At the sharp end: Crossing one of the many crocodile-infested rivers on the only route across the Kimberly (Phoebe Smith)
Article Words : Phoebe Smith | 25 November

Way out west: Western Australia's Kimberley region on a budget

To see the Kimberley region in Western Australia usually involves five-star cruising and a five-figure price tag – we decided to see if we could experience this wilderness on a small budget…

"Slight problem – it appears the hull has split.” The woman on the phone said this in an unemotional and matter-of-fact manner, as though she’d told me my train was five minutes late. Though I’m no master sailor, I knew enough to know that this was not good news.

The small city of Broome, on the far west coast of Australia, is the jumping off point for many a Kimberley cruise, the likes of which boast full-on luxury in the form of sumptuous duvets, air-conditioned private cabins and fine dining. Yet I’d arrived determined to find a bargain, and thought I had – one that was a fraction of the price, if a bit rough and ready. However, as I’d just discovered, the upshot was that it also wasn’t fit for purpose, so here I was, up the coast without a vessel.

The ubiquitous camels on the beach in Western Australia's seaside town of Broome (Phoebe Smith)

The ubiquitous camels on the beach in Western Australia's seaside town of Broome (Phoebe Smith)

Not easily defeated, I hastily sorted an overland alternative. And so it was that I found myself, a couple of days later, in a ‘cosy’ 4WD vehicle with twelve other travellers, towing all our cooking, sleeping and hiking apparatus behind us in a small trailer. My objective hadn’t changed, though, and this promised to be a thrilling way to see the region on a budget. Our fluffy duvets would be replaced by canvas-covered roll mats and sleeping bags (known as ‘swags’); our ‘air conditioning’ would be the outside air at night; and as for fine dining, cooking would require us to regularly stop to saw felled trees for a campfire, get water by filling our four jerry cans as often as we could and gather as many non-perishables beforehand from the supermarket.

It’s no secret that camping is my thing, but the idea of doing it out west, in Australia – the land seemingly home to more deadly critters per capita than anywhere else on Earth, not to mention saltwater crocs – left me nervous. And I was not alone. As I met my fellow intrepid crew, consisting of a mix of budget-minded backpackers, sociable so-called ‘grey nomads’ (aka travelling retirees) and money-saving middle-aged office workers escaping the 9-to-5, the sense of embarking on the unknown made the air palpably tense.

The 4WD may not offer five-star luxury, but takes you to a billion-star scenery (Phoebe Smith)

The 4WD may not offer five-star luxury, but takes you to a billion-star scenery (Phoebe Smith)

I do promise that you are about to embark on an unforgettable adventure.

“I know you’ve seen the itinerary,” said our guide, James ‘Duffman’ Duffy, a beard-sporting, dreadlocked local who has been overlanding for most of the last decade. “But I need you to forget about what you’ve read. On these trips, anything can and will happen. The road conditions can mean diversions and campsites may have to be changed, which can affect when and where we stop, but…” he continued, a wide grin spreading across his face, “I do promise that you are about to embark on an unforgettable adventure.”

First comes last

The Prison Boab Tree - Once used to keep abducted aboriginal people from running away (Phoebe Smith)

The Prison Boab Tree - Once used to keep abducted aboriginal people from running away (Phoebe Smith)

With Duffman’s intriguing promise lingering in the air, we left Broome and its fossil-lined beaches, where herds of camel roam at sunset, far behind. We stocked up on supplies a Willare Bridge Roadhouse in Derby, where the sign informed us that our final destination of Darwin – nine days away – would see us cover 1,709km (that’s not far short of the distance between London and Moscow). As the last stretch of tarmac road came and went under our tyres, I felt the shifting sand slide beneath our wheels. The road signs warning of dangers ahead came thick and fast: fire risk – severe; four-wheel drive – mandatory; flash flooding – a real possibility. This felt like a truly daring undertaking.

