Art of Biodiversity – Costa Rica – Pt 1

Days 1 to 4 – The tour begins!!!!

April 15 – 25 2023

My thanks to Greg Basco for allowing me to use his graphics and text from the workshop. Interspersed through the text are some of the photos Greg took of the group whilst on the tour.

Sadly, there was a breeze blowing every morning prior to the tour start so no macro photography.  The following morning it was a 7am breakfast for an 8am departure down to the coast for our next hotel.  After breakfast it was checkout with all our gear and meet our driver and strongman for the next 20 days – Enrique.  Our transport was to be a 20-seat air-conditioned Hino bus which was most comfortable.

Finally loaded it was time to hit the road.  One final stop for last minute items at the local grocery store and pharmacy then start heading downhill through the suburbs on our way to the Pacific Coast.  So, all aboard the bus and the wheels go around and around. Us small merry band of Greg Basco & Paulo Vallore, who own FotoVerde Tours, Enrique our more than capable driver, a Californian couple – Brent & Louisa, Melody from Texas, Jim from Canada, Marcel from Switzerland plus me. Jim & I sat up the back as all naughty kids do even though we were nearly 70. Marcel was the youngest and a Nikon shooter but we will forgive him. I saw some of his shots later on and they were magic. A very talented man. Louisa, Melody, Jim & I were all Canon shooters and Brent was mastering (cursing?) a new Sony. These days regardless of brand images that are produced are of an excellent quality. For people like us who do these types of tours generally have had years honing our craft in pursuit of the perfect photo.

As we descended down from the hills on very good well-maintained highway (better than Victorian roads) we stopped for a break at a roadside vegetable stand.  In hindsight I should have taken more environmental photographs as this site with nearly a dozen merchants’ setup on both sides of the road was quite special.  The fruit and vegetables grow to very large sizes here due to good soils and abundant rainfall.  Some of the avocadoes are 3 times the size we get back in Australia whilst some varieties are as small as an apricot. 

The mangoes can also grow to a huge size and weigh nearly a kilogram.  They are extremely sweet & juicy so I bought some.  We used the fruit we purchased to supplement our breakfasts for a few days – sounds like our guides were starving us doesn’t it!  Nothing further from the truth as every hotel we stayed at had wonderful fruits and foods in plentiful supply.  I also learned why almonds are so expensive – check out the photo of the fruit knowing that each piece only contains one almond and that there is about 99.% wastage.  Back on the bus to continue downhill.  Drove over the Crocodile Bridge over Rio Tarcoles but nothing to see at the time. Like all hotels they don’t like their guests to show up too early but arriving for lunch is OK.

Our destination was to be Villa Lapas Jungle Retreat in Puntarenas Province, Tarcoles.  “It brings you the best of Costa Rica from its fabulous location in the province of Puntarenas. Only 60 minutes from San Jose, you will find Villa Lapas to be the perfect gateway to exhilarating attractions and tours. Experience on-site adventures through our 500-acre rainforest preserve on hanging bridges, jungle wagon rides, or following walking trails on birdwatching expeditions.”  No. no, no we were here for the Red-eyed Tree Frogs and Birds along the Rio Tarcoles!!  All of the rest was for other tourists.  The weekend before we arrived, they had hosted a massive wedding party and we needed to wait as they all left before we were allocated rooms.

And when it comes to discovering Puntarenas, you can choose from a diverse range of things to do around Villa Lapas, from observing the magnificent crocodiles on the Tarcoles bridge and visiting Carara National Park to spending the day in the popular beach town of Jaco. The possibilities are endless! Done that – ho hum – I need to manage my expectations better.

Here we were booked on two river tours of the Rio Tarcoles or Río Grande de Tárcoles (it is a big river).  We also went to the Bridge Tarcoles to view the crocodiles basking in the shallows.  For an Australian who has seen big salties in Nth Queensland, Northern Territory or Northern WA these were a little ho-hum as most were under 3 mtrs in length – still wouldn’t swim in the river however.  We also had access to private property roads next to the bridge where we saw a variety of birds including a pygmy owl.  We hadn’t realised why he was reluctant to move until one of our eagle-eyed participants spotted a small lizard skewered to a fence post.  Nature can be brutal.

But I am ahead of myself.  This hotel is set in beautiful surroundings of lush jungle, a creek running through the property, the calls of the macaws high in the trees (no photo opportunity sadly) and it was very humid and hot.  My room had a fantastic air conditioner which I cranked up as soon as I booked in.  We had just over an hour to have lunch before we were leaving for our afternoon river tour down past Jaco on the Rio Grande de Tarcoles.

Time to explore the Rio Grande Tarcoles! This was only a short 20-minute ride by bus from our hotel. Both trips would be dependent on the tidal pushing into or ebbing out of the river.

It was just a short walk down to the boats from where we parked and very easy to board – always a godsend when you have dodgy knees. You just walked over the bow and into the boat. They were quite large with room for around 40 odd people. We spread out around the boat giving ourselves plenty of space to take photos without getting in each other’s way. Each boat was powered by a 150hp outboard as the tidal flow can be quite strong.

The birdlife was amazing and everything here was new to what I had seen as it was near the coast. I knew I would be asking plenty of questions of the guides as to ‘what bird was that’. Away we went for a very pleasant two-hour tour. It is very easy to take thousands of photos especially when attempting birds-in-flight – I would burn out my new camera body in one trip at this rate.

For this trip I had actually bought a new Canon R6 MkII body purely for what it bought to Bird Photography and that was the staggering ability to fire off 40 raw images a second until the camera buffer was filled. In most cases this was a burst of 170 images. In that sequence you are really hoping to get only one or two gems.

After an amazing afternoon on the river we had a wonderful sunset which we enjoyed with a couple of glasses of white wine (not Costa Rican) listening to the pounding of the surf at the river mouth as the sun set.

There was always someone checking out all the knick knacks in the gift shops near the boat ramps. Most are made of wood and would not survive Aussie Border Force so I skipped that part but Greg was enjoying himself.

One of our Tour Guides – Greg Basco

Nearly the end of a perfect day except after returning to the hotel it was time to do some frog photography using a flash technique I had never tried before. We could hear the little frogs serenading us as we crossed the creek to the other side of the property. Apparently, these small frogs sleep/hide in the tall shrubs & trees around the pond during the day then come down to the pond after dark to mate and communicate. Thnakfully Paulo had a spare Canon 580 EX flash that I could borrow as mine was sitting in my bedroom in Wodonga 16,000klms away. That was as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. We had a fantastic session with Red-eyed Tree Frogs plus some small brown frogs which I thought as always unidentified small creatures – LBJs – little brown jobs!!!

There are many things that can go wrong when you are enjoying yourself on a trip of a lifetime and the bane of photographers is either corrupting a SD card or losing cards. In this case I lost/corrupted nearly 700 images from a 256Gb card without realising until the next day. Whilst it is not the end of the world it was a bit sad as those images included the second boat tour and the second night of doing the frogs using flash. I will relive those moments in my memory forever but sadly cannot share them with you. It just means that I will have to come back here and do this again – see there is a silver lining. After that issue I was meticulous in checking file names to make sure there were no gaps in the numbers.

Tomorrow would be another day another hotel as we moved further south east down past Quepos, A road distance of 66 klm. Time to get a good night’s sleep then pack Next, we get to meet some cheeky monkeys.

The Recovery from the Journey

Part 2: The pre-plan – Flights & Relaxing at Hotel Bougainvillea

Where I live in Wodonga NE Victoria April through to June, we can get heavy fog in the morning and in years past this has played havoc with early morning flights.  As my international flight was at 10am out of Sydney I opted to fly up the previous day around 1pm to avoid any fog and stay overnight at the Novotel before departure the next day.

My cousin Greg dropped me off with all my luggage as I setoff for my next exciting adventure.  Costa Rica & Panama have been on my bucket list for years as this was an exciting opportunity to visit somewhere new.  I have been fortunate in my life to be able to not only travel for business but also for pleasure.  As a Business Process Analyst working for MARS I had an opportunity to work on some large projects which took me to some interesting places including the US, UK & Europe then to Thailand.  During that time, I became fascinated with digital photography.  Another work colleague, Bernie, suggested that we do an online Fine Art Diploma with the Photography Institute.  My friends will know I love technical challenges and I did thoroughly enjoy learning how to approach my photography as an art form.

Over the years I have gradually replaced all the prints in my house with photographs that I have taken.  I joined a local camera club to enter their competitions and have my work critiqued to improve my art.  I also attended many workshops to improve my skills.  For the last few years, I have sold some of my work to friends and published bird & wildlife calendars

Once I retired, I started looking for interesting places to visit. And Costa Rica was next!!!!

After a relaxing night at the Novotel, it was a quick bus trip (Only $10) to get transported from the hotel to the international terminal.  Flight departure was at 10am on United Airlines UA870 – a Boeing 777.  My flight time to San Francisco was 14 odd hours.  For those who travel long haul flights eat that turns into a bed my only advice is minimize alcohol intake, increase H2O intake and try and do some walks up and down the aisleways without getting in the way of the airline staff. 

The bonus of being in Business Class is that you have a seat that turns into a bed and you can get some sleep.  Unfortunately, my flight legs were flying against the sun which is not good for your circadian sleep patterns.  Now you know why I tacked on 4 days up front for this trip.

Flight was uneventful but tiring. 

On arrival in SFO presented myself & my ETSA pass to customs which painless and surprisingly fast.  Many years ago, I had gone through LA which was took a long time.  Next baggage claim and hand over luggage for the flight to IAH (Houston) as I had nothing to declare whilst in transit.  The next flight was in another terminal so back through the interminable lines of another security checkpoint where they were specifically searching for drugs & explosives with sniffer dogs.  Nothing of interest there so on to have my body scanned and backpack checked.  Since I had a left knee replacement last year, I thought I would be quizzed but no they only wanted to check my braces that were holding up my pants.  Go figure.

Next off to the lounge to have a shower and freshen up.  This is another bonus of business class travel as long-haul flights being able to change underclothes and shower make you feel you can face the next legs.

Feeling very refreshed and having had a nice breakfast I was ready to face the next flight.  I don’t know why but they tend to always overbook flights in the US and before long the gate attendants were doing the rounds offering cash incentives to people to catch another flight.  Not this black duck – I was on a mission to get to Costa Rica.   Another bonus of business class is generally your luggage is priority loaded and you get to board first.  Once ensconced in my seat it was time to relax. 

The plane was absolutely packed with luggage stored everywhere they could find a slot.  The people were cheerful and the staff from United were very patient getting it all organised.  The crew having to explain to people of was important to move their luggage around the cabin to ensure that the balance in the aircraft was Ok.  Finally, everything packed onboard that would fit it was time to go.  My seat partner was an interesting woman on her way from Hawaii to visit her daughters in Houston.  She was a nurse on a research team investigating mosquito borne diseases.  I told her that I had grown up in Papua New Guinea back in the late 50’s & 60’s when malaria was rife in that country.  She was horrified when I told her that us kids used to chase the fogging trucks spraying DDT to kill mossies down our streets.  The old saying that what doesn’t kill us in our youth will make us stronger!!!!  The journey went very quickly and the hours slipped away.  People seem to love Aussie accents and I have always found that they are up for a chat.  A most enjoyable flight.

Transiting through large international airports does not give you much sense of the country but what I could see of Texas on the way in to land was much like Australia.  A big brown flat land that stretched forever.

I only had a 1 ¼ hrs to get my next flight and could only hope my luggage was still with me.  Given the small window of time and the fact that my next gate was 80 gates away (this airport is massive) it was time to farewell my charming travelling companion and throw myself on the mercy of the gate staff – after all I did have a new titanium knee to look after so I wasn’t really fibbing!!!  The journey length was also starting to catch up with me as I had now been flying for 20 odd hours.  The gate staff soon had another young fresh-faced assistant with an electric golf cart to whizz me along to the next gate.  Another person who loved Aussie accents and wanted to know where I was going.  When I told her I was in search of a Quetzal she was amazed that I had travelled this far to do such a thing.  Luckily, I had someone else’s photo of the bird to show them – she was then truly amazed as this one of the most beautiful birds in the world.  Then she wanted to see some Aussie birds.  To give her extra time she set new records whizzing down corridors to get me to the next gate with 15 minutes to spare.  Being a nice bloke, I showed her my feathered friends that I store on my iPad to share with friends.  She loved it; me more so for the ride as I would have been totally knackered if I had to walk that distance between the gates.

Only one more flight to go and I would be there.  This was the shortest leg but felt the longest as it seemed forever since I had left Sydney.  On this leg I had been bumped up to 1st Class but before you get too excited let me put this into context for you.  It was an older model 737-800 which had 12 1st class leather seats and no Business Class.  So, whilst the seats were comfortable that was it.  The glass of champagne whilst they loaded was delicious.

My seat partner for this leg was a doctor returning from a business trip to the Philippines who lives in San Jose.  He was the Managing Director of the company that provides Air Ambulances for Costa Rica.  A charming man who had experienced the same pitfalls as I in travelling for work and was pleased to be going home to his wife and family.  We were both tired so I slept for most of the flight and declined dinner (every flight wanted you to eat!!!).  The stewardess woke me on the descent into San Jose.

Finally, after a tad over 26 hours I am in Costa Rica.  Now for customs and immigration. What a breeze that was as they only wanted to know did I have more than $5,000 USD (I wish). My driver, Mr. Lee, was waiting just outside the terminal in a nice 10-seater minibus to drive me to the hotel. All this was part of the tour cost. As he did all the heavy lifting of the luggage plus wheeled it into the hotel, he well deservedly earned his tip.

Hotel Bougainvillea

One of the few independent hotels left in the Central Valley in Costa Rica, this well-located place overflows with personality. Ten acres {4 hectares} of botanical gardens, art, rocks and minerals, a restaurant very much liked by locals as well as visitors, swimming pool, tennis courts, and most importantly, the people who work with us, all conspire to make the hotel a destination rather than just a stop-over.  And to top it off there are loads of birds everywhere even if they are a bit skittish.

Featuring balconies with garden or mountain views, the understated rooms offer free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and safes, plus tea and coffeemakers. Suites add sitting areas, some with sofas.  My room overlooked the gardens and every morning I was awoken by the singing of the Clay-coloured Thrush – the native bird of Costa Rica

Complimentary amenities include parking, and a breakfast buffet served in an elegant, airy restaurant with a bar. Other amenities include a solar heated outdoor pool, a fitness room and 2 tennis courts. Spa treatments are available.  I only needed the restaurant & bar!!!

