Five days in the Abrolhos Islands on the Eco Abrolhos boat

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are a chain of 122 islands in the Indian Ocean about 60km west of Geraldton, Western Australia.   A combination of beautiful reefs, rich fauna, intriguing history and interesting recent fishing and pearling culture make the Abrolhos Islands a fascinating destination.  The best way to experience them is to take a 5 day cruise aboard the Eco Abrolhos – a small family owned vessel that takes you to the various points of interest while the owner (previously an Abrolhos Island cray fisherman) provides intimate insights into both the history and life on the island.

docked in geraldton
We traded our compact caravan home for an even smaller cabin on the Eco Abrolhos.  However it was great to have all meals prepared, no dust and no flies.

The Abrolhos Islands are an important seabird breeding site and after a rather rough 4 hour crossing from Geraldton we were pleased to pull into the sheltered lagoon of the southern most island group and go ashore on Pelsaert Island to view some of the birds that had recently started to turn up in their thousands to breed.

wedge tailed shearwater
A wedge-tailed shearwater weaves alongside the boat providing a foretaste of the rich bird life to come
boats on boat
The Eco Abrolhos carried 2 glass bottomed boats, 2 large surveyed tenders (one can be seen on the lower left) and an all purpose fishing/diving vessel was towed behind facilitating activities for the 30 odd guests on board.
bow shot
Arriving at Pelsaert Island, a 20km long sliver of land.
pelsaert island
A drone photo of Eco Abrolhos parked off Pelsaert Island on a calm day.
fancy tenders
Arriving ashore on Pelsaert Island. The island was named after the commander of the Dutch East India Company ship the Batavia which was initially believed to have been wrecked in this area until the early 1960’s when the wreck was found in the northern part of the archipelago.

One of the crew is also a professional photographer and provides guests with a record of the trip.  Here Paul is seen in action leaving Geraldton and one of his fantastic bird photos – a crested tern taking a bath at Pelsaert Island

pelsaert island sign
Pelsaert Island information sign installed by the Western Australia department of fisheries who managed the islands until national parks took over in July 2019.
bird viewing pelsaert island
A huddle of birdwatchers with common noddy wheeling overhead (photo by Paul Hogger).
fairy terns
Soon after stepping ashore I spotted a new bird for the list.  Fairy terns – the first of 5 new species I saw in the Abrolhos Islands.
crested and roseate
Soon after, number 2: roseate terns were spotted with their pink washed chests next to a much larger crested tern
noddies and turnies
However most of the nesting birds on Pelsaert Island are made up of an estimated 250,000 sooty terns (no 3) and common noddies.

Birds on Pelsaert Island: sooty tern; common noddy and roseate terns – photos by Paul Hogger

happy maddy in the shells
Although sunny and mild, the 35 knot southerly winds were a bit chilly.  A wind-proof jacket and occasionally sitting down in the shelter of the low heath helped Maddy stay warm.
abrolhos islands skink
Several skinks and dragons can be found on the Islands  (Photo by P Hogger)
pacific gull with lipstick
The large pacific gull applies lipstick whenever it ventures out in public.   The more common silver gull behind is not so particular.  (Photo by P Hogger)
hey seal
I gave this sheltering Australian sea-lion a bit of a fright when I stepped off the platform above it.   The Abrolhos Islands are one of the few places in the world where sea-lions and tropical coral reefs can be found together.
king diver sunset
The King-diver, a small fishing/diving launch, followed us around on a lead. Photo by P Hogger
lifejacket drill
No cruise would be complete without a life jacket drill
top deck drinks
At sundown drinks on the top deck.   The prevailing southerly winds and high latitude means it does get a bit chilly in the evenings so we traded the life jackets for more comfortable fleece and down.
morley island
On day 2 we explored another island in the the central “Easter Group” of islands called Morley Island
lesser noddy 2
The mangroves of Morley Island provide a breeding habitat for the vulnerable lesser noddy (4th new bird).  The only other place that this bird is known to breed is in the Seychelles
morley island lagoon
Morley Island’s central lagoon – home to thousands of lesser noddies and a sea-lion sheltering from the wind
sharp tailed sandpiper
A sharp-tailed sandpiper on Morley Island
seal n samphire
Hey, you woke me up!
bridled tern
Bridled tern
lesser noddy and chick
Lesser noddy and chick.  Photo by Paul Hogger
silver gull eating lesser noddy chick
A silver gull – normally known for stealing ones chips on the beach – took the opportunity to scavenge this poor noddy chick that must have fallen from its nest.  Photo by P Hogger
hayden and sea lion
Inquisitive sea-lion at Morley Island

The Abrolhos Islands are the centre of Western Australia’s biggest Western Rock Lobster Fishery.   It was Australia’s first fishery to be certified as sustainable and is closely managed through a quota system for commercial fishers and bag limits for recreational fishers.   Today rock lobster fishing is a $400m industry making it Australia’s most valuable single species fishery.   Since its establishment, rock lobster (or cray) fishers have set up camps on some of the islands where they base themselves during the fishing season.   The fisher’s camps certainly stick out on these low lying islands, however their bright colours lend a certain appeal.

big rat shacks
Some brightly coloured fisher’s huts on Big Rat Island.   While rats were accidentally introduced in the 1800s (hence the name), they have since been eradicated.
fish eye view of big rat
Gathering on the jetty to visit Big Rat Island
big rat island with terns
With the rats gone, sea birds have returned to breed in their thousands.
russell the cray fisherman from big rat island
The owner of the Eco Abrolhos was a friend of one of the fishermen, named Russell.  So we dropped by and he gave us an interesting account of his life on the island.

