Canberra, Chips for Dinner, and the Highest People in Australia

The delightful evening of cheese and cocktails with Phoebe and Annaliese definitely refreshed us and put us in the mood for some more refined activities in the capital of Australia. Our day started with a morning walk to a lovely cafe in Watson and a stroll along a path complete with some community made bike tracks and a spoon village. After digesting brunch we went to see an exhibition of Jeffrey Smart’s work in the National Gallery of Australia which Phoebe had booked us tickets for a few weeks prior. I was really excited as I love his paintings and hoped that his talent would also impress Matt. We arrived a little bit too early to go into the exhibition gallery so we looked around some of the other works, my favourite were some stockings made to look like boobs that were draped over a chair, absolutely ridiculous. The Jeffery Smart exhibition was just as good as I thought it was going to be and we all spent over an hour looking at his work. It’s too hard to describe what he does so I took some photos and include them below so hopefully you can also enjoy how talented he is.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at home, just hanging out and enjoying each others company until our dinner reservation at Lazy Su. After a wait for our table we sat down and enjoyed a mouthwatering banquet of modern asian food. The next morning we said farewell and drove off into the rain and towards our next destination, The Snowy Mountains. We stopped at a bakery for lunch because it was pouring and neither of us wanted to put a wrap together outside the van in the deluge. In the afternoon we visited the Snowy Hydro Discovery Center in Cooma which I wasn’t very excited to see as my dad had worked for Hydro Tasmania for 20 years and I know more than enough about hydroelectricity for a lifetime (sorry dad). I’ll be honest the entire Snowy Mountain Scheme as a whole was very interesting. Back on the wet and freezing roads we snaked our way up the mountains to Jindabyne and then onto the national park to a site called Island Bend where we encountered the worst weather for the entire trip. It was blowing a gale, raining/hailing, and to top things off there was some sort of weird alpine thunderstorm. The weather was that horrendous apart from occasionally making the dash to the loo we barricaded ourselves in the van. We couldn’t even cook dinner and had to be satisfied with the sad combination of chips and muesli bars.

The next morning we woke up to beautiful blue skies and light winds, it could not have been any more different from the night before. We looked at the forecast and had a chat about our planned attempt to summit Mount Kosciuszko, deciding that tomorrow would be the best option and therefore we should find another hike to do to warm up. The Mount Kosciuszko national park has no shortage of amazing trails but the one we ended up doing was the Illawong Walk, a 5km hike through the Snowy River Valley where we saw delicate alpine plants, rushing crystal streams, snow capped peaks, and a little hut. It was perfect. During the afternoon we explored around the area and dropped into Charlotte Pass in order to scope out our planned route for the next day. The issue was there are 3 routes up Kosciuszko, two from CP and one from Thredbo. As a school kid Matt had done the 13km Thredbo hike, the 24km Main Range Trail looked a tad too ambitious, so we decided on the 19km Summit Walk. I went to bed very excited for the next day.

We reached the trail head the next day at the impressive time of 8:30am and set off on what I was hoping would be a trip highlight. It was just spectacular. We were so lucky with the weather, it was warm, sunny, but there was just enough snow around to have a couple of impromptu snowball fights along the way. The climb was gradual and only slightly noticeable and after a couple of hours we reached the top, the highest point in Australia. Rather than getting a photo around the summit marker Matt wanted to stand on top of it so he scrambled up and with the assistance from one of the bystanders managed to pull me up with him. A nice bloke took some photos of us, the highest people in Australia, and then helped us both down safely. We celebrated in the sun with a beer and some lunch. It was brilliant being the highest person drinking beer in Australia. On the way back down we both started to tire, by the final 3km it is fair to say we were both completely wrecked. I forced down a muesli bar and got Matt to do the same in case it was the dreaded bonk but no, we are both just unfit. Once we were back in the van and blissfully out of our hiking boots I uploaded our walk to Strava, we managed the impressive time of 4h05m, 19.91km, 408m vert. No wonder we were buggered. The adventures for the day however weren’t quite over. We rocked up to Tom Groggin Campground where I put the finishing touches on my cross stitch and made dinner. While we were eating we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by kangaroos with one young male repeatedly trying to steal Matt’s food. If you have ever eaten with Matt or been near a food item that he wants you would know that is a terrible idea (very food orientated guy) and next thing I know Matt is standing up and the roo is full on having a go, sitting back on his tail and putting his little paws up ready to box. Needless to say that did not go over well and Matt cuffed the cheeky roo around the head with an open hand, he slunk away and then death stared Matt through the rest of dinner.

Campsite Reviews

Island Bend Campground – A stunning spot next to the Snowy River. I think the toilets must have just been renovated as they looked very new. I’d love to come back one day when there was snow. $6pp/pn – 8/10.

Tom Groggin Campground – This one is definitely going to be at least in my top 10 if not my top 5 spots of the trip. It was just perfect. Set in a mixture of bush, river, and plains Tom Groggin had enough space so that everyone could spread out and enjoy the peace and quiet. Good facilities, amazing bird life, and naughty roos. $6pp/pn – 8/10.

The South Coast

From Wollongong we made our way along the twisting steep roads through the mountains and up to the pretty highland town of Robertson the home of the Big Potato. After taking a couple of happy snaps and buying a very entertaining car sticker we popped into a local cafe and picked out some fancy cheese for our lunch later. There was a Grand Condo cycling event in the area and so the town was absolutely filled with cyclists which made us feel right at home. We did a scenic loop down to Fitzroy Falls, a stunning multi drop waterfall situated in the rainforest, had our delicious cheese for lunch and then hiked out to the lookouts. That afternoon we drove into Kangaroo Valley enjoying the views of the lush green paddocks that had greatly benefited from the rain that plagued Matt and I for weeks. I was really excited for our campsite for the night because of its reputation of being filled with wombats. We were not disappointed, at dusk they started popping up everywhere, fighting and running around after each other. That night we were woken multiple times as we were shaken around in our bed by the wombats under the van scratching their butts. It was brilliant.

