Off We Go! Or how I spent my summer holidays July-August 2016

 

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The Gibb River Road is in red

 

It’s 5am on a chilly winter’s morning in July. It’s still dark and we’re sitting in a hotel’s open-air restaurant trying to stuff as much breakfast into us before we set off. We don’t know how long it will be before we get a chance to eat again. Other couples huddle around us exchanging wan smiles as they wander around the buffet for cereal, toast, tea and coffee. The poor girl rostered to serve us at this early hour looks as if she can’t wait to get rid of us so she can return to bed.

We’re all wearing shorts, warm jackets and stout walking shoes. Beside us lie various backpacks laden with water bottles, sunscreen, hats and cameras. Our luggage has already been portered to our transport, a converted four-wheel drive flatbed truck with a seating pod containing 20 seats. We will become only too familiar with this vehicle over the next 16 days.

truck
Our transport

We’re in Broome, right at the top left-hand corner of Western Australia and we’re about to start an epic trip along the unpaved Gibb River road into the Northern Territory, and ending in Darwin. It’s only open over the dry season, April to October, as during the wet months, the road is flooded and impassable.

We met our guide and some of our fellow travellers yesterday in the hotel lobby. Gary, our guide, is in his thirties, from Belfast we discover the moment he speaks, and he has fallen in love with the Kimberley as this area is known. His enthusiasm is infectious, his manner open and friendly and within a couple of days he has us all whipped into shape and following his instructions to the letter.

I was worried that this trip would challenge me in many ways; would I be fit enough to do the many walks scheduled into the itinerary, would we be the oldest in the group, not exactly being spring chickens, would there be many other foreign tourists, would we fit in ok, would we…..

The meeting in the hotel reassures me on many fronts. For a start the rest of the party are all Australians and some look quite a bit older than us, though age is no indicator of level of fitness as we will find out. But it doesn’t take long for us all to chat away, the Aussie sense of humour coming quickly to the fore, and confidences regarding various ailments exchanged.

By 6am, we’re all on board the bus and setting off. We’ve bagged the front seat but not for long as Gary explains the movable feast that are the seating arrangements. Basically we move back a seat every day until you reach the back seats set over the axles which make for an even more bumpy ride at which point you are promoted to the front and the sequence starts again.

He gives us a quick tour of Broome as the sky lightens and as we reach the white sands of the long, Cable Beach, deserted at this hour, we park and watch the sunrise over the ocean. Yes, it’s the Pacific Ocean and this is Western Australia, but the land has curved back on itself so that we are facing east.

sunrise
Dawn through sleepy eyes

At first we’re driving on bitumen but it’s not long before we hit the unpaved road and the corrugations. Several hours of this and we’re grateful to stop and stretch our legs at Windjana. We walk along the river, Gary pointing out the freshwater crocodiles on the opposite bank. The ‘freshies’ are smaller with narrower snouts than the big saltwater ones, the ‘salties’, and are not nearly as dangerous.

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Freshwater crocodiles

‘They won’t kill you, their snouts can’t get a good grip of you,’ he reassures us, ‘though they can still bite you quite hard.’
We squat on the sandy beach for lunch, the freshies far enough downstream to pose no threat and then back on the bus and off to Tunnel Creek. This is a paddle through a natural formed tunnel through the Napier Range which opens out into an idyllic watering hole at the end. I’m glad of the walking pole I borrow from the bus’s supply to keep my balance in the stony, shingly waters.
By the time we reach our final destination, Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge, it’s dark and we’re tired, cold and hungry. We’re sleeping in posh tents, perched on a wooden base and large enough to hold a bedroom and bathroom complete with shower and flush toilet. A hot shower, a three course meal and we tumble into bed exhausted at 8pm. It’s been a long day!

glamping
Glamping, Oz style
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The Kimberley is Burning!

The Kimberley is burning! A lightning strike on Ellenbrae Station in late September started the fire and it spread rapidly across 1.5 million hectares of land. Many of the places we visited had the fires come through. El Questro has been badly damaged and the tented cabins we stayed in have been destroyed.el-questro

 

It is the end of the dry season and the accompanying tourist season so El Questro had already closed for the winter and all staff had left so the fire was not immediately reported.

An Aboriginal community at Ngallagunda was threatened but was saved though the fires came very close.

The indigenous people have always used fire as a way of replenishing the grasslands and many of the native flora have adapted to fire as a way of stimulating seed growth. But controlled burning usually occurs in the spring when the risk of fires spreading is low after the wet winter. In October, the land is dry and waiting for rain and the risk of fire is correspondingly much higher.

