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Copyright 1995-1997 Marc Glasby
Sixteen months ago I was a complete novice when it came to 4 wheel drives and serious off road adventures. I had ventured off road in 2 wheel drive vehicles, always thinking that I'd be able to get through if I didn't stray off the track. One memorable experience was in a Suzuki Carry van on a trip to Kalbarri. We had followed the tracks along the river for about an hour when the going started to get much tougher. Deciding to cut back towards the town I forced the tiny van and it's 900cc motor up a steep sandy track, and surprise, surprise within minutes I was well and truly bogged. Being somewhat pig headed (at least by my wife's estimate) I unbogged the vehicle and pressed on. (I'm sure you have all had the feeling at some time that what lies ahead can't be half as bad as what lies behind.)
After bogging for the umpteenth time we finally crested the hill and looked with some trepidation at the long roller coaster of a track heading back down towards safer ground. Having been bogged so many times, and noting the large number of very soft looking patches ahead, I planted my foot and the van took off at a break-neck pace down the sandy track. As the vehicle picked up speed it began to bottom out as we flew over the bumps and dips. One moment we were airborne, the next there would be an almighty crash as the suspension folded up and the body of the van scraped along the sand, then it was up again, and down crash ! and up and down, all the way to the bottom.
I think the fact that both the vehicle and passengers survived, owed a great deal to the pure terror I was experiencing and the extra adrenaline which was coursing through my veins. That seemed to be the end of my off road activities, as my wife flatly refused to go anywhere off the bitumen from that time on.
It wasn't until many years later when John, (one of my many assorted nephews) acquired a Nissan crew cab and seemed to be spending every free moment having great fun exploring the bush, while I was locked up on the 'black stuff'.
After watching some video footage of his outings, I began to get the old urge to go exploring the unknown, to venture where no two wheel drive had gone before, to get bogged in places no two wheel drive would get within cooee of.
Then in 1993, John and two of his brothers began to discuss plans for a four week tour of the northwest. This was something I wanted in on, but the old L300 van I was driving at the time just wouldn't do.
Since I first ventured out on to the road, my preference has been for vans over cars. I like the better visibility and the extra internal room they offer. So when it came time to buy a 4WD I had already limited my choice to that style of vehicle.
After looking at the very limited range of cab-over 4wd vehicles I opted for Ford Spectron 4wd. (In reality a Mazda with badge engineering). After an S.G.I.O. autocheck which looked good, (but which failed to detect the $4000 worth of gear box repairs I was heading for) and the installation of an air conditioner, I got the vehicle for $12,490. A fair price I thought, oh how naive I was! I bet the dealer is still on holiday with the profit from that sale.
In the months before the trip, I began to have the van overhauled. Brakes, full service, alignment and balance, new (bigger) tyres. I began to pick up various 4wd magazines and read all the relevant information on what safety gear and recovery equipment to carry.
Then along came the 4wd show and a host of goodies were added. After spending just over $2000, I had replaced all tyres, purchased a hand winch, tree protector, steel cables, rated shackles, snatch strap and block, fire extinguisher, Sideband CB, air jack, Porta Potty, (the sheer luxury of having one of these on a trip has to be experienced to be believed) 20 Lt Jerry can, first aid kit, and a big Steel box to put all the bits and pieces in.
Next came the chance to see what spending all this money had done and we spent time doing one of Neil Baldwin's 4wd courses in the sand hills at Lancelin. This type of course is essential for beginners. You learn the capabilities of your vehicle, and if you get into trouble, at least you do it in company. Even after being the first one bogged and Neil's walk round the van and the 'Burnt it' comments, I was amazed by what the vehicle could so off road.
Now we were ready for a bit of fun on our own. We planned another trip to Lancelin with John and Rod. (Nissan 60 series Cruiser) and spent Sunday morning gliding effortlessly over the dunes. After a short break in town for lunch we were back, this time going further north. After an hour or so of going down ever steeper piles of sand we found ourselves trapped in a large basin, easy to get into but almost impossible to get out. An hour later my wife was having visions of the Armour-all ad and skeletons in the desert. She would have been quite happy to give the van away to the next person we met. Finally the other two vehicles clawed their way out, but in doing so made it impossible for me to follow their route. In a last ditch effort I charged up a particularly vengeful looking dune and just made it over the top.
It was during this trip that I managed to pop a tyre off its rim while driving in the dunes, a lesson in not under inflating tubeless tyres. So I decided to have tubes put into the tubeless tyres. Despite some indication that this would cause the tyres to run a little hotter, I thought it was better than the alternative, and to date I have had no further problem with tyres jumping off the rims. Even after 14 months the tyres still have plenty of tread and are wearing well.
Because the trip north would involve driving close to 6000 km, I wanted the vehicle to be mechanically sound, so when some oil leaks began to appear I had the gearbox re-built at a cost of $3955, (double the original quotation.) but I believed this was money well spent as we would be travelling alone on the return trip over some fairly rough tracks.
We took a couple of short runs to Malloy Island and Collie to see how the vehicle was settling in. Everything ran well, except the air conditioner, which blew a pipe ($235) and lost all it's coolant gas while we were in Collie. We were now finally ready for our 'big trip'.
One last major decision was, how do we keep the beer cold? I looked at all the articles I could find on car fridges, debated 3 way vs 2 way, compressor or no compressor, the new Fridge Mate vs. the well-known Engel, and talked to friends with car fridges. In the end I just could not justify the cost of a dedicated car fridge (about the $1000 mark for the size I wanted) and opted instead for a small Samsung bar fridge ($250) which only runs off 240 volt. As most of the places we would stop would have power available this turned out to be a good decision, and I suspect many people who buy dedicated car fridges could get away with a 240v instead. The advantage of the little bar fridge is the front opening door so it was easily accessible from the rear of the van and could have gear packed around and on top of it.
