This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.


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2015 Travels June 22

JUNE 22     WALKING WITH DINGOES

Before this recent trip, we had been in contact with A, the man who had been our employer for the six months in 2005 that we worked at Pungalina. It is now a decade since we were privileged to spend that time living at and roaming this beautiful wilderness.

To recap, Pungalina is a three quarter of a million acre property in the Gulf country of the NE corner of the NT, straddling or bordered by the Calvert River. Leichardt’s expedition of 1845 named and crossed that river here. It had sporadically been an open range pastoral property, but little worked as same, as it was too small in that country to be economic. So there really had been minimal impact on the natural environment by European activities.

The Calvert River

And what a superb natural environment it was, consisting of several different and special ecosystems, ranging from coastal, fringing the Gulf of Carpentaria, through riverine along the Calvert, to uplands, limestone outcrops, massive underground cave systems, thermal spring fed swamps, perched lakes, waterfalls…Rainforest and huge paperbarks along the rivers and creeks. Sandstone ridges and extensive swathes of savanna grass and scrublands. Really ancient stromatolite formations. The variety of habitats ensured  varied and prolific birdlife. Ditto wildlife. The scourge of northern environments – the feral pig – was not so much of a problem there, kept in check by the natural dingo populations.

Extensive underground cave systems formed in limestone

A Melbourne-based professional acquired the lease around 2000. Initially, he was interested in having the place as a hunting retreat and it was managed for him by the experienced bushman who had found it for him. The idea of running a small tourist operation grew and some foundations were laid for this venture, based on tented accommodation and guided activities.  We first visited in 2003, when this was in its early days, having met the bushman when he passed through Adels Grove and sounded us out about working there. It was a long day’s drive from Adels, with the last stage being a rough, 65km long “driveway”.

The “driveway”

But life happens, and the professional had to sell the place. The purchaser A, owned an aviation company, in Melbourne, that specialized in small group tours by air. Pungalina slotted well into his operations and he had visions of the place becoming a go-to remote experience, both for those who could fly in and those prepared to drive in there – an adventure in itself.

We arrived at this point, running the safari camp tourist operations for six months in 2005. Lived in our van, set up in a rough bush clearing, 5kms from the bushman’s home – a rather primitive  establishment. Our water came from the nearby creek, our power from the van’s solar panels. A Telstra satellite dish at the main home gave telephone and internet access from there – when the resident dingoes had not chewed up the cables. Weather permitting, a light plane brought the mail, once a week. The main source of supplies was by road train from Mt Isa, once or twice a month, as far as the Redbank Mine – someone from Pungalina would have to do the 200km round trip over the rough track to fetch these. Providing interesting and varied meals for our paying guests could sometimes be a challenge.

The bushman who originally “discovered” Pungalina, had become a part owner and was our boss on the ground for the time we were there. He had established a network of rough tracks – sometimes just wheel marks in the long grass – to various special features of the property. There was no shortage of places to explore on our days off.

Paperbark swamps…

It was remote – there were no other people for well over a hundred kms, and no easy access to anywhere, except by light plane.

We became part of the “pack” of the bushman’s three semi-wild dingoes. They spread their time between  his place and our camp and became our regular companions. Learning about their characteristics was fascinating. They would invariably chew up any accessible vehicle upholstery, electrical wiring, camp pillows. They practised payback, usually involving some destruction, on anyone who offended their dignity. They knew the often open kitchen tent at the safari camp was out of bounds and never once set paw upon the tarp that was its floor, but  would spend much time teetering right at the edge of the tarp, with head through the tent opening, sniffing away at delectable smells like roasting meat. We became firmly convinced of the value of wild dingo populations in controlling introduced problem species like cats and pigs.

Happy hour with a couple of “dings”

John guided guests fishing for barramundi in the waterholes and river. He still has never caught a barra in his life!

Again, plans did not work out as intended and in 2007 Pungalina was again sold, this time, fortunately, to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. This organization acquires properties with great conservation  and research values and attempts to manage them in appropriate ways. Since acquisition, a number of rare and unique species has been discovered on Pungalina. The sale meant that independent tourist access was no longer possible. As at the AWC Mornington sanctuary in the Kimberley, the environmentally ethical Outback Spirit tour company has been able to include Pungalina on  its tour itineraries and set up a camp at our old safari camp site.

Where did those ten years go? Our time at the incredibly special  Pungalina remains the highlight of our travel times.

Natural springs

I think all of us associated with the property before 2007 have our regrets: the owners for selling it, us for not going back again while we could.

Anyway, A told us that our bushman friend had written a book about his experiences at Pungalina, from about 1999, until his departure nearly a decade later. We ordered this and now our copy had arrived. He had titled it “Walking with Dingoes”….what else could it have possibly been?

This story of a real pioneering venture, remote from the modern Australia most of us take for granted, made fascinating reading, particularly with our knowledge of the property – and even our little cameo roles in the saga.


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2007 Travels July 14

SATURDAY 14 JULY     MORNINGTON WILDERNESS CAMP

I was not imagining things yesterday – last night was definitely warmer! Maybe being that bit closer to the coast had made a difference?