It takes awhile for your body clock to adjust to the new timezones and dates.  I had travelled back in time leaving on Wednesday 12th April at 1020am and landing in San Jose 26 hours later at 1930 hours.

Arrived at the hotel an hour later.  Time for a hot shower and bed.  Too tired to unpack.  I was up at 0430.  Another shower to wake up then dressed in fresh lightweight clothes it was downstairs the garden with camera in hand except it was still dark.  Breakfast was a distant 2 ½ hours away.  Thankfully the night staff had fresh brewed coffee, cakes and bananas for the early risers.  I was joined by 4 Brits & 2 Germans who also could not sleep.  The sun finally rose at 0450 so out we all trooped to be greeted by the morning birdsong.  One of the Brits had been here a number of times so he started pointing out who was who in the zoo, It was still too dark to get good photos so we wandered down the pathways for the next two hours discovering new delights.  This I repeated for the next four days.  On the second day I ran into another Aussie who was with a different bird tour group. 

This was a good plan to be well rested before my tour started.  Five of the six in our group had arrived early so one of our Tour Leaders Greg Basco took us down to the Central Market area in this large bustling city.  And it was a treat as we wandered the narrow alleyways through the market with its wonderful aromas and smells We had lunch in the Central Museum café which was very nice. 

That night the group had dinner together with our other Tour Guide Paulo joining us. We had one missing who was flying in that evening then we would be all together for our adventure. We had 3 Americans, a Canadian, a Swiss & an Aussie. Tomorrow morning our bus driver and master of everything Enrique would be there to help get us on the road. A sense of anticipation was rising as tomorrow the real tour started.

Camera Gear List – Costa Rica – April 2023

This lot weighed nearly 35 kgs – and yes, I did weigh it!!! For my photography friends this is what I was carrying on my trip to Costa Rica in 2023:


  1. Canon R6 MkII Body
  2. Canon R6 Body
  3. Canon M6 Body
  4. Canon BG-R10 Battery Grip


  1. Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM II
  2. Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 L IS USM
  3. Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
  4. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
  5. Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro
  6. Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM
  7. Canon RF Extenders 1.4 & 2.0
  8. Canon EF Extenders 1.4 & 2.0
  9. Viltrox EF-RF – EF to RF Adapter

Tripods, Monopods & Heads

  1. Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Tripod
  2. Sherpa 5-section twist lock 2mtr Monopod
  3. Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead
  4. Really Right Stuff MH-01 Monopod head
  5. Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal head w QR Plate
  6. Really Right Stuff B-150B Macro Single-Axis Focusing Rail w/ Integrated Clamp
  7. Wimberley F-9 Flash Bracket for Wimberley Head Version II


  1. Canon MT-24 Twin Macro Flash Unit
  2. YONGNUO YN-E3-RT II On-Camera Flash Speedlite Transmitter Flash Trigger
  3. Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2


  1. Lee 100 Filter System


  1. 8 x LP-E6NH Batteries (for Canon R6’s)
  2. 3 x LP-E17 Batteries (for Canon M6)
  3. 4×4 LED Gooseneck Torch – Lithium Rechargeable
  4. Headlamp Torch – Lithium Rechargeable
  5. 30000 mAH Power brick to recharge iPhone & iPad Pro

Accidentally left behind during numerous repacks were two YONGNUO YN600EX-RT II Flash Speedlites & a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM.  No major drama as I used the RF 24-105mm lens and even though not as wide did the job.  As for the flash I borrowed one from my tour guide Paulo who also uses Canon gear.

In Search of Quetzals & Other Creatures

A journey to Costa Rica – April 2023

Part 1: The planning for the trip.

Shortly after returning from my three-month trip to the Windward island of St Lucia to visit relatives in the West Indies I received a surprise email from a man I had been following for his excellent macro photography for years – Greg Basco of Deep Green Photography.  He had now formed a new company running tours to Latin America under the banner of FotoVerde Tours. It was short notice but did I want to join this tour: Art of Biodiversity Pacific, April 11 to 21, 2024 ( (Note this is the 2024 tour as mine has just finished).  This country has been on my bucket list for years and I was supposed to have been here in 2020 but for COVID and a thieving Canadian Tour Guide cost me $7K USD when no-one could fly.

Being nervous I rang Greg expressing my concern of a repeat but he assured me that his company did not operate like that and if things could go wrong their would-be full refunds or rebooking – my choice.  I was happy with that but now had to put my skates on as I would need to leave in 5 weeks.

There were gear decisions to make as bio-diversity photography covered night-time macro with flash, landscapes, birds, monkeys, sloths and especially the quetzal.  I had done some reading and seen photos of this magnificent bird and could not wait to photograph one.  I should have also researched a little more as at the end of my trip the wheels fell off but more of that later.  We are just getting too the exciting bits.

My friend Neville had been to Costa Rica a few years before and said he loved it and the birds were fantastic and when I asked should I go he said absolutely.  To fly that far is a big commitment in costs as to transport a lot of camera gear I would need to travel business class so I would have a hefty luggage allowance plus the trip costs were in US dollars, which at the time is very strong against the Australian Peso. 

At the end of (sort of) COVID flying restrictions all airlines, especially QANTAS, are gouging their passengers to recover their losses from the past two years.  To go to the West Indies they charged me twice as much as I had paid four years ago and I was not about to repeat that exercise.  Sanity may return to our airline QANTAS now that their super expensive, loud mouthed CEO has departed – I can only hope so.

In years past I discovered a company called AlphaFlightGuru (Alpha Flight Guru | Business Class Flights, Business Class Travel) who sold discounted first and business class flights around the globe.  My understanding of their business model is that they purchase/reclaim business traveller points from companies then turn them into discount tickets on your behalf.  Over the past twelve years I have used them a number of times with no issues.  Even easier these days they have an online booking system that makes it easier to choose flights – just make sure you check the seat class on each leg.  Sadly, it does not work for my brother in St Lucia WI as British Airways has exclusive rights for flights from the UK to his home so no competition to challenge the prices.

For my trip to Costa Rica I first tried QANTAS Business Class and was quoted $23,000 + for return tickets.  I then tried AlphaFlightGuru and with an extra stop in Houston managed a price of $12,800 (All these in Aussie Dollars).  Why business you ask – well apart from the comfort, extra leg room and service you get extremely generous luggage allowances.  For this trip my allowance is 2 suitcases (23kg each) plus my backpack and I would need every gram.  To do the photography I wanted to do I had packed nearly 35kg of camera gear in two bags (I will put the gear list just below) plus a backpack containing all the camera lithium batteries, battery packs & torches plus my 600mm lens, laptop & iPad.  So, I was fairly weighed down with gear.

After a couple of phone calls to Greg (Basco) I now had a better idea on what to pack.  In the end I used most of the gear.  There was no opportunity to use the 65mm macro so that could have stayed home as well as the twin macro flashes and the RRS (Really Right Stuff) macro rail.  That would have saved 2 kilograms.  Also only used once the monopod & RRS MH-01 monopod head so could have been left saving another 2 kilograms.  Lessons learned that I need to pare down what I am carrying for the future.

Now that I had my list it was time to prioritise tasks like paying for the trip.  Time to raid my super fund and transfer some money.  This only took 5 business days which wasn’t too bad.  With cash burning a hole in my pocket next was the bank to pay FotoVerde Tours the balance.  Over the past few years, the banking industry has changed dramatically as more and more bricks & mortars branches are closing down.  I miss those days when I could go and talk with the people I actually bank with.  I have been with the same ANZ branch since I moved to Wodonga over 30 years ago and have friends still working there.  However, the bank these days no longer offer foreign currencies nor do they do international transfers.

I should say that I did embrace online banking many years ago as that was convenient for me especially in my business role where I travelled for work so I could pay bills whilst overseas.  That is something none of us can escape as those little messages from our creditors follow us everywhere.

Once I had the tours banking details I logged on and contacted foreign transfers and filled out the form to transfer funds in US dollars until the whole process halted at the final button. What!!!!!!!!!!!!!  A message popped up saying please ring this number which I obliged.  The operator apologised but the bank wanted to do a final check before they transferred the funds and would that be Ok.  The fee was $7.  In future I will just ring and save my typing fingers as it took 15 minutes to fill out a complex form which eventually did not work.

Once the payment had been acknowledged and I was part of the tour now time to book the flights.  I have done a number of photographic holidays now and learning from experience I always add days to the front and back to cover any contingencies.  In this case I knew the 26 -hour flying time & wait times between flights from Wodonga to San Jose would knock me around physically so planned an overnight in Sydney then arrive 4 days before the tour start and 2 days at the end plus another overnight in Sydney before the last leg back to Wodonga.  Hopefully, this would see me relaxed once I returned home.  The extra 6 nights I had asked the tour guides to book in the same hotel that we started and ended with – they were happy to oblige.

I had already selected my routes and connections but then had a shock that the Aussie dollar had free fell nearly 7% in the four days since I checked whilst awaiting funds.  So, another $1000 AUD gone west thanks to that stupid Russian swine invading the Ukraine.  My understanding of global politics and economy would fill a thimble but simplistically seems to be driven by greed and stupid politicians and we all end up footing the bill.  Please don’t get me started on our local politicians who, to me, are oxygen thieves feeding at the public trough.

All now booked, time for the most important travel documents that related to my trip – a new ETSA pass to transit the US & travel insurance.  The ETSA was relatively simple and only cost $21 for a 2 year pass.  For travel insurance I did some research and Allianz was the company for my donation.  I chose the Ultimate Package as it was only $90 extra – (please note my choices as you will see later). My passport was up to date with 2 years left before renewal – many countries will not allow entry if you are under 6 months left on your current passport.

The date chosen to leave was the 11th April and the tour would start on the 15th April.  I had already accumulated a flight refund from a previous trip not taken with QANTAS so booked that to Sydney & paid a $50 premium for the extra suitcase.  Booked a one night stay at the Novotel near Sydney airport on the outward leg and the inward leg.  All bookings now complete.  My cousin Greg would be looking after my Prado and my neighbours would be looking after my house in my absence.  My thanks to them all for being so generous of their time and effort.

Time for visits to other family members to share details on my trip.  Three weeks to departure and time to start getting excited.  More research on where the tour was going to take me in this wonderful new country I had never visited before.

Costa Rica is a rugged, rainforested Central American country with coastlines on the Caribbean and Pacific. Though its capital, San Jose, is home to cultural institutions like the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, Costa Rica is known for its beaches, volcanoes, and biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of its area is made up of protected jungle, teeming with wildlife including spider monkeys and quetzal birds.  It is home to a population slightly over 5 million people and the main language is Spanish.  A very important fact that I found later is that the country is ranked 36th in the world by the World Health Organization, above the United States, Cuba, and New Zealand. Meanwhile, the United Nations places healthcare in Costa Rica within the top 20 in the world. Expats frequently cite it as a major factor in their decision to relocate to here.  This point will become extremely important later in this story. Another notable fact about this country is that they have some of the finest coffee in the world. Now I am a tea drinker whose favorite tipple is Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Proper Strong Black Tea but I am being swayed to Costa Rican coffee. A strange story about the tea I drink as you cannot buy it in the UK, It is manufactured in Dubai for the Australian market. A very curious fact.

Countdown has begun and it is time to get excited.  Went through the itinerary a number of times to find out what I should be looking out for.  It is a bit of a lottery to travel on these photography tours as wildlife can be very unpredictable and there is no guarantee of their cooperation.  I would see what was on offer and hopefully get some nice shots, my fellow photographers would be nice and the tour guides would be fantastic at their jobs.

One thing I need to learn when I get home is to set my blog page up correctly.  When I wrote the Turning Diesel Into Memories two years ago now I thought OK that is now done and I may not write another story.  So even though paying for the WordPress service it was sitting idle.  At this stage these next few posts may look a bit odd sitting next to my last blog. So be it until I learn how to set this up properly so, please forgive me.

So, until tomorrow when I will publish the next part. Please feel free to critique and send me comments on Facebook or Messenger – note you will be competing with my mother as she was my first English teacher!!!!!.  Until tomorrow.  Part 2 will be the first 5 days of the trip.

The Last Leg(s)

Blog #23 – The Last Leg(s) – Days 190 to 208

Finally, after ten days in Alice Springs all repairs were now complete and the replacement solar blanket had arrived.  The tally in damages from the Tanami Track was another $1500 but I have never looked at the expenses this way but more the price of the adventure into places less travelled.  I had blown the door seals on the driver and passenger sides plus the rear door seal which allowed the red dust ingress into the vehicle coating everything.  I imagine it will take me years to get the final traces out.

Whilst I was waiting, I travelled around the town hunting more bird species with no luck.  However, I did find something that was fascinating at Alice Springs Airport.  Due to the impact of COVID on all airlines with the virtual crash stop of airline travel the airport aprons had become a storage space for 94 of Cathay Pacific’s aircraft plus A380s from Singapore Airlines and domestic carrier Jetstar. For the plane buffs out there, these are the types of aircraft in storage – Airbus A380s, Airbus A330-300s, Boeing 777-300s, Airbus A320-200s and Airbus A321-200s.  Currently there are 140 aircraft stored for a long term in this facility and it is a sight to see if you fly in or drive along the approach roads.

The weather had started to turn with rain developing and my good fortune for the past 6 months had ended.  What I didn’t expect was high winds which appeared before I was packed and creating a dust storm in the park bringing down trees close-by.  It was time to move on.  Finalised, packing that night apart from the awning due to the winds but that would be easy enough in the morning.  Fueled up, including the 3 jerrycans on the roof, for the trip south the next day.

Up early and finalised the packing and was on the road by 8am.  It is 1261 klm to Port Augusta from Alice and my plan was to break this into a 3-day trip.  Plan was to drive to Marla that first day which was 454 klm away.  I was so busy packing that I forgot some sage advice from cousin Greg very early in the trip – make sure that you put the winding handle for the jockey wheel back in its home in the driver’s door side pocket.  I didn’t discover I had not followed this advice until I camped up that night.  Multi-grips will do the job but just not as efficient I discovered that night (I have ordered 2 as soon as I reached home as I am sure I will forget again at some stage and lose another).

Surprisingly, the distance was gobbled up quickly and I pulled into Marla just after 11am.  Being too early to camp up I just had a loo break & refueled and departed for Coober Pedy another 234 klm down the line.  Again, the next 3 hours went quickly so again I fueled up and had a late lunch before pushing on.  Glendambo was going to be my night stop another 274 klm further down the road.  Just on dusk I nearly had an accident when a flock of sheep darted out onto the highway in front of me (note that none of the properties along the highway fence off their stock so they can be a real hazard).  After coming to halt in a haze of burnt tyre smoke I decided to not be too foolish and would stop at the next layby with a toilet.  This happened to be at Bon Bon Reserve 84 klm north of Glendambo.  A big driving effort that day as I had covered 878 klm in 10 hours of driving.  I had already stayed at both Marla & Coober Pedy and seen what I wanted to see which was why I had pushed on.  The wind was still blowing and it was quite cold (for me after 3 months in the Tope End & Wyndham) but at least it was not raining.

