Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 22
A Cloud of Cockatoos

© Jens Hültman

Rock Art, Mitchell Plateau

Aboriginal Rock Art, Mitchell Plateau, WA

Dear Diary,

I’m camping here along the King Edward River. Every morning I go down to the river for a bath. I’m not afraid of crocodiles, since I swim just above the rapids and stay in the shallow pools. The dark red rocks have been polished smooth by hundreds of thousands of wet seasons. One morning I saw two black reptiles wriggling in a hole among the rocks. At first I thought they were black snakes. Then I thought they were pythons. I guess they must have been harmless Merten’s water monitors. When I’ve had my bath I go up to the camp, get the fire going, boil the billy, make tea and roast my sandwiches. I’ve rigged up my chair and table between the cliffs. I can hear the sound of the river in the distance.

One morning I walked back along the road and had a look at some Aboriginal Wandjina rock paintings that Ann had told me about. Their white faces without mouths stared at me. They looked very interesting, I wish I could understand more of their significance. The scenery is amazing. I love the flocks of corellas and white cockatoos making noise. Most of all I love the huge clouds of black cockatoos that pass above me. However much one fantasises about a sight like this, it is impossible to picture it. What you can see from a television program or in a coffee table photo book is but a pale reflection of the splendid scenery up here. I’m glad my brother gave me that pair of binoculars—and I very much regret that I turned down his offer to borrow the Australian bird book. These birds look so happy when they go about their business. I wish I could describe the wonders of nature up here. It seems to me that I ran out of superlatives down in the Hamersley Ranges and that the words never came back to me again.

Nigel and Pat were sure right when they praised the beauty along the King Edward. I’m glad they sent me up here. I spend most of the day lying in my hammock, reading a book. Tonight I’m gonna grill some chops and go to bed watching the stars from my sleeping bag. The 180° panorama is like a photo taken from a space shuttle. I wish that all my friends back home and down in Melbourne could see this. I have seldom been happier in my life; beauty, solitude and the absence of Eejits and business calls makes this experience special. I feel like I’m shedding all the worries and stress that I brought along in the back of my mind. I’m glad I don’t have a strict schedule. However, tomorrow I might get my ass moving and drive up to the falls. It will be hard to say farewell to the black cockatoos but I have to think about my rations that will only last for a few more days. Why don’t I have food for another week? I don’t want to leave.

The Mother of All Waterfalls

I had my last swim in the river in the morning. I cleaned the camp of not only my rubbish but also all the debris that various and sundry Eejits had left behind. I drove back through the grass. A party travelling in two Landcruisers camped along the river. The bonnet of one of the vehicles was open and various motor parts were spread on a blanket. It is an important rule in the bush that you always stop if you see a person walking or if their transport's broken down. The least you can do is to check whether they have water and food or if you can tow them somewhere. They were OK, they had ‘plenty of tucker’ and there was ‘ heaps of water in the river’.

Two elderly ladies, sisters, were travelling in that Landcruiser HJ60. They had gone to the right of the stones at the river crossing and got stuck in a hole. My instinct to go to the left had proved to be correct. The other vehicle had had to pull them out. Now the ladies’ engine was dead. John, the leader of their little expedition suspected that there was water in the starter motor. He had managed to pull the starter out and had taken it apart with the help of the Gregory’s instruction book that I carried. He dried the starter motor the best he could. I felt badly that I was not a mechanic and couldn't help. Water had leaked into many things in the ladies’ vehicle, including the flour, with which they calmly prepared a cake. They were so calm it was as if being stuck in a river was something that happened to them every other day—which indeed it did, I found out later.

The beginning of the road up to the falls was in horrible condition, though it improved when it reached higher ground. The drive on the Mitchell Plateau was easy. The unique flora features stands of Livingstonia palms. At the end of the road there is an improvised camping ground. Annoyed, I found that a helicopter was parked up there. So much for a bush experience. Gathering firewood was not easy. Previous 4WD tourists had pillaged and looted the area. There were a few other cars up there; I was back on the beaten track, though this was still the beginning of the season. I had cursed that the road that could easily compete with or even beat the Gunbarrel, but obviously it was not bad enough to keep people out. But what did I expect? Where there is a waterfall, there are Australian 4WD tourists.

