North Kimberley Pt.4 – Kalumburu to Kununurra

Having rocked & rolled our way back to Mt Elizabeth station, we arrived feeling in need of a rest, but instead MrsTea gave their washing machine a good workout, feeling almost embarrassed when a fellow camper saw the black colour of the waste water from our clothes & bedding until they commented knowingly “Ah looks like you’ve been down to Walcott then’. 🙂 Whilst these necessary domestic chores were underway preventing MrsTea’s need for rest & relaxation I was occupied with a bit of vehicle maintenance – under car stuff – replacing 3 of the 10 bolts which are supposed to secure the canopy top the vehicle’s chassis. These had broken despite being grade 12 hi tensile bolts. It is an ongoing issue to which I have not found a satisfactory resolution. The vehicle chassis flexes on uneven ground & the rigid aluminium canopy which bolts to it does not. It came this way from Telstra (previous owner), but with all the bolts loose. They don’t break that often, & carrying a few replacements has been the strategy to date. The Munja Track had clearly caused more flex than anywhere else as until now I have not found three broken bolts at once.

Air cleaner element was cleaned & a general checking of fasters for looseness (& re-tightening )done. I was dismayed to find a rear shock absorber on the driver side of the car showing signs of distress, a faint but unmistakeable covering of it’s lower regions with damp dust. A leaking shocker can only get worse.

Given our tiredness & my worry about the shocker we decided to give a planned visit to the gorges on Mt Elizabeth Station a miss, a decision made easier by the descriptions from fellow campers who suggested the one that was an easy drive to reach was ’nothing special’ (with photographic evidence to support this view) and that the really good one was a very difficult , a potentially car wrecking drive (10 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the most difficult!). I think our moods & tiredness easily allowed the descriptions to support our decision to miss out & expect sooner or later to be told we missed a Kimberley gem, it’s always the way, but it’ll wait for our next Kimberley visit.

Although our fuel consumption on the Munja Track had seen an unexpected & significant increase , from around 16 litres per 100Km to 20.5 L/100 – (we had thought it would remain much the same due to our low speeds, but clearly when constantly using low range gears on such rough terrain this is not so), we still had sufficient fuel onboard to avoid backtracking to Mt Barnett Roadhouse & could continue eastward along the GRR to the Kalumburu turn off, where we turned northward, intending to buy fuel at Drysdale River Station. That was the plan & that’s what we did, but with a free camp overnight stop at a lovely spot alongside the Gibb River just a short distance from the turnoff. This made for a relatively short travelling day, allowing us to camp early & get some of the rest we had missed out on at Mt Elizabeth. We also had a fire which allowed us to use the camp oven to bake a loaf of gluten free bread ( & to bake some spuds we had bought on the way at the Gibb River station – a nice change from the ‘instant mash we had been eating for a while). In these parts fresh fruit & veg can be a challenge to buy, it just depends how recently the supply truck last came through, & often there can be little or no choice. We also scored some lovely tasty apples ($1 each) & a cabbage ($8). Meals can , by necessity, become quite creative! That night we had salmon (from our freezer), and baked potatoes with a dressing of steamed & then fried shredded cabbage & onion, mixed with a few caraway seeds. It was quite tasty!

Gibb River bush camp

The road from the GRR to Drysdale station was recently graded & like a highway compared to the GRR. It didn’t last though. We refueled at Drysdale Station, put the rubbish we hadn’t burned into their tip, & continued north on what in all of our travels is THE worst corrugated road surface we have yet encountererd, it was truly horrible. The corrugations were like the nastiest speed humps you can imagine, solid, jarring, up to 6” high & spaced about the same apart, they went on for kilometre after kilometre, never ending & covering the entire road surface, making them 100% unavoidable, making driving without wondering what damage was being caused by every new noise heard among the constant clattering cacophany impossible. This continued almost without let up for about 110 kms, until a little past the Mitchell Plateau turnoff. The constant vibration caused handles to unscrew from cabinets, electrical issues caused the fuel sub tank gauge to keep changing its mind about how much fuel was in the tank, causing the holes in which sliding bars that hold the canopy doors closed to wear elongated holes, sufficient to allow door movement, noisy & sucking dust in past their seals, & all the time concern that the rear shocker could fail completely (despite a Drysdale Station mechanic’s view that “it’d probably be OK.) The drive was punctuated by various stops to investigate new noises & to remedy them where possible. We stopped 30kms short of Kalumburu after covering around 200kms in in 8.5 hours, tired & weary. We would have stopped earlier had we not have been passing through Theda Station (1 million+ acres) who have many signs making it clear that camping on their station is not allowed. Just prior to the light going (very short dusk periods ) George pulled in alongside us & called out from up in his truck cab “D’youse minda bitta compn’y” “Nah, plenny a room mate” I called back, which resulted in a big grin across his face. He was driving a concrete truck unlike any I’d seen before. No big barrel/agitator, but instead several tonnes of sand, cement & water & a machine on the rear which allowed the concrete to be mixed to the required strength on site. He too was on his way to Kalumburu, to provide concrete for a new swimming pool & a slab for the police station, from Kunnunurra – his boss had allowed 3 days for the trip of around 500kms, having given him strict instructions not to exceed 20kph on the corrugations.He was an amiable chap who’s company we enjoyed, until we retired for the night after sharing stories about rotten roads & having investigated a myriad of things we had in common….. as one does.

