Published: November 19th 2008September 12th 2008
They call it the last frontier of civilised travel. The Kimberley - a place I'm sure many of you have heard of, but like me, didn't know too much about it. I had an idea - rugged wilderness, thundering waterfalls, an abundance of wildlife - basically everything you expect a remote area to be.
What I didn't know was the size of it - I thought it was I small pocket of Australia inhabited by no one. It is in fact a massive area spanning 420,000 square kilometres with a population of 30,000 - the vast majority of which are localised in the 3 main towns of Broome, Wyndam and Kununurra. It is typical Australia - a vast heap of nothingness with an occasional splattering of people.
As soon as I saw a few pictures of it I knew I had to go there, and specifically along the Gibb River Road, a 600km stretch of red dirt road, previously used as a cattle route to save the arduos trek around the edges of the Kimberley via Halls Creek and Fitzroy crossing.
The road, I read, was littered with vast gorges, a huge array of flora and fauna, wildlife, river-crossings -
basically a whole heap of fun. It had to be done.
As with all adventures along the Gibb it had to start and end in either Broome or Kununurra, and we started in Broome. We arrived having worked a week in Karijini national park, which was fantastic but about as remote as places come so it was strange being back in civilisation. Here we would spend a week exploring this outpost of Western Australia familiarising ourselves with its rich pearling past.
Lonely Planet call Broome the 'Jewel of the Kimberley' which is very flattering for the town. Don't get me wrong, its lovely - but there is not a great deal to do there. We realised this after two days, and spent the rest of the week sunning ourselves on Cable Beach.
Our first experience in Broome was that of the Aboriginal problem that they have there. Getting off the bus on the main street next to the village oval we were greeted by numerous groups of drunk aboriginies verbally abusing each other. If you can imagine the whole town of South Park aguing then you have an idea what this lot sounded like. Apparently its worse on
'dole day' when they collect their dole, spend a chunk of it on booze and then sit on the oval all day. Some days 2000 of them can be there.
Our Easyrider driver Paul then took us on a whirlwind tour of Broome, first visiting Cable Beach before paying tribute to the many Japanese pearl divers who died during the pearling explosion here in the late 19th/early 20th century. The cemetary was beautiful and wonderfully honoured the memory of these brave men. It was tidy, organised and the headstones were stunning. Looking over at the European cemetary which had simple white crosses and rotting flowers made me feel a touch ashamed!
We then headed out to Gantheame Point, a place that could typify Australia in one shot - the rich red rock meeting the azure blue ocean. Here we were to see replica dinosaur footprints, the real ones only visible at very low tide (which I managed to view later on in the week), and we sat in Anastasias Pool and had a beer and some bubbly whilst we watched the sun go down. It was beautiful.
Anastasias pool is a pool carved out of rock by
a man for his arthiritic wife, the salt water from the sea doing wonders for her bones. The sea was incredibly low down so there would have to be a fantastic swell to get any water in the pool, and if there was a swell that big the last place I would be sitting is right in front of it! A few broken bones for some relief in your joints......not a good deal in my opinion.
Obviously Broomes pearling past is the main tourist draw. However, tours out to the pearl farms were expensive and I guess you really had to like pearls to be interested, which we didn't and weren't. We did pay a trip to the Pearl Luggers museum and the Broome Museum and found out some interesting things, like the crippling attire they had to wear to make sure the divers could stay down for as long as possible. This included a massive rubber suit with several layers of clothes underneath it to keep them warm, along with the painfully heavy diving helmet. It was like sending Mr Blobby to fetch pearls.
Aboriginies used to dive for pearls, then they refused to do it for money
and then they were enslaved. This created a bit of tension bewteen the whites and the aboriginies so the pearling ships brought in Asians, mainly Japanese and Koepangers (Dutch East Indies). The money wasn't good enough for Europeans but the Japanese excelled at it, well the ones that survived did. Many died of the bends, until a de-compression chamber was donated by a docter. Between 1910 and 1914 ninety-two divers dived of the bends. After the chamber was donated in 1915 one person died that year.
