With the school holidays on us, Christine and I joined with our good friends Chris and Carol, their two kids Dean and Pippa, a young friend Wesley and their two dogs to travel across the Gibb River Road from Derby to Mt Elizabeth Station. From there, we planned to travel the 230km long Munja Track to the Eastern end of Walcott Inlet where the Calder and Charnley Rivers enter.
Munja itself is rich in history, having been home to a mission and later a leprosarium. One source we read during our researches quoted the Munja settlement as housing 700 people in 1942 and being self-sufficient in vegetables and exporting crops such as peanuts. Gathering information about the track prior to departure was difficult. Information on the Internet seems to be restricted to a few brief accounts in various travel notes or sketchy descriptions in sites promoting guided wilderness tours. Speaking to acquaintances in Derby produced mixed reviews, from “great spot but watch the crocs” to “dry open plains of grey mud with no shade. A horrible place.” The two common factors in all reports were that the track is very rough and that the fishing in Walcott Inlet is exceptional. In my experience, when people tell you that a track is rough, only personal experience can tell what it is really like because opinions vary greatly from person to person.
The trip across the Gibb River Road was quick and easy, with the road in excellent condition. With a lunch stop and a quick swim in Galvan’s Gorge, followed by a fuel stop at Mt Barnett, it was soon on to Mt Elizabeth, via a good 30km access road.
The homestead is beautiful, being built of local coloured sandstone. We joined a large number of campers in the camp ground and availed ourselves of the basic but functional showers and toilets. We spoke to the owner, Pat Lacey, who supplied us with a sheet showing the various distances to features along the 230km Munja Track.
As we picked up the key in the morning, another party of three vehicles, two towing camper trailers, headed off to Bachsten. Once over the Drysdale River, the going slowed as the country became rougher. At 65km from Mt Elizabeth, we negotiated the Magpie Jump-up, an extremely rough series of rock ledges that was more akin to negotiating a dry waterfall than following a formed track. The Fig Tree Jump-up was much kinder and offered not much more than a prolonged up and over crossing of a very stony ridge.
The track followed along the South Western side of the Caroline Range which presented spectacular views of escarpments, bluffs and the fascinating Jameson Arch. This huge natural bridge shelters a near-rainforest environment beneath its enormous overhang. A Kalumburu acquaintance had described it to me prior to leaving and told the story of a falcon hunting grasshoppers in the long grass along the edge of the cliff. As the falcon stooped, the grasshopper dodged, sending the falcon crashing through the cliff face and leaving a hole all the way through. We drove on, leaving a full inspection for the return journey.
As less imposing sight was that of a large aboriginal rock art gallery, beautiful in itself but unfortunately newly completed with house paint. Faint outlines of ancient ochre paintings could be seen to the right.
Our lunch stop was at Marhuana Creek under the watchful gaze of a large bull. By now it was 12:30 and we had covered 86km in four and a half hours. After a bit of a bogging at Dinner Creek and some handy work with the winch we drove on, calling it quits for the day at Pearson Creek, 104km out from the homestead. We set up a comfortable camp alongside a well-flowing stream and settled down to relax. After a while, the camper trailer group crossed Pearson Creek, proof that trailers could negotiate the Magpie Jump-up. Even so, I was very glad that we had decided against bringing a trailer. The kids headed upstream to try their hand at fishing, quickly producing four plump sooty grunter that would prove an excellent appetizer for tea.
The night was cold again but the abundance of fire wood made life easy. In the morning, we packed camp and headed off once again to face another day of jump-ups, creek crossings and stony tracks. Bachsten Camp is approximately 41km from Pearson Creek and offers a good standard of wilderness bush cabin accommodation with guided tours and bird watching. Unfortunately, the tours have not operated in 2009 and the operators have been trying to find a buyer for the business. The future of the camp and the access to the area via the Munja track remains in doubt until the problem can be resolved. We made a brief stop at the camp itself before pushing on to Wren Gorge. This beautiful spot boasts two fine pools and waterfalls, although neither were flowing strongly. The water was excellent for a quick swim while the boys explored further a field and found the wonderful rock art gallery in the lower pool. We accessed the gorge from the top, following the creek along from the point where it crosses the track. Once there, we met a young couple who had entered the gorge from the bottom. We decided Wren Gorge would need another visit on the way back.
The Calder River presented the first large water crossing we had yet encountered. The trip notes gathered at Mt Elizabeth suggested the water could be deep but we found it to be trouble free after a preliminary wade across. It impressed us all as a spot of great beauty so we marked it down as a possible camp site for the future. Carl’s Lagoon has a camp site but we skirted around it, driving by the long lagoon with its spectacular display of cobalt blue lilies.
