As a fan of lists, spread-sheets and Gantt Charts, you could reasonably expect an itinerary for our trip, but my companion is far looser in this regard, providing me with a growth opportunity. We usually head off with a rough destination in mind, and I call out attractions as we go. It goes something like this:
“In 23 km we will arrive in [insert name of town]. This is a great base to explore [insert region]. Gazetted in 1876, this is the quintessential outback Australian town. Drop a line from the wharf, eat a meal at the historic pub with unique memorabilia, walk the main street and soak up the rich history…Hey! They have crocodiles, lets do the crocodile tour!”.
It will depend on blood sugar levels but I can accurately predict that if it is lunchtime and near a river, or a town made famous by a country singer, a Barra at the local pub inexplicably festooned with underwear items from passing travellers, could be goer. If none of the above, forge on.
In the north, the year and all activity within it is generally referred to by three seasons determined by prevailing weather. They are The Build Up (around November to January), The Wet (roughly February to April) and The Dry (May to October). Several people have told me if you can live through The Build Up in [insert name of any north WA or NT town] without going around the twist or I suspect, committing a felony, then you are worth marrying/belong here/are a local. During The Dry, bushfires are common, and apparently 90% of them are deliberately lit. Great numbers of Birds of Prey circle above grabbing the rodents and locusts that flee in waves.
We wanted to do an overnight houseboat stay at the Horizontal Falls near Derby, around 220km from Broome, but the girl on the phone told us it was booked out and the next time we could book was 10 months from now. We also intended to do the Gibb River Road, a largely 4WD road joining Derby and Kununurra featuring a number of marvellous gorges, and privately owned wilderness park, El Questro.
We were travelling at the end of The Dry, which meant the road, at best corrugated and awash with superfine bull dust (yes, it is an actual thing, not just a euphemism), was in the worst state of the year. The dire portents from travellers just arrived, and the general disintegration of the camper trailer, assisted in our decision to avoid a 500 km test of both trailer and personal limits. We would take the Great Northern Highway from Broome to Kununura, (around 1100km) via Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek – a hop, skip, and a (maybe not so fictional) psycho away from Wolfe Creek crater. “He was a quiet neighbour. Kept to himself. Wore a lot of Camo.”
Largely uneventful, the Great Northern would provide us with ample opportunity to amuse ourselves with roadhouse ‘cheese and beef’ sausages, a food item suspiciously devoid of both, and a gift that keeps giving for hours after ingestion.
We were warned at Willare Roadhouse (good spot to pick up some Yeeda Station Grass Fed beef) that the road to Fitzroy Crossing may be closed due to a bush fire. Driving toward some pretty awesome smoke, we found ourselves diverted to Derby after all.
Making a campground decision based on the comments based on Wiki Camps is like reading between Real Estate Lines. ‘Adequate facilities’ means I will be displeased with cleanliness. ‘Sociable campground’ means the Sundowner drinks crowd will talk about you if you don’t join them. ‘No good for big rigs’, ‘Bins emptied noisily at 8:45am’, Didn’t have pool or children’s playground’ means probably awesome (for crying out loud people, its $20 a night!), ‘Rude reception’ means send in W, it will be his demographic.
The campground had an eclectic collection of folk, including a crowd from Mapua, a mere 10 km from my sister in the Abel Tasman region of New Zealand’s South Island. Given the size of Mapua and distance from origin, this is statistically significant.
Camp chat is such an education. I had noted with interest that an inordinate amount of women at campground Sundowner drinks drank Coca Cola, and always in a stubby holder. I had mused upon this, and marvelled at the popularity of both Coca Cola and the high proportion of tee-totalling women. Then Sandra From QLD let the cat out of the bag; “This? Oi’ve put me Bourbon in it already.”
By this stage of our trip, temperatures are regularly late 30 degrees celcius, mosquitoes, midges and March Flies simply feral, and estuarine crocodiles (the ones you don’t swim with) own every waterway. This is why glamping is a term devised by tricksy partners to convince those smooth of complexion, and fond of an unbroken nail, to get out bush. No. Unless you are travelling in a mobile home, your signature composure will be unattainable. Sure, I started out with wonderful West Australian, organic, chakra-balancing natural repellent, bio-dynamic sunscreen, and positive affirmations. But when my skin started looking like something you would fashion into a High Street tote and the high-pitched whine of a Ross River Virus-carrying insurgent made me wonder if I had tinnitus, I went full Agent Orange. It’s not all Akubra’s, glossy hair and honey coloured tans. Imagine a face and neck of bites gathered together by a rash worthy of a communicable disease, and similar in shape to a map of Europe.
Back on track, we headed for Kununurra, around 900km away. While there are notable Gorges worthy of stopover (Geikie, Windjana), we found ourselves relentlessly pushing forward, as if the gold lay at the end of the Great Northern. The campground options on this route generally boil down to roadhouse dust-bowls, or free camps labelled ‘gravel pit’ on Wiki-Camps. We usually start our hunt for a spot around 3.30pm, I reject the first six, then as dusk falls, we end up in said gravel pit, lulled asleep by the symphony of a road-crew generator, road-train refrigeration unit, or bore water windmill. The upside to this scenario is that you generally get motivated to go at 5am, giving you a grand start to the day.
On the final stretch to Kununurra, we decided to use our early start to check out Mollie Springs, a spring fed pool with a waterfall, and a ‘favourite with locals for swimming and picnicking’. W got in out of tradition, and turquoise dragonflies darted, while I chose a campground in Kununurra on the basis of its pool. W checked in for vacancies, and was given a very special site under a giant boab tree next to the pool that ‘everyone wants’. Uniformed staff buzzed about everywhere, tweaking pool chemicals, mowing lawns, erecting signs with rules, and manicuring the landscape. At 5.30pm on the dot, a staff member made their way to the pool enclosure to evict anyone still comfortable in loungers at the rigidly enforced pool closing time. Strains of 1960’s music drifted from the rear bank of permanent residents, and sprinklers circled relentlessly.
Kununurra is close to the West Australian/Northern Territory border, and sits on the banks of the Ord River. Everyone fishes, and Barramundi is on every menu. I like to investigate all local attractions in the limited time we have, so after a swift recconnaisance of the town environs, we headed to The Pump House, a great little restaurant/bar overhanging the river. At night, hundreds of creepy catfish pile up under the deck to dine on leftovers from Pump House guests. Far cooler than that however, is the eternally patient crocodile that hangs off the edge of all the catfish which annoying failed to launch into the frenzy.
The next day, buoyed by the lush descriptions of swimming holes in the Springs Circuit, we set off to explore. It quickly became apparent we were about four months too late. With enthusiasm fading we opted for a river cruise. Roaring up the Ord River, things were looking up. Three metre freshwater crocodiles (the harmless ones!) appeared on cue, and a back up one for tourists I am certain was rubber, sat unmoving on the rocks.
Riverbank bushfires filled our lungs and raptors soared. Tomorrow we would continue east.