Monday, 5 November 2012

Explore Cervantes and the Pinnacles Desert in Western Australia

Cervantes is a small town on the coast of Western Australia, some 245 kilometres north of the state capital Perth.  Chances are that you may never have heard of Cervantes, but if you are looking to explore the natural beauty of Western Australia, it would be a mistake to miss out on staying in this small coastal town and exploring all that the region has to offer.  Along with Jurien Bay and Leeman, Cervantes is one of the main towns on Western Australia’s Turquoise Coast, which offers tourists pristine, silver sand beaches, abundant wildlife, a profusion of wildflowers in the spring, great fishing and cray fishing, ancient stromatolites, and of course the incredible Pinnacles Desert.  This is a town that was only founded in 1962, when the land was taken from Nambung National Park and still only has a population of around 500 people.

Cervantes, Western Australia - own image
Cervantes, Western Australia

Cervantes enjoys sunny, warm summers and mild winters, so can is good for a visit at any time of the year. The main industries are cray fishing, and the town’s population almost doubles during the cray fishing season, and to a lesser extent tourism.  The town got its name from an American whaling ship that was wrecked on its shores in 1844. As this region was very remote at that time, the survivors had to make a gruelling walk south to the port of Fremantle, at the mouth of the Swan River. Many of the streets are named after the famous book Don Quixote written by Miguel Cervantes.

So how do you get to there?   It is around a three hour drive from Perth along the Brand Highway, so is easily accessible by car or camper van.  If you do not wish to stay the night, there are day tours that leave from Perth that take in all the main sights and the Pinnacles Desert.  Cervantes and the Pinnacles are also one of the stops on many of the longer tours, and these tours range from luxury, accommodated tours through to basic, backpackers camping tours.  The town is also serviced by the Greyhound Australia service that runs between Perth and Darwin. Being a small place, there is not a huge range of accommodation available, but there is a 4 star motel close to the centre of town that offers a restaurant, swimming pool and a BBQ area.  There is also a caravan park and a backpacker’s hostel.

So what can you do in Cervantes?  If you are a beachcomber, you will find beautiful, clean beaches of silver sand, washed by crystal clear waters.  There are many safe spots to swim, as the beaches are protected by an inshore reef.   There are also BBQ facilities that you can use close to the sands.  Windsurfing has become an increasingly popular sport in Cervantes, and the town hosts the annual Slalom Windsurfing Carnival.  Fishing is a very popular activity, and you can fish from the jetties, the beaches or offshore. You can fish for tailor, mulloway, herring, or even sharks.  If you like walking there are some good trails in the Nambung National Park, and you can look out for the prolific wildlife.  Species that you may be lucky enough to see are western grey kangaroos, emus, carpet pythons, white-tailed black cockatoos and honey possums.  Down on the beach you may get to see the local seals playing in the water; the jetty is a good spot as the seals hang around while fish are being cleaned.  There is also a huge variety of plants and the area is carpeted with gorgeous wildflowers in the spring.

Lake Thetis Stromatolites, Cervantes, WA - own image
Lake Thetis Stromatolites, Cervantes, WA

One of the most unique walks that you can take in the area is the one around Lake Thetis.  Lake Thetis is one of the few places in the world where you can see stromatolites, which are the earth’s oldest life form. Stromatolites look like boulders, but they are really sedimentary structures formed by blue green algae together with other bacteria and algae. Some of the oldest living stromatolites are believed to be more than 3,000 years old.

But of course, no trip to Cervantes can ever be complete without a trip to the Pinnacles Desert.  The Pinnacles were virtually unknown to the outside world until the late 1960’s, but nowadays around 250,000 tourists visit the Pinnacles every year.  The best time to view these spectacular limestone rock structures is at dawn and sunset, when the shadows cast by the sun can create amazing ripples and markings in the sand.  The Pinnacles formed over thousands of years from a combination of limestone, sand, quartz and water. You probably need at least a couple of hours to wander around these fantastical rock formations, and it is estimated that there are around 150,000 Pinnacles some of which are up to five metres tall.  As you walk around, see what shapes you can see in the Pinnacles?  Do some of the Pinnacles look as though they are shaped like animals or even faces?

