Monday, March 30, 2015

Cool dude on a hot day

Wil Thomas is one cool dude. You'd expect that, anyway, from that missing L - but he is, really. Not perhaps literally, though. The temperature was 38 degrees the morning I met him under a boab tree on Broome's Town Beach, and whereas I was in sandals, 3/4 pants and a light top, he was dressed in boots, black jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. He was sweating, by half time, I noticed - but then, so was I, and I'd spent most of the tour carefully edging into whatever shade was available (I'd have sat down too, if it wasn't for the blasted ants).

Anyway, Broome Historical Walking Tours. It's just Wil, and a booklet of reproduced black and white photos, and a walk around the locations in the pics. Plus talking, of course. That's the best part - Wil tells a mean story, and Broome gives him plenty of great material. He concentrates on the two things the town is best-known for: WW2 and pearling. In fact the air raids on Broome, like Darwin, were kept quiet by the government as far as the general populace was concerned during the war and for a long time afterwards its dramatic history remained widely unknown. It was all about morale: the Japanese almost obliterated the town in 1942 on a bombing raid that turned out to be unexpectedly profitable for them, and started a fire that pretty much finished the job for them.
There were 17 Catalinas moored in Roebuck Bay almost exactly 73 years before my tour with Wil, carrying Dutch refugees from Java on their way to Perth. Nine Zeroes swept in looking for military targets and were, presumably, delighted to find not only eight Air Force planes on the ground, but the Catalinas too, and no defensive fire. About 100 people died, most of them women and children refugees. Wil honoured Gus Winkle, who was horrifically heroic, as we stood by his grave. There was also a great story about a package of diamonds that got caught up in the melee - a classic Aussie yarn.

And then, as we walked along the seafront, poking at the damp sand with our toes to winkle out artefacts from those days, Wil told us about the Master Pearlers, the uses of mother-of-pearl shell, why the bends is called that, why the Japanese divers thought they would make their fortunes in Broome, about the appalling treatment of young, pregnant women, about Blackbirding, and sending the laundry to Singapore. Fascinating stuff. We ended up at the Broome Historical Museum (which prompts the question: what other sort is there?) which has plenty of interest of its own, presented in that slightly ramshackle way that I really enjoy in a small museum.

Altogether? An excellent way to spend $35 and an hour and a half. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nothing happened

Nothing much happened today. It was ridiculously hot, I hid away from it in my blissfully air-conditioned hotel room and did unsensational travel-writer stuff, and emerged at sunset to get the other side of the camel experience. There was some running, some kneeling on wet sand, some observation of presumably the least-favourite cameleer's job: picking up the poo behind the train.
Other observations: the Indian Ocean is unfeasibly warm; there are Stinger Relief stations along the beach (a letter box with a bottle of vinegar inside); the Cable Beach Club Resort does excellent chips - crispy outside, moist and soft inside, so little to ask, so hard to achieve. And a cute wee lizard waved at me: thankfully, not a blue tongue one.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Kimberley Quest: what's it like?

So, the Kimberley Quest is an expedition vessel with nine guest berths that cruises the Kimberley coast in the north-west of Australia during the Dry season. The cruises range from eight to fourteen days, but I'm on board - sadly - for just three nights. We're getting the full deal, though, with lots of the optional extras: there's been cruising, fishing, star-gazing, tender excursions (not as loved-up as that sounds, actually), helicopter trips, Aboriginal rock art, bush walks and a swimming hole. Plus food! Two breakfasts are standard, lunch is big, dinner is bigger, and Riss the chief stewardess is solicitousness incarnate.

It's not one of those fancy Caribbean charters where the staff flit around unobtrusively: this is Australia, and the crew mix freely with the guests, and everyone is of course on first-name terms. That makes for a much more interesting experience, as they all have good stories to tell (many involving crocs, naturally.) But the service is excellent and everyone does their job well. Louis will even, when required, do a pre-swim croc-spotting snorkel, which to me seems to be going above and beyond. (I wasn't exaggerating, about the croc stories.)
The cabins all vary a bit - mine was in the bow, a double bed with ensuite, fridge, wardrobe and room to move around. Everything is neat and ship-shape, it feels pretty new, and it's definitely comfortable. We guests have full run of the boat, from the back deck where most meals are taken, through the galley/living room area, where the air conditioning is bliss each time we come back aboard from an outing, up to the wheelhouse, where owner/operator Jeff sits behind his bank of screens (one of them showing the cricket). Out on the front deck, there's a spa bath - and that's an odd experience, to sit in water on top of water surrounded by water. Olivia's frequent visits to offer drinks meant water (or liquid, anyway) inside as well.
Tim is the resident authority on nature and history, geological and hunan, and showed us some Aboriginal rock art under an overhang that he'd spotted by chance one day when bird-watching as the boat cruised past - what are the odds? Actually, pretty high: the indigenous people have been roaming this area, inhospitable as it looks to my eyes (trackless, crocs, stingers, snakes etc, formidable tides) for many thousands of years: Tim estimated some of the paintings we saw were 40,000 years old, and that the landscape conceals uncountable examples, most of which are, and probably will remain, undiscovered.

