Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Kimberley in Ten Days: Part II

For Part I, go here.

The next morning we got up early, wolfed down some oatmeal in the hotel room, and were out the door by 8:00 to head to Purnululu National Park. Sharon was doing the driving to the park and then I would take over to handle the off-road trail. As usual, the highway was mostly empty, though it had a bit more traffic than the leg from Broome to Halls Creek.

Along the way a big hawk lazily swooped in front of us. A little too lazily. Like seriously, bird, get the hell out of the -- whump!! The hawk ploughed into the bull bar and then tumbled up over the hood to smack the windshield, where the wind peeled it off and tossed it to the side of the road.

Whereas I had been personally responsible for the fate of the crow, now that Sharon was doing the damage it was the bird's fault. "There's nothing around for miles and he has to hit my car? These birds are so stupid!" she yelled incredulously.

Two birds in two days. At this rate we'd kill an entire flock by the end of the trip.
Besides taking out birds, we killed our fair share of bugs. This is what the windshield looked like after a few days. These are all bug splatters.

The distance from Halls Creek to the trail heading into Purnululu was 180 kms, which we covered in about an hour and a half. The trail to the park was roughly 50 kms. This distance alone took us another couple hours to navigate. The trail cuts through a giant cattle station called Mabel Downs; the staff maintain it for tourists and for their own use, but it's by no means a smooth ride. The trail at its best is corrugated gravel but is interrupted by steep inclines, hairpin turns, creek crossings, mud, and large rocks.

The first creek crossing was several truck lengths in distance and I wasn't sure how deep it would go. I was mindful of the rental car policy that we shouldn't drive in anything that was deeper than halfway up the tire. I wasn't about to turn around at this point, however, and operating under the assumption that if other people had made it through, we could too, we eased in.  This was the first of many creek crossings, all of which proved to be shorter (though not necessarily shallower).
Creek crossing numero uno.

Once we arrived in the park, the road conditions improved a bit. We checked in with the visitor center and drove to our campsite, pulled into our designated spot, and parked to make some lunch and set up some gear.

As we had bounced and jostled up and down the hills of the trail towards the park we smelled gasoline in the truck. We had a 20 liter jerry can in the back so that was no doubt the source of the smell. We had opened the windows to air it out but never thought to stop to investigate. While I don't recall consciously having this thought, I'm sure a part of my brain rationalized the smell by thinking: "The ambient temperature in the car is rising, which would make the gasoline molecules become more active and expand, so of course you'd be smelling gasoline. That's science. God, you're an intelligent man, Adam."

Unfortunately, it turns out I am not.

Upon opening the back door, we discovered that probably a good liter of gasoline had leaked out of a loose cap and coated the cargo area and a number of our things. We wiped up what we could with the paper towels we had and cursed ourselves for not stopping to check the smell out early on.

We made a quick lunch and then drove another thirty minutes to see the Bungle Bungle Range. The Bungle Bungle Range, or the Bungles for short, are probably the prime attraction in the Kimberley. They are a huge collection of beehive-shaped domes of alternating orange and grey sandstone. I suppressed any concerns of the car overheating and igniting the gasoline and we made the short hike into the park.
The Bungles.

The Bungles weren't my favorite stop on our trip, but they certainly were the most awe-inspiring. Hundreds and hundreds of domed peaks rose around us. Sharon took this video right at the trail head:

We followed the trail to a spot called Cathedral Gorge, where a huge cavern had been carved out of the rock face. 
Hiking  into Cathedral Gorge -- check out the orange on that cliff!

The Cathedral end of Cathedral Gorge.

We followed the trail back to a junction and headed off to Picaninny Creek. The dry creak bed was solid rock, and had these incredible, deep grooves in it from the wet season's torrents of water. About a hundred meters up the creek bed the creek still had water. Further on it begins to wind its way through the Bungles. With permission from the visitor center you can hike to the start of the gorge and camp overnight. Sharon and I tried to walk up it as far as possible but quickly ran out of dry land; on one side there were sheer cliffs and on the other there was a gentle slope covered in razor sharp grass up to our waists.
Picanniny Creek.
The grooves cut in the creek bed.

Picanny creek heads into the Bungles
View from the lookout.

We took another 600m trail to a point overlooking a valley and some more domed rocks in the distance and then  hiked back to the parking lot. The entire experience took about two hours; thankfully a wisp of cloud muted the sun's heat, but we were still sweaty and dirty. Unfortunately, our campground had no shower facilities so we wouldn't be cleaning up for a while; the sanitary wipes we bought came up brown when we wiped down our faces and necks.

I commented to Sharon that if this were America there would be a two lane highway leading right up to a vast blacktop parking lot and there would be a huge gift shop selling dome-shaped plush toys. There's something to be said for accessibility, but also something to be said for making people put in an effort to experience a place like the Bungles. This was worth the haul.

Back at camp, we started cooking our dinner around 5:00pm and quickly learned that it gets dark at 5:30. And by dark I mean pitch black. It was amazing how fast the daylight disappeared. The lanterns did what they could to cut through the blackness, but we essentially cooked and ate in the dark (the lanterns also had the unfortunate side effect of attracting about a million bugs). Sharon was mostly interested in the camp cuisine of others. Looking through some trees to our nearest neighbor, Sharon opined that the woman we saw preparing her meal was "probably like a professional camper."
Sharon cooking dinner.

There wasn't much to do after dinner. Sharon asked, "What do camp people do at night?"
"I don't know," I replied. "Chit chat I guess."

We sat there in the dark a while longer.

"Isn't this fun?" I asked.
"This is not fun."

With nothing else to do, we climbed into the tent around 7:30 to go to sleep. A tour bus had just pulled into a nearby camping area reserved for groups, and we could hear them having a blast as the tour group staff set up camp and made their dinner.

