Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Kimberley in Ten Days: Part I

How do you decide what to see in a country the size of Australia? You've got the "must see" places like the Great Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock, but there are tons of lesser known areas that are also worth a visit. So one day I wondered into a bookstore, went to the photography section, and pulled down a book of Australian landscape photography. I flipped through and noted the names of places that looked particularly compelling. A number of amazing photos kept listing the same location: the Kimberley, a wild region in the northwest of Australia. So for our first big trip of 2012 we decided to go there.

Unfortunately, the Kimberley isn't a small region; at over 420,000 square kilometers it's on par with California size-wise. It's also off the grid for the most part. A single paved road, the Great Northern Highway, runs from the southwest corner at Broome up to the northeast corner at Kununurra. There are three small towns in between, each with a population of a couple thousand. Unless you're in one of them you won't have mobile phone service and you won't be on a paved road. Gas stations are few and far between. As a result, this trip involved more planning than any other we've done.

Because most of the trip would be on off road tracks, we couldn't use Google Maps to calculate distances and driving times. I had to buy a map of the Kimberley and sit for hours each night figuring out which attractions made the most logical sense to see and in what order, how far it was between them, how long it would take, and how much gasoline we'd need. We also had to line up where we'd end up each night, since only some of the places had campgrounds.

On the plus side, rare is the vacation when packing a knife is excusable and rarer still when they're actually necessary. This was one of those trips. I packed a monster Swiss Army knife that had every tool in the book and a basic, more functional pocketknife. I wasn't about to become the first man in history to get mauled to death by a koala bear.

* * *

We flew out of Sydney on a cool Saturday morning and landed in hot and muggy Broome early that afternoon. I thought the airport in Launceston, Tasmania was small, but Broome's airport took the crown. It was like something out of the 1940s.
The Broome airport.

Broome started life as a pearling town and has a rich Chinese and Japanese heritage from all the immigrants that came to work in the pearl industry. While there are still some pearling outfits here, the town gets most of its trade from tourism these days. There's not much to do besides hang at the beach and it's pretty much a jumping off point for people like us heading into the outback.

We picked up our rental, a sturdy looking Mitsubishi Pajero with two spare tires, and drove to check in at our hotel, which was five minutes away. Broome is small, so nothing in town is more than 15 minutes away.

After getting settled we drove out to Gantheaume Point, a bluff of red rocks overlooking the Indian Ocean. At low tide you can see fossilized dinosaur footprints. We clambered down the rocks to find the footprints and also saw a wealth of sea life marooned in tidal pools -- crabs, clams, unidentifiable sea blobs, and a blue-spotted octopus, one of the most dangerous animals in Australia (pretty standard, really; see "Australia is out to get you"). Its sting will shut down your nervous system and is fatal unless someone can keep you artificially breathing.

With the glow of the setting sun hitting the bluffs, Gantheaume Point was a beautiful sight. 

What is this creature? Nobody knows...
Blue spotted octopus: touch it and die.

We found the fossilized dinosaur footprints!
Gantheaume Point from the rocks during low tide.

Afterwards, Sharon and I walked over to neighboring Cable Beach and walked through the dunes to the beach to watch the sun dip over the horizon. The sand was so fine that it coated our feet like a white powder.
Walking down the dunes to watch the sunset at Cable Beach.

Sharon shows off a hermit crab from the beach.

That night we checked out Matso's, a restaurant and the only microbrewery in the Kimberley. Besides the standard lagers and blondes, they make chilli spice beer (seriously spicy!), mango beer (very refreshing), lychee beer, and ginger beer. We got destroyed by mosquitoes, which made the dinner a bit unrelaxing.

Sunday we picked up our camping gear, got groceries for the week, and then spent the day at the beach. The turquoise water was a perfect temperature and having (almost) the whole beach to ourselves wasn't too shabby .
Cable Beach, Broome

Monday morning we hit the road early -- we had a 680 km long haul from Broome to Halls Creek, with a pit stop in Fitzroy Crossing and nearby Geikie Gorge.

The road to Fitzroy Crossing was bland, just two lanes bordered by shrubs, low trees, and thousands of termite mounds. The boring scenery was occasionally interrupted by the site of a large, bloated cow on its side, legs stuck straight out with rigormortis, dead from a collision with a truck. Because the cattle stations out here are millions of acres in size, the ranchers don't fence in the property, so cattle wander onto the highway at will.
The view from the road...it gets boring after a few kilometers.

Sharon made up a little ditty which captured the essence of the landscape; you can have a listen here….

We quickly picked up on a habit of other drivers that we fell into as well: everyone waves or lifts a few fingers from the steering wheel to acknowledge you as you pass each other on the highway. It's like tacit recognition that out here on the road in the outback you're among a small number of fellow travelers, all part of an exclusive club.

Other than that the road was boring! Bugs smacked against the windshield at the rate of one a second. Sharon cranked through a couple books on her Kindle during the trip. The truck was pretty loud and there was certainly no radio reception, so I put on my noise-cancelling headphones and plugged into my iPod. It was the only way to pass the time.