Due to my very late lunch I didn’t worry about dinner and started setting up camp for the night. That was when I discovered I had no winch handle for the jockey wheel – Bugger!!!  Thankfully I was carrying a well-equipped kit of tools and a set of vice multi-grips became the new temporary winch handle.  It can be convenient when you are doing quick overnight stops just to leave the chains & cables hooked to the car and just wind up the jockey wheel to even out the trailer.  Here is where the design of the DOT trailer comes to the fore. Once I had leveled the front it was an easy job to use the airbag suspension to drop one side to even out the side elevation.  Drop the stabilizer legs and height adjust them so that the trailer would not rock too much in the wind – once before I had not used the stabilizer legs and the wind rocked the trailer all night which kept waking me up (lesson learned).

Next was to setup the rooftop tent and set its awning out (another lesson learned from the Tanami Track so that the poles did not bang on the trailer all night).  By now I was quite good at setting up camp for the night and all was done inside 15 minutes.  Now for a good night’s sleep.  No such luck.  Within the next hour a group of young tourists setup just in front of me and banged and crashed around for an hour and a half before settling down.  Ah, peace again.  Then at 3 o’clock in the morning a terrible racket woke me up when a car with a broken muffler rattled and banged its way next to me so someone could go to the loo – inconsiderate swine!  Finally, they left so I could get back to sleep until the alarm woke at 7am.  Hurriedly packed up but not before observing the 4 young tourists who had slept in bedrolls on the ground – to cold for me to do that anymore especially with a cold wind blowing all night – I must be getting old!!

It was only 84 klm to Glendambo so breakfast at the roadhouse was in order.  Just my luck that the town was hosting its annual gymkhana so there was a fair queue for brekkie.  Finally, my brekkie order was fulfilled with a very large cup of coffee to fortify me for the day.  Plan was to get to Port Augusta early afternoon then pick up my medication and head for Streaky Bay. Compared to the previous day this drive would be fairly short – only 383 klm.  The countryside on this part of the trip was fairly boring with low shrubs and scrub and no interesting features.  As it was still blowing a gale the birds would be hiding as well. 

The last camp

Made it into Port Augusta around 2.30pm and let google be my friend to find some accommodation as the chemist was now closed.  This was not in my game plan as I was expecting that they would have similar hours to the chemists in Wodonga ie open to 7pm at night and also open on Sundays.  No such luck so now I was stuck here for two days.  Found a caravan park with reasonable rates for a powered site close to the water for the next two nights.  Had camp setup relatively quickly as I could not put out the awning due to the wind.  It was good to have a hot shower and put on some fresh clothes.

I had been here a few times before but the places I wanted to visit to do some bird photography were a dead loss because of the wind which had actually increased in velocity and had also brought some rain with it.  This is one of the downsides of living in a camper trailer on the road as your only shelter is under the big 270-degree awning with all the walls up to block the wind.  As I was only here for 2 nights and the weather was not pleasant it would have been risky setting up the cover so for the first time in one these caravan parks, I was forced to use the Recreation Room.  It is not that I am anti-social but more that these places lacked any sort of character and were not really comfortable.

So, the alternate was to just go for drives into the countryside around the town.  At least it was warm and dry in the car.  Overnight the weather worsened with wind really howling now with gusts up to 60 klm/h.  The forecast for Streaky Bay was worse for the rest of the following week so I abandoned that part of the plan and decided that I would head to Gluepot over near Waikerie on the Monday.

Up early on Monday morning I was down in the supermarket to stock up on fresh fruit & vegetable for a planned 4 day stay at the Birdlife Australia sanctuary at Gluepot.  It was given this name due to the fine red clay dust on the property that when it gets wet it turns to clag (a gluepot by another name).  The forecast showed that I should be Ok until at least Thursday so that made me happy.  So, car was now stocked and the Chemist had opened and had the medication I had ordered.  Time to drive back to the park and hitch up for departure.  Left town at 0930 starting on my 380 klm trip.

The countryside through to Taylorville from where I would turn north onto the dirt again was very picturesque and made for a pleasant day’s driving.  I stopped at Burra to fuel up and have some lunch before continuing on.  I had also been to Gluepot a number of times before so knew how to get there and where all the turnoffs were which did make it easier.  Once I turned north onto the dirt, I was lucky enough to meet one of the rangers heading back to Gluepot from a shopping run.  This makes doing the gates much easier as she opened them and I followed and closed them – there are 4 gates on the 55 klm drive into the station on a fairly rough and dusty road.  At least the sun was shining here and there was only a light breeze.  Arrived into the visitor centre with another coating of fine red dust on anything, selected a campsite and filled in my paperwork for 4 day stay.  It was another 12 klm drive to my campsite at the Bellbird Campsite from the visitor site so I said farewell to the ranger and headed off again. 

By now it was getting late in the afternoon so I setup camp before heading off to my favourite hide on the property – Froggy Dam.  Previously I had many idyllic hours sitting in the hide photographing many species of honeyeaters, parrots, ravens & pigeons.  This reserve is one of my truly happy places where the only sound is the soughing of the wind through the trees and the birdcalls.  Maybe I was lucky but I rarely saw another person when I visit here but I do know they are around from the entries in the visitor’s book.  When speaking to the ranger she had given me a list of recent siting’s of fairywrens on the old airstrip.  I was keen to get photographs of the Splendid, White-winged & Purple-backed Fairywrens all known to inhabit this open woodland.

After a very peaceful and sound sleep it was time to hunt down the elusive little fairywrens.  They are a very tiny little bird and live in the low shrubs and without the vivid colouring of the males they are difficult to spot.  Fortune was on my side as my first siting was within the first 20 paces from getting out of the vehicle.  A pair of Splendid Fairywrens flashed across the path in front of me.  Most bird photographers have apps on their smart phones that have the bird calls of each Australian birds.  Calling them using these apps does not work for all varieties but does for the wrens. You use these calls sparingly as it can cause stress in such small birds but I only had to use it once and they came back and posed in the shrubs near me.  Unfortunately, they don’t always pose where you can get the best photo but I did manage to get a few shots.  I continued on my walk looking for the other varieties with no luck whatsoever.  The clouds had started to thicken up and threaten rain so I thought it was time to check the weather forecast at the Ranger Station which was only a kilometre from the airstrip.

I was saddened to see that the rain had chased me from Port Augusta and would here by Wednesday afternoon so I only had one more day before I needed to pack up and leave before I was stuck here.  Back to Froggy Dam but with the temperature sinking the birds also disappeared so it was not a very fruitful session with less than 20 birds sited.

That night as I was watching a movie on my laptop, I started to hear the pattering of rain on the canvas.  It was only light so I went to sleep hoping and praying it would not get heavier.  As dawn broke the rain stopped but the clouds looked ominous.  Time to pack and get back out onto the tar.  My adventure had truly come to an end and it was time to go home.  It was good timing as I really needed to get home and start finalising the 2022 calendar plus prepare the final blog for this trip.

It only took an hour to pack up and start heading for the highway with the rain starting to sprinkle again.  Stopped at the Visitor Centre to say goodbye to the rangers and donated my other 2 nights camping fees to the upkeep of the park.  They assure me that the rain would stop soon but I didn’t want to take any chances so time to hit the road.  This time there was no one to help with the gates but the old rule when crossing properties to leave the gates in the condition you found them – closed or open – in this case they were all to be closed.

An hour later I was in Taylorville, and with phone coverage, checked the weather.  The adventure was definitely at an end with rain bands across all of SA & Victoria.  Time to just head home.  It was going to be a very long day with 853 klm to home plus the 72 klm I had already driven out of Gluepot.  Victoria had lifted the need for permits to travel from NSW the previous day so it was the loop route through Hay & Deniliquin which is faster than along the Murray River.

The rain picked up as I headed for the border and Mildura.  Plan was to fuel up at Mildura then Deniliquin.  I still had 50 litres of diesel in the roof jerrycans if required or even save myself a fuel stop at Deni.  I hadn’t been listening to the news during my travels so I could pretend nothing was wrong with the world but it did come as a shock to find that Mildura was in lockdown due to COVID so no stopping there.  Buronga was just across the river in NSW and had a large fuel station as I had been there before at the start of the trip.  The rain was now quite heavy and road conditions were not good but I pressed on.  The drive across the Hay Plains was long and boring but at least it was at a constant speed as it is very flat out there.  Got into Hay around 6pm and had a message from a friend as well my neighbour that they could not get my home gas water service to fire up so no hot shower when I got home.  On the off chance I rang my local plumber, Gary Tonkin Plumbing, and was very surprised that he answered (I was expecting a message service) and we organised a quick service for the next morning. Happy to have such good tradies in our town.  Time to press on with the wind now howling and rain horizontal.

Pulled in Deniliquin at 2130 hours feeling cold and miserable but knowing I was only 2 hours from home.  Could not siphon fuel from the roof tanks due to the rain (I know I am a bit sooky and did not want to get wet) so fueled up at a servo which had cover over the pumps.

Final leg seemed interminable but finally reached home in West Wodonga at 2320 hours after nearly 12 ½ hours driving from Gluepot.  I was too tired to be sad that this was the end of my adventurous trip that took 21,561 klms and 209 days and was just glad to be home safe and sound.   I hope that you have enjoyed these blogs of my journey. 

As I sit in my office finalising this blog, I am also pleased to say that my first draft of the 2022 calendar has gone to the printers.  I will post up some details on that as soon as I have the proof set to ensure that I have put the best bird photos from this trip for people to enjoy.  All the best to my friends that encouraged me to write this blog as it is a journey I will never forget and was a joy to undertake.



Purnululu & The Long Shortcut

Blog #22 – The Bungle Bungles & The Long Shortcut – Days 183 to 189 of 220 (Maybe)

The Bungle Bungles

On the road again!  My first thoughts were to drive down to Turkey Creek, now called Warnum, although I like the character of the former name.  There was supposed to be scenic helicopter flight company based there but when I arrived, I found it to be closed and had moved down to Spring Creek and a further 60 klm down the road.  In hindsight I should have fueled up there as you tend to use more fuel on rough dirt roads than you imagine.  Still, I had enough as I had topped off the three 20 litre plastic jerrycans when I left Wyndham which adds 340 klms to my range.

The Bungle Bungle Range was formed over 350 million years ago, the gradual weathering and erosion of the range has resulted in the dome formations. These rock formations were not known to the public until the early 1980’s when a film crew from Perth were in the area and were told by local stockmen that there is an area that they should check out. Since then, it has become increasingly popular with tourists and tour operators.

The Bungle Bungle Ranges are located only 53km (plus an extra 20 klm to the campsites) off of the Great Northern Highway, though due to the rough road conditions it generally takes about 2 hours to travel into the National Park. 

The name Bungle Bungle is what the area is commonly called, though it is located inside of the Purnululu National Park. The word Purnululu refers to the range, meaning sandstone in the local language of the Kija people. The name Bungle Bungle or Bungles is now what the range is now known as, though the origins of the name are not well known, some say it is a reference to a Kimberley grass called Bundle Bundle grass.  My helicopter pilot had a far more colourful story on the name in that setting up the National Park that there were multiple bungling and inept attempts to classify the area that it became known as the Bungle Bungles – I like this story better.

The domes are famous not just because of their shape but also the prominent black and orange bands that wrap around them. The darker bands are from an algae growth on the outside layer, while the lighter orange band is an oxidised iron compound.

Onto Spring Creek and the Bungle Bungle Caravan Park.  I booked in for 2 days before I realised that the flights that I wanted (doors off) were only done from the Bellburn Airstrip a further 73 klm into the park (their office was closed otherwise I would not have stayed here).  Once I had paid for the booking, I was staying whether I liked it or not.  This was one of the most expensive caravan parks I have stayed at costing $50 a night for power and one person.  I had been reading that the road in was a shocker with the ranger station some 53 klm from the caravan park.  After talking to the helicopter pilot at the park he recommended I drive in and make my booking in person as they couldn’t do it. 

So camp setup it was then the trek into the park.  What a goat track!!  Six water crossings with one up to the top of the wheels it was very rough & corrugated.  I was so pleased to finally reach the ranger station.  More surprises for me in that I had book online to stay in the campground closest to the airstrip but they had no Telstra service out there.  I would do this on my return later that afternoon.  A big thanks to Robin at the station for helping to get this sorted.  She didn’t charge me a park entry fee as I was only coming in to book a flight then I would be returning in two days.

The road past the ranger station, whilst corrugated, was not as bad out to the airstrip.  They even have car stickers at the ranger station saying ‘I survived the road into the Bungle Bungles’.  It is good to see Aussie humour still working in the Outback.

I always knew that it would be no mean feat to get a helicopter flight at short notice and was not surprised when the young lady told me the earliest, they could do would be on Thursday at 10am as they did not do any doors off flights before that time.  The cost would be $550 so not cheap but it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Surprisingly they told me not to pay just in case something went wrong and they could not get another person to share the cost as they needed a minimum of 2 passengers.  Now that would be disappointing after waiting 4 days to do the trip.

The tortuous drive back out with the road not improved (wishful thinking on my part) seemed never-ending.  The 150 klm round trip took 4 ½ hours of driving.  I now realised why the caravan park existed out near the highway as only high clearance 4WD & single axle off-road camper trailers were allowed on the road in.  All the ‘normal’ tourists could only fly in or travel in on large offroad tourist coaches as their vehicles would be wrecked on this road.

This road was so bad that my front right bash plate shook two of the bolts out and was hanging by the last bolt.  This had happened once before out on the Mereenie Loop when the same thing happened to the front left bash plate on my birthday.  That time Greg had fixed it for me and I just need to find the right sized nuts and bolts plus some soft ground to lie on and affect the repairs – I am getting soft in my old age!!  Before I left home 6 months ago, I had purchased a roll of No 8 wire and pair of fencing pliers.  It goes to show if you watch enough videos about bush mechanics that a length of No 8 wire can fix just about anything.  A short length of wire through the bolt hole and around the edge with a few twists and it is as good as new.  Given that I am facing 1100 klm of the Tanami track in the next week I will wait until I get to Alice Springs to make a more permanent fix.  The other problem was the accumulation of dust once again into the rear door locking mechanism.  I used my small compressor to blow out as much as I can but will need to research a more permanent solution once I get home if I want to do more long dirt roads.

