Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Kimberley in Ten Days: Part III

For Part I, go here.
For Part II, go here
Thursday we continued backtracking and drove from Halls Creek to Fitzroy Crossing. This drive was slowed -- just a bit -- because we'd pull over to check on other travellers stopped on the side of the road. 

About 30 kms past Fitzroy Crossing we left the blacktop and turned north on the Leopold Downs Road, a dirt and gravel road that was in good condition for the most part but whose bad sections seemed they might rattle the Pajero to pieces.

After an hour along this road we came to a huge water hazard. A pond basically sat in the road. On one side, trees prevented circumventing it and on the other the pond emptied into a creek. Shit.

I got out of the car and walked into the pond to see how deep it was. It was only halfway up my calves but the bottom was very soft and muddy. I worried about the truck just sinking in the mud to the point that it got stuck. There were also a few big rocks that might trip us up. Whereas other roads had at least had the occasional traveller, we hadn't passed anyone, so if we got stuck we could be waiting a very long time for help.

If I went around towards the creek side, I'd be able to keep one side of the truck mostly out of the water, but couldn't see what was below all the soggy grass (and I was still paranoid about puncturing another tire). I decided to do it anyways and slowly churned across; the passenger side was firmly in the pond and the car was at a 45 degree angle. Sharon could have stuck her hand out the window and scooped up the water. But we made it. Safely across, we rumbled to our first stop, Tunnel Creek.

Tunnel Creek, as the name suggests, is a large cavern formed by a creek cutting through cliffs (yet another remnant of the Devonian Reef). To enter, you walk from the parking lot down a short trail to the creek and crawl over a number of quartz boulders. It gets pitch black quickly, so you need a flashlight. The hand-held kind (mine) worked better than the kind that strap to your melon (Sharon's).
The way into Tunnel Creek.

A bit of light enters midway through.

An internal waterfall.

The ceiling.

Welcome to the other side.

Our flashlights illuminated fish, crayfish, tiny frogs, and bats in the darkness. The tunnel is probably half a kilometer long. We had to wade through the water at several points, but it was never deeper than mid-thigh. The tunnel terminates on the far side of the cliff and we were greeted with a beautiful scene of the creek widening out, flanked on both sides by trees. We hung out for a bit before going back through the tunnel.
The view on the far side of the tunnel.

As we returned to Leopold Downs road to head on to Windjana Gorge, our campground for the night, we passed a sign that had amused me. It simply said "Dip" and warned against a dip in the road ahead. We passed several of these "Dip" signs. I would see them and think, "Dips? Seriously? What about the ten other dips and multiple water hazards there weren't any signs for? Why even both to put any signs up since the whole road is a mess?"

We also saw a curious result of the controlled fires. One side of the road would be a lush green and the other would be blackened from fire, the trees' leaves cooked to an orange-brown. It was like the road straddled two worlds.

In late afternoon we arrived at Windjana Gorge and set up camp. This campground was more open, and more crowded, than the campground in Purnululu, though half the spots were still free. It also thankfully had showers and toilets with running water (and the showers even had hot water!). We made chicken schnitzel and baked beans and sipped on our expensive beers while the evening cooled a bit. Fire was permitted in this park and a few campers started roaring bonfires. When it got dark we climbed into the tent to read a bit, free from the mosquitoes, and went to sleep early.

Friday morning we walked to Windjana Gorge, known for hosting up to 80 freshwater crocodiles. Freshies, as they're called, generally don't get any larger than 3 meters  and aren't considered a menace to humans unless provoked. The crocs were the key attraction for me and I was pretty bummed that we didn't see any when we started our hike through the gorge around 8:00am. But by the time we were on our way back we saw about a dozen lounging on the opposite bank.
Windjana Gorge.


After Windjana, our plan was to go to Bell Gorge, which is supposed to be among the most beautiful gorges along the Gibb River Road (which has tons of gorges). Unfortunately this was closed for some reason so we decided to skip ahead to the next stop, Manning Gorge. We spent a final half hour on the Leopold Downs Road before turning north on the Gibb. Initially it was paved, which got me excited that it would be a smooth ride. That was naïve, though, because it quickly gave way to the standard packed gravel and dirt. Still, it was in the best condition of the offroad roads we'd been on. But like the others it had its rough parts that just hammered the miles in.
Queen Elizabeth's Head on the right, seen driving north on the Gibb.