The longest period the fridge was without power was about 21 hours from Broome to Wittenoom, and everything was still icy cold when we got it hooked up again.
Finally the big day arrived in early April, the van was loaded and we were off on our first big outback adventure. Leaving before sun-up we were in Carnarvon by 2pm. We were due to meet the others here at 4am the next morning, so we spent a few hours exploring the town and the surrounding area.
Due to the early start next morning we left the tent packed in the van. The fold down seat design of the Spectron meant that we were able to pack all our bits and pieces behind the back seat and under the other sections. This left room to put a full double sized foam mattress on top. The one item that we had not thought to bring was a mosquito net.
For those who have not yet ventured north, Carnarvon is warm and humid, which can make sleeping without an air conditioner, in the back of a van, very uncomfortable. The only way we could get any breeze at all was to have the van windows wide open, but this let in swarms of very persistent, very hungry mosquitoes. The more repellent we used the more mosquitoes it seemed to attract, so it was with a great sigh of relief that we moved on towards Exmouth in the early hours of the morning.
Exmouth would have to be one of the best fishing grounds in Australia, the sheltered waters in the gulf allowing us to go out in small aluminium boats without too much concern. Fishing in the area is best from a boat, but even from places like Learmonth jetty, or off the beach you can catch all sorts of good eating fish.
Cape Range, which extends down the western edge of the Exmouth peninsular, provides some spectacular views of gorges. There is a track running down the west coast of the range all the way from Exmouth to Coral Bay. Areas to visit along the way include Yardie Creek, where you can take a trip up the creek (more of a small river really) by boat and see some really breathtaking scenery. If you drive all the way down to Coral Bay on the track I would recommend stopping along the way overnight. It is only about a 250km drive but doing it all at once is not only tiring, but you miss too much of the surrounding area, and there is plenty to explore. When you get to Coral Bay there are trips out to Ningaloo Reef, and a resort to stay at if you want to extend your time there. Be sure to take a snorkel and mask to view the fish that come in to be fed.
We spent ten days in the Exmouth area, most of it fishing. Our catch included Spanish Mackerel, Queen Fish, Shark Mackerel, Bluebone, Reef Shark, Trevally, Shovel Nose Shark, even a giant north west blowfish, and an assortment of other species that I did nor recognise. Anything not worth eating was put back alive.
The next port of call was Port Hedland, passing Onslow and Karratha/Dampier along the way. To get back onto the North West Highway from Exmouth we took a short-cut along a gravel road just north of the Bullara station. We left about 1am (unable to sleep due to the excitement of moving on, we folded up our tent and stole away into the night) this was the first time during the trip that we saw a large number of Kangaroos, the gravel track was lined with them. Definitely not a place to travel at speed after sunset.
By this time the van was beginning to show some signs of overheating. On examination I discovered the small front radiator (for the air cond) was clogged up with seeds and grass from our trip to Coral Bay. We pulled in beside the picturesque Yule River to let the engine cool and remove some of the debris. Looking around we noticed 4wd tracks along the sandy banks of the river, and once the engine had cooled I decided to take a quick run along them. Unless you have an unladen vehicle, I would not recommend doing this along any of the rivers in the Hedland area, the sand was coarse and deep and it took only a few minutes to get very badly bogged. Even in April the temperature still hovers in the mid 30s, so while my wife deserted me and ran off to sit under a shady tree, I was left to dig the van out. Half an hour later, very hot and bothered I had the van back under the trees receiving an infusion of radiator coolant to replace the litres that had boiled off while extracting it from the sand.
We made it safely to Port Hedland, where I finally cleared the rest of the muck out of the radiator, and removed several large stones from the top of the stone guards under the engine, passengers all the way from the beach at Exmouth.
We quickly tired of Hedland, and two days later were on the road again heading for 80 mile beach. 80 Mile is a caravan park in the middle of nowhere, great for anyone who likes to relax. There is good fishing, miles of beach, and plenty of shells to collect as you stroll along. You will need to take your own beer as there is none for sale at the park.
Arriving at about 11pm we were too tired to set up the tent, so we just dumped the mattress out of the van and slept on the grass. Now armed with a nice new mozzy net we had a peaceful nights sleep. The following night we hired one of the on-site cabins, and oh the luxury of air conditioning! The cabins are well equipped and sleep 8 people. At $55 a night they are terrific value.
As 80 Mile is about half way between Port Hedland and Broome, we only had just over 300 km to complete the first half of our journey. We arrived in Broome around mid-day, and after unloading all our equipment at the Roebuck Bay caravan park, we set off to explore the town. The weather was perfect, low 30s and blue sky. Broome has all the facilities you would expect in a town catering for tourists, and a drive up Cable Beach to Willie Creek is a must. We stayed in Broome for a week, but were advised not to try the track to Beagle Bay, as a recent cyclone had washed parts of it away.
Time eventually ran out and we began to plan the route home. At first we looked at the possibility of going via (the now abandoned) mining settlement of Shay Gap. After checking with roadhouses along the way, we were again advised against trying the track after the cyclone. By now we were travelling without my nephews, who went home via Port Hedland, so we decided to err on the side of caution, and stayed on the bitumen. We had a quick look for Goldsworthy on the way back, but apart from a row of trees by the side of the road there is now no sign of the mining settlement.
After leaving Broome at 5pm we traveled almost all the way back to Hedland before turning south towards Marble Bar. We managed a few hours sleep in the van and arrived at Marble Bar just before sun up. We were privileged to watch the sun rise at Marble Bar Pool. This area and the nearby Chinaman's Pool, are easily the most beautiful places we had seen so far on the journey. We stayed only long enough to capture the magic of dawn on video, then moved on down a gravel track past the Comet goldmine towards Hillside station and the Great North Highway.