Managed to get back to the caravan park just on dark.  Logged onto WA Parks site and tried to book my stay at Walardi Campground for 3 nights but could not get it to work.  Decided dinner was more important and would try again in the morning.  Next morning, I was up early to try and make the booking again with no success.  Obviously, the site was having difficulties so I found the contact numbers for the park plus the regional office in Kunnunurra but as it was only 0630, I would have to wait until normal people went to work at 0900!!

Managed to reach a lovely lady named Shannon who took all my details and would check with their main office and ring me back.  It took a couple of hours but she did ring back and confirmed that the site was down but she could take my booking over the phone.  Excellent news and I soon had three days booked in at Walardi Campground @ $10 a night plus I would need to stop in at the ranger station and pay the $8 park entrance fee.  Very cheap compared to the caravan park although there was no water out there for showers.  I could live with that and settle for bush baths using the bore water out there.

That afternoon we had a windstorm rip through the park smashing people’s awnings, tearing down the awning over the bar and causing mayhem.  It only lasted about thirty seconds but did cause some damage to people’s campsites. I had pegged down my awning quite well using 30 cm steel pegs and spring-loaded ropes so my campsite was OK.  The family across from me had their guy ropes ripped out of the ground and the awning on their second vehicle collapsed.  I knew that they had gone into the park on the early morning tour so I went over and reset everything for them as good neighbours should.  I had not realised but this was a very windy place but it may just be the season.

Early to bed again for another camp shift the next morning.  The wind was still roaring around the campsite gusting to 40 klm/hr so I hadn’t been able to pack up as much as I wanted to do.  It was still gusting when I woke up but my weather apps said that it should die down by 0800.  One thing I do have to be careful with my awning is it can be dangerous if the wind gets under it when I am stowing it away.  I have had a couple of mishaps where the poles have ripped out of the centre buckle and snapped a couple of plastic joiners.  The lessons I have now learned is to fold up the poles but just loosen the tie down ropes so that they will stop the wind from lifting the awning.  Then the trick is to release the ropes as you walk the sections around to stow them.  Very clever of me!!!  I am sure others have learned this trick.

Given the poor state of the road I also dropped the tyre pressure on both the car and the trailer to help dampen down the rough road.  Finally underway at 0830 with wind still gusting strongly.  I would definitely be going slow so as not to beat up the equipment. 

Dropped in at the ranger station and paid my park entrance fee plus had my booking confirmed.  Very odd this booking system for this park as there are two campgrounds – one with bookings handled by the ranger station and the other (Walardi) only booked online but confirmed at the ranger station – weird.  Walardi Campgrounds has two sections – one for ‘quiet’ campers i.e. no generators and the other some distance away so campers can run their generators to run their electrics.  Given the raucous noise of flocks of Corellas & Red-tailed Black Cockatoos from 0500 in the morning until sunset I think they should re-define quiet!

Now the wait.  In the two days I drove around the park taking photos from vantage points but due to the heat did not do any walks into the chasms.  Even the younger people who did those walks told me it was quite debilitating doing the 2 – 4 klm treks in and out due to heat radiating from the rocks.  I would love to come back but it would be much earlier in the season when it is cooler.  Still, I did take some nice sunset shots of the glowing rocks but the piece de resistance would be the aerial flight.

An aerial flight with the doors off sounds quite exciting when I made the request but the reality was very different.  That day began quite windy at ground level so I was expecting a bit of turbulence.  I was up early in anticipation and arrived at the airstrip an hour before the flight.  Luckily for me there was another couple to make the trip worthwhile.  The aircraft was a Robinson R44 Raven I which could take the pilot and 3 passengers.  As a child growing up in the Territory of Papua & New Guinea the locals called all helicopters “Mix Master bilong Jesus Christ” which I always took to mean that no-one in their right mind would fly in these skyriding buckets of bolts especially with the doors off. 

After we had our mandatory safety lecture about not stepping out of the aircraft in flight – as if you would – it was time to fly.  I was settled in behind the pilot and buckled in with a three-point harness.  I had decided to take two cameras with a wide angle (16-35mm) and a zoom (100-500mm) to get the most of my opportunities.  In the end I rarely used the 100-500mm as we flew quite low.  Both cameras were set (Canon settings) using Auto ISO, f11 (for depth of field) and 1/1250 sec on the 16-35mm + 1/2500 sec on the 100-500mm and AI Servo plus High-speed Continuous (this means 14 frames per second (fps) on the Canon 1Dx II & 20 fps on the Canon R6.  An article from another photographer recommended the settings when flying in a helicopter due to the amount of vibration you experience.  Fingers crossed that this would be work as it was almost impossible to chimp the screen on the backs of the cameras due to the vibrations.

It was the longest 42 minutes of my life and I almost got off and kissed the ground when we returned.  The ride was very shaky due to the winds but also exhilarating as we toured over the range.  From the air you do really get a different perspective of what the landscape looks like.  I hope you enjoy the photographs.  In that short flight I took nearly 1500 shots most of which I relied on the camera settings being correct and the back button focus doing its job as you could not lift the heavy camera due to the slipstream roaring past the door.  The camera was handheld as steady as I could get it (not easy with a 3 kg weight handheld continuously) and pointed in the general direction of the rock formations.  Talk about pray and spray.

The next day I was to pack and leave so it was also time to plan the next step.  This meant getting the maps out checking mileage down the Tanami Track to my next stop at Wolfe Creek to see the meteorite crater and avoid Mick Taylor!  Luckily for me the actor John Jarratt was in lockdown in Melbourne so I was relatively safe.  The distance from Halls Creek to Alice Springs is 1050 klm plus the 180 klm from my campsite to Halls Creek.  The game plan was to do from my campsite to Wolfe Creek on the first day on the track a distance of 332 klm.  Fuel management would become critical on this leg as the WA government had closed the two Aboriginal settlements for visitors at Billiluna & Balgo due to the fear that tourists would bring COVID to these communities.  This meant that the next fuel stop would be at Yuendumu 800 klm away (760 klm + 40 klm for the diversion into Wolfe Creek).  My normal range with full tanks towing a trailer is around 850 klm plus the extra 48 litres in jerrycans on the roof should see me OK even without another fuel stop at one of the aboriginal communities.

Early next morning I was up and about with the help of nature’s alarm clock with the cockies raucous calling as they woke the woke the world around me.  All packed and on the road by 0700.  The trip out had not improved but at least I could pick the best road lines out and through the water crossing after my three previous trips on this goat track.  Just short of the caravan park near the highway I spotted a large caravan on his way in.  I flagged them down as I knew they would not survive the drive in with the water crossings and steep in and out paths.  It turned out to be Ken & Christine from Perth whom I had met in Wyndham the previous week.  They had only seen the blurb saying the track was suitable for single axle trailers (but not the part about no caravans) so agreed to find a turnaround and come back out.  They might have made it in but it really is not worth the potential damage in thousands of dollars to vehicle and caravan.  I was airing up when they came back and were looking for a place to stay near Halls Creek when I remembered that there was a waterhole called Palm Springs on the Duncan Road outside Halls Creek which would be a relative safe campsite being 27 klm out of town.

At this stage I had a fuel filter error pop up telling me something was wrong with the fuel feed so I rang the Toyota dealership in South Australia who had done the last replacement and spoke to their head mechanic.  The vehicle had only done about 12k since the last one had been replaced and I had thought they should last about 20k before replacement.  The mechanic told me that he recommends they be replaced around 12 to 15k if you do a lot of dirt road driving using country fuel.  All good now all I needed was to find a mechanic to replace it with the spare I was carrying.  But that would be in Halls Creek.  Luckily for me there was a Toyota dealership in Halls Creek but I would have to wait two hours for the mechanic to get back from another job.

Stocked up on groceries, beer & fuel then back to wait for the mechanic.  All fixed in 20 minutes but by now it was well after lunch. I told Ken & Christine I was going to head through to Wolfe Creek rather than drive out to Palm Springs and bid them farewell to continue my journey.

When I started this journey, I had been hoping to tick off some iconic drives which had been on my bucket list forever.  Now I was about to do the second of the iconic 4WD tracks on this trip – first the Oodnadatta Track and now the Tanami Track although these days it is more regarded as a road than a track.  So just south of Halls Creek I turned off the tar onto a dusty but well-maintained dirt road and headed for Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater.

Before I had gone far, I came across four young people standing beside an old Toyota troop carrier.  They were three teachers and the social worker from the Aboriginal settlement of Balgo on their way to Halls Creek.  They had totally destroyed the rear tyre and it was in shreds.  They had gotten the jack out but had no idea how to use it.  Most hydraulic jacks have a small bleed unit which must be tight for you to pump up the hydraulic ram to lift the vehicle then undone to lower the jack when finished.   Then we found the jack was too small to lift it high enough as this model jack was designed for cars not 4WDs.  By this time another ute pulled over and it was driven by one of the teacher’s student’s parents from Balgo. Luckily, he had a much larger jack so I didn’t have to use my airbag jack.  Finally got the tyre replaced and started packing everything away after a ½ hour and some slips (those Troopies are notoriously top heavy and can be dangerous working on them especially on a slope).  The foursome looked rather buggered after their long day, traveling up from Balgo some 250 klm away, so I gave them a beer each to tide them over until they got to town.  So, I left them smiling and enjoying their cans as I headed west.  My good deed for the day was done!

After I left them, the road became pretty ordinary then slightly worse once I reached the turnoff to Wolfe Creek 140 klm later.  Instead of the 15 klm I was expecting it was actually 20 klm and it was badly corrugated in patches.  Finally, I made the campsite on dusk.  I was too tired to put the awning out that night and settled for 2-minute noodles for dinner then bed.  But not before checking that there were no Mick’s in the other two camps – there wasn’t so it was safe to go to bed.

Up early the next morning to go and check the crater out.  I saw the others were also up but packing to leave and by the time I returned from walking up to the crater and taking the obligatory photos they had gone.  I was going to camp here for 2 days but having taken my photos and my knees would not take the 3 klm hike around the crater rim I too, decided to pack and leave after a leisurely breakfast.

Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater

Back on the main road by 1000am time to head for the state border with NT some 220 klm away.  Yuendumu, my next fuel stop was 655 klm away and my tank range was saying 545 klm plus the 3 jerrycans on the roof so I should have plenty.  Just got back to the road when the car stopped with no power. Not what I was expecting so opened the bonnet and started investigating.  Culprit was easy to find as the corrugations had shaken the main wire loose from the battery terminal.  Soon had that tightened and crimped back into place.  Car fired up and I was best pleased that it was an easy fix.  Back on the road again. 

I drove past Billiluna & the Balgo turnoff then came across the WA Police patrolling closer to the border.  I was asked to pull over for a licence check and asked where was I going.  Happy to oblige as I knew they were doing their job keeping the state safe.  I had also noticed an improvement in the road conditions since leaving Wolfe Creek and when I asked them, they just laughed and told me that the grader crews had been working on that section from the border back to Billiluna only in the past two weeks so I was lucky.

Finally reached the border not that you would notice.  Just a small sign on the side of the road with WA on one side and NT on the other.  Ten kilometres past the border it was time to have a late lunch as the road on the NT side was getting rougher and more corrugated.  After a lovely fresh fruit salad that I had purchased in Halls Creek time to start again but I could see a large dust cloud approaching from the east and thinking large road train decided to wait until he had come and gone so I was engulfed by dust.  Ten minutes later the dust was closer but it was not a road train but three graders taking up the whole roadway.  This was my lucky day as when I contacted them, they told me that they had just finished grading the road from The Granites to this spot in the last 5 days.  Now was the time to be on the road as it was as smooth as tar.  You could maintain 90 klm along this fresh section of road which was excellent.

WA/NT border

I had hoped to do some bird photography whilst out on the Tanami as this was the home of the Princess Parrot, one of Australia’s most beautiful and rarest birds, there is only an estimated 5000 of them left in the wild I knew I would need to be extremely lucky.  Sadly, never saw a feather of them or any other bird but raptors along the track. 

As it was getting late in the afternoon it was time to look for a campsite.  On my maps there was supposed to be a bore and a campsite at Renahan’s Bore which was a 100 klms past The Granites where there is a huge gold mine.  Amazingly they have a huge 4G tower so I stopped to message friends that I was OK and where I was before continuing.  After the mine the road deteriorated badly and became very corrugated.  Fuel consumption was now becoming a concern as the burn rate had increased dramatically whilst straining through the soft sand then hard corrugations on this section.  In the end I pulled into a works area carved out of the bush and siphoned the fuel from the jerry cans into the tank.  When I got back into the car I was happy to see I still had 440 klm range to do the next 250 klm.  Speed was now down to 20 klm but with nowhere to pull off and rest I just kept going.  There was no traffic at this time of the day and I still had another 100 klm to go.  It took nearly 2 ½ hours to do that section and I was exhausted by the time I reached the bore.

This whole track is all about big skies and vast desert plains stretching to the horizon that have a uniquely Australian appeal. Breaking up the endless spinifex vistas are termite mounds, odd rocky outcrops and river gum-lined sandy creek beds but it can be lonely out there.  Sadly, Renahan’s Bore was nothing special just a parking bay on the side of the road.  It was only 155 klm short of Yuendumu but I could go no further.  I was out of the vehicle having a stretch when I could hear a car rattling along the road.  A battered commodore with one headlight and what sounded like a flat tyre rolled into the parking bay and pulled up beside me.  An aboriginal woman popped out and asked if I could give her one of my spare tyres.  I was gobsmacked to say the least.  4WD Off Road Tyres are a lot larger than sedan tyres which I pointed out to her.  That plus the nut patterns would not match.  Even more amazing was that her car had even got this far with the amount of damage I could see in the fading light.  The front side headlights were smashed along with crumpled panels along the right side with the rear panel missing altogether.  The front passenger window was smashed and now covered with a black plastic bin liner taped on with 100 mph tape.  The passenger mirror was hanging by its electrical cable.  The woman was quite upset that I wouldn’t help her out – I couldn’t as it would not work getting a 4WD wheel on this heap of junk.  There must have been other damage underneath the vehicle as well as I could hear the muffler rattling as she pulled out and I could now see the drivers side tyre which was flat but not yet shredded as she headed north.