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Areas for controlled burning

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In 2011 several long-distance runners were caught up in bushfires and severely burned in Emma Gorge. Turia Pitt describes her ordeal here and here.

But already, now that the rains have started and now that the fires are dwindling, new green shoots are appearing and soon, the Kimberley will once again provide fodder for the many thousand cattle which range across its acres and sustenance and homes for the wildlife in the area.

And rebuilding will begin almost immediately.

 

 

The Best Laid Plans…..

Not everything on the trip went as planned. We crossed many creeks, some barely wet, others with fast flowing water but one was very muddy. And stuck in the middle was a battered and well-used four wheel drive vehicle. The driver was standing by the roadside patiently waiting for someone to come along to pull him out and that someone was us.

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Stuck in a boggy creek

In no time at all, ropes were attached, the bus was put into reverse and gradually the 4WD was dragged back on to firm ground. Then another problem showed up. The vehicle wouldn’t start. As the driver was the manager of the property where we were spending the night, it was deemed politic to stay and help. Anyway, the code of the Outback is to do just that. They tried jump leads but to no avail. Many were the suggestions offered by the males of our party but nothing worked. In the end, the driver joined us on the bus and we took him with us to our lodgings where he commandeered a new alternator and a mechanic and they drove back to get his vehicle going again.

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And now it won’t start!

On another day, we were bowling along, or rather rickety-ricketing along when the tread came off one of the front tyres. Fortunately Gary had a spare so with all the men ‘helping’, it was changed in no time and we were on our way again. Half an hour later, the other front tyre lost its tread too, and this time we didn’t have a spare. Gary had to use the emergency satellite phone to contact the nearest property which had a tyre and we all sat down to wait. Tea and biscuits helped pass the time and we watched the sun set over the horizon just as the cavalry in the shape of two guys in a ute arrived with the tyre. We were very late to our lodgings at El Questro.

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Another burst tyre

Bumps and bruises were not uncommon as we scrambled our way over rocks and stones on our walks into gorges or to Aboriginal art sites and the men in particular sported a variety of plasters over their cuts and scrapes. One guy tried an Aboriginal cure which consisted of spreading the red sap of a red bloodwood tree over his cuts. It looked pretty garish but he swore that they healed very quickly.

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Hands, knees and boomps a daisy!

The worst incident was when MOH knocked himself out. He had been so busy watching where he was putting his feet as he scrambled along a path that he didn’t notice an overhang and gave it what Gary described as a “Glasgow kiss’. He was wearing his backpack which, as he fell backwards, prevented him from giving his head another knock. He appeared fine afterwards though I was told to keep an eye on him. From watching various medical programmes I knew you were supposed to ask them basic questions; Where are we? I didn’t have a clue. What day is it? No, I wasn’t sure of that either. Who is the Prime Minister? As we had left just as David Cameron resigned, we hadn’t heard who had taken over, being completely out of mobile phone and internet range for days. And nobody was sure who the Australian Prime Minister was either, due to their complicated voting system.

Fortunately, MOH was fine though if he had been badly hurt, the only option would have been to take him to the nearest airstrip and wait for the Flying Doctor to arrive. This is actually a charity which the people in far flung areas of Australia rely on to help them when taken ill or hurt.

Gary, our guide, is a very talented photographer and has produced some beautiful calendars of scenes from the Kimberley which he sells from his website to help the Flying Doctor service. If you’d like to buy one, contact him at http://www.discoverthekimberley.com.au/p/calendars

Ladies to the Left, Gents to the Right

 

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Not a good spot – there’s a croc lying there!

At our age, toilet facilities are important, so we were pleased to read in the booklet we got about our trip that each of our overnight stops had ensuite facilities. Most impressive in the middle of nowhere! But more of them later.

En route along the unpaved road, things were different. There was no shortage of bushes, trees and scrub to crouch behind, after first of all ascertaining that there were no nasty creatures lurking. By the end of the trip we’d all got quite used to men in one direction, ladies in the other and a communal mooning at anybody unfortunate enough to be passing.

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Not much use either!

It was the dunnies that were… interesting. (An Australian toilet is a dunny by the way.) To have any sort of toilet in a wilderness area is a feat of logistics and many and varied were the solutions to the problem of where to put it and how to dispose of it. Some dunnies were of the simple ‘long drop’ variety – a long drop into some sort of pit where it would eventually compost down. The flies loved these. And the smell could be pretty overpowering too. But they gave you privacy and they always had toilet paper!

