Friday, June 16, 2017

The Big Empty and Broome

By Jen.

After leaving Carawine Gorge, we started towards Broome. Here the Great Northern Highway skirts along the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. They call this section The Big Empty. There isn’t much. No POIs, no lookouts. Hardly any interesting landscapes. The trees and bushes are just tall enough to obscure your vision, but not tall enough to be interesting. Jonathan had to entertain himself by watching birds of prey hoping for them to plummet down from the sky to catch small birds and lizards. With his sharp eyes, he actually saw several catching things.

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The landscape in The Big Empty.

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A bird of prey in the distance.

Finally, upon reaching Broome, we picked up a few more packages we had mailed to ourselves beforehand. We now have stinger suits of our own so that we can go swimming in the northern waters without worrying about jellies or sun. I also now have a scoop for my canisters, making cooking easier. And, of course, we now we have the correct sway-bar down link. On the way towards Broome, Jonathan noticed our right sway-bar downlink was cracked as well. So, when we got the other link, he had planned on replacing both sides (good thing we had the spare from the ordering error earlier). But, we found that after another round of corrugations, the link had completely broke. Time to replace both! He managed to do it all outside in the sand in one afternoon. Friends, do you know how awesome of a husband I have? This trip would not be near so successful without his expertise, and probably a lot shorter because of the repair funds we would have to spend otherwise.



We were now in a waiting game. I have had this fungal infection on my back since December. I probably would have had it banished by now, but the first products I put on it were expired. Then, I didn’t put anything on it for about 10 days, while we were waiting on our van. During which, it grew in size. Then the stuff I had in the van was expired too, and not working. Finally, I bought some product from the pharmacy based upon the recommendation of the pharmacist, but after month, it still didn’t work. So, I went back and tried another product. This time, the pharmacist recommended I visit the doctor if it didn’t go away soon. After trying to get into several clinics in Karratha by walking in with no success (they don't have urgent cares here, just clinics and hospitals), we figured we had better just book an appointment ahead of us. As a result, we had several days of waiting in Broome until the appointment. You would think we would do more touristy things while we were there, but the things I wanted to do (see dinosaur tracks and the flying boats wreckage) required a really low tide, which wasn’t happening during our stay. So instead, we got internet, watched a movie, and did some errands. We even got haircuts. One day, we walked along some rock pools along an estuary. There were puffer fish in a few of them!

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Since this is a short post, I shall go off-topic and answer questions we often get. Since we left the Ningaloo Coast, it has been fairly warm, in the 80s. These are more the temperatures that I was expecting in Australia. Before that, temperatures had been closer to the 70s most of the time, which could be a bit cool with a breeze or in the shade.

We often get asked what a typical day for us looks like. I wake up in the morning about daybreak. Here, that is currently around 6:20 am. I normally lay in bed drowsing until I can convince myself to grab my phone and read my daily devotion. Jonathan typically manages to sleep a bit longer, but by 7am is waking up. If we have reception, he will get out his phone and read some news. Otherwise, he gets out of bed before me, puts up the shower, and gets breakfast. About the time he is getting breakfast, I finally get out of bed and get my own breakfast. As we start putting things away, we start discussing our route and plans for the day. Most days, we need to drive a bit to the first destination. We normally hit the first location in a few hours, where we do our exploring. By then, it is typically lunch, so we whip something up. Then we drive to our next destination. By 2 or 3 pm, we typically done for the day and find a campsite. This gives us a few hours to rest (I watch anime; Jonathan plays Roller Coaster Tycoon) and/or to do some errands (fix broken things, clean, etc) before dinner. After dinner, we normally watch something together before setting up our shower. We shower, brush teeth, and then get into bed. Before I hurt my knee in early May, I would do my exercises after dinner and before the shower. I hope start that up again soon. 

Fun fact: in most of the parts of Australia in which we have been, they get their drinking water from lakes or reservoirs. This is an interesting concept to me as I grew up in dry southwest Kansas. We fought for every drop of water we could find, and most of it came from an underground aquifer, which we are seeing how quickly we can empty. Up here in the northwest, they also get water from aquifers, so I feel right at home. I know most of the US also gets water from lakes or reservoirs. What is unique here (and that I like) is that they put fences up around the lakes and put up signs around the region letting you know the water catchment area. These signs remind you to be careful what you are putting in the groundwater systems.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Pilbara Parks

By Jen.