My main gripe about pearls and Broome was that you couldn't actually buy a genuine Broome pearl in the shops. There were loads of jewellers, just none that could gurantee a pearl was from Broome. The smaller pearls which were common on many necklaces, broaches and bracelets were freshwater pearls of varying colours but always of small dimensions - and they came from China or Indonesia.
The other pearl was Australian South Sea Pearls. 'How much is a Broome pearl worth?' I asked the lady in the shop, eager to see a famous pearl from this area. 'An Australian South Sea pearl is generally larger so obviously more expensve and they are grown
at sea for up to 4 years'. With this information I was shown some of these pearls which ranged in price from $200 right up to $4000.
'Why are they called Australian South Sea pearls if we are in the northwest of Australia?' I then asked.'South Sea means south of Indonesia' the lady coyly replied, as if she knew it didn't make sense.'So it doesnt mean the South Australian Sea? So why can't I see a pearl from Broome? They grow right off the coast here!' I remarked. 'Well, the Australian South Sea covers a large area so for all we know these pearls could be from Darwin'. Wonderful. I left it at that - the Broome pearl industry as I know it is a phoney.
Later on during our stay we went to see The Dark Knight at the worlds oldest picture gardens, Sun Pictures.
The building was straight out of the 1920's, which funnily enough is when it was built. We took our seats in the deckchair-esque bench whilst marvelling at the stars above, surrounded by palm trees and other exotic looking plants wonderfully lit up by a red light.
I'd been looking forward to a plane
roaring overhead, apparently one of the highlights of visiting the pictures here - Broome International Airport being a couple of hundred metres away and Sun Pictures being directly under the flight path. It wasn't to be - no flights came in that night, but the film was brilliant and a good time was had by all!
One of the highlights of Broome was the famed sunsets which draw huge numbers to the Cable Beach area. The sunsets all the way up the West Coast have been amazing but the sunset on our last night in Broome was the best of all. Clouds rolled off the land and out to sea and looked for a while like they might ruin it but as if god said 'let them have their pictures' the clouds stopped. We were then treated to half an hour of ever changing colour in the sky, red, yellow, purple, pink, turquoise, blue, green - it went through them all. And almost on cue the 3 camel trains that operate on the beach wandered into view offering up some fantastic pictures.
By the end of the week Broome had grown on us, but not so much that
we wanted to stay. So we headed off early on September the 4th 2008 with Adventure Wild on a 7-day adventure along the Gibb River Road.
We had got a bargain with this company as it was nearing the end of season so tours were going for half-price - a saving of $700 each! For this reason we thought there might be a few backpackers on board who we could make friends with but as is our luck there were 3 oldies (Jack, Wendy and Bev) and 2 children (Ally and Louise), the daughters of the company owner and our tour guide for the week, Rory.
After having tea at a roadhouse where we were given a tour of the bus so we knew where everything was we got to the Derby Prison Boab, a very fat, stumpy tree that naturally hollows and thus presented a perfect place to keep Aboriginal prisoners on route from either the north or the south. There are many prison trees in the kimberley area, this being the most famous one. I later found out the wardens carting the criminals from one town to another would in fact sleep in the tree and chain
the prisoners up outside, so they got the heat and the flies. Nice one.
Before we got to the Gibb River Road we passed the termites equivalent of the pinnacles, many jagged mounds of dirt and termite poo scattered at random throughout the low-lying spinafex grass. I've probably now seen a million termite mounds since getting north of Carnarvon, these ones being slightly different as they were a lighter brown and slightly smaller. I never tire of admiring their structure though as they truly are a wonder of nature.
