The Final Frontier

A carton of beer is the Australian outback’s most valuable currency.  It’s key to a smooth transaction and a bargaining chip to solve almost any predicament; for my girlfriend, dog, and I, it rescued our road trip and got us back en-route to one of the most stunning and remote regions of Australia. 

We were on our way to the East Kimberley when the gearbox blew up.  Two thousand clicks from home, turning back was not an option.  The car limped 400km along the highway to Broome, no drive in third or fourth gears.  We were stranded for three weeks, until a second hand gearbox arrived via air-mail from Adelaide. A backyard mechanic – bribed with a box of ale – fitted the part, and helped us onto our intended journey.    

On this potholed, boulder-strewn track that is the Gibb River Road – a 660km long, a former stock-route that cuts a lonely path between the Kimberley’s two major ports, Derby and Wyndham.  Every bump rattles a loose wheel bearing, and my nerve.  We’re venturing deep into the Kimberley in an ailing car and if anything happens out here, we’re up poop creek without a paddle, to borrow a phrase from the local vernacular. 

The Kimberley is one of the world’s last true remaining wildernesses.  The region of Western Australia’s far north encompasses 100 million acres of land.  It’s twice the size of Victoria, Switzerland ten times over, and it’s inhabited by just 50,000 people.  Much the landscape is inaccessible and uncharted even by Aboriginal footprints; this is one of the final frontiers of travel. 

It’s mid-morning when we reach a deep river crossing.  Heat folds in waves over the croc-ravaged Pentecost River.  It’s a slow crawl across crunching rivers stones to the other side, then we’re back on the road.  A silhouette shimmers in the distance; we haven’t seen any other sign of human life for two days, and out here, in the middle of nowhere, is a cyclist!

Cords of perspiration trickle down his neck.  Aside from an army issue jerry can of water strapped to his mountain bike, he carries few supplies.  He is Masa, from Japan, but he’s not your average Japanese tourist.  He’s decided to ride across the Gibb, in the hottest part of the year, just for fun. 

We briefly exchange pleasantries and information about the road ahead.  Masa climbs back on his bike with a groan of exertion.  He’s thankful for a fleeting moment of company, but he has another 550km to ride.  He sets off into the savannah, where the spinifex and boabs whisper with the sweat and aggrievance of many an epic journey. 

The first European pioneers to forge this path were cattle drovers, like the legendary Durack family.  They called themselves ‘the Kings in Grass Castles’, and they left central Queensland to build a cattle empire in the Kimberley.   They travelled overland with the help of Aboriginal stockmen, driving mobs of thousands of cattle and hundreds of horses.  Their progress was halted only by the most savage droughts and flood.  Fortunately, travelling the Gibb today is a little more hospitable, but listen closely and you can hear the pioneer’s cries in the faint rustle of a breeze. 

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Beef was once the industrial flesh and blood of the Kimberley, but some cattle station owners have realised you can run more tourists to the acre and opened their doors to visitors.  El Questro still run 6000 head of Brahman, but the Wilderness Park is their principal business.

The idea of a Wilderness Park was initiated by English tycoon Will Burrell.  He arrived by helicopter on a sunny day in 1991, eager to invest a fortune he had inherited from his grandmother – the doyenne of the Penguin publishing empire.  From the air, he looked down upon billion year old sandstone cut by the scars of flood, boab forests, and vast spring systems partly hidden by tropical canopy.  He bought the cattle station, and envisioned a stylish getaway for adventurous travellers with a healthy toleration for heat and wild isolation. 

It’s lunchtime when we arrive.  It’s a luxurious retreat, favoured by wealthy Australian celebrities like Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman, but the indelible spirit of the outback still remains.  It’s remote, and most international visitors fly to Perth, Broome or Darwin, then make their way to Kununurra, where charter flights service the Park, or a bumpy 100km track brings you here, to the station gate. 