For the first time on this trip, I felt uncomfortable bush camping this close to the road.  Luckily, I had not unhitched so it was time to push on into the dark and try and find another bush parking bay further from the road.  It took another hour crawling along the corrugations before I came to a truck parking bay which was much further off the road.  I know you not supposed to camp in these but I drove to the very back of this one then out into the spinifex clumps to an open patch a further 50 metres into the scrub.  That was it I was now exhausted and I had had enough driving for the day.  I left the chains and electrics hooked up to the vehicle but lowered the jockey wheel and raised the trailer to level it out for sleeping.  The wind had picked up so no awning out tonight.  Dinner was Jatz crackers and dip washed down by Cascade Light beer (For the past 12 years you can only buy Light Beer in Halls Creek under their Liquor Licencing laws).  All I cared about at that stage was that the beer was cold!!!  Didn’t even raise the awning over my rooftop tent, at least until wind banging the poles, woke me at 3am.  So out of bed to fix that and noticed whilst I had been sleeping a quad fuel tanker road train was now parked in the parking bay 50 metres away – never even heard him come in.  Went back to bed but awake again as my alarm had gone off on my phone – it was only 0430 goddammit!!!  I had forgotten that whilst the 4G tower at The Granites was a boon for messaging friends it had also updated the phone to Central Australia time from WA time – 1 ½ hour difference so it was now 6am in Central Australia.  Turned that off but now could not sleep so started packing up and had an early breakfast.  Hit the road just as the sun started to rise and continued on this piece of rubbish road. 

All was going well until 16 klm from Yuendumu the car lost power and I came to a rolling stop.  I had not seen anyone for the past two hours.  They always say that under no circumstances do you leave your broken-down vehicle in the bush.  I had plenty of water and food so I would be Ok.  In the interim I would try and troubleshoot the problem.  Initially I did not suspect that I had run out of fuel as the gauge was showing just under a quarter full and the range was saying I should be able to drive for another 227 klm according to the fuel burn rate – the system lied to me!  After opening the bonnet, I checked over all the wiring as I had a wire get pulled out killing power once before on this road which was easily fixed so that wasn’t the culprit.  Next, I checked the small pump on top of the fuel filter and found that it was soft i.e. no fuel.  So, I had some sort of fuel flow problem but not sure how bad this would be.  So, I pumped it a number of times until I could feel that it had filled up and was now tight.  Jumped back in the and fired it up – Eureka!! – engine fired up and that took me another 5 klm until it stopped again.  Out of the car, opened the bonnet and repeated the exercise.  Again, the engine fired up and I managed another 5 klm.  Once when I was doing this, I turned around to see a large 2 metre brown snake wriggle across the road 15 minutes away just to put the wind up me – at least he kept going and left me to my own dramas.  I repeated this pump trick without any more snakes until I finally rolled into Yuendumu and conked out again just on the edge of the community.  I tried the trick again but this time it did not work.  I had managed to get the car & trailer off the road and turned on the hazard lights.  According to my HEMA maps the service station here would not open for another hour but there was a 24 hr pump where I could get diesel.  At this stage I knew I had a fuel lift pump problem but was not sure whether it was the main pump or the one between the front and back tanks with no way for me to check that.

At this stage a young aboriginal bloke drove up and asked if I needed help.  I told him I think I had run out of fuel so he offered to drive me to the 24 hr diesel pump and get 20 ltrs.  Fuel here was $2 a litre but when you needed it you would pay anything.  I was grateful for the help as I hadn’t fancied the walk there and back lugging a full jerrycan in the heat.  Got back and poured the fuel in (the kid insisted I was too old to do it so he did it himself – cheeky sod).  Opened the bonnet again and primed the fuel filter and got the car started again.  Off the kid went followed by me but in another 300 mtrs the engine stopped again and this time refused to start.  Time for Plan B.

I rang RACV as I had paid for their Ultimate Care package for both car & trailer prior to this trip and told them of my troubles.  They contacted the NT roadside assist team and told me to wait whilst they found a mechanic in Alice Springs I could talk too.  In a way I was lucky I had reached here as they have Telstra phone coverage for the town.  In 15 minutes, a mechanic rang me and asked again what had gone wrong.  When I told him I had surmised a fuel transfer problem he agreed but that the 20 ltrs I had put in was nowhere near enough and I needed to give the car a bigger drink of fuel.  His reasoning was if this all failed, I would be sitting there for four hours whilst he organised a tow truck to get out there from Alice to recover me.  I was happy to try anything so I told him I would get the 3 jerry cans off the roof and fill them up and try again.  I promised to ring him back when it was done.  Then I got the fright of my life when this aboriginal lady practically yelled in my ear was I OK.  I hadn’t even seen her walk up to the car!!  I told her that I had run out of fuel and would need get more fuel.  She said you wait here and I will get my husband and she popped back in this old beat-up bomb that I had not even seen drive up and away she went.  Back in 5 minutes with her husband and we manhandled the jerrycans off the roof and drove around to the shop service station that was now open.  Filled the 3 jerrycans to the max at $1.95 a ltr (slightly cheaper but I wasn’t complaining).  Back to the truck and one by one siphoned the fuel into the tank.  Re-primed the fuel filter and this time the engine fired up straight away.  Rang the mechanic back and he asked me to drive around town for the next 5 minutes to make sure I could keep going.

Did the tour of Yuendumu with no problems.  Rang the mechanic back and told him the good news.  He recommended that I head for Alice and get the Toyota dealership look at the vehicle ASAP.  Well, that killed the enjoyment of spending any more days out on the Tanami without taking one bird photo.  On the bright side the car was running and I was safe so it was time to go but not before rewarding the two people who had helped me get the car fueled up.  Drove back to where the first young bloke lived and gave him $50 and thanked him again then drove back up to the shop where I knew the other guy was and also gave him $50 and thanked him again for the help him and his wife had given me.

On the road again to another welcome surprise in that road from Yuendumu to Alice Springs is now tar so no more dirt.  I had over a ½ tank of fuel and a promise to ring the mechanic once more after I safely arrived in Alice Springs.

Four hours later I was in Alice phone call done and booked back into the Alice Springs Tourist Park on the same site I was on back in June.  On the Monday I booked the car into Toyota for a service and check on the fuel pumps.   This trip was becoming expensive as the front door seals and the rear door seal had to be replaced as well as dust was leaking into the cab plus the fuel pump was replaced along with a regular service.  Another $1500 to keep me on the road – from my perspective I am happy to pay so I can keep enjoying my travels.

Being in Alice for an extra week whilst I also wait on a replacement solar blanket that was replaced under warranty.  This gives me more time to plan for the next step as I am in no rush to come home due to the weather and COVID situation in Victoria.  Maybe Streaky Bay & Coffin Bay in SA chasing whiting & eating oysters sounds good to me right now.

I am happy to say that I survived the Tanami Track!!! Next blog will be the trek home & Gluepot as all adventures must come to an end – at least for this year.

In Search of Gouldians

Blog #21 – In Search of Gouldians – Days 157 to 182 of 180 (it will be longer)

A red-masked Gouldian Finch between 3 Long-tailed Finches

The distance to Wyndham is 1006 klm so I decided to split the trip into 3 of 2 day stays at Pine Creek, Victoria River Roadhouse & Timber Creek before crossing over into WA and onto Wyndham.

Game plan was to find Hooded Parrots & Red-winged Parrots around the Lazy Lizard Caravan Park in Pine Creek.  Purple-crowned Fairywrens at Victoria River Roadhouse & my first Gouldians at Timber Creek.  The Gods laughed at my plans AGAIN!!!

First day was a leisurely drive of 320 klms via Humpty Doo as I needed to go the chemist.  Unfortunately, they did not have what I needed so a short 15 klm detour into Coolalinga which has a Chemist Warehouse as well as Coles & Liquorland as I thought I might as well top up on groceries and drinks at the same time.  Managed to get a rock star parking spot right next to the entrance which is not easy when towing a trailer.

All stocked up again and now heading south down the Stuart Highway once again.  It took only two hours to get to Pine Creek and as I had stayed here before I knew that there was no point in getting there early as they will not book you in before 11am anyway.  This time I opted for 2 days on a powered site so I could do the laundry.  Even when you are camping the chores never go away.  One recommendation I have for anyone contemplating this sort of trip make sure you have a pile of $1 & $2 coins for the washing machines and dryers.  Once that was done it was time to look around for any feathered friends. 

Australasian Figbird next to my camp

The first day I saw lots of fruit bats which are hardly photogenic but none of my target species.  So up early next morning to wander in the park.  This time I was in luck finding both hooded parrots and red-winged parrots but fairly high up in the trees so again not in good photo positions.  But I persisted and was eventually rewarded with some reasonable shots especially the red-wings as they fed on the mangoes.  After another good feed and a couple of pints in the tavern that night it was time to pack again and hit the road.

Next morning, I was on the road by 7am to beat the heat of the day on the 285 klm trip down to Victoria River Roadhouse.  Here I had hoped to find the Purple-crowned Fairywren but sadly only found a Pheasant Coucal which was hardly a fair swap.  The caravan park was very good and very cheap ($15 a night on a powered site) and the meals were nice but you had to have an early dinner as the kitchen closed at 7.30pm.  But sadly, no fairywrens.  I did find out later that I was in the right spot but there were two things I needed to do first as they hide in very thick grass beside the river – 1) Find a broken branch to use as a perch and put that just outside the grass line & 2) use their birdcall to bring them out of the grass.  Next time!!!

Pheasant Coucal

After two fruitless days it was time to hit the road for Timber Creek but this time it was only short journey of 93 klm.  Again, I booked in for two days as I had heard that many finch species could be found here even Gouldians.  After a day & a half of searching all I managed to get was a nice shot of a male Great Bowerbird exchanging gifts with a female at the bower.  Hopefully she would accept the gift but I did not have the time to stay and see what eventuated.

A male Great Bowerbird chasing his amour around the bower with a gift in his beak

Whilst in the caravan park it happened to be cracker night which had been postponed due to COVID.   From the screams of the kids in the park and the ooh’s and aah’s of the parents the show was enjoyed by all.  Not quite on the scale of the Sydney New Years show it was enough to allow a good night’s rest as the show petered out around 9.30pm as they ran out of fireworks.

It had now become a routine where I packed up as much as I could the evening prior to departure so I was on the road early again on my way to cross the WA border.  Today’s travel would be around 311 klm so roughly 4 hours with a bit of shopping thrown in.  The checking station was very efficient and I was only queued for about 5 minutes before have the vehicle inspected and my pass checked by the police.  All cleared then onto Kunnunurra to fuel up and top up with groceries.  Again, I was frustrated that a) I had forgotten that I needed to change my watch to the Perth timezone & b) WA, especially in the north west, have different liquor licencing laws than elsewhere.  I had been told that I was better to buy my goods in Kunnunurra as it was a much larger town than Wyndham but in reality, once I was in Wyndham, I found that their supermarket, bakery & liquor outlet was just as good.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if I had known that I would not have hung around that extra hour waiting for the shop to open so I could purchase a box of beer! Before you all start thinking I am turning into an alcoholic I have found in these hot climes are cold ale or two at the end of the day was a welcome relief from the heat. These days I only drink mid-strength beer (3.5% Alcohol content) as super gives me a headache. This is on top of the three litres of water I am also drinking each day as the heat up here sucks moisture out of you at a great rate of knots.

Finally arrived in Wyndham around 1.30 pm and met the caravan park owner Sharyn who could not have been more helpful.  She even knew the bird guide, Rodney ‘Bushy’ Bushell, personally and gave me his mobile number.  So, time to setup camp then contact Bushy and see what I could arrange.  Surprise, surprise I rang him that afternoon and he offered to come around and have a beer and work on the game plan the next day.  I had already been told that Bushy had his own hide setup out in the bush which he replenished with water every day for the whole of the dry season.  The cost was $50 a session which I was happy to pay.  There was also a new business that had started up in Kunnunurra called ‘Breakfast with the Birds’ who Bushy was also working with so I would need to manage when I could visit the hide to fit around their schedule and some of Bushy’s other clients.  So next day Bushy showed up at my campsite after lunch with his constant companion Bundy, a very friendly black staffy, to have a few beers.

A true gentleman of the bush was our Bushy.  It was a pleasure to meet him and I must thank my lucky stars in meeting Elizabeth Fidler at Buffalo Creek near Darwin for suggesting that I come and help with Gouldian count if I was ever in this part of the world and gave me Bushy’s contact email for starters.  He is also an excellent photographer and his Birds in Flight (BiF) shots are exceptional.  Sadly, the bird count for this year had been cancelled due to many of the annual volunteers could not come due to the COVID restrictions on travel from the eastern states.  But on the bright side that meant more opportunities to do bird photography around Wyndham.

Bushy was booked for the next three days so he suggested a number of other places where I could go and try.  His faith in my navigational skills was sorely tested over the next two days as I managed to get myself lost out on the plains trying to find Marlgu Lagoon.  Eventually I found it so spent the next three early mornings, and I do mean early – out of bed at 0430 and on way out of the park by 0500.  This was to catch the lovely soft light as the sun came up around 0530.  By 1000 am the light was too harsh for photography so time to head back to camp.

Wyndham is the hottest town in Australia with an average of 29.3 degC.  Daytime average temperature for the three weeks I stayed here was around 37 degC with a few 39 degC days thrown in. Night time temperatures were quite uncomfortable as well when it rarely dropped below 23 degC with most nights around 26 degC.  At least I have a fan up in the tent which helped move the air around.  One bonus was the swimming pool at the park which was like jumping in an ice bath and instantly cooled you down.  Most days I would be in the pool twice a day to cool off.

This place had an interesting history based around cattle.  The famous Durack family had their cattle landholdings to the south.  Overlooking the town is The Bastion which overlooks the five rivers which flow into the Campaspe Gulf.  One of them is the Ord River which was part of one the great schemes to open up the NW with irrigated crops from the huge amount of water that flows through this river and is generally wasted by going into the sea.  In the early days, with commonwealth government assistance, huge tracts of land were irrigated to grow a variety of crops.  Sadly, most of these have now closed due to the difficulty in getting crops to market.  Interestingly enough cotton thrives in this environment but there are no local gin mills to process it and the raw cotton is transported by truck to Emerald in Queensland.  An astonishing distance and cost.  However, they have plenty of water.  Maybe it is time to close down cotton farming in NSW and bolster the Kimberley farms as the Darling River system cannot sustain cotton farming due to limited water supply.