Scenes from the fishing camps on Big Rat Island

eco abrolhos on the mooring
On day 3 the wind dropped, so it was great to join the owner on a trip to retrieve that cray pots that he had set the previous day.
cray pot pulling
We got quite a haul.  From 6 pots we got 26 crayfish of legal size, many more small ones and some pregnant females that were all thrown back. Because we had a bag limit of 24, we also had to throw two legal size ones back too.  Here the two deckhands, Josh and Curtis, haul up a laden pot.
curtis and wobbegong
Some rather large wobbegongs managed to get into the pots too. Remarkable considering the size of the hole in the trap.  These were also thrown back – carefully to avoid loosing a finger.
dinner
Tonight’s dinner
half crays
Under preparation.
crayfish dinner
The final product
tender pulling
After pulling the crays, it was time to offload the tenders to visit Leo’s Island – named after Leo Seppala, a finish immigrant.
leos island drone
An aerial view of Leo’s Island (back right with the green lagoon) and others in the group (drone photo supplied by Eco Abrolhos)
jays story
On Leo’s Island listening to one of the Jay’s stories.  Jay is the Eco Abrolhos owner and grew up and spent much of his early life on the islands.  As a result he knows plenty of recent island history and gossip.
leos huts
The beautifully painted lone cottage on Leo’s island
surf abrolhos
Although the wind had dropped, the swell was still quite impressive – we were hoping that it would drop off as we were planning to snorkel on the Batavia wreck in 2 days time and it would have to be much smaller to do so.
estuarine cod feeding
Maddy feeding an Estuarine Cod that had been placed in the lagoon on Leo’s Island.  According to Jay there were previously some cod there that were perhaps washed in during heavy seas, however some thoughtless mainland fishermen got to hear about it once and killed them spear-fishing so some of the locals caught a couple of new ones to replace them that have since become rather tame.
shells on leos
Clam shells and urchins on the seaward shore of Leo’s Island
little shearwater chick
Shearwaters (aka. muttonbirds) also nest in their thousands on Houtmans Abrolhos.  The adults incubate their eggs and rear their eggs in burrows.  Here a little shearwater chick sits at the entrance to its burrow on Leo’s Island
fisheye tender
Heading back from Leo’s Island on a glass bottom boat to get changed to go snorkeling on a nearby bombora called anemone lump
anemone lump
A drone photo of the anemone lump on a much calmer day than we had (Leo’s Island in the distance).   While the wind had dropped, we were there during the year’s biggest tides, so the current was a bit too strong to explore the lump properly.  Instead we had to be content to swim at almost full pace just behind the boat to keep up.  However we did see a fair number of fish including spangled emperor like those below taken by Paul Hogger.  Unfortunately I accidentally deleted all my day 3 snorkeling photos which showed some of the amazingly coloured coral of the Abrolhos and a sandbar shark.  While there were fewer fish than I had seen further north in Ningaloo Reef, the coral colours and diversity made up for it.

spangled emporer

top deck sunset
Sunset on the top deck at the end of day 3.

The islands are the site of many shipwrecks including Dutch ships the Batavia (1629) and Zeewijk (1727).  The Batavia’s story is one of the most interesting shipwreck/mutiny stories ever. A Titanic and Bounty story all rolled into one that Maddy has described in a separate post.   So day 4, had us visit the island where the shipwreck survivors came ashore and where the horrific subsequent reign of terror followed while the Batavia’s captain and commander were away on the Batavia’s longboat to seek help.

beacon island with morning reef
Drone photo of Beacon Island (where the Batavia survivors initially camped) with Morning Reef (where the Batavia ran aground) behind.  Fortunately the swell had dropped off dramatically so we were eagerly anticipating being able to snorkel on the wreck the following morning.
restricted access sign
Permits are required to visit Beacon Island to protect the Batavia relics.
beacon island group
The Eco Abrolhos mob at the Batavia commemorative cairn

batavia plaque

beacon island sermon over the graves
Commander Jay giving a sermon at one of the archaeological dig sites.   Several graves and mass graves have been found where people were buried during the reign of terror that ensued before the rescue ship arrived.
bridal tern
A bridled tern looks on seemingly oblivious to the islands dark history.

Back on board we steamed north and anchored off East Wallabi Island – one of the largest islands in Houtman’s Abrolhos to visit a picturesque beach for some walking, snorkeling and final sunset drinks.

cliff side
The view from one of the highest points in Houtmans Abrolhos.
skink on wallabi
Being a bigger island it supported quite a variety of fauna including tamar wallabies.  Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find any wallabies, but we did see a few skinks and dragons.
turtle bay
Turtle bay beach
bearded dragon
An Abrolhos dwarf bearded dragon (photo by Paul Hogger)
dr howard gray
We had an historian on board (Dr Howard Gray – white jacket).  He has written several books on the Abrolhos Islands and their history and he provided much interesting background.
brain coral
Brain coral skeleton on East Wallabi Island
osprey
Many ospreys nest on the islands.  Here one has just launched itself from its nest.  Photo P Hogger
snorkel herd
Snorkeling off Turtle Bay – East Wallabi Island
abrolhos coral
It is amazing that such vibrant coral can survive in such a cold environment.   The water temperature seldom exceeds 22 degrees.
turtle bay sunset drinks
Final sunset drinks.  The young ones in the photo are crew members (apart from Maddy and I who are, of course, also young).  Even the Eco Abrolhos’ captain Bronson is still in his twenties (he is the one on the far right with the beard).   The captain is actually the owner’s son.  Jay the owner is not in this photo – he was back on board preparing his famous seafood chowder
turtle bay sunset
Sunset drinks – the shelter was build by a company that does fly-in day tours to the island.
jay and tara in the kitchen
Jay finessing his seafood chowder assisted by Tara.  For more details on how to prepare it, click here
dinner sign
Food on board was generally pretty good. Best of all, someone else cooked it.  However the menu above had us slightly concerned.

On the final day we awoke to calm conditions and a nearly flat sea – yes we were off to snorkel the Batavia wreck.  It was truly amazing how much there was to see – one of the best snorkels we have done.   While the West Australia Museum salvaged most of the wreck site and relics are now on display in museums in Geraldton and Fremantle, there are still many cannons and anchors scattered on the site as well as a deep sandy depression where the ship originally gouged out the coral on impact and subsequent settling as it pounded on the reef in the months after it ran aground.

batavia wreck site
A drone photo of the Batavia wreck site taken on the previous week’s trip.  The sandy depression on the left is where the wreck was located and the snorkelers are over the area where cannons and anchors remain.  Many of which were thrown overboard in an effort to refloat the ship.  We had similar calm conditions when we visited, although it was overcast.   Still, considering that conditions were suitable for snorkeling on only 3 out of this year’s 14 trips we were very fortunate.
batavia sand site
Maddy diving down into the wreck depression

Various cannons and anchors on the 390 year old wreck site.  The large fish in the last photo is a bald chinned grouper.

long island coral
The coral rubble beach on Long Island – our final shore excursion before heading back to Geraldton.