Basically, the mound is constructed by thousands, maybe millions, of termites all collecting dirt and then binding it with either their saliva or their faeces. Disgusting you may say - but the mound consists of a series of tunnels which are constructed in such a way as to keep the temperature in the mound the same throughout. This is because termites are infact wonderful farmers and they farm fungus inside the mounds, fungus which only grows at 87 degrees. Nights can be cold whilst the days will always be extremely hot so they have developed a system of vents which they open and close to keep the temperature constant.
Our guide pondering something at Mitchell Falls
architect in Zimbabwe has taken this idea and built a building which has no air conditioning and no heating - they keep the building cool are warm just using vents, like the termites do.
We got to the Gibb and with the obvious change from bitumen to dirt the landscape either side of us also changed from low-lying gums and eucalypts to just spinafex grass for as far as the eye could see with the horizon occasionally interupted by a distant hill.
We made our camp for the night at Windjana Gorge by mid afternoon but after setting up camp we were off to Tunnel Creek for a walk.
From the outside it was similar to the face of Windjana - a monolithic rock face rising out of the groud for a good 60 metres, the red iron rock obvious but dominated by the blackness of the deceased cyno-bacteria.
We entered the creek over huge water-washed boulders of various pastel colours and then squeezed inbetween more rocks, waded through a pool and then we were in the creek.
We had to take our head-torches as it was pitch black and had a very low-lying ceiling but
the walk was easy enough, mainly over rocky beaches and through shallow pools.
We stopped briefly at an opening where we admired the activity of some fruit bats who were incredibly active in the heat of the day.
Suddenly we noticed 2 weak white balls glowing in the water - a crocodiles eyes! Rory informed us they were freshies and would cause us no harm as long as we reciprocated the favour towards them. I'd love to say it moved around attacking small animals at will but it didn't, it lay in the water perfectly still with only its nose and eyes breaching the calm waters surface.
At the end of the tunnel we had our first viewing of aboriginal rock art which was less than impressive I have to say, but a welcome surprise considering I didn't even know aboriginals ever painted on rocks.
We then made our way back along the harsh, corregated strip of dirt they astonishingly are allowed to call a road and headed into Windjana Gorge. This was very impressive.
A small path led us through a tight rocky tunnel that took us onto a sandy path which snaked along the side
of the river and below the steep gorge walls.
The practically stationary river was now predominatly islands, the sides of the river lined with gums and grevillias and the towering gorge walls looming down on all of it. The sun had retired for the day behind clouds so we wandered round at leisure taking in our stunning surroundings.
There were crocdiles again in the river, but this time in their masses. One lazily sun-baked itself on a river island as others lay still in the water. As we moved further into the gorge we were able to get onto some of these islands, or beaches rather, which would usually be a rushing torrent of water in the wet season. This allowed us to get within metres of these ancient reptiles, and they weren't fussed in the slightest, gracefully moving away as soon as you got too close.
Back at camp we were treated to a roast chicken dinner, a stunning feat considering it was all cooked on a fire inside a camp oven. Later the clouds cleared and we showered underneath the moon in water heated by the sun during the day - an experience not to be
knocked and I would reccommend it to anyone.
That night we donned our swags by the fire and drifted off underneath the stars reflecting on a fantastic day.
Various birds sang the new day in, waking us all up at the crack of dawn. We had a brief walk back into the gorge where we found an agile wallaby having breakfast and then hit the road again. We had 2 gorges to visit today and a separate campsite to get to so it was all go!
We meandered through the twisting road at a leisurely speed, Rory occasionally giving us information on what we were looking at. For instance, all rock formations are found horizontal - but when the Kimberley collided with Australia millions and millions of years ago it pushed the rock vertical, and that is what we were looking out at. So in many ways this a different country, other worldly - virtually untouched by man and not really belonging to the Australian mainland at all!
After getting through the hills the scenery changed once again into a vast expanse of gum and eucalyptus trees, for as far as the eye could see yet large
portions of it were devastated by bush fire. Amazingly the trees still stood, another amazing tale of outback survival - when the trees catch fire they shed their bark so to prevent the main trunk burning. I wondered if termite mounds could withstand the great heat generated by bush fires, and if they did, did they also keep the inside at the required 87 degrees?! From the amount of termite mounds dotted around the landscape I'd assume that yes, they could.
