The Kimberley is the northernmost region of Western Australia, tucked between the Indian Ocean and the Northern Territory. It is rugged and harsh, and very sparsely populated with only a handful of towns spread over an area slightly smaller than Sweden, but it also contains some impressive scenery, National Parks and even a lake. This lake, Lake Argyle, was our first stop in Western Australia and our first detour as we left the highway for a while to climb gently up through the red rocks, stopping at the Lake Argyle Resort, perched in a pretty spot overlooking the lake. There are several ways to ‘experience’ the lake, from helicopter rides to taking a dip in the infinity pool, but we couldn’t find a way to walk down the steep bush-covered slope to actually get down to see the water in person, so after enjoying the view for a bit we headed on back to the highway to the town of Kununurra.
I should stress at this point that although ‘highway’ is technically the right word, the Victoria Highway, which runs from Katherine to just past Kununurra, and the Great Northern Highway, which goes from there to just beyond Port Hedland, are not what I would think of as highways. They are mostly single lane roads with a hard shoulder of hard orange dust, and the occasional two-lane overtaking section. They are well-maintained though and very easy to drive, and wide enough for any campervan – they’d have to be to accommodate the road trains, huge trucks pulling two, three or even more trailer loads. They’re pretty intimidating and can throw you off guard when one comes blaring towards you while you’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the empty road.
Not that the road is that empty really; the Kimberley is a popular location for Grey Nomads and other campervan enthusiasts, and there are all manner of 4x4s, minivans and caravans on the road – not enough to make it a ‘busy’ road but enough that you rarely go more than a few minutes without seeing another vehicle. The question then is whether the drivers of the cars passing in the other direction are nice people or not, i.e. whether they return the ‘driver’s wave’, as you lift your hand marginally from the steering wheel to acknowledge their presence, and to give your hand something to do. This is what passes the time on these roads…
After making a lunch stop in Kununurra, a pleasant town that was bigger than I expected and surprisingly busy, we carried on driving through the afternoon until we reached our stop for the night on the edge of the Bungle Bungle National Park. Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the Bungle Bungles (or Purnululu) themselves, a rock formation comprising collection of huge stratified beehive-shaped lumps, as it takes a whole day to visit them, so we had to be content with staying in the caravan park on the edge of the National Park. It was fantastically remote and wild, with no lighting and few cooking facilities; the toilet and shower blocks were open-topped basic cubicles of corrugated metal, open to the sky. The stars were awesome.
The third day of the road trip started a little later, as we had been making good time, and we spent the day driving through the flat plains towards Derby, passing through the towns of Hall’s Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. These were the kind of strange, slightly creepy places that I had been expecting, with quite a lot of housing but very few businesses or obvious employment sources. It makes me wonder what the people here actually do, as there’s very little tourism in the towns themselves and there obviously aren’t any cities or bigger towns nearby to commute to. Apart from a supermarket and a primary school, and one or two other bits and pieces, I couldn’t see much that would actually support the population. Fitzroy Crossing particularly had an intensely quiet, ghost town feel about it; I could barely imagine living there, let alone growing up there.
That evening we arrived in Derby (to rhyme with Furby), a decent sized town by the sea. Walking along the tidal mudflats to the wharf it felt like weeks since I’d been near the sea, and I had to remind myself that it had only been three days since I had watched the sunset at the Mindil Beach Market in Darwin. Driving through the bush had had that effect I think, seeing nothing but dust and rock and bush almost makes you forget you were ever near the sea. I can easily imagine how it sent some of the early pioneers into insanity, even before you take dehydration and hunger into account. Back at the caravan park we were treated to a free concert from an Irish guy who has lived in Australia for many years. He serenaded the Grey Nomad audience with his songs (complete with backing track) about the beauty of nature and how the sun shines in the children’s faces, with song titles like ‘Kununurra Man’ and ’90k’s from Darwin’. It was like a cross between an old people’s home and Butlin’s.
The town of Derby is built on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by reedy mudflats and then the sea. As such the town centre stops abruptly on these sides giving way to a vast flat space and lots of sky. It’s really very pretty and we spent the next morning looking around. For a small town it has an interesting history and care has been taken to preserve some of its historical features. This includes the old gaol, a ramshackle, open-sided tin hut which housed aboriginal prisoners in terrible conditions from 1906 until 1975. We also visited the Prison Tree on the edge of town, so called because it was a stopping point for aboriginal prisoners who were being brought to Derby for punishment or forced labour from more rural areas. The tree is a Boab tree, which have important spiritual significance in Aboriginal culture, and they are pretty cool trees. The species dates back 170 million years, while some individual trees are known to be over 1000 years old, and they look very distinctive. The trunks grow outwards, rather than upwards, becoming bulbous and swollen as they get older, but the branches remain relatively small. The tree is resistant to fire and as it grows the trunk becomes hollow inside. Like so many Australian plants and animals, they look a bit ‘not quite right’, like a child’s drawing of a tree, but they’re very nice all the same.
Driving into Broome, with its international airport, street lights, and defined parking spaces, was like landing back on Earth after a trip to space. We were back in civilisation, albeit still hundreds of miles from the nearest city, and I was ready for a bit of rest and relaxation.