Matt has family on the south coast of NSW and they’d kindly offered to host us for 3 days at their beautiful home up in the hills outside Moruya. On the way in we swung by Nowra so that Matt could pop into one of the clinics the company he works for has and have a look at the set up and chat with the staff there. We had lunch down the road at Red Point Beach and then worked our way to Jeanette and Kerry’s house where we met their numerous cats, dogs, horse, and a very grumpy goat.

We spent most of Tuesday relaxing at home and enjoying unusual luxuries like having a coach and a kettle. That afternoon we all piled into the 4WD and went exploring through the hills admiring some of Kerry’s construction work and enjoying some banter with Matt’s cousins. Kerry stopped for a lady that had broken down on the side of the road and showed us how to fix a hose with tape which enabled her to drive off again, no worries. The next day we drove down to Tilba Tilba and did some touristy things like the cheese shop, wandering around the beautiful little town, and having an amazing lunch at a local vineyard/brewery. In the afternoon we drove over to Anne and Graham’s house and were served a delicious variety of cakes. Before we left Graham offered to clean the van for us with his amazing bus washing machine which we were beyond grateful for because poor Egg is definitely looking worse for wear.

The next morning we went down to the boardwalk at Narooma to look for rays and enjoy the sunshine. Last time we were in this part of NSW there were rays everywhere so I was a little bit disappointed they weren’t swimming around everywhere. Luckily by the time we reached the end of the boardwalk we spotted an absolutely massive sting ray swimming around the boat ramp. Matt and I were both keen for fish and chips for lunch so we drove around the corner and bought a delicious lunch of fresh seafood.

On Friday morning we said our goodbyes to the family and all of the animals and started the drive to Canberra with one last tourist stop at the Mogo Wildlife Park. It was a lovely zoo and we both paid a little bit extra at entry to feed the giraffes . The drive up the hill to Canberra was not especially long but it was windy and we decided to take a break at a Nepalese restaurant in Braidwood. We reached the ACT in the late afternoon and drove to my friends house where we would be staying for the weekend.

Campsite Reviews

We’re feeling very blessed to have been able to stay with friends and family for the last few days. It’s just lovely to spend time inside on a couch and with access to a hot shower.

Lazy Sydney

What a treat to wake up in a huge hotel bed with fancy linen rather than in a king single bed with sheets that haven’t been washed for a month. We got up and walked across the road to a small cafe with good reviews and cheap food for breakfast. Matt was getting picked up early by his boss so I found myself alone in the hotel with nothing planned at 8am. I decided to make the most of the amenities and went to the gym to do some weights and have a run on the treadmill. I was pleasantly surprised to find I can still run 4km without stopping and feeling too awful despite months of laziness. I found a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch and then went for a walk to Oxford Street and got my nails done for Christmas. Matt got back from work around 5pm and we attempted to make ourselves presentable to go out for dinner with Matts boss. It was really nice to meet him and listen to them both chat about allied health. I asked a few questions as recently I’ve been thinking that nursing is not a job I’m going to be able to continue to do for the rest of my working life. When I quit in March I had burn out and despite months and months of amazing holiday the thought of going back to do what I used to fills me with dread.

The next morning Matt left early again after grabbing a take away breakfast from the nice cafe. I decided to see the sites and walked down to the Museum to look at the 2021 Nature Photographer of the Year exhibition. There were amazing images but I found myself subconsciously dragged into the rest of the museum which was just fantastic. It might be my favourite in Australia (sorry TMAG). The displays were amazing and so varied and each item was attached to a story about what it was and how it came to be in the museum.

On Friday as Matt left for work I decided to have a lazy day. In the morning I went to the cafe and did some planning and date organisation for the next section of the trip. Feeling energetic and caffeinated I popped down to the gym, did another session, and then went upstairs and blobbed around the hotel room watching movies and doing my cross stitch. That evening there was a huge storm which I watched roll in over the city.

We left Sydney on Saturday and drove south with a plan to reach Wollongong for the night. On the way we drove into Royal National Park. Established in 1879 it is the second oldest national park in the world after Yellowstone in the US. Neither of us knew much about it but we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of landscape and the beautiful scenery. We parked up at Wattamolla and walked The Coast Track out to Eagle Rock and Curracurrong Falls stopping along the way multiple times to enjoy the views off the top of cliffs and down to the raging ocean below. There was an incredible wind blowing and we turned the corner to see the falls was doing a terrible job at being a waterfall with most of it being sent hurtling back up the cliff and all over Matt and I. A reversed waterfall was not something we were expecting to see. Back in the van we took the coast road around towards the Gong stopping at the top to admire the sea bridge and have a hotdog for lunch. We found a nice little caravan park by the sea and set up for the night.

Campsite Reviews

Bulli Beach Tourist Park – Nice park right near the beach but apparently they have a lot of issues with theft. We didn’t have anything taken and had a pleasant stay. $31pn – 8/10.

