Wow! Nothing about this trip went to plan. It was a trip a long time in the planning too, and well planned at that. But fate intervened, not once, but several times.
- Abandon the very long standing family tradition of going to Shark Bay for the 1st term school holidays.
- Travel to Giralia Station on the southern end of Exmouth Gulf with Trevor, Em and the kids, and Ron and Jo for a week of wilderness beach camping and fishing.
- Trevor and Em to travel back to Hamelin Pool with us, drop the boat off in storage, then continue on across the unsealed Useless Loop road and winding sand tracks to Steep Point, Australia’s most Westerly Point.
- Put the vehicles and Trev’s camper trailer on the barge across to Dirk Hartog Island for a four day stay, exploring the sights and fishing from a 3 metre plastic twin hulled boat.
Admittedly, there was a lot that could go wrong here, with mechanical failures, damage on the appalling tracks around Steep Point or problems with boat motors. In the end, a lot went wrong but it was none of the above.
The Preparation: With so many caravanning and boating trips lately, we forget just how much work there is preparing for a completely self-sufficient camping trip. Giralia Station requires fresh water, toilet and electrical provision. You get a lovely stretch of private beach, but nothing else, other than a couple of dump points. Dirk Hartog Homestead Camp has some excellent shower and toilet facilities but campers need their own power, fuel and must take out rubbish. Despite everyone’s determination to travel light, we all collected various objects that might prove useful, cramming them into every last nook and cranny. Ron and I spent some time checking over the trailer bearings and springs and throwing out all the unnecessary things from the boat. We had some appointments in Perth just prior to leaving so we loaded our box trailer with stuff and brought it down ready to load into the boat.
How Things Really Went: During all the packing, my back started to get increasingly sore. I tried to do the right things, wearing a brace for heavy lifting, stretching and taking a few anti-inflams but it just kept getting worse, heading steadily towards the point where the crippling spasms set in. I know from past episodes, that it is a two-week recovery from that point. Christine added her bit to the drama by waking in the middle of the night with a heart arrythmia and high blood pressure, something she has not had before. She wisely called an ambulance. When the ambos arrived, they took one look at me and declared they would do a two for one, and we both went in. Christine was the first call but she had to walk out and sit in the seat, whereas I got to have the green whistle and use the lie down. The doctor in the ED thought it was quite funny and kept us each up to date on the other’s progress. By 9am the next morning, we were both let go, Christine having had a jolt to reset the rhythm and me with some strong painkillers which did the job but left me pretty useless otherwise.
The decision was made for us. The Giralia part got the boot. Trevor, Em and the kids decided to spend the week exploring the Murchison along the Wool Wagon Pathway followed by the Kennedy Ranges, returning to meet us at Hamelin, when our medical problems eased. Ron and Jo headed to their place in Greenhead to pull some weeds and relax. Christine started a course of tablets and made a booking for further tests at a later date. I lay around and took my narcotics. We did have one stroke of luck in the form of bad luck. Our starter motor died and needed an RAC tow to the mechanic for a new one. Having that happen deep in the outback would have been horrific.
The Trip: We eventually set off, taking the box trailer with us. Trevor had off loaded some stuff, including the plastic dinghy, at Greenhead, so we picked that up along the way. I was still not up to driving so Christine did the lot, doing a fantastic job and getting us to Hamelin with no dramas. Trevor and Em had got there only an hour before us having had a wonderful week on the inland dirt roads and exploring some amazing country. I was still out for the heavy lifting so I supervised the kids in the swimming pool while the others made camp. The bad news was the weather forecast, with 15-20mm forecast across the Useless Loop Road for the following day. It was going to be a matter of getting through before the Shire closed it.
True to the forecast, the rain started around 6am, forcing us to break camp in the wet and head to the camp kitchen. The camp kitchen tried hard to reflect the old station life but, in reality, it was a sub-standard facility by today’s standards. The only positive is that it was a higher standard than the ablutions. The Hamelin Caravan Park is remote and isolated, but that is not an excuse for the poor facilities in this day and age, especially when the prices were full Covid prices.