If you want to explore further afield, spend some time around the Jurien Bay Marine Park. Jurien Bay Marine Park covers a section of the coast between Wedge Island and Green Head and includes several of the offshore islands.  Jurien Bay Marine Park contains important Australian sea lion and seabird breeding colonies and abundant marine life.  It is recommended that if you want to view the Australian sea lions that you join a professional guided tour, so that the sea lions are not disturbed.  You can book onto one of these tours at the Pinnacles Visitor Centre, where you can also book tours to the Pinnacles Desert if you do not have your own transport. You can also explore Lesueur National Park, which is exceptionally rich in plant species and wildlife.  Lesueur National Park comprises an area of sand plains, salt lakes and ridges, and there is a range of trail and a picnic area and interpretation centre.

Pinnacles Desert, Cervantes, WA
Pinnacles Desert, Cervantes, WA

So include Cervantes and the Pinnacles Desert in your Western Australia holiday plans.  It is an area of amazing natural beauty, and it is a region where it is still possible to find yourself wandering along a deserted stretch of beach or walking the trails in the National Park drinking in the stunning scenery without another person in sight.

Sunset over the Pinnacles Desert, Cervantes, WA - own image
Sunset over the Pinnacles Desert, Cervantes, WA

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Unique Boab Trees of the Kimberley

Boab trees are one of the most famous icons of the Kimberley region in North Western Australia.  Their squat, bulbous trunks and spindly, often leafless branches lead them to being called the ‘upside down’ tree, as it looks as though it is the branches that are driving into the earth and the roots that are reaching up to the sky.  The Aboriginal legend concerning the boab tells that they were once destined to be the most beautiful tree ever created, with the tastiest fruit and the prettiest of flowers. But as the tree grew, its flowers were unattractive and the fruit tasted bad and gave off a bad smell.  The Tree God was very angry at this, so he pulled the boab out of the earth by its roots, and rammed it back into the soil upside down.

Boab Tree, Oscar Ranges, The Kimberley - Own Image
Boab Tree, The Kimberley

They are deciduous trees, losing their leaves in the dry season (March to October) and growing new leaves and large white flowers in the early part of the wet season.  Their binomial name is Adansonia gregorii and they are a member of the Malvaceae family.  The ‘gregorii’ part of the their name is to honour the Australian explorer Augustus Gregory, who undertook four major expeditions between 1846 and 1858 into the Australian interior, including one to try and find out what had become of the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.   The Aboriginals have various names for the boab, including gadawon, larrgadiy and larrgadi.  They are also colloquially referred to as ‘bottle trees’, ‘gouty stem trees’, and ‘dead rat trees’. 

The Aboriginal people had uses for several parts of the boabtree.  Water was obtained from the tree’s hollows, the leaves had medicinal uses, the fruit was used to carve or paint on, and the white powder found in the seed pods was used for food.  Some parts of the tree, including the seeds, contain very high levels of vitamin C.  They are now grown commercially in the Kimberley as a food source, and it is the roots that are used.  They are harvested at between six to eight weeks of age when the root is roughly the same size and shape as a large carrot.  They are then sold in bundles like carrots and then after peeling can be sliced or grated.  Apparently they are crunchy and have a texture similar to a carrot or water chestnut.

They are very slow growing, eventually reaching a height of between 9 – 12 metres and developing a very squat, large trunk as they get older.  They can live to be many hundreds of years old, and it is estimated that some of the oldest are at least 1500 years old. The diameter of the trunk has been known to exceed five metres.  Some trees also appear to be split and it looks as if they have two trunks, which is caused by the young tree originally throwing out two shoots.  The trunks can also hollow out with age, and have been known to be used as dwellings or hiding places.

Boab Tree, Oscar Ranges, The Kimberley - Own Image
Boab Tree, The Kimberley

Boabs are the only species of Baobab that is endemic in Australia, and its range extends from the Kimberley into the eastern part of the Northern Territory.  Boabs that you see in other places in Australia have been transported there, such as the specimens that you can see in Broome and the boab in Kings Park in Perth.  All the other baobabs are endemic to the African continent, with six species coming from Madagascar and one from mainland Africa.  It is not known how the boab came grow in Australia, but it is believed that the seeds could have been washed over from Africa by the currents of the Indian Ocean, brought by sea birds or even early human visitors.  There is also a theory that they are a remnant species that has survived since Australia and Africa were both part of the ancient continent of Gondwana over 65 million years ago.