On a shady veranda outside the reception, a stand advertises enough activities for a lifetime of adventuring.  There are easy walks and weeklong expeditions, late-afternoon gorge cruises and remote horse treks.  You can fish at dawn, take a helicopter photo safari after lunch, and see ancient Aboriginal rock-art sites at sunset.  Accommodation options range from the Cliffside suite to a shady campsite; the three sites of varying opulence are The Station, Emma Gorge and The Homestead.

Many of the Kimberley’s natural phenomena are contained within this relatively small 700,000 acre station.  Emma Gorge is the most well-known, and spectacular.  A vague trail leads up the steep scree of a shady gorge.  It’s 7am, and the temperature in the sun is 32 degrees.  1800 million-year-old cliff face escarpments tower over the trail.  This country has changed little in the last billion years.     

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Sunday afternoon, on a track in the Tanami desert, and spinifex, ant hills, and sand stone ridges are glowing gold in the setting sun.  For an outback track, the Duncan Road is surprisingly busy.  Four-wheel-drives, occupied by Aboriginal families, are heading back to Halls Creek.  Two tray-back utes stop and wait for other cars to join the convoy.  A dozen kids are riding in the tray, smiling and playing amongst themselves.  This is outback Australia, and it’s a picture of happiness. 

For every young, hip town in the Kimberley there’s a dusty elder brother, its character impervious to modern development.  For Broome there is Derby; for Kununurra, there are Wyndham and Halls Creek.  Halls Creek is not the town it used to be, literally and metaphorically speaking.  There are two townships, and on the road to the old town, rusting car wrecks and the detritus of defeated pioneers line the road.  

This was once Western Australia’s premier colonial settlement.  It was founded on July 14, 1885, when prospector Charles Hall found an 870-gram nugget of gold; the first discovery of payable gold in Western Australia.  Word spread overseas and thousands of would-be fortune seeks arrived in the nascent Kimberley goldfields.  A township was established to service the migrants, but the gold rush lasted just three months.  Some stayed, but severe water shortages forced the town to be totally abandoned in 1954.  All that remains is the cemetery. 

Lumps of aggregated sandstone form an arched doorway to the well-maintained graveyard.  Perhaps the most famous tombstone here is that of Jim Darcy, a stockman and posthumous outback legend from Ruby Plains station, 75km south of here. In 1917, Darcy was mustering cattle when he fell from his horse.  He was seriously injured, and when his workmates found him, they threw him in a buggy and dragged him for 12 hours to Halls Creek.  They arrived to find neither a doctor, nor a hospital in the town. 

Halls Creek’s postmaster, Fred Tuckett, knew Darcy was in serious trouble.  He telegraphed Wyndham and Derby, but doctors from both towns were on holidays.  Desperate, Tuckett sent a telegraph to Perth using only Morse code.  A doctor replied with vague instructions, and reluctantly, Tuckett operated on Jim Darcy with his silver pocket knife. The operation took seven hours – and was performed without anaesthetic. 

A day later, complications set in.  It was obvious a medical professional would have to attend; Dr Holland took a cattle boat from Perth to Derby.  He travelled the last 555km by T-model Ford, horse and sulky, and foot.  He was too late.  Darcy was dead, but his death made headlines and focussed the nation’s attention on the problem of medical services in isolated areas.  Shortly after, the Royal Flying Doctor Service was born.  

In the new town, similar plaques commemorate legends of the outback.  Outside the Visitors Centre is a tribute to ‘Russian Jack’, a gold miner who carried his injured mate in an improvised wheel barrow 300km across the Great Sandy Desert to the closest hospital.  The outback is a minefield of untold story and a region rich with the strength of human spirit.   

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The car, dusty and bruised, struggles down the side of the Carr Boyd Ranges and into the Lake Argyle Caravan Park.  We stumble over manicured lawns, set beneath mango trees and frangipanis, and head straight to the infinity pool.  It looks out over a colossal body of water; Lake Argyle spans our entire existence.  For two hot and dusty travellers and an exasperated dog, it’s a sight for sore eyes. 