When we reached the Useless Loop Road, the sign said “Closed When Wet” but there were no barriers up or other signage, so we drove past the shire truck, with the workers saying nothing and set off. The first 20 kms was sealed, a pleasant surprise, and the remaining 80kms to the National Park entrance was mostly freshly graded. In places, the rain was starting to sheet off forming small running creeks but it remained hard and not slippery. The further we went, the deeper the water got but the road surface stayed solid. Once into the National park and across the bar that holds water back for the Useless Loop Salt Works, the road turned into a heavily corrugated narrow track. The good thing was that the rain had wet the dunes to the point that the normally difficult dune climbs early in the NP section were really easy.
The scenery over the last 60km or so was spectacular, with huge windswept sand dunes, some totally devoid of vegetation, deep inlets of blue water and rolling hills of heathland. Of course, rain squalls swept across all of this. Kelsie and Ashton wanted Trevor to drive over the dunes but fortunately, they were over-ruled. We reached the ranger’s house and got directions to our allocated camp site. Booking is absolutely essential as all sites were full. There was a small city of tents and marquees spread along the beach at Shelter Cove and a small armada of fishing boats anchored off shore.
The rain came down with little relief. Trevor announced that they would opt to sleep in the car, it being just too hard to set up a camp in the conditions. We did manage to erect a 3X3m gazebo and use a car and a screen wall to get protection from the weather side.
I dug out a portable gas heater and we all huddled around it, venturing forth in the rain lulls to fish. The kids even went for a swim, the water being so warm. We managed to get our 30 Second Tent up in a weather break so we were set for a good night’s sleep. By 8pm, the sky had cleared but it was too late for Trevor to set up, especially with a 7:30am barge to catch. By 6am, the rain returned, and we broke camp in rain once again.
The barge arrived, with a car and camper on it, and we watched as the guy backed off, veering slightly and only just keeping the front wheels on the ramp as he exited. There is no wharf or concrete ramp, just a sand beach. Trevor was waved forward, and he crossed the sand, hitting the barge a tad fast. It made for scary watching. It is one vehicle at a time so we had a half hour wait then our turn came and we approached the ramps at a more sedate pace, boarding without issue. Driving on and off the barge was the only time I drove, Christine did a refusal. Once parked, we went up onto the bridge to meet Kieran Wardle, the owner of Dirk Hartog Homestead. He briefed us on our stay and moving around the island.
At the other end, we backed off and set off across the 20km track to the homestead camp grounds. The track was a lot narrower on the island, and I did tell Christine off a few times when she allowed a thorny bush to rake down the side of the car. Strangely, it was always my side, never hers. A few flooded areas had to be negotiated, but again, the ground below proved hard, and we reached the homestead with no real problems, although Trevor had some fun backing up and getting off the road to allow three on-coming vehicles access.
We had camp sites 1 & 2, close to both the bar, camp kitchen and showers. What more could a person need? The sites are spacious and some kind soul had left a half a bag of firewood in a firepit. There is no wood collection on the island and we hadn’t brought in much. We set up camp, mostly on Trevor’s site, creating a sheltered camp big enough for us all. The wind was up so we just dumped the boat for another day. I walked along to watch a family fishing near the homestead lodge and they displayed a good catch of whiting and flathead, as well as the biggest blue swimmer crab I have ever encountered.
Encouraged by the sight of fish, we set up to fish in front of camp. Kelsie and Ashton are keen on their fishing, Kelsie especially so. She has a lot of patience. Unfortunately, it wasn’t well rewarded, with only a couple of small fish caught. We had missed the tide. Over the next three days, we fished a bit from the beach, the weather offshore never being kind enough to consider launching the boat. We had dragged the damn thing all that way for nothing. We had little success off the beach, a few whiting and flathead was it. We did enjoy a fine feed of plump juicy oysters from the headland a short walk down the beach.
