Our route through this parched region seems to lead us from gorge to gorge, pool to pool.  In reality, these oases would be far apart without a vehicle. This is a frighteningly inhospitable land, plagued by extreme heat during the dry season and downpours during the “wet” that fill the rivers and flood vast areas, rendering the Gibb River Road and even the sealed (paved) Great Northern Highway impassable in places.

There are lightning storms and cyclones, wild asses and rogue bulls.  If you were trapped out here without shade and water during the dry season you would die in a day or two. It is not a comforting thought.  There is safety in numbers for those of us who are ill-equipped to survive in the outback.  It helps to have a well maintained 4 wheel drive vehicle as well as an experienced guide with a SAT phone.  The aboriginals survived for thousands of years without any of what we consider the “essentials,” but they have 40,000 years of inherited experience at living on the land.

The unforgiving landscape nudges my mind hack to my childhood in Montana, with its endless vistas of cattle and sagebrush, rattlesnakes and gopher holes, but the similarities are deceptive.  This country is dotted with spinifex, not harmless sagebrush, and the snakes in the Kimberley make rattlers seem like amateurs in the art of self defense.

Unlike Montana, this is an ancient land, unchanged by volcanic activity since the ocean began to recede.  Its scale challenges all sense of perspective.  How does one imagine the towering cliffs of the Napier Range as a vast reef under the ocean that covered this part of the continent?  How does one picture a cattle muster, where the livestock are spread out over a million acres?

It is reassuring to be with a congenial group.  We are homogeneous in many respects, but mixed in age, ranging from eleven to sixty-four.  I can’t claim much wisdom, but I am the elder in the group.  Bronwyn, Lynne and Brooke are all teachers from various Melbourne suburbs.  I will not take the liberty of guessing their ages, but Brooke is the baby by far, still heading off on early morning runs and scrambling over rocks like a mountain goat.

Brian and Kylie hail from Adelaide, with successful careers in the postal service and pharmaceuticals, respectively. Dave and Kerri have brought along their two daughters, which elicits a certain amount of good-natured grumbling from time to time on both sides of the parental divide.  It is to be expected.  And last, but not least, our Lithuanian sisters, Margarita and Regina.  Both are doctors with different specialties, and they seem to have seen a great deal of the world already.

Our destination for the day is Bell Gorge, one of the largest and most beautiful swimming holes in the Kimberley.  It is a popular place.  Fortunately, its size easily accommodates the numbers of people who find their way here at this time of year.  We shed our clothes and dive in.  Who can resist a pocket of paradise, an oasis in a dry land.