Ancient wonders await those who venture on this staggeringly beautiful outback Kimberley roadtrip; from Broome and Cape Leveque to Bell Gorge and Tunnel Creek.
“There are two crocs up ahead on the sand bank,” announces a fellow tunnel trekker as he sloshes past in the black water. His voice fades with his torchlight as he continues back to the mouth of the tunnel some 500 metres in our wake.
“Oh…? Fantastic!” comes my somewhat unconvincing reply to his disappearing silhouette. Suddenly I feel uneasy about the knee-deep creek we’re standing in.
We’re most of the way through the oldest cave system in Western Australia, Tunnel Creek, at one of its darkest, most serpent-like bends.
To get this far, we’ve made our way beneath colonies of bats, and when the daylight had disappeared altogether, we’d forged on, over sand banks and into the creek itself.
The advice from campers at nearby Windjana Gorge had been to continue through to the end of the tunnel, “no matter what”. The pay-off being ancient Aboriginal rock art to the left of the cave’s exit that few people know about.
So, onwards we wade with our trusty halogen light beaming a path ahead. We barely take five steps before the torch throws out a few pathetic flickers and dies. Okaaaay.
“They’re just freshies,” comments my companion unhelpfully from the blackness. At the cave’s entrance I’d noted a rather graphic poster of what ‘just freshies’ were capable of, and when you consider Tunnel Creek is at least 300 kilometres from the nearest town, a little nibble from a freshwater ankle-biter could get serious quickly.
No matter, there’s always plan B. So we continue on again with the feeble but comforting light from my iPhone. By the time we reach the freshwater crocodiles lounging on the bank, back-up has arrived in the form of other walkers.
Scarcely bothering to turn an apathetic eyeball to the fawning tourists, the two-metre-long crocs with their petite, pointy snouts look almost cartoonish – a slight let-down from the fearsome creatures I’d imaged to be lying in wait. Nonetheless, we skirt past and I pick out a nice, big stick for the return journey – just in case.
An inland reef
Braver for having survived the croc encounter, I feel like a tomb raider on a mission for ancient spoils and, in a way, I am. (Minus the plundering, of course.) Tunnel Creek National Park is one of three national parks – including nearby Windjana Gorge and Geikie Gorge National Parks – where intrepid tourists in 4WDs can marvel at the well-preserved Devonian Reef.
The reef formed about 350 million years ago in a shallow, warm sea. Standing on the same site today, it’s hard to imagine how this parched landscape could have ever been completely submerged.
The soaring reef formations, which reach heights of 100 metres at Windjana Gorge and span a staggering area, were created by long-extinct creatures called stromatoporoids, corals and other organisms.
These sponge-like stromatoporoids went about secreting limestone so furiously and for so long that the remaining structures still tower above puny humans today.
At Windjana Gorge, campers struggle to hammer pegs into the caked and dusty earth in the shadow of the reef. At dusk, dinner is left on camp stoves as everyone makes their way to walk along the base of the cool limestone walls, spotting submerged freshies and marvelling at incredible Devonian fossils.
As far as tomb-raiding goes, the astonishing age of these treasures dwarf ancient man-made artefacts the world over. Rather than the craftsmanship of men, these natural cathedrals display the artistry of time and lend a sense of quiet reverence. It’s the reason people pile their belongings into 4WDs and endure kilometres of nothingness simply to get here.
Dirt, dust and bovine
Our own journey to the Devonian Reef had so far taken us along the Great Northern Highway and Gibb River Road and had begun, as many of these expeditions do, in Broome.
We’d picked up our trusty LandCruiser camper from the good people at Britz, who also gave us some sage advice, including the best way to see Derby: “in your rear view mirror. Fill up and get out”; and driving instructions: “avoid driving at night… cows”.
Cows? As it turns out, due to the enormity of the cattle stations in these parts, fences are virtually impossible to maintain, thus cows wander onto the roads. Hit one at speed and you’re both in trouble.
After some distance, the rattle of the cutlery in the back drowns out the echo of the advice and we almost feel as though we belong out here in our rented 4WD.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a local or a German backpacker, everyone performs the bush salute (that’s two fingers above the wheel for you city-slickers) as you pass each other on the dusty roads.
This camaraderie is borne from such a harsh environment where it may as well be 1816 for the lack of mobile reception. Engine trouble can escalate to a full-blown situation if you don’t have the right equipment or enough water.
As we carry on to our next destination, Silent Grove campsite at Bell Gorge, the dirt moving under the tyres becomes rhythmic and I find myself inching the needle toward 120.
I’m happily imagining myself as a female incarnation of the Bush Tucker Man (note-to-self: must buy a hat) when an alarmed “Stop!” comes from the passenger seat. My foot slams the break: heart-pounding.
A calf stands on the road: heart-pounding. Calf and driver exchange bewildered stares before it takes cover off-road. Much more tentatively now, we creep on.
Bell of the Gorge
The Gibb River Road cuts through the Napier Ranges, where you’ll find Napier Downs, one of the sprawling cattle stations that rambles over flat plains punctuated by rocky outcrops.
At dusk the arid grasses that seemed so unremarkable by day take on an incredible beauty, all pinks and mauves, accented by the odd boab tree. Cliffs light up with soft pastels as the sky darkens. I’ve never seen a landscape alter so completely before my eyes – I’m captivated, but weary.
