We were lucky. We got our flat as we drove into the Mount Barnett Roadhouse on Western Australia’s notorious Gibb River Road. Luckier still, three burly guys changed our tire, with dire warnings to get to the Over the Range service station to fix it, pronto. Otherwise, well … I guess that’s why our rented four-wheel drive came with a satellite phone, an emergency locator and 10 gallons of water.
My wife, Jean Marmoreo, and I wanted to experience one of the most remote places in the English-speaking world that non-explorers can navigate on their own: the Kimberley region, an area in the northwestern corner of Australia much bigger than Germany or Japan, with a population of just 50,000 people.
The Gibb is an iconic, tire-ripping gravel road that runs 650 kilometres through the region. In the May-through-October dry season, it’s hot and desolate. Still, your four-wheel drive better have an air-intake snorkel so it can ford the dozens of rivers you’ll cross. Oh, and watch out for the road trains, those linked trucks that can measure three times longer than the longest truck allowed in Canada and take three kilometres and clouds of blinding dust to pass. In the wet season, don’t even think of driving the Gibb. You’ll drown.
But unless you’re an Aboriginal, whose Walkabouts are both a young man’s rite of passage and a way of life, the only way to explore Kimberley is by this very bad road — or by air.
We did the latter first, taking the lay of the land from the sky before we set off down the Gibb on four wheels. To do that, we went to the jumping-off point for helitours in Kimberley: the HeliSpirit hangar in Kununurra.
“You from Canada, mate?” asks James Bondfield, our young helicopter pilot.
“Uh, yes, I am.” When we Canucks open our mouths in Australia, we’re almost always mistaken for Americans.
“I worked in Canada. Double-double?” says Bondfield, explaining that he had built up his flying hours in the oil sands in northern Alberta. He also flew in the forests of Papua New Guinea and Thailand before returning home and rising to be, at age 33, the chief pilot of a company whose 27 helicopters are opening Kimberley to visitors drawn to dramatic, relatively untouched landscapes.
During the next two days, Bondfield, like any great guide, takes us where we want to go, then shows us his own secret places there.We first picnic atop King George Falls in the Balanggarra Indigenous Protected Area, a 2.6-million hectare homeland of First Peoples in Australia and whose rock art, dating back to about 50,000 years ago, is drawing global attention.
Bondfield lands us near some caves covered in the ochre images of ancient plants and animals. Their brightness is barely faded despite tens of thousands of years of torrential weather. We crawl into crevices all afternoon, snap photos and return with shots of paintings that are among the oldest made by humans anywhere in the world.
From there, we fly to the Berkeley River Lodge, an 18-cabin eco-resort on the Kimberley Coast. The lodge’s remoteness, design and commitment to local cuisine echo that of Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn. Over dinner of grilled barramundi, Bondfield asks if we’ve had a chance to go fishing in Australia yet. With local rivers filled with “freshies” and “salties” (fresh and saltwater crocodiles, the former of which may attack you, while the latter will), no, we have not.
“Well, if you want to get up before sunrise tomorrow, I can fly you to my favourite fishing hole,” he tells us. And so, the next morning at dawn, we land on a ledge of a tributary of the Berkeley River, feeling safe in Bondfield’s charge. And it doesn’t matter that the one barramundi I hook gets away. What matters is the thrill of watching the sunrise over one of the most ancient landscapes on the planet.
The Gibb is an iconic tire-ripping gravel road that runs 650 kilometres through Western Australia. In the dry season, it’s hot. In the wet season, don’t even think about driving it.
Later that day, Bondfield drops us back in Kununurra, the starting point for our journey on the Gibb.
While drivers often carry two spares because tires get shredded, not just flattened, on the Gibb, the rental company we hire our four-wheel drive from assures us we’ll be fine with just one.
Three days later, we limp into Over the Range, the garage at the end of the universe. It looks like a junkyard, filled with hollowed-out tires and skeletons of cars. But owner Neville Hernon — who looks like the Mad Max of tire repair — lives on-site with his wife, Leonie Starnawski. Their leaflet, pinned up at every roadhouse along the Gibb, says: “Drop in to our depot for advice, have a look at our Wet Season photos, or just to say hello.”
As we wait for Hernon to fix our flat, we do have a look at those wet season photos. All the scraggly desert surrounding us was under water. Everywhere. Hernon soon approaches with a grim smile. “It’s USA, I’m afraid.”
We take that to be Australian for “SOL.” The tire has to be replaced. It takes him 15 minutes to do just that, hand me the credit card machine and charge me $385 for a used replacement tire. And so we continue to our next stop in Imintji, happy as clams that we had to drive only 20 kilometres to reach Hernon, and knowing the law of supply and demand is working perfectly in the Outback.
John Bennett appears the perfect Aussie Outback wrangler. Tall, dust-tanned, with tall leather boots that even the fangs of the local, lethal king brown snake couldn’t pierce.
“Howdy,” Bennett greets us. “How are y’all?”
Hmm … Aussie wranglers don’t talk that way. Texas cowboys do. It turns out that Bennett, CEO of the local Imintji Aboriginal Corporation and manager of a campsite and arts centre for tourists in Imintji, came to Australia in 2005 from Waco, Texas, where he had been a mining supervisor. Bennett was drawn to the area by the love of a woman. Of Cherokee descent, he understood first-hand the hardships of Indigenous people, and so in 2011 he started working for a group of Aboriginal tribes in the Kimberley area whose ancestors are believed to have been the first people in Western Australia. A big part of his job today as CEO of the Imintji tribal community is working with the regional and federal governments to make sure local Aboriginal Peoples, specifically the Imintji, Tirrilantji and Yulmbu, get the rights, grants and respect they’re entitled to.
Bennett and local artist Edna Dale are the public face of the rise of Aboriginal tourism in Western Australia. Dale is the daughter of community Elder Jac kDale, one of Australia’s most revered Aboriginal artists and a custodian of the folklore and stories of his people. Edna learned to paint at her father’s feet. Her work as an interpreter of ancient rock art is sold at the Imintji Art Centre and regional museums. The centre is both a gallery and a school — during our visit, half a dozen artists are at work, nearly all doing rock art.
That tradition is kept alive today through the Camping With Custodians program, which lets visitors stay on Aboriginal land and learn from locals — with camping fees staying in the community. During our time in this dusty little art-outpost near the middle of the Gibb, we run into a huge subculture of Australian travel known as “caravanning,” which is akin to RVing. The variety of vehicles and people we encounter along the Gibb — from wealthy retirees in super-deluxe caravans to impoverished students in beaten-up Volkswagen vans — speaks to its allure.
A few overnight at small campgrounds such as Imintji; many more at big ones like El Questro Station, which can hold 850 people. They may spend a week on the road or, as thousands do each year, they drive 15,000 kilometres along Highway 1, which rings the country.
Bennett is eager to get more of these caravans to stay overnight at Imintji. Not that it’s short on business. Most everyone on the Gibb stops there for gas and drinks — and maybe to buy some art.
As we rattle away from Imintji and on to Derby, the coastal town with the highest tides in Australia and the end of the Gibb River Road, we wonder if Aboriginal tourism in the region can continue to prosper as it serves time starved, demanding Westerners like us.
Bennett was certain that it can. “It’s easy to think Aboriginals and tourists have nothing in common, except curiosity for the tourists and paying work for the Aboriginals,” he’d told us. “Sure, it starts that way, but I’ve seen it grow into real mutual respect.”