Another 30kms the following morning saw us roll into Kalumburu.

First impressions were of very friendly & welcoming people, black & white. There seemed to be a quality to our initial conversations which made us feel comfortable. Huge big trees dot the township. One enormous tree in the centre of the schoolyard provides majestic leafy shade for the entire playground. Two shops, the Mission shop which sells hot food, $3 ice creams & a small selection of packaged foods & has a nice shady raised veranda to sit on. The second, a small but well stocked supermarket, stock varies of course according to when supplies were last brought in, but even a few days before new supplies were due we found the shop far more comprehensive than anywhere we have shopped since Broome. Most supplies are brought in by Barge approximately fortnightly. The larger of two barges takes 43 hours to come from Darwin, the smaller comes up from Wyndham. Some things come via truck. Later we discovered it is possible to order goods oneself from either Darwin or Kununurra. Our informant had ordered a new fridge just a few days earlier & collected it directly off the barge whilst we were there. It was on the day we were leaving that we found out we could order a new shock absorber from Kununnurra 4wd. They could send it up by plane the following day. A 75 minute flight rather than a 3 day drive! To have taken advantage of this service I would have needed to arrange it within about 60 minutes to make the necessary deadline & to have been certain of the specifications of the shock I needed to replace. Both presented problems. The shocks are not standard, having been fitted as part of a lift kit/GVM upgrade & it would have been easy to get the wrong thing. I felt it best to limp, if need be, to Kununurra & say “I want a replacement for this” where I can show the shock in question. Secondly phone calls, it turned out, were problematic.

Kalumburu School

We had been told that Kalumburu had recently acquired coverage from Optus (one of the Australian main phone carriers) , & had naturally assumed that this meant the town had had an Optus tower installed. Not so! Shortly after arriving I purchased, as hoped, an Optus sim card from the supermarket for my phone, expecting to be able to make calls, as well as connect to the net to post some blog updates. This was the beginning of frustration which lasted several days. Firstly setting up the sim card in my phone required me to connect to the net, but this was impossible, & even after getting help to connect to Optus from the town’s telecentre via their satellite connection (they were very helpful, but it took sometime to discover they existed & could help) the connection was too poor to connect to the ’net. I then bought 1Gb of data usage from the Mission at $15, connected to the net only to find that my blog site was down. I apologise for that now if it affected you. The problem, it turned out was that although I had set up ‘auto renew’ with my web host, I had failed to ensure there were funds available for this in the debit card from which payment would be taken. Among the 160 emails which arrived in my inbox when I logged on, there were several warning me of impending doom if I didn’t pay, the last one telling me that impending doom had arrived & that if I didn’t do something about it pronto I was at risk of ‘losing important information’. Hmmm, panic stations …. lets pay the money. Transferring funds to the debit card was easy enough, but to make payment I needed to log into my account. To do so a two step verification security code was sent to my phone number ……… but of course I was now on Optus instead of Telstra & had a different phone number ……… a catch 22 situation. After much hair pulling & phone calls to the web host’s Australian office in Sydney where the quality of the phone call meant they could only hear every second word I spoke & I could only hear them similarly, eventually had them send me an email with instructions on what to do. This involved sending a pre-prepared statement by them to their USA based office, together with photos of my Australian government photo ID (drivers licence) asking them to disable the two step verification temporarily & absolving them of any nasty consequences of doing so. 72 hours later I received an email telling me my request had been approved. I made the payment & my web site was back online within seconds. An automated switch I assume, which in hindsight meant that my online material was never actually at risk of being lost! Grrr.
Oh & Kalumburu’s Optus service is actually a very faint signal which can often be picked up from Wyndham , coming through a signal booster & re-broadcast to the town via an antenna of the roof of the Women’s centre. About 5% better than useless! No one in town relies on mobile phones.

Local painter Josh explains one of his paintings to visitors

This year there are reportedly far less tourists through the North Kimberley generally due to dry wet season & lack of water in gorges & rivers , however Kalumburu seemed to have a constant steady stream in & out. McGowans Island Sunset beach was where we stayed for the first 5 nights, 20 corrugated kms out of town & it was full every night we were there . The campground itself is not on an island, but a short distance offshore is a small rocky island, accessible by walking across rocks at low tide, where a past teacher named McGowan at Kalumburu’s school loved to go fishing each night after school whenever the tides were right. Sunsets across the bay were consistently impressive & enhanced by smoke in the air from nearby bushfires. Late arrivals were greeted with a ‘Full’ sign & advised to continue on a further 7kms to Honeymoon Bay campground. Mostly those who did returned to McGowans within 24 to 48 hours with tales of poor facilities & undrinkable water. We didn’t visit Honeymoon Bay ourselves, but are aware that such things change from year to year.