Long Island lies about 200m west of Beacon Island.   Some of the Batavia survivors were sent here by the psychopathic mutiny leader Cornelisz – initially on the pretense of reducing the demand on the limited food resources on Beacon Island – but in fact this was simply a divide and conquer strategy and he eventually had all of them murdered, except for one or two who managed to swim away to another island about 2km away where Cornelisz had cunningly sent all the soldiers who had been on board – without their weapons – on a pretense to search for water.    While he had hoped that the soldiers would not find water and would soon die, they did find water and plentiful food too.  When the swimmers alerted the soldiers of the massacres going on, they were able to prepare and defend themselves from subsequent attacks from Cornelisz’s henchmen and ultimately foil the mutiny.

long island coral beach
Although over 40 people were massacred on Long Island and several of the mutineers were ultimately hanged there too, all we were able to find were coral skeletons.
flotsam art
Long Island art: depicting the gallows, skulls and hangman’s ropes of the Batavia history.  Medium: wood, polystyrene, polyethylene, sea sponge.
spannish dancer
A spanish dancer.  A large hand sized nudibranch in the shallows off long island

sea star long island

daves corneliusz reenactment
A re-enactment of the hanging of Cornelisz, featuring Dave from the Eco Abrolhos amateur drama society.
ancient stone wall
Could this stone shelter be a remnant from the original survivors of the Batavia on Long Island.  While there is no known reason for anyone else to have built it, who knows for sure?

 

 

 

 

 

Kruger National Park and 115 new birds!

After the Drakensberg trip it was off to the Kruger National Park where another friend and I had booked on a 3 night stay at a wilderness camp.  The camp has only 8 guests and it is located in a wilderness area of the park far from the normal visitor areas and each day one is taken out on walks in the bush with ranger guides, so it is a very special experience.

Sa trips

brindled gnu
Brindled gnu seen on our transfer to the wilderness camp
on the trail
Walking through the bush lead by two rangers.   The rifles are carried as a safety precaution.  Although there are large predators and other potentially dangerous animals about, they are seldom threatening to humans.
camp waterhole
Approaching a waterhole with warthog, kudu and impala
rhino rampage
We startled some rhinoceros which panicked and came running directly towards us.  While I still have the mental image of thundering beasts with horns bearing down on us and frantic scrambling down a rocky embankment, by the time I got my camera out, the rhinos had turned to the side and were starting to disappear into the bush.   So all I have is this photo of the slightly anxious ranger getting his rifle ready and a couple of grey beasts disappearing into the bushes.

 

elephant at sunset
We had another great encounter when we sat on this outcrop for sunset drinks and a herd of elephant came wandering past us.  When the elephant on the left started to approach a bit too close, a small, well aimed stone to the forehead and a few shouts gave it the message that it was time to back off.
giraffe painting
Being on foot also gave us the chance to see some ancient San (bushman) rock art.  Unlike the Australian aboriginal rock art, which is normally more figurative and stylistic, the San seem to depict animals in more realistic proportions, although human figures are normally portrayed in a stick figure form.
rhino painting
Black rhinoceros painting
more paintings
One of the rangers explaining the rock art.  Although not very clear, at his eye level is a curious image of an elephant with a man standing on its shoulders.  I wonder if this means that the San once had contact with the asiatic elephant riders of south Asia?
breakfast spot
Packs down for a breakfast break on one of our walks
wolhuter camp
Named after the Kruger National Park’s first ranger, the Wolhuter wilderness camp where we stayed is well hidden in the bush.  Accommodation is in small A-frame huts just big enough for 2 single beds. There is also a dining area, a kitchen and a couple of shower and toilet huts.
dead elephant
This elephant had died about a week ago of unknown causes and was largely eaten out by scavengers with only bone, skin and an awful stench remaining.  It was interesting to see fresh tracks of other elephant around its remains.  One can only wonder if this is part of a mourning process or if they are simply being inquisitive.  The rangers have to remove the tusks to prevent them falling into the hands of illegal poachers and traffickers – it must be a pretty gruesome job.
watching elephant rhino and buffalo
While we saw a fair bit on our walks, it was also great to sit at the camp and watch over the waterhole.  Here 3 of the so called big 5 are visiting at once: elephant; white rhinoceros and cape buffalo in the distance.
baby elephant
A very young elephant calf.  Probably only a few weeks old.
hyenas
Spotted Hyena

impala and elephant

dwarf mongoose
As with any camp in the wild, human activity inadvertently attracts a few critters.  In this case a dwarf mongoose hunting for dropped crumbs.
wolhuter sundowner dam
Sunset over a dam near our camp.
yellow billed hornbill
Another camp critter – yellow billed hornbill

After the wilderness walk we joined our parents for a couple of days staying at traditional rest camps and doing regular drives to look for birds and animals.  As with most parts of the temperate Southern hemisphere, it was very dry.   However we still saw plenty of game and many birds.   During my stay in South Africa I managed to spot 115 new species of birds, bringing my total for the year close to 440.  However to avoid upsetting one of the more competitive bird watchers that is following our travels, I will continue to count only birds seen in Australia on my main list.

Some animals seen on our drives. Clockwise from top left: vervet monkey, hippopotamus, Nile crocodile, greater kudu, steenbuck, waterbuck

Sightings of lions tends to cause traffic jams in the Kruger park.

Above: rhinoceros, giraffe, common duiker, scrub hare.  Below:  A kudu sculpture at Skukuza; a night photo from Talamati bush camp; A Baobab, Elephants at Talamati waterhole; elephant calf bath time.

Below is a small sample of bird photos.  Clockwise from top left: Helmeted guineafowl, scarlet chested sunbird, greater blue eared starling, white bellied sunbird, ground hornbill, red crested korhaan, white crowned shrike, brown snake eagle, black headed oriole, lilac breasted roller, golden tailed woodpecker, white browed robin, pearl spotted owl.

and some more birds: blue waxbill, secretary bird, purple roller, black helmetshrike, rosy faced lovebird, hadeda ibis, tawny eagle, coqui francolin

On the way back from the Kruger National Park we stopped off at the historic gold mining village called Pilgrims Rest.   Initially established in the late 19th century, it contains several historic buildings and mine diggings which continued to operate until the early 1970s after which the town was converted into a living museum.  One building has particular significance as being the hotel where my parents spent the first night of their honeymoon.

