THE KIMBERLEY 2018
A road journey from BROOME WA to DARWIN, NT
MAY 31 - JUNE 13, 2018
'I found myself drawn to the remote Kimberley region of Australia -
in the far Northwest corner of the country -
our last frontier'
In June, 2018, we travelled to Broome, Western Australia to attend a wedding. It is the 'dry season' in the top end, so our days were delightfully warm, which was a nice break from the Melbourne winter. Not wanting to see an opportunity pass us by, we decided to extend our trip by driving to Darwin on the National Highway. The road trip was an amazing experience. The scenery was spectacular as we drove from the west coast to the north coast. We saw millions of baobab trees and termite mounds, red rocks, huge lakes, crocodiles, and the mystical Katherine Gorge before arriving in Darwin. We also took a day drip from Darwin to visit the Litchfield National Park. Of course, no road trip is quite long enough, and a few more days in Kununurra and Katherine would have been good.
DAY ONE: BROOME
THURSDAY, MAY 31, 2018
Highlights: a funeral and a sunset
Total distance: 0 kms
Accommodation: Bayside Holiday Apartments, Cnr Hammersley & Anne Streets, Broome WA 6725
We had arrived in Broome yesterday ahead of a wedding to be held tomorrow night. This is our first visit to Broome, and my first visit to Western Australia, so I'm looking forward to exploring this northwestern region.
The coastline is amazing; our evening visit to Gantheaume Point, a promontory about six kilometres from the town, reveals outcrops of ancient red Broome sandstone. Deposited in shallow water about 130 million years ago, the sandstone exposes footprints of dinosaurs and plant fossils for those with the time to explore this raw landscape. Although it is very low tide when we arrive at the point, we don't see footprints, but we see many tiny creatures in rock pools. Intricate patterns made up of tiny balls created by sand bubbler crabs extend across the wet, firm sand. When the high tide comes in, the patterns disappear and the whole process starts again. As the sun descends beyond the horizon, the colours of the clouds; grey upon a bright orange sky provide a display so breathtakingly beautiful that I cannot believe that perhaps I've never witnessed a true glorious sunset.
We are trying to see as much of the coastal town of Broome as possible over the next few days. The June wedding of a friend's son in northern Western Australia, provides the perfect diversion from the cold Melbourne winter, and we enjoy feeling the warmth of the sun on out skin for the first time in months. Our hotel is probably about a kilometre from the town centre and the walk into the main shopping area gives us the chance to look familiarise ourselves with the layout.
Broome has a long pearling history, starting in the 1880s, when mother-of-pearl was harvested primarily for making buttons and other fashion notions. During this period, indigenous women, Japanese, and Pacific Islanders had been indentured for pearl diving. Today, the industry is tightly controlled and pearls as well as tourism are the two industries that provide Broome's income.
Sand dunes overlooking the bubbling mudflats entice us to walk to the peaks of the shifting sands for a better view. At low tide, the flats provide one of the best tourist attractions Broome can offer. The view over the mangroves and the Indian Ocean beyond is magnificent on this bright, sunny morning.
It's a perfect place for removing shoes and wiggling toes into the hot sand. But unfortunately we cannot. There is a huge amount of broken glass on top of and most likely buried beneath the sand. It's scattered with shells, stones, and driftwood and posing a threat to our feet. This should be a pristine area, because the views are magnificent. I feel disappointed as we return to the footpath and resume our walk into town.
The Pearl Luggers museum is a fascinating insight into the history of the pearl industry in Broome. We take a tour through the pages of history as our guide describes life during the era of human pearl divers. The fully-restored lugger inside the museum grounds provides an actual-sized view of the boats used in the industry. Tom tries on a diving helmet as the process of diving for the pearls is described, and comments on how heavy it is. We spend a short time inside the Willie Creek pearl store, oohing and ahhing over the magnificent specimens on show.
After lunch, we enter a recently-constructed gateway built of Broome sandstone. Stones in neat straight lines stand like sentinels, facing west; facing the ocean. A plaque, set in the local sandstone, tells of the history of the final resting place of Broome’s Japanese community, who had arrived in Broome in the late 19th century to work as pearl divers. Along with Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, and Aboriginal people, Broome had a diverse ethnic population, but it was the Japanese who are best known for diving into the depths of the ocean to collect the oyster shells for the early pearlers. Diving was fraught with perils; sharks, stingrays, and swordfish, which could easily pierce the breathing hoses connecting the diver to his trusted assistant on the boat above. The main cause of death among the divers, however, was paralysis or the bends, caused by rising from deep water too quickly. The first interment in this cemetery had been in 1896 and there are now 707 graves in which 919 people are buried. I walk between the natural stones, all of which bear Japanese script. Some of the older graves are weathered, their stones tilted and the characters barely discernible, whilst others are missing altogether. There are a number of newer, black granite markers, which seem to be a little out of place here in this quietly reverent place. Beneath my feet, white pebbles mixed with shells from the beach beyond the scrubby vegetation, crunch beneath my feet. Loud squawks disturb the quiet-reverence of the cemetery as a cloud of white cockatoos rise from a gum trees. A sandstone obelisk bears the names of those lost during the cyclone of 1908. Despite the sad reality that many of these itinerant workers had been unable to return to Japan, the western outlook of the graves forever face the direction of their homeland. I hope that their descendants understand that the bravery of these workers is very much intertwined with the history of Western Australia and its pearling industry.
