Remote, Rugged and Captivating

Inland Pilbara is hot, dry and dusty and there are very few towns or people. Places to get supplies or support are few and far between. The ground is rich in natural resources and mining companies are busy digging them up, transporting them to the coast and shipping them overseas. Most of the rivers are dry beds but their width show that when it does rain it is likely to flood. The far east of the region consists of deserts including the Great Sandy Desert, the Little Sandy Desert and The Tanami Desert. We just love it!

This trip we did a short (for us) loop around the top of Karajini to Auski, across country to the Newman to Marble Bar road, up to Nullagine and then east to Skull Springs, Running Waters and Carrawine Gorge and then back to Marble Bar and finally out to the coast near Eighty Mile Beach. 

All the mining in the region makes travel both easier and more difficult. The easier part comes from the network of well maintained roads and the more difficult from the traffic along the roads. Wide loads are common as the mines shift their heavy equipment around. This load was so wide we had to pull well off the road to let it past.

On dirt roads huge semi trailers create clouds of dust which are dragged behind them. Visibility can be zero so it’s just a matter of pulling well off to the side of the road and waiting for the dust to settle minutes later. Once away from the mines the roads might be rougher but the scenery is always captivating.

We made an overnight stop on the road between Newman and Marble Bar on the banks of the Fortescue River. It was close to the road but the traffic was minimal after dark and it was a very pretty place for a stay.

Midway between Newman and Marble Bar is the tiny town of Nullagine where we stopped for a rest break before leaving the main road and heading east toward the deserts.

When we visited this area six years ago we briefly visited a place originally called Eel Springs but now known as Running Waters and had the place to ourselves. Ever since then Paul has wanted to return to take photos of the twisted paperbark trees surrounding this permanent spring. As a bonus the water is crystal clear and even slightly warm as one of the springs comes from the artesian basin.

Well word has certainly spread about this place, it was busy. We’d left the coast because school holidays had started but seems like lots of other West Aussies had the same idea. We managed to snare a nice spot right by the water, someone had just left, and hoped to stay for several days. We swam and relaxed and Paul was out at sunset and sunrise and was pretty happy with his shots.

Unfortunately on our second day we acquired close neighbours who had a taste for heavy metal music and we decided to move on the next morning. After backtracking a little we turned off the road toward a camping spot near the Davis River. The side track was easy to find, it was marked by some animal skulls on a post so naturally the alternate name for the camp is Skull Springs. It was much quieter here, just one camp set up by the water and we decided to leave them to their peace and and we set up camp above the river bed in an open spot with scattered white gums around.

Our final stop in this area was at Carrawine Gorge, another favourite from our visit six years ago. That time we stopped for nine nights but this time the increased numbers of campers, the new vegetation along the water which impeded the views and the copious amounts of dust which billowed through many of the prime sites anytime a car drove past combined to shorten or stay to just two nights. It was still pleasant and the bird life was lovely but it was time to head for the coast and to clean up some of the accumulated dust.

Pilbara Jewel

Handrail Pool, Weano Gorge, Karijini NP

We love all of the Pilbara region of Western Australia and different parts have different treasures but the jewel of the region has to to be Karajini National Park. We’ve visited the park several times before but it’s a place you can visit time and time again to enjoy the wonderful country, the colours, the mountains and the deep gorges.

This is an ancient land; mountain ranges have weathered down and while they are still called mountains, Mount Bruce, Mount Sheila, Mount Nameless and Mount Meharry, in other younger countries they would simply be called hills.

Precipitation doesn’t occur very often but when it rains it pours. It’s a dry country now but there are still permanent water sources and the flat red earth is cut by deep gorges. From the top you can peer down into deep canyons to see waterfalls and rock pools. Several walking trails take you down into subterranean gorges. Our last visit was nearly six years ago and while Paul still tackled some of the difficult trails on this trip I lowered the bar and settled for moderate walks (up to class 4).

The first gorge we visited this trip was Kalamina Gorge. It’s one of the most accessible gorges and while not as dramatic as some we think it is possibly the prettiest gorge with some lovely little falls and reflecting rock pools. It’s in the middle of the park and on previous visits it’s been very quiet but word of its charm seems to have got out as the car park was nearly full when we arrived. We still managed to have plenty of quiet times to enjoy the beauty as most other visitors walked the gorge, possibly had a dip, and then left.

From Kalamina Gorge we travelled to our first camp at the national park campground near Dales Gorge where we stayed for three nights. The easiest entry into Dales Gorge is via a steep staircase down to Fortescue Falls. There were quite a few swimmers in the pool below the falls.

 From Fortescue Falls it is a short further walk to the idyllic Fern Pool.

Fern Pool, Dales Gorge, Karajini National Park, WA

The other entry into the gorge is via a steep path including a short ladder near Circular Pool. On our first evening we took a very pleasant walk along the rim. The late afternoon light displayed the beauty of the country and the wildflowers were a delight.