Camped at McGowans

Matt is the caretaker at McGowans & has been for the past 2 or 3 years, living there 12 months of the year with his ’shadow Bruce, a Blue Heeler dog. He (Matt) seemed always on the go (Bruce was far more laid back) from 5:30am to dark, he was a constant presence around the site – busy, efficient & friendly, but not relaxing company – just having him within earshot could be tiring. Nice chap though – He always remembered our names & on one evening after a fishing trip out with some local elders he brought us some fish for supper – some Jewfish ‘wings’, considered a delicacy he told us. Not like any fish we’ve eaten before, they were in fact very tasty, but with a stringy texture more like crab meat than fish.

Sunset at McGowans

McGowans Beach was pleasant enough but fishing was fruitless , this is a place for people with boats,& plenty had come prepared, Tinnies (aluminium dingys, mostly around 3.5 to 3.9m ) towed or carried on car rooftops up the track. The owners, presumably committed fishers, were out every day, mostly with no shade structures in the full sun. That says commitment to me! We saw a few big fish being carried to the filleting table in the campground.

The view from our camp.

It was fairly common to see stressed car owners making what repairs they could to their touring vehicles around the campground, & I was one of them. Nothing major, 3 out of the ten bolts securing the rear canopy to the Patrol’s chassis had sheared off, despite being high grade hi tensile items. Of course the broken ones were the most difficult to access, so replacing them was time consuming, laying in the sand under a hot sun. The sub tank fuel gauge repair was a failure. I managed to get a suitable lugged earth cable from Matt’s solar supplies & fitted it in the hope that this would rectify the problem, but it didn’t. The gauge’s readings are all over the place & the unknown is whether the car’s limited ’smarts’ will allow me to pump the full contents of the tank or only what the gauge is telling me is there at the time. Worse case scenario is having to siphon fuel from the sub tank to a Jerry can, & then from Jerry can to the main tank. Why Nissans don’t have a simple system which allows the user to simply use either tank at the flick of a switch on the dash (like Toyotas) is beyond me. They have made something simple more complicated & dependent upon electronics. The shock still appears to have some damping, so must still have some oil in it.

At high tide the water is still & crystal clear around the rocks where successful fishers discard their fish offal. Over time Sharks (& occasional crocs) have learned that this is a easy place to get a feed. It was great watching these animals (we were told they were Lemon Sharks) at close quarters, some over 2 metres long. They looked so impressive & agile. As we watched, we could see a croc a short distance offshore watching us. Certainly not a place for a cooling swim, despite the water looking so inviting.

On a drive out to the Barge Landing, a simple small concrete boat ramp, no cranes etc – everything is unloaded either by forklift of by hand, we met Matilda & her 2 sisters & brother, plus several young grandchildren who had flown up from Kunnurra to see their grandparents during the school holidays. The adults had been fishing along the shore with with a throw net, catching Mullet about 12-18” long & a slightly larger fish they called a needle fish (due to it’s large amount of small bones). The ‘Father’ from the mission had dropped them off earlier in the day after Mass & the kids were cleaning the fish in a small wire mesh enclosed shelter whilst they waited for him to return to take them back home. The mesh had been installed around the shelter after a croc had come up from the beach, some 30 to 40 metres away – attracted by previous fish cleaning & presumably having given someone a bit of a scare! Matilda was a pleasantly chatty lady, pointing to country in the distance & proudly telling us of her her homelands, along with letting us know all about her children who work ‘off country’ & send money home, children she was clearly proud of.

Driving down various tracks took us to Rock art sites & to the King Edward River & it’s estuary. Fishing results were no different to off the beach at McGowans, but we found a pleasant shady spot to while away a few hours. It was a pleasant surprise to see a mob of large kangaroos (not wallabies) come down across the rocks to the water. At first we thought they were coming to drink, but here the river is still salty. (A few kms upstream the river provides Kalumburu with it’s drinking water supply, a series of rock shelves prevent the tidal waters reaching Kalumburu). The roos were simply using one of the rock shelves to cross the river. King Edward river is a permanent river, unusual in this dry (especially so this year) country where many water courses are ephemeral. Rock art ‘hunting’ has become an enjoyable reason for exploring the many rocky outcrops & shelters which abound. Finding examples where there are no obvious tourist trails leading to them is quite satisfying. Of course we remain largely ignorant to the information & knowledge that most carry, but nevertheless treat them with reverence, knowing that the depictions of Wandjina (or Wanjina depending upon which country they are on) & Geeyorn (Gwion Gwion or Bradshaws in whitefella speak) are the equivalent in many respects to the likes of India’s Hindu gods. These are the Lalai spirits who made & watch over the country & who’s rules for living & behaving keep country strong.

Bats?

