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.
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.
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.
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?