Orphan Christmas – road trip to Monkey Mia

Kangaroo sign (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

Last year, about a week before Christmas I was wondering whether I would make it home to my family in Somerset, they had predicted snow and I had a long drive from London ahead of me. This year could not of have anymore different, one week to go again and here I am dodging the sharks, snakes and spiders (though they are Christmas spiders) with a tan that makes me look like I am still wearing a t-shirt when I am not wearing a t-shirt! It certainly didn’t feel like Christmas even if a jolly fat man in red keeps popping up during the ad break. Surreal, yes, simultaneously turning the channel to watch the start of a snow-covered Christmas flick whilst reaching for the air-con remote to take the edge off by a couple of degrees. Surreal is a word I have used a lot.

The break was however a perfect opportunity to get out and see more of Western Australia, so far limited to Perth’s shocking public transport network. Myself and my girlfriend Steph had recently collected enough money to buy us an aging station wagon, typical of Australia, so together with our housemate Holly, we planned a road trip up north to Monkey Mia, famous for its Dolphins and crystal clear waters. Breaking up the 2000km trip with stop off’s in the small fishing town of Dongara and a couple of nights in the slightly more touristy Kalbarri, hugging coast the entire way. I started to populate an awesome playlist immediately.

Man fishing on the beach at Dongara, Western Australia (Philip Hill)

In Australia the road is long, straight, and being honest fairly featureless, in places stretching into infinity, a sea of mirages lining the road in front of us, reducing my confidence when determining if I can overtake a slow-moving road-train struggling up the inclines only to then get stuck behind three cars towing a caravan, boat, and a jet ski: “do you think that is a convoy of tow-ers, or two tow-ers behind a slower tow-er?” a typical road trip topic that usually jumps from idle gossip to deep philosophical conversation.

Dongara is 3½ hours drive from Perth and marketed as the ‘Yabbie’ (rock lobster) capital of Australia, unfortunately it was only a stop off for that night. Having the car meant we could bring a tent and managed to get a spot at the ‘Ocean Spray’ campsite which has these fantastic personal toilet/shower porta-cabin esque units on each camping pitch. The equivalent of an on suite toilet for camping, or like staying in a caravan but you have to bring your own bedroom. A quick walk to the beach to watch the sun set, a big plus for the western half of this continent, lined with fishermen, many having landed good sized fish too.

Red bluff, Kalbarri, Western Australia (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

Travelling with Girls

If it was just me on my own I would probably shuffle off to the showers with nothing more than a bar of soap and a towel; however, I was with girls, and they had converted a ‘Liquor Land’ wine carrier bag into a mobile toiletry cupboard, which included an industrial sized shampoo and conditioner, any situation catered for. Walking into the gents shower block at the campsite solely occupied by the Australian male and placing the bag on the sink was met with a few raised eyebrows.

Red bluff, Kalbarri, Western Australia (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

Next morning it was a quick turnaround, back on the road towards Kalbarri. Situated on the mouth of the Murchison river in the mid-west region of Western Australia and 592km north of Perth, named after an Aboriginal man from the Murchison tribe, now it is a town set up for tourism, although not busy, nowhere really is, we were told this was peak season however at no point on the trip had we felt the summer rush of holiday makers.

One of the main draws of Kalbarri are the river gorges, 30 km inland inside the Kalbarri National Park, it is a walking track displaying rock formations including ‘Natures Window’ with views of the Murchison and vast spans of the countryside. Left off the sign posts pointing you towards it however is how hot the place gets when the sun hits; it was so hot that my eye brows stopped working! I could have been mistaken for crying, any water I drank passed straight through by way of osmosis, it was crazy hot, go there early and take lots of water. Kalbarri also has a great collection of beaches and cliff top views, I recommend Red Bluff, perfect for sun-setting and generally taking it all in. Apparently the waters here are surprisingly light on all the normal nasties that inhabit the waters of Australia.

Pelican on the beach at Monkey Mia, Western Australia. (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

New Years Eve

Monkey Mia imported the very best of Butlins for the end of year celebrations, in the form of a husband and wife double act and their matching guitar print shirts, he was doing his best Hank Marvin impression on the guitar and she was lobbying for the return of the eighties perm down the microphone, backed up by the reassuring sound of a Casio synthesiser track. A few drink’s into their set though we were well away, brilliant set of pre 90’s songs, The whole bar was up and dancing as all people from around Australia celebrated New Year as their respective time zones ticked over to mid night.

Shell Beach in Western Australia (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

12:30am came and it was as if the power was cut, the night at the bar was over, rules are so strictly adhered to in Australia that not even the start of 2012 lasted more than half an hour. We stumbled to the beach instead which was already full of backpackers, maybe it was the drink (and it probably was) but I must have lost around 2-3 hours chatting to strangers on that beach, it feel like it was that long. Quickly making friends by handing out sparklers that Steph had brought along, drunkenly warning people  “careful, you can weld with that” reminded of all those bonfire night ads with the kids that didn’t wear gloves.