The variety of water birds at Marlgu Lagoon was astonishing plus it had its own boss saltie – a 3.5 metre beastie so no swimming.  There were thousands of Rajah Shelducks & Wandering Whistling Ducks plus many species of Egrets, Magpie Geese, Pygmy Geese, Waterhens, Pied Herons, Jacanas, Night Herons, Terns, Brolgas & Jabiru Storks.  I also spotted Paperbark Flycatchers, Honeyeaters, Great Bowerbirds, Pelicans & a White-bellied Sea Eagle.  Truly an amazing collection of birds this late in the dry season as much of the surface water in this region was evaporating quickly due to the heat so this was the place to be. One morning out there I was fortunate enough to see around 60 juvenile Pied Herons fishing on the lily pads in front of me. They were slightly to heavy for the lily pads which would start to settle under water and once the water reached their bellies they would leap to the next lily pad and keep fishing. It was a hilarious to watch as they were so concentrated on fishing that the water levels sort of crept up on them so they literally jumped straight up to avoid sinking. I also saw the fishing techniques of the Australasian Darter who spear their prey then have to flip it off and hopefully recover it before it slips away underwater. many times I saw them spear their catch only to lose it when they flipped it off their sword like bills.

Another dam that Bushy had told me about was roughly 20 klm from camp called Chimooly Dam and the only way I found it was using Google Maps then saving the map whilst I had 4G reception in town.  There are no signposts out in these vast flood plains.  It was supposed to be the watering hole favoured by Red-tailed Black Cockatoos but I only saw a small flock late one afternoon just on dusk for the four trips I made out there.  However, I had met a young Videographer named Simon at the park who agreed to come out one afternoon to do some BiF on Rainbow Bee-eaters out at the dam.  He was using a new mirrorless Canon R5 matched to a Canon 600mm f/4 lens which can take stills at 20 fps (frames per second) with a fantastic amount of detail in their 45 Mb files.  We had a friendly wager for a couple of beers as to who could get the sharpest photos from that afternoon.  We had the breeze blowing down the dam from the north and birds kept coming back to the same perch.  It was a lot of fun doing this type of photography and quite challenging exercise to nail that perfect shot.  Sadly, I never had the same wind conditions again whenever I drove out there which was very disappointing as it was quite a hike to get out there to do photography. O, and Simon’s images were much better than mine with exceptional detail in the feathers of these lovely little birds.

The next day I was chatting to Bushy about these new mirrorless cameras and why they can be much better than even my Canon 1Dx series camera bodies.  They are also much lighter than my current equipment which I have started to notice more when I cart my gear & a tripod through a couple of kilometres of scrub.  So, I started to do some research on the Canon R5 & Canon R6.  I soon discovered that the R6 was better suited to my style of stills photography and was appreciable cheaper (about $2K).  After watching YouTube videos from my trusted reviewers, I decided to place an order with favourite camera store – CamerasDirect up on the Gold Coast at Labrador.  I knew that I would have to start selling off some of my gear when I got back home as I was not using it and the insurance costs were starting to get ridiculous – this year it was up to $1700!  Anyway, order was placed and was shipped that afternoon by ExpressPost to be sent to the Wyndham Post Office.  Later that afternoon Mark from CamerasDirect emailed me a special deal for the new Canon 100 – 500mm that was well matched with the Canon R6.  For a zoom lens this was quite expensive ($5500 RRP) but I was given an opportunity to buy it for the spot price of $4500 which I took up.  It was despatched the next day.  Now the anxious wait for my new goodies to arrive.  Whilst I waited I watched as much instructional videos as possible on how to setup this new gear for bird photography so I could take advantage of the ‘new’ animal eye focusing system that was much faster and better than my now aging 1Dx camera bodies.  I had become very frustrated with some of my results from the NT and even though I had some fantastic shots from there I had also missed many other opportunities when the camera focus shifted or did not work as I expected.

During this waiting time I spent a few sessions in the bird hide that Bushy had erected.  On my first morning I was expecting to travel out along the King River Road which was a goat track and corrugated.  I knew as I had travelled it a few days earlier to go out and visit the Prison Tree – a very old Boab Tree that had been naturally hollowed out and used as temporary accommodation for miscreants back in the 1800’s.  Unfortunately the carved ‘Hillgrove Lockup’ has been buried under the hundreds of other initials carved into the trunk by other travelers over the years.

The Hillgrove Lockup – Boab Prison Tree

On my way out to join Bushy I was lucky to see him just in front of me at 0510 am.  Just out of town he suddenly turned off the tar and down a dirt track 10 klms from where I expected to turn off.  He must know where he is going so, I followed him.  To my amazement there was a road across the mud flats which was much better than the King River Road.  All the locals must use it as it was quite well defined.  On the King River Road, you were travelling at no more than 40 klm/hr otherwise your teeth would rattle out but, on the mud flats, the road was so smooth it was easy to drive at around 90 klm/hr.  Within minutes we turned off the mud flats and drove up a short rocky incline then down to the bird hide.

On my first morning in the hide, I saw my first Gouldian Finch.  What an amazingly beautiful little bird.  Sadly, they seem to be in decline as they are bullied out of nesting sites by Long-tailed Finches who are much more prolific.  They have a very interesting colour scheme with some red-faced & others black-faced.  Apparently, there is a gold/yellow-faced variety as well but Bushy has not seen one locally for some years.  Over the next three hours I was treated to an avian airshow with Gouldians, Star, Double-barred, Long-tailed & Masked finches plus Peaceful, Barred & Diamond Doves, Great Bowerbirds, Rufous-throated Honeyeaters & Spinifex Pigeons.  Strangely the Gouldians only came into drink before 0630 and I rarely saw them any later than 0700.  By 9am the sun had become far to fierce and most of the birds had dispersed into the nearby grasslands to fossick for seeds so it was time to return to camp.  I had taken 1000’s of shots but many would go into the trash as the birds are very fidgety and nervous with good cause around these water sources.  The second trip to the hide saw the appearance of a juvenile Brown Goshawk whose favourite food is finches.  Every now and then he would flash from his hiding spot in the trees above the water hole and you would see hundreds of small birds flee for their lives.   I never saw him actually catch one but he sure made them all nervous which made taking photographs that much more difficult.

During the wait for my parcels I was like a little kid let loose in a candy store with my weekly pocketmoney. And was getting more excited by the minute.  I already had an AusPost account so I could some tracking.  To my surprise the lens showed up on the Monday as it had left a day later than the camera body.  Now the wait began in earnest and you can imagine my horror when I discovered that the camera body had been routed to Karratha some 1500 klm to the south when it should have been routed via Kunnunurra.  I was now forced to extend my stay in Wyndham for another week whilst AusPost got their act together.  In the end I raised a complaint to try and force them to update the tracker.  That was a waste of time and effort as once I raised the complaint, they stopped communicating with me and never updated the tracking until the parcel arrived.  If it is one thing, I cannot stand it is rubbish service for a business which charges high fees.  The next time I heard from them was 5 days later to say they had tracked the package to Wyndham which I had picked up the day before.  Unfortunately, they have you over a barrel when it comes to delivery to remote places as they are the only carrier.  Anyway, enough grizzling, my new toy was here and it was time to see how good this combination was going to be and could it replace the 1Dx bodies I have been using these past 5 years and more.

Because the parcel had been delayed for a week, I also opted to stay another week so I could get some practice in with the new outfit.  Bushy was also busy with the Breakfast with the Birds company so he showed me another spot called Singh’s Garden another 5 klm further along the mud flats.  Here there was a natural spring and small series of diminishing water pools left in the creek bed.  So, whenever the hide was booked, I would go to Singh’s and setup in the creek bed.  Bushy then told me that I was too far away (at 25 metres from the waterhole) so he told me next time bring a chair and setup no more than 15 metres from the small pool.  He said the small birds would soon get used to you being there and not a threat to them.  This turned out to be very true and at one stage I had a small flock of Brown Quail walk within a metre of me as they came into having a drink!  That was amazing.  Next to my chair was a small grass patch and by the time I went there for my second morning session the finches began to feed on the grass very close to me.  I loved it and spent many hours photographing a variety of small birds which now also included Black-bellied Crimson Finches, a Red-backed Fairywren & an immature White-winged Triller.  Every morning I noticed the water levels in the creek bed were drying up and by the end of the second week two of the small waterholes had completely dried and the third would be dry by the end of the following week.  The birds would still have the permanent spring to last them through to the wet season so they should be Ok.

The new camera body and lens were a joy to use compared to my other prime combination of a Canon 1Dx II & Canon 600mm f/4 + canon 1.4x Extender plus the tripod.  The latter combination weighed around 15 Kg compared to 3 Kg of the new outfit and I didn’t need to use the tripod.  So, for my last three days in Wyndham, I only used the new combination and have taken some amazing shots.

The low light capability of the R6 was fantastic and one of the shots I took was at an astronomical ISO 20000 with no digital noise. This was a serious game changer. For my non photographic friends the higher the ISO number means that sensitivity of the sensor allows for shooting in the almost dark but in the past this also meant that digital noise is introduced and this reduces the quality of the images. Most modern digital cameras cannot shoot at higher ISO than ISO 3200 without having unusable images.

This image was taken using the Canon R6 with a Canon 600mm + Canon 1.4x III Extender. Note the ISO number.

It was now getting very hot and I needed to start moving south to get into some cooler climes.  This has been an amazing place and I really have not done it’s history much good but I could write another ten pages on that especially the part the Afghans played in developing this part of Australia until camels were replaced by trucks in the 1920’s.  Two things I will say about these amazing people that they are some of the toughest people alive and they would have needed to be back in 1800’s and surprisingly many opted not to be repatriated back to Afghanistan and stayed in Australia although none were left in Wyndham.  The old Afghan cemetery were a few are buried far from their homelands where the gravesites are huge.  Apparently, it was a tradition that when a cameleer died his lead camel would be buried with him – a sad end to a noble beast! And finally, Singh’s Garden was a huge market garden run by an Oli Singh who provided the township with fresh fruit & vegetables in the late 1800’s – without his work I may never have had the opportunity to photograph such a wonderful variety of small birds.

My next destination was to be some 250 klms south at Purnululu NP but most Australians would know it as the Bungle Bungles.  Time to hit the road again after nearly three weeks in Wyndham which I have thoroughly enjoyed.  I am now over the 180 days I had originally planned for this trip but due to the major Delta variant outbreak of COVID in NSW & Victoria I will now stay out on the road until at least mid-October then re-asses when to come home.  That looks to be an extension of my trip out to 220 days.  But the good news is that I am still having lots of fun and enjoying the journey.

Until next time in the Bungle Bungles!

Out onto the Wildman Plains

Out onto the Wildman Plains – Days 144 to 156 of 180

Comb-crested Jacana aka the Jesus Bird

It has been sometime since I read Tom Cole’s diary & letters when he rode the Wildman Plains hunting water buffalo & crocodiles between 1925 and 1943 (Riding the Wildman Plains – The Letters & Diaries of Tom Cole – Published 1992).  I have always enjoyed a good yarn about the bushies way back when and even though it was a tough life they enjoyed themselves.  He also wrote ‘Hell, West & Crooked’ & ‘Crocodiles & Other Characters’. So, I was following in his footsteps but with a lot more comfort in a modern 4WD & a luxury offroad trailer on paved roads which was better than a horse and swag that was used back in those days.

My first stop was at the Mary River Wilderness Retreat.  Here I was to spend the next 5 nights as I planned what to do next.  This resort/caravan park was in the process of being sold so unfortunately did not have a restaurant but did have a pizza making facility.  But even better the Bark Hut Inn was only 2 klms up the road and they had beer on tap and excellent meals so that was dinner sorted for most nights.

The staff here were very helpful but if I stay here again it will not be on site 10 as it received full sun all day even though it was sited in amongst the trees.  The receptionist Penny was horrified when I told her and wanted to move me but once you have setup and unpacked this becomes a pain to move.  As it was only for a few days I would survive as most days I would be out and exploring.

First up was to see what was on offer locally – there were bush/bird walks within the resort and a lot of wildlife around my campsite.  These included the Agile Wallabies which were in a big mob.  In the trees around me where Whistling Kites, various honeyeaters, Rainbow Bee-eaters and Straw-necked Ibis.  Supposedly there was also Gouldian Finches spotted here in the past few weeks so I would need to be on the lookout for them.  The resort was on the banks of the Mary River which has the highest concentration of crocodiles per square kilometre in all of Australia.  To make that point as I was setting up camp, I could hear one barking in the river – good start as long as they didn’t walk up into the campsites!

When talking to Penny at the resort she suggested that I do some tours with Wetland Cruises on Corroboree Billabong.  Great advice as this company had been voted number one tourist operator for the past couple of years.  I initially signed up to do two cruises – lunch & sunset but came back and signed on to do a dawn cruise as well.  These were the best money I had spent so far as someone else would provide the boats and guides.  It was only a 30-minute drive back towards Darwin before turning down to the billabong to meet the boat.  I staggered the trips so I did one every other day with a gap for the last to be done on a Monday as they cancelled the Sunday trip.

The sunset cruise was first and the weather turned it on with a beautiful cool breeze blowing from the start.  The boats are quite large flat-bottomed punts with a capacity for 26 passengers plus the guide/skipper.  Most cruises lasted 2 to 2 ½ hours so plenty of time to photograph to my hearts content.  I made sure I was there early so I could grab a seat up the front to have an uninterrupted view of whatever was out there.  Corroboree Billabong is part of the Mary River system so therefore there were lots of crocs for starters but the birdlife was also incredible.  That first trip I saw Black-necked Storks (Jabirus to us mere mortals), White-bellied Sea Eagles, Australasian Darters, Whistling Kites, Egrets, Jesus Birds (I know I should say Comb-crested Jacanas but when you see them literally walk on water it’s other name is more appropriate).  There were also Azure Kingfishers, Water Buffalos and an endless supply of crocs both estuarine (salties) and freshwater (Johnstone River) crocodiles.

I was amazed at how close we could get to the birds and animals without them being really spooked.  As they are running these cruises at least three times a day and 6 days a week the animals & birds probably regard us tourists as part of the daily parade and no threat to them.  The sunset over the plains and behind the pandanus trees was something special to witness and a joy to see.  It was the end to a perfect day.  Time to drive back up the road for a couple of pints of lager and dinner at the Bark Hut Inn.  One thing you notice this far north is that there is no twilight.  The lights just switch off once the sun goes below the horizon.  This is a bit disconcerting to a Victorian who is used to long twilights at the end of the day.

Sunset over the billabong

Two days later I was back to do the lunch time cruise.  This time it was the same suspects but in brighter light but I still managed to get some good shots including the boss croc of the billabong all 5.1m of him. 