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The queue at the dunny

Others were more sophisticated with buckets of some kind of disinfectant and instructions on washing down the toilet bowl after use. They also usually had a trap door in the bowl which kept the flies and smell out, and which opened when a lever was hauled back and forth. Noisy but effective.

Our bus was loaded with a water tank, liquid soap and anti-bacterial hand wash so we managed to avoid any episodes of the runs – or at least, no-one was admitting to them.

In the roadhouses we stopped at, most had flush toilets – oh the luxury! But they came with warnings. Put the lid down to keep out frogs and snakes, they admonished. Apparently creatures come through the septic tank system and up the toilet bowl.snakes-sign

Gary, our guide, told us a tale of a young girl in her early twenties who had been bitten by a snake when she sat down on the toilet, and was so embarrassed by where the bite was that she told no-one. Two hours later, she collapsed (it was probably a brown snake, one of the most venomous) and unfortunately they couldn’t save her.

It was certainly one way of making sure we put the lid down!

frog-signOne night in our glamping tent, we discovered a frog sitting happily on the cistern in the en suite. It point blank refused to return down the way it had come, so my other half (MOH) simply closed the door of the en suite so that it would not come into the bedroom area. Another of Gary’s tales was that frogs liked to seek out the warmest places to sit on and therefore they headed for your face in bed at night. Neither of us was happy with the thought of that frog, pretty though it was, spending the night with us.

I had been trying to ensure I didn’t become dehydrated that day and had been regularly emptying my water bottle (they recommend you drink around four litres each day) so of course, the inevitable happened. In the middle of the night, I had to go. Gingerly stepping out on to the cold floor boards, I reached for my solar powered torch. It was dead. I stretched my arms out to find the light switch. It wasn’t where I thought it should be. I stepped forward and collided with the door of the en suite. I couldn’t find the handle to open it. By the time I did manage to fling it open, things were desperate and I couldn’t have cared if I stepped on the frog or even sat on it. Much relieved, I returned to my bed.

The next morning, the frog was clinging to the toilet brush, none the worse for its interrupted night.

Falls and Bungles in a Helicopter

helicopter
Ready to go!

We stayed at Mitchell Falls for a couple of nights in order to visit the waterfalls there. Helicopter flights were on offer so we decided to go for it and booked a flight over the Falls and out to the coast. The helicopter was small and a tight fit. MOH was fine – he was sitting up front with the pilot (who looked about 16) but I was in the back with a guy who would have made a marvellous rugby prop forward, and his wife.

Not only that, I was on the outside – just about literally. The helicopter had no doors in the back so I was perched on the edge of my seat feeling the breeze as we flew and looking straight down at the ground a hundred feet below.

I loved it! I absolutely loved it!

It was exhilarating and exciting and I was safely strapped in so there was nothing to fear as long as the engine kept going, the pilot didn’t collapse and we didn’t run out of fuel. Which of course it didn’t.

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Nearing the coast

The view over the Falls was spectacular enough and must be truly wonderful in the wet season, but then we headed out to the coast over tracts of emptiness with very little evidence, if any, of man being there. The sea when we reached it was turquoise and deep blue, green in parts and every hue in between. The were numerous sandy bays, so idyllic looking but totally unsafe due to the crocodiles.

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Croc tracks

We saw their tracks leading to and from the water but of them, we didn’t catch a glimpse. Not surprising as later on in the trip, in Kakadu, we realised just how well camouflaged they are on the river banks.

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We followed the Mitchell River back from its mouth to the Falls and beyond and landed where our faithful bus was waiting to take us back to our Wilderness Lodge.

When we heard we could have another flight later in the trip over the Bungle Bungles, we were the first to sign up.

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Flying over the Bungles

The Bungle Bungles are beehive shaped dome structures made out of sandstone deposited about 350 million years ago and eroded over time by weather and water. Between them run deep chasms and gorges some of which we walked into. They have striking orange and grey bands caused by bacteria (which make the black bands) or oxidised iron, making the orange ones. As the sun lowers, the bands become even more distinctive.

Another young lad took us up in his helicopter with more space this time as there were only three of us, but still an absence of doors. Still, it gives a much better view and it was well worthwhile. The southern end of the Bungle Bungles in where the domes are but as you fly further north there are fewer chasms and gorges and it becomes a high plateau. It was incredible to think that very few people indeed, if any, had ventured on to it and that it was as pristine a landscape as could be found anywhere in the world.