Just as I was talking to a French backpacker about how lazy English speakers are when it comes to foreign language (in English), a voice from out of the darkness bekoning me over to the waterline, it was Steph and housemate Holly, in the sea, and drinking a red wine and saltwater cocktail as the waves washed over their glasses, I quickly followed suit, as you do, not stopping to wonder if sharks hunt at night. I was never to see my flip-flops again after that night, a small point to make but the fact is I had not worn shoes in over two months; my feet felt liberated, aerated and unwilling to once again be contained inside a pair of canvas trainers.

Pink salt lake in Western Australia (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

On the road back to Perth we decided to follow the ‘Indian Ocean Drive’ overlooking the intensely blue and stunning Indian ocean, removing much of the post holiday blues as we bee lined our way back.

Passing by a sign for coronation beach, must be an Australian summer holiday version of the classic Northern UK street soap,

“How does that theme go?” – Steph humming what she thinks it is,

“No, that’s not it that’s Jurassic Park” – I replied

“Really? What is it then?”

“I couldn’t even tell you what Eaststenders sounds like anymore” – We both then splurt out the Eastenders Climatic “Dooo Doo Do do do do do”

“Well I know how Neighbours goes”

“That’s because it’s words”

Surprising how you pass the time on a long drive.

Seaweed found on the beach at Monkey Mia, Western Australia. (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

Last Morning

Fatigue set in, the plan was to get as far back to Perth as possible, pulling into Cervantes before the final push. Instead we ended up 160km short and back in Dongara, it wasn’t late but never a good idea to drive at twilight in Australia. Those yellow diamond-shaped sign posts aren’t just for tourists, most of the wildlife here could make a pretty big mess of a car and its occupants, not to mention the unfortunate marsupial that strayed across its path.

Round the corner from the last night’s campsite, down a short road to the beach, was a small café called the ‘The Little Starfish’ which, proudly announced  ‘featured in The Lonely Planet’. We sat there looking out at the surf and had a nice breakfast with my new favourite coffee, a flat white. Conversation of the Morning was not really a road trip one, more of an Australian Obsession: sharks, snakes and spiders. Today it was sharks, “Do you think when the shark siren sounds (on the beach) that it’s just a shark or an actual great white?” Sharks have a bad reputation as it happens, only four species out of the shark family have recorded attacks on humans, and we aren’t even that tasty to the ones that do, unfortunately when they have a taste it’s usually fatal for us.

I hate getting back from a really good trip, having to wash and sort through all my stuff, not for me. Technically Perth isn’t the end of the road so I am still managing to stave of the post trip blues, looking forward to the next one, thinking Perth to Melbourne or Perth to Darwin…

Kenya Gold

Mercury is used at this stage of the process to bind the gold dust together, A man handles the heavy metal without protection finishing the panning process. this produces a dull silver lump of gold. appearance is due to the contact with Mercury (©2011 Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

West Kenya Artisans

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Down a rocky, rutted, hardly used trail, an aging Land-Cruiser creeks and violently judders its way as our guide Aleshia navigates precariously through the tough terrain, towards the old mine site at Macalder, in the South Western Nyanza region of Kenya. Entering the site a man and woman are busy working next to an imposing derelict concrete structure, left behind from the days this was a vast copper mine, the man digs as the woman takes the soil, pouring it into a makeshift sluice. Shut down in the Sixties, all that remains of the mine are a few foundations and vast open shafts serving as ventilation for the underground network of tunnels. Much more dominant still is the tailings dam, towering piles of waste material; left over’s from the excavations, still full of precious minerals that were unable to be extracted at the time, due to technology and economic viability. At its peak, the Macalder area produced around 1 million ounces of gold between 1920 and 1950[1]. Children play bare-footed between the mounds, stained yellow from sulphur with air thick with its distinct heavy smell, chemicals leech out into standing water from recent rains, turning blood red, caused by  ‘acid mine drainage’[2] a process resulting in parts of the nearby river Migori to record PH levels of 3-1 acidity, hugely affecting much of the wildlife that lives there.

The 4×4 can only be driven so far, leaving it next to the ruins we walk the rest of the way. In a scene reminiscent of Sabastiao Salgado’s workers series, I witness what is a hive of activity


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At the entrance to a large cave a man gestures at us to come over, on the whole everyone seems happy for us to wander around. We walk over, the man who shows us a piece of Gossan stone, optimistic, he hopes it contains enough gold to justify his efforts, “about 2 ounces” he tells Aleshia who then translates it back to me. There are around 200-recorded Artisan prospects[3] in the Macalder area, they work all hours the sun allows, doubling their efforts after any rain, the water makes it easier to sift the soil.