Main street in Pilgrim’s Rest, outside the Royal Hotel; inside the Royal Hotel bar which was originally a church in the Mozambique capital of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) before being relocated and converted to a pub.

Ukhahlamba – Barrier of Spears

About 9000km west of Exmouth – and a bit south – lie the majestic Drakensberg mountains (or Ukhahlamba in Zulu – which means barrier of spears).  While this might be a bit of a detour off our current path, a 30 year high school reunion provided a good excuse for me to hop on a plane over the Indian Ocean for a couple of weeks to South Africa to visit my parents and also take in a few sights while there.   S

While visiting South Africa, my friend Mike and I took a quick trip down to the northern part of the Drakensberg for an overnight hike.  This mountain range is the highest in southern Africa reaching over 3400m and offers some really dramatic scenery of craggy spires and plunging cliffs.  It is one of my favourite parts of the country. S

 

sentinel peak sign
At over 3100m, Sentinel Peak is a tempting summit.  However without a rope descending the tricky chimney at the start would have been a bit hectic, so common sense prevailed and we skirted around the peak up to the escarpment summit behind.
view to tooth
Gazing across the Amphitheatre from the slopes of the sentinel towards the Devils tooth and Eastern Buttress
chain ladder view
Hikers making the final ascent up the escarpment aided by a system of chain ladders over a rock band. 
second ladder
Mike ascending the chain ladders
tugela falls dry
Looking over the lip of the dry Tugela Falls.  This is normally regarded as the world’s second highest waterfall, however being dry I guess it has now lost that title.   Like most of Australia, most of South Africa is also in the grip of a drought.  I have certainly never seen the Tugela Falls dry up before.
mont aux sources hut
The old hut near the top of the falls – one of the few permanent structures along the escarpment edge.  Still standing but looking a bit neglected.
readt to jump
A crazy baboon about to make a leap across a chasm in the escarpment edge
jumping
Who says baboons can’t fly?
admiring the view
Baboons relaxing and admiring the view after their acrobatic antics
camp on amphitheatre
Aaah.  Time to relax and make a cup of tea.
camp and mt sans sources
A prominence in the escarpment wall provided a great sunset view back towards the main wall.  Our blue tent can just be seen on the left.  Mont aux Sources (or should I say Mont sans Sources) looms in the background.    Mont aux Sources at 3282m. was once regarded as the highest point in South Africa, but now days it is surpassed by several others further south.  Whether this is due to recent tectonic movements or better surveying can be debated.   The current highest point in the Drakensberg, just over 200m higher, actually lies in neighbouring Lesotho.
berg sunrise
Sunrise viewing is an obligatory activity on any overnight Drakensberg walk.
morning view
Dramatic cliffs and peaks at sunrise.  Sentinel on the right with the dry Tugela falls just right of centre.
stone chat
Ok. I could not go without spotting some birds – a stonechat
sentinel rock thrush
Given our proximity to the peak, it was rather apt that this bird is called a sentinel rock thrush.
cape bunting
Cape bunting on the left with an unknown grey and white job on the right
cathedral and bell from mt aux sources
We could not resist a jaunt up Mont aux Sources – near the top we got some glimpses of Cathedral Peak about 50km to the south.  Unfortunately smoke (probably from grass fires and power stations a few hundred km to the north) hindered our views. 
mt aux sources summit
Mont aux Sources summit
sentinel path
Looking back at the Sentinel on our descent from just below the chain ladders
sentinel path 2
The final 2km of zig zags leading down to the car park.   By now a rather fierce wind had blown up, but this had the benefit of clearing away some of the smoke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navy Pier Dive

Near Exmouth is a renowned shore dive site off a pier operated by the Australian Navy  The pier’s intended function is to allow diesel supply ships to dock every few months to offload diesel for the dedicated power station that supplies power to the nearby very low frequency (VLF) transmitter.    The VLF facility was built in the 1960’s by the US Navy to support communications submarines while underwater which requires both a low radio frequency and enormous power to penetrate under water.    In fact the town of Exmouth owes its existence to this facility as it was originally founded to support the US Navy Base associated with the VLF transmitter.     Although control was handed over to the Australian Navy in 1999, the facility still supports underwater communications for both the US and Australian Navy.

vlf antenna info
Information sign for the VLF communication station.  It was renamed by the US Navy in 1967 in honour of the Australian Prime Minister who famously disappeared one day while swimming in the ocean.    The antenna structure is quite impressive with towers taller than the Empire State building and to put it in perspective, the 1 megawatt RF transmission power is of a similar magnitude to the transmission power of all the mobile phone towers in Sydney combined.
navy pier
The Exmouth Navy Pier

Although it was built as a naval facility, this is probably only its tertiary purpose as it is used by the Navy only once or twice a year when a supply ship docks.   On the other hand because the pier is normally closed to the general public (hence no fishing takes place) and it seldom sees shipping traffic, it has become a haven for wildlife both above and below the water.   So I would say its primary purpose is seagull perch/toilet and fish shelter.

Fortunately the Navy allows divers to access to the pier under very controlled conditions on days when they are not using it, which is most days, so its secondary purpose (based on frequency of use) is a dive site.   According to some references, it is one of the top ten dive sites in the world, so how could we possibly miss the opportunity to see for ourselves?

dive ed
Although it is a shore based dive, the Navy has licensed only one operator to run dives there. Before heading to the dive site a video explains the process of getting permission to dive, where photographs are permitted and prohibited etc.   Everyone needs to have their ID ready in case there is a spot check.
navy pier exmouth
Looking back after arriving on the pier.    The 350+ metre high radio masts can be seen behind and some of the many thousands of gulls can be seen on the pier.  Consequently the place was rather smelly.
bird perch pier
More secret navy seagulls.   While there were thousands of them, it was merely a foretaste of the number of fish we were about to see.

 Getting ready to go

The entry involved jumping off a platform 2 metres above the water.

about to giant stride
Ready to jump
looking gorgeous
Made it – let’s go
barracuda
We were immediately struck by the sheer numbers of fish congregating around the structure – In this instance barracuda
come look at all the fish
Come – there are more fish over here.   Normally the nutrient rich waters and tidal currents stir up the silt and limit visibility to about 5 to 7 metres, so we were exceptionally lucky to have relatively clear water with visibility extending to 15m.    It made the schools of fish appear even more impressive.   We were told that conditions like this occur only a few times a year.

