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.
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.
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.
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?
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!