Shadows lengthen as we drive on, scouring the roadside for doe-eyed hazards. Despite our vigilance, our attention is diverted to the unmistakable side profile of Queen Victoria ahead.
Old Queen Vic seems a little out-of-place here in the West Kimberley, but there she is, plain as day, with a signpost announcing her enormous rocky noggin.
As we drive toward the cliff that bears the uncanny resemblance, Vic’s nose elongates and her forehead recedes, obscuring the likeness. Eventually she’s gone, but we can’t forget the surreal sight.
The last leg to Silent Grove is a corrugated dirt road so punishing I fear my retinas will surely detach. By the time we pop our rooftop tent, it’s pitch black.
Cockatoos puncture the morning with their usual raucous behaviour, taking great pleasure in disturbing everyone’s sleep. Yet my cursing turns to thanks when I realise those obnoxious alarm clocks have ensured I get up to make the most of our surroundings.
After a short walk, we stand on the cliffs above Bell Gorge’s tiered pools; in this withering heat they look like a mirage. We hurry down the track almost afraid the gorge will disappear before we’re able to slip into its clear, deep waters. The sheer, remote beauty is spellbinding.
The smooth rocks twinkle with a salmon-pink hue and the peacefulness consumes hours before we know it. Few people come and go and, at one point, we’re the sole occupants of the ancient water park. Every torturously corrugated kilometre of road has been worth it for this moment of solitude. But we press on, the road awaits.
Up the Dampier Peninsula
Remembering the advice of our friends at Britz, we replenish stocks and watch Derby disappear in the rear-view mirror. If we had time, we would stay to watch the king tides, but the Dampier Peninsula beckons.
From the air, parts of Cape Leveque Road look as though they’ve been drawn onto the landscape with an orange highlighter, such is the iridescence of the Pindan, the local word for the red dust, which lures car wheels into existing tracks.
The road is the best way to reach this remote peninsula during the dry season and while it can be like driving through cake batter, it is also a lot of fun.
Our destination is the Kooljaman wilderness camp, which has been co-owned for 30 years by two local indigenous communities, the Djarindjin and Ardyaloon, who are Bardi Jawi people, or people of the sea and peninsula.
It’s a mere blip in time considering it’s thought the Bardi Jawi have been living in this narrow and remote tip for around 70,000 years.
It wouldn’t have been a bad place to set up camp post ice-age all those centuries ago, there were plenty of turtles, dugongs and fish to feed on and the beauty of the burning red rocks against the white sand and deep blue waters set the scene for a coastline so dramatic it still has a standing nightly show.
In a place unlike anywhere else in the world, the almost martian terrain creeps toward the ocean, trapping a strip of white sand between the craggy rust-coloured rocks and the lapping cerulean water.
Come sunset and visitors at Kooljaman, including us, head down with VB six-packs underarm to watch the formations ablaze under the spotlight of the descending sun. There’s not a palm tree in sight, but I’m sure this is one beach that has inspired a thousand boastful postcards.
The next day we shoot across the peninsula to Cygnet Bay. Many people come to the working pearl farm to marvel at the shiny orbs, but we’re here early for The Waterfall Reef Tour and to experience King Sound’s 10-metre tides and whirlpools.
As the boat skips across the surface to Waterfall Reef, I note the water looks strangely calm, but as I peer closer, the menacing turbulence beneath becomes obvious. “What happens if you fall in?” asks a nervous passenger.
“You’re a gonner,” replies our guide. My grip tightens on the bar in front. There have been times, he tells us, when he’s accidentally taken the boat too close to the lip of a whirlpool, the fierce energy clawing the boat towards its centre.
The full might of the two engines had to be employed to escape the clutches of the spiral. Considering this, I calculate the lifejackets we sport are less of an insurance policy and more of a placebo.
When we reach the reef, we’re told that this is the largest tropical tide in the world. In its hurried escape as it squeezes through a barrage of islands, the water cascades off the reef’s surface creating a waterfall that skirts its circumference.
It looks as though the reef is rising from the depths of the ocean. Not for the first time on this trip, my mind is blown.
Our six-day drive has covered a mere corner of the West Australian outback, and in this comparably tiny area the wonders we have experienced have given me a new reverence for this land’s vast history and unique beauty.
From prehistoric reptiles to a reef so ancient it now exists hundreds of kilometres from the sea, it’s one road trip I’ll never forget.
Since my return I now tell anyone unfortunate enough to linger in my presence too long to get themselves to this wedge of the country. Just be sure to bring a reliable torch.
Both Virgin and Qantas fly to Broome from the east coast.
Get kitted out with a sturdy Toyota Camper from the people at Britz. They’ll provide all the essentials including safety equipment, give you a map and plenty of helpful advice for your time on the road. The Britz Safari LandCruiser sleeps five and starts at $185 per day (based on travel in April 2016). See Maui for more details.
For a self-drive holiday your transport and accommodation are one and the same, but if you’re starting and finishing in Broome, check out the newly refurbished Mangrove Hotel for a welcome dose of luxe comfort.
Choose from camping, safari tents, beach huts or log cabins at the remote Kooljaman at Cape Leveque, 220 kilometres from Broome.
While you’re there
A great way to view the region is from the air with a helicopter tour with Broome Helicopter Services.