Kimberley Wilderness Adventure in Australia
Join Magic Carpet Journals fellow travellers, Heather and Barry Minton, as they take you on A Wilderness Adventure into Australia’s vast northwestern wilderness known as “The Top End”Story and Photos courtesy of Heather and Barry Minton
The north of the Australian continent is commonly known as “The Top End” and is a vast wilderness, sparsely populated, with an occasional cattle station that can be thousands of miles in area. The country is dry and arid for most of the year.
There are only two seasons in this area “The Dry Season” and “The Wet Season.” The Dry Season (which is the main tourist season) is from April to October when temperatures are around 300 Celsius during the day and 00 Celsius at night. “The Wet” begins in October-November, when storm clouds gather in the bright blue sky and violent thunder storms sweep over the area on an almost daily basis. The deluge of water runs off the hillsides in vast waterfalls and collects in the creeks and rivers, roaring through the gorges hundreds of feet high. The few roads that there are become completely impassable, the temperature can be up to 500 Celsius with up to100% humidity. Tempers fray in the uncomfortable conditions and people can sometimes “go Troppo” (stir crazy)!
We booked our 15 day trip with Australian Pacific Touring, traveling from Darwin to Broome (4,500 kilometres – only one set of traffic lights in the town of Katherine) and hardly an intersection (there just aren’t that many places you can go in this part of Australia.) We decided to travel mid July, the coolest time, when the floods have died down and the roads are repaired and have become reasonably passable. However, vast areas are still only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
We were picked up from our Darwin hotel at 6am by Tim our driver/guide – 26 years old and very knowledgeable on the areas we were to travel and the aboriginal cultures that we would experience. (When he takes a break from his job his favourite pastime is bushwalking and camping in the wilderness so he was very enthusiastic about our trip)!
Our coach, a 20 seat four-wheel-drive Mercedes Benz, custom built very high to traverse the rough roads and ford the rivers (no bitumen or bridges where we are going) was very comfortable. It was fully equipped with toilet facilities and self contained with fresh cold drinking water, picnic equipment and even a hot water urn. As we left Darwin heading for Kakadu National Park we passed around a microphone and introduced ourselves. We soon became firm friends with the other passengers, mostly retirees – 5 English, 2 Swiss and 11 other Australians.
KAKADU NATIONAL PARK
Our two nights in Kakadu were in comfortable motel style accommodation. Kakadu is a hot and humid tropical area about 60 kilometres from the coast. In the wet season the water thunders down from an escarpment and floods a large area that millions of years ago was an inland sea. As it recedes it forms wetlands, which are home to an abundance of wildlife.
We were able to access most of the scenic places in the area. We cruised the East Alligator river and visited Ubirr, Nourlangie and Naguluwur rock art sites to view the Aboriginal art done by the local Warramal people thousands of years ago, and heard some of their dreamtime stories.
We then went on a scenic sunset cruise through the wetlands, to see the abundance of wildlife, mostly numerous species of birds and saltwater crocodiles.
After two days in Kakadu we commenced our trek westward and stayed at a comfortable motel in the small town of Katherine. The next day we had a tasty hot breakfast at sunrise while cruising through the towering red cliffs of Katherine Gorge, before continuing on to the small town of Kununurra, the eastern gateway to the Kimberley region.
THE KIMBERLEY REGION
The Kimberley Region in Western Australia is 421,000 sq. kilometres in area, comparable in size to California and about three times the size of England. It has a population of 38,000 and extends from Kununurra to Broome.
After a night spent in Kununurra in another comfortable motel, we headed to the Bungle Bungle range (or Purnululu – the Aboriginal name – National Park) settling in to the first of our wilderness camps. APT have a number of camps in the region on land rented from the Aborigines. They pride themselves on everything being “Eco friendly” – the whole camp is packed up and removed at the start of the wet season, all waste (including human waste) is removed and the land left ‘as found’.
Facilities were very basic, with low voltage electricity (no hairdryers or electric shavers). The tents were spacious, and at the Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge were complete with toilets and showers (hot – most of the time!). Timber floors and full sized single beds with lots of warm bedding made it luxury indeed!
The food was good – but not a la carte – generous serves of roast or BBQ meats and Barramundi (the delicious fish found in abundance in this area), complemented with salads, vegetables and fresh fruits. The simple desserts were well presented and considering the basic facilities that the staff used, everything was excellent.
However, at the Imintji Camp the facilities were communal – the toilet (in particular) was a talking point!
BUNGLE BUNGLE RANGES
The Bungle Bungle Range is so remote that it was not photographed until 1985. One of the world’s great natural wonders, the scenery here is stunning. The spectacular “beehive” shaped sandstone domes with a “tiger stripe” effect of red/gold and black have been developed by water and wind erosion over millions of years.