Boab Tree, Courthouse in Broome - Own Image
Boab Tree, Courthouse in Broome

There are several famous boab trees, and probably the most well known is the Boab Prison Tree, just south of Derby.  This is a large hollowed out tree that was used in the 1890’s as a lockup for Aboriginal prisoners, as they were being transported to gaol.  It is now a major tourist attraction and has been fenced off to deter vandalism.  The site has excellent information boards that tell the story of the Prison Tree and the Aboriginal prisoners, and of the natural history of the boab.

So while you are travelling through the Kimberley, look out for these beautiful and unique trees, and marvel at the natural icon that is the boab tree.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Exploring Lake Argyle and the Ord River in the Kimberley

Travelling the Kimberley

If you are planning your dream Australian vacation, then be sure to include the Kimberley region in your holiday itinerary. The Kimberley covers an immense area in the north west of Australia and encompasses a huge variety of different habitats and scenery. The Kimberley is an ancient landscape, and it is thought that the first Aboriginal peoples walked this land as long as 40,000 years ago, leaving behind them in their unique rock art, haunting and evocative images of our long-ago past. The thing that you will notice first when travelling into the Kimberley is how empty it is; it is still a region where you can easily escape any signs of other people and modern living. Then there are the stunning red-hued hills, dramatic gorges, pristine pools of crystal clear water fringed with lush green vegetation, the endless silver sand beaches and the amazing variety of wildlife. The sunrises and sunsets in the Kimberley are sensational, and it is one of life’s real privileges to watch the fruit bats fly out across the darkening sky to start their night’s foraging for food and then watch the stars come out and light up the night sky. I have never seen a night sky as big as it is in the Kimberley, or stars that are so bright.  The best time to visit the Kimberley is during the Australian winter months from April to October, as this is the dry season. During the rest of the year the Kimberley experiences the wet season, with violent rainstorms, high temperatures and humidity and with roads being frequently flooded.  However, there is one part of the Kimberley that even in the middle of the baking hot dry season has plentiful supplies of water, plenty of greenery and productive farmland. This is the area around the town of Kununurra that has been created by the Ord River Irrigation Scheme or ORIS.

Lake Argyle

Ord River Irrigation System

The vast majority of the Kimberley is uncultivated, open savannah, covered by low scrub and dotted with the iconic boab trees. Much of the region is divided into vast cattle stations, but in  1963 the Ord River Irrigation Scheme was started, and now much of this area is now fertile, productive farmland where over sixty types of crop including, perhaps surprisingly, a great deal of sugar cane. Initially, most of the farms grew cotton, but there were big problems with a pest caterpillar called Helicoverpa armigera. The farmers started to use a lot of chemical pesticides, but the caterpillars became resistant to them which caused the cotton yields to fall. This combined with a dramatic drop in world cotton prices, led to cotton farming being abandoned in the region. The Ord River Irrigation Scheme was formed by utilising the waters of the Ord River, which flows for 320 miles through the Kimberley, starting beneath Mount Wells and then skirting the Purnululu National Park, home of the famous Bungle Bungles, through Lake Argyle and past Kununurra before emptying into the Indian Ocean on the Cambridge Gulf. The creation of ORIS also led to the building of the privately owned Ord River Dam Hydro scheme, which provides some of the electricity needed in the eastern Kimberley.

Lake Argyle

Lake Argyle was also formed by the creation of the Ord River Irrigation System, and it is the second largest artificial lake in Australia. Lake Argyle covers an area of around 1000 square kilometres, and an important wetland area called the Lakes Argyle and Kununurra Ramsar site was also created under the Ramsar Convention.  Lake Argyle has rapidly become a haven for wildlife, and now contains thousands of freshwater crocodiles and many different fish species such as barramundi, bony bream, archer fish and sleepy cod. The huge saltwater crocodile is also occasionally found in Lake Argyle, although as experts disagree on how many are present it would be wise to be cautious. A less welcome addition to the native fauna is the cane toad, a destructive invasive species of amphibian that arrived in 2008, having spread from faraway Queensland.  Lake Argyle and the Ord River are also a birdwatcher’s heaven, as there are so many different species of birds that can be spotted, such as White Quilled Rock Pigeons, Gouldian Finches, Purple Crowned Fairy Wrens, and Yellow Chats.  You can also witness the amazing site of pelicans nesting in trees, as they have to protect their nests from the voracious freshwater crocodiles.

