In the remote wilderness of the Top End you’ve got your wet season, your dry season – and your terrifying, all-consuming cyclone season. And there’s only one thing to do when you’re eye to eye with the storm. Laugh in its face. By Jim Harnwell
Travelling to Australia’s remote northwest in the wet season is a bit of a gamble. If you time it right, you can be in for a treat. At this time of year the Kimberley is lush and green, the rivers run high and clear, and the weather is hot, humid and windless. In the afternoons, a rain squall can be relied upon to cool things down. On the other hand, this is also cyclone season.
That fact lurked in the back of my mind as we four – all keen fishermen – travelled by light aircraft from the frontier town of Kununurra across innumerable gullies, plains, creeks, mesas and ranges to a dirt airstrip atop the Mitchell Plateau, in the east Kimberley.
The landscape below was a rich and vivid green, cut through by gushing watercourses. Only the sheer rock walls of the valleys retained the dull red colour associated with the outback. With any luck, all the rain had already fallen. The sky around us was clear and blue. Fluffy white cumulous clouds signalled fine weather to come.
We were heading to One Tree Beach, a fishing camp operated by Robert “Bluey” Vaughan. The camp and its surrounding waters are like a private fiefdom, with Bluey reigning over all: a nuggety, shoeless, Emu Bitter-swilling potentate.
After landing at the strip we transferred to an even smaller plane – a two-seater, single-engine float plane – which was to ferry us down the plateau, across the gulf and up to the white shell grit beach where Blue would be waiting, tinnie in hand. The plane ride down took only minutes – by comparison it’s an eight-hour low-range crawl in a 4WD. I went first, strapped in next to the pilot, a taciturn, lanky fellow we’ll call Bob – for reasons which will soon become apparent. We took off, circled the runway, dropped over the escarpment and zoomed low across the milky blue gulf.
When we arrived at One Tree Beach the tide was on the make and Blue’s pets – a couple of three-metre tawny nurse sharks – swirled around in the clear water at our feet as we unloaded the plane. Out a bit deeper, smaller but much more aggressive lemon sharks patrolled the beach.
Unlike many areas of the Top End, this section of the Kimberley coast is comprised of rock: great reddish boulders, cliffs and headlands dominate the landscape. In the late afternoon, the rocks glow a dull orange, as though lit with an internal flame. Only the lower sections of the main rivers feature mud banks and mangroves. Rain pours off the rocky escarpments and into the rivers and creeks, which remain clear and fresh. This “run-off” provides food in the form of frogs, insects and small fish for barramundi, salmon, mangrove jack and many other tropical sportfish. The fish travel up the rivers to where the fresh water enters the river system, usually in the form of a waterfall. Fishermen likewise journey up the rivers, drawn by water and fish.
The first couple of days were clear and almost insanely hot, broken only by the intense storms that built up during the day and exploded in the late afternoons, lighting up the sky with sheets of pure white lightning and filling the still, thick air with roaring crashes of thunder.
We’d be sitting under the paperbark and canvas lean-to by that time, plastic chairs strategically positioned to avoid the leaks in the roof, knocking back cold beers, rigging up our gear or idly flicking through the camp library’s collection of Hunter S. Thompson books and girlie magazines.
Blue’s camp is positioned against a sloping cliff. He’d built a sort of high-grade humpy out of poles, paperbark and canvas. A colourful assortment of broken lures and fishing gear hung from the roof like Christmas decorations. Sheltered under here was the kitchen – big wooden benches, gas cookers, fish cleaning table and sink. A tin garden shed housed the UHF radio, chest freezer and a couple of beds. Shallow caves extended into the rock on either side of the lean-to. In one cave Blue had made a dam from which the camp drew its water; the other had room for a couple of camp beds.
Bluey lived in his shed. We all found our separate sleeping places. My mate Pete decided to bunk in with Blue, Miles and I snaffled the cave and John and Jeff slept under overhangs along the cliffs. The first couple of nights were clear so I dragged my mattress out into the open and slept under the stars.
The camp employs hundreds of hermit crabs as cleaners. Drop a scrap of food on the shell grit ground and it’s soon covered with a horde of them, fighting and rollicking around. Watching, I wondered how long a human body would last until it was picked to the bone. The crabs became particularly active at night. You could hear them clicking as they stumbled around the kitchen area, searching for something to eat. The first couple of nights I was so tired, I took no notice of the sounds. After a few days it began to irritate me.
Night-time also heralded the invasion of quolls. These rat-sized native predators took over the camp as darkness fell, fighting each other and rattling around in the pots and pans. They growled and howled like banshees. You’d shine a torch into the darkness and there’d be a sea of beady eyes reflecting back at you.