It’s the Blue Mountains Jim but Not as We Know It

Travelling during COVID definitely has its perks and we discovered another one when we reached the lookout for the Three Sisters and found it almost completely empty. I’ve only visited the Blue Mountains one other time about 20 years ago and one of the only things that I remember is the huge crowds, this time I think there were maybe 5 other people. Matt and I grabbed a coffee and then as the mist began to clear walked down to the sisters for a better look. We decided since there were next to no people around we’d make the most of it and partake in the very touristy Scenic World. Entry was $50 each which gave us unlimited rides on the railway, skyway, and cableway. We decided to do the horrifying skyway first because I knew I’d psych myself out of doing it if we didn’t get to it straight away, my fear of heights is getting so much better but it isn’t there yet. I am still very proud that I got on the disgustingly high gondola (270m) to enjoy the views of Katoomba Falls and Jamison Valley. Our second activity was the enjoyable railway down to the boardwalk which has an impressive record of being the steepest passenger railway in the world. Down in the rainforest, we came face to face with a range of animatronic dinosaurs thanks to timing our visit with their recent installation. We wandered around for a while and decided to go back up, I couldn’t face another cable car so took the railway back up while Matt took the cableway.

For lunch, we avoided town and took the van out to a lookout where we made some wraps and enjoyed the view in spite of the overcast weather. It is a stunning part of the world with valleys stretching to the horizon and walls of vertical sandstone all around us. We went back to Katoomba and had an amazing hot chocolate for afternoon tea before we went back to camp for the night.

The next morning we woke up reasonably early because we wanted to get another walk in before we drove to Sydney so that Matt could attend a workshop for his job. We decided on Wentworth falls as the day was beautifully sunny and it was in the general direction that we were heading. The 1.4km hike was steep but the views were worth the slog with the valleys, cliffs, and waterfalls surrounding us. We were a bit disappointed to discover that the National Pass was shut, it’ll have to go on the list for the next trip.

The drive into Sydney was as uneventful as Sydney traffic gets and we reached the Rydges Hotel in the late afternoon and checked in. There was a little bit of drama when we realised that the van wouldn’t fit in the undercover car park but the hotel kindly let us park it in the driveway for the duration of our stay. That night we went out to a local pub with Matt’s boss which was really nice, I enjoyed chatting with him about his business and exercise physiology in general as well as sipping on cocktails and eating a delicious dinner. It’s going to be such a lovely change to stay in a hotel for a while.

Campground Reviews

Blackheath Glen Reserve – Tiny little free camp in the blue mountains with clean toilets but very limited sites. We saw so many Gang Gang cockatoos here. $Free – 5/10.

Sunshine, Glow Worms, and a Ghost Town

Thursday morning broke bright and sunny much to our amazement. We said goodbye to Sheep and his hospitality and got back on the open road. Van life is definitely a lot sweeter with a clean set of sheets that isn’t chronically damp from endless rain. Our destination was Goulburn River National Park but we went a long way around checking out the coal mining towns of Singleton and Muswellbrook. I continue to be amazed at the ridiculous number of coal mines there are in Australia, it is truly absurd. Our park up for the night was the serene Spring Gully in Golbourn River National Park. I set up my hammock and spent the afternoon lying in it and reading a booking with the sound of the flowing river soothing my senses.

Due to the horrendous weather and flooding, we hadn’t been able to make any concrete plans for a couple of weeks. We knew vaguely that we were heading towards the Blue Mountains but we had no knowledge of what was on the way or where we would stay which was a bit of fun and landed us in our first ghost town of the day in Upper Bylong. The road we picked was littered with old houses that were numbered and covered with Keep Out signage, the further we went the worse the houses looked and the rougher the road got until it was nothing but a track through severely overgrown grass. When we got phone service back I looked up the town and discovered that the entire place was bought out for a coal mine by the Korea Electric Power Corporation.  Fortunately, the High Court of Australia rejected the project due to the severe environmental and agricultural impacts the mine would have caused so the valley will remain unspoilt. That night we pulled up at Ganguddy-Dunns Swamp Campground where we did our first naughty free camp for the trip. The issue was that there were very limited campsites in the area we were travelling through, the biggest one being a national park site. I went online and tried to book but the park was coming up as full and I couldn’t reserve or pay for a spot. We decided that with the shit weather some people wouldn’t bother showing up and sure enough that evening there were so many empty sites it was a joke. We picked the worst one we could find to soothe my guilt a little and set up.

The next morning we cooked a reasonably early breakfast and then popped the van into the day use in case the park ranger did the rounds and sure enough 30 minutes later a ute rolled in and started checking all the overnighters. I rumerated about online booking systems and how much better the NT was with their first in, best dressed, cash payment system. I guess at the end of the day the people that didn’t show up or cancel still paid so the park didn’t lose out on any money but we wont be making a habit of that style of stealth camping that’s for sure. There were a few nice walks around the park and we picked the short but challenging Pagoda Lookout and then went down the other side to see the impressive Long Cave. I took my big camera lens and managed to get a couple of bird photos along the way. At the end of the walk Matt decided to go for a swim in the river to freshen up before we continued on our way to Glen Davis and then further around the corner to Newnes where we decided to spend the night.

Newnes was incredible, I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it before or the rich history of the abandoned town based around the creation of a oil shale mine. Construction of the main works site began in 1906 and was completed in 1911 becoming one of the largest shale oil schemes in Australia and supplying the country with crude oil, paraffin and benzene. The site closed in 1932 leaving behind ruins of the immence mining, processing, and distillation buildings as well as a huge line of coke ovens. Matt and I drove over to the site in the morning and spent a good hour wandering around the area. When we’d had our fill of shale oil we drove back over the river and then around to the Glow Worm Tunnel walk which was part of the railway used to transport goods to and from the mine. It was a bit of a hike to the tunnel through wet forest but was definitely worth the trouble as the walls were lined with little blue specs. We spent the night at a little free camp down in the valley of the Blue Mountains.