Beyond the Japanese cemetery, there is a narrow path that leads to the Broome general cemetery. Here, in Christian tradition, the graves are facing an easterly direction. In other words the headstones of the two sections are facing away from each other.
Up ahead, there is a crowd of people gathered in a small fenced-off section of the cemetery; the final resting place of the Sisters of Saint John of God. The Sisters of Saint John of God first arrived in Perth in 1895. They had set up a convent in Perth before setting up schools in the Kimberley, most notably at the Beagle Bay Mission, the Lombadina Mission, and the Wirrumanu (Balgo Hills) Mission, amongst others. The nuns are, without a doubt, some of the most respected missionaries in this region.
A funeral is just about to begin. People are gathered around the freshly-dug grave as the Bishop and his young seminarian arrive. The brief graveside ceremony for Sister Veronica McCarthy concludes as her coffin is gently lowered into the ground. I expect the usual prayers and blessing before everyone departs, so I'm both surprised and intrigued at what happens next. A queue is formed and one by one, the attendees take a handful of the rich, dark-red soil from the adjacent pile and drop the earth into the grave. As the last person brushes their red-stained hands over the grave, the first decade of the rosary is started. Men step forward, each picking up a spade, and begin to shovel the soil from the huge pile into the grave. At first I think this was a symbolic gesture, but it quickly becomes apparent that the men will continue to shovel, in tag teams, until the grave is filled and the earth replaced. Whilst the men work, the droning of the rosary continues in the background. After about twenty minutes and as the last spadefuls of red earth are flung onto the mound and to the strains of Hail Queen of Heav'n, the ladies move forward, reverently tamping down the mound with their bare hands. Handprints are stamped firmly into the soil before the children move forward with plastic flowers, which are poked into the grave as the Bishop recites the final prayer. Goosebumps rise from my skin as I witness one of the most beautiful and poignant burials in my experience. Here is an example of the love and respect offered a member of the Broome community; the last gesture they generously give to a beloved person. I later ask whether this ceremony is restricted to members of the church, but I'm assured that all burials are carried out in this manner. I look back at the brightly-decorated grave and feel privileged to have witnessed such a beautiful ceremony.
The sun is starting to descend as we leave the cemetery, so we decide to visit the famous Cable Beach to view the sunset. We arrive too late to see the camels take their evening walk along the beach, but from our vantage point in the dunes, we feel very much part of the landscape as the sun slips silently below the horizon. We all know that the sun sets in the west, but now that we are here in Western Australia, we can fully appreciate the daily display by the sun.
There is another utterly magnificent natural phenomenon, which I will describe tomorrow, and which is unique to Broome.
DAY TWO: BROOME
FRIDAY, JUNE 01, 2018
Highlights: A wedding and a staircase to the moon
Total distance: 0 kms
Accommodation: Bayside Holiday Apartments, Cnr Hammersley & Anne Streets, Broome WA 6725
Why has it taken us so long to visit Broome? This is the perfect break from the Melbourne winter and unfortunately we have a limited time here due to other commitments. It's also a perfect day for a wedding.
Our Lady Queen of Peace Cathedral is probably the most understated cathedral we've ever visited. There's not a huge amount of information about this iconic church, but the current building, designed by Perth architect Stan Costello in 1963, replaced the much smaller timber church built in 1899. The standout feature of the church, apart from its unusual belltower, is the magnificent pearl inlay work on the altar.
We're surprised to see the Bishop and the same assistant that we had seen yesterday at the cemetery today, but I find out later that despite this diocese covering 773,000 square kilometres, these are the only two clergy members in town, so it's not unexpected that they would oversee a funeral one day and a wedding the next.
The reception, held at the magnificent Mangrove Hotel, which overlooks Roebuck Bay, had been selected for its unhindered view of the Staircase to the Moon display, which is caused by a full moon rising over the exposed mudflats of Roebuck Bay at extremely low tides, creating a beautiful optical illusion of a staircase reaching to the moon. It occurs March to October for three nights every month. Apparently June 1, provides the best view of this natural display, which is why the wedding reception is held outdoors in this iconic hotel.