The Boss

Male crocodiles never stop growing but females top out at around 3.5 to 4m.  The largest crocodile known in Australia was shot by a female croc hunter Krystina Pawlowski in 1957 near Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria reputedly 8.6m long (that is 28ft long in the old scale – so bloody big).  Sadly, there were no photos taken and it was too large to skin (why not you ask – no idea but if it was me, I would have tried).  While stories about this near-mythical-sized beast are popular in Australia, the size of this crocodile has never been confirmed and still draws skepticism from researchers.

My final cruise which left the dock at 6.30am meant a very early start on the day I was supposed to pack & leave.  Penny told me not to rush as they were not that busy but I also did not have confirmation of my next place of abode at Point Stuart at the time.

Of all the cruises this was probably the most disappointing as you do not see much action as it is too cold for the crocs and many of the birds slept in as well.  However, the highlight of this cruise was to find another birding lifer for me – a Lemon-bellied Flyrobin.  The two hours flew by and then it was the drive back to pack up. I was almost done when the resort manager came down to tell me that I needed to be out by midday as there was a COVID lockdown for the next three days coming into effect that day.  I was out of there at 1145 heading for Point Stuart lickety-split.

The drive down to Point Stuart only took an hour or so the last 20klms on dirt.  Initially I was to stay here for 4 nights.  But due to the COVID lockdown I added an extra 4 nights as a precaution whilst I planned my next move.

I absolutely loved this place as it was very quiet (due to COVID) which was probably not good for business but suited me.  For my stay there was never more than a dozen guests for a resort with a capacity for 200.  On the third day I went for a cruise in the lodge’s boat with two other guests out on the freshwater side of the Mary River down at Shady Camp about 30 klms away from the lodge. 

I met a large salty called Fang due to part of his snout being bitten off in a fight.  Talk about close and personal when over 4.5m of salty sidles up to the side of the boat looking for a free feed. 

Meet Fang

All the other usual suspects when it came too birdlife.  A very enjoyable 1 ½ cruise which nearly ended up very embarrassing for the lodge when we ran out of petrol for the outboard.  Our guide was not impressed as he struggled to get back to the boat ramp.  I had suggested that he might have to emulate the Jesus Bird and walk across to the shoreline – not likely with all the salties in this stretch.  We eventually got back to the ramp all in one piece – I think our guide was going to chew some pieces out of the last person to use the boat and not re-fuel it!  He had told me that it was quite good fishing around the ramp so I decided to come back here the next day and give it a try in the early morning. The other couple had expressed an interest in seeing water buffalo so our guide offered to take us out to paddock where they had separated the bulls from the cows. So we piled into the safari vehicle for a short drive through the bush where the water buffalo were feeding and wallowing in a billabong. They were huge!!! Remember the water buffalo from the movie Crocodile Dundee? Well I didn’t hop out of the truck and try and hypnotise this lot but I did take lots of photos.

Also interesting at this resort was a small herd of Banteng Cattle. These are an Indonesian breed of cattle which are quite distinctive in colouring. Despite being a non-native species, the feral Australian Banteng has adapted positively. The males are black / dark chocolate brown and the females are buff. They have a distinctive white patch on their rear and can weigh up to 400 to 900 kg (880 to 1,980lb). The horns of females are short and tightly curved, pointing inward at the tips, while those of males arc upwards, growing 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 in) long, and being connected by a horn-like bald patch on the forehead. When the NT was first being settled these cattle and water buffalo were imported as they were suitable for the floodplains in this part of the country. When the settlement of Point Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula was abandoned in 1849 so were the cattle & buffalo. They thrived to say the least and you can go on hunting safaris to shoot them – in my case only with a camera. As these are in such an isolated area of Australia they are disease free and there is talk of sending some of the Banteng back to Indonesia to strengthen there herds. We can add these species to the long list of other feral species introduced by my forbears from the UK but these may prove more useful than foxes, rabbits & sparrows.

Early next morning I drove back to Shady Camp to fish above the river barrage.  Parked the car and setup the rod to a beautiful dawn with no one else around – lookout barra(mundi) here I come!  I was about 10 metres from the spot I had chosen to fish without a ripple on the water when a large pair of nostrils followed by over 3.5mtrs of salty surfaced and gave me the evil eye.  Well, that was a quick fishing trip!  I decided that he could keep that spot of river and I would retire and fish elsewhere.  It does pay to be crocwise up in the NT (& NW of WA as well).  The tide was wrong to fish the saltwater side with the water down a long way.  The rocks were far too slippery for me so off I went looking for birds to photograph.

No barra fishing for me!!

Decided to return back via the lodge but this time visit the once very up-market Wildman Wilderness Resort.  In its heyday this was a very flash (and expensive) retreat that is sadly now in ruins.  The beautiful safari style accommodation is now open to the sky with the canvas roofs in tatters.  The only thing still working are the solar pumps that keep the infinity pool from turning to green sludge.  It even has its own private airstrip!!  When I spoke to the manager at Point Stuart about it he told me that the canvas they had used was not suitable for tropics and was sun damaged within three years.  The canvas used at Point Stuart for their safari lodges was 20 years old and was in the process of being replaced that year.  Sad end to a stunning looking resort abandoned to the bush.

There was little or no reception for phones where I was but back up on the Arnhem Highway near the Jim Jim Track turnoff the army had Telstra build a 4G tower which is in the middle of Whoop Whoop but that worked to my benefit.  So every 2 or 3 days I would take the 20 minute drive back to the highway to find out what was happening in the world and download mail.

I had finally made the decision that Queensland was now ruled out due to the spike in COVID cases in NSW plus the fact that Qld Police had taken a dislike to any vehicle with VIC rego.  Time to take my money elsewhere like WA where I was still welcome.  Applied for my G2G pass which came through straightaway for entry into WA on the 29th August. 

My sojourn at Point Stuart was at an end.  Lockdown in Darwin & Katherine was also at an end so I could go to WA which I was really looking forward to – the hunt for Gouldian Finches was on!  Next time the story of the trek west.


Blog #19 – Darwin – Days 131 to 143 of 180


Strange that after 4 ½ months on the road I have lobbed into Darwin with no game plan.  My travel plans went out the window after Greg left as the main reason for going to Darwin was to fly to Perth.  Now that was cancelled it was time to take a proper timeout and have a rest.

The Boomerang Caravan Park & Virginia Tavern was a very small park (only 60 sites plus 5 cabins) but was reasonably close to the CBD (25 klms away).  The roads around Darwin are amazing for the lack of traffic.  Strange as it may seem but every time I drove into the CBD on the Tiger Brennan Drive I was the only car for miles. 

This city has seen its fair share of tragedies and is the only capital city in Australia to be bombed then 30 odd years later nearly get wiped out by a cyclone.  Darwin was bombed 64 times between February 1942 through too November 1943.  If you have the time, and the inclination, a visit to The Darwin Experience will give you a feel for how unprepared Australia was to be bombed at the time.  The bombing was to ensure that Darwin could not be used as a base to contest the Japanese landings on Java & Timor.  Many thought that we would be invaded and preparations were being made to fall back to the lower half of Australia (the Brisbane Line) if this had happened.  As usual there no linger exists any record of what that plan would have looked like and both Fadden & Menzies deny it ever existed.  You gotta love a good conspiracy story!! After the war it was revealed that Japan did not have enough troops to invade Australia as they were already overstretched in setting up their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere for all the old colonies of the Dutch, French, US & Australian they had overrun.

Many of the old battlements and airstrips still exist today as you drive around this beautiful city.  I don’t think I could live here however as it is quite hot for someone from Victoria.  One thing about cold weather is you can add more clothing to get warm but, in the heat, once you are down to your birthday suit you are still hot and likely to be arrested if you are out in public.

Luckily, I have a friend, Leigh, and his mate Barry to take me out into Darwin Harbour on a fishing trip.  Remember this is the home of the estuarine crocodile and it is not wise to fish off banks close to the waters edge when you are by yourself.  We had to postpone the trip a couple of times as it was very windy but eventually, we got out there and we had a field day.  Early start to match the tides for the day with very little wind as we sped out from Dinah Beach Boat Ramp near the Tipperary Marina.  Now if I was a rich man, which I am not, this would be the place to have a property.

It took us a ½ hour to get to the spot we were to fish amongst the mangrove islands.  Along the way we saw a couple of salties giving us the eye as we cruised past.  This was all new to me so Leigh & Barry had to help me sort out how to fish NT style.  Up here the reel drags are set to maximum as giving the fish the ability to run means disaster and broken lines with lost lures.  The strikes were savage compared to fishing for redfin or trout.  We fished two high tides, a run in tide & a run out tide in an 8 hour session and caught a variety of fish.  I saw my first wild barra absolutely smash at Barry’s lure from close range but we missed him – it was heart stopping excitement to see that huge silver fish appear from nowhere and try and smash the lure only two metres from the boat.  Between us we caught a variety of fish including Mangrove Jack, Tarpon, Blue-nose Salmon, Trevally, Golden Snapper (Fingermark Bream), Bucketmouth Cod (I swear that little fish had a mouth bigger than his body even if he was only 20cm long).  My contribution was the Trevally which was tough enough to get aboard but then quickly released unharmed.  I missed numerous others as I was trying to learn these new techniques.  The gear I had bought up from Victoria wasn’t really suited for this type of fishing so I decided to treat myself to some new saltwater gear as soon as practicable once I was ashore.  I absolutely loved that trip except for the sandflies as they truly feasted on me.  Of all God’s creatures they would have to be the bane of anyone’s existence living near the coast up here.  You do not realise that you have been bitten until many hours later, in this case I had been bitten about 50 times on both ankles.  That night was a misery of itches as I looked up all the cures to lessen the uncomfortable itch.  I have since discovered that 50% Dettol/50% Baby Oil mixed in a spray bottle will stop the little buggers from biting and a drop of Morning Fresh will stop the itch (a more expensive solution is a drop of pure TiTree Oil as both work – at least on me).  My thanks again to both Leigh & Barry for taking me out.

Another highlight of my stay in Darwin was to go to Doctors Gully Road to feed the fish at the Aquascene Fish Feeding Sanctuary.  I did not think I would enjoy it as much as I did as I enjoy fishing but I have fed fish for a long time as they are clever enough to steal my baits and not get caught.  No fishing gear allowed in here just you and a handful of stale bread.  The Milkfish in here were huge as well as the mullet, catfish, mangrove jack and the stingrays.  It was well worth the visit as I also saw two ‘lifer’ birds so had to duck (no pun intended) back out to the car to get a larger lens to take some bird shots.  The two lifers were Rajah Shelducks (use to be called Burdekin Ducks – a striking black & white duck) & an Eastern Reef Egret (they are totally grey unlike most other egrets which are mainly white).

Also, on my drives as I was looking for land-based fishing options I managed to get quite a lot of bird photos in the coastal forests.  These included Great Bowerbirds, Figbirds & Olive-backed Orioles.  Sadly, I could not find the Rainbow Pittas but did hear their calls out at Lee Point.  Also missed shots of two other lifers – a Brahminy Kite & Grey Honeyeater.  Such is the life of a twitcher but there would be other opportunities, I am sure.

One of the real good things of staying out at Virginia was that a very good remedial massage centre was located 3 klm away at Coolalinga.  I managed to get three sessions on my right shoulder to free up the muscles that tighten up every 3 or 4 months after I had Rotator Cuff surgery a number of years ago.  This getting old & decrepit is no fun.  The masseuse did an excellent job so I will be good to go until get home in late September early October.

I found a birding paradise at Fogg Dam about 30 klm away and spent quite a few hours out there wandering in the paperbark forest & wetland areas plus drove over the dam wall.  The bird species was incredible.  My enthusiasm slightly dampened by the fact that many other people had read the same articles so there were lots of people as well.  This was not conducive to good photography with screaming kids running down the pathways.

Another highlight was going out with Leigh & Corinne to the Darwin Festival for one evening of multicultural festivities and food.  The pizzas were yummy and washed down with lots of Cooper ales but the Syrian food was a bit stodgy.  All in all, a pleasant evening in the park enjoying good company, fine foods and great conversations.  This was followed up with a night city tour which I also thoroughly enjoyed – nothing like having a local guide!!  Thanks again to Leigh & Corinne.

I also took a trip out to Wagait & Mandorah for a drive and investigate fishing from the jetty. Ran into an interesting group of enthusiastic kids casting from the ferry platform, due to the low tide, this was 15 metres above the water!!! Big tides around here. They had been fishing since 3.30am and had caught a small shark. I had to ask how they would get a fish up from that height and was amazed when the kids pulled out an enormous home made treble hook about 400mm across tied to a very stout rope. Apparently this was lowered below the fish then gaffed back into the fish to lift them up – ingenious. Too windy for my style of fishing so I drove out to an historical marker where tragically an American B24J (4 engine bomber) crashed on its way back to its base in Darwin. All six crew perished in the accident.

Tail section of the crashed B24J “Milady” in the bush near Wagait

You cannot come all this way without having a beer in the Humpty Doo pub and I am now the proud owner of a singlet to prove that I was there.  The beer tasted the same as all the other pubs I had visited but there is only one Humpty Doo pub and it had special character (and characters!!!) in Australian folklore.

At this stage the game plan was still to try and continue the original plan and travel to Karrumba in Qld then down the western edge down to Birdsville but COVID chose to rear its ugly head again and the gods laughed at my plan then ripped it up.

New plan- abandon Queensland altogether and look at options in Western Australia but first a trip out towards Kakadu. Leigh had recommended two Wilderness Lodge/Resorts out on the Mary River and my plan was to spend 3 days in each.  The first was the Mary River Wilderness Retreat about 80 klm out of town along the Arnhem Highway.  It was sad to hear all the way up the highway the voices of fellow travelers saying it was a waste of time to visit Kakadu as it is so poorly run and the ongoing disagreements with the indigenous owners and the Commonwealth Government has seen the closure of many of the NP’s attractions.  Forewarned is forearmed so they say so I won’t waste time & money going out that far.

So, time to pack up and leave Darwin.  A hearty thanks to Leigh & Corinne for your hospitality and guidance.  Thank you, Darwin, for my second jab to make me fully vaccinated for COVID.  Time to move onto a new adventure out along the Arnhem Highway.

The Trek North to Darwin

The Devils Marbles

Blog #18 – The Trek North – Days 111 to 130 of 180

The game plan was to stock up on supplies in Alice before heading north as there not many large towns on the Stuart Highway with large grocery stores.  There are some places out here where cash is king so it is wise to make sure you are carrying some.  I also topped off my gas tank for the BBQ whilst I had the chance then fueled up.  Simone & Wendy had already gone through on the way to Ti Tree as the day was getting on.