Each night they disturbed Bluey’s sleep, and each night he’d burst out of his shed, throwing empty beer cans and making outraged animal noises. We found a quoll trapped in the sink one morning, its fur matted with dishwater, grease and potato peelings. During the night it had gnawed a VB can: the tinnie was reduced to a fine lattice-work of tiny holes. Blue kept it and hung it off the roof. We fished the Lawley River the first couple of days. This short but productive river features a wide, shallow mouth which narrows to mangrove-lined mudbanks, then changes to rocky walls before culminating in a narrow gorge.
We couldn’t get far up the river because of the volume of water rushing down it. We fished side arms where the barra lay out of the main current. One day we got 16 out of a large snag before a two-metre croc, drawn by the splashing of the hooked fish, sidled over to take a look. He lay next to the boat, his head on a tree branch. The fish went off the bite. I gave the croc a nudge with an oar. He shot off with a whip of his tail, whacking the side of the boat. The fish came back on the bite.
On the high tides we fished up in the mangrove forests. We’d slowly motor in between the drowned trees, casting lures at patches of open water. The barra sat in the branches and leaves like fat silvery birds. At times you’d hear crashing and splashing in the trees as a school of blue salmon found a patch of bait and destroyed it.
Towards the end of our week-long trip we began to get worrying reports on the UHF radio. A cyclone was brewing to the north of us and slowly heading our way. The weather began to close in. The afternoon storms became morning and afternoon storms. The sky clouded over and savage squalls burst upon us with no warning. One squall hit while we were up the Lawley: we sheltered under some mangroves but it soon became apparent that we’d have to make a break for it, get out of the river and up the gulf to the camp.
I was driving the second, smaller boat. I followed Blue out of the river and we started pounding over the short, sharp chop. The rain and spray soon began filling the boat. I switched on the bilge pump. Nothing. I saw the wire hanging loose, disconnected by the banging of the boat over the rough seas. I slowed down, held the wire to the terminal. Bang! I was electrocuted. But the bilge pump worked. I continued to get zapped every five minutes when the boat started filling up.
The cyclone changed direction, then changed again, heading straight for us. Our time was dominated by the hourly radio reports. We gave up trying to fish and started planning our escape. Inland was a rainy mess – the planes couldn’t get out to pick us up. Blue radioed his wife in Broome and got her to contact our wives to tell them we wouldn’t be coming home for a while.
Bluey and I sorted the boats. Normally they’re moored well off the beach. Now we needed to get them out of the water. Blue took me out to get the second boat. The wind was up and the sea was choppy and black. I had to balance in the bow of the boat and then leap from it to the second boat, which was itself leaping around in the swell and chop. There was a manta ray jumping just inshore of us. It was as big as a dinner table and each time it jumped I heard the slap of its wings on the water. As the boat rose on a wave I leapt out and up. I landed in the second boat, started the engine, released the mooring rope and followed Blue in to the beach. We hauled the boats high up the beach using a complicated series of pulleys and winches.
Over the next two days the rain got heavier and the wind reached extreme levels. At times it rained so hard you couldn’t see ten metres in front of you. I retreated to my cave and lay on a sodden bunk, gazing at the wet rock centimetres above my face. The wind blew the rain in on me and my sheets, clothes and belongings were soon soaked. I slept in the wetness and awoke in the night, cold, listening to the roar of the rain and the ferocious howl of the wind. In the darkness I wondered about the tonnes of rock above me, and whether all the rain was loosening its grip on the earth. I thought about my pregnant wife, at home asleep in a warm, clean bed. I wondered how she would tell our unborn child that its father had been crushed to death in a fetid cave.
Everything became mouldy – books turned greenish, clothes stank, girlie mags were sadly reduced to a gelatinous mush. We ate fried barra sandwiches. We drank warmish beer and coffee well laced with scotch.
And yet, in spite of all, the relentlessness of the weather was somehow exhilarating. We were all so wet the water didn’t matter, and the wind was so strong you couldn’t help but laugh with mad glee as the gusts whipped your body and the horizontal rain stung your eyes.
The quolls disappeared, hiding, no doubt, in their dry caves. The hermits, on the other hand, invaded Bluey’s tin shed, where they drove Peter and Blue nuts with their constant skittering and clicking.
Across the gulf the cliffs turned white: the water running off the flat plateau turned the entire archipelago into a gigantic waterfall. We’d watch black squalls whip across the bay, timing their arrival so that we could dash for cover before we got wetter than we already were.
After four or five days the storms abated. We stumbled around the camp, hanging clothes out to dry, heating water on the stove and taking hot showers for the first time in days. I could still smell myself even after I’d washed in a bucket of lukewarm water. I stank of the cave stench: damp dirt, slime and used underpants.
I went fishing off the rocks, hoping to catch something fresh to eat. Nothing was biting; the water was muddy and covered with mangrove leaves and patches of yellowish foam. Even the pet sharks had gone.
Bluey contacted the plane company. Bob the pilot would be out with a float plane the next morning, weather permitting. He would transport us to the Mitchell Plateau, where another, larger aircraft would pick us up and take us back to Kununurra. We packed our gear and celebrated our imminent escape by downing the remaining beers and food.
