Travel Story Just another day in the Kimberley

Mueller Ranges, on Great Northern Highway between Fitzroy Crossing and Hall’s Creek (190km south west of Hall’s Creek).
Picture: Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Sunsets, dramatic ranges, red dirt and cool waters embrace our Travel Editor as he flies and drives in Western Australia's north.

SATURDAY

I fly north from Perth and arrive 2½ hours later in a redder, more turquoise place, flooded with light. Broome.

My goodness, the colours of Broome, oil painted across the land below as the plane banks over mangroves. But forget the gold poured over Cable Beach by a sun sizzling into the Indian Ocean, and the ghostly black of its silhouetted palms. Forget the earthy scent of the soil and the fragrance of frangipanis.

For in the luminescent dusk, I am at a concert — singer- songwriter John Bennett from remote Bidyadanga, and the master of the Broome sound, Stephen Pigram. Yes, forget the sights and scents of Broome, for tonight this lattice and tin- roofed capital of the West Kimberley is dominated by sound — a tropical soundtrack, and the hum of community.

SUNDAY

The straight ribbon of bitumen drawing me out of Broome makes the point. The Kimberley is about space. And as cool, desert morning wind swirls, I am swept up, and lost, in space.

The Great Northern Highway, taking me 700km today from Broome to Halls Creek, crosses above Minnie Creek, where two freshwater crocodiles languish like logs. Termite mounds, Brahman cattle following nose to tail, boab trees with delicate, new green leaves.

At Willare, I walk the clanking bridge over the Fitzroy River as a red truck thunders through, “Kimberley Cool” emblazoned across its nose.

The roadhouse is chockas with caravans and camper trailers and people popped out of tour buses, stretching and blinking in the big light. A woman draws arcs in red dust with the toe of white trainers.

In Fitzroy Crossing, there are big hats over dark faces, western jeans and a certain rolling gait. Indigenous history is that of the stockman, too. There’s solid shade under the roadhouse canopy and a treat inside — another sign, this time on the pie cabinet: “It’s un-Australian to pay for sauce.”

Through the Mueller Ranges, already the colour of cut muscle in the reddening afternoon light, and then rolling into Halls Creek, its IGA prettied up by indigenous art, with cow sculptures edging the roof. The carpark of the Kimberley Hotel is all four-wheel-drives, except for one tiny Hyundai, which a Japanese girl gets out of.

MONDAY

Breakfast and a drive not much more than 160km up Great Northern Highway to Warmun. The confident wedge-tailed eagles hooked on to road kill don’t rise as the vehicle passes.

At Warmun, in cool, buffeting air, we are freed from the ground and soar into a vivid sky, consigning the receding roadhouse below to the size of a packing case, then a shoebox, then a matchbox.

Then it is lost to view, as the helicopter climbs and the world is peopled only by trees, casting long shadows, and the ranges beyond — first the greened-up Osmand Range, then the black and orange-striped beehives of the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park. The sheer number and spread give the look of a tribe. We drift over their domes and the cut of their gorges, then bank in and land.

On the ground, in Cathedral Gorge, they are all around me. The moment feels rare. The place feels sacred. Soft sand under my boots, amplifying acoustics, and the sweet scent of native nectar. On the flight back, in the afternoon, the land is redder, shadows more defined, and the land looks boiled up and rosy. It’s 200 clicks on to Kununurra — arriving in the dark, everyone going to tea. But even when I eventually lie in bed in the dark, my head is filled with the clear, sharp light of the day, and the colours of the Bungles.

TUESDAY

The caravan parks of Kununurra are filling with happy villagers — families and retired couples, camped by Lily Creek and under boabs, and in the shade of backstreet parks in this green town, flushed with fresh water, ticking with reticulation. But I’m out of here, leaving the caravan park’s aviary of Gouldian finches, to freewheel with whistling kites.

We head north on the back road, me and m-mate Glen, fording Ivanhoe Crossing, the smooth water of the Ord River tumbling over its big, concrete horseshoe into froth, nearly up to the tops of the vehicle’s tyres, hiding the crocs. (I’m told a simple way to tell a harmless freshwater crocodile from a dangerous saltie. “The freshie’ll be going away from you, the saltie comin’ towards you.”)

On up the dirt road, past Honeymoon Pool and back on to the bitumen until I get to the east end of the Gibb River Road. Its sign says “open, open, open” for all sections. The dry season. We pass the turn-off to Emma Gorge, tented cabins and a restaurant at the mouth of a cut in the Cockburn Range.

Then we turn south towards El Questro, driving through dust and crossing the creek. It feels like coming home.

Up against the red wall of Chamberlain Gorge, on El Questro’s boat Wandjina, seven-spot archerfish shoot food from our fingers. Then dusk descends in soft, dark colours as we sit in silence at Branko’s Lookout. Back at the station, there are campers and a singsong, burgers or the Steakhouse.