We fell asleep to the carousing of our neighbors and the feint smell of gasoline.

I woke up at 3:00am and thought someone had a spotlight on us; when I opened the tent flap and walked outside I realized it was the moon. I'd never seen the moon shine so brightly. I could literally have gone for a walk with no flashlight and even thought about doing it, but figured I'd spook the few other campers.

* * *

On Wednesday morning we woke up around 6:30am, made what would be our usual oatmeal breakfast, packed up camp, and were on the road by 8:00am heading to the two other main sites in Purnululu: Little Palm Grove and Echidna Chasm.

I crossed one of the many creeks in the park and as we climbed the other side up we heard a loud hissing sound. We immediately knew we'd punctured a tire. "Shit! Shit shit shit!" I yelled. When I inspected the tire I saw that I'd punctured the side wall, which couldn't be patched. "That's going to be an expensive tire."

This was karmic revenge for killing the two birds, I told Sharon. (Come to think of it, Sharon also threw a rock at a termite mound).

We emptied some things from the cargo area of the truck so I could access the jack. When I lifted up the cover and grabbed the tools I discovered they were covered in gasoline; our jerry can had leaked more than we thought and leaked into more places than we thought.

I wiped off the spanner wrench and went to loosen the nuts on the tire. They wouldn't budge. I was using all my strength and they wouldn't move. I was actually moving the truck but not the nuts.

Since everyone in the outback is, in a sense, part of an exclusive club of explorers, a code of the road applies: whenever you see someone pulled over, you slow down and ask them if everything is okay. I embraced this ethic wholeheartedly and was constantly checking in on people. "Code of the road," I'd say every time Sharon looked up from her book when I decelerated.

Fortunately, the code of the road applied in Purnululu. A few people passed and offered help; one older couple said they had a spanner wrench with a longer handle that might give me the leverage I needed. With the use of their wrench I was finally able to get the nuts loose, but it required so much effort I burst blood vessels in my palms from the pressure. 

By the time I'd changed the tire we'd lost an hour. I was sweaty and covered in dust from laying on the ground to place the jack. And the jack wouldn't go back down, so if we had another flat we had one more spare but no means to put it on. I was now paranoid about driving over any rocks, which wasn't a good thing in Purnululu. But with the karma of the universe returned to balance, we climbed back in the truck and continued on our way.

Our next stop was Little Palm Grove. The park had very subtle signage and I missed the turn off because I thought the road was just a dry creek bed. Well, it was just a dry creek bed but it was also the road. And it was made entirely from small rocks. I eased along the path, just waiting for the tell-tale hiss of a burst tire. We made it to the small parking area and started the hike, which at the beginning followed the same creek bed we'd driven along. There was no tree cover along the creek so the sun was free to bake us to a crisp.

Thankfully the trail soon wound up and into a gorge which provided much-needed shade. The trail was the hardest yet -- we had to climb up and over rocks, squeeze between boulders, and forge our way up steep hills. It finally came to a lush grove full of palm trees. The little palms that give the grove its name are just young versions of the adult tall palms.
Pretty standard on the way to Little Palm Grove.
Little Palm Grove. The far side is the direction we came from.

From the grove a stairwell led up to a small observation deck overlooking a patch of virgin red soil. On either side cliffs rose up, tapering to a point where they met and created a huge, pitch black cave. This was off limits to tourists but I hopped the observation deck fence and climbed down the boulders to explore. A large number of other footprints indicated I wasn't the first to do this. I sprinted across the soil and into the cave with my flashlight out. I could hear bats in the upper reaches but couldn't see them. I felt bad that Sharon was still on the observation deck, so after a few minutes I clambered back up and sweated our way back to the carpark. A placard at the start of the trail estimated the hike took 2-3 hours; we did it in an hour and fifteen minutes.
View from inside the cavern; way at the end of the dirt where you can see some boulders is where the observation deck is.
View from the observation deck. The cave at the far side is where I took the previous photo from.

We jumped back in the truck, eased our way back down the creek bed, and zoomed further down the road to Echidna Chasm. This is, as the name implies, a rather large chasm that is only illuminated during midday when the sun is directly overhead (an echidna is one of Australia's many unique creatures and looks a little bit like a porcupine with a long, slender nose; I have no idea how it gave the chasm its name). The chasm was a quick hike from the parking lot and was cool and quiet.
Echidna Chasm.

By now it was about 1:00pm and we were headed back to Halls Creek for the night. We left the park and bounced and rattled our way back to the highway. Sharon gamely tried to nap. At one point I got waved down by a passing truck. "Oh no," I thought, "What now?" Turns out it was just our front license plate falling off.

Even though we'd only been camping one night, it felt great to get back to civilization. Sharon threw a load of laundry in the machine at our hotel, once again the Kimberley Hotel Halls Creek. I dumped a bunch of baking soda all over the back of the car to help soak up the gasoline and neutralize the smell. We'd be camping out the following three nights, so Sharon had the brilliant idea of chopping up the veggies for our dinners now so she wouldn't have to do it at the campsites.

When I came in from cleaning the car as best I could I jumped in the shower to wash off the grime of the previous two days. Something was partially blocking the drain and when I picked it up I saw it was an onion skin. I also found a piece of onion blocking the sink drain. These were the remnants of Sharon's prep work. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer starts prepping all his food in the shower.

One thing you need when camping are some beers to enjoy at the end of each day. We had forgotten to get get beer back in Broome and the lone, sad looking liquor store in Hall Creek was empty except for two coolers full of a suspicious-looking beer, so we picked up a six-pack from the hotel's sports bar. Things increase in price the farther you get from Broome, so this six-pack set us back a cool $34. We got yet another dinner at the hotel's sports bar and turned in for the night.

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