The interesting thing was how relaxed the fish were.  Normally I am not able to get close photo’s of angelfish and butterfly fish like these side on as they usually swim away when I approach to take a picture.

long fin bannerfish
Long fin banner fish with striped snapper below
bad hair day
There was so much to see that Maddy forgot she was having a bad hair day.   As for me – well all I can say is that it’s not surprising that fish normally swim away when I approach.  S
the mob
The place was a fisherman’s nightmare – huge shoals of spangled emperor, all off limits to fishing.
bfg 4
The highlight of the dive was when this giant grouper came over to greet us.
bfg 5
He was not ashamed to give eye contact.
bfg 6
He was huge, probably about 2m long and definitely heavier than either of us – even with all our scuba gear.
maddy and batfish
Our old favourite – the batfish.
its amore
A moray eel lurking 12 metres down on the bottom

Pilbara Industry

The north west corner of Australia has some unique and dramatic natural landscape – but that is not all.   I agree that is more pleasing and serene to gaze over a blue pool fringed with green reeds and ferns in a deep red gorge than it is to look out over a massive iron ore mine with it’s hustle of giant trucks, processing plants and trains.   However it would be wrong not to mention the latter and while some hold that it is ugly,  I for one can’t help but be impressed by most of it.  S

Iron ore mining is probably the most well know industry in this region and depending on one’s information source, it accounts for 3 to 4% of Australia’s GDP.   Rio Tinto is the major iron ore company in the area, however there are also many other large players such as BHP and Fortesque Metals.

iron ore mine map
Map of some of the iron ore mines around Tom Price in the Tom Price visitor centre.  Rio, BHP and FMG are shown in orange, green and blue respectively.   Several other players are also present and there are several other mining areas to the north and west of this map.
mt tom price mine
View of some of Rio Tinto’s Tom Price mining operations from the summit of Mt Nameless.
iron ore trucks at mesa mine
Famous of the iron ore mines (and other open cut mining operations), are the large trucks that carry ore from the extraction point to the next phase of processing,   While it’s hard not to think of a toy truck when looking at their shape, they are actually over 9m wide, 15m long and can carry over 350 tonnes.
iron ore truck
While many of Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore mines now operate self driving trucks to save on labour costs, we noticed that this particular mine (Mesa A) still had drivers in the cabs.
iron ore road trains
From the mines, the processed ore need to transported to shipping ports on the coast.   Some mines use road trains to transport ore to a rail head
iron ore train
However many mines have private rail lines leading directly to the port 
bhp hillside base station
Here a road train carrying ore from Atlas Iron’s Mount Webber Mine is crossing BHPs private iron ore rail line.    The tower in the background is of particular interest to me as it supports 4G base station equipment from Nokia (my employer) that BHP uses in a private LTE network to support data communications along the rail line.
bts close up
Here the Nokia radio modules can be seen beneath the large flat panel antennas.  While I could identify the radio units,  I could not identify what bird had built the nest. 
rio tinto rail map
We visited Dampier, which is Rio Tinto’s primary port location where it runs 2 ship loading facilities.  Leading to Dampier and the adjacent Cape Lambert, Rio has over 1700km of private rail which is shown on this map at a lookout in Dampier.  
iron ore rail trucks
Here two iron ore trains are lined up for offloading at Port Dampier.   These trains have over 200 trucks and are several kilometers long .     These two have already commenced unloading at the port which is nearly 2km from where this photo was taken
ship loading
The port isn’t open to the public, but from our caravan park we got a serene view of iron ore pouring off a conveyor into a ship at dusk.

While definitely second to Iron ore, offshore natural gas is also a very large economic contributor of the region with several processing plants located along the coast.   Woodside Petroleum and Chevron being the lead operators.

karratha gas plant
The Karratha Gas Plant near Dampier processes gas and some oil from wells about 150km offshore producing liquified natural gas (LNG) for export by ship; domestic gas which is sent by pipeline to Perth and surrounds; LPG and some heavier hydrocarbon condensate.  The latter being sold to petroleum refineries overseas or on the east coast or Australia.
woodside gas art
A monument to injured workers at the Karratha Gas Plant visitor centre.

Visitor centre photos of two of the offshore platforms (Rankin A and B) and an aerial shot of the gas plant.  The platforms rest on the seabed about 130m below the water level where shafts over 3km deep reach down to the gas and oil.

nws gas
A view of the Karratha Gas Plant from Angel Island in the Dampier Archipelago.  
gas and iron ore ships
A loaded LNG ship and iron ore ship make their way out from Dampier.

Finally salt mining also presents a very visible impact in the area, albeit probably some orders of magnitude smaller from an economic point of view.  Interestingly, the salt mines appear to be mostly owned by Rio Tinto.

salt mine facts

dampier salt mine
One of the salt evaporation ponds seen from a viewing platform. 

Warning: Don’t buy a Toyota Prado to travel in remote Australia

Unfortunately our decision to buy a new Toyota Landcruiser Prado for our tour around Australia has turned out to be a bad one.   It seems that recent developments in engine monitoring technology have lead to a regression rather than an improvement in its utility as an off-road vehicle for touring remote parts of Australia.

While we are normally reluctant to publish negative matters on this blog, we understand that several people are following our blog with the aspiration of doing something similar to us and we feel that they should be aware of our experience in this case.

On opening the bonnet of the latest Prado one is immediately stuck by the number of wires connected to a myriad of sensors attached to various parts of the engine.  When I took delivery of the Prado I certainly wondered what would happen if one of the sensors malfunctioned.   Well we have had such an experience, which over the last few months has cost us dearly in wasted time and missed opportunities.   However, the truly frustrating thing is that it was not a faulty sensor that caused our woes (in fact the sensor was valid in reporting a compromised situation*) but that the car’s designed reaction to that sensor’s input is so totally inappropriate.  What is even more frustrating is that despite prolonged discussions with Toyota, they don’t seem to feel that there is anything wrong with the current design.     So on reading this please let me know if you come to the same conclusion as I do (or if you feel Toyota is right).

