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Australia: Nine-day driving tour of The Kimberley (with someone else at the wheel!)

If someone had suggested that for our family holiday, we take three teenage kids by road from Perth to Melbourne, I’d have thought them stark raving mad – but the distance covered in our nine-day tour of The Kimberley in northern Western Australia was nearly the same: 2,900 kilometres.

Thankfully, we opted to leave the driving to someone else by joining a tour with local operator Kimberley Wild. While plenty of hardy campers head off in their own four-wheel drives to explore the dusty outback roads, there is a lot to be said for visiting the highlights but switching off with an iPod or grabbing a bit of shut-eye in between.

The Gibb River Road
Lulling you into a false sense of smooth security, the Great Northern Highway heading out of Broome is tarred. Turn onto the Gibb River Road, however, and the juddering begins: the largely unsealed road stretches from Derby across 665 kilometres to rejoin the Great Northern near Kununurra. It was built to link the region’s isolated cattle stations to ports at Derby and Wyndham, and is often closed during the wetter months (December to March) when the rivers rapidly swell beyond their banks to flood the surrounding plains.

Days in the Kimberley start early. Although nights can be cool in the dry season, once the sun is up, the temperature rises rapidly. It makes sense to explore at dawn and dusk, and retreat to an air-conditioned vehicle during the heat of the day.

Leaving Broome by 6am, our 22-person group reached Willare Bridge Roadhouse by mid-morning, and Windjana Gorge campground by early afternoon. Thommo, our group leader and driver, chatted en route, demonstrating his wide knowledge of the region and its people. Traditional owners, the local aborigines, comprise 32 different tribal groups, each of which sees its territory as its “country”. While the Aboriginal people are commonly thought of as nomadic, Kimberley aborigines rarely travelled between territories; their neighbours spoke different languages and had different cultural practices, and were seen as quite “foreign”.

The western Kimberley landscape is dotted with distinctive boab trees (also known as baobabs), their bulbous trunks comical against their dry-season skeleton of branches. My daughter likened one to a Dr Seuss illustration, with tufts of Lorax-like greenery between the lumps and spikes of termite mounds. Reaching Windjana, however, we were well into the dramatic Napier Range, a 350-million-year-old limestone reef complete with caves and towering cliffs.

After completing Kimberley Camping 101 – learning how to set up tents, roll out a swag, and manage the logistics of feeding a group lavishly from the back of a truck – we explored Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge. Both are home to freshwater crocodiles. Their long thin snouts render them no threat to humans, so we ticked the “swimming with crocodiles” box by cooling off with a dip in Tunnel Creek – though I have to confess that the crocodile in question was about a foot long and dozing motionlessly at the water’s edge.

After a night spent gazing at the stars through a net tent roof, Day Two promised more swimming and exploring – and less time on the road. Scrambling over rocks, Bell Gorge is a hot half-hour walk from the car-park, 30km off the main road. Its pool though rewards the effort – large and deep green, with a tumbling waterfall, natural slippery slides and water warmed to the perfect temperature.

Despite being well into the dry season, natural oases like Bell and Galvan’s Gorge, near our second overnight stop at Mount Barnett, are lush and green. They provide relief from the harsh climate in many ways, and it is not surprising that they play a prominent role in the traditions and customs of the indigenous community. Ancient art is found close to most waterholes, and there are many associated dreamtime stories.

The Kimberley leaves you feeling generally covered in a layer of dust – even straight after a shower or a swim. I think the water just makes the dust stick better. Finding ourselves neck-deep in a river crossing soon after six the next morning, however, was still refreshing.

Using plastic boxes, we shuttled cameras and dry shoes across to allow an early morning hike to Manning Gorge. A recent fire had added ash to the dust, and left a vaguely smoky tinge to the air. It had been what Thommo described as “a good fire” – hot enough to eliminate the brushy undergrowth, while leaving the foliage on the taller trees intact. Fire plays a critical part in rejuvenating the Australian bush, and can actually improve its aesthetic appeal by clearing the scrub.

