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A ROAD TRIP DOWN UNDER - DISCOVER AUSTRALIA IN A CAMPER
 
(2010 - Winter Issue)

Writer: BY KATHARINE FLETCHER



AUSTRALIANS AND CANADIANS SHARE MANY REALITIES: A BRITISH COLONIAL PAST, FASCINATING ABORIGINAL PEOPLES’ CULTURE
—AND VAST OPEN SPACES PUNCTUATED BY SMALL, REMOTE SETTLEMENTS AND A FEW MAJOR, MULTICULTURAL HUBS.

So how can travellers seeking off-the-beaten-path adventure experience Australia’s back of beyond? Do as the Aussies do: arrange to take the time to drive it.

Online research about rental vehicles led my husband Eric and me to rent a converted panel van in Brisbane. Outfitted with a compact kitchen and a comfy sleeping space, we affixed our GPS to the windshield and hit the road.

Our goal? Take six weeks to drive to Perth on the west coast on a route through the northern centre. Our plan? With flexibility foremost so we could respond to advice from fellow travellers, we aimed to snorkel, beachcomb and hike while exploring rainforests, reefs and Outback wonders.

EAST COAST THRILLS

Nearby Rainbow Beach drew us into Oz’s soon-to-be familiar laid-back beach scene where white sand and turquoise waters beckoned. Youngsters played in the shallows, couples swam in the surf, while fishermen jammed their rods into the sand, sat on folding chairs, and awaited a strike: Chillin’ time!

Further north, and true to its name, Magnetic Island’s attractions inspired us to linger longer than planned. The Fort hike introduced us to Second World War fortifications as well as our first koalas, fast asleep in fragrant eucalyptus trees.

However, the snorkelling compelled us to stay, particularly at Florence Bay. We swam from the beach to find shimmering tropical fish, octopus, green turtles, epaulette sharks and blue-spotted rays.

WESTWARD HO

Turning west, we soon hit red-earth country: the Outback. Road signs warned of wandering Brahma cattle, limited gas stations and daunting 53-metre road trains—trucks hauling three immense trailers. Happily, we soon realized this region offers superb wildlife watching: emus, dingoes, kangaroos, brolgas, freshwater crocodiles . . . the list ballooned, seemingly endless.

While driving, our interest (and budget) was piqued by Australia’s open-arms welcome to campers: travellers can pull off the road in free 24-hour campsites dotted about the entire country. Our adventure unfolded into a familiar rhythm: after setting up camp, we cooked dinner (sometimes using free gas “barbies”), shared timely recommendations with fellow roadies, and, with a delicious Aussie red in hand, watched the Southern Cross emerge in an inky black sky.

“You mustn’t miss canoeing the creek at Lawn Hill National Park. If you’re lucky, you may see freshwater crocodiles,” we were advised in Karumba, a fisherman’s idyllic destination on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Great advice! A few days later while canoeing, we spied baby freshwater crocodiles basking on palm boughs while adults snoozed on the banks of Lawn Hill Creek. Beneath towering sandstone cliffs at the water’s edge, a fluttering of scarlet wings revealed crimson finches darting into their intricately woven grass nests.

Swimming took nerve. Although freshwater crocs are not aggressive like their saltwater cousins, knowing they were around made our swim quick but refreshing . . .

More excellent advice came from an unexpected corner: the two policemen who pulled me over while driving north to Katherine. After easily passing their mid-morning routine Breathalyzer test, one asked, “Are you heading to Barunga? The annual aboriginal festival is on and it’s one of Australia’s best.”

There’s simply nothing like road trips with no particular agenda! Thanking them, we changed course to enjoy free weaving workshops, listen to music, and watch spear-throwing competitions.

Continuing westward into the Kimberley region introduced us to rugged expanses of red-earth country peopled by weirdly shaped boab trees. These “bottle trees” are sources of food and water to those wise to “bush tucker.” Here, many a historic marker recalls pioneer families such as the Irish Duracks, who settled Lake Argyle in the mid-1800s after guiding 7,000-plus head of cattle more than 4,000 kilometres to stock their stations. As in Canada there are vast distances and heartbreaking conditions here: but determined immigrants won a better life.

WEST COAST ANTICS

Our days of red Outback ended with a spectacular red sunset over the Indian Ocean at Broome’s Cable Beach, where an undersea cable was laid extending from Indonesia to Australia in 1889.

“You can’t miss seeing Bran Nue Day at Sun Pictures,” advised a local. “It’s set in Broome and many of us are in it.” So off we went to laugh with residents watching for a glimpse of themselves or friends in this spoof about the collision of cultures in their town. Fun—particularly because the movie included the 1916 picture garden we were sitting in, the last such remaining outdoor cinema in the world.

Turning south toward Perth, we left the coast for rugged Karijini National Park. A steep but stepped gorge proved easy to descend to trails alongside a river shaded by acacia and eucalyptus trees. We eagerly joined others leisurely swimming in freshwater pools—no crocs here! One night’s stay became two, and we departed reluctantly from this oasis that remains sacred to Aboriginal peoples.

Next on the agenda was Ningaloo Reef. “You mustn’t miss snorkelling here. We know so much more about marine preservation now, so you’ll be impressed with the corals and underwater life,” explained Exmouth Visitor Centre staff.

They were correct.

As on Australia’s east coast islands, we snorkelled from the beach. But oh, what a near-pristine underwater world we discovered here. Giant coral beds bloomed like underwater roses while innumerable schools of tropical fish swam about.

The following morning we joined Coral Bay Ecotours to snorkel amid the outer reef’s waving sea grasses, multicoloured coral canyons and giant clams. We counted 33 grazing green turtles, three dugong and—thrill of thrills—snorkelled a mere three metres above two immense manta rays. They were somersaulting, mouths gaping wide and wings outstretched, gorging on plankton.

Tearing ourselves away, we continued south. After nearly 9,000 meandering kilometres, and on our last night before Perth, we camped on a lonesome stretch of white-sand beach with only ourselves for company—a fitting close to our road trip Down Under.

We loved Australia’s landscape of expansive horizons coupled with friendly residents and ancient cultures. So similar to Canada—yet so fascinatingly different.  

TRAVEL PLANNER

Tourism Australia (Australia.com) lists most places we visited.
For more information, log onto:

Compare camper van rentals: campervanhiresalefinder.com.au

Barunga Sports & Culture Festival: barungafestival.com.au

Coral Bay Ecotours: coralbayecotours.com.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
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