Saturday, 9 August 2008

Windjana Gorge

7/08/08 Fitzroy Crossing – Tunnel Creek NP – Windjana Gorge NP 145(6612)kms

Our revised plans for Fitzroy Crossing were revised again after our wonderful day at Geikie Gorge, so we departed after our customary slow start. With Sue's back flaring up and reducing her ability to do her share without risking further pain, our pack up was lengthened somewhat, especially when the tent had been our bedroom.

Only 43 km of sealed road passed the tyres of the 150 km to be travelled before our first stop and that was in the first half hour from Fitzroy Crossing. I pulled over as soon as we turned onto the Leopold Downs Rd and dropped the tyre pressures on car and trailer for the sometimes stony, sometimes sandy, all times rough conditions we would face in the run up to Windjana Gorge - the sternest test for our vehicles so far. I wasn't worried about the Forester as it is built for these conditions but our revamped trailer might have new springs but it has at its heart a 30 year old axel. The first ten km - as warned by locals - were rough and included some deep sand sections, flinty rock and those jarring corrrrrreeeeeegaaaations. At the Oscar Range Mine turn off, conditions evened out but never became good in the remaining 107kms to Windjana. Leopold Downs (Wamali Galamanda) is a cattle station now run and owned by an indigenous collective and has been featured on Australian Story and the 7:30 Report as an example of what can be achieved between reconciled people. It passed by without invitation. About ten km further on, I took on my first water crossing of the trip - a puddle in reality - but added a sterner test not long afterwards with a short, sharp dip into about 20cm of water which was flowing across the road. I walked us through with no problems and the car did its bit too. It was a Tim The Tool Man moment and I celebrated with appropriate aural retort.
Jabiru or Black Necked
The great delight of our day came not long afterwards. We had just crawled through a dry but very rough creek crossing and climbed up the far slope and round a sharp right hand bend and standing there, completely out of context, was a Black-Necked Stork or Jabiru. This feathered fish out of water stood there, a metre tall, on a dry savannah plain. These are wetland creatures. We photographed our mystery, watched it for five or so minutes and moved on to Tunnel Creek.

The shaking, rattling and shaking (and some more rattling) hit the pause button about twenty km after our Jabiru encounter when we arrived at Tunnel Creek NP.

I may have mentioned that during the Devonian Period - so named because everyone was eating devon - a sea existed throughout north western Australia and in the process of doing sea things, it formed a limestone reef which has subsequently become these huge pock-marked rock walls which rise above the landscape for no apparent reason. They are mostly grey-black where they have faced the weather the longest but also have orange expanses where parts of the limestone have fallen out with each other. There are bands and smears of pink which smarter men than me have determined to be coral. Because these walls are made of limestone, their appearance of strength is an illusion because - you guessed it - just add water and you have a chemical reaction which forms a weak acid strong enough to eat rock, make holes, caves and ... tunnels. The creek has scoured a perfectly meandering tunnel through this reef - 850m in length - at the very base of its 80m height. The entrance is found over and passed man-sized and bigger boulders. Once the way in is found – there are no signs through the final boulder field – the introduction to the cave is a wet one. You drop straight into thigh deep water and wade twenty metres to the sand bank opposite where Sue stood waiting. About halfway across she was good enough to tell me a big brown snake had been sighted earlier in this very pool. Nice one Sue.

Tunnel Creek
The tunnel varies in height but never below its wet season water height of about four metres. In places, the roof is much higher where caverns have formed. Here, impressive stalactite formations - some three metres thick at the roof - loom out of the darkness and into your torchlight. You walk on sand drifts on the insides of bends and do a bit of rock scrambling too but the fun comes when you wade through the creek in the darkness so you can go from sand drift to sand drift. Sometimes up to your knees in cold running water, the current location of the resident freshwater crocodiles enters you mind, plays there awhile until you remember the snake and it goes on to make a mess of your stomach and beyond. How dark is it? Well, mostly you have that light at the end of the tunnel affect happening, but in two spots, it wouldn’t matter what was at the end of your nose because you wouldn’t have seen it.

Halfway along, the roof has collapsed letting in light and a colony of red flying foxes. They screech their complaints long and loud like a school full of complaining year three children, but our teacher training helped us ignore it. When we got to the southern end of the tunnel, we sat for an hour and watched birds and enjoyed the sight of the approaching creek ignoring us as it went on the slow deconstruction process its billion year contract called for. It was a moment to feel small in the face of God's creation.

