Rough as Guts (the last of the Gibb)

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K opening one of the many cattle gates on the station roads

Everyone said that the road up to Drysdale River Station was “rough as guts”. 

In fact, Lee and I hadn’t planned to take the Kulumbaru Road. But, after nearly two weeks of only solar power, the batteries were low and we needed to charge up; Drysdale Station had power.  We’d also run out of brake pads on the front wheels of the car, or so we thought, and were now trying to drive without using the brakes. 

Lee was worried about this, but I thought it would be an adventure to visit that out-of-the-way station.  Lee was sick of corrugation, “If you want to go, you drive,” he said and pulled over. 

So I drove.  And it made that road to Ningaloo Station seem like a smooth ride.  The corrugations were so deep, we couldn’t hear each other speak. 

There’s a road train that comes into Drysdale Station every week to deliver supplies and it goes out filled with cars that have broken down.  There were Jayco caravans at the station with kitchen cabinets that had fallen right off the walls.  We felt lucky that the only damage we sustained was a missing D shackle; the safety chain connecting the trailer to the car was dragging on the ground.  Luckily, Lee had brought a spare D shackle.

The highlight of our time at Drysdale was an afternoon spent on the Drysdale River with just us and a thousand birds. 

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I took the kayak down the river, lined with trees and palms.  The river was brown and still, calm and deep.  There was no one else. At first, I hugged the riverbank to get a better look at the birds.  A pair of rainbow bee-eaters flew right over me.  A dozen crimson finches came down to the water to drink.  Two Rufus night herons perched in a tree up ahead.  Several pied cormorants twisted their necks round in another tree. 

Then I saw a freshwater croc move from the riverbank and splash and disappear under the dark water without a trace, and I decided to stick to the middle of the river.

Paddling down that river for an hour, all alone in the wilderness of the Kimberley, on a river with no one but the birds, was sublime.  It felt timeless, as if I were lost in another world where only the present existed.  I was unable to think of anything else—what I was going to scrounge together for dinner, or how I was going to get K to memorise her times tables, or whether Trump would somehow win the election—I was just there, on the river with the birds and the occasional splash of a freshwater croc into water.

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Drysdale River

Ellenbrae and Home Valley Stations

After Drysdale, we drove back down that bumpy road, back to the Gibb, and stopped at the quaint Ellenbrae Station.  This was one of my favorite spots.  They make scones at Ellenbrae, which we devoured.  We set up camp and went to the river for a swim and a kayak.  That evening, the girls had a “donkey bath”, where the water is heated by a log fire.

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Girls in bath find a gecko on the ceiling

The next morning, we woke to light rain, unusual at this time of year.  I cooked pancakes under an umbrella and we packed up and moved on to the busy Home Valley Station, which was more like a caravan park than the bush.

At Home Valley, we camped right next to the playground and the kids played for hours with other kids, running themselves ragged.  Lee and I read books and went for walks.

And K got to go on her first ever horse ride.imageOne evening, we were playing Uno and having a drink at the bar, when we noticed a crowd gathering outside.  K went to see what it was: a whip-cracking show.  She came running back, “Mom, will you interpret?”  I came with my glass of wine and sat in front of her and it was the easiest thing I’ve had to interpret on this whole trip.  The whip cracker was a man of few words.

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The scenery at Home Valley Station

After three days at Home Valley, we said goodbye to the Gibb and drove to Kununurra.  Lee was overjoyed to be on a sealed road again.  I was a little bit sad to leave the Gibb.

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Goodbye Gibb

When we got reception and I looked at the New York Times online, I saw the terrorist attack in France with 81 killed by a truck and the attempted coup in Turkey with hundreds dead. It was strange to think we’d been swimming in gorges and kayaking down rivers and camping under the stars, blissfully unaware of the chaos elsewhere.

 

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Gorges Galore on the Gibb

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Spot the croc

By the time we got to Galvin’s Gorge, we’d been on the Gibb 12 days, and I was getting into it.  So many adventures to be had!

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Galven’s Gorge, another great swimming spot

After stopping at Galven’s Gorge, we arrived at Manning Gorge campground in mid-afternoon and set up the tent in the heat.  It was packed with tour buses and camper trailers, caravans and tents and just three toilets for men and women. 

Then, just a few meters from the campsite, we saw why it was so crowded. There was a perfect swimming hole, complete with island rocks.  “It looks manmade,” Lee said, “like a resort.”  The water was clear and cool and there was a little boat attached to a rope so that you could pull yourself across the river, which the kids did all afternoon.