Our time at McGowans was dominated by local bushfires, the first smoke was seen on our second day (of five) there, billowing up in the distance, but getting ever closer. Matt was unconcerned, knowing that earlier in the year he had burned a fire break around the campground. just as well as one of the three fires burned right up to his firebreak, which did it’s job. Campers at Honeymoon Bay were apparently less lucky, & needed to band together to fight the fire & create a firebreak to protect themselves & the campground from the approaching flames.It was fortuitous that George & his construction mates were staying there & had some of their heavy machinery handy to use for the task.

MrsTea

We drove out to Pago, a low range 4wd affair on narrow sandy – often quite deep – tracks where trees scraped & creaked along the sides of our car & across rocky river beds to the original site of Kalumburu’s Catholic Mission only to find the entire area black & charred, with little save a concrete slab we believe to have been the floor of a church remaining, but think that any other remnants of this failed enterprise were long since gone prior to this recent fire. The site, close to a beach & a small river was in retrospect a poor choice as the freshwater supply was unreliable & insufficient to grow the food required for the community there. Subsequently the slightly more inland site alongside the King Edward River where Kalumburu now exists was a far better choice. Today’s Mission complex is, as such places are, a lovely peaceful & well cared for place reminding us of our past visit to the Monastery in New Norcia several thousand kms south in WA. Not surprising really as both are run by the Catholic Monks (Pallotine in Kalumburu & Benedictine in New Norcia I believe) & the two places have close connections. Wandering around such places has even heathens like us feeling calm & appreciative. As well as running one of the town’s two shops the Mission also operates the fuel servo, a workshop & a campground in town & a a clothing op shop supplied from our favourite op shop in Broome. From our discussions with Matilda it was obvious that the Mission has been successful in bringing whitefella religion to this far flung place, but talking to Josh, a chap hawking some of his paintings to visitors the mix of culture & christianity is a unique one. “The Wanjinas, they knew ‘im, Baby Jesus, but they was ‘ere long before ‘e came). Likewise the best known ‘Brother’ from Kalumburu’s, Father Anscar McFee was renowned for his interest in local culture, spoke several local languages, & collected artefacts with a passion. He was clearly quite a character & well thought of both in the community & further afield, & his legacy remains in the small museum which sits between the Mission & the Mission shop & houses his collections. The history it preserves has value to all. He has ‘retired’ to New Norcia.

Paintings by local artists at the museum
Cupboard door by the toilets
Coast near to Pago
Looking out from the mission compound into Kalumburu

Driving back from Pago was a slightly anxious affair as the wind had risen & with it more great clouds of black smoke in the direction we were headed. We were lucky however, we had to drive through blackened & still burning country which had been unburned on the way to Pago, but the main front had passed leaving just occasional flaming logs & stumps adjacent to the track, & a couple of burning & fallen trees across the track we had to carefully drive around, having first checked for potential ’stakes’. Burned bushes can leave nasty pointed sticks ready to take out a tyre. As we drove toward the smoke we kept a record of distance back to already burned country just in case we might need to retreat to safety.

For our 6th (& last) night we returned to town to stay at the Mission campground, so we could access the net to make a blog post & get a hot shower (cold only at McGowans). There had been very limited ‘net access at McGowans, suitable for emails, but not for uploading photos. When telling other campers of our intention to stay in town, mostly the response was raised eyebrows & a sucking of air through teeth, followed by ‘warnings’ of what to expect. Anything from the locals behaviour being dominated by drugs, grog (booze) & card playing (gambling) with a bit of child molesting thrown in. Stories of unwillingness to work & living on handouts. Not only had this clearly been contradicted by the account of her children’s achievements proffered by Matilda a few days earlier, it also didn’t fit with what our eyes had taken in. We have no doubt that there would indeed be the usual problems here that would be found in any population of dispossessed, hurt & disadvantaged people, but so far these sort of issues had been hidden from our view. On arrival at the Mission campground a fellow camper warned us of later that night when the ‘boomboxes get cranked up’, a reference to the younger generations with baseball caps worn backwards & a desire for modern technology before traditional culture. Again something we had not observed. References made by previous visitors to the town in Wikicamps warned of the propensity that the town’s youngsters have for ‘relieving’ visitors of their belongings. None of this fitted with our experience to date, some was obviously the embedded racism which is so pervasive in white Australian culture (& always denied and/or justified) but when the music began loudly a little after dark it would have been simple to feel uneasy if we had been unaware that this was the nightly blue light disco being put on for the kids during the school holidays underneath the basketball shelter. The sounds of the kids screaming, yelling & applauding told us how much fun they were having. Some of our campground neighbours, a lovely couple from Kalgoorlie who foster a young brother & sister from Kalumburu & who visit the town to facilitate the children’s ongoing connection to family & culture, as often as they can, happily allowed the kids go off to the disco. When the young pair returned after the disco finished at 8:30pm they were buzzing with stories of fun. Kids letting off steam, just running around ’chasing’ each other, playing basketball & even dancing sometimes! 🙂 Highlight of the evening had been the appearance of a snake on the ‘dance floor’, & many of the cheers had been for the young person who had grabbed it & taken it across the paddock to release it. When we heard the cheers I had imagined some sort of John Travolta/Saturday Night Fever ‘dance contest’. How wrong could I have been! Ha Ha. Post 8:30 the town was silent, far quieter than it had been out at McGowans camp ground.

