“We have to escape the rat race for a while, disappear, go somewhere really remote where there’s no connectivity to the outside world”, we said as we looked at the big black bags under each other’s eyes.
So we booked a trip to Outback Australia, on a tour to the Kimberley with Adventure Wild. It would be awesome (everybody told us so), it would be far from anywhere, and for the best part of 12 days we would be without mobile connection.
A few days before we were due to depart Dave had a bicycle accident and broke his arm and we had to cancel our plans. Darn! The big black bags under our eyes got worse, and sadly we gave up on our escape due to other commitments.
Then a few weeks ago I had a phone call from Adventure Wild who kindly offered to sponsor me on a 12 day adventure from Broome to Kununurra . To blog about it. Yes, I’m still counting my lucky stars and I’m thankful to all Zigazag’s lovely readers and subscribers.
The thing was we had to be ready to depart on the first trip of the season.
Elated, we quickly made arrangements to leave, and soon we were off, heading from Perth’s wintery cold to the balmy heat of tropical Broome. Yay!
Day One – Out of the Comfort Zone
It’s May. We are on the Great Northern Highway having crossed the mighty Fitzroy River heading into The Kimberley in the north of Western Australia.
“If you want to have a snooze then don’t feel you’re missing anything, because the scenery stays the same until the next stop,” jokes Greg our tour leader when we leave Willare Bridge Roadhouse where we’ve just had morning tea.
It’s a comforting thought because we were all up at dawn, but right now excitement levels are high and the last thing we want to do is go to sleep.
Already we’ve come quite a way from the pearling town of Broome with its long sandy beaches and tropical resorts and the scenery has changed dramatically. There is a lot of scrub and bush, which to the uninitiated looks like, well, a lot of scrub and bush.
However, we are on the look out for wildlife, especially …. Roos
But I know there are going to be dramatic sights too. For the Kimberley is immense, and I anticipate its secrets are going to be well worth the long distances.
The Kimberley is larger than Tasmania and Victoria put together. “It’s larger than the UK or Germany and contains 725,000 registered cows, and only about 50,000 people live here,” says Greg.
As if on cue we spot a herd of cows. I gaze at the Bull. He’s big, with a hump and comical floppy ears. “That’s a Brahman, they’re suited to this subtropical climate – they originate from India – the other main cattle in the Kimberley is the Shorthorn,” says Greg who is a veritable mine of information.
Before we’ve driven very far, Greg has pulled the bus over and jumped into the back with us.
“Now,” he says. “There are only 3 rules on this bus.
NumberOne. Expect the unexpected. We could have heavy rain, roads could be flooded, there could be fires or we may breakdown.”
A ripple of slightly nervous laughter ricochets around the bus as we ponder the meaning of his words. No day trip to Disneyland this. Serious stuff. Heading into rugged and isolated territory.
“Two.” Greg looks at us all, one by one. “Accept that everyone is different. If you don’t like someone, get over it and get on with them.” I look around the bus and wonder if there will be fallouts. I hope not.
“Three.” Greg says and we all look at him hopefully. “Laugh often!” And we do, with relief.
That’s it? No more rules? Too easy.
Greg has been with Adventure Wild for 5 seasons, and a tour leader with other companies for many more. He knows the ropes. Choccy, his wife (who garnered her name from some bright spark who turned Claire into Chocolate Éclair and then shortened it to Choccy) is full of joie de vivre and good humour and she’s been doing the tour leading gig for 3 seasons.
Both of them are personable, generous of spirit and approachable. I immediately warm to them.
Freshies and Salties
“Watch out for crocs, as we cross rivers and creeks,” says Choccy. And I take this as another reason not to fall asleep in this vast territory that’s roughly five times the size of Ireland.
“Saltwater crocs will watch your routine if you camp near them. If you go down to the water to fill your kettle each morning they will observe carefully and within 3 days they’ll more than likely get you,” says Greg.
It’s a sobering thought. I don’t want to check out of this world just yet and be eaten by a croc, so I make a note to pay heed to Greg when we’re near rivers and creeks.