The Ord River

Things to Do On Lake Argyle and the Ord River

This amazing part of the Kimberley has a huge amount to offer the tourist.  If you like messing around on boats, you can book great cruises on either the lake or to travel down the river.  Taking a cruise on Lake Argyle is one of the best ways of drinking in the beauty of the lake, the clear blue skies and the rugged landscape. There is a wide range of different Lake Argyle Cruises to choose from, ranging from early evening lake cruises to watch the sun setting over the magnificent Kimberley scenery, daytime cruises lasting a couple of hours and fishing charters can also be arranged. On all of the Lake Argyle cruises the skipper gives an informative commentary about what you are seeing and how the lake and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme came about, and delicious refreshments are provided. If you prefer to go cruising down the Ord River, you can jump on a cruise that takes you down the river giving you the opportunity to spot freshwater crocodiles, birds and enjoy the beautiful scenery, returning to Kununurra as the sun drops down over the horizon, bathing the land in deep red and orange light.  If you prefer to take to the air, why not splash out and take a scenic flight to enjoy the panorama of seeing Lake Argyle from high in the sky. You can also take longer scenic flights that fly over the huge Argyle Diamond Mine, the truly unique Bungle Bungle range, and the stunning Carr Boyd Ranges. This part of the Kimberley has so much spectacular scenery to offer, that you are bound to fall in love with it and return time and time again.

The Durack Homestead

As Lake Argyle is an artificial lake, when it was created it flooded a large area of land, covering any sign of the scanty human habitation in the area. However, there was one historic homestead in the region due to be flooded that in 1971 it was decided to preserve. This is the amazing Durack Homestead that was originally built on Argyle Downs Station by the Durack family in 1895. The Durack family were one of the original pioneering families who opened up the Kimberley for cattle ranching back in the late 19th century and if you want to know what life was like back in those times then Mary Durack’s famous book ‘Kings in Grass Castles’ is the book to read. The Durack homestead, a beautiful building constructed of limestone blocks, was dismantled and moved to its new position above the flood waters, and all of the original contents of the house have been placed back into the rebuilt house. Even the family graves have been saved and put into a quiet corner of the pretty garden surrounding the restored homestead.  The Durack Homestead is now open as a museum, to show how these early pioneering families lived, and a visit is included in several of the tours to Lake Argyle.

The Durack Homestead

How To Get To Lake Argyle and the Ord River

Lake Argyle and the Ord River are situated in a very remote part of Western Australia.  Many people visit when they are taking a year or so to travel around Australia in a camper and there are also many tours that include these destinations, ranging from simple backpacker camping tours through to luxurious escorted tours. The main town in the region is Kununurra, which can be reached by sealed roads, although you need to be prepared to drive a 1000 km from Broome or 500 km from Katherine in the Northern Territory. If you are travelling from the Northern Territory, please remember that there strict quarantine laws when entering Western Australia, so fruit, vegetables and other agricultural items cannot be brought over the state border. Kununurra also has a small airport, and you can get flight from Broome, Darwin, Argyle and Perth through Airnorth and Skywest Airlines.

Accommodation Around Lake Argyle and in Kununurra

If you want to stay right beside the lake, you will need to stay at the Lake Argyle Village. This great tourist facility has everything you need for your stay, including a general store, fuel, a licensed restaurant and a visitor centre.  There is an area set aside for camping and caravans or you can hire one of the comfortable Lake View cabins. And just to make it even more special there is a new infinity pool set on the hillside, where you can swim and enjoy the spectacular scenery of Lake Argyle. If you prefer to stay in Kununurra itself, then you can choose from a great selection of great accommodation, ranging from plush hotel resorts, to self-catering apartments, camping and caravan parks and basic, friendly backpackers resorts. Kununurra is a small town, but it offers you a choice of places to eat, a great coffee shop, and several art galleries featuring the work of local Aboriginal artists.

Sunset on the Ord River

So what is not to love about the magnificent landscape that is the east Kimberley? Lake Argyle and the Ord River offer you everything that a tourist could possibly want, whether it is beautiful views, swimming, fishing, boat cruises, scenic flights, hot sunshine, great food and stunning wildlife. Add Lake Argyle and the Ord River to your Australian travel itinerary and I promise that you will not regret it.

All images my own