The Kim­ber­ley

To see the Kim­ber­ley re­gion usu­ally in­volves five-star cruis­ing and a five-fig­ure price tag – we de­cided to see if we could ex­pe­ri­ence this wilder­ness on a small bud­get…


Aus­tralia’s rugged west is a re­gion known for its five-star cruises, but to ap­pre­ci­ate its rocky glory and Abo­rig­i­nal past, the only stars you need are the ones you sleep un­der

“Slight prob­lem – it ap­pears the hull has split.” The woman on the phone said this in an un­emo­tional and mat­ter-of­fact man­ner, as though she’d told me my train was five min­utes late. Though I’m no mas­ter sailor, I knew enough to know that this was not good news.

The small city of Broome, on the far west coast of Aus­tralia, is the jump­ing off point for many a Kim­ber­ley cruise, the likes of which boast full-on lux­ury in the form of sump­tu­ous du­vets, air-con­di­tioned pri­vate cab­ins and fine din­ing. Yet I’d ar­rived de­ter­mined to find a bar­gain, and thought I had – one that was a frac­tion of the price, if a bit rough and ready. How­ever, as I’d just dis­cov­ered, the up­shot was that it also wasn’t fit for pur­pose, so here I was, up the coast with­out a ves­sel.

Not eas­ily de­feated, I hastily sorted an over­land al­ter­na­tive. And so it was that I found my­self, a cou­ple of days later, in a ‘cosy’ 4WD ve­hi­cle with twelve other trav­ellers, tow­ing all our cooking, sleep­ing and hik­ing ap­pa­ra­tus be­hind us in a small trailer. My ob­jec­tive hadn’t changed, though, and this promised to be a thrilling way to see the re­gion on a bud­get. Our fluffy du­vets would be re­placed by can­vas-cov­ered roll mats and sleep­ing bags (known as ‘swags’); our ‘air con­di­tion­ing’ would be the out­side air at night; and as for fine din­ing, cooking would re­quire us to reg­u­larly stop to saw felled trees for a camp­fire, get wa­ter by fill­ing our four jerry cans as of­ten as we could and gather as many non-per­ish­ables be­fore­hand from the su­per­mar­ket.

It’s no se­cret that camp­ing is my thing, but the idea of do­ing it out west, in Aus­tralia – the land seem­ingly home to more deadly crit­ters per capita than any­where else on Earth, not to men­tion salt­wa­ter crocs – left me ner­vous. And I was not alone. As I met my fel­low in­trepid crew, con­sist­ing of a mix of bud­get-minded back­pack­ers, so­cia­ble so-called ‘grey no­mads’ (aka trav­el­ling re­tirees) and money-sav­ing mid­dleaged of­fice work­ers es­cap­ing the 9-to-5, the sense of em­bark­ing on the un­known made the air pal­pa­bly tense.

“I know you’ve seen the itin­er­ary,” said our guide, James ‘Duff­man’ Duffy, a beard-sport­ing, dread­locked lo­cal who has been over­land­ing for most of the last decade. “But I need you to for­get about what you’ve read. On these trips, any­thing can and will hap­pen. The road con­di­tions can mean di­ver­sions and camp­sites may have to be changed, which can af­fect when and where we stop, but…” he con­tin­ued, a wide grin spread­ing across his face, “I do prom­ise that you are about to em­bark on an un­for­get­table ad­ven­ture.”

First comes last

With Duff­man’s in­trigu­ing prom­ise lin­ger­ing in the air, we left Broome and its fos­sil-lined beaches, where herds of camel roam at sun­set, far be­hind. We stocked up on sup­plies at

‘I do prom­ise that you are about to em­bark on an un­for­get­table ad­ven­ture’

⊳ Wil­lare Bridge Roadhouse in Derby, where the sign in­formed us that our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion of Dar­win – nine days away – would see us cover 1,709km (that’s not far short of the dis­tance be­tween Lon­don and Moscow). As the last stretch of tar­mac road came and went un­der our tyres, I felt the shift­ing sand slide be­neath our wheels. The road signs warn­ing of dan­gers ahead came thick and fast: fire risk – se­vere; four-wheel drive – manda­tory; flash flood­ing – a real pos­si­bil­ity. This felt like a truly dar­ing un­der­tak­ing.

The road we were fol­low­ing, known as the Gibb River Road, is a new one, rel­a­tively speak­ing. It was es­tab­lished as a cat­tle-driv­ing route in the early 1900s, mov­ing herds be­tween Derby in the south and Wyn­d­ham in the north. But it’s a course that has been fol­lowed for around 20,000 years by the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples who reg­u­larly used it as a trad­ing route.