Along the road we saw our first wild dingo. It was snacking on a kangaroo killed by a truck and flew off into the woods as we approached. We saw another dingo a short time later. Cows once again roamed in front of us and a quick horn blast dispersed them.
Our first wild dingo.

From Windjana to Manning was a three hour drive. We had to stop at a roadhouse near the entrance to pay the camping fee and also bought an extra bag of ice, which cost $10.50. Supplies in this part of the world are hard to get and are pretty expensive as a result. The campground was mostly empty, so we picked a spot way from others, made lunch, and then went to explore the gorge.

To get to the gorge you first have to cross a wide stream. There are styro-foam boxes so you can float your stuff across, but there's no avoiding getting in the water. The setting is paradise, though. Tall palms and eucalypts border the water. A large rock provides a resting point midway. If this was the destination we would have been quite content to swim around and soak in the view. But really this is just the starting point to the gorge. Sharon and I thought it was quick hike so were wearing bathing suits and flips flops. In reality, it's a very rocky trail. Even the term "trail" is being a bit generous, since really it was just hills and hills of large rocks, with the occasional white dot painted on one to indicate you're still going the right direction. It took us a good 45 minutes to get to the end and one more than one occasion we wondered if this was a big joke and we were the suckers.
The start of the trail to Manning Gorge.

Sharon wades across.

Can you find the trail?

We made it!

My goanna.
Walking back from Manning Gorge.

All the hard work was worthwhile as soon as we caught a glimpse of the gorge, though. Manning Gorge was my favorite spot on our trip and I could have spent the entire day there. A wide waterfall poured into a large pool perfect for swimming. The stream continued on to other swimming pools, bordered by sandstone cliffs and plants. I found a goanna and snuck up to take a close-up photo (I later learned this is a bad idea as they can run up your body with their razor sharp claws). Sharon and I soaked in the atmosphere for an hour and a half or so, and then had to head back before it got dark. Even in the daylight we lost the trail a couple times, so navigating in the dark would be impossible.

On our way back across the stream, we saw an old man on the far side; he could have passed for Father Time with his white beard. He was wearing mechanic's overalls with a bottle of beer tucked firmly in each breast pocket. He plunged into the water and swam to the rock in the middle, where his wife was already waiting, dripping wet in her full set of clothes. They cracked open the beers and soaked up the sun on the rock. You meet a lot of characters on the Gibb.

While we were setting up dinner three tour buses rolled in. Each discharged 25 or so people and it hinted at how much more populous the campgrounds would be when the tourism high season arrived in June. Most of the tour bus passengers were in the 50s or 60s, with some even older. We watched many limp their way to the bathrooms. How on earth were they going to hike to Manning Gorge, we wondered.
If you don't want to do the trip yourself, this is what you'll travel around in. In the wet season they're used to transport miners.

Manning Gorge was our northernmost point on the Gibb River Road. After Manning the tourist sites are fewer and there isn't any place to refill your gas tank until you hit Kununurra, about 350 kms northeast. There were other sites back down the road in the direction we were heading, but many of these were a good distance off of the road down their own rickety tracks. So because Bell's Gorge was closed we decided to make one final stop at another famous gorge and then head back to Broome. Instead of spending our Sunday driving, we'd be able to spend it lounging on the beach.

Galvans Gorge was only about 30 minutes south of Manning Gorge, and is one of the easiest to access. A one kilometer walk takes you to a waterfall plunging in to a small swimming pool. The waterfall cascades down a few levels with a giant boab tree on top overseeing everything. We were there early -- about 8:00am -- and had the place to ourselves for a short time before another 25 people arrived. The heat of the day hadn't penetrated the tree cover to warm the day yet, but we swam around and hung out under the waterfall anyways.
Galvans Gorge.
Loved that Boab on top.
Driving back down the Gibb River Road towards Broome. Nothing to see here.

We were back on the road by 10:30 and headed to Broome via Derby. There isn't much to see in Derby apart from the famous Boab Prison Tree. Boabs have fat trunks that taper at the top -- they're also referred to as bottle trees -- and the bigger ones are suspected of being thousands of years old. There's no way to tell as they don't have tree rings, however. The oldest, and hence the biggest, were occasionally used as temporary prisons. The settlers would hollow them out and stick aborigines in them.