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Manning Gorge swim hole

That evening we dined on chicken Lee had bought at the roadhouse.  I looked at the label and noticed that it had been frozen for nearly a year, so I made a curry to mask the freezer-burn, but the texture was similar to an old boot.   

We were awoken before dawn by the sounds of heavy snoring.  Or maybe cattle?  When I zipped open the trailer tent and stepped outside, I realised it was both—the couple next to us snoring loudly (their son slept in a swag outside the caravan) and two cows moaning at each other in the next campsite.  Cows are everywhere on the Gibb, originally a “beef road”. 

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Road Train kickin’ up dust on the Gibb

K and I left early to walk to Manning gorge.  K pulled us across on the boat and we set off through grasses, past boabs, over rocks and boulders. 

As we walked, I taught K the terms “first” and “third-person” and we talked about the advantages and limitations of these different points of view.  K, who’s written four stories on this trip (three more than I have) talked about why she chose the POV she did for the various stories.  And I figured that was home school for the day. 

Soon, we were standing in front of the falls.  We’d walked there in just half an hour and it wasn’t crowded yet.   We were hot from the walk, which didn’t have any shade, and dove into the massive pool beneath the falls.    

A teenage boy did a backflip from the top of the falls into the gorge and I saw K watch with envy.  She’s not allowed to go more than a meter under water, or she could lose the rest of hearing.

When the boy came up, I asked how deep he’d gone.  “A meter and a half, and I’m 80 kilos.” 

“OK,” I said to K, “you won’t go too deep.”

K scrambled up the rocks to the top of the falls.  And stood, looking down, terrified.  I climbed up behind her. 

“You jump first,” she said.  I jumped and it reminded me of all the impossibly high rocks my late brother, Mark used to get me to jump off of when I was K’s age.  I plunged into the water and turned around to look at K standing anxious on the rock ledge.  I counted to three with my fingers and, to my surprise, she held her nose and leapt off the rock, flying through the air.  When she came up, she was exultant.  “I did it!” 

We had lunch on the rocks and another swim and walked  back to camp.

That afternoon, we read books in the shade.  It was hot.  K looked at me, her cheeks red, her hair stringy from the river water, and sighed and said, “I love the Gibb.”

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K looking out to the falls jump

 

Leonard Gorge, Bell Gorge and Charnley River

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One of many water crossings on the Gibb

We stopped at Leonard Gorge and went for a hike in the mid-day sun.  The sun beat down; sweat poured off of us and we lost the path.  Whose idea was this?  Luckily, we met another family on the same walk, shared our water, found the trail and became friends along the way.

They’d left their hometown of Bunbury when it got “too busy” seven years ago and had been traveling, on and off, ever since.  K ran ahead with the two boys, her face like a beetroot in the heat.  When we got to the gorge, there was no waterfall running and no place to swim.  The last wet season in the Kimberley saw little rain.

“Why did we come here, Dad?” one of the boys asked.  A reasonable question.

“Just a healthy walk, son.  There’s not a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.”

The boy seemed satisfied with this answer.

In 35 degree heat the boys and K proceeded to run up the hill, down the hill, over the boulders and all the way back to the car.  The parents and little ones followed behind. They told us about a free camp at Bell’s Creek with swimming and we followed them, but they soon drove ahead of us.  When we drove past the turn-off, the dad hopped in his car and drove after us.  We were grateful, as it was a lovely spot, right by a bubbling brook.

That evening we had a “bush bath” in the creek, which was running, but didn’t go too deep, for fear of freshies.

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Bush Bath

That night K helped the boys put up their swags and R played with their four year-old sister. The boys had a wonderful sense of adventure and were completely adept at all things camping—building fires and the like.  They made us look like amateurs.

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K helping the boys set up the swags–she wants one of her own now!

It was only us two families in this magic little free camp.  The stars were bright and the next morning we were awakened just before dawn by two barking owls (dingo birds).  I got out of the tent and saw one perched on a gum tree—magnificent.

Bell Gorge

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K and Mama relax at Bell Gorge

The next morning we drove to Bell Gorge, where we walked in and had a swim in one of the most spectacular gorges on the Gibb River Road.  This place, too, is full of birds, including the stunning rainbow bee-eater.

We stayed three nights at Silent Grove, a busy campsite close to the gorge.  We spent hot days down at the massive swimming hole.  The rocks were slippery and K liked to “skate” down them, into the cool water.

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One day, K and I ventured further down the river and swam through a large pool, over some small falls and then through another pool, feeling like explorers.  There were no other people. Then we got to a waterfall that dropped into another massive gorge, nearly as large as Bell Gorge, but I couldn’t see a way down the sheer rock face.  On our way back, we saw two goannas basking on the rocks and there was a small snake in the water, which we swam quickly past.