Tunnel Creek is a place of great cultural significance for it had once been the hideout for the area's most famous aboriginal outlaw, Jandamarra. Outlaw? Actually, many would say freedom fighter. In the late 19th century, Jandamarra had been an athletic youngster who took to the art of horse riding, shooting, cattle mustering like a much older hand, so much so that by 14 he was working on the major cattle station of the area, Lillimurra (the incorrectly spelled aboriginal place name of the area). He worked with a young white called Richardson who became his great friend. Jandamarra underwent his initiation under the watchful eye of Ellemarra, the senior man in the local mob. The cattle station went bust and Jandamarra's mate Richardson became the local policeman. Looking after his mate, Richardson gave Jandamarra the job of being his tracker. Meanwhile, there was trouble brewing between black and white over indigenous resentment that sacred land was being used as a channel to bring white man's cattle into the area (Windjana Gorge). A black party raided the white cattlemen and two whites where shot. The leading men of the Buruba - one of them Ellemarra - where rounded up and held in the Lillimilura Police Station by Richardson. Whilst there, spirits are said to have entered Jandamarra, probably at Ellemarra's urging and he put a pistol to his mate's temple, farewelled him and became an outlaw. He subsequently became the leader of a gang of "revolutionaries' who caused white settlers no end of trouble.

Jandamarra's reputation grew after he was believed mortally wounded in an exchange with police in Windjana Gorge and his recovery and reappearance gave him a ghost-like reputation. After three years on the run and using Tunnel Creek as a hideout, he was finally shot and killed by another aboriginal tracker, Mungo Mick, at the northern entrance to the tunnel.

Check out the pictures we have of Tunnel Creek which were taken with the fairly limited phone camera. I had climbed over the rocks at the entrance, was shocked to have to jump down in thigh-deep water a second time, after having to return several hundred metres to the car to get the forgotten camera. Triumphantly, I waded to Sue on the closest bank, ignoring her snake stories. It was then I realised I didn't have any film in my camera!

Entrance to Windjana Gorge
The final act of this amazing day was the drive to Windjana Gorge, which would be our home for the next three days. Either the road had improved or my tolerance for it had, because it was plain sailing all the way to the campsite. The campsite area was quite exposed but dust is abated somewhat by the common practice in the north of slashing the speargrass which dominates these savannah plains and letting it lay as an effective mat against blown dust. The mown campsite area is more or less a large circle in the speargrass with smaller trees providing much sought after shade from soaring afternoon temperatures. Flushing septic toilets and cold water showers are luxuries provided from a bore in the park. His name was Kevin. All water in the park is 100% pure for drinking. We set up camp as the entrenched campers looked on - an old camping tradition - and after a cuppa, we wandered along a track, rough-cut in the speargrass, which took us down to the gorge. It was all very non-descript savannah grasses, shrubs and stunted trees until the track dipped slightly, crossed a small wooden bridge and then arrived at a man-sized split in the rock before disappearing inside. To the left, we caught a tree-filtered view of a wide expanse of sand running along the face of a high rock wall and the last thing we heard was a flight of corellas noisily flying somewhere else.

The narrow rock tunnel was perhaps twenty metres long but it may as well have been from the back of CS Lewis' imagination and out of a small wardrobe, because the world we arrived in was not the one we left. A wide river bed spread to our left and still green water could be seen increasingly in control of the sand the further you looked ahead. To our right was a limestone wall which hurt the neck to follow to where blue sky took over. Whites and pinks at its feet gave way to deep greys with orange slashes, like motionless muddy footballers in fresh jerseys after half-time on a rainy day. Between these views, a grove of mostly paperbarks, old but strong from resisting the fast flowing advances of a wet season suitor. A few Leichardt trees filled any gaps and one or two figs stood confused, thinking this wonderland was a rainforest. Coarse limestone sand was everywhere and five or more degrees had been stripped from what already felt like "that other world".

Sunset at Windjana Gorge
In the next thirty minutes before sunset, we stood on the bank above the dry season remains of the Lennard River and watched Archer Fish spit at dragonflies for supper, barramundi glide past so slow as to belie their lightning reflexes and freshwater crocodiles lazy swim along, content that months might pass between decent feeds. Birds were still busy but doing the last of their daily business. Then without prior knowledge, we became passengers without tickets in a glorious ten minute journey as the setting sun ignited flames in the adjoining walls and they reflected this glow into the grove. Walt was back in Disneyland. It was magic no magician could ever conjure because it required no slight of hand, no suspended reality. This was beautiful but very, very real.