Technically after Denham (Australia’s westernmost town) near Monkey Mia, but especially after Ningaloo, we are officially traveling more eastwards than westward in our clockwise lap of Australia. This was commemorated with another foray into the Outback, in the Pilbara region. This was a recommendation from the family we visited after Perth and was a good one.

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Although few people live in the region, it is full of wildlife. Most notably right now are the birds, which love to flit in front of the van and perform evasive maneuvers. However, these evasive maneuvers are best suited to avoiding birds of prey, not big blue walls that are hurtling at them at 90 kph (55 mph). Makes for a very nerve-wracking drive when you really don’t like making roadkill. Surprisingly, most of them seem to escape death (and if they don’t, I don’t want to know about it), even if it is by going under our vehicle. I guess that extra under-chassis height does pay off in more ways than one. 

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This region of Australia really has RED dirt. It is really extraordinary. They have everything in the red spectrum from pale blushes of pink and orange to deep violet. Truly gorgeous to observe. The red dirt in the States doesn’t hold a candle to what you see out here. Plus, there are always lots of wildflowers here, which is always a plus in my book. The downside is that it is really obvious when you have dirt everywhere and this red dirt seems particularly “sticky”. It clings to everything and is difficult to remove.

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This is a Sturt Desert Pea. I have been chasing this since the first National Park in South Australia. This flower was on their logo, but it was so weird-looking I didn’t know what it was. So glad I finally got to see one in person.

First major stop was Karajini National Park. This beautiful park is jam-packed with dramatic gorges. Probably the best way to explore them is via hikes into the bottoms of the gorges, but with my knee still out-of-sorts, we mostly stuck to the lookouts, which were still pretty eye-catching.

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We did venture into a few more accessible gorges with shorter walks and easier steps. The first one yielded a pleasant surprise of huge bats hanging from trees. These things were enormous, probably 18 inches or half a meter tall with a wingspan twice that. I believe these are fruit bats, but I didn’t read any material on that to verify.

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Check out the teeth of the one at the very bottom!

The only downside is that right now these parks are packed and everyone was going for a swim. Made it hard to get great pictures.

From there, we went up to the oasis in the desert, Millstream Chichester National Park. Truly interesting to find a true oasis. It had been a homestead and station for many years, so many parts were modified for irrigation ditches for gardens, etc.




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At this point, I finally filled up my micro SD card after 3 years, so I had to delete old pictures each time I wanted to take a new picture, until I could get out my computer to delete them in bulk.

We made a journey back to the coast to get food supplies and fuel and decided to head back into the Pilbara to investigate Carawine Gorge on our way to Broome. Along the way, we decided to stop at Marble Bar, which makes its claim as the hottest town in Australia. The town experienced 160 consecutive days of temperatures above 100F (37.8C) in 1923-1924. It is also part of the largest local authority in the Australia (3rd largest in the world), the Shire of East Pilbara. It is named for a rock outcropping of jasper that was originally thought to be marble.

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The trail into the Carawine gorge is 4WD, but we didn’t really have any trouble until we hit the gorge, which is covered in deep gravel. We only got stuck a little bit once and were able to get out pretty quickly. Apparently the area is a working cattle station, so we had cows for neighbors and a great view.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

South Australia by the Numbers

We somehow blazed through South Australia. But, we definitely plan on driving through again, probably when we cross through the great center. Besides, we missed the whales that live there from May to October.



