The Munja Track is a pair of wheel tracks which run about 220kms from Mt Elizabeth station to Walcott Inlet, a remote spot on the Kimberley coast. In this North Kimberley region there are just 3 places where the coast can be accessed by car, & this is the most arduous to reach. A few determined 4wd’ers have made the trek each year, but this is as about as remote as one can get in this remote region of Australia. (There are more remote tracks, but obtaining permission to drive them varies from ‘impossible’ to needing literally years of negotiation with traditional owners). The track itself is considered tough & most who drive it do so without towing. Our Tvan is about as big as it is advisable to take, & of course makes some of the challenges more challenging. For some ‘doing’ the Munja may represent a ‘badge of honour’ to boast about. Some youtube videos have this as their highest priority. Our aim was to find truly pristine, untouched country & nature where the two wheel tracks & evidence of camp fires are all that differentiate this from country which has remained largely unchanged over millennia.
150 or so kilometres from Mt Elizabeth there is a tiny semblance of ‘civilisation’. Bachsten Creek Camp was established & built by Rick & Anne several decades ago. Anne is the sister to Peter Lacey, former leaseholder of Mt Elizabeth station. The camp offers space to camp, a handful of small shadecloth lined sleeping huts & hot showers courtesy of the donkey boiler lit at around 4pm each day. Rick & a few helpers clear the track after each wet season, mainly clearing away fallen trees, slashing vehicle height grass & partially filling now dry creek beds (which during the wet are thundering water courses which change shape every season) to make them navigable by 4wd cars. The task usually starts in early May with the aim of opening the track by the beginning of June, but varies with the season. A tractor with a slasher & front end loader is extensively used. This year the exceptionally dry Wet season saw the track opened a week early.
As we approached the locked gate we hit a section of corrugated track & the brake controller began, once again, to display a variety of error lights. We stopped just short of the gate unsure whether continuing on, into conditions we were still uncertain about (descriptive terms such as ’steep’, ‘rocky’ & ‘rough’ have different meanings to different folk) without trailer brakes was wise. All we knew, was that when mentioning our desire to to go out to Walcott Inlet, the two most common responses we got from most folk was either “Where?” or drawing of breath in through the teeth. Nevertheless we knew others who have been there, & knew folk still went there & returned, mostly unscathed. We did feel however that having working trailer brakes might be a little more than a nicety! So….. we sat in the sun for an hour or two whilst I removed the trailer socket & plug, moved cables & gained sufficient extra wire length to rewire the socket & plug from scratch. Finally it was done & we unlocked the gate to make our first tentative steps onto the Munja Track. We had no option, in heavily wooded bush the narrow track made no allowance for turning a car around, let alone a car & trailer. 600 metres up the track the brake controller lights began their impersonation of a bloody Christmas tree …….. again! However with a slight difference. This time the error lights were 95% consistent. Previously this had not been so, but now the lights showed either 3 purple flashes followed by a yellow flash, or a solid green light. The handbook told us that the flashing sequence indicated ‘limp mode’ & advised we contact the manufacturer for assistance. Not much help out here when the nearest phone signal is already 400kms away. The solid green indicated operation was now in ‘manual’ mode instead of ‘proportional’ . In the distance of 20 or 30 kms before reaching a spot where it was possible to turn around it became obvious that even with the limp mode showing we still had ‘manual’ operation of the brakes. ie. as soon as the brake lights were operated the Tvan’s electric brakes would come on at the pre-set level I made in the driving cab (1= v.light braking, 10 = instant locked wheels). It was reassuring we still had some form of trailer braking, which although not proportional ( van brakes come on progressively more the harder I stomp on the brake pedal) was better than nothing, & the 20 or 30kms we had just covered had showed the operation to be dependable. )
We decided to continue on.