The feeling of the tropics was certainly upon us as we winded through roads lined with Pandanis Palms as we creeped ever further into the Kimberley. Rorys eyes managed to spot a bobtail lizard crossing the road which we got out to take photos of, and it expanded thinking we were predators.
After 150km or so we finally got to our first major stop for the day, Bells Gorge and falls. There wasn't anything of huge note during the walk down there but the falls certainly were impressive. Like most falls during the dry season, they cascade rather than gush but down at the bottom was a wonderful pool to swim in. The water was fairly warm but
refreshing and the falls were even warmer - like a luke warm running tap!
We weren't allowed long here though as apparently the next falls were better, said Rory - and he wasn't wrong!
To get to Galvins Gorge we walked along a path that clung to the side of a motionless water lilly laden stream and took photos of water monitors basking in the sun.
At the falls, which as usual were beautiful but barely running, we found Aboriginal rock art - the familiar but always imposing face of the Wandjina. Beside that was the highlight of the day - a rope swing! We spent a good hour hurling ourselves in off this which was great fun!
On route to camp we collected firewood and then passed a sign saying fire risk very high! Good times.
We were staying at Manning Pool for the night and after another stunning dinner which was basically a meat feast we retired to our swags under the stars for another night.
I got up early doors for a lovely swim at Manning Pool, a lovely still pool littered with large rocks and surround by pandanis palms and plenty
of other exotic flora for which I don't know the name of! I was completely alone, and there was nowhere I would have rather been.
Today was a driving day, not much to see but more a laborious task that had to done to see the what was billed as the highlight of our trip, Mitchell Falls.
We passed a snake on the road, a very thin jet-black one that moved very quickly. We knew of the presence of snakes but it was one of those things we chose to push to the back of our minds, we were sleeping in swags after all with no protection from them! Suddenly the swag wasn't so appealing.......
The benefit of such a long and tedious journey was the time we had to think, reflect and observe.
One word I will take away with me from Australia is perspective. I know the word, and I know what it means - but Australia is a place that really puts everything, or everything I know in real perspective. Time and distance are two things - Australia is a difficult country to comprehend unless you travel it overland and the more you go,
the more you realise how obscenely massive this place is. It puts into perspective how small Europe is and how painfully overcrowded it is. It puts into prespective how ridiculous it was of me to see going to London from Cumbria as a massive chore! Most Australians would love to have another city within 6 hours of them!
To get over travelling at home I usually try to fall asleep to get over the monotony of travel, but here, travelling now, I almost regret it. The lanscape is more or less the same for large sections of the journey but as we go ever deeper into this wild, vast corner of Australia it becomes ever more apparent the sheer magnitude of the country. The nearest town is as far away as I have ever been from anything resembling civilisation, around about 400km away in fact - and I absolutely love it!
We crossed over the Gibb River, I river I felt wasn't really worthy of having a 640km stretch of road named after it, but what do I know? We did see a Jabiru there though, a stalk like bird with red legs, a black body and a colourful neck.
It was just one of a number of birds we have heard, seen or would see or hear during our time in the Kimberley -jabirus, mags, cockatoos, korellas, spinafex pigeons and many others that escaped our site but were lovely to be woken up to in the morning - it really was a bird lovers paradise.
We pushed on, turning right up the Kalumburu road and towards Drysdale River Station, a working cattle station where we could refuel for the next part of the journey.
They were rumoured to serve the best burgers around, an obvious claim considering there was nothing else around them, but hey, I thought I'd try it. And it was very good, I will give them that.
We had to pass the King Edward River before descending on arguably the worst stretch of road in this region. Rough, corrugated and long - it never gets graded so it was in a dire state. But complain we didn't as it would have been little use, so we put up with it and took in the vibrating world outside of us.