“Then there’s the Freshies. They won’t antagonize humans, well, not unless you antagonize them or they mistake you for a fish.”
“Mind you, I wouldn’t recommend patting one! Anyway, it’s illegal to touch a croc in the Kimberley,” he says.
We’re getting the lowdown on all the things that bite, sting and creep into tents as we travel deeper into the outback. “You might see geckos, skinks, lizards and snakes. Don’t forget to keep your tent zipped up when you’re not in it – and your swag too – otherwise you might just find an unwelcome guest has slithered in with you.”
OK. Point Taken.
Courtesy of Choccy, who’s good with naming our feathered friends, we begin to spot lots of different birds. There are jabirus and kites and brolgas and then moving on from birds there are Boab trees.
These trees will become like a symbol for the Kimberley, and I know I’ll never forget their weird contorted branches and bulbous trunks from which many different images jump into our imaginations. We make out entwined lovers and salsa dancers, there are bears with their babies, and stooped old men, or curved nubile nymphets arched over backwards in yoga poses.
“Boab trees lose their leaves in the dry season. Inside their nuts is a whitish greenish pith. Suck on it – spit out the seed. It tastes similar to sherbet and it’s high in Potassium and vitamin C,” explains Choccy.
Along the way we also begin to spot termite mounds of all shapes and sizes. Spinifex ants use spinifex, sand and saliva to build mounds which can be up to 3 or 4 feet high. I look out of the window and as far as the eye can see is a strange colony of humps, like a virus of tombstones in various shapes and sizes cluttering up the flat open space to either side of the road.
We might be forgiven for thinking that the Kimberley is a dry place, mostly brown and golden but it’s not, because after the rains the countryside turns into a brilliant palette of fresh lime green mixed with a deep red soil and blue sky.
As we traverse the Fitzroy Flood Plains which flood each year, we’re told that about 85,000 square kilometers of water comes through here every 3 years or so.
I try to imagine that much water, and can’t.
I’m finding it hard, as a Devon girl more used to small farms in England’s green and pleasant land, to get a grip on the size of things in this vast place. The stations for example. A million acres is a figure that’s banded around a lot.
Phew. That’s endless.
“No fences, cows wander freely between stations until a muster when they’re rounded up,” explains Greg. “Watch out for cows if you’re ever driving these roads on your own. Especially, don’t drive at night.”
About 7kms from Derby we pull up by the Boab Prison Tree which is 1500 years old and has a humungus hollowed out trunk that was once used as an overnight cell for Aboriginal prisoners being taken to Derby from the Fitzroy Crossing for trial. It’s a spooky tree, a symbol of a dark and violent past and is now a site of religious significance.
Before Derby was established in 1883 Aboriginals were kidnapped by people known as ‘blackbirders’, settlers connected with the pearling industry. They wanted divers and workers for the pearling boats, and some of the kidnapped Aboriginals may have been held at the Boab prison tree while they waited for boats.
The sun is beating down like an iron and there is abundant bird song even in this harsh hot environment. I try some Boab nut flesh. It’s yellowy and has a texture like cotton wool, chewy, not very nice – not very like sherbet at all! I resist the urge to spit it out thinking of its vitamin C component. I rather hope we don’t have any for dinner.
The legendary Gibb River Road
We come to the Gibb River Road turn off where there’s an information bay and a huge sign telling us which sections of the Gibb are open or closed. Today all 6 sections are open, all the way to Wyndham over 700kms away. It’s an exciting moment because the Gibb is considered a grand outback experience, and it’s only open each year from about April to October due to the rains.
It was originally constructed as a beef road to transport cattle from the central Kimberley cattle stations to the ports at Wyndham and Derby.
It’s become an icon of adventure travel, one of the last great wilderness roads in Australia running through the heart of the Kimberley like an artery. It cuts through majestic ranges, and savannah plains (not dissimilar to those in Africa) where there are many creeks and huge rivers.