Ti Tree Roadhouse & Caravan Park

We left Alice at 1.30 pm with 194 klms before our next stop at the Ti Tree Roadhouse.  The road was long, hot & boring with not much to see.  We rolled into Ti Tree at 4pm and booked into the Caravan Park behind the roadhouse after being advised not to stay at the free campground due to some petty thievery.  This is an issue in some places in the NT which does not seem to be well controlled.  The tourist park operators in Alice had also warned us that you need to lock things like all the trailer doors overnight.  This was very disappointing, as well as an inconvenience, locking everything up each night, especially for me as the trailer has 7 lockable cabinets.

To stay overnight here on an unpowered site is $25 each which is very expensive compared to other places we have stayed.  The pub food was mediocre and the fuel very expensive.  If you have a choice and come this way, find another place to stay.

Overnight I received a message from Wendy saying she had a change of plans and was going to Gemtree to do some birdwatching instead.

So, Simone, Greg & I had dinner at the Roadhouse Hotel that night and planned the next stage of the trip.  Simone had to be in Darwin by the 13th as her van was booked into Jayco for repairs.  Her van was in serious need of repairs as the door locks were not working (made of plastic) plus the door frame itself was loose.  Simone was heading to Banka Banka the next day as she was running out of time.  Our journey north would be much more leisurely.

For someone like me living in rural Victoria with excellent communication facilities it is disappointing travelling in outback SA & NT where these services are abysmal.  I know in an emergency I can use my sat phone to summon help but just everyday communications such as checking for news, weather or post blogs the task is almost impossible.  Is it the end of the world? – no, but the people in the outback get a very poor service from the big telcos compared to the people living on the eastern part of the country who take these services for granted.

Karlu Karlu/The Devils Marbles

Next morning it was up early to head for Karlu Karlu/ The Devils Marbles another 210 klms further north. Along the way we passed the turnoff to Ali Curung which used to be called Warrabri.  Mum & Dad taught here for a very short stint on their way to Areyonga.  As it was 40 klms in & out down dirt roads I gave that a miss and pushed on.  There are only 28 campsites at Karlu Karlu and it was on a first in first served basis.  We arrived and the camping area was already more than half full at 10am.  By midday the place was packed.  As we had plenty of time before our flights from Darwin, we decided to stay here for 4 days as well.  There were plenty of walks around the rock formations to enjoy the scenery. 

The Devils Marbles are a sacred site known as Karlu Karlu in the language of the traditional owners the Warumungu people. These impressive granite boulders are peppered around a sprawling valley about 100 kilometres to the south of Tennant Creek.

The “Marbles” have been formed over millions of years by the act of erosion and rise up out of the desert scenery in a surreal display of granite – kind of like a natural art exhibition. Each boulder comes in a different size, ranging from between 50 centimetres to six metres across. Perhaps the most amazing part of the scene is that many of the huge stones are balanced on top of each other, seeming to defy gravity. Even today, they are continuously evolving in a constant stream of cracking and erosion.

As well as making an eye-catching natural landscape, the Devils Marble are important to the local Warumungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra, and Warlpiri people who live in the traditional country that surrounds them. They refer to the wonder as Karlu Karlu which, when translated into English, simply means “round boulders”.

The Aboriginal history surrounding the Marbles is fascinating, and they are now protected under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act. Many legends of the stones have been passed down through several generations, but they are incredible secret so only a few can be shared amongst visitors in the region.  One of the most popular Dreamtime stories that involves the rocks relates to how they came to be. The legend introduces “Arrange”, an ancient ancestor of the local people who once walked through the area. As he passed through, he made a hair-string belt, which is a traditional garment worn by initiated Aboriginal men. As he began spinning the hair into strings, he dropped big clumps of them which then turned into the big red boulders we see today. According to the end of the legend, Arrange went back to his origins in Ayleparrarntenhe, where he is thought to still live today.

Over the next days I was totally gobsmacked as some of the feral members of our society clambered up and over the rocks totally disregarding the signs saying this was a sacred site and not to climb over rocks.  Unfortunately, there was no ranger permanently on station here to enforce the rules.  When I spotted them, I would call out to remind them that this was a sacred site and that they should get off the rocks.  Our ability to visit these places could be put in jeopardy by this crass stupidity.  It is already being seen in places such as Kakadu where some locations are now closed to visitors due to such disrespect.

The nights here were very crisp and cold but excellent for sleeping.  The howling of the dingoes in the distance each night reminded us of who was the apex predator in the bush in these parts.

Banka Banka Station

After 4 days at Karlu Karlu it was time to be back on the road again.  We had packed up the previous night and only had to hitch the trailers on to get an early start.  Tennant Creek was a 100 klms north so we opted to fuel up and have breakfast there.  Our trip today would be around 207 klm which makes for an easy day’s drive.  Again, we had been told by others coming south that we needed to be there early as it filled up fast so we were on the road by 0730.  The other good part about driving early in the mornings is it was quite cool and did not overly tax the vehicles.

Arrived in Tennant Creek just as the town was opening up for business.  There already was a queue at the fuel station due to one diesel pump not working.  I was going to have breakfast there but there was no parking for trailers so drove back into town looking for a café.  The first one I found didn’t really make coffee the owner said but he could make me an instant coffee.  I politely declined but he did tell me there was a fancy café on the other side and up the street that might help.  Best advice I had had that day as the coffee at the Red Centre Café was good and the toasties even better.  So, I ordered breakfast for Greg & I as takeaway as he was still in the queue at the fuel station.   Once he had fueled up and breakfast transferred it was time to be back on the road heading north.  We arrived just after 10am with only 2 others in the queue before us.  The manager came out and told us that they didn’t take bookings until 11am but if we wanted too, we could drive around to the area for unpowered sites and setup camp and pay them later.  Also, we could have as much water as we needed as their supply was spring fed and limitless.  Very civilized I must say.  The campsite was lovely & grassed even though it did not have the correct orientation to utilise my roof solar panels but I would be OK using the supplemental Safiery 250W Solar Blanket.  The cost here was quite cheap and we paid only $10 each per night for an unpowered site.  First thing we did was dump our water tanks and fill with the spring water.  There was no need to put the large camping mat down as we were on grass so that saves time. 

Again, we opted to stay for four days to fill the time in.  There really was not a great deal to see at Banka Banka so it was time to relax and do a little maintenance on the vehicles.  It was a very peaceful place but a little too close to the highway for my liking with road trains going through at night time which tends to disrupt your sleep.

It was good to talk to other grey nomads as you can find all types of snippets on the good and the bad of places stay.  This way you can build a small reference of places to visit or stay in the future.  The other major chore to get done was the washing and this we did before all the machines were taken up by the latecomers.

The motorbike had not been off the trailer for quite a while so we offloaded it and Greg took it down to the waterhole some 2 klm away.  On the way back he had a flat tire on the front but he managed to limp it back to the trailer.  We found it had sheared off the inlet valve on the tube.  This was not a spare I had contemplated so off I went to have a chat to the manager.  Their mobiles were hooked to a satellite via Optus so they rang the tyre place in Tennant Creek for me.  They had a spare but could not change the tyre for me.  That was OK so the plan was I would drive back first thing in the morning to get the tube then do some shopping before heading back. 

Early start next morning to do the 200 klm round trip to Tennant Creek.  It was nice driving in the mornings as it quite cool.  Picked up the tube and was reminded by the proprietor they would not fit it for me – grumpy bastard – happy to pay the $35 and leave them to there version of customer care.  Went back to the Red Centre Café and had a substantial breakfast before heading back out of town.

On the way north again, I found the turnoff to the Devil’s Pebbles so went down to have a look.  They are nowhere near as impressive as the Marbles so took the obligatory photo and headed north again.

It was good having Greg along as he is very good mechanically and had the tyre repaired in no time.

Time to start charging batteries again as I was down to 50%.  So orientated the 250W solar blanket to the sun and started charging.  After an hour I was back to 100%.  One of the park rules here was that you could not use generators which in way is good as the park was very peaceful from a noise perspective.

All too soon it was time to pack up again.  It seems foolish now but Greg & I had a disagreement as to where stuff was as, to me, I couldn’t find where stuff was.  Anyway, I ended up packing all my gear away myself that night ready for an early start.

Daly Waters Pub

Another 200 klm drive early the next day saw us at the iconic Daly Waters Pub.  The owner must be a bit of an aviation buff as there are bits of aircraft & helicopters everywhere including a DeHavilland Sea Venom from when Australia had aircraft carriers (HMAS Melbourne & HMAS Sydney).  Both of those ex WWII ships have long been retired – HMAS Sydney being the last as it retired after the Vietnam War.

The pub is quite interesting and like others has become the final resting place for ladies’ undies and bras tacked to the roof.  I wonder what aliens would think of this culture shock if they ever saw it.  Also in the bar was a massive moose head – where that came from, I have no idea.

The camp ground was mainly dirt & stone and getting very packed by 1030am.  Again, we opted to stay for 4 days.  All the time we had been discussing the route to follow once we returned from Perth.  What I was not aware of was that Greg was now in serious pain from his back injury and did not want to do more dirt.  That afternoon he announced he was going to Perth the next day via Port Augusta and was abandoning the trip.  This came as quite a shock to me but it was his decision.  Why he would go that way and not cut across to the WA border from Katherine I have no idea.

Juvenile Grey Butcherbird

We transferred all my gear that he was carting and split the supplies before settling in for the night.  By this stage all the borders were open.  Greg left early the next morning heading south.  I kept texting him to make sure he was Ok as that journey was long.  He made the SA/WA border in three days only to miss the deadline by two hours and would need to quarantine in his daughter’s house for 14 days.  As I was also to stay at Angela’s for her birthday this put me in a bind as I could no longer stay there because Greg was there in quarantine.  Sadly, I made the decision to cancel my flights so I could not attend either.  QANTAS was good and credited the flights so I will use that to visit my sister Fiona around Christmas (fingers crossed COVID does not interfere again).

However, even with the setback of Greg leaving the journey will continue as I had a friend to visit in Darwin.  There was not much to do at Daly Waters once you had visited the museum exhibits and enjoyed the pub grub but drink but even that palls after a while.  Most days I spent looking for birds and did manage to get some shots of red-tailed black cockatoos and red-winged parrots.  The weather was heating up which made things uncomfortable for sleeping.  I had forgotten my youth when growing up in Papua New Guinea and was not used to this sort of heat and this was the dry season and supposed low humidity!

All too soon it was time to pack again and hit the road.  Another early start for the following day to beat the rest of the travelers into the next stop.  One thing that I forget to mention is that I have had another Safiery Solar Blanket failure.  This team it short-circuited and burnt a hole in the blanket.  This is now the fourth of these (two replaced under warranty including this latest one).  Unfortunately, they have no stock on hand so again my plans have changed in that I now look for powered sites which are appreciably more expensive.

Mataranka Homestead

Pulled into Mataranka Homestead Resort after a leisurely 2 ½ hour drive up from Daly Waters Pub.  I was the first in that morning and lucked onto a powered site close the amenities and only 250 metres from the heated pools.  Again, opted for another 4 days stay as our bookings in Darwin were still in place even if I was not going to fly.

One part of the journey that I have enjoyed is visiting many different places along the way and I am still surprised that many of my fellow travelers come to one place and stay for months.  The bloke next to me had been at Mataranka for two months and planned to stay for another two months before returning to Adelaide.  I don’t think I could ever do that especially as there are limited activities around here.

I did enjoy the heated pools and spent three hours a day bobbing around the pool on a pool noodle each day.  Had to drive into town to buy the noodle and supplies which was about 10 klms away.  The small town had three service stations and two supermarkets plus a convenience store which was quite surprising.  They also sold a great pie – not as good as Copley in SA but not bad.  Like many territory towns they have a liquor problem with the indigenous people.  You really had to watch them as they lurched out of the pub into roadway without looking.  Very sad to see this sort of behaviour whenever I went into town.

There are two springs near the town and I went to visit the other, Bitter Springs, on the second day.  It was much more difficult to get too as there is limited parking and it was quite bit cooler.  A few days after I left Mataranka, it was closed due to crocodiles being spotted in that section of the river.  You need to have a healthy respect for salty dogs in the NT & Nth Qld and there is plenty of signage warning where you cannot swim.

I enjoyed my stay at the Mataranka Homestead but did not bother going down to the entertainment at night as I was not really interested in the world-famous whip cracking show played to music.  I would much rather read a book as that was not my type of entertainment.

It was becoming a habit now where I would pack up the night before so I could get an early start the next day.  Because of the huge number of tourists in the NT at this time many places would not take bookings anymore and it was a case of get there early to get a spot.

Pine Creek – The Lazy Lizard

One big croc skeleton

Rolled into Pine Creek around 1000 am to be told that no bookings would be done until 1100 am.  So, I parked up and sat outside enjoying a coffee and a slice of cake whilst I waited.  I was very surprised when a ½ later Simone, whom we had met at Trephina Gorge, showed up for fuel.  I thought she would have been in WA by now after getting her caravan fixed but she had decided to do Litchfield NP and the walks around there before trekking west.  It was nice to catch up with someone I had met.

Finally booked into a non-powered site for two days at the Lazy Lizard Caravan Park.  Setup camp then went for a drive around the town that took all of 5 minutes – it is not very big.  It is one of the gateway towns into Kakadu so is quite busy.

I had been following the posts of a professional bird photography guide Mark Rayner who due to COVID had been stuck in NT with a group of photographers.  He had stayed here the previous week and taken photos of the rare Hooded Parrot.  So, I contacted him on Facebook to find where in town they were spotted.  It was in the park not 200 metres from where I was staying so off, I went to search.  Sadly, I could not find any.  The next morning as I got up, I spotted three of them not 10 metres from my camper so sneaked over to the car to grab the camera.  Managed to get quite a few shots until another nearby camper strolled over to ask what I was photographing. The birds took off not be seen again. Grrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!  At least I managed some shots.

The food at this park was quite good and reasonably priced plus it saved me from having to cook.   As this was only a short stay, I had not unpacked much so it was easy to pack everything that second night for another early start for Darwin.

Australian Bustards – there were 9 in the group but too far apart to get them in a single shot

Darwin Boomerang Motel & Caravan Park

After another 2 hour drive I had finally arrived into Darwin.  The place I was staying is called Virginia but Coolalinga is the closest suburb with lots of shops.  The Caravan Park has a tavern attached to it.  This Park is quite small compared to most others with only 60 sites in total.  The journey north had now ended but I was not going to be flying anywhere so time to sit down and start planning the next leg of the journey with thoughts of coming home not so far away.

Next time COVID rears its ugly head again and forces another change in plan.