I found it wonderful that which ever way you looked you were reminded that you were indeed in Australia. To the naked, and imaginative, eye you could be anywhere in the world - but the rough red road ahead, yellow spinafex grass and snappy gums to the right, the remains of a bush fire to the left - you couldn't be anywhere else. You wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
On the note of bush fires, there is a distinctly Australian, but sensible, attitude towards them. Let them burn! Australia is just too vast to worry about every fire, so they don't. If it looks like it may go near a town then they have a look, but otherwise they just let it go and hope it puts itself out. More often than not that is what happens, and it is evident by the many burnt patches of land you pass in this area that haven't covered huge distances (by Australian standards).
The other thing being there isn't enough water in the region to put out the water, and even if there was the likelihood of it being anywhere near the fire was remote.
At last we got to Mitchell campground, and we were alone. We set up camp, got the fire going, had tea and got ready for seeing the falls the next day. As darkness fell, we noticed shiny little balls on the ground, these being spiders eyes, and there were loads of them. Laura then came back from the toilet and noted that a large huntsman spider was in there, and then a Praying Mantis decided to attack Bev. Ok, it didn't attack, it jumped on her. It was the largest insect I've ever seen, about 6/7 inchs in length and a clumsy walker but beautiful nonetheless. I then turned my attention to a large cricket that had taken up a seat on the dinner table. I decided that the insects at this part of the world grew like plants, and with more water and more sunlight they would continue to grow.
The next morning we headed straight for the falls, deciding to go straight there and stop off at the various points of interest along the walk on the way back. It was cripplingly hot, so at the top of Mitchell Falls, before you can get a good view, we swam and relaxed.
We then made our way along the edge of the falls towards a ledge which would offer impressive views of these 4-tier falls. The top three falls were all pretty small and fell into pools leading down to the next but the bottom one was huge and led down to the river that eventually finds the sea. Saltwater crocodiles inhabit these waters, though we couldn't see any from our lofty position up top.
We sat, slept and ate for a good period and then made our way back up. We stopped further up the mitchell river for another cool-down swim. I found it relaxing underneath a small waterfall, which acted as a form of natural hydrotherapy, until I took my hand off a rock under the fall and found my hand had in fact starred in The Thing and was covered in hundreds of tiny water worms, or something of the sort.
Next stop was an impressive aboriginal art 'gallery', which depicted many things from animals to people dancing. A trait of aborignal painting is there lack of respect for paintings that were there before, so there were many layers and as a result it looked quite messy. It was impressive though and was my first proper gallery so I was taken aback and enjoyed trying to interpret them.
Underneath Little Mermens Falls we found another gallery which was slightly less impressive but had more significance to the aboriginal 'Dreamtime' in that it depicted The Serpent and the lizard that controls the weather.
The falls weren't flowing but there was still a pool underneath so I took another dip and hunted for the freshwater crocodile that had been reported in the water. No luck though, I didn't find him!
After filling our water bottles up from the natural tap coming out of a rock we made our way back to camp, via the view from the top of the dry falls that was spectacular.
At camp we reflected on a wonderful day - and dreaded the reurn journey the next day!
It was more broken up than 2 days previous as we stopped out to admire so significant aboriginal art sites.
There is a vast amount of rock art throughout the Kimberley, and there are 2 main types - Wandjina paintings and Bradshaw paintings.
Wandjina paintings are symbolic for the Wandjina tribe who often depict their god as having no mouth - him being the god of the rains and storms so if he had a mouth it would rain all the time. These are the imposing head figures you will see in this gallery. They also draw a lot of animals and sometimes pictures of themselves.
The Bradshaw Paintings - named after John Bradshaw who discovered them in the mid 19th century. These are generally more artisitic and usually have a bit more detail - most notably tassels, hats, boomerangs attached to arms and spear throwing. The aboriginals beleive these paintings were painted by a spirit - no one seems to claim them which has led theorists to beleive they were drawn long before Australia was populated by aboriginals. These paintings have been dated between 4,000 and 35,000 years old, though most people beleive they are about 17,000 years old.