This road was in fairly good condition, and featured several river crossings, something that probably makes it impassable in the wet season. The only things to watch out for along the track are small, but very deep wash-aways. These may only be a foot or so across but they are difficult to pick up at a distance and after hitting one at about 60 kph I quickly discovered what the small square markers in the middle of the track signified. If you ever travel this way the markers have black and white diagonal lines on them and are set fairly close to the ground in the middle of the track.
A five hour drive through some very pretty country saw us back on the 'black stuff' and headed for Wittenoom. Despite everything the government says about the hazards of blue asbestos, Wittenoom is a must for any traveler in the area. Most of the town in now deserted, there is no pub, (well there is but it's closed for good) and when we were there they were planning to close the petrol station. The caravan park was still operating, and the gem museum was well worth looking at, but I think it's only going to be a matter of time before it is a ghost town. It's a very spooky feeling walking through the old buildings and thinking about what the town was once like.
Wittenoom Gorge is, like the rest of the area, strikingly beautiful. A 5 minute drive from the town to the end of the road takes you to a miner's camp (which was still inhabited when we were there). The tailing dumps of asbestos are clearly visible so keep well clear of them. You can see the fibres along the sides of the creeks, and embedded in all the roads. If you are sensible and take reasonable precautions, there is no danger to the casual traveler, but I must admit I would hesitate to stay in Wittenoom on a long term basis.
The area as a whole is without doubt the most spectacular I have ever seen. Yampire Gorge takes you through to areas like Fortescue Falls and Circular Pool. Sadly we were only there for one day, I wish I had had a week to stay and explore. You do need to be largely self sufficient as there are no shops or petrol stations away from the highway.
We took the Packsaddle road back to the highway, several hours drive past the ranger station to the Packsaddle mining camp, then on to the bitumen. This track has a number of gates, so progress can be a bit slow at times. Also watch out for local bird life, which seems to have a preference for sitting in the middle of the road.
From this point our trip was almost over, one night at Newman, then another at Cue. If you stay at Cue you should spend at least one night in the old Cue Hotel, which is now a guest house. The building is made entirely of corrugated iron and wood, and has a great atmosphere to it. Then on through New Norcia, and back to the rat race. The van had performed well, overheating near Hedland was the only hiccup on an otherwise faultless trip. Sadly there have been a number of problems since then including a cracked head and the re-built gear box suddenly giving up, but now I am hooked, I could never go back to a 2wd vehicle, and we are off to Exmouth (hopefully with a stop off at Shark Bay) in June.
One last note concerns the wheels on the passenger's side of the Spectron. Not long after getting back to Perth some friends and I went down to the Medina 4wd recreation area, and during the day I managed to destroy the left hand front tyre. We duly pulled out the air jack, got the front end off the ground and began trying to get the wheel nuts off. Everyone got into the act until we had almost twisted the head off my wheel brace. Finally we gave up and got the van to a sealed road where the R.A.C. man turned up and took the wheel nuts off by turning them CLOCKWISE ! I had no idea my vehicle had reverse threads on the left side, and had I managed to wreck the tyre somewhere along the Packsaddle road we could have been in real trouble.
After all the preparation, and buying all the recovery gear, (which is still in its original sealed packing) we could have come undone by a simple thing like reverse thread wheel nuts.
As a follow-up to last years wonderful holiday through the majestic north-west of W.A. we had planned to head for Exmouth again, but this time taking a side trip out to have a look around Shark Bay. Originally the trip was planned with two cars, my (now) faithful old Spectron 4wd, and My nephew (John's) Nissan crew cab.
After the success of the fishing in Exmouth gulf last year I decided that the only thing which would improve on it was to have a bigger boat which provided a bit of shade and was larger than the sharks we had seen on the previous trip.
After hounding my wife for over 12 months she finally gave in and I started to have a look around the boat yards. For the past year or so, I had been eagerly scanning Saturday's West classifieds for just the right boat, and had been keeping a weather eye on the price changes between summer and winter. I had seen several likely prospects, but due to other commitments at the time, they had slipped through my fingers.
When I did get the go ahead from the finance dept (my wife) there was nothing around in the price bracket I was aiming for. Autumn was producing clear blue skies and everyone who was thinking about selling their boats seemed to be hanging on to them until the rain started.
Then one Saturday morning as I was doing the rounds of the boat yards again, I found a little 15'6" half cabin that looked as if it would fit the bill. Time was running out, as Easter had come and gone and the holiday was due to start on June 1st. This gave us about 6 weeks to test the boat out and make sure everything was ok for the trip north.
So grabbing the tiger by the tail I signed on the dotted line and parted with $5500, saying several prayers as I did so, that this wouldn't cause me the same problems that the van had done a little over a year before.
The first outing was a gentle cruise up the Swan River, the navigation lights didn't (and still don't) work, but the engine ran like a dream. The next day we were off again, this time much further down the river.
Everything was fine except for the strange tendency the engine seemed to have to jerk the boat forward when the gears were engaged. I spoke about this to the boat yard, who responded with 'Oh it's a dog clutch, so it will jump a bit when it goes into gear.' Trusting this 'expert advice' we were off again the very next weekend.
Next we went down to Kwinana and gave the boat a run around on Cockburn Sound. Up and down and round and round we went, but now every time the engine was put into gear you had to hang onto something or you would end up flat on your back. A little odd we thought, but then 'It's a dog clutch' so it must be normal. Oh no it wasn't. Luckily when the crunch came, we had just come back to shore to drop off a passenger, and were about to head out again. As soon as I engaged the engine it started to rev higher and higher, but there was no forward movement at all. Deciding that something awful was about to happen I turned the engine off, but much to my surprise it just kept on screaming away going faster and faster. I was just getting ready to jump over the side when it gave a final cough and stopped. By this time the wind had swung around and was starting to pick up. Ok, so the engine wasn't working and it was time to leave anyway. My wife went up to get the van and trailer and I spent the next 10 minutes watching a superb display of how to jack-knife a trailer.
