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Wed 11 Oct. The Gibb River Road, Kimberly Plateau, Western Australia.
Leave Broome at the ungodly hour of 5am on a tour for 8 days through the Kimberlies. Soon after the small township of Derby, leave the tarmac to join the Gibb River Road - over 500 miles (i.e. close to the entire length of Great Britain) of rutted, corrugated, wet, nasty dirt road cutting a 'short' cut across the Kimberly Plateau between a loop of the Great North Western Highway, linking remote cattle stations and Aboriginal communities.
'The Wet' is coming early this year, bringing in the season the Aborigines - out of six they identify - call Gunumeleng, a season of pre-monsoon storms. Humidity and heat build to unbearable levels, thunderstorms threaten, probability is we are going to get wet - very wet - somewhere on this trip, and it's entirely possible flooding may strand us somewhere on the journey to Darwin.
Tunnel Creek - three quarters of a kilometre splashing through dark water under a range of mountains. Lianas curl down where light breaks into the cave.
At the camp by Winjana Gorge, unroll my swag (a tough canvas sleeping sack, complete with mattress) under a gum tree. After a few moments getting used to having an ant highway running across my shoulders, fall into a deep sleep.
Thur 12 Oct. Winjana Gorge, Kimberly Plateau, Western Australia.
Australia is a harsh land, and teaches harsh lessons. The lesson for today is not to throw your swag under a Gum Tree, as Gum trees drip gum through the night, and you wake up with your face superglued to the pillow.
The Devonian reef rises in a 60 metre limestone wall of fossilised coral from the paper-dry meadows, Winjana gorge cutting a dog leg of towering red and black cliffs through the middle. Freshwater Crocodiles snoozing in the billabong set a primeval feel. 'Freshies' - Crocodylus Johnstoni - are small and timid compared to their man-munching relative, Crocodylus Porosus - the Saltwater Crocodile, but even so, despite the heat and humidity there will be no swimming here.
Swimming is at Lennard Gorge, where crumpled strata fold to shape a chain of cool green pools and waterfalls, and relief from the million pestering flies.
Fri 13 Oct. Manning Gorge, Kimberly Plateau, Western Australia.
A rough path winds through termite mounds and jumbles of stone, past fat Boab Trees and Turkey Bush, small lizards basking in the heat. Faded old beercans hanging from branches mark the way, clinking faintly in a barely discernable breeze. In this oppressive heat, winding single file through the mystical landscape feels like some kind of pilgrimage.
Without knowing there was water ahead, you would stand no chance of finding it - a constant din of whirring insects drown out any sound of water, and the landscape seems to roll thirstily away in all directions. No wonder so many early Australian explorers died of thirst within spitting distance of Aboriginal water sources. Green ants are a refreshing spot of bush tucker - their verdant bottoms give a sharp jot of lime when chewed.
Then abruptly the ground drops away to a promised land of cool dark water pools and green eucalypts. A white cataract falls over an undercut, and a ribbon of white falls over the dark rocks to one side. A couple of Merten's Water Monitors watch from the waters edge as we slip into the cool water.
Sat 14 Oct. El Questro, Kimberly Plateau, Western Australia.
Camp at El Questro Station. Dusk falls, finally silencing the ear-splitting noise of Circadas. Electrical storms flicker purple haze all round the camp, but the rain holds off.
Our Guide, Hodgy, molesting a frill neck lizard. Watch out reptiles of Europe, this man is coming your way...
Sun 15 Oct. Purnululy National Park, Western Australia.
Leave the Gibb River Road, to rejoin bitumen for the first time in four days, heading to Purnululu National Park.
In my humble opinion, One wholly good thing of our age is the slow displacement of colonial place names with original Aboriginal names. The ugly 'Bungle bungles' by the graceful Purnululu, 'The Olgas' by the noble Kata Tjuta, and most of all, the drab 'Ayers Rock' by magical Uluru.
Mon 16 Oct. Purnululu National Park, Western Australia.
Mini Palms Gorge and Echidna Chasm - two narrow spaces cut down from the full height of the Purnululu plateau. Echidna Chasm in particular is a paper-thin winding ribbon of a gorge: deep, shady, cool corridors no wider than the span of your arms joining open spaces of glowing orange rock where the heat and light of the sun spill in from far above.
In the afternoon, the heat and humidity finally breaks. As we walk into the classic 'Bungle Bungle' postcard landscape of striped black and red beehive domes, the last rays of afternoon sun disappear behind boiling clouds. Climbing the dry bed of Picaninny Creek, a swirling floodwater channel leading to the yawning maw of Cathedral Gorge, the first collossal raindrops start to smear themselves on the rock. A tremendous crunch of lightning shakes our knees - "There goes the bus!" we joke. Then the sky falls in, and washes the dust and sweat off our backs.
For once, a place named 'Cathedral' lives up to it's name - a semicircular seasonal waterfall has carved an enormous undercut to form a cool, echoing apse a hundred metres wide, floored with soft sand and a green pool at the centre. A choir of frogs sing devotional hymns to the rain.
Back at the bus, the rain is damping down the last stubborn flames of a brand new minature bush fire at the edge of the car park. Fifty metres to the left, and there would have gone the bus...
It rains an inch and a half in half an hour. A shower, by local storm standards, but already a couple of sleepy creeks have grown to be grumbling sheets of reddish-grey sliding water, too ugly to be crossed. Nothing for it but to crack open a tinny and settle down to wait.
An hour of waiting later, the level has fallen dramatically. The ranger appears on the far bank, and tests the depth of the flood using the scientific method of walking through it. On emerging, wet nearly to the waist, he gives a dazzling, beatifically stoned smile and says "Just below the tip of me snorkel - she'll be right, mate!"
Tues 17 Oct. Northern Territory, Australia.
These people havn't washed for three days..
The two tours following us both get stuck for several days in floods, one of them has to have food airdropped in, and following that the Gibb River Road is closed for the duration of the wet.
Wed 18 Oct. Darwin, Australia.
In the real world you get thrown out of pubs for dancing on tables. Here, at the end of tour party in the alternative backpacker reality of the Vic Hotel, the DJ throws a sulk and refuses to play until every table is covered with dancers. A good point to leave the tour, before it gets messy...
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