Circular Pool was closed due to a recent rock slide but the path through the gorge was still open and was a great walk on the next day.

About 50 km west of Dales Gorge several gorges meet and provide some of the most spectacular scenery in the park. We moved camp to best appreciate these places and spent the next three nights at the Karijini Eco Retreat. We stopped to enjoy the view at the lookout over Joffre Gorge and Paul returned there for some pre sunrise photography the next morning,

Joffre Gorge, Karijini NP, WA

The landscape and vegetation in this region is amazing and we never tire of it, especially when the sun is just rising or getting low and providing extra drama.

Weano Gorge with Handrail Pool at the end of the accessible area provides amazing rich colours

Another amazing gorge to visit is Hancock Gorge and at the end of a very tricky walk you reach the magical Kermits Pool where light bounces off red and gold walls to create magical waterfalls.

Before leaving Karijini we had one more stop. Hammersley Gorge is on the western edge of the park and has some amazing rock formations we have photographed in the past, This time we hoped to see the Spa Pool, a spot we had missed on previous visits. We reached the bottom of the gorge not long past sunrise and Paul began the scramble up the gorge toward the spa. I decided it was too tricky for me and picked my way up the rocky sides to a spot above the spa. From there I could see we had picked the wrong time of the day to visit as it was half in deep shade and half in strong sun.

Paul had a far more difficult trek to reach a spot where he made the same conclusion. Guess you can’t win them all. Anyway Paul managed a lovely shot of one of the small water falls and I enjoyed the amazing curves in the rocks.

If you have never been to Karijini you should put it on your bucket list and if you’ve only been once or twice or for just a short time it is certainly worth a return visit.

Time to Hit the Road

Hutt Lagoon

Travel restrictions are lifting and we’re ready to give up our life of luxury and get back on the road. In fact we probably need to as we’ve taken advantage of an excellent kitchen and good supermarkets to try out lots of recipes. Not that we rough it too much when we’re travelling anyway.

We have loved watching the ocean every day and sunsets have been different every evening. Paul made a short video of these for you to watch.

We have ventured out very little except for grocery shopping etc but we made it as far as Kalbarri when the travel restrictions eased in WA. Paul got some fantastic drone footage over Lake Hutt. From the ground the lake is pink but from above the light reflects differently and chemicals and algae in the water make stark contrasts in colour.

We then spent the night at Lucky Bay campground and continued toward Kalbarri the next morning stopping at some of the amazing viewpoints in the Kalbarri National Park.

A lot of our time has been spent on our computers. Paul has produced some amazing images, entered a couple of competitions and also spent a lot of time sorting through photos to update his photography web site. He has refined the content of his portfolio to contain the images he is most proud of. The ones on display will be rotated regularly so it will be worth revisiting it every month. As well there is a section of our travel photos. There are thousands and I have been busy sorting these and trying to get names and captions on them. Most are done, hopefully all will be soon. I really recommend you follow the link to whitefellawalkabout.com and bookmark it so you can keep an eye on it. My favourite way of viewing the travel photos is to select the first image in a collection (country or state) then use the full screen slide show option.

I’ve also been looking back through the posts we have written about our travels and decided there had to be a better way to read about particular countries or times. So I’ve added a tab to this site “Where Have We Been?” That tab will take you to an index to our posts about our travels in Australia, Africa or Asia or to the travel photos for each continent on Whitefella Walkabout Photography. I’d love to hear if you use these links and if you find them useful or interesting.

Anyway, where to next? We’ll be leaving on Tuesday of next week (9th June) and from here our initial plan is to travel up to Exmouth via the inland road and Kennedy Range National Park. Staying right on the ocean has been terrific but it will be great to see some red dirt, camp in the bush and take some interesting walks in the national park. Then we’ll head back to the ocean to spend two weeks at Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef for lots of snorkelling. Karajini and Carrawine Gorge in the Pilbara are next on our agenda and by then hopefully we’ll be allowed to enter the Kimberleys.

We won’t even try to guess what we’ll be doing after that. Of course it depends if borders keep gradually opening up and we have lots of options. So many places to go, people to meet, things to do and of course photos to take.

Bunkering Down

Celebrating our Luck

In these times we need to be adaptable and after changing our plans heaps of times, I think we are now up to Plan H, we are very lucky to have landed in a very congenial spot to sit this out.

I’m sitting in a very comfortable AirBnB in Geraldton, Western Australia, gazing out over the Indian Ocean with the waves breaking gently onto the shore. Sure not doing it tough. Travel restrictions mean that this place which is normally filled by overseas travellers should be available to us for as long as we need it. When I think how tough it is for loads of people the restriction of our normal travel is a very small price to pay.