Fitzroy Crossing didn't amount to much more than a visitor center, a couple gas stations, a supermarket, and some homes. We zoomed through and headed on to Geikie Gorge.

Geikie Gorge is one of the few places in the Kimberley that doesn't require a 4WD vehicle. The cliffs are a remnant of the Devonian Period, when a giant reef is believed to have existed in the area and this part of the continent was under an ocean. During the wet season the river cutting through the gorge swells and floods the surrounding land. A visitor hut with information about the gorge had posts showing how high the flood waters had reached in recent years. There were posts going all the way to the top of the structure -- about 20 feet up.
The red circle shows the highest flood point.

There's a 2 km hike along the gorge that Sharon and I decided to do, and I made the stupid decision to wear Vibrams. The trail was mostly made up of gravelly sand, and the sand and small rocks quickly got trapped between the elastic heel of the Vibrams and my skin, chafing at every step. Razor sharp burrs punctured the fabric top and stabbed my feet. Sharon did slightly better in running shoes, but still collected dozens of burrs, which required very careful fingers to pull off. This was definitely an occasion for hiking boots.

The walk was pretty but not stunning and, rather than looping back to the start, simply came to a dead end indicated by a laminated piece of paper nailed to a post. Rather than subject myself to more puncture wounds I told Sharon we were going to walk back along the river bank. What looked like hard packed sand turned out to be mush and we sank up to our ankles.

Heading back to the parking lot, the narrow sand bank spread out into a mini-desert, devoid of any life. It was midday and the sun was hammering us. Sharon, ever thinking of fitness, suggested we run back to the car. I tried for twenty yards, but the sand was rubbing the skin off my ankles. I eventually took the Vibrams off and ran barefoot across the hot sand. My feet were raw by the end. We gave Geikie Gorge two thumbs down and got back in the car for the remaining three hour shot to Halls Creek.

On the side of the road a fire burned. During the dry season the Kimberley is at risk for catastrophic fires. All those oily Eucalypt leaves go up like tinder, and once a fire gets going it can spread across thousands of acres. The fire department can't do anything but let it burn itself out. To mitigate this, they set controlled fires early in the dry season, before the risk becomes to great. I wasn't used to seeing big fires along the side of the road, so asked Sharon to take a photo. She didn't move quickly enough for me so I swiveled in my seat to dig my iPhone out of my backpack, taking my eyes off the road. A split-second later Sharon shrieked and I turned back around to see a huge crow pinned to our truck's bull bar. The wind kept it there a second before it fell off and crumpled to the road.

"You just hit a bird!" Sharon cried, her face turning red.
"It's a bird. I'm pretty sure it just hit me," I argued. I mean, the thing had wings -- he could have gone in any direction he wanted; he just had the bad luck of picking my direction.
"You killed it," Sharon declared.
"We don't know for sure it's dead," I said optimistically.
"Yes we do; you killed it."
"That's the circle of life."
"Not really."
Sharon wasn't happy with me: "You need to pay less attention to taking photos and more on driving."
"I can't be responsible for every bird out there," I argued back.
"No, just the ones you kill." Sharon retorted. Then, channeling the spirit of Avatar, she said "I see you, bird. I see you." 

We still had three hours to go....
Fire on the side of the road...like you wouldn't take a picture, too.

As we neared Halls Creek a few cows strayed onto the road. A tractor trailer was coming in the opposite direction and I had visions of him nailing one and chucking it into our windshield (it happened to my dad with a deer). Sharon was driving at this point and she pretty much stopped in the middle of the highway. The tractor trailer driver leaned on his horn and thankfully the cattle scrambled back into the scrub.
Pit stop on the road; we're not in Broome anymore.

Halls Creek, while more interesting than Fitzroy Crossing, was similarly limited in its offerings. We stayed at the Kimberley Hotel Halls Creek. When I asked the receptionist if there were any restaurants in town where we could get dinner, she replied, "Well, you've got our restaurant here and there's one at the Best Western." It wasn't the kind of answer that gives me confidence that a solid meal is forthcoming.

We opted for the hotel's sports bar and the food turned out to be better than I expected. We got a bunch of groceries and a few bags of ice since we'd be camping out the following night and repacked the truck. A quick mosquito bite check showed Sharon clocking in at 60 and I had 30. Then we crashed for the night. 


  1. We have been eagerly awaiting the trip report! Blue octopus looks rad. The bird incident reminds me of a Seinfeld episode that Michelle's mentioned...haha. "I see you bird"...love it.


  2. I am *dying* laughing at the ditty. Glad to know I'm not the only one that makes up crazy songs for all occasions!

  3. Great view! Love to visit this place I have never been to this place. Thanks you for giving your readers a practical look to spend their holiday. I definitely would like to share this blog with my friends so that they get inspired and ready for trip to this wonderful place.