The journey back southward was better than on the way up. Still rocky & corrugated, but the worst corrugated section between Kalumburu & our destination, the Munurru campground (100kms south of Kalumburu ) had just been graded, if only it had been so a week earlier! Chalk & cheese! A strong feature of this drive southward, as indeed it had been at Kalumburu was discussion about whether we should remain committed to our plan to take the turn off from the Kalumburu road & drive up onto the Mitchell Plateau to visit the iconic Mitchell Falls before continuing on to the third & last spot where it is possible to reach the North Kimberley coast by car, at Port Warrender. Whilst at Kalumburu we had spoken to quite a few others who had already been up to the falls prior to coming up to Kalumburu. Without a single exception all suggested we not take a car with a leaking shock absorber up there, many of them in the process of making repairs to damage sustained on that road, whilst camped at Kalumburu. Descriptions of the road up to the Plateau & the falls were horrendous. “Far far worse that what you have driven on to get to Kalumburu”. “A car wrecking road”. “Never again – the worst road I’ve ever been on, & I’ve been on plenty” & so on & so forth. MrsTea had already expressed her wish not to go based on the many descriptions & the advice that it would be foolish with an already leaking shocker …….. but so near yet so far …… what to do? I was not yet ready to relinquish the dream. We (MrsTea & I) agreed that we would first go to Munurru, a short distance along the Mitchell Plateau Rd, & make enquiries to the campground managers, a couple we knew via the Tvan owners page on Facebook, whom we knew to have a similar outfit to us. Information from the horses mouth as it were. My hope was that they would confirm my belief that things are rarely as bad as reported on the travellers grapevine. I was dismayed however when they too confirmed that the road was probably the worst it has been in many years at present, with at least 5 vehicles having destroyed shock absorbers in the past week. A section of the road which has been graded very recently had also claimed several windscreens and a driver’s side window, with accounts of the grading having been very badly done, pulling rocks & large boulders out of the ground & making the road worse still. Further discussion with the driver of an Outback Spirit 4wd tour coach brought forth the response “ Mate, it’s the roughest I’ve ever seen it, no way would I take my own vehicle up there at the moment, especially as the falls aren’t even flowing”. The final nail in the coffin was a brief conversation with a chap who has recently driven both the Munja track & the Mitchell Plateau road as far as the falls. He said he’d have no qualms driving the Munja again, but no way would he take his vehicle back up to the falls whilst the road was “like that”. It is with regret that we will save experiencing the Mitchell Falls & beyond (the road beyond the falls is described as even worse) for a return trip in the future, & at least that way we stand a chance of seeing the falls flowing. What a bummer! But for the foreseeable future the car & Tvan are our home & whilst one has to expect fair wear & tear travelling as we do, we don’t want to wreck them just to say “We done it”.

Brolga

Munurru itself was a lovely campground situated on the banks of the King Edward River, alongside a deep section perfect for swimming. The water feels pleasantly comfortable within just a few seconds of the temperature shock of initial immersion, & the 30 degree C winter temperatures ensure no chill factor when getting out even if there is a breeze blowing. Floating up & down the river watching birds in the tall paperbarks along the banks was like meditating. The campground is well serviced with toilets & the sites are all a good distance apart so there is no chance of being disturbed by inconsiderate neighbours, & lend themselves to an immersive bush camping experience.This is a place which retains it’s full dawn chorus because it has been established in a manner sympathetic to the needs of wildlife as well as humans. As I write this a young Brolga has just walked by. It’s a good place to chill out for a few days & in our view a worthy destination in it’s own right. It has more than swimming & birds though. Close by are two of the Kimberley’s better known & documented rock art sites where it is easy to spend a day wandering around & delighting in the natural rock formations looking for both Wanjina & Gwion art. We initially borrowed a book with maps showing the location of paintings, but later learned that it was a guide written by a whitefella who only wished to list & categorise & who it seemed to us displayed an out of date arrogant attitude which understandably has not sat well with the Traditional Owners of this country. It helped us find some of the paintings, but added little to our understanding of meaning.

River swimming at Munurru was very pleasant
Textures around the rocks
Texture of Rock

As it turned out a new book, many years in the making was released the day before we arrived there, this one with both extensive involvement & the blessing of the appropriate aboriginal elders. We were privileged to be lent a ‘pre-release copy by the camp managers Ian & Alana. It is far more than a guide book & covers more than just Munurru art, but is easy to read & we wish we had had access to it before coming to the Kimberley. Anyone who is interested in Aboriginal Rock art would do well to read a copy before coming up here if possible, it will add a significant element to your travels. I don’t have an ISBN number, but the book is called “We Are Coming To See You” by Sylvester Mangolamara, Lily Karadada, Janet Oobagooma, Donny Woolagoodja & Jack Karadada. Compiled by Kim Doohan. I believe it will be available from both the Dambimagari Aboriginal Corporation, ( www.dambimangari.com.au) & the Wunambal Gaambera Abororiginal Corporation (www.wunamgaambera.org.au ) & possibly from Fremantle Press https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/projects/nyara-pari-kala-niragu-gadawara-ngyaran-gada-inganinja-gubadjoongana-we-are-coming-to-see-you ).