Here are some interesting statistics from our journey in South Australia.
  • Time
    • Time zone: UTC+9:30; participates in DST (yes, you heard that right, 30 min off from the AUS Eastern time zone)
    • Day entered: 06-Apr-2017
    • Day left: 21-Apr-2017
    • Total # of days: 16
      • Nights slept in van: 15
      • Nights slept in tent: 0
      • Nights slept in hotel/etc.: 0
      • Nights paying for lodging: 0
  • Distance
    • Driven: ~3617 km (~2260 miles)
    • Hiked: 34.3 km (21.5 miles)
        Date Location Description Distance (km) Distance (mi)
        4/6/2017 Naracoorte Wet Cave 0.6 0.375
        4/7/2017 Naracoorte Victoria Fossil Cave 0.8 0.5
        4/9/2017 Victor Harbor Granite Island 2.551.59
        4/11/2017 Burra Burra Burra Mine Site 1 0.625
        4/12/2017 Mt Remarkable NP Ali Lookout Walk 0.4 0.25
        4/12/2017 Mt Remarkable NP Gorge Lookout Walk 0.6 0.375
        4/12/2017 Mt Remarkable NP Alligator Gorge Circuit 2 1.25
        4/14/2017 Flinders Ranges NP Akaroo Rock Hike 3 1.875
        4/14/2017 Flinders Ranges NP Sacred Canyon Walk 0.5 0.3125
        4/14/2017 Flinders Ranges NP Wilpena Solar Power Station Walk 0.5 0.3125
        4/14/2017 Flinders Ranges NP Wangara Lookout Hike (Upper and Lower) 7.8 4.875
        4/15/2017 Flinders Ranges NP St Mary Peak Hike 14.6 9.125
    • Fuel fill-ups: 5
  • Money
    • Total spent: $735 USD ($995 AUD) 
      • Consists of the costs of traveling full time in South Australia
      • Does not include gear or van conversion costs
    • Average cost per day: $19.86 USD ($26.90 AUD)
    • Average cost of diesel: $1.263 AUD per liter ($3.586 USD per gallon)
  • National Parks visited: 6
    • Naracoorte
    • Coorong
    • Mount Remarkable
    • Flinders Ranges
    • Coffin Bay
    • Nullarbor
Interesting observations about South Australia:
  1. Like Tasmania, at the stores, they do not “give” you plastic bags. You either buy plastic bags from them, or you bring your own.
  2. Unlike Tasmania or Victoria (or even West Australia), when they have a lookout, they actually bring you above the trees/shrubbery or at least trim them so that you can actually look out at the view. It was great! In the other states so far, they most often have trees and plants blocking your view so that you can’t really call it a lookout.
  3. Its coastline is a large section of the Great Australian Bight (kinda like a gulf), where whales deliver and nurse their young until they are strong enough to brave the open oceans.
  4. Unlike Victoria, they do not have a proliferation of road signs, leaving you wondering what the speed limit is.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review of the Whale Shark Tour with 3 Islands

By Jen.

This post is mostly a review of the experience in case you are someone trying to figure out if this tour operator, 3 Islands, is the one for you. Or, if you simply want a more-detailed account of our adventures with the whale sharks.

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We left early to arrive at Tantabiddi Boat Ramp by 8am. They do actually pick you up from Exmouth, but since were going to stay in the national park and didn’t know where yet, we just asked to meet them at the boat ramp. By 8:30am we were shuffled onto a water taxi and onto a boat, after signing our consent paperwork. After a small safety briefing and meeting our crew (Kelsea, Chantelle, Jemma, Rory, and one other that I am forgetting at the moment), we got to snorkel there in the Tantabiddi Bay for about 30min, then it was off to find a whale shark while we snacked on pizza, brownies, fruit, and muffins and drank warm tea to warm up (the wind was a bit cold in the morning). While we were waiting on them to appear (they were being spotted by spotter aircraft and reported to the boat), we were notified that the first humpback whales of the season where nearby, so we scuttled off to catch a glimpse. (I don’t think there were any other tour groups that did this while they were waiting on the fish to arrive.) This was very exciting as normally they aren’t around until June in this area. Our first wild whale!

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Then, the main attraction, whale sharks! We had a false start or two before we finally got to see one. We were in group 1, which has its disadvantages during the initial spotting. When they see one, they ask you to get your gear on (on the floor so you don’t trip and sue them) and then wait. Sometimes you get as far as getting into the water before they realize the whale shark has dived and you need to wait and relocate. On the other hand, there is a possibility that the whale shark will dive even before group 2 gets their chance. There weren’t very many at first, and we were going to have to share a whale shark with another tour operator, but eventually we got our chance.  Each boat can get to follow the whale sharks for up to 60 minutes per day, and you can only have 10 people in the water with the shark at once. This results in each boat having 2 groups, where one gets in the water, then other is relocated further ahead of the shark and placed in once the first group pulls off the shark. Trading places constantly. Each group got 5 viewings of the fish and the grouping was nice as it allowed you to take a break and recover.