That is one of the very special things about the Kimberley: as well as being stunningly beautiful, it's an ancient land, and a dangerous one. Calling the Kimberley Quest an expedition vessel rather than just a motor yacht isn't an affectation - that's exactly what it is. All that comfort is just icing on the cake.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Back to Broome

Another perfect morning, another aerial pickup - except this one was more sorry than fun. We had had one last fishing expedition, trolling this time, for barra of course, but apart from a brief sighting of a dolphin, there were no fish and we had to put up with more orange rocks, more turquoise sea, more huge sky, tch. And then the seaplane came to pick us up from the Kimberley Quest and take us an hour back to Broome, over the pretty impressive Buccaneer Archipelago.
After a lot of sandbars, swirling waters, islands, scoops of sandy beaches and mangrove swamps, we reached the mainland proper which was bush. Bush and the occasional ruler-straight bright orange dirt road:
And then we were back in Broome, with a population of around 13,000 (probably more, it's hard to count the indigenous people) but feeling like London after our time out in the wilderness. Well, London with frangipani trees and lotuses and palms. And heat. Oh dear, the heat! Up around 36 degrees ("feels like 44" my phone said, helpfully), it was all getting a bit much for me; but there was no foregoing Red Sun Camels on Cable Beach.
It's obligatory, you know. And though the boy mounting me (so to speak) was crabby and hurt my foot shoving it into the stirrup (he got his comeuppance later, when a camel trod on his), the ride itself was just lovely and Chris the camel behaved himself. The tide was right out, the beach was wet and reflective, 4WDs lined the sand to watch us against the sunset, and there was just enough haze on the horizon for us to enjoy the moment without worrying about being blinded. Plus, there was the green flash. Perfect.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Spectacular stuff

Sunrise was a gold and sepia affair over a glossy, calm sea this morning and, after first breakfast, we went out in the tenders to do a spot of fishing. Of course, barra was the aim, but it was rock cod that we caught, none of which we kept. To be honest, I was distracted by the March flies biting my ankles - horrible big, black horsefly things, that drew blood and, I was to discover, left huge itchy welts. So I didn't give my full attention to the barra that was, finally, caught, ironically by the one vegetarian on board. She wanted to release it, but it took things into its own hands (?) and managed to dive back before the obligatory boastagraph was taken.Then I miscast and solidly hooked her shoulder, which was clearly karma.
After second breakfast, there was another chopper ride (ho hum) over St George Basin to Mt Trafalgar, an orange-streaked mesa rising above the bush that was higher and bigger than nearby Mt Waterloo (names bestowed by a British navy man, obviously). Getting up high like this certainly allows an appreciation of the vastness of this country, and engenders admiration for the explorers, both indigenous and European, who found their way around it.
Cruising the Prince Regent River up to King Cascade Falls was the cue for the Ginger Meadows story, just to underline this point. You can read the dramatic full story here but the short version is that in 1987 this young American swam in the pool beneath the falls and was taken by a croc, her armless body recovered a couple of days later. The Falls are gorgeous, so perfectly arranged as the water cascades down stepped rocks where bright green grasses grow, that it looks totally landscaped - but the pool below is murky with silt. Stopping beneath the Falls, we crossed the pool in the tenders and climbed up another rocky and sweaty "path" (there was a rope involved) to the lovely waterhole at the top, too high and scrambly for a croc to get to. That's the theory, anyway; and it did make for a hugely appreciated swim although, to be picky, a couple of degrees cooler would have been better.
Back at the boat, we were told that a 3.5m saltie had emerged briefly at the stern soon after we left.

