Camping at Cheela Plains

Days 381-382

I wanted to stay an extra day in Exmouth, but my room at the campground wasn’t available any longer. I checked out, but it was too early to check into the motel that I booked. Instead, I drove an hour to Mandu Mandu Jorge. The nice thing about Cape Range National Park is that it isn’t built up. Exmouth is on the other side of the peninsula. To get to the Reef and the park with great hiking, you have to drive around the peninsula because there aren’t any access roads connecting the two sides. It keeps it natural. 

I planned on hiking in Mandu Mandu Jorge, and there was a sign at the beginning of the trail. It said roundtrip was three kilometers (1.8 miles), but people should allow themselves two hours to complete the hike. Two hours for such a short hike?! It described the route as, “A moderately difficult return trail winding its way along the rocky creek bed, deep into the gorge. A steep path takes you up onto the gorge rim, where on your return, you can enjoy the views over Ningaloo Reef and the surrounding country.”

When I hiked in Kalbarri, I discovered an insane hike, involving having to slide on my hands and knees. The sign warned, “Please note: Steep gradients and rough, uneven surfaces occur along this trail.” There were additional warnings about the heat and a “cliff risk area.” 

The first half of the hike wasn’t bad at all. I walked along the rocks in a dry riverbed at the bottom of the gorge. The walls were made of beautiful red stone and had sharp edges. Trees and bushes were scattered around. The rocks started to hurt my feet because they ranged between one inch to five inches. There wasn’t any flat ground; it was all rocks. 

The trail started to go to the left, up to one of the side walls. At first, it was steep, but it was reasonable. It quickly got steeper and steeper. Thin, white poles marked the trail, so I had to keep searching for them, to know which direction to go. 

Then the trail started to turn into rock climbing. Now I understood why the sign had warnings and why it said it would take two hours. 

I reached the top, exhausted and sweating. The views were spectacular, however. I could see the ocean in the distance and the bottom of the gorge that I had walked through. As I walked across the top back towards my car, I realized it wasn’t completely flat. 

The trail started to dip up and down. When it did, there were steep, sharp rocks to climb down. Some places had such a big step that I had to jump off. One area, I sat on my butt first and then jumped off from there. I was the only person around and hoped that I wouldn’t fall. 

Can you spot the white pole, indicating the trail?

I thought the Kalbarri hike was just a challenging hike, but I soon realized that Australian trails are slightly more complicated. They are not maintained like they are in the U.S., and there are many sections that the U.S. would probably deem too unsafe for the public. I liked that Australia was still rough and wild. 

Once I finished my hike, I drove across to the Ningaloo Reef. There was a beach there with outdoor restrooms. I changed into my swimsuit and laid on the sand, enjoying the crystal clear water and breeze. 

I put my phone in my car and put my car key inside a waterproof bag that hung around my neck. It was designed for a phone, but it would do. I was too afraid of someone stealing my stuff, but I wanted to snorkel. 

I was a little nervous because I was alone, so I stayed somewhat close to a few other people and made sure that I didn’t go too far out because of the current. The snorkeling was incredible! I couldn’t believe how brightly colored the fish were. Some had yellow, green, and purple stripes all over them. There was a huge variety, and some were very large. 

I laid out sunbathing a little more before hitting the road. By the time I got back to town, it was 5:00 pm. I checked-in to my motel, and the owner showed me around. It had a shared kitchen, living space, and patio. My room was basic, but the grounds were beautiful. I showered and started my laundry. I walked down the street and ordered some fish and chips for take-out. I know, it’s sort of messed up that I just enjoyed swimming with fish and now I was eating some. Oh well. 

The next day, I checked out of the motel and stopped at the post office, and then an electrical store searching for an SD card reader. The photos from my hang glider flight were on an SD card, and I couldn’t access them without a card reader. Exmouth is a small town, so I had no luck finding one. I stopped at the grocery store for some food and couldn’t resist the nearby bakery. 

I hit the road, en route to Karijini National Park. The drive was mostly flat, but small hills were popping up here and there. I inserted the new CD that I bought from a local band and was feeling great! 