EDIT: Here is a direct link to purchase the book referred to above (Thanks Laurie) https://wunambalgaaambera.worldsecuresystems.com/we-are-coming-to-see-you-book-purchase

The new book.

We had noticed the noise under the car shortly after leaving Munurru. It didn’t go away. At first we explained it as the noise of rocks thrown up by the tyres hitting the underside of the vehicle, but by the time we had Drysdale Station it was obvious that this explanation was not the case. It was a loud knocking noise & getting louder but was not consistent. On the drive back to the camp spot by the Gibb River a few kms north of the junction with the GRR the previous billiard table like road surface on the 50+km stretch from Drysdale south to the junction had deteriorated tremendously in the 12 days or so we had been ‘up north’. It was horrible, made worse by the returned knocking noise. We stopped multiple times to re-arrange things, tie down stuff, wedge towels around things etc etc inside the canopy to try to determine & stop the cause. Nothing worked & it was a relief to stop for the night alongside the Gibb River where we managed to put the noise issue aside, collected wood & had a pleasant evening under the stars & a camp oven dinner. At some stage we bought several Fray Bentos tinned steak & kidney pies & had already had two previous disappointing results. One where the puff pastry failed to puff, & one where it puffed up nicely but 50% of the meat & gravy burned & stuck to the bottom of the tin. Here the Fray Bentos gods smiled upon us & we enjoyed a perfectly cooked steak & kidney pie. The secret it seems is minimal coals underneath the camp oven, a double trivet inside to lift the tin off the direct heat, & lots of good coals on the lid to make the pastry rise & it’s layers separate. Baked spuds & steamed broccoli went down well after what had been a long day.

The next day the noise grew ever worse & the day even longer! The GRR east of the Kalumburu junction was in horrible shape, consistent & unavoidable big corrugations, even in the rocky sections, saw us again stopping several times. I thought I had finally found the culprit, a nut, finger tight only, on the end of a bolt which passes through one of the two rubber bushes on the driver side control arm. The Patrol has what is known as a live axle & this design requires a heavy control arm on both sides of the car to hold the axle square to the car’s chassis. It appeared that the axle was moving up & down with every ‘hit’ received from every one of the millions of corrugations. This fitted with where the noise now seemed to be coming from & the fact that I could feel the knocking through the floor with my feet as we drove. My knowledge was insufficient to determine whether we were doing further damage by driving & so I tried to drive as sympathetically as I could. We averaged 20kph for approximately 200 ‘shaken & stirred’ kilometres before pulling over for the night at a lovely little hideaway off the road known as Spider Hole, a clearing among tall grass & alongside a small waterhole, a location which clearly supported a large & varied population of finches, honey eaters & other birds. We did take a break en route to this little slice of loveliness, calling into Ellenbrae Station to sample their renowned scones & to see if we might get any useful mechanical advice. MrsTea enjoyed her large scone with jam & cream, & I too took a punt on one without cream (urghh yuk), & thoroughly enjoyed it without unpleasant results despite it not being gluten/wheat free. I was however not in the happiest frame of mind & focussed my grumpy whinging upon the fact that for $4 each, we were given a tea bag & pointed in the direction of the cups & urn to make our own. The mechanical advice from the workshop which was doing a roaring trade in replacement tyres & puncture repairs was to take it slow & steady to Kununnura or call out the RAC to recover us, at a cost of $1800, of which our membership would cover $1200. I ,& the chap advising me felt the chances of me doing more than $600 damage were low if I continued to drive, plus we had seen the recovery trucks whizzing along the GRR at a great rate of knots, flicking rocks up everywhere & had not been impressed, & had decided that having our Tvan towed behind one of these was not something we’d like to chance if we didn’t have to………. & so we continued on.

This bush camp spot called Spider Hole had lots of birds around.

Next morning we passed by Home Valley Station, crossed the Pentecost River, & finally reached sealed road (Phew!) at the turn off to El Questro. We had no difficulty passing both Home Valley & El Questro, both fully fledged tourist operations – the Macdonalds of the GRR. Enjoyed by many but we didn’t want ‘Fries with that’ as many obviously did judging by the almost constant flow of large caravans onto their access roads. The moment we hit bitumen the noise disappeared & we could drive the remaining 90kms or so to Kununurra with not a shred of evidence that anything was amiss! We did however keep our speed down to 60kph max, just in case, a fact nor appreciated by a truck driver caught behind us in the last few kms into town. He took it upon himself to abuse me via the UHF radio, & became even more abusive following my attempt to explain & to teach him some better manners! 😀 Another driver whom we had had radio contact with whilst ‘limping’ along the GRR was behind the truck, unknown to me, but I recognised the voice when he in turn gave the truckie a dressing down. We turned off & the truck went past, but it’s driver continued a tirade of abuse for some time until out of range. MrsTea & I were somewhat bemused & amused by this, & enjoyed meeting up with our supporter when he pulled in behind us at Kununurra’s Hidden Valley Caravan Park.