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Jonathan and I actually both struggled with motion sickness (not too surprising for me, but very rare for him)while we were out chasing the humpback whale. The swells were probably around 2 m high, making it a bit rough for us at times. I just did a bit of deep breathing and keeping my head in the wind and eyes out on the horizon to manage it. But on the 2nd swim with the whale shark, Jonathan really started to feel green and skipped out on the last 3 swims and snorkeling. I went in on the 3rd, and started swimming with the whale shark, but suddenly got overwhelmed with nausea and called for the water taxi. After a few minutes, I was fine. I think I may have gotten a bit too mesmerized with the tail fin, combined with the restricted breathing of the snorkel, making me a bit nauseous. However, I was able to go in for the next swim with no issues. By then, I had had my fill of whale sharks and decided to skip the last swim as well.

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Everyone in the reviews mentions how awe-inspiring and thrilling this swim is. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was cool, but not as awesome as everyone makes it out to be. The water was a bit murky because of the tremendous amount of krill and plankton in the water (which is what brings the whale sharks). And, the fish was beautiful. Ours was a male of 6-7m in length, I was told. I would describe him as a gentle giant. It wasn’t terrifying. It might have been a bit more “thrilling” if the fish had swam faster, but it was slow moving one. That did make it easy to keep up with and take pictures. They just swim near the surface and then occasionally slide down into the deep waters, nothing too exciting. They don’t really jump out of the water off, or come up to breath (not necessary for a fish), so the only way you can see them clearly is via a swim. I would probably do it again, but I wouldn’t say it is a must-do experience for everyone. They are currently doing studies about swimming with humpback whales, which would be an even more interesting one. Though, instead of having to stay 3-4 meters away from them, you have to stay 20 m. I think, depending on how clear the water is, it might not be as interesting. Considering that if I was that far from the whale shark, I couldn’t even see him in the food-rich water.

Anyways, after the whale sharks, we had a lunch of make-your-own cold deli sandwiches, cold chicken, salad, potato salad, and cole slaw. Fairly tasty. Jonathan has a small egg allergy and they were careful to list what had egg in it and what didn’t and even reserved some salad without dressing for him. I heard the $400 tour had a bit more impressive food, but I don’t feel like I would have wanted to pay $15pp extra to get that benefit. Then we had another small snorkel and received fruit, crackers, and cheese as a snack. As mentioned in most of the reviews, we were the last tour group to come in (around 4:15pm), which makes you feel a bit better about the value of the tour, as compared to the others.

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One of our guides.

Other things to note. They provided sunscreen, water, and all snorkel gear including stinger suits and anti-fogging spray. Despite the stinger suits (which were hoodless), 3 people got stung by jellyfish in the face and neck (including one of our guides). They had vinegar at the ready though, and everyone who got stung was back in the water next chance. The free CD has to be picked up from their offices the next day, otherwise they charge you $5 to mail it.

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Overall, I would recommend the experience, especially with this operator. And, the crew was very friendly and informative. Though, to be fair, seems like all the operators are very good. Just a matter of what you are looking for in the details.

Ningaloo Reef

By Jen.

After (more) hundreds of miles on the road, we reached Ningaloo Reef Marine Park. With my bum knee, hiking was out of the question, but eager to do something even remotely active, I figured I could do water sports, like kayaking and snorkeling. So, we pulled into Coral Bay, surprisingly found a parking spot (peak season and the town was packed to overflowing) near the beach, and walked up to the lookout to make out a game plan. We decided to get the kayak out and start at Purdy Point, first kayaking to it, then snorkeling back. However, this turned out to be a bit more than we bargained for.