The roads were mostly empty. I couldn’t believe this was the “busy season” with the school holiday. It still didn’t come close to the crowds you’d see at a national park in the U.S. I stopped at a gas station, where it was mostly campervans. 

I continued my drive and noticed free-ranging cows on the side of the road, which was a first. There were even some babies following the larger cows around. 

After driving almost 300 miles, I saw a sign for accommodation and camping, along with stargazing. It was 4:00 pm and I didn’t have anything booked because I was considering camping that night. I pulled down the gravel road, and there was nothing around. After a couple of minutes, I went up a hill and on the other side was a campground. 

I walked into the small office at Cheela Plains Station, and the woman told me that to put my tent on the grass would cost $15 a night, and a room would cost $110 a night. The rooms were in trailers and small. The campsite was also small, with a circle of grass. Campervans lined around the ring, but there were only about ten other guests. Outside of the grass was desert. The woman told me that if I stayed there, I would have access to a nearby property privately owned by the station owners, and I could hike there. She said there was a gorge and a cave. Also, they were offering star tours for $30. The woman explained that I could hook up my phone so I could capture the moon and planets. 

I decided to use my tent because I thought it wouldn’t be as cold as it had been in the south. I booked two nights so that I could hike on the private property the next day. I set my tent up and then got my table out.

The sun was starting to set, and a few people played frisbee in the grass. I cooked myself a cheese quesadilla. There was a large community bonfire going a few spots away from me. A man walked over while I was cooking and talked to me about my travels. He told me that I should go to the bonfire. 

It was dark outside, and I decided to join everyone at the fire. I chatted with a woman and a man who retired from a small town outside of Melbourne. They were originally from New Zealand but had been in Australia for ten years. The husband used to manage construction sites and traveled all over the place. The wife worked part-time at the post office. They were spending a few months driving around. 

I still needed to do my dishes, so I took them to the camp sink. An employee walked over and told me there wasn’t any hot water and said I might need to boil some water. I thought it was fine, so I just used it as is. The man was friendly, chatting as he cleaned up the area. He looked like Crocodile Dundee in his shorts, a short-sleeve green button-up shirt, and a hat. The man kept saying, “no worries at all.” I told him that he reminded me of Crocodile Dundee, and he said he’s been told that a few times.  

I joined the people at the fire and talked with a woman from a small town close to Bridgetown, where I did a house sit. She makes various jams and does a circuit around the outback three times a year to sell the jam outside of stores. The woman only has to pay for the table and space and then spends about three days in each city. To me, it seemed pretty fun, but the woman looked exhausted. I decided to help her out and bought a jar of Mulberry jam for $10.  

Next, I talked with “Crocodile Dundee man” and his wife. They’ve been living in a campervan since 2010 – almost ten years! The couple had been driving around Australia, finding work whenever it came to them. They reminded me of the woman I met in Coober Pedy. She and her husband were also traveling in a campervan, and they stopped at places for one to two months to work. 

Crocodile Dundee man told me that they have been to Southeast Asia, Canada, and Alaska – just like me! They prefer to be in a place no more than three months, but they spent eight months in Coober Pedy because it was great pay. They were running Faye’s home while there. I told the couple that I did a tour of Faye’s house while I was in Coober Pedy. Crocodile Dundee said the new man living there (and giving tours) wasn’t telling the story right and blocked off one of the bedrooms (because they stayed there). There was a story to be told about that room. The couple also knew Aaron, who provided the day-tour all around Coober Pedy. What a small world – that was thousands of miles away! 

Crocodile Dundee’s wife, Chris, said they were at that station for two weeks, working. It had been one week so far. She looked off into the distance and said that sometimes she sees people driving off and thinks, “that should be us.” I asked Chris if it was hard living in a campervan for so long because I’ve considered it. She explained that sometimes it is hard “living in a shoe box” for so long, but she didn’t see themselves living in a house again. When her husband annoys her, she tells him to go for a walk. 