The wind picked up even more and waves began rolling up the ramp. I gave up any hope of the trailer ever being backed down the ramp and beached the boat before un-hitching the trailer and wheeling it down the ramp. (This has become my standard way of getting it down ramps now). Finally the trailer was down the ramp, and re-attached to the van, but the boat was firmly stuck on the beach. Fifteen minutes and a lot of swearing later, it was back at the ramp again.
Unfortunately I still had a lot to learn about how to bring a boat up in difficult conditions. Instead of just dipping the 1st roller under water and letting the winch do all the work, we sank the entire trailer, and as a result spent a very long and frustrating time trying to line the keel up with the rollers. With the sky darkening I was up to my neck in water at the stern of the boat trying in vain to hold it steady while my wife operated the winch. After about 5 attempts we finally got it as straight as we could and headed for home.
A quick visit to the boat yard on the way home left us boatless for nearly a week. The weather was still holding so there was still plenty of time to shake the boat down and discover any (other) problems before we towed it up north.
The following weekend we headed for the Peel Estuary, (deciding against the open ocean just in case) and spent the day crabbing and testing the boat out. Everything was now working well, so the next three weekends we went back to Cockburn Sound (but avoided the Kwinana boat ramp) and took another run up the Swan River. The boat ran well, and we even caught a few nice fish out the back of Garden Island.
There had now been four trips with no problems, and time had run out for any more testing. The van was gradually loaded and the weather held.... until the very last minute. As the time came to hitch up the trailer and head north the rain clouds gathered. By the time we were on the road it was pouring with rain. Looking back we should have taken this as a sign of what was to come.
John, who was due to join up with us at Exmouth, was already in Port Hedland, but just before we were due to leave we got a phone call saying that his brothers, Peter and Andrew, (the same ones who were with us in Exmouth the year before) had borrowed his car, gone out on some tidal flats and got hopelessly bogged. The tide came in and that put an end to John's participation in the trip so we pushed on to Shark Bay alone.
(They did eventually get the Nissan out but it took weeks to put it right again.)
Daybreak saw us just north of Geraldton with a dark blanket of grey clouds as far north as the eye could see. Still there was the excitement of going on holiday and the anticipation of all those great fish we were sure to catch. The van had some problems towing as the engine is only a 2 litre. Speeds going uphill dropped to as little as 60k, but at least there was no swaying, or pitching to worry about.
Pulling into Denham it was still raining so we decided against putting the tent up, and found a nice unit right on the beach front (Bay Lodge). The unit was large and came equipped with everything but bedding, so after unpacking the food and beer we sat on the porch preparing the rods and lines for the following day.
The locals told us that the rain usually only lasts for two days, well three at the most, and anyway the fishing is better with an overcast sky.
Dawn arrived and the rain just kept on coming down. Pressing on regardless, off we went, abandoning the 4wd for the time being in favour of adventures at sea. We decided to follow another boat out (a good idea as it turned out) and were happily cruising along when about two miles out a strange whining sound like an alarm started coming from the gear lever box. Looking around I found smoke pouring from the engine, and quickly shut the thing down. My wife was wearing a red spray jacket which came in very handy to wave the other boat down. (it almost saw more use as a distress flag than as a jacket on this trip.)
The boat we flagged down was a charter, so they radioed in and we dropped anchor to wait for rescue. Since we were stuck there anyway, we dropped a line over the side and it wasn't long before I had hooked a small schnapper. Too small to keep but at least it seemed promising.
Rescue arrived shortly afterwards in the form of a 'rubber ducky' which towed us in. The owner wouldn't take $20 we offered to pay for his fuel, so thanking him profusely we started looking for some mechanical help in town.
The next day was Sunday, so no mechanic was available to look at the engine until the following day. This gave us an opportunity to hop in the van and have a good look around. Shark Bay offers a wide variety of fishing, sightseeing and 4wdriving so we were still had plenty to keep us occupied. Shell Beach, Eagle Bluff, Goulet Bluff, Fowlers Camp are all easily accessible by 2wd, but west of the Useless Loop turn off and north of Peron Station are definitely 4wd only. Out towards Steep Point you would be advised to travel with two or three vehicles as there is a lot of deep sand.
Most of Peron Peninsular is now a protected nature reserve with World Heritage listing. There has been a concerted effort to remove introduced species and re-introduce native fauna to the area. Thankfully this hasn't led to the track closures and restricted areas that are all too common in other reserves.
Closer to Denham there are several places worth having a look at. Peron Homestead with its artesian bore, Little Lagoon which produces reasonable Whiting, and Big Lagoon where beach fishing is the go.
If you head north of Peron Homestead you need to beware of the low lying flat patches of ground known as birridas. They have a thin hard crust on top and soft boggy muck underneath. In wet weather the tracks can get quite slippery. Last year friends of ours found out just how slippery when their Landcruiser flipped over when coming out of a boggy patch. The Cruiser was a write off and they were all lucky to walk away from the wreck.
Sunday's explorations behind us, and the boat returned from the garage, I was eager to get it back into the water and test out the motor. Driving straight down to the boat ramp from the garage I launched it and tied up along side the small launching jetty. Imagine my horror when looking down into the boat from the jetty I saw it was awash with water and rapidly sinking. There is a horrible feeling you get when you realise you have just done something really really stupid, and you know that your wife is going to make the most of it by telling the story to everyone when you get home. I had forgotten to put in the bungs. It's truly amazing just how fast a boat fills with water when those three little plugs aren't where they should be.
Dragging the boat back up onto the ramp I got the little electric pump out, and gave it a good work out. The shine on this holiday was definitely beginning to wear off.