As the moon peeps out from the horizon, the plaintive sounds of a lone didgeridoo player reduce the hum of human voices to whispers as they turn to the bumpy mudflats. The moon rises slowly and silently, it's orange light reflected on the shiny mud, where the tide recently receded. If we had been closer to the mudflats, I'm sure we would be able to hear the sucking and plopping noises of the tiny creatures that live in this habitat. But from where we are, standing by the hotel fenceline, we could not ask for a better view. The sand dunes that we climbed yesterday may give a better view due to the slightly-elevated position. I'm not disappointed, though. The didgeridoo's sounds die away as the moon creeps up to a point where it's reflection disappears and the brief show is over for the night. It would be a shame to visit Broome and not coincide the visit with this magnificent display.
Tomorrow is our last day in Broome and we must visit the last of the attractions, like Chinatown and the Sun picture theatre before we being on our road trip to Darwin.
DAY FOUR: BROOME TO FITZROY CROSSING
SUNDAY, JUNE 3, 2018
Total distance: 396 kms
Accommodation: Fitzroy River Lodge, Fitzroy Crossing, WA
Yesterday's low-key day had been deliberate, as our road trip to Darwin will see us driving through some of the most remote terrain in Australia. With towns located approximately a 'tank of petrol' apart, it is better to be on the road early, so that we have the luxury of being able to stop for photos whenever we see something interesting.
However, the sun is starting to descend by the time we leave Broome.
A mix-up with our hire car.
A monumental stuff-up finds us car-less, despite having booked it some months ago. The weird thing about the whole situation is the apparent disappearance of the manager of Europcar, who left a car-washer, a maintenance person, in charge of the booth. Heads will roll later, but first we must get moving as we have about four hours to drive before we arrive at our first stop, and I want to arrive before dusk.
Not long after leaving the town, it becomes apparent that wide-open-spaces mean just that here and there is a long distance between towns in this region. We must be vigilant with refuelling the car and ensuring we have plenty of water. We are not in Victoria or New South Wales, with relatively short distances between towns. Fortunately we had already planned on using the Great Northern Highway for this roadtrip, so the 2WD we ended up with after hours of wrangling with the car-washer at Europcar, will be adequate for the trip. We realise later that this mixup may work to our advantage as we have no time for side exploration on this trip. Our tight timing is probably to our disadvantage.
Broome quickly gives way to scrubby vegetation and the red Kimberley sand extends to the horizon in front of us. Before long, we see anthills; small skinny spires, fat wrinkly ones that look like large Buddhas sitting in quiet contemplation, and everything in between. Jokers have personified some, dressing them in t-shirts and other human garments. There are literally millions of them, and they are the ones that are visible. Goodness knows how many are beyond what my eye can see.
Termites live in communities, comprising kings, queens, workers, and soldiers. They spend their entire lives building these hard-crusted palaces from the soil, their saliva and excreta. The colours range from red to brown, depending on the colour of the soil surrounding them. I notice that many of the mounds are built at the base of trees. Perhaps this is done to provide shade during the hottest parts of the day. The outer crust is as hard as concrete.
Despite the sparse vegetation, the boab tree grows through the Kimberley region of Western Australia to Northern Territory. It grows in other parts of Australia, but I would be hard-pressed to find a place where so many of them are found in one place. The bulbous trunks of the trees store water, which sustains them during long dry periods. Obviously, despite being quite arid out here, there must have been enough rainfall as most of these trees are fat, although this is the dry season. Although baobabs are found in Africa, the adansonia gregorii variety is only found in Australia. Due to our late departure from Broome, we are unable to detour to Derby, where a huge and hollow boab tree had reputably been used as a prison. The boabs are deciduous, and whilst many surrounding me are leafless, I am able to see that gourd-shaped fruit are still attached to some leaves. Local aborigines use parts of the tree for food, water, and for medicinal purposes. Even the gourds have been used as water carriers; their watertight properties provide perfect vessels for carrying water. Some of these trees are so huge and knobbly, they may be over 1,000 years old, although I'm disappointed to see that many have been vandalised - even this far away from the nearest town. Like tattoos, names and crude drawings scratched into their trunks never disappear.
We are travelling in an easterly direction as the sun sets behind us. I have to stop to take a photo of the silhouette of the boab tree in front of the orange and purple sky. We arrive in Fitzroy Crossing in the dark, so we have no time for exploring the township today.