On the whole the track to Bachsten Creek Camp was nowhere near as difficult as I had built it up to be in my mind, If I had little voices in my head one would have been saying “You are being foolishly reckless, this is a route where you are running a risk to car & life”, & the other saying “ Other folk have done this, the camp is open, they couldn’t do that without severe warnings of risk to life & limb, we have a capable car & have never heard of anyone dying on the Munja”. Well thankfully the positive thoughts prevailed, despite some anxiety being expressed by MrsTea (echoing my own). As it turned out the track took us through a variety of country (which I hope the photos give some pictorial description of) & not once with any consideration of turning back (even if we had been able to). Just one ‘moment’ on the renowned rocky descent down the ‘Magpie Jump-Up’ when we became wedged onto a rock, jammed hard against the passenger side rear leafspring front hanger, & the car pointing downhill at approximately a 45 degree angle. MrsTea was the saviour on that occasion. I wasn’t game to leave the drivers seat & she, from outside the car suggested I reverse, turn the steering wheel & I might clear the offending rock. I muttered something along the lines of “How the f* do you expect me to reverse back up this godforsaken f*ing boulder strewn hill”, but had little option than to try. I was amazed when the Patrol pushed the van back up the hill for a metre or so with ease until a van wheel was pushed hard up against another immovable rock. However a metre was enough to allow a turn of the wheels & gain clearance around the rock which had halted us. MrsTea, despite having no idea what the spring hanger was called or what it was for, had communicated which part was stuck using sign language, & had advised the solution which worked. How’s that for teamwork! 🙂
The track was ever changing, no room for complacency, boulders (lots of boulders!), sudden descents, creek gullies, holes to avoid, tight turns through trees, water crossings etc etc. However at the speed we were travelling it was enjoyable & I was still able to see the country we were travelling through, even with a constant eye on the road.
It was unfortunate that a huge area either side of the track had been recently burnt out for a distance of (guessing) 60 kms or so. We pulled up for the night alongside the dry creek bed of the Pearson river, still within the burned area feeling a tad cheesed off. Burned country, although common in the Kimberley is ugly. We were heading west & the setting sun made driving tiring & unpleasant after about 3pm. We had looked for a nice camp spot but kept going hoping to reach unburned country, but had given up by 3:30pm. Darkness fell (suddenly as it does at these latitudes) around 5:30pm-6:00pm but even though we could no longer see the burnt country & had a skyful of stars to gaze at, the complete lack of bird & animal sounds was a huge unfilled gap. We felt sad & a little angry about having had the experience we had expected stolen from us.
The following morning I was in love & couldn’t help telling MrsTea so ……repeatedly. We left burnt country shortly after we left Pearson River, & it was glorious. My heart sang at every twist & turn in the track. Colours, vistas, birds, bird song, blue sky all seen & heard from the tiny scar that these little two wheeltracks which allowed us to be IN that country without dominating, nor civilising it in any way. I have always maintained that if a road is the same colour as the country it takes you through it provides a more intimate, in touch experience. If driving a motorway or autobahn, windows closed, seeing what there is to see, like a goldfish looking out of it’s bowl & never comprehending what one is looking at is one extreme, driving a tiny rough track like this through largely untouched country is the opposite extreme. It is as ‘close’ as it is possible to get to the country without travelling under human or animal power alone. It is to be recommended!
Bachsten Creek Camp, nestled alongside the Bachsten Creek in a narrow valley is the sort of little heaven that dreams are made of, my sort of dreams anyway. Rustic, basic with just enough civilisation to make the basics of life comfortable, but with minimal impact upon the surroundings. Envy of the folk who have been caretaking here for the past 10 or so dry seasons is palpable. Lucky buggers! We didn’t get to see the elusive & rare Black Grasswren which only lives within a very small area of the Kimberley. A shame as it’s mundane name doesn’t do it justice. It’s a striking looking little bird with interesting habits, living largely on the ground & known for it’s boulder hopping exploits. Nevertheless the place is alive with birds & animals. On dusk we saw Northern Quolls, Rock Rats, Golden Backed Tree Rats (with their super long skinny tails with a pom pom-like bush on the end), Northern Bandicoots & plenty of Munjon, Australia’s smallest wallabies. Here there was water in the creek. The lack of rain has seen it almost stop flowing, but crystal clear waterholes provided excellent sources of drinking water & multiple swimming venues. The 5km bushwalk/rock climbing trail we followed to the Bachsten Gorge & waterfalls took our breath away both literally & metaphorically. It was a tough walk but stunning. We had been told that water levels were down, & that only a trickle of water was making it over the falls, but had expected a small swimming spot, something like we had experienced at Adcocks & Galvan Gorges. When we stepped out of the boulder strewn grasslands onto the rocks at the very edge of a huge precipice & saw the gorge for the first time it’s scale & beauty far exceeded our expectations. Far below us mature trees were hosting a large fruitbat gathering, hundreds & hundreds of them , their voices echoing around & around the gorge above the body of water below. We called out & listened to our voices clearly repeated. By the time we reached the falls we were hot, by the time we had climbed above them to the series of large rock pools we were ready for a swim. Just us, the view & cooling water. We trialled our hand held GPS on this walk & found it useful once or twice, but strictly speaking unnecessary as the route was marked with occasional ribbons tied to trees & bushes. No clearly defined walking tracks here. Same the following day, without ribbons when following another creek bed over dry falls, & rock slab floors from the aptly named Rock Pool a couple of Kms from the camp in a unsuccessful ‘expedition’ to find a Black Grasswren. We did however enjoy another ’skinny dip’ alongside a Mertens water monitor who dropped by to see what these two humans were up to in his/her place.