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We got out to the point just fine, but with the wind, we started drifting pretty quickly in the kayak. Since I was in front and sitting under the water skirt, I had Jonathan get in the water first. He chose to get in without his flippers on, planning to put them on in the water. I had gotten both our flippers out, expecting to hand him his right away. Contrary to my silent expectations, though, he began to putt around trying to get a hang of his snorkel (I realized a bit too late that I don’t think he had really ever snorkeled before). Since he was doing his own thing, I decided to try and organize things around me by putting on my goggles (while trying not to lose the paddles or other gear). After I got them on, though, I realized I didn’t have snorkel attached. Sad smile Removing the goggles, I suddenly noticed that one of Jonathan’s flippers was floating in the water by itself (not on the kayak where I had left it). So I shouted at him to grab it, which he did very quickly. Then I realized that I didn’t have either of my flippers…

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We glanced around, but didn’t see them and decided they were sinkers, not floaters. Dismayed, we stated several ideas on how to find them, but ended up with Jonathan towing the kayak against the drift to try and locate them (which, by the way, wasn’t part of any of the suggestions). By this point, we are both frustrated and have no clue if we are even in the general vicinity of the flippers. I tell him that I am fine without the flippers and that we should just go ahead and snorkel. But, since we have drifted so far down the shore already, perhaps we should relocate again. So he hops in the kayak (perpendicular to how one normally rides in a kayak), and we set off. However, the refractive index is playing havoc with our depth perception in the water, and every time we think to get out of the kayak, it seems like the coral is (much) less than 6 feet below us. Disconcerted, frustrated, and a bit angry, we make the call to take a break. Fortunately, it was close to lunch time, so not a complete waste of time.

Buoyed by the break from the water, we decide to try again; this time without the kayak (didn’t want to complicate matters and wanted Jonathan to get some practice before we involved the kayak again). This time we walked to the point and just let our bodies drift with the current. After a while, I tell Jonathan that we should try to swim to about where I was when I realized I didn’t have the flippers anymore. So we head off in the general direction, without much expectations. I had prayed to be reunited with the flippers (they are kinda expensive here). Suddenly, Jonathan yells my name and points. He found the flippers! In that large expanse, we had swam right to them! Divine guidance, anyone? Jonathan rescued them for me (so I wouldn’t have to kick my way down into the depths), and I put them on for the remainder of the snorkeling adventure. But then I wondered why I wanted them back. They are painful! Hopefully my flipper socks, which I have mail-ordered, will fix the issue.

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Jonathan rescuing my flippers.

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I have my flippers back!


Since I wanted to swim with whale sharks, we spent the rest of the afternoon figuring out which tour we would commit to. They all seem priced between $380-$400, with slightly different perks. We chose 3 Islands’ tour, since it was $385pp (on the lower end), but still came with a complimentary CD of the images and video taken on the trip (most others made you pay $50-$70 for the pictures). Plus, it was well rated on TripAdvisor.

The most of the next day was spent traveling to Exmouth and Cape Range National Park, but we did fit in some sightseeing.

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A pair of sea eagles in their nest.

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Charles Knife Gorge.

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A king prawn statue commemorating the sustainable commercial prawning in the area.

Then the whale shark tour was the next day. We left early to arrive at Tantabiddi Boat Ramp by 8am. By 8:30am we were shuffled onto a water taxi and onto a boat. After a small safety briefing, we got to snorkel there in the Tantabiddi Bay for about 30min, then it was off to find a whale shark while we snacked on pizza, brownies, fruit, and muffins and drank warm tea to warm up (the wind was a bit cold in the morning). While we were waiting on them to appear (they were being spotted by spotter aircraft and reported to the boat), we were notified that the first humpback whales of the season where nearby, so we scuttled off to catch a glimpse. This was very exciting as normally they aren’t around until June in this area. Our first wild whale!

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Then, the main attraction, whale sharks! We had a false start or two before we finally got to see one. We had the same 6-7m male for all 5 viewings/swims, but it was still great.

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Jonathan and I actually both struggled with motion sickness while we out chasing the humpback whale. The swells were probably around 2 m high, making it a bit rough for us at times. I just did a bit of deep breathing and keeping my head in the wind and eyes out on the horizon to manage it. But on the 2nd swim with the whale shark, Jonathan really started to feel green and skipped out on the last 2 swims and snorkeling. I went in on the 3rd, and started swimming with the whale shark, but suddenly got overwhelmed with nausea and called for the water taxi. After a few minutes, I was fine.

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After another snorkel, the trip was done for the day and we were ready to go back and rest at our campsite. The next day, we stopped drove up to a small gorge, but our stay on the Ningaloo coast was done and we started out of the peninsula to the isolated Pilbara region.

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