DAY FIVE: FITZROY CROSSING TO HALLS CREEK
MONDAY, JUNE 4, 2018
Total distance: 290 kilometres
Accommodation: Halls Creek Motel , 198 Great Northern Hwy, Halls Creek WA 6770
Today's journey is a reasonable 290 kilometres and could easily be covered in three hours. We choose to start out a little later, because although it's warm enough, it's not too hot to travel during the middle of the day.
The kangaroos lie lazily on the grass below the boab trees on the grassy area of the Fitzroy River Lodge, where we had stayed last night. We also take a walk along the main road, back to the bridge, under which the Fitzroy River flows. The river bed is a little sandy, but I think we are still fairly close to the coastline and perhaps there is enough water here.
As we leave the township behind us, the boabs disappear and the landscape changes radically. The flat, red savannah-style grasslands are left behind as we head east towards the Great Sandy Desert. Before long, red monoliths appear in the distance. Tectonic movement is evident in the wave-like formation of these huge hills, while intermittent rocky outcrops of almost-black granite hoodoos show the ravages of wind in their deep crevices.
Tussocks of spinifex and grasses form the general vegetation species of the region, whilst the occasional copse of short-growing eucalyptus trees indicate that water is not too far beneath the surface. Some of these trees are in magnificent bloom.
Winter, or the dry season, coincides with the annual back-burn, which is done by dropping incendiary devices into selected areas from the air. One such burn has been done recently, and despite the denuding of vegetation from the small targetted area, we know that the Australian native flora regenerates quickly and that the burning is necessary for the dispersion and germination of seeds, which are encased in pods so hard that only fire can penetrate their outer shell.
We decide to detour to the Mimbi Caves for a look, but when the compacted gibber road is replaced by a red sandy track, we reluctantly turn back as our hired 2WD vehicle is not equipped for these roads. With a curse expelled into the direction of Europcar, we find a shady spot under one of the sparse trees and have our lunch surrounded by the wonders of our natural setting.
When you are standing insignificantly in the largeness of the landscape, it's easy to miss the myriad of colour and variety of the tiny native plants that thrive in the cracks of the gibber. Little soil here, tiny flowering plants struggle to bloom in this harsh, dry environment. The profusion and colour varieties is probably a result of recent rains. The gibber surface allows water to filter through to the layer beneath, providing life to seeds that have fallen through the cracks. Today, I concentrate on those small plants, which have adapted to this environment and yet provide the beauty of any cultivated plant.
We've taken our time today, stopping often and marvelling at the wide open spaces we have here in this beautiful landscape, whilst celebrating the tiny and colourful elements that make this region unique. The time we spend exploring is precious. It takes us twice as long to cover the distance to Hall's Creek, but nobody is complaining.
DAY FIVE: HALLS CREEK TO KUNUNURRA
TUESDAY, JUNE 5, 2018
Total distance: 379 kilometres
Accommodation: Discovery Parks Kununurra - Lakeview Dr, Kununurra WA 6743
We are advised not to leave the main road with the car we have, so there is a level of disappointment as we join the main highway which will carry us in a north-easterly direction for the next four hours or so. I had planned on taking a detour to the Bungle Bungle National Park, but again, since the road is largely unmade once we turn off the highway, our 2WD is probably not well-enough equipped. This is the biggest difference between the excellently appointed National Parks in the United States of America and ours. Australia-wide, we have too many so-called National Parks, which means that funding for parks such as that of the Bungle-Bungles or Purnululu is stretched very thinly.
It takes only a few minutes to realise that we are driving into a geologist's idea of heaven. We are now surrounded by a ring of rocky mountains, which remind me of my travels through Utah and Colorado last year. The rocks are almost the same colour and again, I marvel at the way in which the elements have carved the rocks into unique natural sculptures.
We see the return of the boabs and the anthills today; the rocky gibber surface obviously providing more nutrients than in the southwestern region of yesterday.
We also see fauna today; in the form of a family of brumbies sheltering beneath the shade of boabs, which have sprouted in the dry March Fly Creek bed. Quietly sneaking up for photos, I'm surprised to see that they are unperturbed about the subtle human intrusion, as I snap them from a distance.
Today's journey is a joy. The road is good, the weather warm but not too hot, and the brilliant blue sky provides us with perfect travelling conditions. So far, this journey has provided us with far more than we had expected.
We arrive in the larger centre of Kununurra in the late afternoon, and after making arrangements to take two tours tomorrow, we retire to our cabin by the lake and enjoy the purple and yellow skies of a Western Australia sunset over the lake.
DAY SIX: KUNUNURRA
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 6, 2018
Highlights: Bungle-Bungles by air, Lake Argyle
Accommodation: Discovery Parks Kununurra - Lakeview Dr, Kununurra WA 6743