Back in the car, towards camp, we make a stop off at a bore mill, a fairly common sight along this stretch of road and an important part of the gold extraction process. Rocks and soil taken from Macalder and brought to one of the many mills on the backs of mules, crushed down and then panned.

A man sits by a concrete pool of murky water as he takes a small amount of the crushed material into a metal dish containing liquid Mercury, he no trouble handling this extremely harmful substance, swirling it around in the pan. Mercury binds the gold together separating it from the rest of the soil. Using a piece of muslin cloth he takes the panned gold and draws it between his fingers, draining off the mercury, I watch as it drips back into the dish. Opening up the muslin, he then tips the contents into his hand to show me, the result is anticlimactic. Expecting to see a fresh, glistening, golden nugget, presenting me with a small, dull, silver lump of metal.


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A result of the mercury processing they tell me. It is a monumental effort for a relatively small amount of gold, Grasburg open-pit in Indonesia, the largest gold mine in the world, produced 58,474,392 grams of gold in 2006[4], the Artisans are lucky if they get a few. Most of the profit goes to the wholesale middleman with Western connections, getting the gold to the market place. Many people not realizing where their expensive jewelry begins.

There has been a renewed interest in the Migori Greenstone Belt that Macalder is a part. Australian company Goldplat has just been grated a lease to mine nearby in Narok County[5], a first for Kenya, hoping to add to the 74 million US dollars it made in the sale of gold last year. Macalder too is beginning to increase its activity; London-based company Red Rock Resources plans to re-process the tailings increasing the recovery rate of the minerals within, this under the condition that the environmental concerns are met.

Fresh drilling is also taking place all over the site, it all looks very promising however. Geologists carefully study every drill core samples looking for mineralization, and signs of the gold in the rock. In this industry these are the kind of ventures that can make or break a smaller company. Macalder has seen this before, built because of the mine, and brought with it infrastructure, Jobs for the local people a huge benefit for the surrounding area.

Regardless of what western countries do in Africa, life will continue as it always does in Western Kenya.


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More images from this series can be found on my archive: http://philhillphotography.photoshelter.com/gallery/Artisans/G0000PPFlA8HVTzQ/

Download a PDF version of this article:


boy collecting wood, Mukuru Hill, West Kenya (Phil Hill)
Using water from a recent downpour, locals sift the surrounding soil using makeshift sluices (©2011 Philip Hill/Phil Hill)

[1] Nones, 13/06/2007, Wanjuguna Blog, Are Kenyans in Migori,Western of Kenya aware of these Gold mine developers?????, http://wanjuguna.blogspot.com/2007/06/are-kenyans-in-migoriwestern-aware-of.html
[2] Acid mine drainage. 2011, October 24. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:27, November 23, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Acid_mine_drainage&oldid=457146616
[3] Senelwa, Kennedy. 13/11/2011, The East African, Gold Rush Expected in Western Kenya withing 10 Years, http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/business/Gold+rush+expected+in+Western+Kenya+within+10+yrs+years/-/2560/1272232/-/15e8p7m/-/
[4] Grasberg mine. 4/11/2011. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:05, November 23, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Grasberg_mine&oldid=458908276
[5] Michira Moses, 11/11/2011. Kenya to award first gold mining licence next week, Retrieved 17:26, December 7, 2011. From http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate+News/Kenya+to+award+first+gold+mining+licence+next+week/-/539550/1271054/-/3q0hfez/-/index.html


Japan, one year on…

view of kiyomiu dera temple,kyoto japan (Philip Hill/Phil Hill)
view of kiyomiu dera temple,kyoto, japan (Philip Hill/Phil Hill

Japan… A year ago, already!

A year ago last week I embarked on my 5 week trip to Japan. Such an amazing country and I thought it would be a good idea to re-list my posts from my time there. If only to show how beautiful it is, and I am sure it will be again when they recover from the recent disaster in the north. Stay safe Japan.

I traveled around the southern part of the country on Honshu Island, concentrating on the metropolis of Osaka, the visually stunning Kyoto, and then on to the holy Japanese cities of Mt Koya & Nara.

Out of the many countries that I have had the privilege to visit, and photograph, this is up there as a top location. I was even able to view the famous Sakura Cherry Blossom season that intensified the beauty of the country. Pretty in pink!

Below are a collection of blog posts I made whilst I was over there. All the nostalgia makes me want to start plotting my return immediately

My favourite Japan:

Brits Abroad
Mt Koya and Nara
Ninja Picnic
Buddhist Shrine near Ise
first shots