This particular prison tree in Derby was used as a holding cell for young aboriginal men who'd been kidnapped by settlers to do forced labor for the pearlers in Broome. The white pastoralists went along with this and often aided in the kidnapping because they thought if the aboriginal communities lost all their young men, the communities would be docile (it didn't work). Many old Boabs also featured in aboriginal religious belief and the Derby prison tree was among these, so was fenced off.
Derby prison tree.

When we got back to Broome we had mobile phone service again. I instinctively got out my phone to check email and Facebook, but stopped and put it away again. I wasn't ready to be connected. Sharon and I joked about how hard it would be to adjust back to the hubbub of Sydney.

Since we were back in Broome a day early we didn't have anywhere to stay. We found a caravan park overlooking the water that allowed campers and picked up a spot. But whereas the Kimberley got quite chilly at night, Broome stayed sweltering. I opened the tent flap a tiny bit to let in some of the sea breeze in the hopes that it would cool down enough for us to sleep. I dozed a bit but jolted awake at the telltale sound of buzzing. Mozzies had breached the castle walls! Sharon and I spent the next half hour killing all the mosquitoes in the tent. The paper towels we used were spotted with blood (our blood!) and Sharon's skin showed their handiwork in the morning.

I was grateful when daylight arrived. We packed up camp, ate breakfast overlooking the ocean, and returned the camping equipment we rented. Since  the truck was coated inside and out in the fine red dust from the road I also decided, in the interest of avoiding Europcar's cleaning fee, to take it to a carwash. We spent a couple hours at the beach and then headed to our accommodation for the night, the Lord McAlpine House.

This house was initially the home of a prominent pearler and was purchased in the 90s by a British politician, Lord McAlpine, who expanded it and used it as his home when he visited Broome. The home was subsequently sold and turned into a boutique hotel. I figured we'd want somewhere nice to decompress after camping and this place was perfect. It only had eight rooms so was very quiet. Lush gardens (with over 100 species of native plants) shut out the world around the property. Sharon and I sat next to the pool and read all afternoon. It was a nice way to end the trip and I would have been happy to spend another day just lazing around there. But alas, all trips come to an end so Monday we waved goodbye to Broome and flew back to Sydney.
Veranda of original house at Lord McAlpine House.
View of the parrot houses.

Communal breakfast table.
One of the amazing trees at Lord McAlpine house and one of Adam's Top Ten Trees of All Time.

Sharon had never camped in her life and I hadn't gone camping for probably fifteen years or so. This trip certainly didn't make us into serious campers, but it was fun and Sharon embraced it. I told her, "You're a good adventurer, Sharon. And no matter how much trouble I get us in you're always game for more."

Oh, and that tire? $287 to replace. Ouch.

Things to consider and advice if you go:

Peak tourist season is June-August. The earlier in the season you go, the greener and wetter things still are. It's supposedly pretty dried out and dusty by August. Most of the roads open in April but that's still a pretty risky month. We went May 5-14. Everything was still lush and the waterfalls were very impressive (they dry up too), but the roads were pretty rough. We saw workers grading every road we were on: the Mabel Downs track, Leopold Downs, and the Gibb. Also, it's possible the road to Bell Gorge would have been open if we'd gone later (although nothing is ever a guarantee out here). So a couple weeks later in the season we would have had a smoother ride and been able to see everything we wanted. On the other hand, you'd be sharing the sites with more tourists. And in June, some campgrounds get completely full and you can't enter until someone leaves.

Tire check
I never would have thought of this until it happened to us, but if you have a rental truck make sure you can loosen the wheel nuts with the spanner wrench that comes in the rental. Flat tires are a fairly common experience on the tracks (we met one group who'd had three). If you can't loosen it find a mechanic who can do it for you, and then tighten them yourself using your own strength. That way you'll know you'll be able to take them off if needed. You should also carry a tire gauge so you can measure your tire pressure -- you need to lower the pressure when you go offroad to decrease the risk of a puncture.

Prep time on either side of your trip
I recommend leaving yourself at least one full day on either side of your trip for prep and clean-up -- getting gear and food, figuring out to pack the truck the best way, and cleaning all that dirt off at the end. Plus, if you have a truck issue and get delayed, you won't have to worry too much about missing your flight home.

Planning your trip
This website (http://www.kimberleyaustralia.com/) is useful but I highly recommend purchasing the site's PDF guide to the Kimberley. It has a huge amount of good information on sites, itineraries, and other things you'll need to plan.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome account of your trip. Seems you had quite a fun filled adventure. Thanks for sharing. Ali