When the last of the water had been pumped out I managed to get the boat going and run it around enough to be reasonably happy with the motor. Next day we decided to fish the channel leading out of town, as that would be the best place to get a tow if the engine failed again. There was very little in the way of fishing so we cruised down along the coast for a while looking for likely spots to drop a line. After trying a few and having no luck we made our way back to the channel to try again before heading back in.
After stopping and starting all day without a hitch, the engine decided not to start just when we wanted to give up and go back to shore. As soon as we spotted another boat coming in, out came the red jacket again, and we had to suffer the embarrassment of being towed in yet again.
Back to the garage went the boat, and back on the shelf went our hopes of catching some decent fish. Meanwhile we had been talking to the locals about where all the fish had gone. It turned out that in order to catch anything worthwhile you have to go almost all the way across to Dirk Harthog island and locate a shipping channel which is the only deep water in the bay.
Neil (the owner of Bay Lodge) drew us a map and two days later, when the boat was working again, we set off to cover the 9 miles across the bay. This time the motor didn't let us down, which is just as well, because when we were almost to the other side of the bay we encountered waves as high, if not higher than the boat. It had taken us over an hour to get there only to find that conditions were far too rough to stay and fish. So back we came all the way across the bay again.
Neil felt so sorry for us when we got back that he gave us some schnapper so we could at least see what it was like.
That was it for Shark Bay, I had had enough of the rain, the boat, the lack of fish and the rough water in the bay. It had taken us 11 hours to get there, so we decided against going on to Exmouth, and instead turned south to Kalbarri.
At Kalbarri I visited the areas along the Murchison river where all those years ago I had been bogged so many times in the Carry Van, but this time in a 4wd I was the master !
It was with some trepidation that we took the boat back out again. Following another boat out of the river mouth and down towards Red Bluff, we anchored about a mile off shore where we settled down to catch some 'real fish'.
Sure enough it wasn't long before something big grabbed the mulie on the end of my life and as the line began to wind off and my heart began to pound, I started to reel the fish in. It was a good weight and was even fighting pretty hard, so now I was sure the holiday was about to pay off.
The disappointment I felt on hauling a huge northwest blowie over the side would only be matched by losing a winning lottery ticket. After this happened about eight times I pulled up anchor and headed back in. Just to round the day off we snagged a craypot line round the propeller and were almost swamped trying to get the cursed thing off.
The next day the wind had come up, so there was no way to get out of the river mouth safely. I watched the waves rolling in for a while before deciding to go up river and try for a few bream. Launching had been made more difficult as the hand-brake in the van stopped working before we left Shark Bay. But I eventually settled for locking the hubs and putting the van into low range 1st.
Down we went and launched the boat only to find that the motor was refusing to start again. So off we went to yet another mechanic to spend our life savings on repairs.
The weather stayed rough for the remainder of the holiday, and we never managed to get back out into the open sea. Fishing in the river was relaxing if not productive and the only bright spot was the crabbing. Taking into account the cost of the boat, the insurance, license, repairs and odds and ends we purchased, the price per kilo of everything we caught was a little over $850.
To add insult to injury, when we finally got home and visited John, we were treated to footage taken a year before of fishing in Shark Bay (off Nanga 50km south of Denham) which showed dozens of huge schnapper being hauled aboard on the same trip where the Landcruiser had been rolled.
By the time this story is printed we will no doubt have been mad enough to venture seaward again, crossing our fingers that the rain stays away and the engine keeps going. If you ever see us in the red van towing a little brown boat, and if you know any good prayers to Lady Luck, please remember to say one for us, we sure do need it.
After our misadventures last year at Shark Bay, our Christmas trip down to Augusta was almost trouble free. We hired an on site van at Doonbanks Caravan Park in the heart of the town.
Doonbanks is useful because it has it's own boat ramp and jetty, so boats can be launched once and then tied up when not in use. Although I am now reasonably proficient in launching and retrieving the boat, it is nice to just walk down and hop in without all the usual fiddling about.
The only cautionary note is in regards to river depth near the Doonbanks jetty. At low tide we were unable to get the boat across the shallows to the channel and had to wait for the tide to rise for a couple of hours. People with smaller boats would be OK, but at 16' our boat is at the top end of the size limits for launching there.
The weather was cloudy and cold even in late December, but having been to Augusta many times before we were well prepared.
The river was quite productive on this trip. Tailor and bream were plentiful in the channel known as the 'sticks' and whiting abounded near the river mouth.
Cruises further up river in search of larger Bream were not met with the same success, but the peace and tranquillity more than made up for the lack of fish.
On the final day just as we were about to head in for the last time, the main engine's starter motor packed up, but by this time we were equipped with a 5hp auxiliary motor, and so for once had no problems getting back to shore.
Back in Perth once more we still had some time off and decided to make the most of it by taking the boat out as much as possible. Although the main engine was still inoperable, we wanted to go crabbing, and decided to tempt fate and launch off the Kwinana boat ramp again. The morning was still and the sea calm, so thinking that all would be OK, we launched and spent a couple of hours puttering around between the Grain Terminal jetty and the jetty just north of Kwinana beach.
Just on midday we had caught a few crabs and were pulling up anchor to come in when out of nowhere a fierce south wester blew up. We were only 100 yards from shore, and had to come around Kwinana jetty to get to the boat ramp. With the 5hp going flat out we were only just making headway against the wind, and gradually being blown closer and closer to the jetty.
Another boat came round from the boat ramp and we asked for a tow to get past the jetty, as by this time the wind was so strong that the small motor was having no effect at all. Promising to give us a hand on the way back they took off and we did not see them again.