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R walks back from Bell Gorge

 

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The top of the gorge

 

Charnley River Wilderness Camp

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K jumping into Dillie Gorge at Charnley River

 

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Goanna at Dillie Gorge

Bell Gorge was stunning, but busy and filled with tour buses.  We were determined to get off the main drag and find some place with fewer people and so we drove up to Charnley River Wilderness Camp.  It had grass, which kept the dust down, and trees, which shaded us from that fierce Kimberley sun.

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Grevillie Gorge

There were numerous walks to gorges and swimming holes and a communal fire to sit around at night and share stories and marshmallows.  We’d have stayed more than three nights, but ran out of cash.  Charnley is expensive, but the money goes to preserving the wilderness and a program to try to rid the place of the destructive feral cat, something that’s almost impossible.  Every night in Australia, feral cats eat millions of native animals.

We had to bring our shoes in at night so the dingos wouldn’t take them.  They howled intermittently after sunset, an eerie sound in the night.  But at least there was no dust.  The dust on the Gibb River Road is pervasive—in the car, the tent, the clothes, the nostrils.  Every time I opened the food drawer or the fridge, I had to wash my hands again before I continued cooking.

By now, we were all feeling weary from traveling.  A year is a long time to be constantly in motion.  And I had a fierce longing for a washing machine—washing clothes by hand, the dirtiest clothes ever, gets old fast.  And yet it was all so beautiful: the kangaroos, the western kookaburras, the green pools at the bottom of all those dramatic gorges, the evening chats round the campfire at night, cuddling up with the girls, all in the same bed on cool crisp mornings, eating pancakes outside under a canopy of trees.  I know I’ll miss this when we do finally go home.  And when I think of marking all those papers, travelling feels a lot less tiresome . . .

R is officially tired of camping.  Lee is sick of setting up the trailer tent and packing it away.  He’s tired of the dust and the corrugation.  K and I could keep going, I think, but we’d also like to pause somewhere, go to school, get a job, settle.  We’ve started to talk about stopping in Darwin for a while.  For now, however, it was on with the Gibb.

When we ran out of bread, I cooked some on the campfire.  On our third and final night at Charnley River we sat under the stars and ate fresh hot bread, smothered in butter.  There’s nothing better.

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Kimberley Sunset, Silent Grove

 

 

Derby and the Start of the Gibb

imageThe morning we left Broome I went to Woolies and bought dehydrated peas, dried apricots, canned fruit salad, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cashews, kilos of pasta, rice, smoked salmon, smoked trout, 32 eggs, 15 litres of long-life milk, dried milk, bags of apples and mandarins, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, baked beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, two tins of salmon, tinned beetroot, a kilo of sultanas, a kilo of dried apricots, a large block of butter, a larger block of cheese, a bottle of olives, four packs of crackers, seven bars of chocolate and more, totalling $403.

It would be three weeks before I went to another grocery store.  In some ways, our entire trip has been a preparation for this: the Gibb River Road. But first, to Derby.

We said goodbye to the Indian Ocean and drove northeast to the next town, 220 kilometres and a world away from Broome.

Derby was 36° C and dusty in the middle of “winter”.  The caravan park was packed and there was no pool and no swimming in the sea because of salt-water crocs.  In the evening, Outback Paddy played for the Gray Nomads in the camp kitchen, which cheered things, but only slightly.

In the centre of town a playground stood empty, surrounded by unlikely grass and a few boab trees where a couple dozen Aboriginals sat in circles in the shade, drinking the last dregs of warm beer and waiting for the liquor store to reopen at noon.  As we drove by I saw a woman stand and with slow determination swing her backpack, squarely hitting a man in the back of his head.  He didn’t respond.

I’m reading Grog War, by Alexis Wright, an unsentimental look at alcohol and racism in Tenant Creek, and the fight elders had to go through to get a dry community.  She points out that most Aboriginals don’t drink, an important observation, especially for us travellers only see the drunks in town.

Wright describes the racist “2 kilometre law”, which forbids consumption of alcohol within two kilometres of a liquor store.  I noticed a sign in the liquor store in Derby, which read, Will not sell alcohol to anyone without transport.  Must show car keys to be served!

I also saw a cop in the parking lot of the liquor store, waiting for it to open so he could buy a bottle.