My heartbeat quickens as we begin to drive along this infamous gravel road that right now is as straight as the eye can see. I hope the rivers have dropped enough for us to cross them easily, I wonder if the graders have repaired the damage caused during the wet season, I hope we have enough fuel, and I sincerely hope we have enough wine if we get stuck!
To put us all at ease Greg regails us with Aboriginal dream time stories and tales of the outback. He’s a born storyteller.
Then before we know it, it’s lunchtime. We stop beside the road under the scant shade of a wattle tree. The men traipse off into the bush with the direction to collect firewood for tonight’s camp fire.
I think lots of them head off for a pee.
“Please don’t collect green wood and all wood should be thicker than your wrist. And don’t touch the spinifex because it’s sharp and will cut you like a knife,” warns Choccy.
The women pull out the trestle tables, stools and lunch items and help Choccy prepare a buffet of fresh food fit for a Spinifex King or Queen.
Tonight we’re camping at Windjana Gorge, which cuts through the ancient coral reef of the Napier Range. It’s part part of the Devonian Reef System which dates back about 375 million years.
There are toilets in little cubicles and lots of mossies. There’s a shower block that I don’t even get to go to tonight. I’m actually a woossie when it comes to mosquitos.
“Hands up who wants to sleep in a swag?” asks Greg. 6 hands go up. “And a tent?” 9 hands go up.
“Ok this is how you do it.”
Greg and Choccy instruct us in the art of swag and tent erection, we’re given a swag, and a new sleeping bag (ours to keep), a sheet, pillow slip and a blanket. It’s hot, about 2.30pm and we sweat – buckets. Only the cicadas who seem to be buzzing out a heat roll on their high pitched percussion wings seem to have any energy.
With camp set up we head off to Tunnel Creek, 35kms away where huge limestone cliffs loom like ancient monsters, and the setting sun catches different colours on sheer cliff walls – red and gold, white and green, black and orange.
It’s Western Australia’s oldest cave system and a creek flows through a tunnel beneath the limestone of the Napier Range.
Head torch – Tick. Bathers – Tick. Shoes suitable for in water – Tick.
We climb over marble like rocks, slip and slide a little until we enter the black, eerie world of water, bats, and folklore
It’s dark and it’s spooky for it was here that Jandamarra or Pigeon, the Aboriginal rebel leader, was shot in 1897.
Sometimes it’s pitch black.
The water is inky and cold, often we squelch through thick mud. At other times it’s rocky underfoot and there are sandy banks where small pebbles get stuck under the balls of my feet in my reef walker sandals.
We are a row of headlamps, like fireflies in this dark underworld, heading under an ancient reef through a big range that sometimes soars with cathedral ceilings, often there are stalactites and stalagmites and there’s a waterfall over a buttery gold, limestone flowstone that is just magical.
Oh and did I tell you there are freshwater crocs here too?
After a watery 750 metre walk and wade in the dark, we pop out into a pleasant tree-lined glade where water trickles over rocks.
No mishaps, no croc stories and nobody fell in the drink.
The mood on the bus going back to camp for wine, beers and dinner is lighthearted. Greg plays us some well known sing-a-long-songs.
“Good Vibrations” cheerily rebounds around the bus as we vibrate and rattle over the corrugations of a dirt road, then it’s “Skippy The Bush Kangaroo” and soon we are all singing out of tune, like children on a school outing!
Distant memories of my own childhood in England come flooding back as we sing, but they are at odds with this strange, ancient landscape.
Back at camp Choccy has been busy. The fire is blazing, easy camp chairs are set in a circle around it, a long table complete with a tablecloth is laid, and the kitchen is set up.
Dinner is most welcome. So is a cold beer and some wine. We enjoy a feast of chicken, potatoes and veggies from pots bubbling on the camp fire and we tell fake stories about our professions which has everyone in stitches.
Aah, life is good and as the stars glimmer brighter than fireworks in a coal black sky, I contemplate my first ever night in a swag.
And I wonder … will I like it or not?
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Have you ever slept out under the stars in the Outback – where did you go?