The sign at Willare Bridge Roadhouse promises many kilometres of adventure (Phoebe Smith)

The sign at Willare Bridge Roadhouse promises many kilometres of adventure (Phoebe Smith)

The road we were following, known as the Gibb River Road, is a new one, relatively speaking. It was established as a cattle-driving route in the early 1900s, moving herds between Derby in the south and Wyndham in the north. But it’s a course that has been followed for around 20,000 years by the Aboriginal peoples who regularly used it as a trading route.

Our first stop, at a site called Boab Prison Tree, nodded to the original settlers. It was once used as a place to shade from the intense sun and feast on the flesh of the tree’s seeds, which have a brittle texture, like meringue, yet taste of mandarins. But after the pearling industry took hold here in the 1860s, it was used for a more sinister purpose. Back then, a practice known as ‘blackbirding’ was common, and it meant Aboriginal people could be taken at gunpoint to go pearling (refusal meant death for themselves and their families). They would work for hours, day after day, deep-diving in steel-and-copper suits for nothing in the way of payment. This prison tree was where many were held en route to Broome. Looking at the wizened bark, I couldn’t help but think about what it had witnessed and I shivered.

The town's still-famous pearl shells are everywhere here (Phoebe Smith)

The town's still-famous pearl shells are everywhere here (Phoebe Smith)

The Aboriginal peoples don’t believe they own the land, but that they are custodians of it.

“The Aboriginal peoples don’t believe they own the land, but that they are custodians of it,” explained Duffman as we headed further along the road. “As such, they are very much part of its history.”

His point was beautifully illustrated at the next stop, Windjana Gorge – a looming ridgeline of a Devonian-era limestone reef that was under the ocean some 300 million years ago. It also hides a smattering of Aboriginal paintings in its crevices, depicting kangaroos, human figures and faces.

By the time we reached our ‘campsite’ – a patch of desert about an hour up the road – we were all exhausted. But we wouldn’t be resting straight away.

Notes from underground

Exploring in Tunnel Creek at night, when the wildlife begin to awaken (Phoebe Smith)

Exploring in Tunnel Creek at night, when the wildlife begin to awaken (Phoebe Smith)

“Tunnel Creek is a hugely important site,” said our guide, as we protested leaving camp to explore when it was getting dark. “If we go in the morning, it will be busy. But if we go now…”

We reluctantly agreed and headed to the 750m-long cave system – thought to be one of the oldest in Western Australia. The leaves crunched like crisps underfoot as we walked outside the cave and, though the stars and moon shone high in the sky, we soon left the light behind and were engulfed by the darkness of the cavern. The odd squeak and flap of bats waking up to hunt echoed around us, while the knee-deep water, which looked green under the light from my headtorch, was filled with skittish yabbies (local crayfish) darting about my feet.

The walls yawned for metres above us, like stone sculptures sporting elaborate chandeliers, while the roots of trees pierced the roof, dangling above our heads. Spiny red-and-yellow insects scurried over the rocks and a fluttering of black-and-white butterflies danced in our torch beams. Gradually it became lighter, and it was with a dizzying sense of realisation that I found we were outside again, staring at the moon once more.

Duffman lights the campfire used both for keeping us warm and for cooking (Phoebe Smith)

Duffman lights the campfire used both for keeping us warm and for cooking (Phoebe Smith)

It was here where Duffman told us the story of an Aboriginal man called Jandamarra who, in 1897, hid out here when he refused to turn in his uncle for cattle-poaching. Despite evading capture for many days, he was eventually found and killed. As Duffman spoke the final words of the tale, behind him I could make out the red eyes of baby alligators lying in wait in the creek ahead, playing a waiting game for the humans they knew were inside. It was as though nature itself wanted to contribute to the story.

By the time we reached the campsite, it was so late that suddenly the idea of sleeping in a swag felt welcoming; any worry of snakes or venomous bedfellows was replaced only by extreme tiredness. We slept by the light of the moon, a gentle cooling breeze tickling our cheeks, while dingos howled somewhere in the distance. It was a special introduction to life in the Kimberley.