* We have also learned that the actual compromised situation is caused by a known design flaw that has been reported in the media: https://www.carsales.com.au/editorial/details/toyota-strikes-diesel-and-dust-drama-113482/     Incredibly not only did Toyota not proactively raise this to us when discussing our problems, but even went as far as lying about the problem and saying that we were the first to raise this issue with them.    Given this mind-boggling arrogance and dishonesty, we would now go further:  don’t just avoid buying a Prado, avoid buying a Toyota – period.

Prior to publishing this (and prior to becoming aware of the known design fault with the air filter), I sent the wording below to Toyota to give them the opportunity to correct any possible misunderstandings, however they have not responded.

We first became aware of a problem when cruising on an open sealed road and the car suddenly let out a bong and the words “check engine”; “pre-crash safety malfunction”; “reduced engine power”; “visit your dealer” appeared on the console.  At the same time the corresponding indicator lights for the engine, pre-crash safety system as well as the traction control system came on.   So we stopped and looked at the engine, but could not see anything obviously wrong.  Knowing that the pre-crash safety system relies on a radar mounted behind the Toyota logo on the front of the car and a windscreen mounted camera and both were a bit dirty, I cleaned both and restarted the engine.  After this, the words “reduced engine power” were no longer appearing and the engine power certainly felt normal, however the “check engine” and “pre-crash safety malfunction” messages were still there, so we abandoned our immediate touring plans and headed as directly as we could to the closest Toyota dealer which was about 400km away.

To cut a long story short, we have now experienced this problem 3 times and after 3 inconvenient visits to get it fixed and numerous calls to Toyota we have developed the following understanding of the problem.

One of the many sensors in the engine is the mass airflow sensor (MAF sensor).  It sits just behind the air filter and is intended to monitor if too much dust has managed to get past the air filter.  Toyota tells us that when this sensor triggers, it reduces engine power (to protect the engine) and disables the traction control system.   The pre-crash safety system (a technology to automatically apply the brakes if the car detects an obstruction ahead) in turn relies on the correct functioning of the traction control system, so this is therefore also disabled.

So basically the messages “check engine” and “pre-crash safety malfunction” are related to dust in the air intake !?!

To me a far more informative message would be “dust detected in air intake”.  When I suggested this, one person at Toyota gave me the excuse that with all the inputs from many sensors it is hard to design a system that can correctly report all types of faults.  Seriously?  In an age where car makers are developing driverless cars is it really too hard for a system to conclude that when the sensor that detects dust in the air intake triggers, that the likely cause might well in fact be dust in the air intake?    Furthermore for a car that is purported to be suited to off-road travel, and hence be expected to travel on dusty roads shouldn’t it be even more important to get this right?    I have raised this with Toyota but have been told that their technical experts have reviewed our case and concluded that nothing needs to be changed.

I was also told that the car is designed to limit power when this sensor triggers “to protect the engine”.   Yes, this did happen initially, but as soon as I restarted the car after these messages first appeared (and all subsequent starts) it resumed operating at normal power.    Now if Toyota’s intent was to protect the engine, surely a more appropriate way to do this would be to advise the driver that there is dust in the air intake so that they could decide on an appropriate course of action to actually protect the engine – like changing the air-filter (or at least cleaning it).   Again, for a car that is purported to be suitable for off-road use in remote areas, Toyota should understand that it is not possible to simply drive up the road and visit a dealer so why not give the driver the opportunity to proactively prevent further dust damage in the meantime?    However, I am told that their technical experts again disagree and in one call was told rather patronisingly that by changing an air filter I could risk allowing something to drop into the engine that could result in serious damage.   Firstly, this would be extremely difficult to achieve as air is drawn upwards through the filter so whatever it is, would have to be deliberately thrown upwards to get towards the engine.  Secondly there is a barrier that would prevent all but the smallest of items going through anyway and thirdly, anyone who is familiar enough with engines to change an air filter will know to be cautious.

When I asked why the detection of dust in the air intake requires the traction control system (and hence pre-crash safety system) to be disabled.  I was given an explanation to the effect that “multiple systems get disabled to protect the engine”.   Again, for a car that is purported to be appropriate for use in remote areas where the owner probably needs to drive several hundred kilometers to visit a dealer, why disable systems that are designed to increase the safety of the occupants?   On this matter, like before, I have been told that Toyota’s technical experts have reviewed this and conclude that nothing needs to be changed.

While one could hope that our experience with this one issue is an exception, the fact that Toyota’s technical experts have reviewed this case and come to the conclusion that nothing needs to be changed (or so I am told), makes me wonder how many other algorithms in Toyota’s electronic engine management and supervisory systems are either half-baked or designed by people in ivory towers.     The fact that Toyota is facing a class action over an issue with their diesel particulate filters further affirms to me that they have lost the edge where it comes to such things and also appear to initially adopt a position of denial and attempt to brush things under the carpet when problems are first raised.  

So in this light I can only conclude that the designers of the Prado have the mindset that it is only going to be used on sealed roads where dust is not a common issue and operated close to cities or major regional towns so that you can easily visit a dealer whenever one of its sensors feels a bit uncomfortable and causes it to throw up a random message or warnings.

It reminds us a bit of the story of the princess and the pea so we have decided to rename our car “Princess” – we even found a suitable bumper sticker at a roadhouse.   S

princess sign

Very pathetic! A four wheel drive that complains about dust! Hope there is a Toyota dealer on the Birdsville track!!!! M

 

More Karijini Gorges then on to Millstream Chichester National Park

Our last couple of days at Karijini were spent at the Karijini Eco Retreat campground on the western part of the Park.  This is the same area where I did the canyoning trip, but we decided to spend a bit more time here to see some of the other gorges in our own time.    First up was Kalamina Gorge.  Not as deep as the other gorges and a rather corrugated 25km drive from the camp, but this had the advantage of making it less popular.

kalamina gorge
Kalamina Gorge
banded iron
Folded banded iron rocks in Kalamina Gorge
kalamina gorge pool
Serene views in Kalamina Gorge

kalamina gorge2

Various textures on the gorge rock floor

The following day we descended Weano Gorge, most of which is an easy walk except the last bit where a handrail and some steps have been installed to give access to the aptly named “handrail pool”.  From there one could wade another 100m down the gorge before the way is blocked by warning signs (in the good old days one could continue down into Red Gorge then back up Hancock Gorge – a rather hair-raising adventure where there was allegedly 1 rescue needed for every 300 visitors).