I was up at 7.30am – just because I was wide awake! John slept a bit later.

Before breakfast, I went and put our washing into one of the machines in the ablution block – yes, they even had washing machines! Then went and hung it out after breakfast.

Crimson Finch back again…..

John drove back up the Glenroy road until he was clear of the property boundary, and found a little side track where he could park out of the way and start the generator, to charge up his torch and the camera batteries. Not being able to get a powered site at Fitzroy Crossing had meant these had not been charged for nearly a week. This took a while and he did not get back until about 2.30pm.

In the meantime, M arrived about midday. She had not noticed John on the way in. She set up her camp in the area we’d “kept” near us.

She reported that it was very hard to get a riverside site camp at the popular Bell Gorge. People were setting up a temporary camp at Silent Grove, 11kms away, where the Ranger Base was, then queuing up at 7am to be there when the Ranger put out tags for spots at Bell Gorge that would be vacated that day. If they managed to snare a tag, they moved there. M had not bothered with that, since she only planned to stay a couple of nights.

M had enjoyed Bell Gorge, finding the falls spectacular, but found the track in a bit rough. Given the crowds, she seemed in two minds as to whether it had been worth the effort. They were the first of the brilliant Kimberley waterfalls that she’d seen, so had made a good impression. I knew there would be others even more brilliant to come……

M and I did the Riparian Walk, while John was still gone. She pronounced this campground much more to her liking than those of her past couple of days.

Cluster Fig

The workshop here had put out a sign that they were out of gas for gas bottle refills! Given the campfire ban, that could become a bit dire for campers!

However, we could still buy a beer at the bar – for $5.50 a can!

The three of us walked up for the evening talk. Got there a little early, to have an expensive beer, and make sure we had seats. The talk was excellent, given by the head resident scientist at the place – all about Mornington and the work of the AWC here. Very impressive.

I was particularly taken with two aspects of their work: the research on establishing the causes of the decline in Gouldian Finch numbers, hence, how to work to bring back the numbers. And the concept that wild dingo populations were significant in controlling feral introduced pests such as pigs and cats. That tallied with our views after our time on Pungalina in 2005.


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2007 Travels July 12

THURSDAY 12 JULY   FITZROY CROSSING TO MORNINGTON WILDERNESS CAMP   428kms

The time at Fitzroy Crossing did not improve any.

Took my morning mug of coffee, intending to sit in my camp chair with it and watch the departing campers. As I sat down, the seam on the canvas seat split and I dropped right down into the metal framework of the chair. It hurt like hell and I was quite bruised. And I spilt my coffee!

The chair was 14 years old, and had been much used and  exposed to the elements over its lifetime, so I probably should not have been too surprised. Better me than John – an accident like that could really cause him some hip damage.

Morning at Fitzroy Crossing camp

It was 10am before we departed camp. John had to go and refill the spare fuel jerry can, which meant a big repack of back of Truck.

From Fitzroy Crossing, drove 43kms west on the highway, then took the Fairfield-Leopold Downs Road – unsealed – for 124kms, to link us through to the Gibb River Road. This road was quite corrugated and rocky in parts and was fairly slow going.

We did not stop at either of the National Parks along this road – Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge. John and I had camped at Windjana Gorge in ’93 and explored both. M had visited them on her previous only trip to these parts – a short tour from Broome, undertaken on a tour package with her mother, a few years back.

Today’s was a very scenic drive. This western end of the Kimberley is all former Devonian Reef ranges – quite rugged.

Australian Bustard seen along the way

After we turned onto the Gibb River Road and headed east, these ranges were in front of us. It didn’t take long before we passed through the first of several gaps in the ranges – Yammera Gap, with its big rock formation on one side, very aptly named Queen Victoria’s Head.

Approaching Yammera Gap

A couple of the steeper sections through the ranges, like Inglis Gap,  were sealed. There were some good outlooks from some of these, over the wild country ahead.

Through this section, there were several pleasant creeks and we noticed people setting up camps by some of these – even where they were clearly signed “No Camping”.

There was regular traffic along the Gibb. Too much of it was travelling too fast. 4WD’s towing camper trailers seemed to be the worst – even more so than the dreaded overseas drivers of hired 4WD campers. They pass oncoming traffic at great speed, with no thought about the stones and rocks they throw up at others.

At one point, we had slowed right down to go through a small creek ford in a little gully. A 4WD with trailer came up behind and sailed past us – didn’t slow down at all for the creek. I swear his camper trailer got airborne! These are the travellers who later complain about poor quality roads wrecking their vehicles and tyres – we have seen and heard it all before.

It seems to be an unfortunate fact that, these days, any area/road that is designated “remote” ” an adventure” ” challenging” brings out the most moronic of the idiot drivers – a scary number of them. I don’t give a damn if they spoil their own rigs, and holiday plans, but object mightily when their stupidity affects the sensible minority.

Some 95kms along the Gibb, we parted company with M for a couple of days. She took the side road to Silent Grove and Bell Gorge and planned to catch up with us later, at Mornington. John and I had previously camped at Bell Gorge and it was now one of several places along the Gibb that was very popular, and hence often crowded.

Only a few kms after the Bell Gorge turn off, was the Imintji Store. This had not been here the last time we were at this end of the Gibb, and was linked to the nearby little community of the same name.

We’ already done 300kms since filling last at Fitzroy Crossing, so refuelled here – $1.85cpl. Bought an icy pole for John and a cold drink for me. Chatted a bit with the very nice lady behind the counter – she and her husband had been contracted to run the place for this season, on behalf of the community.

Another 25kms brought us to the turnoff we wanted, to the south east. A hundred metres or so down this road (which also went to Mt House Station), was a roofed shelter, housing a two way radio. All prospective visitors had to use this to call the Wilderness Camp, some 90kms distant, to see if there was a vacancy in the campground . This was very sensible of them – it was a long way to go, only to find one was turned away! There was no other legal camping until back on the Gibb. As they strictly limited the number of campers at any one time, to 25 vehicles/50 campers, there was a very real chance of the campground being full.

We were fine, there was room, and we proceeded southwards, on a route that was new to us.

The track was quite reasonable. It took us an hour and a half to do the 90kms. The scenery was really wonderful, particularly when we were running alongside a group of flat topped, mesa like peaks.

There were a number of dry creek channels to be crossed, and occasional ones with a little water in. For the most part, these had been smoothed out by the road grader.

Passed the turnoff to Mt House Station – a cattle operation that did not welcome visitors.

Navigating from a map with a scale of 10km to the cm definitely involved a degree of guess work, given the myriad of station tracks, not marked on the map. I thought I’d identified the turn offs to Moll Gorge and then the Tablelands Track. The latter, in particular, gave me some angst because, if I was wrong, we could have veered right when we should have gone left!

So, I was quite relieved, shortly after, to recognize the site of the old Glenroy Meatworks. We were still on track. This had been the focal point of the Air Beef Scheme, set up after WW2. Cattle from quite a wide radius were brought into the abattoirs/meatworks at Glenroy Station, slaughtered, and the carcasses flown, soon after, to Wyndham, where they were frozen for shipping onwards. So there had been a large airstrip at Glenroy. The making of the Gibb River Road, in the mid-60’s, provided the alternative to cattlemen, of road transport of stock to markets, and so the Air Beef Scheme closed down.

For the final few kms, were winding back and forth across stream tributaries of the Adcock River, an upper tributary of the Fitzroy River. Annie Creek, beside which Mornington Wilderness Camp is located, is one such tributary.

Drove through the campground area and found the main building a bit further on.  There, we booked in for five nights. Sites were $30 a night – no power, of course. Had to pay a $20 entry fee to the property, too.

There were really good, thick, woollen beanies for sale, with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy monogram on. I bought one – $20 – thinking it might help keep my head warm at night, when trying to sleep.

It hadn’t been hard to spend $190 here, in just a few minutes!

We then had to drive back to the camping area, which was strung out along the creek, and pick out our own site from amongst the empty ones. Sites were mostly just clearings in the bush, some of them off an access track that ran parallel to the road in.  Probably about half the sites were occupied – the very best of the secluded, shadiest ones, at the northern end, were taken, but we found a good place to set up in the more southern section.

The Wilderness Camp was within the Mornington Sanctuary – a former pastoral lease owned since 2001 by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. This private conservation group was doing great work on a variety of environmentally significant properties across Australia, underpinning their conservation efforts with really thorough scientific research.

I didn’t mind paying these sorts of fees when any profits went to support the work of such a group.

When we had been travelling in the Kimberley in 2000, I had planned for us to stay at Mornington, where the then station owner had set up a campground, like others that were springing up across the region, in response to growing traveller numbers. The remoteness of the place – being off the usual traveller route – had appealed to me. From there, we were going to try to drive the Tableland Track, back eastwards, to the Bungles area. But the fates intervened and that part of the planned Gibb River Road trek didn’t happen. When I read, the following year, that AWC had bought Mornington, I was sure the chance to explore that area was gone. But, the organization decided to keep a camp operation going – and here we were.

The campground amenities were very good, with flush toilets and warm showers.

There was also some safari tent accommodation in a different section further along the creek. There is only one commercial tour group allowed to access the property – Outback Spirit, and their tours use the safari tents. I believe that policy reflects a positive view about the environmental credentials of Outback Spirit. When we had worked at Adels Grove, that company had brought tour groups through; I always found them the best groups to deal with.

So, with limited numbers, the place never feels over run by people – unlike some places along the Gibb.

It was getting dark by the time we were fully set up. John found a small piece of board in Truck, that he normally used for packing between things. He was able to place that across the framework on my broken camp chair. With the addition of an old cushion – also used for packing – this would do me for the time being. The actual framework of the seat was quite sound, it was just the canvas seat that had weakened. We inspected John’s chair but the canvas showed no signs of tearing. However, he will be very careful when sitting down, to lower himself very gradually. I also had the option of using a little folding stool that occasionally saw use when John was fishing.

John also found that one of the front tyres was going flat – a slow leak.

We’d parked Truck in a way that would ensure there was still room for M’s rig, in case any other campers decided to set up in our little clearing.

It felt rather strange not to have M around camp.