The track onward from Bachstens had been an unknown, & the decision to continue to Walcott Inlett was not finally made until we were at Bachsten’s. Rick told us “If you made it this far you’ll be Ok to get to Walcott”. We also spoke with the only people to return from Walcott whilst we were at Bachstens & they too reassured us. We hadn’t come across anyone who was towing who had been there, but were told that there were two other vehicles currently there, one of which had taken a boat down. A little track maintenance (slashing grass in the middle of the wheel tracks) had been done for the 15km to Wrens Gorge, but after that none. The track then only what had been made by a handful of 4wd’ers more intrepid than us over the past 3 weeks.
Almost as soon as we left Bachstens the track was different. Vegetation was thicker, the track through trees was tighter, there were more birds around & we even drove through a ‘cloud’ of butterflies. But the centre of the track, between the the two wheel tracks was still short enough to pass underneath the car without touching it mostly. At Wren Gorge we parked on a small flat area, “Just over a creek, near two big whitegums at the 14.5km mark from Bachstens – walk up over the ridge & follow the creek”. We found the gorge but later realised we had picked the wrong two whitegums & ridge, but thankfully our handheld GPS helped us find our way back to the car. The intended spot to park had been almost another kilometre further on, with a short scramble & walk to the ‘bottom pool’. Instead we walked & scrambled about 4 kms & found 3 rockpools. We also found some extensive ancient rock art made by the people of this country in a number of locations, odd paintings here & there, but then an extensive ‘gallery’ under an overhang showed us our first Wanjina, a clearly female Wanjina with large breasts, in yellow & red ochre. It was an exciting find, & there was more. Later, further down the gorge we found more, larger, paintings. Two figures in front of a tree intrigued me, I hadn’t seen ancient aboriginal art which depicted people together with their surroundings in this way before. This was a womens place of fertility we believe, perhaps a birthing place high above the river. Rock slabs worn smooth from people sitting or laying on them, perhaps birthing on them for thousands of years. Across the river was a men’s site, but here the art was less intricate & more faded. I include a couple of the many photos we took in the belief that we are far from alone in having visited these places over the years & sincerely hope that doing so does not show disrespect to the old people of this country or their modern day descendants.
After Wren Gorge the track changed again, as did the country we were passing through ……. frequently. Similar to earlier, but now often with more green. It was good to see how much difference green spinifex & other grasses below the Pandanus & many other trees made. It was beautiful, & hinted at the lushness of the place in wet season conditions. Driving over rocks & boulders only ever let up for short periods & we became used to the constant squeaks & groans our vehicle made, mainly the rubber mounted canopy on flexible chassis rails. We know that when we finally get back onto smooth bitumen roads the noises disappear. Having spent several hours at Wren Gorge we found ourselves in need of an overnight camp before we reached Walcott inlet, & pulled over when we could onto a rocky outcrop, which was handily level & covered in natural gravel, giving a welcome barrier between us & the dust below it. Little things like that are welcome out here. It is incredibly dusty, we passed through seemingly never ending tall grasses, often as high as the windscreen, making it hard at times to see either of the wheel tracks ahead of us. The breakdown of these grasses as folk drive through them seems to increase the dust level tremendously, plus we were now on black soil country. Red soils says ‘outback’, but black soil just says filthy. MrsTea’s job was to watch, as best she could, the wheel track on her side, whilst I watched mine, boulders & holes to look for. Fallen trees generally already had a track made around them. A length of shadecloth across the front of the car prevented the radiator becoming clogged, but did little to stop a build up of grass in all the nooks & crannies underneath the car. This didn’t represent the same level of fire risk which driving through spinifex does, but nevertheless, we had our water pump & spray hose ready to go & a plan should we smell smoke. Every so often in clearer spots we stopped to check underneath. There had been a car fire somewhere on the track just a couple of weeks earlier we were told, scary stuff indeed when all you can see above the dry red & brown grass you are in the middle of is more dry red & brown grass as far as you can see! Thankfully though I specifically chose not to have a modern diesel car with a DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter) for just this reason as they are designed to become exceptionally hot on occasions, but without warning to the driver as I understand it – this apparently was the cause of the car fire I mentioned. Luckily there had been two cars travelling together & the car behind radioed his mate ahead when he saw smoke coming from under the car the fire was put out quickly & the car was still able to be driven back to Mt Elizabeth.