Our photo of the iconic Pentecost River Crossing is under par compared to most. No water to cross as usual so far less spectactular.

Kununurra is a small town with a population of around 5 to 6000 people & supports a fairly widespread agricultural industry made possible by irrigation from the huge man made Lake Argyle dam. Diamond mining has also been significant, but we were told this is declining now. Kununnurra is also the major tourist centre for the east Kimberley, with the population doubling between June & September. It was busy when we arrived & the annual tourist demand for the limited mechanical services available was at it’s height. Having consulted a couple of locals we were put off from one emporium of spanners & oil, but left with the choice of taking our pick from the remaining four. Highest recommended was Kununurra 4wd, handy as they could source a pair of shock absorbers for us within a week from Perth, (none to fit our vehicle in stock) & could also get a replacement oil pressure sender unit to take the place of our one which had fallen apart. The bad news was that it would be at least 2 weeks before they could fit us in to replace the control arm bushes. However they sent us to one of the other mechanic services in town whom for what will become obvious reasons I will refrain from naming. This place could fit us in two days later. It gave us time to complete & post a couple of blogs, do some grocery shopping & the opportunity to spend some time walking in the small Mirima National Park. The latter a nice surprise – a NP right within the town’s boundaries. With the control arm bushes replaced we would then have four days before the new shock absorbers & oil pressure sensor would be available. Perfect for us to nip up to Cape Domett, a little known, & reputedly difficult coastal spot to find, approximately 150kms north of Kununurra. We had been told about it by friends who tour in 4wd vehicles, & they had supplied us with GPS tracks to follow.

Kununnurra
Inside Hidden Valley (Mirima National Park) alongside the caravan park we were staying in.

At 8am I arrived at the mechanic’s place to get the control arm bushes replaced. From the outset the chaps total lack of customer relationship skills had me wondering how on earth he managed to stay in business. As he sat at the computer, face palming himself & exclaiming “Oh Christ, what the f***, it just shouldn’t be like this” I had a bad feeling. His single employee came in briefly, only to have the chap continue in the same vein as though I were invisible. I was watching a man who clearly in my past professional opinion displaying all the hallmarks of depression, & thinking this is the bloke who is going to be working on my car! After the young offsider returned to the workshop I made an attempt to engage the chap. “Looks like I’m not the only one who has a few issues going on” I said, “You been here long?’. “3 f***’in years” he said “& it’s shit”. His wife & receptionist arrived & he disappeared into the workshop, she obviously bright & bouncy, in my mind seemed used to ‘covering’ for him. Conversation with her revealed that the problem he was grappling with was not financial or relationship based as I had privately considered, but rather that a car he had been working on still had a leaking coolant system. He had tried replacing the radiator cap with a new one off the shelf but the new one still leaked & he had thrown away the old one which apparently had been ok. Run of the mill/small potatoes in the daily life of a car mechanic I would have thought but here we were were looking at the end of the world as we knew it …… and he was yet to look at my car! At the very least the I had concerns about how distracted he might be when working on my car. I stood in the reception area looking into the workshop close to the ’Strictly No Admittance’ sign. At no point did his body language give me cause for optimism, & his young offsider appeared to be working hard to support the chap whilst avoiding getting an earful himself. As far as either of them were concerned I might just as well have no longer been there. I ignored the sign, entered the workshop & approached them both underneath my car on the hoist. “Can’t see anything wrong” the mechanic said. I explained the symptoms as best I could & pointed to the control arm bush which showed signs of having been under duress. It’s outer face was cracked & split in several places & it had left marks around it’s circumference indicating movement which should not have been there. “Oh yeah” he said “ better replace’em” then” . I left the job with them, with as you might understand, some misgivings, returning several hours later after receiving a call to let me know the job was done. On arrival the mechanic & offsider were nowhere to be seen. The wife/receptionist told me “ He replaced the control arm bushes & checked the panhards which were ok” My request to see the damaged bush “for my own education” was met with “He’ll have chucked ‘em out” & my enquiry regarding warranty on the work carried out was met with a quizzical look & the comment “the parts will be covered by their manufacturer’s warranty”. It sure felt like I was being kept at arms length. Back at the caravan park I crawled under the car for a look. The job had been done, but the new bushes looked very different to those they had replaced, & my untrained eye was uncertain whether they may have been damaged during installation. I phoned & asked to speak to the mechanic saying I just had a small query & would like some reassurance. I listened as she explained my query to him & he then came on the phone & I asked simply why the new bushes looked different to the old ones. “Different brand” was his 2 word reply in a tone making it obvious that was as much as I was going to get. “So no problems then?” I ventured. “No” he said & handed the phone back to the woman whom I thanked & hung up feeling no better than before I’d called. The speed bumps in the caravan park made good substitute corrugations & my testing revealed no noise giving me cause for concern.