In any case it was now too late. Just as we rounded the end of the jetty the auxiliary motor gave out, and the wind pushed us right on to the steel girders on the southern corner. The nice new canopy we had put on just prior to the Augusta trip suffered a small rip, but with the help of people on the jetty we managed to guide the boat round the end of the T, and then the real problem started.
The canopy was still up, and was now acting like a sail. The wind was coming from directly behind and we were heading straight for the main span of the jetty. Even with the help of people on the jetty the impact as we hit was enough to damage the windscreen and rip one side of the canopy up. We now - far too late - dropped the canopy, and after some buffeting against the poles, were able to get under the jetty and on to the other side.
Having passed a rope to the people on the jetty we could now survey the damage as we waited for a tow.
Rescue eventually came and with the help of a number of people who seemed quite happy to get well and truly soaked, we got the boat up on to the trailer.
Looking back on this, there are some very important lessons that I have learned, and some tips that might help anyone else caught in a similar situation.
The first thing we did wrong was not dropping the canopy before we started the motor. We also failed to recognise the warning signs of the wind coming up. About 15 minutes before the wind arrived the water became very choppy, if we had gone in at that stage we would have been fine.
Leaving the canopy up was stupid for two reasons. First it gave the wind something extra to push against, and second, once we were in trouble we could not get it down in time to stop it being damaged by the jetty.
When it became obvious that we were in trouble we failed to put down the anchor. Even if it had not held, it could have slowed us down enough to make the impact with the jetty manageable. The last thing we did wrong was not getting a line to the jetty as the canopy clipped the corner. Had we done so, the only damage would have been a small rip.
It is amazing how obvious these things are when you have the chance to look back, but in the 'heat of the moment' we made just about every mistake possible. Thankfully the damage to the boat was only cosmetic. The hull is still watertight, and the engines are running again.
We have been out again many times since with no mishaps, and with a bit of luck things will stay that way for a while. My thanks to those who helped us avoid too much damage an Kwinana, and to the guys from Mariner's World who towed us in.
The boat has been more or less mothballed for the winter but we still have the urge to go fishing. In March we took a couple of days off and went up to Jurien Bay intending to follow Jenny and Ron Watt's directions from the article in Western 4WDriver (22nd edition).
Looking for a suitable place to camp we hunted around between North Head and Sandy Point. The wind was up and Sandy Point was nicely sheltered, so we set up the tent between a couple of the beach shacks and had a look around.
Being mid-week, there were only a couple of other people around, and we took the opportunity to have a word with them about the fishing and the shacks. Apparently the shack owners only have about 4 years left before the government moves in and pulls it all down. I think this is an awful shame as the areas around the shacks are well maintained and the whole area is interesting and unique.
Presumably the government can't make enough money out of the shack owners and is intent on destroying everything that has been built there as a result. Why they can't just leave it alone and keep their noses out of this terrific little place is beyond me.
For anyone who has not been to Jurien, I would recommend a visit to the shacks between North Head and Sandy point. Even 2 wheel drives can get there with no difficulty. The shacks are all unique, and the area has a really nice feel to it.
The fishing at Sandy point was very good. The first night we caught a few tailor, sea pike and herring and the following day we set off following Jenny and Ron's cave route.
The windmill on the right is not all that obvious - a note for those intending to do the same trek - as it is obscured by trees. We went right past it and only spotted it on the way back. The track heading off to Stockman's Gully is boggy in patches so let your tyres down before you head that way.
The caves are easy to find, but beware of the bees. They are very aggressive, and anyone who may have an allergic reaction to bee stings should stay well away. Don't be tempted to pick up the honeycomb on the ground, the bees seem to be just as protective of that as the main hives. If you move slowly and stay clear of the bits of honeycomb on the ground you should be OK.
The second cave on this route is the easiest to get into. The bee hives at Bat Cave - further on - are very close as you enter the cave, and we decided not to go in after being stung going into cave 2.
The directions were easy to follow but sadly we ran out of time and missed the caves pictured in the article.
For 4 wheel driving, the area is terrific. There are tracks everywhere. We didn't have enough time to explore too much, but what we did see has convinced us that a week or so up there next summer would be a good idea.
Before returning to camp we had to make a run back into Jurien again to re- stock our bait. If you stay overnight anywhere near Jurien, be sure to keep all food stuffs locked up. There are foxes everywhere and they pinched our bait. Back at Sandy Point we hauled out the fishing gear and walked down to the beach. The bay there is peaceful and sheltered, the perfect place to settle down for a couple of beers, and throw a line in.
Around 5pm a large school of tailor began feeding just off shore, and we were provided with a hour of the best fishing we have ever had from the beach. There were so many hook ups that we were putting fish back that in Perth waters we would be 'keepers'. The tailor were in a frenzy, and the mulies we were using as bait were taken as soon as they touched the water.
It was a perfect couple of days away. The area around the shanty towns is tidy and clean, if you visit the area be sure to take your rubbish with you when you leave. I would hate to see the area ending up like Tim's Thicket.
On ANZAC day we went down to Tim's Thicket to wet the lines and spend the night in the camp site behind the dunes. When we got there we were disgusted to find that other campers had left the place looking like a rubbish tip, and the council has now closed it as a camping area.
Councils closing areas like this really annoys me, but seeing the piles of rubbish left behind by uncaring thoughtless people, left me in no doubt that the council had no choice. Most of the people reading this are all too well aware of what happens when people litter and damage the environment. The government moves in and bans everyone from using the area, so we all suffer.
But how many of you would report someone for littering if you saw it happen ? Too few I think. If we want to keep the tracks and campsites open we have to learn to 'dob in' those who do these stupid things, and the authorities have to make a commitment to prosecute when evidence is presented to them.
The mess at Tim's Thicket was not the result of one or two careless people. The amount of rubbish left there is the result of many people over a long period of time.