Next morning the plane arrived. Bob was cheery and distributed dry cigarettes. All of us took one, even those who didn’t smoke. Miles, Peter and I were selected to be the first passengers. We loaded the plane and then boarded ourselves. We slowly motored out into the calm bay. Bob checked his instruments and roared off, bouncing over the water for what seemed like an eternity. Then he stopped and did the same in the other direction. Then he headed back to the beach. “No good,” he shouted over the engine. “Too heavy.” He pointed at Miles, a strapping big bloke. “You – hop out. I’ll get you next time.”
Miles didn’t look happy, but crawled out and back to the beach. It was no big deal, though; the plane would be back in ten minutes for the second departure.
Peter and I grinned at each other. We were away. Bob gunned the engines and we skipped off over the water, each bounce higher than the last. Soon we stopped skipping and started flying. We circled the bay. I could see Bluey and the boys standing on the beach, looking at us. Blue turned, bent over and dropped his dacks. His white arse was very distinct in the clear morning light. Bob laughed like a maniac.
We turned and headed towards the escarpment. The plane seemed to be labouring. Bob was struggling with the controls. “Get up, you fucker!” he shouted. I looked with alarm at the rapidly approaching wall of rock. We climbed, slowly. The cliffs got closer. “Get up!” Bob yelled. I looked around at Pete. His eyes were shut. We scraped over the cliffs. I could see the tops of the trees just below us.
“Jesus,” Bob said loudly. “Thought we were stuffed there.” I didn’t say anything. We circled over the airstrip. It looked very wet. Bob turned the plane and began his descent. Halfway down he turned, looked at me, and said: “Hang on. This’ll be rough.”
I tried not to think of anything at all. The ground got closer and closer. The puddles on the dirt strip were quite clear, I noticed, and reflected the clouds and trees.
We hit with an almighty bang. The plane stopped abruptly and I was flung forward in my seat. I heard Pete swear and then everything was quiet. Bob let loose with a great full-throated roar. It wasn’t that good a landing, I thought, mistaking the outburst for a victory cry. It was not.
“I forgot to fucking put the fucking wheels down! Oh fuuuuccckk!”
“Does that matter?” I asked, trying not to acknowledge that Bob, a grown man, was actually crying.
“We’re fucked, we’re fucked,” he lamented again.
“We’re never going to get out of here,” Peter said, lighting a cigarette.
I climbed outside and, together with Bob, inspected the scene. The plane had landed on its floats, with the retractable wheels still up inside them, meaning it couldn’t take off.
Pete and I sat in the shade of a wing while Bob wandered around muttering to himself. There was nothing to say. I wondered what the others back at camp would be thinking.
When Bob recovered, he tried radioing the camp but the crash landing had damaged the radio. I imagined the crew all sitting down there waiting for a plane that wouldn’t come.
After an hour or so, the plane that was supposed to be taking us all to Kununurra hove into view. It circled a few times, before disappearing. It couldn’t land, Bob explained, because we were stuck on the runway.
It was oppressively hot on the plateau. We had some water to drink, but nothing else. We had expected to be back in Kununurra by now, eating steaks and drinking cold beers.
We sat around for eight hours until another, smaller aircraft arrived, filled with blokes from the plane company. “Rough time, boys?” the chief pilot asked. “No worries,” I replied, feeling bad for Bob.
We were loaded in as soon as the pilots extracted all their gear. As we taxied off, I could see them starting to jack the float plane up so the wheels could be lowered.
I fell asleep during the three-hour flight back to Kununurra, and woke up just as we were landing. I was pleased to note that it was a very smooth touchdown.
We ate our steaks and I drank several beers before ringing my wife. She sounded vaguely amused by our adventures. I slept like a log in a soft, dry bed and awoke to the sounds of our friends arriving at the hotel. They thought we’d died in a plane crash.
Apparently there’d been some tension at the camp. Jeff had chucked a bit of a wobbly and wandered off into the scrub. He’d had enough. John and Miles drank beers; Bluey sat by the radio. Eventually the plane company radioed in and explained everything. Bob came back down late in the afternoon and they flew out without mishap that morning.
We caught our commercial flights heading south that afternoon. When I got home late in the evening I unpacked my gear in the kitchen and staggered upstairs. As I lay enveloped in the soft warmth in my own bed next to my sweet-smelling wife, I heard a noise downstairs. It was like someone tapping against the windows. It was insistent and strangely familiar.
I went down to investigate. The noise stopped when I turned the light on, but soon started again. I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I found them: two hermit crab stowaways, hidden in the very depths of my bag. They’d survived the cyclone, all the drama of the Mitchell Plateau no-wheels landing and a long flight in the belly of a Qantas jet. I picked them up and held them in the palm of my hand. They emerged from their shells, with their beady little eyes, big claws and spidery legs. They scuttled around on my hand, fighting. I put them in a jar and left them to it, fighting on.