8/08/08 Windjana Gorge NP

The half hour taste of the previous evening had left us with a desire for the main course. Unfortunately, Sue had a dreadful night with pain and discomfort from her quarrelsome back, so she had to be thorough with exercises which included pushing a few trees over. This meant we weren't the earliest on the track. However, an 8:00am start had us out before the majority. Our aim was to walk the 7km return journey to the end of the gorge.

Freshies along the Lennard River
Quickly going further than the previous evening, we were soon engulfed by sheer walls on either side of the river, as our track wound its way mostly along the eastern bank but occasionally dipping onto the large sand banks in the river bed. Like all visitors to Windjana, a morning walk draws your attention to only one thing ... crocodiles. Although they are freshwater crocs and therefore not man-eaters, these are much bigger specimens than those at Katherine Gorge. Many of these crocs are in the 2.5 to 3.5 m long range and although they couldn't swallow you, they could remove enough pieces to make dressing difficult and guarantee lots to talk about at parties. My rough count chalked up 59 crocs within eyesight along a three hundred metre stretch. We walked on and the crowds thinned to the occasional passing "g'day" which was answered in their language of choice but always in an attempt to repeat my greeting. I always have fun with that. We saw and photographed heaps of birds but didn't make it to the end of the track. I've reached a stage where such achievements are of little importance and finally understand the importance of the journey over the destination. Sue lay on the track for a while and reprised her exercises whilst I gutten tagged another bewildered couple who wanted to know the way to the railway station.

A colony of bats marked our turning point for home but not before more photos and scroggin for morning tea. Ah, scroggin - one of those things you can only enjoy sitting in a river bed with a bottle of water and one of those postcard views no one else will believe is real. Sue and I sat there happy prisoners in the moment.

The return trip was highlighted by our discovery of the bower of a Great Bower Bird. Similar to the Satin Bower Bird for all you easterners, only this bloke collects white things to decorate the tunnel he has constructed out of sticks. Then when his lady comes around, he dances his finest bird boogie in the bower in order to woo her. Cheaper than chocolate, dinner and a movie but a whole lot more work!

The heat of the day was paid homage with sleep, games and endless cups of tea before we went back to record another fabulous sunset. I wrote for the first time of the trip – a poem about sensing my Mum with me in this beautiful place (Waiting). Sue's back was responding to treatment and we shared an evening cup of tea and conversation with a couple from Holland and Germany via Sydney and Port Macquarie.

9/08/08 Windjana Gorge NP 70 (6632) kms

My sister-in-law turns 40 today. I still remember when she was a birthday cake terrorist at 9, wrecking chocolate cakes with Pepsi incendiaries. Our spirits will be with her tonight even though hers won't be in us.

Sue woke pain free and slept with comfort after a rare sleep in. I rose early and wrote again. This place makes my senses jangle.

Not much on the agenda today: mostly enjoying the perversity of wasting time. In the morning we went out to the ruins of the Lillimilura Police Station, where Jandamarra shot his policeman friend What a stark, hostile place only 4 km from the gorge. We had another dose of the beginning of the gorge but I'm fast getting over crocodiles and the way people are blind to everything else about this place. At one stage we were observing some delightful birds and pointed them out to a passer by who shrugged his shoulders and asked us if we had see any crocs. It's always so pleasing when your point is made so powerfully by the ignorant! Not withstanding this point of view, Sue decided she wanted to walk down onto the big sand bar which is beside the main croc haunt in the mornings so she could observe some crocs on the far bank and those swimming in the water but we left when one of the larger crocs swam in our direction with some degree of urgency. As he didn't have his hand up, I knew he didn't wish to ask a question. We rounded a large pink striated boulder of ancient coral away from the main gathering of crocs and began looking for odd bods - crocs off by themselves. Both of us were about four metres from the water's edge, a metre or so of which was in shadow. We were in bright, blinding sunshine. As Sue stepped forward to the water's edge, my eyes suddenly adjusted and saw two crocs lying in the shadow, now less than three metres away. It’s the first time Sue has immediately done as she was told since 20/01/79.

We left in brown corduroys, as one does in such circumstances, making a discrete retreat - running and screaming up the beach, down the track and out of the gorge and warning everyone we met, probably for months. Actually, walking slowly back to the entrance we spotted two Corellas paired quietly in a tree nook and had the greatest pleasure to watch and photograph an elusive pair of Rainbow Bee Eaters. I have seen them everywhere I have gone on this holiday and when I don't, I'll know my Mum has gone. They are her favourite bird.

Rest, cuppas, sunset, stars, conversations with strangers, reading and sleeping filled in the rest of the day. Derby tomorrow and 12m tides, hot water and contact with the outside world!

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