Finally we reached Walcott Inlet. A sense of achievement, relief & awe as we sighted the large expanse of water after almost 240kms in low range. I’ll include a map of the inlet to give you an idea of it. (Courtesy of Google Maps). Distance from our camp to the ocean is 20 or 30 kms. (No track).
We are camped at the far eastern end of the inlet where the Charnley & Calder Rivers converge. You can see at it’s western end is the Indian Ocean. Walcott Inlet acts like a giant funnel to the tides, which in these parts are huge, up to 11 metres between high & low tide levels & the water rushes in & out like a freight train. We are camped on top of earthen cliffs & when the tide is out it is a long way down to the water, the highest tides (spring tides) however can come over the clifftops. Large saltwater crocs often float on the current . Falling into the water would be most unwise. Luckily for us we are not here for spring tides, but nevertheless seeing the tides rush in & out twice a day is exhilarating, the sand bars patterns change with every tide & whilst exposed throughout the hot days change in colour & tone as they dry before once again being covered. It is hard to imagine a more dynamic environment. Every so often we hear the sound of cliffs collapsing into water. Even the shape of the inlet constantly changes. Care is taken on the cliffs & we believe our camp to be sufficiently far from the edge not to wake up wet & being chewed by a monster croc! There are birds here which only exist in the ever diminishing environments where man has not made his mark. The Great Billed Heron for example. Even from the other side of the inlet if they see people they will retreat to cover on foot. Glimpses of them are possible nearer to our camp in the tall, often straight mangroves. As the last light of the day fades the mournful echoes of Stone curlews carries across the water, the dawn chorus has the added dimension of dingoes howling in the distance. We see Jabirus (Black Necked Stork) fishing at the water’s edge for Pop Eyed Mullet, whilst shoals of the fish skip across the water’s surface to avoid the deadly jabbing beak. This afternoon I witnessed a 1.5 metre shark jump vertically out of the water, landing with a large belly flop splash! A Royal Spoonbill goes about it’s business ‘dredging’ for food in between chasing interested egrets away. At night frequent sounds of splashes of unknown cause carry across the water to us. Bandicoots sneak into our camp under cover of darkness, & in the early hours of the morning we are awoken by the sounds of a large animal on the roof of our Tvan as we lay in bed below it. Within moments a Golden backed tree rat shows itself on the clear roof hatch which we are glad we closed at bedtime. As I write this we are on day two here, & intend staying as long as our water supply lasts. The salt water is muddy, but we can haul it up using a bucket on rope, & use this for washing dishes & ourselves after it’s suspended mud has settled to the bottom of the bucket. There is no freshwater other than what we carry, the nearest was a river some 40kms back along the track. Bruce & Pat (Father & adult son) left today, leaving just ourselves & Rick (a different Rick to the one at Bachsten) camped a short distance away. Pat was also another knowledgeable young Phd ecologist – common as muck in these parts – & a good source of info on the environment we find ourselves in. On our first night here I almost caught a bull nosed shark, losing it as I tried to pull it up the bank. Later we had a mudcrab entree, first time we have cooked one ourselves, & a main course of Bullnose shark fillets with steamed vegies. Shark & Crab caught by Bruce. Euthanased by Pat, filleted by yours truly (with guidance from Bruce) & cooked by MrsTea. Thanks team. Still hoping for a Barra!