We are on about the same latitude as the Gold Coast so the weather should be mild and with a very quiet beach in front of us we should be able to get regular exercise without getting anywhere near anyone else. A careful weekly shop should take care of everything else. Thank goodness for the internet so we can access loads of materials; books, films, on line courses, social media, music, etc. We each have our own workspace; Paul’s in a darkish room for his photography and mine is in a spot where I am surrounded by light, fresh breezes and views. A large kitchen will be a delight to work and cook in.

Anyway, one of the things I’m planning on doing is posting some of the travel photos we’ve accumulated in the time since we got back from India last June and which I haven’t got around to sharing. They won’t necessarily be in any order but hopefully you will enjoy seeing them. Meanwhile Paul has loads of time to work with his images from Australia and overseas and to dive into some more on line photographic courses. 

We hope all of you are safe and healthy and coping with the enforced isolation without going insane. 

Don’t want to make you jealous but check out our current residence.

On the Road


We are changing the way we will be sharing our stories and photos by separating our Travel Journal from our Blog Posts. In our Blog Posts we will be writing about particular experiences and places. They will be somewhat shorter than they have been and still include lots of photos. Our travel journal, which we have called “On the Road”, is now published and includes maps of different sections of our route as well as photos we take along the way. The “On the Road” Index Page can help you find particular sections you are interested in.

The first instalment of “On the Road” is available now and it covers our trip from the south of Ethiopia to South Africa. If you are interested in our “On the Road” travel journal then please follow the link to the Index Page and then jump to wherever you want to go to. We would love your feedback about whether it is easy to navigate around and any suggestions you may have.

Ethiopia Part 5, Lalibela

Sorting the Grains outside the Church, Lalibela, Ethiopia 2018

Boy, a long cold shower and a comfortable bed in Mekele sure felt good after our trip out to the Danakil Depression but we are ready to continue our journey the next morning. The post and photos for that section of our trip, Ethiopia Part 4, will be published shortly. We are back on the historical circuit in northern Ethiopia and Lalibela is our next and final destination for this section of our travels. We can take the main road south to Woldia then some rough roads back to Lalibela or just head out of Mekele on a back road which should take us all the way south to our destination. No contest really especially when we are told the back road is a bit rough but very scenic.

The scenery is all it is advertised to be and we are loving the drive. It’s slow going as long sections are undergoing road works and  we have to pick our track between piles of stones and dug out sections of the road. Parts where the road works haven’t begun are rough but much easier to negotiate. We travel slowly and stop often for photos.

We’ve been taking our time not worried if we make it through to Lalibela in one day or not but then a section of sharp stones makes the decision for us. We have a flat tyre and change it but within a few kilometres we have second flat, seems like we have left our purchase of new tyres a bit longer than we should have. With no spares we decide to stop at the next town and get some repairs before continuing onward. Sekota is actually the only town between Mekele and Lalibela which has a hotel we can stay at so we are grateful for a place to stay. In the morning we get plugs in the tyres and hope they will suffice until we can either get better repairs or new tyres. A cup of coffee in town and some bread rolls and bananas as we drive does us for breakfast and we are back on the road toward Lalibela.

Morning Coffee in Sekota on the Back Road between Mekele and Lalibela, Ethiopia 2018

There are some tricky sections and plenty more wonderful views so we are happy to see them in the morning rather than in the late afternoon after a long day’s drive.

We reach Lalibela and check out a couple of options to stay and settle on the Tukul Village Hotel. Tukuls are cone shaped mud huts but we are staying here because they also have a proper camping area and are very centrally located. We have met very few other overlanders while we have been travelling in Ethiopia and no other Aussies but here we meet up with an Australian family who are making their way from Namibia where they have been living and working for several years and are now travelling up to Egypt to ship their vehicle back to Australia. Its great to catch up with them and share some stories.

The rock hewn churches of Lalibela date from around the time of King Lalibela, 1181-1221, but there are differences of belief about why they were constructed and how long the construction took. Regardless of the answer they are amazing, they are all built below ground level and they aren’t just carved into the rock, they are freed from it. They are all used regularly and as well as tourists they are visited by numerous pilgrims and priests. Services are held in different churches at different times and religious festivals are celebrated with all night vigils with hundreds of white robed pilgrims.

As tourists we have to pay for entry but one admission price covers all of the churches and last for five days and covers all costs except for a guide. We arrange to meet a guide early the next morning, the churches are closed during the middle of the day so we will visit one group of churches in the morning and the other in the afternoon and then Paul can return to any he wants to in the next few days if he wants early morning or late afternoon photos.

The best known church, and the most photographed, is Bet Giyorgis, or St George’s Church. St George is very popular in Ethiopia and features frequently in the art work which adorns the churches. This church is carved in the shape of a 15 metre high Ethiopian Cross and is very well preserved. Some of the cavities in the walls surrounding the church hold mummified corpses. Its a place Paul revisits twice to take photos in different light.