Rocks of ages

Echo location: The yawning space inside Cathedral Gorge, where even the sounds of birds and insects are amplified (Phoebe Smith)

Echo location: The yawning space inside Cathedral Gorge, where even the sounds of birds and insects are amplified (Phoebe Smith)

The following days passed in a similarly heady mix of adventures, where treats came in the form of simple, and often low-priced (or free), luxuries. Acres of never-ending sand, interspersed with desert bloodwood trees (a type of eucalyptus), were traversed before Duffman pulled in at an innocuous looking stop, to reveal a treasure trove of ochre, black and white Aboriginal artwork under an overhang. We’d never have known it existed without him.

One such site even had depictions of jellyfish and what looked like a whale, proving the theory that our ancestors did indeed use this trail to head out from the desert to the ocean. Then there were the wildlife sightings: salt and freshwater crocodiles, wallaroos bounding by the roadside, even a deadly taipan snake hidden in a passageway.

Duffman points out cave paintings found after a walk from an innocuous turning off the main road (Phoebe Smith)

Duffman points out cave paintings found after a walk from an innocuous turning off the main road (Phoebe Smith)

Saltwater crocs are frequent visitors to water supplies especially once you reach the Northern Territory (Phoebe Smith)

Saltwater crocs are frequent visitors to water supplies especially once you reach the Northern Territory (Phoebe Smith)

Finally, there were those special moments, such as the joy at discovering the 998,000-acre Ellenbrae Station (a cattle station, not the railway variety), where owners Logan and Larissa baked scones throughout the dry season (June and July), making enough money to keep them afloat the rest of the time. “Last year, we made 14,350 scones,” revealed Larissa.

Between such encounters we took swims in croc-free billabongs. Bell Gorge was one of the first, resembling a wild version of an infinity pool as it dropped down into a gushing waterfall while monitor lizards looked on. At El Questro Station, where the beautiful Luxury Lodge of Australia is situated, the extravagance, for us, arrived in the form of a much-needed natural shower in the ice-cool waters of Emma Gorge Waterfall. Then there was the unforgettable Manning Gorge, where we were so mesmerised by its beauty – a cirque of red rock with water so clear you could see right to its depths – that we decided to swim back to the campsite, crossing mini-falls, battling spiky pandanus trees and guided by the smear of the Milky Way as night fell.

The infinity-pool like Bell Gorge, a bathing treat for overlanders (Phoebe Smith)

The infinity-pool like Bell Gorge, a bathing treat for overlanders (Phoebe Smith)

The striped domes of the Bungle Bungles (Phoebe Smith)

The striped domes of the Bungle Bungles (Phoebe Smith)

Campsites ranged from scraps of land under the shade of fat boab trees, to a starry night on top of a mountain plateau after crossing the 60m-wide waters of the Pentecost River. But by far the highlight of the trip came at Purnululu National Park, known for its Bungle Bungle Range. Located deep inland, boat passengers usually reach this place courtesy of a helicopter, but we spent the night amid its beehive-like rock formations, seeing the night sky dazzle far from any light pollution.

Sleeping out meant we woke early and got to watch the sun rise, casting a pink glow on the rocky domes. Then we walked to Cathedral Gorge before any coach tours entered the park gates. There the rock has formed what looks like an apple core, with a pool of water inside. I gazed in awe as the tweets from birds reverberated around its walls.

Sky’s the limit

The legendary sunset in Darwin draws the crowds as they emerge from overlanding and from the city itself (Phoebe Smith)

The legendary sunset in Darwin draws the crowds as they emerge from overlanding and from the city itself (Phoebe Smith)

With so much money saved, and just two days left before reaching Darwin, I decided a splurge was in order. This came in the form of a helicopter ride.

“Seeing the Bungle Bungles from the ground is special,” said the pilot as we took off, “but from above, you get to see them in a whole other dimension.”

