Everything you've heard about the Kimberley area of northern Western Australia is true (unless you're thinking, 'The Kimberley, what the hell's that?', in which case bear with me). It's generally very inaccessible, unless you have a four-wheel-drive, tons of spare fuel, spare tyres coming out of your ears and a lot of balls, and as the only one I have of that lot comes in a pair, I haven't seen the half of it. However, what I have seen of the area has been spectacular; it's another place I'd definitely visit again.
I had a choice of route from Broome: either head east along Highway One straight to Fitzroy Crossing and then on to Kununurra, or do a little detour up to Derby (pronounced to rhyme with Kirby), head east along the Gibb River Road, and visit two National Parks en route, namely Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek. Of course, I went for the adventurous route.
I say adventurous because the Gibb River Road is no joke. It goes from Derby right across to Kununurra, and I would have tried to follow it all the way if it wasn't one of the nastiest roads in Australia, only to be attempted by four-wheel-drive, and then only in the dry season (it all but disappears in the wet). It's the road that cuts through the heart of the Kimberley, and the first section is manageable with a conventional car, after which you can cut south to the National Parks and then on to the highway, hitting the bitumen just west of Fitzroy Crossing.
'Manageable' is, obviously, a relative term. The first 80km or so is bitumen, so there you go, speeding along, thinking to yourself, 'This isn't that bad, I wonder what all the fuss is about.' Then you hit the dirt, and I mean hit it, but by that time you're trapped, as it's a hell of a long way to turn back. Never have I juddered so much, or had to take it so slow for fear not just of bursting tyres, but of shaking the nuts, bolts and rivets out of the whole car. I've driven on corrugated roads1 before, but this was more like driving over millions of super-sharp sleeping policemen than a road.
It's roads like this that make me realise I've bought the vehicular equivalent of the Starship Enterprise. When the road is terrible, and when most conventional cars would have given up and fallen apart, I end up thinking, 'She cannae take it no more, Captain!' But next episode she's still there purring like a contented cat, the only difference being that the Starship Enterprise doesn't have as good a stereo as my trusty Toyota.
The drive along the Gibb River Road and down through the gorges is stunning, when the view stops shaking. To add to the surreal flavour of the Kimberley, this is the home of the boab tree (known as the baobab in Africa), and it's a tree like no other. It has a huge, thick trunk, strange tentacle-like branches, and a totally unique aura of science fiction meets mind-bending drug about it. It's a strangely apt inhabitant for this stranger-than-fiction part of the world.
The countryside along the road is reasonably flat, but then you come to Windjana Gorge. Back in the days of the dinosaurs the north of Australia was underwater, and there was a huge barrier reef, the Devonian Reef, that stretched east from Broome, up to what is now the coast, and round to Kununurra; as the land rose to form modern Australia, the reef left the sea behind and became a huge, long wall of limestone. So when you get to Windjana Gorge, there's a huge, vertical cliff stretching out on either side – what used to be the reef – and the Lennard River has cut a gorge straight through it. The reef is only about 3.5km deep, and you can walk along the river straight through to the other side, where the reef again drops away to flat ground. The reef's texture is truly weird, and as you walk the 8km return track along the gorge, you come to tropical rainforest, sandy spits, odd birds and loads of that creeper that Tarzan used to take instead of the bus. And there, wallowing in the river, I saw my first crocodiles.
There were lots of them, but they were freshwater crocs, the relatively harmless type. Freshies still look pretty mean though, and in the shade of the gorge they looked particularly menacing. They might not eat you without provocation like salties do, but they still have those huge teeth and menacing grins...
After a quick lunch and the 8km hike down the gorge and back, I was raring to keep going. Some days it feels like someone's sprinkled speed on my Coco Pops and the energy's boundless – I'd got up at 6.30am, for goodness sake, and was totally hyper until I set up camp for the night – so I hopped back in the car and rattled down to Tunnel Creek National Park. Tunnel Creek used to be a normal creek that ran over the top of the Devonian Reef, but with water seepage and erosion it eventually started flowing into the range, and nowadays it flows through a big tunnel of caves underneath the mountains. In the wet season the creek is huge, but in the dry it effectively stops flowing, just leaving a bunch of permanent rock pools in its wake.
There's a walk at Tunnel Creek through this tunnel, but it's not conventional. For a start, in places you have to wade through stomach-deep, cold water. Then there's a bit of scrambling over rocks and trees. But the most eerie thing is that all this happens in the dark. There aren't any man-made lights, and because it's a cave, there's no natural light either, just you and your torch. They recommend you wear sneakers and swimmers to do the walk, so I kitted myself out, grabbed my camera and my torch – a tiny penlight-sized affair – and headed for the cave.
This must rate as one of the most incredibly scary things I've ever done. Although there were other people about outside, inside I was totally alone, in the pitch black, sloshing around through water that went from sand bank to stomach-high to ankle-high and back to sand, and there was me with a tiny pool of light to guide me. It's totally silent, apart from the drip of the stalactites and the sploshing of your walking, and towards the end of the 750m tunnel (which felt more like 75km) there's a colony of bats to scare the hell out of you. Halfway along the tunnel there's a bit where the roof has collapsed, so there's light and you can see the colours of the cave decorations which are hard to see in the light of a torch, but to be honest it just makes it harder, because you then have to plunge straight back into pitch darkness and icy water. The light at the end of the tunnel is a relief, but only momentarily because, you guessed it, the only way back is the way you came.
Add in the wildlife – the bats, the freshwater crayfish swimming around your toes and scurrying to get away from the light, and various other beasties that I could feel brushing past my submerged knees in the dark – and you have one of the most eerie experiences in the world. I recommend you do it alone; it's easy to be brave when you're in a group, but being alone in dark, waist-deep water you can't see through, with a pathetic beam of light for company, is really challenging. I still can't believe I made it; another phobia bites the dust. Besides, walking through freezing subterranean water is a great soother for a sunburnt rump...
After conquering Tunnel Creek, I drove straight back to the bitumen, which seemed to take ages, and I didn't get there until after nightfall. On the way I had to drive through a creek that was still flowing, and the height of the water was rather scary; it came over the top of the wheels, and I was lucky I made it. I now know that there's a hole in the floor of the passenger footrest, which could be responsible for the periodic Stilton cultivations... but luckily it wasn't long before I was cooking up spaghetti bolognese in Fitzroy Crossing Caravan Park (a very nice spot), camped next to two whizz-bangs2. Boy, did I sleep well that night.
1 I'd always assumed that corrugation on dirt roads was intentional, put there to provide added grip in the wet. However, it turns out it's a totally natural phenomenon that occurs when cars drive along dirt roads, and nobody knows how to prevent it happening. I found myself wishing that they did.
2 'Whizz-bang' was how an old couple I met in Karijini referred to campervans. I'd assumed they called them whizz-bangs because their engines sounded like that, but there's a better reason. Remember those sliding doors that campervans have down the side? And the noise it makes when you slide it shut? That's right: whizz-bang. It's a name that makes sense after you've camped next to a few of them.