So we can take as long or short a time as we want we generally like to wander around without a guide just using a guide book or descriptions to make sense of what we are seeing. Lalibela though is a place where a guide is highly advised as there are so many places to visit and passages and tunnels connecting them that on our own we would have quickly become lost and missed lots of places to see. And that’s apart from all the information we were given. One of the more interesting ways to get from one church to another is along a 35m pitch black tunnel which is known as the Passage to Hell. It is supposed to walked in the dark (watch your head) but we cheated and used a torch.

As we walk around the churches we see many priests, often sitting and reading their bibles. For once photographs are not only allowed but welcome and there is no mention of paying for them as the entry fee covers all photos.

There are also pilgrims visiting the churches. As they enter a church they chant and kiss the building before entering for their prayers.

The first church we visit in the afternoon is Bet Gabriel-Rufael, and we need to wait to enter as there is a service underway.

One of the later churches we visit which was probably my favourite is Bet Amanuel. It is the most finely carved church and may have been the royal family’s private chapel.

The interiors are often fairly dark but there are sometimes fascinating details.

The day is filled easily wandering around the churches. Some have weathered significantly and have been covered with metal roofs to protect them.

After a full day of wandering around the churches we are happy to have a rest day and we had thought we would leave on the following day, Saturday. Our guide tells us that there is a religious festival on Sunday and on Saturday evening hundreds of pilgrims will begin chanting outside one of the churches and will continue all night. We change plans and decide to stay until Sunday so we can visit the market on Saturday then visit the church late Saturday evening to see the pilgrims before we head out in the morning.

The Saturday market is large and has lots of country people as well as local town people attending. There are even some blocks of salt which have been brought by camel caravan from the Danakil Depression but the price has risen from the 6-9 Birr for a 5kg block which the salt miners get to 200 Birr per block.

The animal market is part of the main market and is held just a short distance down the hill.

Saturday evening we decide to eat at one of the restaurants before visiting the church. Ben Abeba is Ethio-Scottish–owned and is aptly described as a Dali-esque jumble of walkways, platforms and fire pits. It is perched on the edge of the ridge for 360-degree views and we arrive in time for sunset.

Unfortunately just after the sun has set the rain clouds thicken and we have to move inside away from the view. The food is very good but the rain doesn’t stop and we give up on the idea of waiting until later and then standing in the rain watching the pilgrims. Never mind, Lalibela was a memorable place anyway.

 

Ethiopia Part 2, Bahir Da to Aksum

Basket Market under the Fig Tree, Aksum, Ethiopia 2018

From Bahir Da we continue north on the historic circuit toward the royal city of Gonder but on our way we make a detour to the northern edge of Lake Tana and the tiny village of Gorgora. There are very few camp grounds in Ethiopia and so far we have stayed in cheap hotels but a Dutch couple run some cottages and a camp site on the lakeshore so we decide to take the opportunity to camp while we can. Hotels can be fine but our roof top tent is our own bed and while we are enjoying Ethiopian food it will be good to cook for ourselves from time to time. The camp area is pretty with heaps of shade and a pleasant outlook and our planned two night stay stretches to four before we are ready to go back to the well-trodden tourist trails.

We are travelling after the rainy season and there are crops being grown on every bit of flat ground and mountain sides except for the very steepest and highest rocky slopes. Most of the slopes are covered in terraces full of crops with all work done by hand. In the valleys there are flatter areas and more water so fields are larger and cattle are used to plow the fields ready to plant the new crops. Donkeys are often used to haul loads but if a cart or buggy is needed to haul goods or people they often use ponies.

We reach Gonder in the early afternoon and after our rest on the lakeshore we are keen to begin our sight seeing in this historic town. In the 17th and 18th centuries Gonder was the capital under Emperor Fasiladas and the population of the town grew to more than 65,000. Its wealth and splendour had become legendary with castles, banqueting halls and lavish gardens. It gradually declined and then later was looted by Sudanese Dervishes and finally bombed by the British in the mid 20th century. 

The Royal Enclosure will take hours to explore so we’ll save that for the morning but this afternoon we have time for a visit to Debre Berhan Selassi, one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful churches. Most of Gonder’s churches were destroyed by the Sudanese but Debre Berhan Selassi survived when a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound and chased the invaders away. It is situated on a hill top and enclosed in a walled garden with a grand entry. Paul enters the church through the front door and I cover my head and enter through the female’s door at the side. Its a grand building with fascinating old paintings including a ceiling covered with angels. The priest giving a tour shows how the drum is played and in very limited English explains the bible stories illustrated on the walls.

The painting at the lower right shows St. George killing the dragon. St. George features heavily all around Ethiopia, most often depicted as an Ethiopian which we enjoyed.