Campsite Reviews

Spring Gully Campground – A gorgeous free camp in a little known national park. We had the entire place to ourselves and camped up on a little hill overlooking the river. $Free – 7/10.

Ganguddy-Dunns Swamp Campground – If you like watersports this is an amazing place to stay. There is a beautiful river and lagoon system where you can swim, kayak, boat and fish to your hearts content. $34.85pn (or free if you do the wrong thing) – 7/10 it was nice but definitely not $35pn nice.

Newnes Hotel – Unfortunately the free camp was well and truly booked out and we couldn’t even sneak in so we forked out for the hotel campground. It was very pleasant next to a little stream with lots of birds all around but I was a bit miffed to discover our camping fee did not include showers which were an additional $5pp. $25 for one night, $40 for two, $50 for 3 and so on – 6/10.

Blackheath Glen Reserve – Tiny little free camp in the blue mountains with clean toilets but very limited sites. We saw so many gang gang cockatoos here. $Free – 5/10.

Golden Guitar, Falling Trees, and a Navy Bodyguard

You can’t leave Tamworth without a visit to the Golden Guitar so before we made our departure we popped in to see the huge instrument and visit the underwhelming visitor centre. We also swung by the local camera shop as Matt has made a couple of comments about wanting some decent binoculars to look at wildlife because apparently holding up my 3kg camera and looking through the lens of a device you have no knowledge of how to use is “annoying”, go figure. I thought that a camera shop in the country where most of the customers would be farmers would probably have some good quality binoculars that weren’t too expensive, an assumption paid off and he walked out with a great set for just over $100. Cheers Tamworth!

We stopped for lunch and so that Matt could make a work call in a small town called Walcha. While he spoke with his colleagues I had a wander around the small Main Street popping into the CWA/Craft shop and having a chat with the ladies in there as well as taking in some of the frankly bizarre art that was scattered along the road. My favourite piece was the fountain in the park where a bronze and very serious looking naked man and woman stood under a tin roof which was being showered with water by a series of bowls attached to a spiralling piece of metal. The only sign that could indicate to the viewer what on earth they might be looking at simply read “slippery when wet”…something that I didn’t think needed to be said when referring to a fountain. Just up the road we rescued and rehomed yet another horny turtle (I’ve recently learnt most of the wanderers are males looking for new women to mate with) and then drove out to Apsley Falls where we set up camp and indulged in a free firewood fire.

The next morning we completed the walking track to multiple lookouts around the plunging cascades. The falls were at full strength and it didn’t seem to matter what part of the track we were on there was a constant swirling mist around us. The falls themselves were hands down the best waterfalls I’ve ever seen both tumbling well over 50m into deep brown pools below. It made the afternoon waterfall Tia look a bit lame in comparison. That night we put up our very wet awning in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park campground called Mooraback which is the most leach infected place I have ever visited. Even with my hiking boots on and socks tucked into my pants they still managed to crawl up my legs and I found myself having to stop every 5m to shake the buggers off. That night we had another unpleasant surprise when a tree came crashing down into the fortunately empty site next to ours. I nearly pooped my pants lying in the van and hearing that horrible cracking creaking sound that I know full well comes before the earth shaking bang a tree makes, my panicked brain strained trying to remember if I’d done my usual check of trees nearby the maximise our safety, I had. On Saturday morning we woke up to yet more mizzle (mist and drizzle) and packed up our wet gear. By now we’d had over a week of almost constant rain and we were both completely over it and both constantly damp, neither of us took much convincing to give up on New England and head to the coast to spend some time in a house with Matt’s mate Sheep but we decided to make it a bit interesting and made our way there via a 4WD track through Werrikimbe National Park.

In our “Best 100 Australian 4WDs” book the track was touted as having incredible forests and views but sadly the incredible forests had burnt away and the views were shrouded in mist. We pressed on until at almost the end of the track we were stopped by a deep fast flowing creek and had to go back out the way we went in. After that muck around and then a side trip to the biggest blood redwood in Australia we realised we wouldn’t make it the whole way to Newcastle and I found what I thought would be a good rest stop in the Showgrounds in Taree. The facilities were nice, the care taker was friendly, and we immediately hit it off with an older navy bloke and his wife and dogs that were parked up on the soggy ground. He told us all about his time in the navy and the shenanigans he got up to and later that night when some drug addled blokes started wandering around the Showgrounds shouting abuse at non-existent foes he came over and offered to protect us which was beyond kind even if I was a bit skeptical that a 70yo bloke that was shorter than me could take on a raging meth head. We turned in early to get out of the rain and settled down for what turned out to be a very peaceful sleep.

Campsite Reviews

Apsley Falls – Amazing campsite next to a spectacular waterfall with free wood. Matt and I are both really enjoying the NSW national park sites. The only thing that would make it better would be a shower but I guess you can go near the waterfall for that. $6pp/pn – 8/10.

Mooraback – You know a campsite is in a beautiful spot when it is raining, full of leeches and a tree tries to fall on you but you still loved staying there. I would recommend going when it isn’t raining because it was flipping cold. $6pp/pn – 8/10.

Taree Showground – Aw man, I wish I could give this place a better rating because the campsite manager was lovely but the show ground was very grim and the town was even worse. You couldn’t pay either of us to go back there. $20pn – 3/10.

Girraween, The Most Beautiful National Park You’ve Never Heard Of

After saying goodbye to Brisbane we decided that we’d head inland rather than continuing the typical van life direction of south down the coast. We’d already seen so much of that part of Australia and we wanted to do something different. Initially we’d planned to revisit Condamine River Road but upon arrival we found that the road had been shut due to flooding and we were forced to rethink our route. I suggested that we head to Queen Mary Falls, have some lunch and then go for a hike. Queen Mary Falls is quite a well known waterfall in the Darling Downs region, it plunges 40m straight off a cliff and in the right light produces rainbows (which we were lucky enough to see). The most popular circuit hike is 2km of ramps down to the base of the falls and then stairs back up to the main car park. It was a great way to stretch the legs. After getting back in the van and heading down the road a little bit we stumbled upon a second waterfall with a less majestic name, Daggs Falls.

