The Gorge-ous Kimberley

By now, this drive around Australia has given Hailee and me a sort of immunisation against the power of a beautiful coastline. We’ve seen more white sand, dramatic cliffs, pounding waves and seawater the colour of Listerine than you could shake a snorkel at. Someday, I suspect poor Hailee will return to the fabled coasts of Oregon and Northern California, and feel a uniquely Australian sense of indifference. The bar is simply too high now. (“They’re just different kinds of beaches,” she protests on their behalf.)

So when we spied a stretch of road that pitched inland north-west of Exmouth, Western Australia, we jumped on it and didn’t look back. Red rocks broke through the spinifex and slowly piled on top of one another as we drove inland. By the time we reached the mining town of Tom Price, you might’ve actually called them mountains.

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Our goal was Karijini National Park, a broad slice of protected Pilbara wedged in between various mining leases. The Hammersley Ranges swell and roll beneath the spinifex, revealing their red bones in high craggy outcrops. Meadows of spinifex cover the red dirt in a pale brown fuzz, clumped into little pillow-shaped clusters. It looks cuddly. Up close, however, spinifex is a tangled mess of grass blades, and even the slightest touch stings. The stuff is useless from an agricultural perspective, except as a metaphor for the harsh and unforgiving outback.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that Aboriginal people found numerous uses for spinifex. Most notably, they copied the habits of the small wallabies and other marsupials who find shelter in the hollows beneath them, and stashed infants within its cool confines through the hottest parts of the day. Kangaroo skins protected the littlies from the pricklies.

There are twisting slot canyons and secret waterholes hidden on Karijini’s valley floors. The red rocks crumbling from the hilltops like broken teeth really look their age — which is about 3,500 million years, apparently. The swirls and twists in the lines of the chasm walls are the compacted sediments of an ancient seabed that once covered most of north-western Australia.

Glaciers are the great movers and renewers of geology. They scoop out new valleys and deposit the foundations of future plains. They plough the landscape and ready it for the life that will sprout there once the ice has receded. For the natives reading this, it’s probably no surprise to learn the continent we know as Australia missed out on the glacier party during the last ice age. It’s also been ages (literally, hah!) since it saw any real land-creating volcanic activity. The most recent example is the Great Dividing Range that lines the east coast. Trade winds sweep ashore from the east, dumping almost all their moisture as soon as they run into these mountains. This is why the east coast is so lush. But those winds continue on after depositing that water, racing across the plains, becoming dryer as they go, eating into the earth and exposing all the old rocks beneath its surface.

The result is a vast, flat landmass largely uninterrupted by the great rivers, mountains or valleys we humans like to see when we’re out collecting experiences and ticking buckets off our list… or however that saying goes. There is no such thing as “charming countryside” across most of Australia. Forget “charming” — the unending scrub barely counts as “countryside.” Instead there are various blips of interest — gorges, lookouts, waterholes, beaches and hills — scattered thinly across enormous fields of white space that we call “nothingness.” The continent seems to mock travellers with this “nothingness,” forcing us to traverse humungous tracts of it in search of the blips that we deem worthy of “ooohs” and “aaaahs.”

All these blips are lovely, of course. But what of the “nothingness” in between? I’m slowly becoming obsessed with it. You get an unsatisfyingly vague sense of it around you as you hurtle down the highway at 90 kilometres per hour, and if you’re on a dirt road you’re too busy plotting a route between potholes and corrugations to contemplate anything else. When we do pull over (mostly just to pee on a patch of “nothingness”), I sometimes take a moment to ponder a patch of spinifex, or some spindly mallee or eucalyptus scrub baking by the road. But my eyes are only trained to find beauty and shelter and when I don’t find them in these bleached and dusty places, I feel myself drawn back to the familiar interior of our home on wheels.

The Aboriginal people who call these places home would, of course, see opportunity in these same chunks of bush. Here is a favourite hidey hole for a nutritious species of grub or marsupial. Under that spiky bush is a cool place to protect the young ones from the midday heat. That is a tree whose leaves can be wrapped around a fish before you cook it in a fire.

But decent Civilisation has no room for such trifles. Progress is an air conditioned shopping centre in north-western Australia filled with Tasmanian salmon, Mexican sauces and Danish cheeses, all of it trucked in at great expense from faraway ports. Build houses, pubs and caravan parks around it, and call the thing Broome.

Broome. Pffft. A town founded on enslaving Aboriginal people in the service of the pearling industry. Nowadays, a tourist hub of condos and compounds, built as a base for rich people to fly over the inaccessible bays and ranges of the Kimberley. For the rest of us, it’s a place to ponder mediocre Cable Beach and wonder why the devil we’re wasting our time in smug, segregated Broome.

I’m probably being harsh. We just didn’t like Broome.

To the Kimberley

Maybe it would be more accurate to call this section “Around the Kimberley,” as we didn’t go through it so much as skirt its edges. We opted against the famed Gibb River Road and stuck to the pavement.

Around 400 million years ago, a shallow sea once covered north-western Australia. A large barrier reef grew in it, and we found a waterhole tucked into its rocky remains about 100 kilometres from Fitzroy Crossing. It was surrounded by bloated boab trees and, best of all, it didn’t house crocodiles – that’s something we have to consider nowadays.

That waterhole was a kind of turning point. It felt like we hadn’t stopped running since we left Melbourne. We’d racked up thousands of kilometres, watched vast swathes of the country go by from highways and hiking trails, and had barely spent two nights in the same place for two months. We were burned out.

So we spent four days sitting in the shade and swimming in this waterhole, half-heartedly exploring the dried reef during the cooler hours. Hailee devoted herself to her books, her hammock and her pencils. I used the solar panel and inverter to keep my laptop charged, and I typed away the days as I migrated with the shade.

