A reader contribution on touring Broome and the Kimberley in northwest WA
In WA’s far north, AT reader Kerry van der Jagt discovers the happy difference between being a traveller and a tourist.
Flying in over Roebuck Bay, the colours of the Kimberley dazzle. The turquoise water and the brilliant blue sky sandwich the ochre landscape: a triple deck of punchy colours . . .
These words, written after I land, are dishonest. Like Paul Theroux, “my heart is in my mouth on landing and I wonder – are we going to crash?” As we begin our descent over Roebuck, my fear of flying kicks in. Braced in my seat, eyes clenched shut, I don’t care about the colours of the Kimberley. My husband Michael tries to reassure me: “More people are killed annually on donkeys than on planes.” What rubbish. Who keeps statistics on donkey fatalities?
This is our first trip to Broome and, due to time constraints, we’ve booked a tour – I mean, “adventure.” Specifically, a one-day 4WD Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek adventure with Australian Pinnacle Tours. On the crowded terrace of the Cable Beach Club resort we congratulate ourselves on making the transition from traveller to tourist. Without the tedious enjoyment of a 4WD to pack, we spend a long time reading the wine list and glossy brochures on Windjana Gorge, literature that has replaced our usual array of worn maps and well-thumbed guide books.
“It’s going to be great,” Michael says, perhaps a little too brightly. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.” I pretend not to notice as he watches the steady stream of 4WDs turn off the main road and escape north along Cable Beach. For 22km an azure sea nudges against brilliant white sand. I imagine that beyond is a vast continuation of such raw loveliness.
Of all the trees I’ve seen, the Boab is the strangest. During the dry season they’re without leaves and look like carrots plucked from the soil and upended back into the ground, roots protesting madly in the air. After an early start we’re on the road to Derby and our luxury 4WD minibus is going at a good clip. We’ve scored the front seat, but it doesn’t take long to realise why it was vacant: a partition obstructs our view forward. The passing scenery out my side window is blurred, like a video on fast forward. I wonder what the rules are on seat swapping.
Introductions are made and I’m glad to see there’s a good variety among
the 15 passengers: German and Australian backpackers, retired couples, honeymooners, a young palaeontologist from Perth and a stunning French woman.
Two hours on we stop at the dusty Willare Roadhouse to hand in our dinner order. We each tick a clipboard for steak sandwich, hamburger or fish and chips and are soon on our way, waved along by a group of Aboriginal children.
“Sing out if you’re missing!” a voice booms from the back of the bus. Everyone laughs; on this tour, any joke is rewarded. A congenial, relaxed group of strangers genuinely trying to make each other feel welcome surprises me. Independent travellers are usually more reserved; with weeks and months stretching ahead, there’s often no urgency or demand to form quick friendships.
“The Prison Boab tree is over 1000 years old,” explains Dave, our guide. “It was used for holding Aboriginal prisoners during transportation to Derby.” I doubt the constabulary would sit out in the sun while their prisoners enjoyed the cool, shady hollow of the tree; fat and ugly with a fence around it, I can’t get interested. Other more graceful Boabs catch my attention, particularly the shape of their shadows stamped onto the red soil.
In open country we travel the Gibb River Road, which is flat, red and surprisingly smooth. Our driver tells us of Jandamarra, from the Banuba tribe, who in the 1890s led a rebellion against European settlers. For years after, he hid among the caves and surrounds of Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, but in 1897 his luck ran out: he was hunted down and shot. With the land largely unchanged since that time, my skin prickles as I picture a furtive Jandamarra, hunched over, running for his life through the scrub.
Crocs, cliffs and caves
It’s almost noon as we arrive at Windjana Gorge, a landscape of steep, dark cliffs, green water and silence. I spot half a dozen crocodiles floating limply in the water. “They’re not dangerous, are they?” I ask our guide. I try to arrange my features into an “alert but not alarmed” expression. Dave thinks for a while. Then, with the walls of the cliff towering behind him, he grins: “Nah, they’re freshwater crocs. They mainly eat plankton and fish . . . and other small things.” Small what? Children, perhaps? No creature gets that ugly on a diet of plankton. I take my photographs quickly and run to catch up with the others.
Midday in the Kimberley is hot. Even the Boabs are drooping. My options are to walk the entire 3.5km length of the gorge or return to the bus for lunch. I decide on lunch but walk slowly, just to make sure I’m not the first one back. Barbequed chicken, ham, salads, bread rolls, cold drinks and watermelon are all laid out in the open on our return. No dining room could be more magnificent. With plates balanced on our laps, a chicken leg in one hand and a fork in the other, we eat ferociously, talk with our mouths full and lick our fingers with abandon. The Kimberley doesn’t demand table manners. She is a lovely host.
Next stop Tunnel Creek, a flooded cave where the only light we’ll have for the next 700m will be by borrowed torch. I turn mine on and off a few times and marvel at the powerful beam it produces. In my house, a torch is usually just a storage case for dead batteries.
The first hint that this is no ordinary cave comes when our guide hands us each a pair of old, oversized sneakers. On entering, a watery, cathedral like interior greets us. The water is up to my knees as we pass beneath a ghostly section lit by a beam that has broken through the roof. In places the water is cold and laps against my thighs. Was that an eel? Someone mentions bats. I shine my torch up and see a colony clinging to the roof. After 30 minutes of shrieking and laughing we finally emerge into the light at a swimming hole.
With the dark cavern as our classroom, Deborah the palaeontologist has us enthralled as she explains that this tunnel is part of a 350 million-year-old barrier reef system. Finally, we arrive back at the bus and settle in for the return trip to the Willare Roadhouse. We stop at a remote, natural amphitheatre for late afternoon tea just as the sun melts into the ground. Our driver assures us that this is the exact spot Midnight Oil once filmed a video clip.
At the Willare Roadhouse we just have time to order a beer and sit at the trestle tables outside before our burgers arrive. For one luxurious day I haven’t had to organise food, make decisions or read a map. By removing these necessary but mundane tasks, more of the Kimberley has been revealed. I’ve discovered that a tour is like a holiday romance where the joy is distilled and made all the more intense by its brevity. On the final leg back to Broome I admit that I’ve become a spectator today – but what’s wrong with that? Travel takes different forms, but the pleasure of discovery remains the same.
Broome Visitor Centre Cnr Broome Hwy and Bagot Rd Phone: 1800 883 777
Cable Beach Club Resort Phone: (08) 9192 0400 Website: www.cablebeachclub.com
Australian Pinnacle Tours One-day 4WD Windjana & Tunnel Creek adventure, $199 Phone: 1800 999 069 Website: www.pinnacletours.com.au
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This article appeared in Issue 7 of Australian Traveller.
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