However during the drive up to Cape Domett the noise returned. I am sitting & writing this from beautiful Cape Domett. The sections of road with protruding rocks in the road surface gave information that wider corrugations could not. It allowed us to clearly confirm that only the drivers side was affected. No noise if driving over them with passenger side wheels only, & the noise only occurs when hitting a protrusion of several inches height, & no noise when doing other things which create significant suspension movement, such as entering & exiting steep sided gullies & creeks. I was cursing the mechanic believing him to have somehow screwed up the installation of the new control arm bushes.

Despite this mechanical saga backdrop, the drive to Cape Domett was enjoyable, & the last 30 or 40kms felt quite adventurous as we negotiated deep sand, desolate open areas where leaving the two wheel tracks by more than a few metres could see us disoriented, passing through our first ever boab forest , winding though ever narrowing bush tracks to emerge onto the clifftops with the view you see below, & to be the only people here. From Kununurra we had taken a little over 4 hours to negotiate the 150kms, & similarly to our time on the Munja Track feel that once again we are enjoying somewhere special that few get to see.

Boab Forest

During the early hours of this morning I lay thinking about ‘the noise’, ruminating upon it’s likely cause once again. Two facts became added to the mix during those twilight hours. 1. Whilst driving up here the noise had been less predictable than when on heavy corrugations & I began to wonder if indeed it might result from a rear driver side shock absorber which was no longer providing any damping. Maybe, just maybe the noise (& the feel through the floor) is from the rear leaf sprung suspension & not from the front. Perhaps I have been unduly harsh on the mechanic . Maybe a 10 leaf pack suspension will ‘knock’ when it hits a protruding ‘ridge’ if it’s shock absorber is shot? 2. The beginning of the ‘the noise’ could well be consistent with the shock absorber having failed completely, & perhaps it is possible for the leaf springs ‘self damping’ attribute, combined with the weight of vehicle & Tvan to mean that we would experience no ‘wallowing’ & ‘bouncing’ as I expected, particularly at the slower speeds I have been driving at. At the point of writing this I have no answers, but it offers reason for optimism. The new shocks, fitted in a couple of days time may rid us of this noise. I remain convinced that the control arm bush needed replacing, but it is just possible that it was not the cause of knocking noise. Fingers crossed – to be continued after we are back in Kununurra.

Cape Domett – low tide – looking out at ‘The Needles’.

Tomorrow will be a ’no worry’ day – We are in a wonderful spot to celebrate the beginning of my 62nd year on this planet.

Soldier crabs were everywhere.
The rocks here are multi-coloured & layered sandstone which locals call ‘Rainbow Rock’
Rock surfaces are heavily patterned

Next day – it was a good place to have a birthday. A walk along the beach, another through the mangroves at low tide exploring the rock pools & lots of just gazing out to sea. We were joined by two other couples, Ian & Michelle & Marco & Mona, who had driven to Cape Domett the ‘hard’ way, Their 3rd attempt over the past couple of years & the first time they have succeeded! Their array of recovery gear was way more extensive than ours, & needed in country where there were often no tracks, with hidden springs & bogs, but many remnants of old droving camps. eg.a name carved into a boab tree dated 1910 – somehow finding a ‘noddy’ mark like that which is over 100 years old seems more worthy than modern vandalistic grafitti! They were good people with lots of experience to share about their ‘local’ country & which they clearly loved with a passion, especially the history. Around mid day, a car arrived with two fisheries inspectors who examined the contents of our fridge & freezer. Who woulda thunk? So far from town & on a Sunday. Guess they fancied an outing. They were very formal & wore cameras on their clothing, presumably as a deterrent to beligerent drunk fishermen we imagine they might encounter in remote locations on occasions.

Low tide walk among the mangroves
Sunrise – High Tide

The drive back to town was a little quicker, just 4 hours as we didn’t get lost again, although did have a minor bogging in deep sand, but this was easily overcome.

As I type this, again at the Hidden Valley caravan park I am waiting, with crossed fingers, for the phone call from the 4wd shop to tell me they have fitted the new shock absorbers & oil pressure sensor & all is well.

Sometime later: ………………….. We are feeling somewhat shell shocked! The phone call came a short time ago but all was not well. The good news is that the oil pressure sensor has been fitted. The bad news is that shock absorbers did not turn up & may or may not arrive tomorrow. The worse news is that we have a broken leaf spring on the drivers side rear. The top leaf has snapped where it coils around the front mount. Very difficult to see. At present we are waiting to find out our options, but a cost of close to $2000 has been mentioned for a pair of replacement leaf packs with a possible waiting time for up to 3 weeks for replacements to be sourced & freighted to Kununurra. BUGGER! At present we are hoping that this is worst case scenario & that other options might be found. Fingers crossed!


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