We reached Girraween National Park in the late afternoon and set up camp at the surprisingly busy Bald Rock Creek campground. Girraween’s name means ‘place of flowers’ which it certainly lived up to the next morning when Matt and I decided to tackle the hardest hike in the park and climb the pyramid. Before things turned hectic (which I will get to) the track climbed gently through eucalypt forest where we spotted wildflowers of every possible colour nestled amongst the granite boulders. Before long the plants disappeared and we faced the ridiculous prospect of the pyramid. Imagine the steepest ramp you’ve ever seen, make it a bit steeper so you almost can’t walk up it, and that will give you a pretty good understanding of what the hike is like. Climbing the front face wasn’t even the worst part, to reach the summit we had to go to the left and skirt around the side, I kid you not this rock is sloping down towards a huge drop and you’re trying to walk on it half sideways while praying you don’t slip. I was shitting myself. We reached the top unscathed and were rewarded with an absolutely spectacular view over the park. The way back down was entertaining, I worked out fairly quickly that if I leant back and trusted my hiking boots I could shuffle down no worried but there were a surprising number of people that had climbed in sneakers that were trying to scoot down on their bums and tearing their pants to shreds on the granite in the process. On the way back to camp we incorporated The Arch and a section of the Bald Creek Circuit.

Matt has been jonesing to try out the new tyres and therefore after a bit of a rest we drove out to Sundown National Park where he had a bit of a muck around on the 4WDing tracks and firmly established that we had made a great decision increasing the size. I had to agree with him when I had a go in the van, it felt much more solid on off camber surfaces and was handing the rocky tracks like a champion. Sundown National Park wasn’t very interesting to be honest, the highlight was the lookout over Red Rock Gorge where we had lunch. We went back to Girraween via a local chocolate shop and set up for our final night there at the nicer Castle Rock Camping Area.

Campsite Reviews

Bald Rock Creek – Don’t get me wrong this was a nice campsite but I think it would be really challenging to park in if you had anything bigger than our van as a lot of the sites were really sloped. The environment was cool though as it was set amongst these huge granite boulders. $6.75pp/pn – 7/10.

Castle Rock – Definitely our favourite of the two campsites, this spot had large flat grassy sites and an abundance of birdlife. It was also much closer to the trail heads which made everything more convenient. $6.75pp/pn – 8/10.

Rodeos, Sapphires, Gorges, Coal

Our evening in Mitchell was very pleasant, we caught up with one of the couples that were staying in the caravan site in Charleville. We bonded over our bizarre tour and shared a platter of cheese and biscuits while watching the sunset over the river. The next morning, we packed up and drove into Roma for a short visit to pick up some more socks because I have lost so many pairs it is getting ridiculous, and both of us invested in a pair of goggles as we have decided to try and do some exercise in the local pools that we are visiting. From Roma we turned north for the first time in a long while and started to make our way towards Carnarvon National Park. Not much further along the road, we stumbled upon an event that I’ve wanted to go to for years, a rodeo! I was stoked that the timing had finally worked out because it feels like every town we’ve been to we’ve either missed the rodeo by a few days or we have arrived a week too early. We paid our $15 entry each and settled down to watch under a shade tent at the end of the arena. Matt and I were clearly really out of place as everyone else was wearing their rodeo outfit of cowboy boots, jeans with a comically large belt buckle, a plaid button-up shirt, and an Akubra. No word of a lie Matt and I were the only people dressed differently in the entire event. We soon struck up a conversation with the families sitting around us and I peppered them with questions about the events and the rules of each one. To pay them back for their kindness I took out my wildlife lens and captured photos of their kids competing to send to them.

Eventually, we reached a point where we either had to commit to staying in Injune for the night or leave to get to Carnarvon. Matt had had enough of steer wrestling so I begrudgingly let him lead me back to the car. It was a great afternoon. By the time we reached the caravan park in Carnarvon, it was nearly dark but luck was on our side and we managed to nab the last poky unpowered site at the only accommodation place that was still open for the offseason. I was less than impressed at the $45pn we had to fork out for the tiny bit of dirt we parked the van on.

The next morning dawned clear and warm which was a bit of an issue as Matt and I had decided to complete the longest hike of our trip into the Gorge. The main gorge hiking trail is 19.4km one way finishing up at a campsite for those completing the walk over two days, because we are unable to do overnight hikes, we decided to terminate our journey at the Cathedral Cave making our hike 18.2km return from the visitor’s center. Our first stop was the beautiful Moss Garden, we were lucky to have seen it when there was a bit of water around with the lush dripping wall of ferns and the small waterfall making a lovely cool place to have a rest. We continued onwards to the Amphitheatre, which was my favourite place on the hike, after climbing up a staircase that might as well have been a ladder, we squeezed through a gap in the towering limestone cliffs which opened into an amazing room stretching up to the gumtrees far above. While we were sitting and eating a snack a little native mouse started running around our feet and trying to get into our backpack. Another kilometer down the track we reached Wards Canyon, it was similar to the Moss Garden but with more water and King Ferns. Our final two stops were both spectacular examples of indigenous cave art. I couldn’t believe the colours of the stencils and free hard drawings standing out stark against the white stone, it was just beautiful. We returned to the car park in the early afternoon and decided to walk down to the local waterhole where we ate our lunch and had a swim before heading back to the campground for a relaxing afternoon.

