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.
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.
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.
‘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!