They really were fascinating to see and the amazing thing was just how accesible there were. They were found on random rocks on walks we were doing with no protection from anything.
The Wandjina faces were imposing, eery and ghost-like. Though I don't beleive in spirits or gods I did feel a presence here but would rather beleive it was just me being moved by the thought of somebody painting these beautiful works of art so long ago.
We had lunch and swim at Miners Pool on the Drysdale River before retiring to Drysdale River Station for the night. We picked up 3 people from another group whose bus had broken down, the rest of the people on the bus flying back to Broome.
Early on the next day a tyre blew, Autralian style of course, which means it wasn't a flat but had actually exploded. Rory expertly changed it within minutes and we were on the way again, sweeping through the Pentecost Ranges and across the Pentecost River, an area where the film Australia was filmed. We stopped at a lookout over the ranges and were promptly attacked by a 'willy-willy' (whirly-whirly) which is essentially an impromptu tornado which you can often see on the Australian landscape. A mad dash for the bus ensued though I managed to get a good picture after it had passed.
We arrived at El Questro station in the early afternoon, just in time for the Chamberlain Gorge river cruise. This would provide one of the highlights of all our travels - spitting fish! Archer fish spit water above the surface in order to soak their pray, and when it hits the surface they gobble it up quickly. With water distorting their view however, something as large as a hand can give the impression that there is food there - so they spat at us! Everyone on the boat was soon hanging their hands over the edge and the fish responded by giving their own little version of the jumping water fountains. Laura even got spat in the eye by one of them!
The guides on the boat gave us a talk on the gorge which was very informative, and then we were off back down the gorge, but with the complimentary champagne in hand. The red gorge walls towered over as we broke the glass surface lined with the standard pandanis palms and grevallias.
The first port of call on the last day was Zebedee Springs, very close to El Questro and very, very beautiful. The springs are a series of thermal pools with small cascading waterfalls and water temperature of 32c. Like sitting in a natural bath! In the afternoon the pools are closed for the private use of the guests who pay top-whack at El Questro.
Amelia Gorge was the penultimate walk on our last day on the tour, and though some people opted out because of the heat, it was a fantastic walk. The walks generally in the Kimberley are challenging and involve climbing, hanging on, careful foot placement and jumping over pools or streams. Proper adventure stuff! Amelia falls weren't flowing but the large pool at the bottom was suitably chilled and was an ample reward for our efforts.
On the way back we stopped at another pool where a water monitor observed me hucking myself into the water from a ledge above.
Onto Emma Gorge next, apparently one of the highlights of this tour. It didn't dissapoint! The walk again was challenging and mainly involved walking up a dry river bed which had many huge rocks in it, and combined with the large gorge walls and the abundance of bright green fauna created a wonderfully adventurous setting. Think Jurrasic Park and then you're on the right lines!
We passed above Turquoise Pool which is exactly what it says it is and were finally at Emma Falls. Like most falls we'd come across they were barely flowing but there was just enough to give us the impression that they would be impressive in full flow.
The falls fall into an inverted amphitheatre with the gorge walls almost overtaken by greenery on all the walls. The pool was deep, and cold and there were many nooks and crannies to investigate and marvel at. Water dripped out of rocks and was considerably warmer than the water in the pool. It was a place that you wished you had at your back door for you would never get bored of looking at it - but then, if it became any more commercial it would lose its true beauty. And like many places that we visited, a picture just would not do it justice.
And that was that.................we'd done the Kimberley. We motored into Kununurra and found our hostel. A couple of days later I'd start work picking pumpkins to replenish the bank funds. It was 38c outside and we were out there for hours. I was technically still in the Kimberley, but the Kimberley I knew before is where I really wanted to be!