By the time we reached Brockman Creek, we were nearing Munja and starting to check out possible camp sites. Part of the advice we had received prior to leaving had suggested that Munja itself is a very poor camp site, with open shadeless expanses of dry mud and no fresh water. We had also read accounts of the masses of flies, sand flies and mozzies that are said to plague Munja itself. We were advised to camp further back and to access the fishing spots by day. However, as we travelled on, there were few, if any, suitable camping spots and we eventually drove all the way to Munja. Chris and Carol explored some possible sites while we pushed on to Munja Campsite, finding it full to overflowing with a large party headed by Bushtrack Safaris. They told us of a cleared area further on near where an earlier camp site called Lone Dingo was located. Lone Dingo is now gone, the changing course of the river having swallowed up the open ground and the three lobed boab that made the spot famous. In the meantime, Chris and Carol had found an open spot, only to learn that it was the appointed helipad and a chopper was due in from Derby the next morning.
We carried on to the end of the track, setting up camp in a large cleared area. The track did indeed finish some 60 metres beyond our camp site to the point where it literally went straight over the 10 metre high mud cliff. As we were to discover, the river is changing course at a terrifying metre a day and all day we were entertained by the booming sound of huge chunks of earth crashing down into the water. Occasionally, a tree would go over, or a whole group of mangroves off the point. The edge of the cliff was a declared “no go zone” for the 3 children. By our reckoning, even the newly created cleared area will be gone by September.
For the next 5 nights we camped in this spot on the banks of Walcott Inlet. Our camp was nearly opposite the junction of the Charnley and Calder Rivers. For much of the day, the tide was low, exposing huge expanses of sand flats covered with a thin layer of grey silt mud. When the tide arrived, it did so with a rush, filling the void to 8 or 9 metres in less than an hour. The run-out seemed to be longer, taking around two hours for the bulk of the water to recede before a long slow trickle of water draining the last remaining pools. This was the time for fishing and bait collecting. We targeted the pools and deeper stretches with live mullet but with little success. The first day produced two fine barramundi (Chris caught both much to my disgust) but the succeeding days saw the fishing deteriorate, with fish lost and some long battles with fish that proved to be sharks, rays or sawfish. Wesley took advantage of the only other good fishing time, the brief period of slack water at high tide, by catching a number of fine threadfin salmon. This kept us with sufficient fish to eat and gave us a hint of the excellent fishing that must be on offer in the warmer months.
During our time at Munja, we had to send off a couple of watering parties to replenish supplies. There is a fresh water lagoon close to Munja Camp that holds water suitable for washing but the long grass bared easy access and we had received reports of a resident saltwater crocodile so watering was completed at the Brockman River, a 30km round trip that took around 3 hours. We found little sign of the settlement itself, other than a rubbish dump that contained a large number of rusting bunk beds, no doubt left over from the mission days. The surrounding country was extremely overgrown with the dry grass standing more than 2 metres in most places. Exploration was very difficult and any attempt to penetrate new areas soon ended as we encountered hidden rocks and ant hills in the thick vegetation.
The return trip along the track was easier due to our knowledge of the terrain. The beauty and grandeur of the vista was probably enhanced by our week of isolation. We explored some of the places we had by-passed on the way in and had a delightful lunch stop at Wren Gorge, accessing the lower pool this time and taking in the magnificence of the rock art gallery. We also took the time to hike up in to the Jameson Arch, with its protected pocket of rainforest environment and spectacular views of the surrounding country side. The view from near the top of the cliff, through the arch and beyond would have to rate as one of the great tourism opportunities yet to date only a small number of people have had access to this natural wonder.
Despite being experienced, we still had to use the winch twice on creek crossings. Always the culprit was soft clay on the edge of a steep hard shoulder. The drive back was long and hard but somehow lacked the excitement of the outward trip into the unknown. Would we do it again? I would love to have access to the fishing potential when the weather is warmer but the warmer months also bring very uncomfortable camping conditions. We experienced none of the promised plagues of sand flies and mosquitoes, although the flies built up steadily as our camp generated the smells that bush camps do. Certainly, the drive in is an event in itself and one that I can only recommend. In short, I would do it again and love every minute of it. I can only hope that access to the Munja Track continues.
From here it is off South to work for a coupe of days at Wulungarra Aboriginal School on Milijiddee Station South of Nookanbah after which we will drive to Broome for a quick flight home. On our return, we will assess our sailing options and get back to the life at sea.