Fresh and recharged, it was back to the road once more. We saw the remains of the same ancient barrier reef at Geikie Gorge, and shuddered down 150 kilometres of the famed Tanami Road to climb the meteorite crater at Wolfe Creek (no relation to the horror movie of the same name). A meteorite punched a hole in the quartzite bed of these plains around 300,000 years ago, which makes it a startlingly recent addition to the landscape around it. It is the second largest meteorite crater in the world (there’s a bigger one in Arizona) but Europeans didn’t even realise it was there until 1947, when somebody spotted it from a plane.

The Jaru and Walmajarri people have their own lyrical name for the crater: Gandimalal. A Walmajarri story describes a rainbow serpent named Karlputa, who came to this area from the coast south of Broome (we didn’t blame him). Having completed his journey, Karlputa burrowed underground and still rests beneath the crater. Salty water collects in the very centre of this planetary ringworm (according to the Walmajarri, the water is salty because Karlputa came from the ocean), which feeds a circle of low gum trees. It’s a favourite hangout for pink-crested Major Mitchell cockatoos.

“Meteorite face.”

Sunset at Wolfe Creek.

Next on the list was the fun-to-say Purnululu National Park, home of the famous (and even more fun-to-say) Bungle Bungle Range. The road into Purnululu is still a relatively rough dirt track which crosses various creeks and waterholes. We’d never done water crossings before, and Steve handled them with a combination of gruffness and grace.

Northern edge of the Bungle Bungles.

Our trips to reasonably remote locations such as Purnululu don’t indicate superior driving skills so much as the remarkable strength of this machine we call home. Steve carries us (and everything we own) through sand traps, muddy tracks and creek beds, and all he asks of us is that we lower his tyre pressure and maintain momentum. Behind the wheel of a four-wheel drive, any old drongo can visit such remote attractions as the Bungle Bungles — and they often do.

With our usual sense of timing, we managed to hit Purnululu at the height of school holidays, right as car rental companies like Britz were unleashing hordes of furiously vacationing families upon the north-west. To be fair, the shrieking laughing complaining giggling observing demanding children and their long-suffering parents did go a long way to counteract the Grey Nomads, who were also out in force.

Can anyone explain the elderly’s obsession with tablets? Everywhere you go in Australia, you will find Grey Nomads Skyping grandchildren at indecent volumes, misspelling their Facebook statuses or taking hazy, bewildering photographs on these unwieldly devices. In Purnululu we found them slogging through burning sand walking tracks. They’d forgotten water bottles, hats, and some of the men even forgot to wear shirts, but the women never forgot the tablet. They reached the chasm or lookout, squinted through the large, too-dark screen that they didn’t know how to brighten. They took wildly framed, out-of-focus photos and wondered (sometimes vocally) why they’d ever left the air-conditioned comfort of the caravan.

There are plenty of travellers who find the presence of other travellers offensive and ruinous to their own experience. I used to be one of them. (In my more selfish moments, I still am.) But in a world with seven billion humans — a good many of whom like to take holidays — expecting to have a place to yourself is a bit childish. Furthermore, the search for solitude in nature pushes humans deeper and deeper into her domain, expanding our (often damaging) influence on the ecosystems and landscapes these seekers of solitude claim to love so much.

Cathedral Gorge.

Pondering Hailee.

Like it or not, humans are now part of the scenery in these places. It’s easier to accept this than to fight it. And humans on holiday add a fun dimension to any view of an ancient chasm in Purnululu National Park.

Between all the people watching, we did take a moment here and there to look up and consider the place we’d all come to see. The Bungle Bungle Range is an eerie monolith, whose many cracks and folds feel like entrances to some kind of underworld.

More Geology!

Many, many millions of years ago, a large mountain range covered this part of the world. Snow melted and rains fell, forming creeks and rivers systems that, in turn, created canyons and gorges. These slowly ate away at the mountains, and eventually the nameless giants had completely vanished.

All that’s left of them are piles of sand, which were deposited by those long dead rivers, and compacted over time into sandstone. Those piles — the ghosts of mountains and the water that brought them down — are what we call the Bungle Bungles. They stand 200 metres or so above the surrounding flats, and in places it is possible to see layers of smooth river stones trapped in the walls, right where they sank into a sandy riverbed many millions of years ago.

Exploring the range mostly involves hiking up various gorges and chasms, where water has widened cracks in the rock. On the southern side of the range, sediments formed the famous domes of the Bungle Bungles, which are held together by a thin layer of oxidised iron and a dark cyanobacteria. The resulting orange and black stripes make these domes look like beehives.


Sunrise domes.

Picaninny Creek runs along the southern feet of the range in the wet season, but the water recedes in the dry and it is possible to walk along its sculpted bed. We followed it for ten kilometres to the mouth of Picaninny Gorge, one of the wider, deeper chasms sliced into the range. We camped four or five kilometres into the gorge and scrambled up two of the five “fingers,” side gorges that feed into Picaninny.

Better take a photo before we get sweaty.

Tall, thin livistona palms perched high on tiny ledges on the canyon wall, while paperbarks gorged on the waterholes left over from the wet. In places we found clusters of dried corpses of the dreaded cane toad, recently arrived in these parts, and evidently unable to survive so long without rain.

A livistona reaches for the light.

There were humans in Picaninny, too — a chatty Victorian family and a trio of middle-aged women who seemed offended that we didn’t join them swimming in a murky, algae-clogged waterhole — but they were friendly and mostly left us alone. There was also quiet, and a full moon lighting the canyon by night.

The state of Western Australia treated us very well, and despite the long distances it seemed to forgive our rushing — probably on the understanding that we return someday.

Next week: up to the Top End!

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