There was more rock art to climb to, one lot discovered totally by chance by Tim, the resident naturalist, while he was bird-watching - there must be thousands of these sites throughout the Kimberley, most of them unknown. The plan had been to get to a beach for a sunset bonfire and drinks, but nature had a better idea, and laid on THE most spectacular lightning display it's ever been my astonished pleasure to enjoy. Hardly any thunder, but all around and above, flashes and bolts and squiggles, vertical and horizontal, for hours and hours and hours. Even the crew was impressed. Fireworks will never be the same for me again - and even though my photographic skills weren't up to the task, it was great fun trying, and as a backstop, in our party there was clever Jarrad Seng, who came up with this:

Friday, March 20, 2015

All sorts of liquids today

Early starts aren't obligatory on the Kimberley Quest, but who would want to miss out on sunrises like this? We were a bit late getting to the Montgomery Reef because the tide was running so strongly. Tides are a big deal up here and neap and flood and spring are just everyday vocabulary. The moon is new and it's spring, so that means the high and low are currently at their extremes, and the flow in-between is so powerful that an incoming tide makes waves on the river as it flows out to the sea.
The Montgomery Reef is immense, about 400 sq km in area, and as the tide falls it seems to rise up out of the ocean, fringed with waterfalls. Don't go thinking Table Mountain, it's only about 4 metres above the sea at lowest tide, but that still makes for a remarkable and unusual effect. We got up close to it in the tenders, poking along watching the water spilling over the edges, and spotting turtles gathered there hoping to catch fish as they were carried over by the rush of water. Turtles, incidentally, are nothing like as slo-mo and laid-back as that one in Finding Nemo: shocked to notice suddenly that we were there, they powered away with plenty of splashing. There were also reef sharks, and egrets, but no dugongs or rays for us today.

That was the up-close version: next we took turns with Guy in the helicopter on the roof for the overview. Yup, huge. Turquoise, blue, white, black.  Mangrove islands, blue holes, sandbars, creeks. And one small white boat.
Then Guy moved off for a bit and a different helicopter delivered Kenny and Callum to us, two young Aboriginal guys from Freshwater Cove who took us up a pretty steep and scrambly track to view some rock art. On the way there were biting green ants (bite them back, their bums are full of lemony Vitamin C), spiky spinifex grass, and lots and lots of sweat, so it was good to sit in the shade of an overhang with a gentle breeze blowing and listen to Dreamtime stories and look at the unusual winjanna paintings, 40,000 years old, done in the same red ochre that had been smeared on our cheeks (and was, on reflection unsurprisingly, rather difficult to remove afterwards).
The temperature is still Wet-season high, 35 degrees-plus (it'll be a relatively balmy 30 later in the Dry) so we were all wringing wet when we got back: hooray for air-conditioning and showers. Roo for lunch, then a wallow in the spa pool on the front deck, with frequent visits from Olivia offering a Matso's (boutique brewery in Broome).

The sunset brought lit-from-within cumulus clouds that gave us a bit of a lightning display as dark fell before pushing off and allowing Greg to give us an unencumbered view of the heavens for his astro-tour talk. It's always good to brush up your star-gazing, though lying flat on a lounger during it, in the warm dark after a busy day will mean there are gaps in the experience. But it was immensely relaxing, and the shooting stars were a bonus. So I forgave Greg his clue to one star's name being "Kiwi beer". No? Canopus!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Clearing up some Kimberley confusion

Correction: green, orange, white and turquoise, not blue. It's the Indian Ocean still up here on Australia's north-western tip, and it's warm and gentle and glowingly turquoise. Blue is just too cold a colour.

We flew here, an hour out of Broome, in a seaplane that circled over the famous Horizontal Falls before landing in a cloud of spray to taxi up to where the Kimberley Quest, my home for the next three nights, was moored alongside the Horizontal Falls Adventures houseboat. I'd heard a lot about the Falls, and never quite understood how they worked - but now I do, having seen them from above by plane and helicopter, and shot through them many times in a powerful boat. Up here they have huge tides, you see - up to 11 metres - and the Falls are actually the gaps in the range that lead to two flooded valleys. The gaps are too small to keep up with the flow of water, so when the tide rises or falls, which of course is all the time, there's a difference in the water levels each side and hence a kind of waterfall, up to 4 metres high, leading to much swirling, and some pretty impressive whirlpools. Here:
The sea life here is restricted to shooting through in the very few minutes of relatively calm water at the top and bottom of the tide; but Aussies in motor boats? Not so much. So we bumped and revved and shimmied our way through back and forth, which was all pretty exciting.
But that's not all! There was fishing at sunset WHEN NO-ONE CAUGHT A BARRA (my previous experience of fish in Australia, on the ends of lines or on a plate, has been exclusively of the barramundi, so I've come to doubt that there's any other variety in these waters). This time there were 5 mangrove Jacks, one of them mine caught on a lure with an undemanding "egg-beater" rod. Then there was the feeding of the local tawny nurse sharks back at the boat when the fish were gutted - "I've known a man have his hand shredded doing that," was the comment as Brad hung over the water swirling the fish frames. And then, after dinner, there was an astronomy session which started with cloud and hardly any stars, and ended with a sky full of them, plus a meteor, with lightning flickering around the edges.
There was also this lovely boat, lots of food, friendly people and tons of interesting things to learn. Too much for one post. Come back tomorrow.

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