handrail pool walk 2
Descending Weano Gorge

steve handrail pool walk

weano handrail pool entry
The handrail leading to the eponymous pool

handrail pool

handrail pool panorama
Handrail Pool panorama.  I continued down the wade through the gap.   As Maddy was still not feeling 100%, she had a good excuse to not brave the water which was probably about 15 C.
weano crow
We had tea and biscuits at handrail pool while being watched by the local corvid.   This could be a Little Raven but is probably a Torresian Crow.   It’s hard to tell them apart unless they speak.
handrail pool exit
While the handrail sticks out like the proverbial, the steps have been thoughtfully made by bolting blocks of the local rock onto the wall.
oxers lo
After climbing out of Weano Gorge we walked to the nearby Oxer’s lookout where one can see the junction of 4 gorges.  Entering from the left is Weano Gorge.  Red Gorge continues down centre left.  Joffre Gorge enters on centre right and Hancock Gorge enters on the right 
joffre gorge
Later that afternoon we visited the falls at upper Joffre Gorge – a short walk from the camp site but involves a slightly exposed scramble to get down.  
joffre falls
While the falls were reduced to a trickle, it was still impressive to experience the dramatic amphitheater.
gorgeous gorge girl
On the way out Maddy is clearly happy to have the tricky scrambling bit behind her.

After over a week in the Karijini area, we started back towards the coast stopping at Hamersley Gorge for the morning before heading on to Millstream-Chichester National Park for the night.

hammersley gorge rock
More bent and buckled banded iron at Hamersley Gorge
hammersley gorge lower pools
Hamersley Gorge lower pool.  A bit chilly, but lovely swimming down between the banded cliffs
hammersley gorge upper pool
Upper pool at Hamersley Gorge

millstream park sign

deep reach
Millstream-Chichester, sounds like a quaint English village, but is mostly harsh arid shrubland.   However this stretch of the Fortesque River forms a large beautiful pool where water, which normally flows beneath the surface, is pushed up by the local geography.  At a push this could maybe remind one of the rolling green hills of England 
deep reach pool danger
Despite all the risks, I could not resist taking a dip.   The water was lovely.
milstream pool
Fortesque River Panorama
view from mt Herbert
Looking to the coastal plains from the summit of mighty Mount Herbert – at only 400m above sea level it was probably too low to justify an altitude risk sign.

pilbara purple flower

python pool
Python Pool – a perennial waterhole in Millstream Chichester NP.  
weird bird 1
After nearly 3 weeks without seeing a new bird, this one had me a bit excited.   However it turned out to be a Brown Songlark, which I had seen back in December so the bird drought continues.
mulla mulla flowers
Mulla mulla – a striking plant growing on the roadside through much of the Pilbara.

 

Karijini Canyoning

While many of Karijini’s gorges are openly accessible to visitors, increasing numbers of rescues and a particularly unpleasant accident in 2004 lead to the more tricky parts being closed off and only accessible on a guided tour.   So on one of our days in Karijini I joined a tour which involved descending the narrow chasm of Knox Gorge with an abseil and rock slide over a 3m drop; then a sedate paddle up the wide Red Gorge before climbing back out of Hancock Gorge, which had an easy rock climb thrown in for excitement.   The tour company provides all equipment like wetsuits, harnesses, drybags and warm clothing and also takes photos, so all you need to do is turn up with budgie smugglers and a credit card and they provide the rest.

However I was told that they might take a week or so to send me the photos, so instead of waiting I have decided to write up this post and include a few of my own photos taken with my cheap and nasty Go-Pro rip-off and update it at a later date with additional photos (hopefully of better quality) when they arrive.

Maddy’s cold was particularly awful at this time and with this trip requiring one to spend 5 or 6 hours cold and wet, it would not have been wise to join me so sadly she had to stay behind in Tom Price.  S

setting forth down knox gorge
Setting forth all decked up with the colours of the aboriginal flag

L-R: Water slide then abseil down Knox Gorge; view of the exit of Knox Gorge into Red Gorge

paddling down red gorge
A nice sedate paddle down Red Gorge
lower Hancock
Heading up Hancock Gorge
rock climb out hancock gorge
Rock climb followed by a traverse in Hancock Gorge.   It was here that Jim Regan, an SES volunteer, was swept to his death in 2004 by a flash flood while rescuing a tourist that had fallen and injured herself.   Before then people used to scramble up and down this rock climb section without ropes so it is little wonder that the park authorities had to close it off to visitors.
memorial to a
Memorial to Jim Regan above Hancock Gorge

Karijini National Park – Dales Gorge and Mt Meharry

Karijini National Park covers parts of the Hammersley Ranges in the Pilbara region in NW Australia.   The rocks in this area are understood to have been formed about 2500 million years ago on submerged continental shelves in the form of layers of iron rich hematite and quartz which have far more recently been raised above sea level.  Even more recently, gorges have been carved through these layers to produce dramatic ravines with banded red and black rock walls.

fortescue falls
Fortesque Falls in Dales Gorge
steve at fortescue falls
Fortesque Falls
ferns at fern pool
Maidenhair ferns at Fern Pool near the top of Dales Gorge
fern pool
Fern Pool.   With a temperature in the low 20s, it is one of the rare warmish pools in Karijini National Park and is a great swimming spot.
dales gorge
Looking down Dales Gorge
dales gorge from fortescue falls
Dales Gorge

Banded Iron formations in Dales Gorge

Pheasant Coucal close
A fearless pheasant coucal wandered past literally 3 metres away 
dales gorge
Typical Pilbara banded iron in Dales Gorge

dales gorge walk

circular pool dales gorge
Circular Pool – at the bottom of a subsidiary gorge to Dales Gorge – viewed from a lookout.
circular pool lookout
Looking up at the lookout and the photographer
circular pool bottom
Circular Pool from the bottom – nice and “refreshing”
asbestos risk sign
While currently best known for it’s iron ore resources, the Pilbara also contains asbestos deposits which were mined in the mid twentieth century – at one point supporting a town of 30,000 people.   Today that town (Wittenoom) has had to be abandoned*.   It would be an interesting place to visit if you were feeling brave, but we weren’t – especially given the high winds we were experiencing on our first few days here.     * Depending on who you talk to, Wittenoom has either been totally depopulated, or there are still up to about 12 die-hards / conspiracy theorists living there.  Either way it is officially de-proclaimed and no longer appears on official maps.
asbestos 1
The lower part of Dales Gorge also contain some native blue asbestos between the bands of iron/quartz.    Like the sign says above, it is supposedly safe when not disturbed.   However…
blue asbestos
… in some parts it appears on the footpath where it shows obvious signs of being trampled.
3 way lookout
Lower Dales Gorge at sunset.