I set out in the afternoon for Big Merten’s Falls. I turned on my GPS and recorded the position of the camp—I still played with the GPS and recorded positions as an exercise in how to use it and how to backtrack to the camp. I started to follow the white markings through the bush. First, you come to the Little Merten’s Falls, which is just a small set of rapids. A bit further along the track you find the Big Merten’s Falls, which look like a postcard from a South American jungle. It’s a Paradise Lost type of waterfall. My curiosity led me to continue along the faint track, following the white markers. Sometimes they were very hard to find. The path meandered through a wooded landscape with scarce gum trees and light as mild as in a painting by the Skagen painters. It continued dimly over red and black rocks and pushed itself through thick green bushes.

To my astonishment and delight, I found some rock paintings along the way. The ochre rock and red paintings glowed in the afternoon sun. This was happiness. Then I heard a majestic roar and realised that I had found the falls. I looked over the edge and gasped at the Mother of all Waterfalls that careened down deep—I don’t know how many hundred metres but, well, it is very far down. ‘Yeez, this is what I call a waterfall. This one for sure doesn’t muck around.’ The sound of falling water reminded me of Aquirre, the bizarre movie from the director Werner Herzog about Spanish conquistadors who, in searching of El Dorado, get lost floating down the Amazon River on rafts, and perish. Would there be any Indians in the bush screaming: ‘Meat, meat, meat is flowing by?’ All was tranquillity. I swam in the pond above the falls. The walk had been hot and sweaty. A white, grey and blue kingfisher patrolled the pool. Ah, how peaceful is nature when you lie listening to the roar of the falling water and birds singing—that is until a helicopter with tourists turned up, clicking away with their cameras.

I got out of the water and had a look at my watch. ‘Hmm, half past four, I’d better get my arse moving, it will soon be dark and it took me over an hour to walk out here—actually, an hour and a half.’ Get the bush gear back on: shorts with my pocket knife and compass in the pockets; boots and socks covered with gaiters as protection from mud, sticking grass and creepy crawlies; and the stinking everyday T-shirt promoting a competitor to the telecommunications company I work for, since I believe that competition is healthy. Hat and sunglasses. The backpack with the security box containing assorted things for making fires, for purification of water and calling for attention by search parties. Swiss Army knife. The water bottle—mandatory when you walk in the bush. Attached to my belt I carry the GPS.

Finding my way back proved much more difficult than finding my way up here. I could follow the river and the white markings, but they were very hard to find. I used the GPS to track my way back to the various way-points. However, there is a error in the coordinates, so it will only take you back to your approximate starting point. If there is an error of thirty-five metres on the wide open plain it doesn’t matter, but here I had to find the exact way-point where I had to climb back up a rock, and I had to do that many times over. Being thirty-five metres away from the ascent did not help me much. The GPS works well in conjunction with the compass, though. If you are far enough from a way-point, then the navigator will tell you the course. You then use the compass and your memory (or preferably your map) to find your way back. However, I did not have a detailed map, since I had been told in Broome that the road up to the Mitchell Falls was impassable.

It was getting close to dark when I had passed the Big Merten’s. Now I was close to the camp, but where was the river crossing? I couldn't find it in the deepening dusk, so I crossed the river where I could, resulting in some wet boots and pants. At the other side of the river there was grass, trees, grass, trees and more high grass. No track. ‘Bugger it, I’ll have to spend the night out here’, I thought to myself. I had my knife so I could make a bed of the grass. There was plenty of firewood. The security box contained matches and candles to make a fire. I thought of the morning dampness when I usually curled up in my excellent Norwegian Ajungilak sleeping bag, and regretted that I did not have a blanket of some sort in the backpack.

To blow my whistle like a lost Boy Scout would have been too shameful. I would rather put up with a night in the grass beside an improvised campfire. Blowing the whistle is not a literary expression. A whistle is a very good and inexpensive security tool. If you bushwalk with kids, then give them a whistle each and agree on a special signal if they think they are lost, something like two short, sharp blows. If they are lost, they should stay were they are, blow the whistle repetitively and then wait until an adult arrives. They should not blow the whistle if they are not in danger.

‘Let’s put this wretched GPS navigator to its final test’, I thought. I took it out and requested the lay line to the camp. It told me it was in another direction than I thought. Well, might as well give it a go. I took out the compass and started walking in that direction. It took me straight back to the camp. Electronic gadgets can be of some help after all, although the good old compass and a detailed map are still going strong. I had been a fool, as I had not told anyone about my plans to go bushwalking and when I was supposed to be back. I had not even left a note on Fidelity’s windscreen. Had I done anything as foolish as this out in the desert, then I could have ended up dead. I certainly learned a lesson.

Chapter 23 →