The Royal Enclosure is a ten minute walk from our hotel and we make our way there the next morning. The old Gonder city is a World Heritage site and the 70,000 sq m compound has been restored with the assistance of UNESCO. The are several palaces including the grand palace of Fasiladas and a smaller but fascinating palace of his son Iyasu I. We wander around these and other palaces, banqueting halls, churches and other buildings in varying states of ruin imagining life here when the walls were draped in gold cloths and adorned with paintings and mirrors and sumptuous furniture filled the rooms.

Not far north of Gonder are the Simien Mountains which have several peaks above 4,000 metres. We are keen to visit the National Park for the dramatic scenery and also for the chance to see Gelada monkeys and Walia ibex and perhaps the Ethiopian Wolves. Unfortunately a ‘scout’ who is an armed park ranger is compulsory in the park and while, over short distances, we can manage to carry a third person either sitting on the roof rack or squashed between us on the console, the distance we need to travel from the headquarters to the camping area is just too far. Very disappointed we continue on, we’ll have to make sure we visit some high country elsewhere in Ethiopia. 

As we descend from the foothills surrounding the Simien Mountain Range we are treated to some wonderful views over the valley below with a waterfall cascading down from the heights. 

Disappointed at not being able to stay in the mountains we end up travelling on to the next town on the historic circuit, Aksum, arriving after dark. In the morning we set out to explore and find Aksum to be a charming town. The streets are wide and clean, the people friendly and there are things which catch our eyes everywhere we look in both the old town and the newer sections.

There are many mysteries and legends about the history of Aksum. According to some the Queen of Sheba lived here and the Ark of the Covenant which holds Moses’ 10 Commandments is kept here in a small chapel. Maybe those Knights of the Round Table were looking in the wrong place all that time. Whether those facts are correct or not, Aksum was certainly an important place from around 400BC and continuing for at least 1000 years.

Ancient obelisks are scattered all around the area and one of the most important groups in the Northern Stelae field. Here there are three enormous standing rock needles, an even larger collapsed one and several other smaller obelisks. As well there are underground mausoleums and other smaller stelae to see and far more underground tombs and treasures which have not yet been excavated. The fallen stele, also known locally as King Ramhai’s Stele,  is a massive 33m and is believed to be the largest single block of stone that humans have ever attempted to erect. At 24.6m high and 170 tonnes, the Rome Stele is the second-largest stele ever produced at Aksum. In 1937 the stele was shipped to Italy on Mussolini’s personal orders. On arrival it was reassembled and raised once more in Rome’s Piazza di Porta Capena, where it was known as the Aksum Obelisk. It remained in Rome until 2005, when decades of negotiations were finally victorious and was returned to Aksum that year and Unesco raised it in 2007, just in time for the Ethiopian millennium celebration

Behind the stelae field is a small but very impressive archeological museum. We spend quite a while wandering through it absorbing the tales of the kings and seeing items recovered from tombs. Videos are playing in one section and as well as providing us with a cool place to sit on a very hot day we enjoy seeing some of the impressive scenery in the north of the country and hearing about the rich history.

We pass up visits to the old (men only) and the new (women allowed) Churches of St Mary of Zion and the Ark of the Covenant Chapel. No-one is actually allowed to see the Ark and only one guardian is allowed to even enter the chapel. Instead we admire the buildings from the outside and spend our time wandering around the streets in the Old town and also the newer areas of Aksum. 

Buildings are frequently made from rocks but newer ones have been rendered and often painted in bright colours. There isn’t a lot of traffic in the side streets and when kids playing in the streets see Paul wandering around with his camera they like to pose and then see themselves in his view finder.

Several markets are held regularly in Aksum and the most colourful is the Saturday Basket market where people come to stock up on high quality Tigrayan workmanship. If space allowed I would love to have purchased a good range of baskets.

The Basket market is held under a huge fig tree so its a great place to spend time and enjoy a coffee.

Late one afternoon we walk up to the Yeha Hotel which is perched on a bluff overlooking the Stelae field and the Mary of Zion churches. Its a great place to enjoy sunset drinks and while we are there we hear the bells calling worshippers to prayer. On our way back to town we pass the old church and see many of the female worshippers lining the fence and listening to the service broadcast over speakers.

 We loved our stay in Aksum and are tempted to stay longer but after three nights we need to move on and continue our journey around the historic sites.

Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park

 

Kgalagadi NP - 11

A Field of Springbok

When we visited Botswana last year it was towards the end of the dry season and the weather was getting very hot. Too hot, we decided, to visit the desert areas of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park. We promised ourselves we would return to travel in those areas when there had been some rain and the temperatures would be more comfortable.

After we flew back into South Africa in early March it took us two busy weeks in Johannesburg to finalise all the changes we wanted to the fitout on our vehicle and to spend time with Paul’s mother, sister and other family members.