Chris told me that they did some house-sitting for friends and from websites, but they quickly started to get the itch again. I was interested in this lifestyle and asked her how they find jobs for work. They use websites like “gray nomads,” for older people. Sometimes, they’ll ask places if they need extra help. They didn’t get paid at the station we were at, but they got free campervan space, water, and electricity. Chris said, “All we need is some money to live, like for food.” 

It was time for the stargazing tour, so I joined a family with two daughters who appeared in fifth to seventh grade. They were from Sydney and taking two weeks to travel around Western Australia. They started in Perth and would fly home from Darwin. The family realized that they’d been overseas but hadn’t even seen all of Australia, so the last couple of years, they take two weeks to explore their country. Last year, they went to Uluru and Tassie (Tasmania). 

The man who was leading the stargazing tour was middle-aged. He walked us to the telescope using flashlights because it was pitch black outside. He told us that he managed tours in Karijini National Park and the Northern Territory for a few years. He had been at the station for around four months. 

When we arrived at the telescope, we sat on a bench while the man told us about constellations and planets. He was scattered in his thoughts, making it difficult to follow along. The man told us about space travel and mentioned, “You can’t see any evidence of the U.S. landing on the moon or a flag, even with powerful telescopes.” The moon was bright but wasn’t full. 

It was time for us to look through the telescope, and I was very excited! My phone can never capture the beauty of the stars and moon while camping in the outback. This was my time to get a great picture and was the primary reason I signed up for the tour. 

It was amazing to see the moon up close! The man told me to hand him my phone, and he’d connect it to the telescope. I did as instructed, and he connected my phone. I went to press the button to take the picture, and immediately my phone fell to the ground, screen first directly onto rocks. I picked it up and saw a few cracks, but I thought it was just the screen protector. The man apologized and said it was his first time connecting a phone to it. 

We continued with the tour, looking at the planets, which weren’t as clear as the moon. The moon was magnificent! I was happy to get some great photos of it. 

When we finished up, the family walked back to the campground, while the man shined a flashlight on my phone to see how damaged it was. That’s when I realized that it was cracked so badly near the “home” button that the glass was shattered. There was another crack at the top, which meant the touch feature wouldn’t work there. 

I was distraught. I explained to the man that I’ve owned iPhones for more than ten years and have never broken a screen. Sure, I’ve broken a screen protector, but I’ve never cracked a screen because I take care of expensive items. That iPhone 8 Plus cost me $1,000, and I planned to have it for as long as possible. I bought the phone because it has a fantastic camera. All of my photos are from that phone. 

I explained that because the phone was just over a year old, it would cost around $300 to repair the screen. It’s a touch screen, so I needed to fix it. The man apologized and said he doesn’t have any money to pay for it. He said, “That’s why I’m out here working in the middle of nowhere.” 

We walked back to the campground, and I used the bathroom to get ready for bed. It was shockingly cold already. I tried to get over my broken screen, but I was upset. I had just transferred a lot of money to Missouri, where I had purchased a home for investment. My money was dwindling, so I couldn’t afford $300 mistakes. A mistake that I didn’t even cause. I beat myself up for mistakes I make, but this one wasn’t even my fault. 

The next morning, I talked with the woman at the front, and she said she’d notify the owner later that day. The man who broke my phone sent me links to places in Broome that repair phones, but they weren’t authorized iPhone places. I knew he felt terrible, which made me feel even worse. But I was still going to be out close to $300. 

The owner talked with me the following night and said that I could send her the bill and she’d reimburse me. I ended up getting it repaired in Brisbane, more than a month later, when I finally found an Apple store. The owner was true to her word and sent me reimbursement for the screen, which cost $259.

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

2 thoughts on “Camping at Cheela Plains

  1. Your comment about eating fish ‘n chips after snorkeling… haha! Definitely not a fish whisperer.

    I think it’s really cool that the woman kept her word about reimbursing you for the phone repair. It’s so wonderful that there are many people out there who have integrity and keep their word. Cracked phone screens are the bane of our existence now I guess.

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