Did She Really Just Nearly Step on a Croc?

Published: January 14th 2022
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We’re up at 5.30 am for today’s little exercise, a tour to Windjana Gorge out in the remote Kimberley about 350 kilometres inland from Broome.

Our guide introduces herself as Michelle. She looks about 30, but she tells us that she first came to Broome on her honeymoon in 1993. ... and I'd always thought that we didn't allow child marriages here in Oz. We’d thought that Broome might be suffering from a lack of overseas tourists due to COVID, but it seems that this has been more than compensated for by overseas travel starved Aussies who’ve decided instead to holiday in their homeland. Michelle tells us that the permanent population of Broome is 14,000, and in a normal non-COVID affected tourist season this swells on average to somewhere around 48,000. The tourist office told her yesterday however that they think that there are currently roughly 88,000 people here, and the town's struggling to cope. The caravan parks are all full, as are all the overflow caravan parks, and the Council's now trying to rig up some temporary overflows to the overflows to cater for the rest. We must have been really lucky yesterday to find somewhere for our extra four nights here. I haven’t seen anyone sleeping on the beach yet, but then again we have been a bit slow off the mark most mornings, so maybe they've all packed up their beds by the time we've got around to surfacing.

First stop this morning is the Willare Bridge Roadhouse… well it would be if we could get to it. We stop behind two enormous lorries both of which are carrying even more enormous tip trucks that look like they’re probably off to a mine somewhere. The Willare Bridge is a very narrow single lane, and it seems that the first of the lorries is struggling to fit through. There doesn’t seem to be any air space at all between the lorry’s wheels and the Bridge rails, and the tip truck's wheels are hanging out over the river. We watch as it inches along agonisingly slowly. Each of these things must weigh about as much as half a dozen elephants, so I fear for the Bridge if both of them try to get on it at once. We wonder what the Roadhouse is going to call itself if the Bridge ends up at the bottom of the river.

Next stop is the iconic Prison Boab Tree just outside the town of Derby. Apparently boab trees can live for up to 2,000 years, and this one is spectacularly large. It’s hollow inside and you can get into it through a split in the trunk… well you would be able to if there wasn't a fence around it to stop would-be grafitti artists from carving their initials into it. The name comes from the early days of European settlement when it was used to assist in the transport of prisoners. It seems that there are two theories around this. One is that it was used to hold the prisoners while the guards took a break, but Michelle favours the alternative that it was used as a shelter by the guards while the manacled prisoners sat out in the blazing sun.

We’ve heard a bit about the pearling history of the area in the past few days, and Michelle adds to these insights. It’s not a pretty story. The early European pearlers initially forced the local coastal indigenous folk into diving for them because they were at least partly used to it, but that still didn’t prevent a lot of drownings and deaths from respiratory illnesses. The diving population started to get a bit thin, so the pearlers started rounding up indigenous men from out in the Tanami Desert to boost the numbers. Most of these guys had never even seen the sea, let alone done any diving, so they fared even worse. This practice of forced labour was called "black-birding", but was of course really just slavery by another name. A lot of the prisoners held at places like the Prison Boab Tree hadn’t committed any crimes, they were just rounded up slaves.

Michelle tells us the very long and convoluted story of a local indigenous hero by the name of Jandamarra. He was only a young boy when the Europeans first moved in to take over his tribe's land and convert it into massive sheep stations. The settlers regarded the indigenous folk as little more than a nuisance. Some unscrupulous landholders tried to kill them off, while others rounded them up into black camps on their properties. Jandamarra found himself trapped between the two cultures. The local police managed to convince him to become a black tracker to help them track down indigenous men accused of
The curse of the cane toadThe curse of the cane toadThe curse of the cane toad

These disastrous pests are slowly starting to spread across the country. They were first introduced in Queensland in 1935 to control beetles in sugarcane. They're poisonous to most native wildlife.
killing sheep, but he soon realised the error of his ways, and was then able to steal some rifles and teach his kinfolk how to use them. The whole issue came to a head when one of the Europeans tried to hold sheep on the sacred lands of Windjana Gorge. A shootout ensued and Jandamarra was injured. Despite this he managed to evade capture for two years before he was eventually tracked down and shot. His head was then cut off and put on display in Perth, whilst the rest of his bones were gathered up by his people. But the story didn't end there. His skull eventually found its way to London, and efforts are still underway to try to get it returned so that the local hero can finally be laid to rest where he belongs.

Next stop is the Norval Gallery in Derby. Legendary local artist Mark Norval paints here, and also invites local indigenous artists to come here to work under his tutelage. The Gallery’s displays include Mark's 5,000-odd vinyl LP collection. The art works are stunning.

We head off down the iconic Gibb River Road which takes us through the heart of the Kimberley, before turning off down the bone-rattling track into Windjana Gorge. Issy comments as we arrive that she didn’t think the road was too bad. She was clearly asleep the whole way, although it’s hard to imagine how; it’d be like trying to sleep on a jack hammer.

We walk down a short track through a gap in the rocks into the Gorge. It is absolutely stunning, with sheer hundred metre high cliffs on both sides. When we found out last night that Tunnel Creek was off the agenda we asked the lady at the tour company whether it was still worth coming if all we were going to see was the Gorge. She made it sound about as exciting as watching paint dry. I don’t think there’s any chance she’s ever been here; either that or she came here and wandered around with her eyes closed. Either way I hope they’re not ever tempted to let her work in their marketing department.

Issy's understandably very taken by the Gorge’s beauty. She stands on a sand bank next to the river trying to take photos of the cliffs. She then finds that she needs to take a few steps backwards towards the water to get them all in. As she’s about to click the shutter she happens to take a quick glance behind her to see that she's within half a step of tripping over a croc sunning itself in the shallows. She comforts herself with the knowledge that it was only a “freshy” - they’re the ones that just rip your arms off rather than killing you - but I still think that that was way too close for comfort. I hope her mum doesn’t read this. If recent phone conversations are anything to go by the only thing she seems to know about where we are at the moment is that it’s crawling with things that can kill you.

We leave the splendour of the Gorge and start the long trek back to Broome. Fortunately Michelle seems to be very adept at dodging wayward cows and dingo pups in the now pitch darkness. It’s been a 700 kilometre day, and a very good one.

Additional photos below
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20th January 2022
Windjana Gorge

21st January 2022
Windjana Gorge

Windjana Gorge
Was indeed stunning!

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