Tackling the balance of the Gibb River Road took up most of the day – five hours of jiggling over corrugations, with light comedy played out on board the bus as everyone’s belongings bumped around on the floor between the seats. A brief break at the Durack River crossing allowed Thommo to point out where flood debris lay high in the treetops, before we reached El Questro late in the afternoon.

Perhaps best known for its luxurious homestead, the expansive wilderness station also has well-equipped camping facilities and cabins, an exceptionally good restaurant, a lively bar and good coffee – all very welcome after a few days under canvas.

We stayed two nights at the El Questro “township”, using the day in-between to lounge in Zebedee Springs, where 32-degree water gushes from the mountainside all year round, and to climb the rugged path to Emma Gorge, a spectacular pool encircled by 40-metre-high cliffs and fed by a tumbling waterfall. Scrambling up Telecom Hill opposite the campground is also worthwhile, with lovely views across to the burning red escarpment.

The Eastern Front

The Kimberley region stretches across to the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Kununurra is its major eastern town, a rugged and remote place. Its daily paper on the day we were there dedicated three of its 12 pages to the local netball finals, and we were amused that by law each adult could purchase only 11.5 litres of alcohol per day. While Thommo restocked essentials in Kununurra, the rest of us stocked up on treats – less than 11.5 litres of them.

Just an hour further on, we reached Lake Argyle. Best known internationally for its diamonds, the Argyle dam brought wealth of another sort: an enviable supply of fresh water. For us as visitors, its richness came in beautiful scenery, a campground with an infinity pool overlooking the lake, and a boat cruise culminating in sipping bubbly while wallowing in a floatie in the warm water and watching the sunset.

One night at Lake Argyle felt far too short, but we left on Day Five with the prospect of two nights in Purnululu National Park – home to the better-known Bungle Bungles. Kimberley Wild were the successful bidders on the WA government option to build a permanent camp in the park last year, and have constructed a set of luxurious permanent tents, semi-alfresco showers and a sheltered kitchen and dining area. We were already spoiled for food, with Thommo miraculously producing everything from Thai curry to a Mexican buffet out of the truck, but even he clearly relished having access to a fridge and a permanent barbecue.

Kimberley Wild’s site is the only one in the park with direct views of the Bungles Massif, and cocktails on the deck as the sky burnished it to gold were unforgettable. Exploring the park on land was well complemented by a low-level helicopter ride – the weather-carved, stripy beehive domes are really most recognisable from above.

Back to Broome

We were a sober group leaving the Bungle Bungles – the prospect of a 700km return drive to Broome seemed long, though thankfully the road was sealed. Rather than complete the trip in one day, we took an overnight break in Fitzroy Crossing. It has a very good caravan park – possibly one you’d avoid in the wet season, as photos show it totally isolated by floods, and the permanent buildings are notably built on tall stilts. Driving over the original Fitzroy River crossing in the morning showed the stark seasonal contrast, with barely a discernible flow at the beginning of October.

One final stop on the homeward stretch was at Geikie Gorge – more properly known by its local name, Darngku. The Fitzroy River carved this spectacular gorge through the Napier limestone, and it is now a haven for birdlife such as jabirus, cormorants and the romantic, partner-loving brolga. On a cruise through the gorge, local guides point out these and other animals, including basking crocodiles and shy lizards. A stark change in colour halfway up the gorge walls shows just how different the water level is between seasons.

Returning to Broome after nine days felt a little like arriving back from another world. Even this small northern town felt like the big smoke as Thommo deposited us all back at our respective hotels.

Group travel is not normally our choice, but we were fortunate to be part of a like-minded bunch – probably the style of accommodation and the nature of the journey help preselect that. It was certainly a treat to wave goodbye to the dusty tents and swags in the bus, knowing that sorting them out was someone else’s responsibility – we had just our own dirty socks, and several layers of dust to scrape off in the shower. Plus a wonderful set of memories and photographs.

Getting There
Fly from Singapore to Perth (five hours) and connect with a domestic Australian flight to Broome (two-and-a-half hours).

Visit Kimberley Wild at www.kimberleywild.com.au. We chose the nine-day Kimberley Loop.

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