Because we hadn’t had enough of walking after our solid 18km the day before we picked another hike for our final day in the park. In retrospect picking a hike that we 6km long and had a 3 hour walking time wasn’t a great idea but hey hindsight is 20-20. It started off civilized enough but we were soon climbing/clamoring up ladders and rocks on the side of the cliff to reach the top of the gorge. The view from Boolimba Bluff was well worth the effort as it rewarded us with views down into the gorge where we had walked yesterday and then across the mountains on the other side. Needless to say, we were both completely buggered when we got back to the van. The afternoon was spent driving to Emerald and setting up camp under the railway bridge next to the botanical gardens. We didn’t end up having a very good sleep thanks to the road trains and actual training rumbling next to us and over us all night. Oh well.



In the morning we drove to The Gemfields to do some more fossicking. After reading a lot of information online I decided that we would be better of buying wash from one of the mining companies in the town of Rubyvale rather than digging for our own gems due to the limited time that we had. My research lead us to Armfest Mine where we met the owner and purchased our first bag of wash. He showed us how to get the sapphires out of the dirt and we managed to pick up a few good ones. We ended up buying 4 bags, 2 standard, and 2 premium, and left with over 30 sapphires that were cutting quality. Not a bad way to spend the morning. The rest of the day was taken up by putting some big miles in and heading towards the coast. We spent the night behind the pub in the coal mining town of Bluff.



Campsite Reviews

Takarakka Bush Resort – Urg where to start with this one. Ridiculously overpriced at $45 per night for an unpowered patch of dirt but to add insult to injury the park wasn’t even very nice. The showers weren’t very clean, there was no soap in the toilets, it smelt vaguely of sewerage and the camp kitchen was overcrowded. We were even more annoyed that it was our only option anywhere near the national park. $45pn – 3/10.

Botanic Gardens Emerald – You can’t really complain too much about a free camp but this one wasn’t great. There was a lot of road noise and a train went over us in the middle of the night. The botanical gardens were nice. $Free – 5/10.

Bluff Pub – Cute little pub in a coal mining town with cold beer and good food. Matt and I got the only spot in the shade which was good for us as it was a very hot night. $5pp/pn – 7/10.

West Macs

Thanks to Mr Budgie we weren’t even remotely near where we’d planned to be on the date that we departed Alice Springs so we sat down and worked out an alternative route for the next 10 days. Instead of backtracking to the Fink Gorge we decided that it would be better to drive out to the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja) and go the long way around back to the gorge.  

The Macs, as they are known locally, are a 644km long series of mountains that cut Alice Springs almost perfectly in half (divided into East and West). They were named after Sir Richard MacDonnell (a previous governor of South Australia) by the explorer John Stuart who “discovered” the range in 1860. The ranges lay claim to the 5 highest mountains in the NT and are approximately 300-350 million years old. Realised pretty quickly they are also an incredibly popular tourist location and the busiest place that we’ve been so far this trip.

Because there is so much to see in the area we decided to keep it simple and just work our way across from right to left stopping at the destinations that interested us. We skipped Simpsons Gap with the intention to visit it later making our first stop Angkerle (Standley Chasm). We were more than happy to fork out the entry fee of $12pp to the traditional owners as Angkerle is the most dramatic of the numerous chasms in the range. The red quartzite walls towered 80m above us with the gap itself only 8m wide. Continuing along the road we came upon our campsite for the night at Ellery Creek Big Hole intending to go for a swim in the beautiful waterhole amongst the cliffs and trees. Despite the warm and sunny weather it wasn’t to be, enthusiastically splashing into the water we were greeted by the most freezing liquid I’ve ever put my feet into. I used to surf in Tasmania in winter and have had numerous ice baths in my time and it had absolutely nothing on this water. It was that cold it made my bones ache. I managed to get up to my butt and Matt hit the middle of his shin. We decided to spend our time more wisely by sitting on the sand and reading our books in the sun until it was time to go back and make dinner then head to bed.

The next day we woke up reasonably early and made our way back to the waterhole to watch the birds come into drink. We saw grebes, painted finches, budgies, a kingfisher, various honeyeaters, and some very nice Black-fronted Dotterels. After breakfast we went on the Dolomite Hike an enjoyable short but varied walk. Our first stop for the day was Serpentine Gorge, as the name would suggest this narrow and shady gorge snakes its way through the range and towards the horizon. We were feeling a bit lazy so we did the lookout walk and wandered into the waterhole. On the way back Matt spotted a Little Button Quail and I spent 20 minutes trying and failing to photograph the tiny, speckled bird. We popped into the slightly uninspiring Ochre Pits for lunch (the Lyndhust ones are so much better). By this point I was feeling pretty rubbish, tired with body aches thanks to my second Pfizer vaccine I’d had the day before so instead of going into Ormiston Gorge for another hike we pulled up at a stunning little campground called Big Gum. I’d just got comfortable in my hammock for a bit of R&R and Panadol when Matt pointed out a group of women that were struggling in the soft sand a couple of campsites over. Matt wandered across and suggested that they reverse into a bit of harder track. Well they floored it in reverse and wedged themselves straight in a dune. Thinking that we might have to tow them out we drove Egg over and set about digging in and placing our recovery boards. Matt jumped in the drivers seat and got the car out and back on the track, with a push from me and the girls. So much for a restful afternoon!