Our first stop, at a site called Boab Prison Tree, nod­ded to the orig­i­nal set­tlers. It was once used as a place to shade from the in­tense sun and feast on the flesh of the tree’s seeds, which have a brit­tle tex­ture, like meringue, yet taste of man­darins. But af­ter the pearling in­dus­try took hold here in the 1860s, it was used for a more sin­is­ter pur­pose. Back then, a prac­tice known as ‘black­bird­ing’ was com­mon, and it meant Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple could be taken at gun­point to go pearling (re­fusal meant death for them­selves and their fam­i­lies). They would work for hours, day af­ter day, deep-div­ing in steel-and-cop­per suits for noth­ing in the way of pay­ment. This prison tree was where many were held en route to Broome. Look­ing at the wiz­ened bark, I couldn’t help but think about what it had wit­nessed and I shiv­ered.

“The Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples don’t be­lieve they own the land, but that they are cus­to­di­ans of it,” ex­plained Duff­man as we headed fur­ther along the road. “As such, they are very much part of its his­tory.”

‘The Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples don’t be­lieve they own the land, but that they are cus­to­di­ans of it’

His point was beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated at the next stop, Wind­jana Gorge – a loom­ing ridge­line of a Devo­nian-era lime­stone reef that was un­der the ocean some 300 mil­lion years ago. It also hides a smat­ter­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal paint­ings in its crevices, de­pict­ing kan­ga­roos, hu­man fig­ures and faces.

By the time we reached our ‘camp­site’ – a patch of desert about an hour up the road – we were all ex­hausted. But we wouldn’t be rest­ing straight away.

Notes from un­der­ground

“Tun­nel Creek is a hugely im­por­tant site,” said our guide, as we protested leav­ing camp to ex­plore when it was get­ting dark. “If we go in the morn­ing, it will be busy. But if we go now…”

We re­luc­tantly agreed and headed to the 750m-long cave sys­tem – thought to be one of the old­est in Western Aus­tralia. The leaves crunched like crisps un­der­foot as we walked out­side the cave and, though the stars and moon shone high in the sky, we soon left the light be­hind and were en­gulfed by the dark­ness of the cav­ern. The odd squeak and flap of bats wak­ing up to hunt echoed around us, while the knee-deep wa­ter, which looked green un­der the light from my head­torch, was filled with skit­tish yab­bies (lo­cal cray­fish) dart­ing about my feet.

The walls yawned for me­tres above us, like stone sculp­tures sport­ing elab­o­rate chan­de­liers, while the roots of trees pierced the roof, dan­gling above our heads. Spiny red-and-yel­low in­sects scur­ried over the rocks and a flut­ter­ing of black-and-white but­ter­flies danced in our torch beams. Grad­u­ally it be­came lighter, and it was with a dizzy­ing sense of re­al­i­sa­tion that I found we were out­side again, star­ing at the moon once more.

It was here where Duff­man told us the story of an Abo­rig­i­nal man called Jan­damarra who, in 1897, hid out here when he re­fused to turn in his un­cle for cat­tle-poach­ing. De­spite evad­ing cap­ture for many days, he was even­tu­ally found and killed. As Duff­man spoke the fi­nal words of the tale, be­hind him I could make out the red eyes of baby al­li­ga­tors ly­ing in wait in the creek ahead, play­ing a wait­ing game for the hu­mans they knew were in­side. It was as though na­ture it­self wanted to con­trib­ute to the story.

By the time we reached the camp­site, it was so late that sud­denly the idea of sleep­ing in a swag felt wel­com­ing; any worry of snakes or ven­omous bed­fel­lows was re­placed only by ex­treme tired­ness. We slept by the light of the moon, a gen­tle cool­ing breeze tick­ling our cheeks, while din­gos howled some­where

⊳ in the dis­tance. It was a spe­cial in­tro­duc­tion to life in the Kim­ber­ley.

Rocks of ages

The fol­low­ing days passed in a sim­i­larly heady mix of ad­ven­tures, where treats came in the form of sim­ple, and of­ten low-priced (or free), lux­u­ries. Acres of never-end­ing sand, in­ter­spersed with desert blood­wood trees (a type of eu­ca­lyp­tus), were tra­versed be­fore Duff­man pulled in at an in­nocu­ous­look­ing stop, to re­veal a trea­sure trove of ochre, black and white Abo­rig­i­nal art­work un­der an over­hang. We’d never have known it ex­isted with­out him.

One such site even had de­pic­tions of jel­ly­fish and what looked like a whale, prov­ing the the­ory that our an­ces­tors did in­deed use this trail to head out from the desert to the ocean. Then there were the wildlife sight­ings: saltand fresh­wa­ter croc­o­diles, wal­la­roos bound­ing by the road­side, even a deadly taipan snake hid­den in a pas­sage­way.

Fi­nally, there were those spe­cial mo­ments, such as the joy at dis­cov­er­ing the 998,000-acre El­len­brae Sta­tion (a cat­tle sta­tion, not the rail­way va­ri­ety), where own­ers Lo­gan and Larissa baked scones through­out the dry sea­son (June and July), mak­ing enough money to keep them afloat the rest of the time. “Last year, we made 14,350 scones,” re­vealed Larissa.