I sleep in a comfortable room, with the doors pushed open and flywire pulled shut, listening to the river burble, waiting for a dingo to howl just before dawn.

WEDNESDAY

I wish I could poach eggs like chefs do; neat little gold-filled treasures. El Questro’s are perfect and on sourdough.

I counted once — within 30 minutes’ drive from this spot, still within El Questro Wilderness Park, there are more than a dozen spectacular locations. But today it’s an old favourite, El Questro Gorge itself, an antediluvian canyon of pandanus and Livistona palms, mop-haired against the slot of sky high above.

Three girls and a young bloke shimmy and spider-walk over the big boulder half an hour up the gorge but I am glad just to be by its chanting, transparent stream. From El Questro, me and m-mate Glen skirt the crinoline ramparts of the Cockburn Range until we get to the Pentecost River crossing.

People stand in the sandy Gibb River Road photographing partners steering their four- wheel-drives through the wide, safe crossing, set against the range’s Kimberley sandstone.

At Home Valley Station, I move into my comfortable Grass Castle suite, then head out barramundi fishing with a couple of the station’s guides. There’s a saltie croc sunning on the bank, then slipping into the water. Snap, as a barra takes the bait, then the oil painting sunset. Dinner is barramundi, of course (not ours).

THURSDAY

Still morning, cool air, and the big boabs of Home Valley Station are behind. On the hill, there’s mobile phone reception, and a view of the Cockburn Range and Pentecost River, snaking towards the coast.

It is a morning full of promise. For me, the promise of a very personal day will be fulfilled. First there is a morning tea of homemade jam and scones at Ellenbrae Station — a place I have known for a long time and had deep associations with for a long time, but which is having a new life breathed into it by Logan Walker and Larissa White.

Then on to Mt Elizabeth Station — the first place I spent time in the Kimberley, nearly 30 years ago, and the place into which longtime owner Peter Lacy’s pioneer father, Frank, walked cattle and settled. After a lifetime here, Peter and Pat Lacy have sold the station and will move on. “Much to my horror, ” Peter says. “The bodies just can’t do it any more, ” Pat says. “I don’t want to talk about it and you don’t want to talk about it, ” I say. He doesn’t want to leave this place, but I tell him the boab brought from the Kimberley to Kings Park is in flower. “So you just have to find the right place to put your roots, ” he says.

And there’s new life at Over the Range tyre and mechanical repairs (the godsend of the Gibb River Road for many broken- down travellers) where Neville Hernon and Leonie Starnawski proudly cradle 18-month-old daughter Mira. The Kimberley is alive and ever changing. Sign on the door at Mt Barnett Roadhouse: No School, No Shop.

FRIDAY

Before dawn, the front of my tented cabin at Imintji, open with its fly mesh zipped up, makes a wide, upside-down V.

Outside, the panorama is vaguely outlined with amber, pre-dawn light. I lie and watch it, unmoving and moved. Then, a cascade of sound from a herringbone sky, the cacophony of cockatoos. I walk up to the back of the camp and watch the sun creep down the Precipice Range, making it a livid orange.

Then we drive on along the Gibb River Road (Sign in the office window at Imintji community: No Work, No Wi-Fi) and up the orange track to Bell Gorge. There — a wedding cake. For Bell Falls tumbles in white tiers over dark rock. The water is not frigid, not tepid, but “just right” — cool enough to cool me, not cold enough to shock.

SATURDAY

I don’t know it yet but this day will turn into a history lesson, delving back and back and back.

All I hear now is a dingo howling in the still, cool hours heading for dawn at Mt Hart Homestead. The station was settled by Bill Chalmers and Felix Edgar, who battled for 20 years to establish a cattle run, and then gave up.

Mt Hart is the first station east of the King Leopold Ranges on the Gibb River Road and they simply couldn’t get cattle to the coast through this 2400-million- year-old barrier in good condition. Stumpy Fraser, Peter Murray and Charles Telford, famous for his persistence and tenacity, came to the same conclusion. Then came Taffy Abbotts, who brought his own tenacity and a passion for dingoes. Taffy is gone but I suspect the dingoes remember him. Mt Hart has a new life with tented accommodation.

Out on the Gibb River Road, still heading east, we leave the King Leopolds behind and are soon in the Napier Range, which formed more than 350 million years ago as reef under the sea. We duck off down to Windjana Gorge, still part of this reef, and the base of Aboriginal leader Jandamarra. Freshwater crocodiles float like toys and I watch a bowerbird adjusting the shiny trinket in front of its vertical brush home. Mowanjum Arts Centre has Wandjina paintings and then we’re in Derby, marooned in mudflats

Its first wharf was built in 1894 but the long, tall one built in 1964 and still standing and fished from is the stuff of legend. Derby is in touch with its past but has a real sense of life and future.

Stephen Scourfield was in the Kimberley as a guest of Australia’s North West tourism.

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