There was a swimming pool in town, thankfully.  But even the swim coach was harsh, yelling insults at the little swimmers who paddled up and down the pool as fast as they could. K, R, Lee and I jumped in, relieved to cool down.  Then, we were suddenly famished.  Luckily, there was a kebab shop across the street, where I went to buy hot chips.  The take away shop, run by Egyptians, was filled with souvenirs for sale: pyramid paperweights and miniature pharaohs.  It felt a long way from anywhere.

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R examines part of a seed from a Boab tree in Derby

In Derby I was reminded of a line I’d heard on Radio National recently, something to the effect of: every program the [majority white] government of Australia has tried to improve life for Aboriginals has failed.

And I was grateful for the positive images that my kids had seen of Aboriginal life in Cape Leveque, where our Baardi tour guide has blended his traditional culture with modern-day living in a way that attempts to educate the (mostly) white travellers and tourists.  I imagine this kind of blending of old and new exists elsewhere on communities I haven’t yet seen.  And I’m fairly sure not every Aboriginal wants to be a tour guide.

The more I learn about indigenous culture in Australia, the more I realise how little I know.

I’ve thought about visiting an Aboriginal community and though I’d like to, I’m reluctant.  I’m reminded of the numerous visitors who come to the deaf pre-school that both my kids attended in order to stare at the “cute little deaf kids signing”.  The director of the pre-school once said, “We start to feel like animals in a cage.”

The only thing more depressing than modern-day Derby is Derby’s darker history.

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Prison Tree, Derby

The prison tree is both a remarkable and heart-breaking site.  This boab, estimated to be over 1,000 years old (it’s hard to tell with boabs because they’re hollow and you can’t count the rings) was used as a temporary prison, transporting people to the goal in Derby.  Many of the prisoners were young Aboriginal men who were kidnapped, chained, and taken to Broome to dive for pearls, a form of slavery.

We were glad to see Derby in our rear-view mirror as we headed down the start of the Gibb River Road.

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Road shot–On the Gibb

The Start of the Gibb—Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek

The Gibb River Road is known as Australia’s “last frontier”.  Originally built to transport cattle, there are still road trains howling past in the night—mostly they don’t drive in the day because the Gibb is so full of four-wheel drives pulling caravans or camper trailers, like ourselves.

The Gibb is 660 kilometres of mostly unsealed road, with the attractions—mainly gorges—lying off the Gibb on rougher roads.  Some people take three days to drive the Gibb; others take three weeks.  We were grateful to belong to the latter category.  There are so many gorges to scramble downand swimming holes to jump into.  The birdlife is remarkable; the boabs majestic.

The start of the Gibb was lined with bulbous boabs of all shapes and sizes.  The spinifex grass was reminiscent of the landscape of the Pilbara.

Kaitlyn wrote of our first day on the Gibb:

Today we boarded the Gibb River Road.  It was sealed at first, then it got real bumpy.  Halfway down the road I needed to pee, so we stopped.  The ground was all cracked because it was so dry.  When we finally got to Windjana Gorge, the place we were to sleep, we were all sweaty and grouchy.  I brought out my water gun and started spraying everyone.  It was good fun.

Windjana Gorge rose up before us as we drove down a heavily corrugated road off the Gibb. As we come closer, a wall of ancient reef towered above the ground.  This was part of the Devonian reef from 360 million years ago.  It’s hundreds of metres high and two and a half kilometres long and really one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  When we stood next to the ancient reef and looked up, we were standing on what used to be the seabed.  Inside the reef were fossils of pre-historic fish and squid that look quite different from fish and squid today.

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Termite mound–made from termite poo!  And the ancient Devonian reef in the background.
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Spot the crocs in the water at Windjana Gorge

The campsite at Windjana was crowded—it was school holidays in WA, the NT, Victoria, NSW, France and seemingly everywhere in the world and we were far from the only family camping.  We set up the tent in the heat and then, as K said, got out the water pistols. 

The next day we drove further down that heavily corrugated road to Tunnel Creek, where we brought our torches and water shoes and waded through water in a pitch black cave. We got to a place where the ceiling had collapsed, revealing daylight, and then went further, all the way through the darkness to the other end, where a couple freshwater crocs lay, their eyes just above the water.

 

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Lee, who was carrying a nervous R on his shoulders, walked straight past a croc, shining his torch, looking for those orange eyes.  “Dad, look, it’s there!” K said, and he got a shock.

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Glowing eye of a croc in a cave at Tunnel Creek

The campsite at Windjana was dusty.  Every time a car drove past we got a mouthful of dust.  There was dust on the table and dust in our food, dust in the trailer and dust in our lungs and after two nights, even though this was such a spectacular site, we were happy to head further down the mighty Gibb.

Instalments two and three to come . . .