We spent 3 nights at Dales Gorge in the eastern part of Karijini National Park during which time I also climbed Mt Meharry – the highest peak in the state of Western Australia.  Sadly Maddy had succumbed to the lurgy so she did not feel up to joining me neither on Mount Meharry, nor on the gorge adventure tour which I will cover in the next post.   After Dales Gorge we spent a couple of nights in Tom Price then returned to the national park staying at the Karijini Eco Retreat camping area – which will also be covered in another post.

karijini map

heading to meharry
On the way to Mt Meharry.   While it is possible to drive to the top, the last 5km are very rough going.   As I was keen for a bit of exercise and the Prado had once again started flashing a “check engine” warning light, I decided to walk the last 5km.
meharry from road
First view of the mighy Mt Meharry.   OK this is Australia – we are not blessed with towering mountain peaks, especially on the mainland.   So basically anything that provides a view of the surrounding countryside can be called a mountain, and anything more than 500m above said countryside deserves the title “mighty”

meharry trial risk

The authorities in Western Australia are astoudingly productive in the number and diversity of their risk signs.   The summit track pretty much follows the skyline from the right and the summit itself is roughly behind the bush

meharry trail
Approaching the start of the north-west ridge
looking west near summit
Looking west from near the top.
meharry plaque
Despite its potential for stories of a more humorous origin, it seems the mountain was named after a real person.   However the surveying parties must have had a sense of humor because there is also a Mt Bruce and a Mt Sheila in the area – seriously.
mt meharry summit shot
And that ticks off number 6 of the so called “state 8” peaks that I have climbed in Oz.   The others being: NSW (and Australia) – Mt Koscuiszko, which I have visited many times; Victoria – Mt Bogong, which we climbed earlier in this trip;  Queensland – Mt Bartle Frere, an epic jungle trek with leaches and endless rain which I climbed in 2001;  Tasmania – Mt Ossa, which I climbed in 2010 and Mt Bimberi in ACT which I climbed in about 2002.    The remaining two are Mt Zeil in Northern Territory (a bit more of a logistical challenge as you need to arrange permission from national parks and a local station manager) and Mt Woodroffe in South Australia which the local indigenous people allow to be climbed only once per year as a participant in an organised tour.
mt meharry summit panorama
A north eastern panorama from Mt Meharry.   The dust to the east comes from Rio Tinto’s West Angelas iron ore mine.
mt meharry summit distances
An informal distance post on top of Mt Meharry.   Both Jakarta and even Singapore at about 3250km are closer than Sydney

Barn Hill and Eighty Mile Beach

After our backtrack to the Derby Rodeo, we headed west once more to a couple of spots along the coast south-west of Broome.  Our first stop was at the Barn Hill Station camping area, which is situated on cliffs overlooking the ocean (although rather than cramming into one of the view spots we chose a quiet private spot a bit back from the cliffs and enjoyed the views during our walks).

barn hill station sign

The beaches with their rugged cliff backdrops and the calm clear blue ocean were magnificent and made for delightful strolls interspersed with refreshing dips.   As always the photographs below don’t fully do justice to the scenery.

Aside from the beach scenery the campsite itself also offered a few interesting distractions.   It appears this is a good spot to view the legendary drop bear – one of Australia’s most feared predators.   Also being an arid coast line, the camp sites all had a barren gravel bed so we were surprised to see one caravan with some neatly growing lawn out the front.   As with many northern coastal towns, many retired people from southern parts of the country drive up and camp in the winter for a several months to avoid the cold.  So this particular bunch obviously decided to plant and nurture their own patch of lawn once they had set up for the season – and why not?

barnhill fisher people
Fishing was a popular pastime at high tide.   Amazingly we actually saw someone catch something worth keeping.
thats mine
Collecting shells is a favourite pastime for Maddy, however it was not always easy to convince the local residents to part with them.

After 2 nights at Barn Hill we proceeded another 200km west along the coast to the 80 mile beach caravan park.   The name 80-mile beach is unusually understated because the beach is actually over 120 miles long.    So while you would expect that there is plenty of room for everyone, there is only one access point where about 500 people are crowded into a single caravan park.     However the beach is pretty spectacular and well worth a visit to experience its extent, its vast tidal variations and the astonishing number of shells on the beach.  Despite its size, the caravan park is actually quite a nice one, so we spent 2 nights there to fully experience the beach at its various tides and moods.

80 mile beach at low tide2
On 80 mile beach at low tide the water recedes about 500m from the shoreline dunes leaving this vast flat expanse.  When you reach the water you then need to wade out another 200m to get just knee deep making it quite an expedition to go for a swim
frantic fishing at 80 mile beach
Low tide also makes fishing impractical and the fishing addicts get quite crazed.  So at high tide they get to let out their pent up frustrations and flock to the beach in astonishing numbers to fish creating another remarkable spectacle – cars spread out on the beach as far as the eye can see…
80 mile beach at high tide
… in both directions.
80 mile beach from dunes
So we waited for the tide to drop a bit and for the fishermen to return to camp to discuss the ones that they didn’t catch.  We then drove about 8km along the beach to have this expanse to ourselves.  I went looking for shorebirds whilst Maddy collected shells.  Who needs a drone when you have a dune?
80 mile beach at low tide
80 mile beach at mid tide when the fishing isn’t great.  Beautiful and abandoned.
collecting shells
Looking back across the sand flats – Maddy browsing for shells
80 mile sand dollars
An acre or so of sand dollars!
lesser sand plover
Lesser sand plover
great knot on the shell flats
Great Knot feasting among the fields of shells exposed at low tide
red capped plover and shells
and a Red-capped plover

for some reason these red-capped plovers were not getting on so well.