This morning I discovered a loose connection to the auto-reset circuit breaker in the power supply to our brake controller. Fingers crossed tightening it may restore full function! 🙂 We wont know until we break camp to drive out with the Tvan attached. We spent 5 more days & nights watching the tides flow in & out, birds & animals coming to drink & of course the crocs floating by. It seems to have become easier to do little & not feel bored or guilty, the surroundings do help though! In some ways this sounds idyllic, but we don’t think it would be everyone’s cup of tea. Putting it bluntly if being & feeling grubby is not for you, then most likely this remote wilderness experience should not be on your ’to do’ list. The weather was hot, the flies were persistent enough for us to wear fly nets often & fresh water was limited to what we had carried in. We were camped on black soil & the dust on the outside of our camper & vehicle seemed to find our clothing & skin as though magnetised. We not only felt dirty, we were dirty! There was no other option. Our tank water was reserved for drinking & cooking. For washing dishes & ourselves we used the muddy salt water taken from the inlet – carefully – by bucket on a rope to avoid making ourselves croc bait. The muddy water would settle after several hours standing & we could then scoop the clear liquid off the top. Washing with salt water stopped us getting too smelly, but never ‘fresh’. When we stopped at Bachsten Creek camp overnight on our way back to Mt Elizabeth the wood fired hot showers were absolute bliss! Surprisingly though the handful of folk there didn’t seem to give us a wide berth prior to our late afternoon showers! 🙂 If this sounds awful to you, I’d agree it wasn’t pleasant……… but ……. Walcott inlet, both our time there & our journey to & from it are a highlight of our travels to date. The sense of being in a place so wild in addition to the effort to get there made it very special. If fate allows it is somewhere to return to some day. Whilst at Bachsten we checked out the ‘Honeycomb Caves’ we had left for our return journey. Like the gorge, the mention of these caves had been understated. They are above ground caves, a maze of holes in the extensive rocks, making room-like shelters among naturally occurring pillars – quite unlike anything we have visited before ….. & with evidence of use over many generations with rocks made shiny from being sat, laid & walked on, & faded examples of renditions of Wanjina spirit beings. We took a couple of days to drive the 150kms back to Mt Elizabeth from Bachsten, slower going pulling the camper than coming in as it was mostly uphill rising from sea level back at Walcott up to around 630 metres. The van was noticeably more ‘anchor-like’ when pulling it uphill over the frequent boulder strewn hills & a few rock steps, but nevertheless we were frequently surprised at how well our Patrol & Tvan managed. Even the gnarliest part of the Magpie jump up, which after our hiccup coming down it on the way in had built up in my mind to be a significant hurdle to our return to civilisation, proved to be easily managed after an examination & adding a strategically placed couple of ‘helper’ rocks. We stopped at a number of locations along the way to explore rocky outcrops, where we discovered more examples of ancient rock art still surviving, as well as, unexpectedly, a ‘burial’ site. A complete human skeleton on a rock shelf under a large overhang! Were such a discovery not exciting enough we also managed a great job of getting ourselves ‘bushwacked’ – completely lost. Although we had recently been carrying our little handheld GPS to record our track as a safety measure in order to find our way back to the car if directionally challenged, on this occasion felt we didn’t need it as the rocks we were exploring were so close to the car. After climbing rocks into overhangs & finding more rock art, the twists & turns we had taken fooled my usual good sense of direction. We found our way back to the track …… but our car wasn’t there! We walked a kilometre or so along the track confident we would find & approach our car from the rear, but with each step that confidence was ebbing away & our worry levels rose. On this track which rarely sees more than perhaps 3 cars in a day, it was fortuitous that one happened along as we walked. We flagged the couple down, enquiring (& feeling exceptionally foolish & relieved at the same time) whether they had passed our car parked on the edge of the track. “No” they said. We then asked that if they came across our car further on “Would you sound your horn to let us know you have found it?” “No worries, we’ll have a look and’ll come back to let you know” they kindly said, & they were good to their word. It turned out that had we turned right rather than left when we had reached the track we would have found our car within a few hundred metres. “It’s still there” the young bloke said with a smile, I left my partner with it, so hop in & I’ll give you lift’. Aren’t we a pair of silly old fools? That GPS was bought purely to prevent such instances of being ‘directionally challenged’ & we chose to leave it behind when most needed! Doh. When in unfamiliar country it really is so easy to get lost in this way.
It wasn’t until leaving Bachsten that we re-tested our brake controller. Back to full functionality! Yay.
Our experience on the track, at Bachsten Creek & at Walcott Inlet is one we will savour for years to come. It felt adventurous & exciting, but more than that it enabled us to find the Kimberley we sought, still unspoiled by money & tourism & too many people. Long may it remain so.
Finally for all the 4wd’ers who might enjoy a little of the driving experience here is a bit of a phone video showing a small selection of what the Munja Track is like to drive. It is not in order, just a bunch of short video pieces stitched together. Nothing was scary as in ‘OMG I’m gonna die – like Victorian high country driving can be, but it was fun & interesting & always changing. The remoteness adds to the adventure. On a couple of days we saw 1 or two other vehicles on the track – use of CB radio was a must to avoid meeting oncoming cars in difficult spots. On other days we saw no one.