morning we left for our ‘Munja Adventure’.

9 thoughts on “North Kimberley Part 2 – Mt Hart to Mt Elizabeth

  1. Hi, thanks for posting such a great blog, we are heading up the GRR in about 2 months time and would love if you could give some further information about camping at the Jigngarrin Free Camp – how far up from the GRR is the actual camping area. I have tried looking on google maps in Sat form but cant seem to find anything that looks like a large enough clearing. Thanks heaps for any advice that you have.

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  2. Really enjoying your travel blogs.

    Just out of interest, do you see fellow travelers with dogs on your trips?

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    1. Hi Peter, thanks. Yes there are plenty of travellers with dogs ‘out there’. We miss having a dog, but feel that travelling with one would restrict where we can go more than we’d like at the moment. Plenty of others choose to sacrifice some flexibility for all the benefits their canine companions offer. I think we might feel differently if we didn’t have each other.

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      1. Thank you. I have dreams of traveling but need my dogs with me, I am a single guy so companionship is important.

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  3. bloody awesome read as always Cuppa , very detailed & informative – as i commented last time ( i think ) i’m envious of what you’re doing & hope to do it with my wife myself 1 day .

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  4. Another fascinating read Cuppa. You’ll be a fully qualified and experienced bush auto electrian soon, and we look forward to the next gripping instalment with more fabulous photos.

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  5. Great read Ian. Good luck on the Munja. Don’t forget to have good search at Wren Gorge. The artwork is widespread and awesome.

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