Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sunset Dreaming - a road trip through the Kimberley

* This article was first published in Australian Video Camera Magazine in 2004, when I wrote a series of freelance articles about travelling with video cameras.

Crocs, rocks and red dust were just some of the sights the spectacular Kimberley region offered on a recent road trip from Broome to Darwin. Melanie Surplice reports on her dusty drive though one of the world’s great wilderness areas.

“We’re going to drive from Broome to Darwin,” my friend announced. “Wanna come?”

It was an offer too good to refuse. After six months of planning, our motley crew of twelve – all friends of friends - congregated on Broome’s spectacular Cable Beach. Kilometres of white sand lay before us, a fiery orange sunset hinting at the beauty we would witness over the next ten days.

Our three hired Land Cruisers were parked in formation. Equipped with two car-top tents, walkie talkies, cooking and sleeping gear, each car doubled as a mobile home for four people. From the start, we knew that space in the cars would be limited, but when it came to actually packing ourselves, our luggage, and the requisite food and alcohol supplies, the cars bulged at the seams.

We didn’t have a definite itinerary, but there was general consensus that we would take about five days to drive the Gibb River Road, then head to Wyndham to re-stock supplies. Then we would take the Great Northern Highway south to Purnululu National Park, explore the Bungles Bungles and return the cars in Darwin.

Camera and camcorder considerations
It was always going to be a trip where the potential for fantastic photos and video footage was infinite.

One issue to contend with was the lack of power. The digital camera owners didn’t think it was worth buying car charger adaptors, but instead chanced it, and charged their batteries in roadhouses and wherever else they could find standard power points. They also came perilously close to running out of memory – spare memory cards would have been well worth taking! I bought the car charger kit for my Panasonic camcorder, and took what I hoped would be enough film and batteries for my Canon Elph (non-digital) camera.

Dust was a constant companion, and despite our best attempts at keeping the equipment clean, it all seemed to end up coated with a light film of red dust each day. A brush stored in a snap-lock plastic bag was a useful addition to the camera kit.

The other issue was that no matter how grotty we became, or no matter how ghastly we looked in the morning – there were always another eleven cameras to capture the moment.

Hit the road Jack
As Boab’s I, II and III (our nicknames for the cars) rolled out of Broome and onto the highway on Day One, the itinerary was thrown out the window. It was decided that we would take a detour to Fitzroy Crossing, and visit what the guidebook told us were some of the highlights of the Kimberley. We would then backtrack up to the Gibb River Road the following day.

The 400km drive along the sealed road of the Great Northern Highway gave the drivers a chance to familiarise themselves with the vehicles. The backseat drivers familiarised themselves with the walkie talkies, and I familiarised myself with filming scenery at 80 kilometres/hour.

For a place that you might expect to be barren, the scenery was ever-changing and fascinating to film. Thousands of boab trees dotted the landscape, their unique, sometimes human-like shapes giving us much to talk about.

Gorgeous gorges
Our main dose of sightseeing that day was at Geikie Gorge. This area forms part of an ancient coral reef, and the contrasting orange, black and white cliffs set against the clear blue sky were spectacular. The best way to view this gorge is by water, and the barge cruise was a relaxing way to spend a few hours. Here we saw our first collection of fresh water crocodiles and promptly pulled all hands inside the boat.

Locals at the Fitzroy Crossing Tourist Centre had mentioned a nearby deserted quarry. This, we decided, would be fitting campsite for our first night. It was already quite late and our instructions for the campsite were vague. The further we drove, the darker it got, and fog started to descend. The boab trees appeared to float amongst the mist – it was quite eerie.

We eventually found the quarry just as the setting sun plunged us into complete darkness. This gave us the extra challenge of setting up camp for the first time in the dark. Fortunately, ‘pitching the tent’ involved undoing a few straps and pulling the ladder down to the ground. In what became a finely honed routine, each car delegated camp builders, fire makers and cooks, and dinner was prepared under the twinkling Kimberley sky.

The next day began with a freezing early morning swim in croc-free water. Despite the fact that temperatures hit 30 degrees during the day, the mornings and evenings were chilly.

Tunnel Creek was the first stop for the day. Equipped with old sneakers and torches, we walked through the frequently pitch black 750-metre long cave that runs through the Napier Range. At times, we waded through waist-deep water, unsure whether it would get deeper – the bags containing our camera equipment held high above our heads.

About 30 kilometres down the track, we pulled onto the Gibb River Road and into Windjana Gorge National Park. This entire area is famous for its gorges, and Windjana Gorge didn’t disappoint.

Never smile at a crocodile
Freshwater crocodiles floated ominously in the water, and we practically tripped over a smallish one on our afternoon walk. The croc was so still it didn’t look real, and four of my travel buddies decided to play chicken with it, seeing who could get closest to it. I captured the scene safely from about 100 metres using the digital zoom. I was expecting to use the footage either as coronary evidence or for Funniest Home Videos. Fortunately, the croc didn’t move.

The next few days followed a similar routine of getting up with the sun, exploring gorges and bashing our way down the dusty Gibb River Road. At times the drive was so bumpy, the corrugations so deep, that we could barely hear ourselves think. I frequently filmed the scenery out of the window, and I didn’t mind that the camera was jumping all over the place – it captured the sights and sounds of the trip. Even when I watch the footage now, I can still feel every jolt.

El Questro Station, a million acre property, was one of my favourite places on the Gibb River Road. Home to the El Questro, Emma and Moonshine Gorges and the Zebedee thermal springs, there are ample natural attractions, and a heap of activities such as swimming, fishing, boating and hiking.

Domed shaped rocks
Surprisingly, we followed the planned itinerary for the remaining five days. Highlights on this part of the trip included camping by the crocodile-infested Ord River, the crocodile farm at Wyndham and the Bungle Bungles.

Purnululu National Park, home to the Bungle Bungles recently received a World Heritage listing. The huge black and orange striped domes lived in relative isolation until a film crew broadcast aerial shots of the amazing site in 1982. Apparently twice as many people now see the Bungle Bungles by air than those that visit by road. This is not surprising, because even though it’s only a 55 kilometre drive in from the Great Northern Highway turnoff, the road is so treacherous that it took more than three hours to travel.

As my 11 weary, grotty travel buddies and I sat in a pub in Darwin on the final day, we reflected on the beauty of the two states we had driven through.

The Kimberley is one of those places that everyone should see at least once. This adventure took place in the dry season – but seeing it in the wet is meant to be just as awesome. It is a place of contrasts – wet and dry; welcoming and at times, dangerous; blue skies and red earth.

The cars were fantastic, and well worth investigating if you’re travelling with a group or family. As for the friendships – even after ten days of fairly close living and – we managed not to kill each other, and would possibly consider doing another road trip together. And, as for my camcorder and camera – I’m still finding specks of Kimberley dust in kit. It was worth every second.

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