The Lake is so big it’s classified as an ‘inland sea.’  It’s 21 times the size of Sydney Harbour, and there are 70 islands studded across its surface.  On this side of the horizon I can only count three.  The water is warm, deep, and unusual for the area, it’s free from salt-water crocodiles and safe to swim!

Unlike most attractions in the Kimberley, Lake Argyle is man-made.    In the early 1960s, the WA government became aware of the Ord River’s irrigation potential.  They began damming the river, storing major reservoirs in the Ord River Valley at what are now known as Lakes Kununurra and Argyle.  Shortly after, one of Australia’s youngest towns, Kununurra, was gazetted, and the irrigation scheme began servicing 76,000 hectares of surrounding farmland. 

Long before it was called Lake Argyle, this river valley was a sacred place for 1000 generations of Miriwoong people.  It was an important trade route and traipsed its banks, exchanging ochre with cognate language groups.  They camped along the banks and crossed in dry places or along rocky bars.  Food supplies were bountiful: barramundi, wallaby, possums, catfish, water lilies. 

Much of the Ord River Valley was flooded by the irrigation scheme.  What are now Lakes Kununurra and Argyle were once sacred sites and burial grounds for the Miriwoong people, and significant areas of fundamental value to the Miriwoong people were inundated, or damaged by construction work.  The scheme laid the foundations for a thriving town, but transformed the social and economic structure of the region at the expense of its original inhabitants. 

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Apart from a legion of deadly animals, the Kimberley is home to an equally colourful variety of the human species.  The Kimberley has always attracted adventures, drifters and oddballs – the type of people who find it hard to settle into the conventional world – like Kimberley Spirit tour guide, Scotty Connell. 

Scott is a dedicated adventurer.  He’s facilitated military training in the Kimberley with the Nepalese Gurkhas, and regularly hikes into the bush in the inhospitable wet season with little more than a backpack and a mate.  In years of exploring, he’s come to known the Kimberley better than anyone else of European descent. He works to preserve one of the world’s ultimate wildernesses, and most ancient cultures, by exemplifying principals of sustainable tourism. 

“There is a certain spirit about the Kimberley.  It’s an ancient land like nowhere else; one of the few last remaining wildernesses on earth, and it’s here, right on our doorstep,” he says. 

“A lot of that stems from the people who have inhabited this region since forever.  All the history, the stories, knowledge, dreaming, all the different language groups and people.  It needs to be protected and preserved.  A big part of it is showcasing the cultural significance of the place, and empowering the Indigenous population to know their stories matter to us.”

In a vast and inaccessible region, Scott has united a legion of like-minded people through the power of Instagram.  He manages @thekimberleyaustralia, which has attracted over 150,000 followers, and he’s a leading figure in developing a sustainable economy that promotes, rather than exploits, the natural resources of the region.

“This online community has brought everyone together to realise we’re all working for one cause: to showcase this place and protect it; develop it sustainably and sustainably develop tourism,” he says.

“Now is the time to get good sustainable practices tourism practices in place, for our Indigenous brothers and sisters, as well as the Aboriginal ranger groups.  That’s the key to improving a lot of the social issues up here.  Get people working on-country, doing something that’s relevant to who they are and where they come from.” 

A kartiya, or non-indigenous person, Scott is well-versed in the historical and cultural knowledge of the region.  He teams up with Aboriginal elders and youth on his tours in to engage them in sustainable economic practices on-country, and share the true stories of the region with his guests.  . 

Scott grew up in Broome, where his mother ran an eco-tourism business.  He grew accustomed to an influx of tourists every dry season, and his curious and friendly nature attracted him to these people.  He considered it his duty to show them around his town, and soon, he realised his dream of becoming a tour guide. 

He’s since expanded his operation across the entire region, but despite having spent his whole life exploring, he admits he hasn’t even seen half of the Kimberley.   

“It’s just one of those places,” he says.   

“There is still that raw element of discovery.  It’s so big and so diverse that really, you need a lifetime to see it all.  It really is one of the world’s last unexplored wildernesses. ”

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