From now on the temperatures were much more comfortable during the day but very cold at night. We awoke on our first morning at 6 am to a zero temperature, our hands shaking so hard with cold we could not pour our coffee! One of our new friends suggested that he did not take long to pack his bag as he was wearing everything that he had brought with him! However, after a hearty breakfast we were on the road by 8 am to make the best use of the coolest part of the day and the layers of clothing were peeled down to shorts and light tops by 9 am. (At the end of the day we had to keep warm clothing handy because, as the sun set, the temperature dropped dramatically).
Under Tim’s direction we prepared for our first hike. Backpacks (thoughtfully supplied by APT) were packed with cameras, sunscreen, insect repellent and 1 litre of water per person. Sunhats, light clothing and sturdy shoes completed the requirements. We were also supplied with a packed lunch in a little fridge pack, of tasty sandwiches, fruit snacks and a frozen container of juice which kept the food cool and was drinkable by lunchtime. There was such a flurry of preparation that somebody commented that “there would be less activity at Everest base camp!”
We hiked through the spectacular domes along the dry Piccaninny Creek bed and into Cathedral Gorge, at the end of which is a massive cave like amphitheatre with remarkable acoustics. We sat in the shade on the white sand floor and ate our lunch watching the tranquil reflections in the large pool at the base of the cliffs.
Later in the afternoon we took a helicopter flight over the ranges and gained another perspective of this beautiful place.
The next day we hiked through Echidna Chasm. Towering 180 metres high and sometimes barely wide enough for one person, it is a magnificent feature of the Bungle Bungle ranges. The trail features countless Livistona palms and interesting views of eroded caves high in the surrounding cliffs.
The walk is quite difficult as the floor of the chasm varies between soft sand and rough pebbles and entails some climbing over rocks and boulders and even up a metal ladder which has been set into the rock face.
THE GIBB RIVER ROAD
As the trip progressed we continued travelling westward along the infamous Gibb River Road staying at various wilderness camps, hiking through the bush and visiting beautiful gorges such as Emma Gorge, Barnett River Gorge, and Bell Gorge.
We viewed the interesting and varied styles of artwork left by the many Aboriginal tribes that inhabit this area. At the end of the hike, we were often rewarded with a cooling swim in a creek or a waterhole, often with a waterfall and always with an abundance of wildlife. One day we visited the beautiful Zebedee Springs to soak in the natural thermal pools, surrounded by lush ferns and palms. We picnicked with our little lunch packs, or back at the coach where Tim would set up tables and stools and we would have tasty cold meats and salads with hot tea and coffee.
The highlight of the Kimberley Region would have to be the Mitchell Falls. Another challenging three hour hike brought us to the plateau at the top of the falls where we were able to swim and recuperate with our picnic lunch. We then trekked around to a spot where we could view the spectacular series of four separate falls.
In the afternoon helicopters picked us up to do a scenic flight north to the ocean, before following the Mitchell River back to the falls for a final view then returning us to base, where Tim was waiting with the coach.
Another lovely day was spent walking through Windjana Gorge. Accessed through a tiny cleft in the rock face it was a “secret garden” of flora and fauna. Ancient fossils can be seen embedded in the gorge walls and hundreds of freshwater crocodiles laze on the banks of the Lennard River which flows through the gorge.
Boab trees grow profusely in northern Australia, often to an immense size (note our coach parked next to this specimen). This particular one is known as “The Prison Tree” as it was used in early settlement times for housing prisoners overnight being taking to town for trial.
Towards the end of our trip we sat around the campfire with our now firm friends and reminisced about what we had seen. Our shoes, socks and all our clothing (even the items we had not worn) were stained red from the fine dust that invaded everything. Coiffures and makeup had long ago been dispensed with. As we chatted, another APT coach arrived. It had left Broome that morning to do the same trip but in reverse. The passengers alighted with their clean clothes and footwear, the ladies smartly dressed, made up and coiffed. We smiled knowingly and all agreed – “They don’t know what they’re in for!”
When we arrived in Broome we said goodbye to our friends as we were dropped off at our resort hotel, where we planned to stay for two nights before flying home to Melbourne.
The desk clerk chatted cheerily to us as we registered. “So, where are you guys off to?” he asked. Then, after taking in our untidy, grubby appearance and our black suitcases now a dusty, dirty brown he smiled and said “I guess you’ve already been!” We assured him that we had!
Footnote: Many of the scenic areas we visited were used in the movie “Australia”.
Story and Pictures by Heather and Barry Minton
Last Updated March 19, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster