East Pilbara to NW Coast

Wednesday, Nov 02, 2022 at 06:05

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

After leaving Newman and the wonderful waterholes and 4WD tracks behind us (see previous blogs) we were now 15 days into our trip and only 1000 km from home and it was time to get moving further north. This section of our blog covers the section we travelled up to 80 Mile Beach via the East Pilbara and beyond.

Whilst it was the middle of a cold July winter in Perth we were enjoying the warm Pilbara sunshine and felt very comfortable there so there was really no need to head further north from a weather perspective but we felt if we didn't go now, we might never leave and there was a the mapping and POI updates to get done.

Heading north along the Marble Bar Road the into the spectacular Roy Hill area, we were suddenly plunged back into work mode attempting to document the many changes that had occurred here. There is no longer any access to the historic mining area - it is all now a major active mining operation. This became a common theme through our trip. It is truly astounding to see just how much mining activity has increased in the last few years, I truly had little idea of the scale.

**Don't forget that all photos in this blog are cropped square thumbnails (even the large ones) - click to view original proportions**



On the outskirts of Nullagine, is a beautiful spot by the Nullagine River (day use only) called Garden Pool, where we stopped to enjoy some time and by the time we arrived in the township it was already mid afternoon and our intent was to do a quick "town documentation" flyby, head off into the Beaton Pool and Beaton Gorge area and then hopefully head out to the east to find a camp somewhere along the way towards Skull Springs. But whilst taking photos in the main street, I got talking to a quirky older local who has happy to tell me some stories and town gossip so it was very late by the time we started driving around the outer town streets and found the caravan park which had recently reopened after a 2 year closure (Nullagine was flooded in 2020 and the caravan park needed rebuilding).



We poked into the driveway of the caravan park to gather our updates for the Place content and was greeted by a very chatty, happy caretaker with a story all of her own. During this time, unbeknown to us, we had been spotted by Ray and Judy, a couple staying the park that we'd previously met back in Newman. They had tried to get our attention but we were too busy concentrating on the content updates to notice. We then left the caravan park to continue researching other town places of interest and eventually they caught up with us, chasing us down in their car. Ray and Judy were very convincing and encouraged us to return after we'd completed our exploring to spend the night at the caravan park to get to meet their friends, the caretaker, and to do a little demo of the Traveller app to everyone.

We discovered the track into Beaton Pool and happened to find a very stubborn wedge tail eagle there who was so intent on guarding his pool that I had to actually make a lot of noise to get these photos of him in flight. A most unusual thing for a wedge tail, I was too preoccupied to take a decent photo of the pool so a phone snap was all I got (the light was just all wrong).




We then picked up the track along the ridge line to view Beaton Creek Gorge. We had barely any sunlight left in the day so whilst the photos contain the fabulous golden hour light, we didn't have to time to explore more fully. Put it on the bucket list as a return to spot.



Back at the caravan park, we had apparently found locations that the caretaker who'd been in Nullagine for 3 years had never found - Beaton Pool and the Beaton Gorge area. They couldn't understand how we just happened to breeze in, and whizz around all the sights without any preparation. When we told them about our app and the mapping etc they were enthralled and insisted that we do a demonstration to the entire camping community that was staying in the grounds that night (only about half a dozen so not too daunting). We were also encouraged to ensure we spread the word about the caravan park's new facilities and being reopen.

By staying in the township we actually got to use the internet (4G mobile network on Telstra and Optus) and David made some modifications to the app and published a new version update to the app stores all from our camper and mobile service. We enjoyed being the first group of people to use the brand new facilities at the caravan park (see photos) and then we socialised with the lovely people that Ray & Judy had gathered together. We enjoyed this opportunity and found plenty to talk about with people who were vastly different to us but linked by a common interest in exploring remote places. By the end of the night, I had a couple of new addresses interstate and invites to camp/visit on our new friends properties, and some links to Facebook groups run by Brumby Supporters in the Snowys which is an interest of mine plus everyone went away to buy the Traveller app after we'd given a demo and answered all their questions.

By morning, we headed off (as did everyone else in the campground including the caretaker) along the Skull Springs Road. We all had different agendas and timeframes but it was good to know they all had their maps sorted now. The last time we had travelled this track our eldest child (now 22) was a little baby traveller with us and sleeping in a portable cot. We remember that trip very well - it was a census year and we had spent census night (one of the 7 nights) camped at Running Waters/Eel Point and didn't see a soul other than Woodie Woodie mine workers who popped in one morning for a picnic and left us with their food because we had been living on catfish caught on grains of rice. We were very keen to get back there and see how much it had changed but on that trip we had never been into the Skull Springs camp so that was our destination for today.



I cannot describe how much we loved this drive to Skull Springs - there were wildflowers, old mining ruins and relics and some side tracks. But best of all was Skull Springs itself which we reached at lunchtime.





When we first arrived to this spot, the track heads directly into what looks like a deep waterhole on a creek crossing - just a short, sharp dip in and out and then you hit an elevated bank of river pebbles with what appears to be nowhere to go. When we arrived, there was a crowd of 4WD vehicles all on this embankment and there didn't seem to be any room for us to exit the crossing so we got out and stared walking around to see what options we had. These drivers seemed to be having a day trip (having left their caravans setup at Carawine Gorge) and suggested we could drive in through the water crossing and turn immediately left to follow the path through the creek line to pick out a campsite. They seemed a little unsure that we'd make it with the camper trailer but had said there was a guy camped a little way down in a 4WD motorhome and that there was space there or we could try our luck continuing further on.



It looks quite daunting with the spring creek literally seeping up through the pebbles and running channels of water twisting and turning on both sides of the track and sometimes you have to drive through the water as you wind through the narrow channel of trees towards an unknown end where we were led to believe was a dead end on a larger pool of water. We reached it - loved it and began to plan our camp layout. We got bogged however trying to position the camper trailer whilst avoiding the overhanging trees but the front winch quickly solved the situation.



We only stayed here for 2 nights but it seemed longer as we had arrived at lunch on the first day. We did a lot of birdwatching, walking and exploring on foot. It really is a very special place but definately not for caravans. Our Ultimate camper is only 4.2m long (14 foot) and a tare weight of 800kg and yet we still got bogged in the soft section but only due to the tight, low speed turn. In actual fact, this become the first of a total of 5 bogs requiring winching that occurred this trip - all due to tight, low speed turns to position the camper in the "perfect" location so I have requested to David that we fit a diff lock. He can't believe his luck apparently - I just want the piece of mind and less hassle as in all situations we could easily have driven out with a bit more traction and the Max Trax are pain the arse and we don't use them. The winch is far easier, and David says he's happy to use the winch but I anticipate our luck with nearby trees could run out one day. I do have videos of almost all the other times so follow our blog and YouTube for the other 4 winching episodes!





On our 2nd day here, we heard the camper in the motorhome leave and another camper arrive but they setup a small tent in much the same location as had just been vacated which meant we were not within sight of one another. Later on they politely came walking towards our camp en-route for bird watching and exploring the area.

These photos illustrate how incredibly beautiful the area is when you explore on foot further downstream.




As the visitors approached us the gentleman spotted our number plate and excitedly introduced himself as John Beadle from Broome and told us he was a huge fan of our Traveller app and our maps and was on his way to Ruddall River (Karlamilyi National Park) via Christie Crossing and Hanging Rock and had been in discussions with Mick O for tips and advice. Long term ExplorOz users will know of Mick O but the newer users would not. Mick O is a bit of a legend explorer and a great story teller and documenter. His trips and blogs were much loved on our website for many years when he was actively out and about. He went places that were truly off track as he was usually on a mission with a quad bike team to locate places mentioned in the diaries of our early explorers. He was also a Forum moderator and much loved person in the ExplorOz community. He is still around but retired and enjoying a simpler life these days he says but I'm sure that's a subjective viewpoint.

Unfortunately, we could not offer anything additional to add to what John already knew about Karlamilyi (formerly Ruddall River NP) because our last trip was way back in 2010 and we didn't use the track he was using for our approach or exit. But he promised to stay in touch and update places as he explored. I think David was almost ready to adjust our travel plans to go with him as it sounded like a great adventure but I am the voice of reason...? and was too curious to revisit Running Waters and Carawine Gorge which were our next stops so we left John and went our separate ways.

On our way back out the Skull Springs entrance track we noticed the track marker had been removed!! We were stunned as we had only just commented that the whole reason we had never been here previously despite trying to find it about 20 years ago was that last time the marker didn't exist and there was no such thing as digital mapping in those days to help and we had only been given a vague description of where it was located. This is the photo I took of the quirky sign on the way in. Then in just 2 days it just vanished! Please enjoy this photo - its such a perfect example of Aussie bush humour to make a sign for Skull Springs that is so literal without any words. I just love it.



Moving on, Running Waters (or Eel Pool as locals used to call it) was easily found but again, no signage with words. Coming back 21 years later it was not as we remembered it initially until we came to the rocky section. We remembered that part! We came through the section that is used as a car park/camp spot for those that don't want to drive on and found it very busy. In fact so busy, there were groups of people walking back from the water to their cars, it was quite disconcerting to think that many people were here after being so isolated for the last few days just 30km down the track. That told us we weren't going to be camping here so as there was no point in proceeding with the camper hitched for the final section of track which started with a massive mud hole so we walked the last bit to the edge of the water. It was so crowded we didn't want to swim but my gosh it looked even more beautiful than I remembered it. In fact, we had not dared swim there 21 years ago as it was full of nasty, spiny catfish and was not at all inviting. I did feel a little disappointed that we couldn't stay or enjoy it but it was very similar terrain to Skull Springs with the beautiful paperbark trees fringing the water's edge and we had already enjoyed that so much so we agreed to continue on.





We had planned to take the shortcut to Carawine Gorge using the 4WD track via Upper Carawine Gorge. We didn't see a soul and found yet another magical camp. The obvious place to camp is immediately on the southern bank of the river crossing which you come to it, but I could see tracks on the other bank also and as we had arrived just after midday we had plenty of time to scope it out, so we crossed the river (easy) and then poked around the tracks on the other side but then made a silly mistake and crossed back into the river upstream of the main crossing and sunk down both the car and trailer. So, here's Episode 2 of our Winching video with a few photo teasers.





So after all the excitement of winching into camp, we settled back for a very peaceful stay. Just look at this incredible spot.




In hindsight, we made the mistake of continuing on to Carawine Gorge the next day, when we really should have stayed here longer but we would really never get anywhere if we don't move onwards.

Beyond this river crossing the track continues until reaching the bitumen on Woodie Woodie Road and then its just a short way along until you reach the turn off to Carawine Gorge. It was very hard to get a decent spot that offered deep water frontage to launch our SUP (stand up paddle board) so we drove around until we could find one.

A decent spot would mean there is some tree coverage for shade, the water access is not down a steep embankment into mud, and the ground is mostly level to layout your camp and not ontop of other campers.

Sadly, the devastating effects of the 2004 Cyclone Faye are still evident with no regrowth of the river gums particularly in the area directly opposite the main rock wall face that is the main attraction of the campsite.

There was plenty of evidence of saplings attempting to grow but they are being cut down by ignorant campers who no doubt use the branches for firewood or perhaps want to clear the area to fit in their big rigs - not sure what the reasoning could be. In addition due to the access road from Marble Bar being tar the whole way until the final 13km access track many people don't bother deflating their tyres and the area gets chopped up. In fact, the pebbly area that covers approx 200m all the way back from the water's edge is now quite complicated to drive with deep rutted loose grooves of pebbly sand and its very easy to get bogged when arriving towing your caravan, or even camper trailer. There were even moments with our little lightweight 4.2m Ultimate camper and V8 Landscruiser with 28psi pressures that we came close to bogging - but thankfully not.

The problem with final a nice camp, is we always try to reusing an existing firepit to avoid adding to the problem of too many fire pits. But some people really don't seem to know how to build a firepit or how to reuse one or leave one in good condition for the next user. And please I will take this moment to highlight you must BYO firewood to these pristine places - never cut down standing trees.





We stayed at Carawine for 2 nights - the first day, we were bothered by barking dogs and noisy kids whose parents didn't think to explain that sound travels over water and bounces off gorge walls. It was the last day of school holidays so we let it pass over us and finally enjoyed the peace once there was a mass exodus of campers the next day. Day 2 we enjoyed some swimming (cold) and SUPing up the river but a gale ripped through the gorge on night two and tore down our annex so we had to get up in the middle of the night to take it down and pack it away! It appears to be a common situation here - windy nights!

Next we moved onto Meentheena Veterns Retreat. We only recently become aware of this location earlier this year and Judy and Ray (whom we'd met back in Newman) had encouraged us to visit as they were good friends with the camp hosts and they would most likely be there by the time we arrived too. Sure enough, we drove in and there they were. Reunions all round however we wanted to camp alone, so found our spot on Tranquillity Pool. After dropping off our camper and setting it up, we went back to get acquainted with the property by talking with the Barb & Peter and thoroughly reading (and photographing) the mud maps and notes on the table in the office and then took off exploring.





We seem to have explored all the main sights on the property (Paperbarks Camp, Rocky Pool, Pelican Pool, Widgerina Rockhole & Petroglyphs Site, the Stromatolites, Long Pool, the Fluorite Mine etc) and was happy with where we had chosen to camp for the night at Tranquility Pool as all the other sights we visited that day didn't have any water views. Seems the rainy season was very poor earlier this year but I've seen photos of when it has been fabulous. After our big afternoon of driving and map checking, we came back to the main camp for the happy hour to socialise around the communal fire then went back to our quiet camp for dinner and sleep.

The next day we were off to Marble Bar but had to stop frequently along this well used road for Places updates and verification.

We agreed it was best to spend a few days at the caravan park in Marble Bar to utilise the internet service and catch up with work. We took a grassed unpowered site (we run the computers via a 2000W invertor that is topped up by the solar panels) and enjoyed the endless sunshine of Australia's hottest town in the middle of winter.

What a funny place, with funny people. It was a memorable visit on many accounts. Highlights included being brushed on the shoulder by a cow as it walked past me to jump the back fence whilst working on my computer at the campsite; finding wild horses (not brumbies, but released ex-racehorses) roaming around town; and seeing this amazing dog owned by the campers setup besides us (he's a harlequin great dane), and paying $9 for a lettuce (then realising it was the most perfect lettuce I'd ever seen and made giant San Choy Bow with it - yum!).







After 3 days of intense work without doing any touring, we headed off to check out the main tourist attractions (despite having been here previously) so we were hitched up when we went to see the former site of the Secret WWII Airbase at Old Corunna Downs Station where Australia helped the US Airforce hide their bombers.



It is very challenging to see anything tangible as it has all been long stripped of all the equipment and infrastructure and the runway was closed so we could not cross it to get to the ruins of the old homestead or the Ernest Cook Memorial that we knew were on the other side which was a shame. We tried numerous ways to get around both ends of the runway but the road blockages were too obvious and we didn't dare trespass despite it being only 150m to the other side and nothing visible of concern - however not long after, we heard a plane arrive so we suspect they just don't want people in the way - fair enough!



There was a group of Land Rover Discovery Club drivers also doing a similar thing. We did manage to find the dump site which is the only evidence of any infrastructure we could find. You can certainly just make out some of the bunkers and they look better from the aerial view too. There is only one signboard - which is the same as you will pick up in town. There is some good information about the history available which we have entered into the ExplorOz Place listing for this site.

After leaving the airbase, rather than return the way we'd come in, we tried to hack our way through minor station tracks to make a shortcut to visit Glen Herring Gorge and consider it for our night's camp. We were doing so well until.... we got into a quite overgrown area where the track all but disappeared and then we hacked around making some slow twists and turns and cross a few little sandy bumps and suddenly we in the middle of a wide open dry river crossing - about 150m across to the other side of very soft and deep sand and tiny coarse pebbles. We had let the tyres down to about 28 earlier in the day knowing there was unsealed but also sealed roads to traverse but hadn't had the need to let our tyres down to sand driving pressures but once we had lost momentum we couldn't get going again without spinning the tyres and digging ourselves in deeper and with no tree in sight the front winch was no use to us. Obviously the first option was to let out more air and that got us going a bit, but also needed to use the MaxTrax and we eventually decided it was time to give up on this route option so David spent a long time negotiating the u-turn and we got to the very edge of the riverbed but couldn't quite get up and over the little sand rise - there were trees here so we had to use the winch twice to pull ourselves through and then drive all the way back to an earlier junction we'd passed and took that route instead. We eventually came out onto bitumen so obviously had to inflate the tyres again. By the time we go to Glen Herring Gorge took some walks and photos and drove around to check it all out, the day was almost done but we decided not to stay. There was no water view or significant gorge view at the camp. As we pulled out, another camper camp in - they would have been happy as there is really only 1 very good camp spot here and we'd been parked up in it under the shady trees for the afternoon.



The plan was to continue north back up to Marble Bar and then onwards to either Doolena Gorge or Coongan Pool - neither of which we'd previously been to. We checked out Doolena first and found quite a few people already camped up in the ideal spots so we went over to the nearby Coongan Pool to se if that was any less busy - nope, in fact it was so busy we couldn't even get near to the river to see it, so we went back again to Doolena Gorge and tried to figure out how we get far enough away from other campers yet close enough to the views without getting bogged. In the end David told me to go for my sunset walk to get photos, whilst he put the camper into place.



On my walk into the gorge area, I met a lovely couple (Marty & Jenny) who were the ones we had been concerned about camping to close to. I apologised for our nearness (50m) but they were thrilled to met people and have a chat. In fact, I found them incredibly interesting. Marty was an ex military helicopter pilot from Qld that had done work with aerial mapping surveillance over this exact area and I was an interested in his stories of how it used to be done as he was interested in knowing how we were doing it now. Jenny & I shared an interest in photographing the birds, of which there were plenty. We saw a white sea eagle, an egret, pelicans, coots and ducks and black swans.

When we came back to our camps, we found David had decided to deliberately unhitch our camper trailer and get it setup, despite being bogged with full knowledge that he'd need to winch it out the next morning.

We all had a laugh and listened to David's elaborate (but ingenious) plan as this would involve pulling it forward unhitched from two different locations. First to bring it forward from the same angle it was parked to bring it in line with the ramp track out of the riverbed and then move the cruiser to pull it from the 2nd angle to turn the draw bar of the camper around by 90 degrees to then winch it up the little hill onto the firm ground where we could re-hitch.

As sat and contemplated this plan and sipped our wine we watched some more late comers attempt to drive over to the other side of the riverbed and they got bogged too so we didn't feel too bad after all.

In the morning, before we had even packed up our camp, a whole convoy of vehicles arrived. We recognised some of the vehicles as the same one's we'd seen back at the Corunna Downs Secret WWII Airbase. Their trip leader wanted to take the group across the riverbed but he got stuck (with a trailer) so they were all waiting around and got talking with us. More vehicles and visitors arrived (people who had been camped over at Coongan Pool) and eventually the place was completely jammed full of vehicles and people. But we were yet to do the winch pull out - so poor David had to accept he had to do this with a huge audience of strangers. Now, being the shy person he is, this would have been excruciating for him to endure but he did a brilliant job with the winch out.



From here, out trip involved a small backtrack to pick up the road to Shay Gap (via Warrawagine Rd). We had good memories of travelling this route many years ago but in reverse and this time we hoped to visit both Coppins Gap and Kittys Gap (which we have previously missed) and eventually end up on the Great Northern Highway on the NW Coast and be on our way to the Kimberley, perfectly timed to have avoiding the school holiday peak period.

Unfortunately, much of that didn't happen. The main sign turnoff indicates you can access both Coppins & Kitty's so we made a plan to head out to Coppins first then come back via Kitty's. Coppins was very dry so didn't live up to the expectations but we did the full walk in and explored some 4WD tracks. We got talking to a solo lady traveller who arrived for the weekend from Port Hedland and moved on, letting her camp the night there which was her plan. We continued onto Kitty's via a back route but on the final approach to the gap were confronted by "No Public Entry" signs due to mining. The mining operations appear to now be abandoned and the road through the gap was passable but shows it was a haul road and there was a modern, massive miners camp on the northern side. So its been like that for some time yet the signage off Warrawagine Rd still leads tourists there until the signs.



The track through the gap meets back up with the Muccan - Shay Gap Rd heading north and is very easy going. We picked a camp on the De Grey River called Muccanoo Pool, which I suspect is part of Muccan Station. There are multiple spots for camping along the river or set further back and there is mobile phone service. When full the pool covers an area of 10 hectares but even when quite dry as it seemed to be at this time, there was permanent water sufficiently deep for a good swim/clean off and lots of water birds. Our nearest neighbour came over for a chat and turned out to be an avid app user. He had a couple of questions and since there was internet service David put some hours into work. This is a really excellent spot - far better than you would expect off the side of the road. I got up to photograph the sunrise early then setoff for a humid morning 5km run and explored the area and finished with a much-needed swim.



The next section of the road is spectacular heading through Shay Gap. The natural gap in the mountains exists but the former iron ore mining town has been dismantled. We poked around and found some nice camps (good views, no waterholes) but we continued on through here directly north along the Boreline Rd to meet the Great Northern Hwy not far from 80 Mile Beach. We reached 80 Mile Beach at lunchtime which turned out perfect as its the ideal time to secure a campsite in a very popular spot that doesn't take bookings. There was a queue of vehicles & vans so I walked to the office and there was only 1 person standing in line in front of me so it was a simple matter to pay for 1 night and setup our site on our allocated spot. We used the afternoon to enjoy the beach, discuss our thoughts for the next stage of the trip, wash down everything and enjoy the ritual of watching the sunset over 80 Mile Beach.



That night, after hearing how busy people were finding the Kimberley, we decided on a change of plans. Instead of the Kimberley, we decided we may as well take the Kidson Track now that it was reopen for the first time in 3 years. The access is almost directly opposite the 80 Mile Beach access track off the highway but we had to get supplies so we drove to Port Headland (with the camper). There is phone service most of the way along the Great Northern Highway in this section so I was able to get all my planning done, make some calls, and get the permit online and check in with the kids back home.

We camped overnight at the De Grey River Rest Area alongside the Great Northern Highway (truly awful - overcrowded and no privacy) but we had no choice arriving on dusk with a light sprinkling of rain and reached the start of the Kidson Track (now officially called the Nyangumarta Hwy) the next morning.

For the continuation of this journey, see our next blog Kidson Track.

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David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
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Always working not enough travelling!
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