From now on I will make it my business to 'dob in' the fools who ruin sites like this. If I see it happening I will take license numbers and photos and I hope the rest of you will do the same. If we want to continue to be allowed to use areas like Tim's Thicket we, as individuals, have to be prepared to do our utmost to make sure this kind of environmental vandalism is stamped out.
The other way to help is to carry spare garbage bags and clean up sites which have been abused. I know it's a pain cleaning up after thoughtless ignorant people, but it's a lot better than having all the camping sites near Perth closed down.
Time rolled on and soon our thoughts turned to Exmouth once more and memories of our first big trip away came flooding back. It was time to start planning the next trip north.
This time we had purchased a 1962 Bedford bus which has been converted into a motorhome. The plan was to tow our boat behind the bus and enjoy a few weeks fishing in the Exmouth area which would also serve as a shake- down trip for the bus.
Our long term goal is to live in the bus and work our way around Australia over a number of years. This would be our last official holiday before taking off into the great unknown.
Planning began in May 1997 when we acquired the bus. Although on this trip our 4 wheel drive was to stay at home, the bus would eventually be used to tow a car trailer and a small 4x4.
It took all of the 3 months available to get the bus ready for travel, but come August 8th we were back on the road to Exmouth. Our past trips to the north west have always been a dash to get there and start enjoying ourselves, but the bus, which travels at a top speed of 80 kph, forced us to look for camp sites on the way up, which we normally pass by.
Our first night was spent at a terrific camp on the banks of the Murchison River about 10 km north of the Kalbarri turn off. There are sites on both the north and south bank of the river on the east side of the highway. Facilities include BBQs, tables, a pit toilet, bins, and a very pretty stretch of river. We left behind a rainy cold Perth and were expecting the weather to improve as we got further north.
The second day took us as far as Minilya where we pulled in at another camp site on the south bank of the Minilya River. Did someone say river? In 'the wet' there must be a river here but at this time of year it is bone dry. So much for my ideas of throwing a line in.
The camp site here is smaller than Murchison, but the facilities are the same.
As we drive along my wife often hands me something to chew, a sweet, a bit of chocolate and so on. Not long after we turned on to the Exmouth road she handed me something which felt like a soft jube, so without looking I popped it into my mouth and started chewing. I was wondering why she had handed me such a tasteless sweet when she started shouting at me to spit it out.
She had in fact handed me a silicon ear plug to put in my ear - the bus engine is quite noisy and she had decided to give me a couple of ear plugs to block out some of the sound.
We had quite a giggle about that - especially when I said I was glad the earplug was a new one not a used one.
The last day brought us to Learmonth Jetty where the first order of business was to get the fishing gear out and see what was around. The weather was dreadful, rain and chilly wind greeted us where we had memories of long hot days and steamy nights. The fish were obviously on holiday as well, but we did manage to pick up a feed of squid for dinner.
Cooking squid is very simple, but many people overcook the meat and make it tough. Our foolproof method for squid is to clean and skin it, cut it into rings and coat them in corn flour. Get the oil very hot and then drop the squid in. Count to 12 fairly quickly and it's done. If you don't have corn flour, ordinary wheat flour will do.
After a night in Exmouth we made our way down the coast to a spot just south of Kalis Fisheries. On a quiet track right next to the beach we set up camp and spent the next week fishing. With the help of some friends who were staying at Kalis, we managed to launch the boat, and moored it just off the beach in front of our camp site.
Thankfully the weather had turned the corner and we were back under the blue skies we used to.
The first full day of fishing produced a few north west snapper (emperors) but none of the larger fish we were looking for.
A trip into town and a meal at the Pot Shot that night was followed by a display of Peter Brock like driving by my wife, who dodged kangaroos which were sitting in the middle of the road. If she had not been driving there could have been a nasty accident as the rest of us were a little the worse for wear after a drink or three with dinner. It shows the value of having a 'skipper' even away from the city. As Bella doesn't drink she is always elected to drive when we go out.
The road south from Exmouth has a number of dips which large volumes of water flow down in the wet season. At night it is very difficult to see into the dips, or out of the other side when you are in them. There are a large number of kangaroos in the area, as well as sheep and goats, so be very careful if you drive there at night.
Exmouth has a fresh water tap located by the public toilets in the main shopping area. It is very easy for caravans and mobile homes to get access to it so don't forget your hose and tap connectors.
The fishing on this trip was not what we have come to expect from the area, but we did manage a couple of Spanish Mackerel and several Shark Mackerel.
On the last trip we were throwing Shark Mackerel back, but this time I had brought a smoker with me so we filleted them and smoked them. I will never look on these as rubbish fish again. They were so delicious we ate almost all of them along with prawns from Kalis and more of the Spaniards caught a couple of days earlier.
We set the shower / toilet tent up earlier in the week and this was a real boon. We have a solar shower bag which recommends leaving it out in full sun for 3 hours to get the water hot. We have found that leaving the shower bag in the shower tent all day gets the water just luke warm and perfect for a shower after a hard days fishing in the boat.
The main problems with the shower tent were a lack of places to put soap, shampoo, towels, clothes etc. We eventually made up some hooks for hangers and bought a hanging shower caddy to solve these minor annoyances.
The comfort the bus provided was terrific. Just like home, and the Honda 500w generator provided all the power we required. It powers 4 fluorescent lights, TV, video, stereo, and a flood light for outside. I know many people despise generators in the bush because of the noise, but the convenience of 240 volt power any time you need it more than makes up for the slight disturbance.
At the end of the first week the weather changed again, and a strong south easterly wind came up on Saturday night. Sometime late on Saturday night the anchor line snapped and the boat was blown under the offal pipe at Kalis.
The canopy, windscreen and auxiliary motor all sustained considerable damage, so our hopes of another week fishing from the boat were dashed. The water was too rough to retrieve the boat so we bought a new anchor and made it secure behind the small breakwater just off Kalis.