Following a peaceful night on the river we ended up back tracking to Ormiston Gorge. At one of the other campgrounds we’d been told that the Ormiston Pound Circuit hike was one of the best in the ranges and couldn’t be missed. It was stunning. I feel like I’m saying it every single post but this walk was and remains my favourite of the trip so far. We started quite early as the temperatures are pushing into the mid thirties most days now. The first part of the walk followed a creek and then climbed over a short rise where about 20 Spinifex Pigeons called home, we continued climbing steeply to a lookout then around a ridge, down the other side, and a bit further along into the gorge. The final part of the hike is a wade through the waterhole and then an easy stroll back up to the visitors centre. We ended up having lunch in the little attached café which was great, the food was nice but a Western Bowerbird popped in for a visit and I managed to get a photo of the bird that I’ve been looking for during the past 2 weeks! A short drive down the road we made camp at Redback Gorge, a clean site with an outlook directly onto Mount Sonder. The campgrounds were quite small and close together but almost all the people staying there were getting up at 4am to climb to the summit making it a very quiet evening.

Not being as enthusiastic about mountain climbing in 35 degrees as our fellow campmates Matt and I decided to complete the cheats option and rather than going the whole way up walk the first (and hardest) 2.5km to the saddle of the mountain. Due to the shorter length rather than starting at 4am we commenced the climb at 8am and what a climb it was. 2.5km of stairs made from stones without more than 100m of flatish track to shake out the legs was much harder than I thought it would be. Sweaty and pooped we reached the top and were rewarded with outstanding views of the range and the summit of Mount Sonder, it was worth the effort. Back in the carpark we barely had time to catch our breath before we were back on the road and driving towards Tnorala (Gosses Bluff). The 4WD track into the reserve was just corrugated enough to make things difficult and we bounced along until we drove through an opening in the cliffs and into the comet crater. We were both completely taken by how big the hole in the ground was, how obvious it was that a comet had smashed into the earth and that we were allowed to drive directly into the middle of it! We did a hike around the middle and a small, short climb to a lookout.

I’d really like to write that we didn’t visit Hermannsburg for a third time, especially since we had more of enough of it the first time but we did…and we went back to the biased mission for lunch. It’s almost become a routine for us now, Hermannsburg, fill up with fuel while trying to work out if the other cars are parked or abandoned, fill up the water next to the footy oval without a single blade of grass while dodging the rubbish, then go and spend money at the mission that did so much to “help” the local indigenous population. If I never visit there again it will be too soon and the government should be disgusted that there are towns in Australia that look in worse condition than those in third world countries, it’s honestly disgraceful. Anyway, enough of my political ranting we left town, turned left and finally returned to the Fink Gorge. I turned to Matt and said “should I just try and avoid looking at animals so we don’t have to rescue any this time?” he responded with a resounding yes.

At the entry to the Fink Gorge is a sign, it says something along the lines of do not attempt this 4WD track if you are inexperienced, don’t have a PLB or EPIRB, don’t have enough food or water for several days, don’t have recovery equipment and so on. It is a very scary sign that made me want to turn around and go in the opposite direction even though we have all of the required things listed. You’d think the track would be an absolute nightmare based on it but no, as far as 4WD tracks go it was pleasant and easy, I drove on worse things doing my course in Tassie. The hardest part was that the soft sand combined with the very slow speeds and heat meant Egg was getting very hot and bothered by the time we pulled up. With the smell of hot engine in our noses we took our chairs down to the river and sat in the cool water while the gorge walls turned red and the birds came into drink. Lovely.

Campsite Reviews

Ellery Creek Big Hole – The waterhole was lovely but the campsite was squashy and there were some idiots the night we stayed. One guy was blasting music from his car and then went and slept on the ground next to the waterhole, another wouldn’t stop flying his drone around. $4pp/pn – 6/10.

Big Gum – 4WD only and I can not emphasis that enough, we were watching people in 4WDs get bogged not only on the tracks but in the actual campsites. Powder soft sand but worth it for the river, trees, and whistling kites. $Free – 8/10.

Redbank Gorge – If you enjoy campsites with a view this place is for you. Mountains and more mountains with a gecko in the toilet and very considerate fellow campers. $4pp/pn – 8/10.

Morwell Fink River – Beautiful, peaceful next to our own private bit of river/waterhole. There were a lot of bugs at night but we got rid of them with a decoy light and the rest were eaten by a resident bat that flew over us multiple times. $Free – 8/10.

Flats and Budgie Rescue

After the awe of Uluru-Kata Tjuta you’d have thought we’d have had enough of massive geological wonders? Well think again the next spot on our hit list was Kings Canyon. While it looks small on the map the drive between Curtin Springs and the canyon was almost 300km so we decided to tackle the main rim walk the next day and just take our time heading up to camp. We did end up going on a small walk after lunch at a spot called Kathleen Springs where at the end of a short 1.3km trail we found a beautiful little waterhole. We parked up early at the Morris Pass Lookout free camp and while I told myself I’d use the time to catch up on my blog and write some post cards, in reality I ended up spending hours alternating between reading my book and looking out over the spectacular view of the ranges, by far the most scenic site we’ve stayed at.

The next morning after a healthy porridge breakfast we drove into the canyon and commenced on what turned out to be the most offensive beginning of a hike I’ve ever experienced. The “stairs” to the top if you can even call them that were so steep it felt more like rock climbing than hiking. We reached the summit eventually, but I can’t imagine how horrible that would be in summer, the defibrillator located at the top gives a decent indication of how challenging it is. The rest of the hike was wonderful which is very high praise from me due to my fear of heights and most of the walk circulating around a massive cliff with a short dip into an area called the Garden of Eden. The rock features looked like miniature versions of the Bungle Bungles and the cycads added to the otherworldly feeling on the place. If there is one thing I can say about the NT in the few days we’ve been here is that the colours are so vivid it’s like someone has turned the saturation up in the world. Because the rim walk was only 6km we decided to do the canyon floor walk after lunch as well. It was nice but not particularly interesting so if you’re there and limited on time I’d give it a miss.

