Thursday, August 20, 2015

Crossing the Gibb by Gillian Brown



‘Gooday! This is Radio 3JR. Y’all having a good time out there? Down the Gibb River Road. On the stations. As far as your ears can hear? Next up is Slim Dusty.’
As our 4x4 Toyota campervan judders over the corrugated dirt track, I turn up the volume. Australia’s brand of Country & Western fills the cab.
            The 665-kilometre-long Gibb River Road – affectionately known as the Gibb – is a classic off-road route in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region. The ‘beef road’, built for transporting cattle from the stations, is now popular with adventure-seeking tourists. 
            A sign confirms all river and creek crossings are open. We feel confident – sort of – with our well-stocked fridge, two spare tyres, emergency water and fuel, and every mosquito repellent known to man.
            Our first stop is El Questro, a million-hectare working cattle station. The main homestead is run as a high-class resort, but we head for the riverside camping area, which includes a shop, a restaurant, a bar, and some up-market cabins. We park beneath some eucalyptus trees filled with screeching lorikeets.
            ‘Mind the freshies, mate!’ someone warns.  Freshwater crocodiles are supposedly non-aggressive, however, my proposed soak in the nearby waterhole is postponed. After a beer, we barbecue fresh prawns and wild snapper and eat under the stars. As we crawl into bed, the distant sound of a didgeridoo lulls us to sleep.

            An early start is essential to avoid the mid-September heat. Luckily, El Questro Gorge is only a couple of creeks’ drive away up a sandy track.
            Soaring cliffs and lush tropical vegetation give us shade as we climb over giant boulders and wade through waist-high creeks, shoes and cameras held high above our heads. The two-hour walk ends with a plunge into the crystal waters of a deep pool, beneath a 50m-drop waterfall.
            The choice of places to explore along the Gibb is narrowed down by your vehicle, its insurance cover if rented, and the state of the roads. But crossing the croc-infested Pentecost River is obligatory. Luckily, the water level is low. I hold my breath. A minute later we’re across.
            A short drive through the red-skirted Cockburn Ranges leads us to Home Valley Station, owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation. Its panoramic bush camp overlooks the river.
            An Aboriginal ranger approaches. ‘Have you seen Cedric?’ 
            ‘Who?’ 
            ‘He’s six metres long.’ He grins. ‘Keep back from the riverbank. It’s tidal here and full of salties.’ Unlike their freshwater cousins, saltwater crocodiles are known to attack.  

            After sunset, we dine at the station’s Dust Bar on succulent kangaroo loin with mashed sweet potato, and freshly-caught barramundi.
            The next section of the Gibb – recently graded – makes our morning’s drive to Ellenbrae smoother. The Station’s managers regale us with survival tales of their time spent cut off, during the wet season. And feed us delicious cream teas.
            We camp in the original Ringers’ Bush Camp – alone – which remains much as they left it. Mod cons include a flush toilet, a bath, a wood-burning BBQ and a water donkey. Fed logs, the latter provides hot showers within fifteen minutes. Above the sink a sign reads: ‘The ten most venomous spiders in the world reside here.’ More Aussie humour? Unfortunately not.

            Stars cram the night sky, and once the red-tailed cockatoos quit screeching, the bush becomes eerily silent. I put all thought of predators behind me and succumb to sleep.
            Next day, we face our longest drive yet. The distance covered enforces itself by its sheer monotony: red dirt, eucalyptus, red dirt, eucalyptus... But the emptiness connects with something primitive in me, long lost in our modern, gadget-driven lives.
            Finally, some huge tyres – painted white – mark the turn-off to Mount Elisabeth Station. This 30-kilometre bone-shaking track soon covers us in red dust – outside and in. The rear door rattles ominously. A frill-necked lizard crosses our path, then freezes – immobile as a statue. Brahmin cattle munch on invisible grass, being fattened for shipment to Indonesia. As the bumps grow bumpier, the door finally drops off.

            Once camped, we luxuriate in dust-removing showers, followed by dinner in the homestead. The conversation leads to the white Australian/Aborigine problem, but isn’t solved that night. Nor subsequently.
            Our next destination is Mornington Wilderness Camp, one of the remotest places in the Kimberley, 90 kilometres from the Gibb. The Wildlife Conservancy do research and run conservation programs here, like tagging dingoes and counting birds. The bush camp has no power to run our fan. Humidity is high, so we sleep dripping with sweat. ‘The Wet’s coming early this year,’ we’re told. 
            At dawn, armed with paddles, we drive to Dimond Gorge. New shoots on the spinifex are a startling emerald green against the red earth. We surprise a water monitor, flocks of multi-coloured finches and a pair of bustards, who flee into the long grass. 
            The mighty Fitzroy River cut its way through the rugged Leopold Ranges to form a gorge with 40-metre high cliffs. We collect our canoes and paddle downstream. A kind of ‘Deliverance’ feeling takes hold, but no weirdos jump out, only rock wallabies on a high ledge above us. Throwing caution to the wind, we beach our canoes and swim, despite the presence of freshies. No worries! Luckily.
            Our day is topped off in the Centre’s restaurant, with a candlelit dinner under the stars.
            Finches and wrens begin the dawn chorus, followed by ear-piercing corellas. It is only 5:30 a.m. but time to get up.
            Back on the Gibb, we stop for fuel at the Imintji Aboriginal Community Store. Only diesel is sold here, to counter a petrol-sniffing problem. On the door a sign reads: ‘Don’t eat rubbish fast food. Don’t touch alcohol.’ The Aborigines’ metabolism cannot process alcohol or sugar, and diabetes is rife.
            The store manager has recommended Bell Gorge. A steep path leads to a multi-layered waterfall with a swimming hole beneath – an earthly paradise. To submerge ourselves we slide down a slippery rock. Once refreshed, I struggle back out. A casual voice enquires, ‘See any water pythons?’ In case you haven’t gathered, teasing Poms is a national sport.
            From here, the scenery changes, the red rock turning to black. Hours later, we follow a corrugated track to Windjana Gorge. As the cathedral-like cliffs glow pink in the sunset, the pale green spinifex – crouched like pincushions below – take on an ethereal light.
            Soon after dawn, the tranquility of our walk up the gorge is disturbed by the deafening flapping of thousands of fruit-bats coming to roost in the trees. In rock pools scattered amongst the slow-moving river, freshies vie for territory; thrashing their tails at each other and baring their teeth. 
            Crossing the Gibb can take a few days or a few weeks. We spent somewhere in between, but whatever you decide, you’ll wish you took longer. Covered here are only personal highlights. The choice is infinite.
            Strangely silent, we bump our way back to the Gibb for the last time. Shortly it turns to bitumen, at the junction to a colossal mineral mine. The feeling of anti-climax hits like a rock in my stomach.
            ‘What day is it?’ my husband asks.
            ‘No idea,’ I say. ‘But I wish it was yesterday.’
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Gillian Brown was born in Scotland. She lived in several countries before settling in France, where she ran canal cruises with her husband for several years. Her travel articles have been published in various magazines and her short stories have won and been placed in competitions.