On Monday the wind finally dropped enough for us to get the boat out of the water. 1/2 a carton of beer went to the engineers at Kalis for their help pulling the boat up with a tractor.
Without the boat we had some time to head down the west side of the cape and have a closer look at the national park.
Entry to the national park is $8.00 and a campsite costs $5.00 a night. We pulled in at Mesa Camp, which is probably the best along this stretch of coast.
The next day we tried to get down to Yardie Creek but the road south of Oyster Stacks was just too rough for the bus.
We called in at Tulki camp, but didn't like the beach there, so we headed back to the Milyering information station. This is an excellent setup for anyone wanting to know more about the area. There is even a small theatre where you can watch films about Ningaloo, Bush Survival etc.
After a couple of hours watching films and picking up all sorts of information, we moved on to Mangrove Bay. Here you can use the bird hide or the fauna hide to observe local wildlife.
There are only a couple of places along the coast in this area where mangroves survive, and this is probably the best example. Don't miss it if you are in the neighborhood.
Early morning or late afternoon are the best times to visit as birds and animals are more likely to be seen.
Not being able to go further south, we drove back round to the east coast and camped just behind the water tanks at the foot of Cape Range.
We woke early thanks to the herd of sheep passing the bus and announcing their presence in loud bleating voices.
We tried fishing at Learmonth again but the trawlers were re-fuelling so took a drive up Charles Knife Canyon. The bus crawled very slowly up the hill but once on top we had a spectacular view of the east side of the peninsular.
Our last day in the Exmouth area was spent fishing off the breakwater at Kalis which produced some bream and a golden trevally.
Our haul for the two weeks was: 4 trevally, 6 shark mackerel, 2 Spanish mackerel, 3 sharks, 8 emperor, 4 squid, 1 coral trout, 1 cod, 5 bream - and that was between 5 people on 2 boats! Not very good for Exmouth.
We hitched the boat up and took the road south heading for Coral Bay. If you are going to Coral Bay and you don't have a booking, time it so you arrive about 10.30am, that's just before the caravan parks do a site check, and if they are busy, you shouldn't have to wait long to get in.
We stayed at the Bay View caravan park which worked out at $18 per night for 3 people.
Coral Bay has two shopping areas, and everything is within walking distance.
A trip out on the glass bottom boat cost us $18 each, and was very worth while. The waters in Coral Bay are a marine reserve, so the fish are protected and the boats make a feature of feeding them. Most of the big fish you will see are spangled emperors (commonly known as northwest snapper).
The 1 hour cruise around the bay was good value. The captain gives a very informative talk on the coral, fish and the area surrounding the bay. Unlike some of the glass bottom boats we have been on overseas, this one had nice clean glass, and you can see every detail of the reef as it slowly motored around.
Cameras and videos are welcome, so don't forget to take them with you. If it is tourist season you may need to book a day in advance, and you can do so via the caravan park.
Two days later we arrived at the Blowholes just north of Carnarvon. At Minilya roadhouse we discovered that a weld holding the rear bumper of the bus had broken, and that the bumper, boat and airconditioner were only hanging on by a small weld on the other side. After rapidly deploying great lengths of rope, we managed to make the bumper fairly secure and pressed on. (Note: Minilya like many roadhouses, has no mechanic available.)
We arrived at the Blowholes (Quabba Point) mid afternoon, and after taking some photos of the holes in action we found a campsite overlooking the bay.
There are a large number of campsites along the road heading south from the Blowholes; some with views of the sea and others tucked in behind the dunes. Caravans and motorhomes should have no problem finding somewhere to set up.
Be warned that the area behind Quabba Point (which is practically an island) is a marine reserve, and you will need to check the signs on the beach which tell you where you can fish.
After the number of sharks we saw in the area I would not recommend swimming or even wading out to the island. We saw several very large specimens within a few feet of the beach. At least one of the camping guides we purchased comments that there is a nice sandy beach for swimming. My advice is DON'T!
Campsites cost $1 per night per vehicle, and there is an honour box to place the money in. We saw a couple of vehicles that didn't bother, but most stopped and paid up.
There are a couple of pit toilets available here but take my advice and use some Rid on your rear end if you use them, the mozzies gather there in swarms and have a good feed from your nether regions if you aren't protected.
After two nights at Quabba we moved on to Carnarvon and got the weld fixed up by Dave at Carnarvon Engineering. He also put a bolt through the centre of the bumper to properly secure the trailer. At just $25 I would have to recommend that you see Dave if you need any welding etc. done while you are in the area.
After refueling, filling up on water, and stocking up on supplies, we doubled back and took the road to Gascoyne Junction. We were looking for a side track leading to a campsite known as Rocky Pool. The Gascoyne road is pretty rough, and I finally discovered that the best way to cope with it is to put your foot down and fly over the bumps.
42km later we finally found the track we were looking for and a further 4km brought us to a great little campsite on the banks of the Gascoyne River. The river was only just flowing so we took the opportunity to have a dip and refresh ourselves after the dusty trip in.
There are bins, BBQs, and a pit toilet at the campsite but no other facilities. Despite the rough road in, the trip was worth while. The river banks and gum trees along the billabong are very picturesque.
The next day we left early and arrived at the campsite on the Murchison River in the late afternoon. It was very, very cold, but we managed to have a nice fire in one of the concrete BBQs near the river, which chased away the worst of the chills.
Our final day on the road saw us arrive home just before dusk. A quick beer, unload the essentials, and a nice hot shower saw the sun go down on three weeks of fun and frustration.
Overall the trip gave us a lot of enjoyment, but best of all it has finally settled my fears about living in the bus. The information we gathered, and the things that went wrong, will help us make the next step easier.
Copyright 1995-1997 Marc Glasby
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Latest update March 2018