How right he was. As we soared over the range, it emerged like a boundless knobbled mass of pimples, lumps and bumps, resembling gnarled sections on a tree trunk that, courtesy of my door-free chopper, I felt like I could reach out and run my fingers over, reading their stories like braille.

The scale of Purnululu/the Bungle Bungles is best appreciated from the air (Phoebe Smith)

The scale of Purnululu/the Bungle Bungles is best appreciated from the air (Phoebe Smith)

I felt like I could reach out and run my fingers over the mountains, reading their stories like braille.

A couple of days later, about 2:30 am, I realised something was wrong. The moon was gone. Not only that but the stars were absent: no Southern Cross, no Milky Way – just a single red planet lighting the darkness. The usual rustle of leaves and the breath of my fellow campers was replaced with a tuneless hum. I had never felt so disorientated.

Just then, I noticed a neon cluster of lines. As I stared, I realised these were large green digits. I wiggled my toes and felt the soft fabric of a plush duvet covering my feet. I wasn’t outside. The hum was the air-conditioning unit; the red ‘planet’ the standby light from the TV. This was no campsite; I was in my five-star hotel in the city of Darwin.

It seemed that the bush, much like the mud and sand that had found its way under my toenails, had also got under my skin, too. And though the dirt could be easily scrubbed away, the memories of swagging in the Kimberley under the night sky would remain for much longer. Five stars can be wonderful, I mused as I drifted off again, but it can never compete with a billion witnessed in a clear night’s sky.

Shadows of camels across the beach (Phoebe Smith)

Shadows of camels across the beach (Phoebe Smith)

The Trip

The author travelled with Kimberley Adventure Tours, one of the oldest operators in Broome, which runs regular nine-day trips between Broome and Darwin and 20-day trips between Perth and Darwin in the dry season, taking in the Kimberley and the Bungle Bungles National Park. 

Accommodation

There are limited options in Broome – by far the best in terms of location is the Cable Beach Club from where you can stroll to watch the sunset, search for dinosaur footprints in the sand, take a camel ride or explore the town. On the road, expect very basic accommodation – swag bags and sleeping bags are the way to go (plus mosquito-net tents for nights when the insects are out in force). In Darwin, try the Oaks Elan Darwin which is centrally located for nightlife and just a short taxi ride to the locally famous Mindil Beach Sunset Market.

Further reading & information

West Coast Australia (Lonely Planet, 2017) – a good guide to WA

Westernaustralia.com – official tourist board site for the region

Australia.com – official tourist board site for the country

5 add-ons worth the splurge 

A budget overland tour of the Kimberley is a great way to save, but there are a few activities worth getting the credit card out for…

Horizontal Falls (Phoebe Smith)

Horizontal Falls (Phoebe Smith)

1: Horizontal Falls

Usually seen on pricey boat tours around the Kimberley coast and Buccaneer Archipelago, this natural phenomenon, where the sea flows horizontally through a tiny gap in the mountains, is well worth a look. Horizontal Falls Adventures offers seaplane trips out from Broome, including a meal on a boat, the chance to swim with sharks and a fast boat ride through the falls.

2: Camel ride, Broome

Look up Broome online and you’ll be deluged with shots of camels marching along the sands at sunset. Combine a ride with a half-day tour at Kimberley Wild Expeditions, offering a fascinating insight into early life in Broome.

3: Helicopter ride over the Bungle Bungles

Seeing the park’s striped sandstone domes from the ground is incredible, but gazing down on them from a helicopter is mind-blowing.

4: Lake Argyle cruise

From the Bungle Bungles, take a short trip to camp and watch the incredible sunset from this huge lake. Offered as an add-on by Kimberley Adventure Tours.

5: Aboriginal tour, Darwin

Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours offers a unique insight into the life of the Aboriginal residents of the Top End. Take the Wetland Discovery Tour to see the local crocs and birdlife by boat.