Because we had sold the trailer we needed to make numerous changes to the fitout of the Toyota so we had more fridge, fuel and water capacity and space to fit in all the things we would need to carry to make our lives comfortable and safe for the next two plus years, including of course all Paul’s camera and computer gear. We also wanted a new roof top tent which was more comfortable, easier to set up, and had more air and light as well as a new awning to provide better shelter. While we were out of the country Gary had completed lots of work re-fitting out the interior of the land cruiser. He had installed our new fridge where the back seat had been and made a great shelving system next to and in front of it so Paul could securely stow all his camera and computer gear and still be able to easily access it all. A new water tank and gas bottle carrier had been ordered and our new roof top tent and awning was due to be installed a couple of days after we arrived. The roof rack had been modified to allow them to fit and Jerry cans and our storage box for awnings and mats were in place. Other handy features Gary had designed and built were tables which could be clipped on to both sides of the rear of the truck or on top of the drawers at the back and a wash basin support which fitted on to a rear spare wheel.

We were very happy with all the high quality work he had completed and after living with it on the road for a month we are even happier with it all. Thank you Gary.

Paul would still need somewhere to set up his iMac to process his photos so we bought a ground tent we could set up when we were staying put for a little longer.

By the time we had had the roof top tent, awning, water tank and gas bottle carrier fitted, had the car serviced, found and bought a list of items we needed, stocked up our provisions, caught up with some people we had met on our last visit and installed the solar panels we were just about out of time and Paul struggled to find time to reorganize his photographic files and process a few to share while I juggled everything to make it all fit in the car.

It was time to get back into the bush and we headed west out of Johannesburg in the pouring rain two weeks after we landed in South Africa. By mid afternoon the next day the weather was hot and sunny and we were checking into our campsite at Twee Rivieren at the South African entrance to the Kgalagadi Park.

All together we spent six nights in the park, two at Twee Rivieren and two at Nossob in the South African section and one each at Polentswa and Swartpan in the Botswana section. We also had one night just north of the Kaa gate in Botswana. We took drives each morning and afternoon so we had a good chance to explore quite a lot of the area.

Beautiful Gemsbok, also called Oryx, were abundant showing why the South African section used to be called the Gemsbok National Park. Springbok were the other very abundant type of antelope and we also saw wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, and bush duikers.

Other animals we saw included zebra, black backed jackals, a bat eared fox and lots of ostriches. I finally saw some meerkats and loved watching them standing upright and peering all around before scurrying back to their holes. We also saw lots of social weaver nests, they are quite a feature of the park. We had a distant sighting of a cheetah but hardly enough to pick out its markings as it rested in the shade of a tree several hundred metres from the track.

Even though we didn’t see any of the lions which are one of the main draw cards of the Botswana section of the park we enjoyed the rugged bush scenery and and the general feeling of isolation.

When we left the park we drove just a short distance from the gate to the Kaa pan where herds of springbok, Oryx, Eland and Wildebeest grazed on the short grass covering most of the area. We decided it would be a good place to make a bush camp and have a good view of the full moon a well as a good chance of seeing more wild life in the morning. We selected a spot well clear of any trees or bushes so we had a good field of vision and settled down to enjoy the views.

About 2.00 am we woke to the cough of a lion. Instantly wide awake we peered out of the windows and, under the light of the full moon, we could make out a distant movement. As we watched we saw more movements and eventually we had a pride of at least seven lions, including two large males, circling our vehicle. The nearest was a curious female who approached within 50 metres. We felt quite safe in our hard topped roof top tent, well pretty safe anyway, but we certainly weren’t venturing out of it to get a camera to record the amazing experience.

The show continued for an hour or so but finally they lost interest in us and faded away into the night. In the morning there was no trace they had been there, with just a few springbok grazing as the mist lifted. The drive out to the main road continued for the next couple of hours through this buffer zone surrounding the park but eventually our sightings of springbok and other wild game gave way to sightings of cattle and goats, and, as we began passing people and villages the road turned to bitumen and this part of our Botswana adventure ended. Onward to the next!

Kgalagadi-8

Springbok grazing as the mist rises at Kaa Pan

Gracious Luang Prabang

Grand old car and grand old building in historic and gracious Luang Prabang

The city of Luang Prabang sits on the mighty Mekong River in the north east of Laos. At its heart is the charming and historic old town which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List of important cultural sites. It’s an easy place to visit with an international airport and plenty of accommodation and dining options to suit all budgets and, in our opinion, should be on everyones ‘must see list’. It’s the last destination on our trip to northern Thailand and Laos and it’s a charming city in which to wrap up our visit to South East Asia.

The entire old town in Luang Prabang is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List of important cultural sites and it was a treat to wander around and look at all the French Colonial Buildings and take in the atmosphere.

Buddhist Temples abound, large and small. It’s very easy to find yourself on quiet back streets or lanes with no other tourists around and maybe monks sweeping leaves in the temple grounds.

Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula with the wide Mekong River flowing past one side and the much smaller Khan River forming the other boundary. During the dry season bamboo bridges are built to allow locals to cross the smaller of the rivers to other parts of the city. Ferries shuttle non-stop across the Mekong to carry people and vehicles across its expanse.

Other interesting places we found on our ambling walks were fabric and weaving showplaces, photographic galleries, great places for coffee and amazing croissants. On our wanderings around the town we meet up with a fellow traveller from China. Like us he travels in a 4WD and he has had some great experiences travelling throughout Asia, including Mongolia which is on our must see list. Paul and he made an instant connection. He is also an artist but while Paul works with digital photographic images, he paints on canvases and the top of his vehicle is stacked with new canvases and half the interior is filled with completed works. When he runs out of room he ships them back to his home in China and has new canvases sent onward to him. He took a liking to Paul’s hat and they traded for a photo.

Paul meets a fellow traveller who wanted to swap hats.

Every morning the monks from the many temples collect alms from the faithful followers who line the streets. Paul was out early on several mornings to capture more images of them.

We treated ourselves to a very comfortable room in a guest house overlooking the Mekong. From our balcony we could watch the sun setting over the river or, if we wanted a view unobstructed by branches, we could simply cross the road to a bar opposite and enjoy our sundowners there. At the end of the dry season a lot of fields are burned to prepare them for the next planting and the continual haze in the sky creates a very red sunset.

After our sundowners we would set out to find yet another wonderful place to eat. With its French and Asian influences combined with a constant tourist population, Luang Prabang certainly has lots of good places to eat. The cheapest place for an evening feed is probably in the night food market where less than $2 AUD will get you a plate you can pile high with all sorts of vegetarian food and for a little more you can choose what meat or fish you want grilled. You can then grab a Beer Laos and sit on of the bench seats opposite the stall and chat to other people while you wait for the meat to be cooked.

The night food market is in a small lane just off the main street where a night market stretches for half a kilometre. Lots of local crafts are for sale there or alternatively you can stop at a smaller market which operates all day. Next to it we found the best spot for mango smoothies, or any other type of smoothie you want. As well as any fruit you can add peanut butter or Oreo cookies, but we’ll stick to our mangoes! Our favourite restaurant is deep in the heart of the old town, a tiny place with just five tables and a counter and often people standing patiently in the street waiting. It certainly rated a return visit.

Tuk tuks patrol the streets and congregate on corners seeking passengers. The most common offering is a trip out to Kuang Si Waterfall and it is well worth a visit. We agree on a price and travel 30km out of town to the falls. They are in a large reserve with a ten minute walk to the beautiful falls. The crystal clear water has lots of calcium in it and smaller falls cascade through a succession of pools. Swimming is allowed in some of the larger pools a little away from the main falls.

After enjoying the beauty of the falls and the pools and green rain forest areas surrounding them we return to entrance calling into the Sun Bear enclosure on the way. Then we walk down the hill for a couple of hundred metres to a Butterfly Park. Beautiful orchids and other flowers line the path on the way to the enclosure and the splendid array of butterflies provide even more beautiful colours.

Finally it’s time to finish this section of our adventures and take a long plane flight on to Johannesburg in South Africa to experience more of that huge continent. Backpacking has been fun and I’m sure we’ll incorporate more side trips like this in our future travels.

Heading on to our next adventure

 

Trekking and Rafting in the Lao Jungle

TrekRaft - 10

Heading into the Nam Ha National Protected Area

We are sitting on the banks of the Nam Ha River in northern Lao thinking life doesn’t get much better than this. We are in the tiny village of Nalan Neua surrounded by rain forest in the middle of the Nam Ha Protected Area. To get here we’ve had a day’s trekking with our guide Toua through the rain forest up and over a steep hill and down to a small creek which we then followed for another hour to the village. We arrived sore, sweaty and tired but a rest and a swim in the cool river have helped a lot and a Beer Lao while we sit on the banks with our feet in the river is fixing the rest.

On the way here Toua cooked our lunch at a clearing in the forest at the top of the hill. The table and benches are totally constructed from materials that were gathered there and Toua made a pot from bamboo to cook a mushroom and herb soup to accompany pork barbecued in split bamboo and sticky rice, lettuce and pork salad bought in the market in Luang Namtha this morning. The soup was simple with a couple of different types of mushroom, some wild greens and a bit of mint, water, two types of salt, a few whole cloves of garlic and a couple of whole chillis for luck. Toua is a member of the Khmu people who follow an animist religion and, once the meal is served, he takes a small ball of sticky rice, touches it to the different foods saying a quiet invocation to the spirits and tosses it into the forest then repeats the process tossing the second ball in the opposite direction. We aren’t sure if the blessing made any difference but the food sure tasted delicious, it is certainly one of the best meals we have had in our whole trip.