On our way back to camp we stopped in at the information centre tided up to the caravan park and bought our $6.50 pass to drive on the Mereenie Loop road. Matt only realised we’d need one going over the maps the previous night. We’d heard a lot of bad things about the section of road but driving on it the next day it was honestly fine, the last 15km were very corrugated but it wasn’t any worse than Arkaroola so we made pretty good time. We filled up for petrol in a town called Hermannsburg which Lonely Planet describes as “an appealingly run-down and sleepy place” which I think may be their attempt of a politically correct description of a mainly indigenous town that Matt and I would describe to you as a shit hole. We were running very low on water and petrol so there wasn’t much of an option than to suck it up, dodge the feral dogs and rubbish and head on in. To be fair we did also end up visiting the Historical Mission which was interesting and served a reasonable lunch of scones with jam and cream but the information given throughout the complex seemed to be weighted heavily in the favour of the church rather than giving a more balanced view of what was happening there at the time.

After refueling and another short drive we pulled up at Palm Valley and mad ourselves at home. We ended up chatting to a nice bloke from Sydney who turned out was on first name terms with Moose, the publican from Copley. He also massively rated the town, small world. That afternoon we hung around the campground, enjoyed the river and the abundance of amazing birdlife including Major Mitchell Cockatoos!

Palm Valley, as its name indicates is famous for one thing…palms, specifically red cabbage palm trees (9,000-15,000 of them) that are found nowhere else in the world. On the 5km loop walk the following morning we read about the palms and learnt that no one knows how they got there. The hike was lovely up and down hills, through valleys full of…well palms, and around an area that a few months before probably would have been quite wet. We had another lazy afternoon back at camp hiding from the ever-increasing heat. I think we will soon be restricted to morning outdoor activities as hiking in 35 degrees isn’t much fun. On our last day camped up in the valley Matt picked two more walks in a different area of the park. One was a short and steep lookout hike (1.6km return) and the second was the Mapaara loop. Along the way of the second walk we learnt a dreamtime story about a tawny frogmouth man and his son. I won’t actually repeat the story here because it was really disturbing and involved eating family members, we were both a bit flummoxed by it. At the end of the walk we ran into another couple in a Delica so we had a massive chat and compared vans, they had a long wheel base diesel and exactly the same roof racks that we managed to break. We gave them the heads up and told them where to check for issues to try and prevent theirs from filing which they were very appreciative of.

This is where our trip got derailed for the second time, we were on our way to our next campsite down in the Finke Gorge when I spotted a little budgie flailing around on the side of the track. We got out and Matt managed to catch it. On closer inspection it was a very cute baby budgie with one wing that looked like it had been plucked rendering it unable to fly. It would die if we left it so we packed it into an ice-cream tub and drove out the way we came to find some phone service and the nearest vet. Of course, being the middle of nowhere the nearest vet/animal rescue was Alice Springs so off we drove on a 120km detour. Things continued to go wrong for us when a roofing nail buried into the back tyre and gave us a flat 70km later along the highway. We both jumped out ready to put our tyre changing skills to work and in retrospect probably feeling a little bit too confident. Matt jacked up the van and I got the spare down, we pulled off the flat and discovered that the jack wouldn’t go high enough to get a fully inflated tyre back on. We tried to put the flat one back on so we could adjust the jack but even that wouldn’t go on. What should have been a 5 minute job turned into a 45 minute ordeal of hailing people on the side of the road to see if anyone had a second jack so we’d be able to move ours to the correct spot (we jacked up the body of the van accidentally), after several groups of grey nomads, one bloke that was running late for an appointment, two motorcyclists, and another couple a bloke that had a jack stopped, helped us out and got the tyre changed. We learnt a lot from that one.

In Alice Springs we dropped the very sweet budgie to a wildlife carer, grabbed some dinner and parked up the van at the Central Australian Transport Hall of Fame campsite.

We ended up spending two days in Alice but they were two very boring days of laundry, groceries, tyre repair, post office, and booking the van in to get a few things looked at so I don’t have any interesting photos or stories. We will be coming back to Alice Springs in about 10 days to do something on Matt’s bucket list so I’ll write more about it then. The one thing we did was visit the Reptile House where we saw, held, and learnt about scaly friends. Things like, what’s the main difference between a lizard and a snake? Lizards have ears.  

Campsite Reviews

Morris Pass Lookout – Another free camp we found because of the disgusting prices being changed at caravan parks. The Kings Canyon “Resort” wanted $50 per night for an unpowered site, you can shove that right up your proverbial mate. Stunning scenery and would have been perfect if on the second night we hadn’t been parked up next to the Von Trapp family who felt like the campsite needed to listen to them sing…poorly for 90 minutes. They only shut up when Matt started blasting a finance podcast at their van. $Free – 8/10.

Palm Valley – Yet another one of those sites where we pull up for one night and end up staying 2. Beautiful red cliffs, river, birds, and showers. $4pp/pn – 9/10.

Central Australian Transport Hall of Fame – Not sure where to start with this one. Imagine a gravel car park but instead of normal cars it is full of rusty tractors and trucks, now visualize two toilet blocks, one is in an elevated shipping container and looks like something that would be used at a music festival, the second is in a run down shed and instead of walls between the toilets/showers you have those old, carpeted, office cubical dividers. Yeah. Why did we choose to stay there? Because once more the caravan parks are stupidly expensive. Nothing under $38pn unpowered, ludicrous. $15pn – 4/10 (pretty grim but we’ll go back).