Be­tween such en­coun­ters we took swims in croc-free bil­l­abongs. Bell Gorge was one of the first, re­sem­bling a wild ver­sion of an in­fin­ity pool as it dropped down into a gush­ing wa­ter­fall while mon­i­tor lizards looked on. At El Que­stro Sta­tion, where the beau­ti­ful Lux­ury Lodge of Aus­tralia is sit­u­ated, the ex­trav­a­gance, for us, ar­rived in the form of a much-needed nat­u­ral shower in the ice-cool wa­ters of Emma Gorge Wa­ter­fall. Then there was the un­for­get­table Man­ning Gorge, where we were so mes­merised by its beauty – a cirque of red rock with wa­ter so clear you could see right to its depths – that we de­cided to swim back to the camp­site, cross­ing mini-falls, bat­tling spiky pan­danus trees and guided by the smear of the Milky Way as night fell.

Camp­sites ranged from scraps of land un­der the shade of fat boab trees, to a starry night on top of a moun­tain plateau af­ter cross­ing the 60m-wide wa­ters of the Pen­te­cost River. But by far the high­light of the trip came at Pur­nu­l­ulu Na­tional Park, known for its Bun­gle Bun­gle Range. Lo­cated deep in­land, boat pas­sen­gers usu­ally reach this place courtesy of a he­li­copter, but we spent the night amid its bee­hive­like rock for­ma­tions, see­ing the night sky daz­zle far from any light pol­lu­tion.

Sleep­ing out meant we woke early and got to watch the sun rise, cast­ing a pink glow on the rocky domes. Then we walked to Cathe­dral Gorge be­fore any coach tours en­tered the park gates. There the rock has formed what looks like an ap­ple core, with a pool of

wa­ter in­side. I gazed in awe as the tweets from birds re­ver­ber­ated around its walls.

Sky’s the limit

With so much money saved, and just two days left be­fore reach­ing Dar­win, I de­cided a splurge was in or­der. This came in the form of a he­li­copter ride.

“See­ing the Bun­gle Bun­gles from the ground is spe­cial,” said the pi­lot as we took off, “but from above, you get to see them in a whole other di­men­sion.”

How right he was. As we soared over the range, it emerged like a bound­less knob­bled mass of pimples, lumps and bumps, re­sem­bling gnarled sec­tions on a tree trunk that, courtesy of my door-free chop­per, I felt like I could reach out and run my fin­gers over, read­ing their sto­ries like brail.

A cou­ple of days later, about 2.30am, I re­alised some­thing was wrong. The moon was gone. Not only that but the stars were ab­sent: no South­ern Cross, no Milky Way – just a sin­gle red planet light­ing the dark­ness. The usual rus­tle of leaves and the breath of my fel­low campers was re­placed with a tune­less hum. I had never felt so dis­ori­en­tated.

Just then, I no­ticed a neon clus­ter of lines. As I stared, I re­alised these were large green dig­its. I wig­gled my toes and felt the soft fab­ric of a plush du­vet cov­er­ing my feet. I wasn’t out­side. The hum was the air-con­di­tion­ing unit; the red ‘planet’ the standby light from the TV. This was no camp­site; I was in my five-star ho­tel in the city of Dar­win.

It seemed that the bush, much like the mud and sand that had found its way un­der my toe­nails, had also got un­der my skin, too. And though the dirt could be eas­ily scrubbed away, the mem­o­ries of swag­ging in the Kim­ber­ley un­der the night sky would re­main for much longer. Five stars can be won­der­ful, I mused as I drifted off again, but it can never com­pete with a bil­lion wit­nessed in a clear night’s sky.

Light at the end…( clock­wise from far left) The leg­endary sun­set in Dar­win draws the crowds as they emerge from over­land­ing and from the city it­self; The Prison Boab Tree – once used to keep ab­ducted abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple from run­ning away; the sign at Wil­lare Bridge Roadhouse prom­ises many kilo­me­tres of ad­ven­ture; Duff­man lights the camp­fire used both for keep­ing us warm and for cooking

Ships of the beach(top) The ubiq­ui­tous camels on the beach in Western Aus­tralia’s sea­side town of Broome; ( bot­tom) the town’s still-fa­mous pearl shells are ev­ery­where here

That’s the point( clock­wise from top) Duff­man points out cave paint­ings found af­ter a walk from an in­nocu­ous turn­ing off the main road; ex­plor­ing in Tun­nel Creek at night, when the wildlife be­gin to awaken; the striped domes of the Bun­gle Bun­gles

Bush lux­ury( top) The in­fin­ity pool-like Bell Gorge, a bathing treat for over­lan­ders; ( bot­tom) the 4WD may not of­fer five-star lux­ury but takes you to a bil­lion-star scenery

Feel­ing the bite( top) Salt­wa­ter crocs are fre­quent vis­i­tors to wa­ter sup­plies es­pe­cially once you reach the North­ern Ter­ri­tory; ( bot­tom) the scale of Pur­nu­l­ulu/the Bun­gle Bun­gles is best ap­pre­ci­ated from the air

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