Having conquered the Kimberley by sea and by sky, it’s time to test our mettle like most tourists do in these parts – by 4X4. We have a bit of a problem, though. The Gibb River Road, that iconic stretch of dirt road that runs between Kununurra and Derby, is still closed after the big wet. There is worse news: a tropical low forming off the Tiwi Islands is threatening to bulk up into a cyclone as it passes over Darwin. So threatening, in fact, that the guys from Cannon Charters have cancelled their next trip.
Rather than waiting in a motel eating pizza in our pyjamas, we make the most of the good-weather window, exploring some of the national parks closer to Darwin. Most are only accessible by 4X4. The Gibb also features deep, sandy river crossings and endless corrugations, so a 4X4 is a compulsory accessory. We opt for a 2.8L turbo diesel Toyota Hilux from Australian 4WD Hire. These rigs come kitted out with all the camping and 4×4 gear you need. Ours has all the bells and whistles, including a TJM awning and rooftop tent, camping chairs, table, stove, jerry cans, first aid kit, recovery kit and detailed Hema maps. To take on the corrugations it has an upgraded suspension system and all-terrain tyres – the perfect carriage with which to tour the Kimberley on rubber…
DON’T GO CHASING WATERFALLS
First item on the agenda is Kakadu National Park, a few potholes down the road from Darwin. Sadly for us, the big wet had closed the big-ticket destinations like Jim Jim and Twin Falls Gorge. We’re offered another scenic flight, but word comes through from HQ that The Captain’s treasure chest is drying up and we’ll have to stick to land-based slithering. Never mind, we slide into the hiking boots and check out some incredible Aboriginal rock art. The fishing options are plentiful in Kakadu, every causeway occupied by someone flicking a lure.
Then it’s south to Katherine and Litchfield National Park to ogle the massive Edith Falls. We also get dwarfed by the 4m-high Cathedral Termite Mounds, snorkel with sooty grunter at Katherine Gorge and soak our weary bones in the Bitter Springs thermal pools. The snorkel also comes in handy here – the water is crystal clear!
BERTIE THE BUSHMAN
Cruising through town looking for a caramel soy milkshake for Millie, the phone crackles into life. “You in Kununurra?” comes the familiar bark of Macca (aka Anthony McDonald from Red Desert Tours). “You’ve gotta catch up with a South African buddy of mine called Bertie. He’s the best bushman I know, an ex-pro hunter who can kill and skin a croc with his bare hands!” I have to meet this bloke, so I grab his number and tap it in the phone while Millie slurps away.
“Hi, erm, is this Bertie the croc-peeling bushman?” I squeak.
“Yes, who’s this”, comes the heavily accented reply.
“My name is Jack Murphy, I’m trav…”
Bertie interrupts, “Listen, I’m filleting 100kg of Spanish mackerel at the moment. Meet me at the tavern at 5pm.”
Before I could say “Yes Mr Kill-Everything-in-Sight”, he hangs up. It was yet another Wild West moment – wild enough for Millie to stop chugging her milkshake and stare at me wide-eyed, probably looking for reassurance we wouldn’t be skinned alive!
At the appointed hour, we tentatively enter the tavern, half expecting to be leaving as a decorative rug for Bert’s floor. To prove my virility I puff my chest out, strut to the bar and order the darkest beer on tap. Then I wait. A few minutes later, a bloke with a lean frame and Croc sandals sits down at the table, lemon lime and bitters in hand.
“You must be Jack. I’m Bertie. I love The Captain,” he says with a friendly smile. Fears abate and we share tales and sweet drinks for an hour or so before he offers a run in his tinny. Hell, yeah!
When I arrive at the boat ramp, Bertie is already on the water with a crew of three dogs raring to go. His platey console is well worn, hinting at epic battles with crocs, barra and wild boar. The T-top is held in place by an orange ratchet strap after a collision with an overhanging tree left it a little the worse for wear. It’s the boat for the job, though, with a big casting deck and wide gunwales. There’s no sounder, just a steering wheel and, surprisingly, a shiny new Suzuki 115HP four-banger on the back.
Cruising up the Upper Ord River, Bertie words me up on the aquaculture of the region. “It’s a very healthy system,” he says. “In fact, I was involved in stocking the river with barra.” You bewdy, it’s going to be a turkey shoot. “A spot of barra fishing?” I enquire.
“Nah mate, we’re going catfishing today. They’re massive in here – tasty and damn fun to catch.” Not knowing if he’s joking or not, I just smile and nod, glancing at the bone-handled knife hanging from his belt for onlya few seconds.