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The plateau stretches away

There were many strange and weird shapes left by erosion, which of course is still ongoing. The domes themselves are very fragile as they are only a thin skin of sandstone, which if pierced, reveals that they are filled with a grey sand. They are now part of Purnululu National Park and it’s also a World Heritage site as an area of natural beauty and outstanding geological features.

I’m glad we took the opportunity to fly as we saw so much more and got an overview of the areas which we didn’t have on the ground. I can’t wait till the next one!

Where Are We?

 

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We followed the Gibb River Road

So where are we? We’re in the Kimberley, one of the last wildernesses in the world and one of the least populated areas anywhere. It’s right at the north-eastern end of Western Australia and its eastern edge is the border with the Northern Territory.

The Gibb River road on which we’re – rickety-rickety – travelling is unpaved though the graders go through it regularly in order to smooth out the worst of the corrugations. The route is only open from around March to October, depending on the rains which are heaviest in their summer months and which regularly flood the roads and the settlements. Some of the roadhouses mark each year’s flood or post pictures of how high the waters came and when it’s too bad to drive, the road is closed to all traffic.

There is another road, a bitumen road further south, the Great Northern Highway for those who don’t have 4-wheel drive vehicles, but hey, where’s the fun in that? So we rickety-rickety our way, thankful to be strapped in as we bounce along.

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A calm creek that we crossed

It’s beautiful country with creeks and rivers flowing all year round, home to huge numbers of birds. Rugged red sandstone cliffs give way to oases of waterholes surrounded by gum trees and grasses, their images reflected in the still waters. Waterfalls tumble down the cliffsides, and as the sun sets, the colours change to misty blues and greens and golds.

Darkness falls around 5.30pm here in July and the temperature plummets. We pile on layers of clothing and huddle round the campfire before dashing off to our beds in the hope of retaining some of its warmth.

The nights are punctuated by rustlings and snortings under the floorboards of the tent or by the gentle and not so gentle snores of our neighbours. We coorie under the bedclothes and refuse to let our imaginations go to work on what those noises could be.

We’re woken each morning between 4am and 5am by the dawn chorus – a chattering and warbling and downright squawking that doesn’t happen in Scotland. The only bird I can recognise is the kookaburra with its chortling sound. We do have a small alarm clock but we’re always awake before it buzzes. Others are stirring in the adjacent tents so unwillingly, we creep out of our beds and dress. One morning, it’s so cold (it sank to 5 degrees that night) that I slip my clothes into the warm bed with me and get dressed in a horizontal position. I used to do that when I was growing up in a tenement in Glasgow but I was a great deal more agile then as my heavy breathing and contortions reveal.

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We’ll have the lot!

Meals are in open-sided pavilions and are amazingly good considering the isolation of it all. It’s not as if you can nip down to the shops if you’ve forgotten anything. Breakfasts are hearty with a variety of choices that many a hotel would find hard to match. There’s only one problem; there’s only 45 minutes between arriving for breakfast and leaving on the bus, scarcely enough time to fill your stomachs, gather your belongings and head for your seat. No-one wants to be last on the bus!

My other half (MOH) finds this well-nigh impossible. He’s used to a leisurely breakfast followed by equally leisurely ablutions and a read of the morning paper. This dawn rushing is not to his taste. We try arriving early for breakfast but they’re not ready so we still have to wait, wrapped in the alpaca wool ponchos which are supplied to keep us warm in the early morning chill.

What to wear is another difficulty. The temperature may be in single figures before dawn, but after the sun rises, it heats up and may reach 30 degrees in the afternoon. So layers are the answer. They can be divested and stuffed into our backpacks as the day progresses. But we have another problem. The size and weight of our luggage (16kg) is strictly limited due to space on the bus being at a premium. That’s ok if you’re only doing the two-week trip before returning home, but we have an extra three weeks to cater for. And we have a variety of scenarios to dress for – cities, fancy restaurants, long walks through the wilderness, family get-togethers and swimming in waterholes, and temperatures ranging from downright cold to 45 degrees. ‘Co-ordinated layers’ might be the term for it but by the end of the holiday I am heartily sick of wearing the same things in whatever combination I can think up.waterfall

I forgot/couldn’t pack a decent pair of shoes so I have a) hiking shoes b) velcro fastening sandals and c) a free pair of flip-flops from M&S (they call them ‘thongs’ here – snigger, snigger). Work that lot into the equation.

But amongst all this stunning scenery, who cares what I look like?