The beginning of the trek, when we left the road behind was very steep but fortunately the steep section was not too long and the track settled into a gentle climb and we could gather our breath and enjoy the scenery on the way up to our lunch stop pausing a few times along the way to enjoy the forest. The trek down the hill was much longer and very steep all the way, pretty hard on our old joints even with the bamboo walking sticks that Toua cut for us, so it was lovely to get down to the pretty creek. Our progress was slowed by numerous rocky creek crossings we had to negotiate and photo stops to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.

Nalan Neua has a population of over 200 Khmu people in 30 families. The Khmu people migrated from northern Cambodia 2,000 years ago. Each family has two or three elevated huts. One is used for sleeping and for guests, another for cooking, and if they have a third it is used for storage. We are here in the dry season so much of the cooking is done outside on small communal fires so they can socialise while they prepare their meals.

A road into the village was completed a year ago. Before that the only way in was to follow a walking track or travel upriver by boat. New Zealand provided financial aid to build a primary school for the children, pipe drinking water from a stream high on the hill opposite the village and bought small hydro electric units to supply each family with a limited amount of power. The large school building has three rooms but only two are used at present and there are two teachers for the five year levels. Children attending Secondary School in Luang Namtha stay in a dormitory in town during the week then return to the village Friday afternoon. During the weekend they gather food to take back for the following week and they return to town on Sunday afternoon.

Soule, our second guide for the next day of our trip, was waiting for us in the village when we arrived. He’d come in with a raft which we are going to use on our way down river. After our relaxing swim and beers, and a quick nap for some, Toua takes us for a walk around the village explaining different aspects of lifestyle and culture while Soule begins organising our evening meal with the help of one of the local women. When the meal is ready she joins us together with Toua and Soule. We eat by candle light with our fingers and spoons from the dishes which are served on a large banana leaf. Sticky rice is eaten at every meal and is formed into balls and dipped into dishes. Sure cuts out the washing up! After our meal we sit around a fire while Soule goes frog hunting but it’s an early night for us after an energetic day.

Paul has an early start with more photography.

Breakfast of sticky rice and an omelette cooked with tomatoes, garlic and herbs is complemented with some barbecue frogs. They are tiny with soft bones and eaten whole. Guess what, they taste like chicken.

Barbecue frogs for breakfast, Nalan Neua

Stomachs full with sticky rice yet again we stuff our gear into dry bags and hop onto the inflatable raft for our trip down the Nam Ha River. Soule is on the front, Toua at the back and Paul and I have a side each. We all paddle but Soule has the trickiest task of getting us over the rocks in the numerous small rapids. It is fairly late in the dry season and most tour companies have stopped rafting or canoeing on this river but with only four of us in the raft plus skillful guidance by Soule and energetic paddling by all of us we bump our way through most of the numerous small rapids scraping the bottom of the raft on the rocks as we go. The few times we get hung up on the rocks Soule hops off the front and drags us through. The only time we all need to get out is when a fallen tree blocks the river and we all need to get out and lift the raft over a large branch. It’s lucky the inflatable raft is strong enough to handle this rough treatment but it still needed to have the air topped up before we started rafting in the morning and after our lunch break and we had a small amount of water sloshing around our feet, just enough to keep them cool.

The trekking yesterday was great but this is even better as we drift and paddle through pristine rain forest. The forest comes right down to the river and at times we have to duck to dodge overhanging branches. Strands of bamboo appear amongst the tall trees and hundreds of shades of green delight our eyes. We hear quite a few birds and see a few but the flying creatures we see most are brilliant butterflies providing splashes of colour. As we float along Toua and Soule are softly singing traditional Khmu tunes, a perfect soundtrack for the voyage.

 

The only people we see while we’re in the Nam Ha Protected Area are in two other villages. The first is another Khmu village very similar to the one we stayed at last night. The next, NamKoy, has people from a different tribe, who are originally from China and their huts, language and way of life are quite different. Huts are not elevated and have no windows, just a front door used for most purposes and a back door to let the evil spirits out. The general level of health and vitality appears less although we don’t stay long enough to really know.

We stop along the way for lunch, not a barbecue this time but some delicious dishes including sticky rice, a couple of types of pork and vegetables, bamboo shoots and a chili dip. These were prepared in the village before we left and we eat with our fingers from a banana leaf. The river shore we landed upon had dozens of butterflies with colours of yellow, green, blue, black, gold and more.

More wonderful scenery follows our lunch break and by mid afternoon we reach the end of the Nam Ha River where it joins the Nam Tha River. This is the boundary of the NPA and one side of the river is covered in plantations and the trip is far less enchanting. Most of the tour companies are only kayaking and rafting down the Nam Tha, we are sure glad we found the one to take us deep into the forest.

We drift down to the next village where a songthaew meets us and transports us back to town. We have sore muscles for the next couple of days but we are taking away memories that we will treasure.