The kids played a lot of beach cricket, and there were frequent games of UNO. There was reading and relaxing, all in mild conditions, the temperature barely getting above 23 degrees, but at least the rain had left us. On Day Two, we set off to explore some features on the island. Some 15kms back towards South Passage are some blowholes on the cliff face. Previously, we had only ever seen the western side of the island from a boat and close exploration was not possible, due to the wild and dangerous nature of the coast. From land, it is easy to appreciate the scale and grandeur of the cliffs that make up the seaward side. The swell was just running enough to produce some blowhole effect. From there, we crossed back through the homestead and drove north to Notch Point, hoping to find a spot out of the wind. Of course, the wind had veered to the north so we once again were faced with an onshore wind. Despite that, we fished, the kids swam and played with their boogey boards and we made jaffles for lunch. Two big whiting at least gave dinner for the kids but there was little else.
At night, the mice would appear. These were not your ordinary domestic mice Mus Musculus, but a rare and endangered native species called the Shark Bay Mouse or Djoongari, Pseudomys Fieldi. It was once widespread across the western part of the continent but is now restricted to four islands in Shark Bay. It is shorter and more ball-like than the house mouse. At first, we found them to be incredibly cute, as they came right up and took food from our hands or nibbled at our toes. However, after we discovered that they had gotten into everything, including the drawers in our car, the attraction wore off. Every packet of food had little holes nibbled in them. They were so tame that it was easy to place a clear plastic box over one and watch as it showed no distress. Neither did it run away when the box was removed. Christine regularly screamed when she came across one in the car food drawer. This amused the kids no end. We began to worry that it would still be there when we left the island. In the end, as we went to drive off the barge, Christine spied a mouse running around on the deck so we assume that it got out just in time.
Another amusing wildlife sight was that of numerous trails of Processionary Caterpillars. These very hairy caterpillars live in tight clusters in acacia bushes, venturing forth on occasions to move location. They do so in a long head to tail conga line, travelling across the sands to a new tree. Sometimes, there were four or five such trails around the camp. They look soft and furry, but must never be touched. The millions of fine hairs are barbed and will penetrate skin, continuing to work their way down like fibreglass filaments. They are a major threat to the horse breeding industry in the Hunter Valley where the barbs penetrate so deeply they cause foals to abort.
Some evenings, we headed for the beachside bar for sundown. It is a very basic bar, with only two drinks on tap, Matso’s Ginger Beer and Single Finn Ale. Both are $15 a pint so putting in a big night is out of the question. A group usually gathered, some being campers, some staying in the lodge accommodation and some even coming off a cruising yacht. It added a nice touch in such a remote location. In fact, the whole setup is a credit to Kieran Wardle and the staff, with facilities beating many other outback tourist locations that have far easier access to supplies. Yes, it is on the pricey side, but why wouldn’t it be. Everything comes in by boat and staff are hard to find.
A check of the weather report showed another huge weather event approaching for the weekend. We were due to leave the island on the Friday, but the forecast suggested heavy rain starting Thursday night. Strangely, this was tropical rain, coming down in a mid level mass from the north. It was to link up on Saturday with a cold front from the south, making the chance of being rained in and stuck on the island for nearly a week very high. We decided to leave a day early. Later, we found that the area received more than 80mm of rain and the road was closed for 3 or 4 days.
The exit off the island was uneventful, the barge loading and unloading just as scary but really quite easy.
The drive back across the road was far more comfortable than the drive in, the rain having flattened some of the corrugations. There was a lot more grading on the Useless Loop Road too and we shaved around half an hour off the previous three hour trip. Once back at Hamelin Pool, we picked up the trailer, transferred the boat to it, and headed off. We booked into the Dongara Hotel Motel for the night and enjoyed a wonderful meal at the bar while Trevor and Em made it back to Greenhead to stay at Ron’s place. By morning, the rain had caught up with us and the final drive home on Friday was in heavy rain. A few checks of the radar vindicated our decision to leave early, with many large storms going through South Passage. I wondered how all the fishing camps along the shores of Shelter Bay were faring.
All in all, the trip was a series of disasters, yet it was still enjoyable. We went there as a bucket list exercise, and to that end, it worked. The kids certainly seemed to enjoy the adventure but then those two enjoy everything. We failed to see all of the island, partly because we had seriously misunderstood the amount of fuel we would need and just how horrible it is to drive for a full day on the Dirk Hartog tracks. Despite this, it was worth doing. Would we do it again? No! But then, we don’t have to because it has been crossed off our bucket list.