Upriver, the Ord scenery becomes more dramatic. The river narrows, then twists and turns beneath huge orange cliffs, their reflection perfectly mirrored on the still water before being shattered by our wake. We arrive at Jump Rock and tie the boat to a tree before hurling a cast net at a couple of unsuspecting giant glassfish. “Excellent cattie bait.” Bertie remarks.
The fish look like they’d be more at home in an aquarium than pinned to a rusty 6/0 hook, but Bertie has other things in mind. He places the rod in a makeshift rod holder fashioned from rocks and trees. Five minutes later, it’s wrenched by a solid cattie. After a sporting fight with long, fast runs, the ugliest fish I’ve ever seen bobs to the surface, gut protruding like an overinflated balloon.
“Oh, what a beauty!” Bertie shouts before scooping the blackand- white blob from the water and hoisting it up for a photo.
We leave Bertie with a firm handshake. He’d suggested we visit Purnululu National Park, home of the Bungle Bungle range and only a half-day’s drive from Kununurra. The mountains look like giant beehives on Nat Geo documentaries, but seeing them in the raw is way more impressive. The Bungle Bungle region has serious cultural significance to the Aboriginal people, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the rest of the world fully appreciated its beauty when a documentary film projected the area into lounge rooms around the world. Interest peaked and in 1987, Purnululu became a National Park; then, in 2003, a World Heritage site.
Getting to the Bungle Bungles is a challenge – a bunch of river crossings and a rocky 4×4 section with a few thousand corrugations thrown in. We pick a campsite then kit up for some cool walks. Over two days we hike to the Domes, Cathedral Gorge, the Window, Whip Snake Gorge, Mini Palms Gorge and Echidna Chasm.
BROOME OR BROKE
We depart the Bungles heading for the Gibb, which had only just opened. First stop is El Questro Wilderness Park, where we visit Emma Gorge, Zebedee Springs, Saddleback Ridge and one of the most spectacular destinations, El Questro Gorge – where I hike for three hours with heavy camera gear only to discover the battery is flat. Dang!
Continuing along the Gibb, we hit the Pentecost River – a crossing I’d been dreading for weeks. It is 60m wide with strong currents and can’t be walked to check the depth as there are too many salties lurking about. We get there at low tide as planned, it doesn’t look too bad, so we plough through – a cinch for our hearty Hilux!
Next stop is Mount Barnett Roadhouse in the King Leopold Ranges, where we get whacked $2 for a litre of diesel, in fairness pretty standard along the Gibb. Our campsite is near Manning Gorge, which has a massive waterfall that caresses the shoulders of weary travellers while filling up their souls. We also visit the nearby Galvans and Adcock gorges – both are spectacular.
To our surprise, the Gibb has been pretty tame, the road in good nick with a few sealed sections. There are a few livestock hazards, including wandering cattle that seem to enjoy playing, er, chicken with TJM bull bars.
FROM BUSH TO BEACH
Soaked to the bone with freshwater waterholes, we opt for a salty alternative, motoring on to Broome to reacquaint ourselves with electricity, hot showers and fresh veggies, fill our bellies and charge the camera batteries. Next stop is the Dampier Peninsula, towards Cape Leveque.
The road is tedious, seriously dusty and heavily corrugated, but totally worth it once we arrive at Kooljaman, a remote wilderness camp owned by the indigenous Bardi Jawi communities. Vivid blue water laps white sandy beaches bordered by red rock cliffs. And it doesn’t just look good – you can swim here without fear of stingers or salties.
There is no Bertie, Metre Mike or Tricky Nick to put me onto the barra in these parts, so I’m left to my own fishing devices. Grabbing a bag of pilchards, I trundle down to the beach and lob bait into the blue. The Hail Mary session is a winner. Little golden trevally, GTs, sharks and a cracker cobia are stars in my mini fishing festival. We spend the next few days exploring underwater and ticking off some bucket-list fish, even snagging my first bluebone (Venus tuskfish) on stinky old squid. It’s one of the prettiest fish I’ve ever seen and the perfect exclamation mark for our Kimberley expedition.
THE LAST FRONTIER
The Kimberley is remote, hot, dusty and unforgiving, but that’s part of the attraction. Once you get past its raw and rugged exterior, you’ll discover an amazing ecosystem made up of rock formations, powerful waterfalls, gorges, crystal-clear waterholes and ancient Aboriginal history. And did I mention the damn good fishing? Malcolm Douglas certainly did. Good on ya Malcolm, I’m bloody glad you did. The Captain salutes you.
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