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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.

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My pickup for the eight-day Kimberley Wild loop trip was intended to be early, before eight, so I dropped my motel key in the box outside the office and ambled out to the main road to await the vehicle.  A call on my mobile phone came about half an hour later.  I was beginning to wonder if I had misunderstood the pickup time.

There would be a short delay.  It wasn’t short, as it turned out, but I wasn’t in any hurry. Our frazzled guide and driver pulled up about an hour late.  He had made his first (and only) mistake of the trip.  He had forgotten to close the back door 0f the monster bus and knocked it off its hinges.  After a few more pickups, we were on our way.

There were a baker’s dozen of us, including Anthony, our guide, driver, cook and mentor for the journey.  There were ten Australians, two Lithuanians, and me.  The big bus could pack in 20 passengers, but I suspect most of us were grateful we had come at the tail end of the tourist season.  We could spread out, put most of the backpacks on the back seats, and relax.  Our destination for the day was the 350 million year-old Napier Range, once a Devonian reef, out along the Gibb River Road.

The western end of the Gibb River Road starts in the town of Derby, but it doesn’t really hit its stride until the macadam disappears.  When the bone rattling begins, you pull out your map and realize that you have another 600 kilometers to go.  The vast expanse on either side is the proverbial Outback.  It is barren cattle country, punctuated by giant termite mounds and swollen Boab trees.

gibb-river-road-map

Along the way, our guide begins a history lesson on the life and times of an aboriginal named Jandamarra.  This extraordinary man was a member of the local Bunuba tribe.  As a young man, his skill with horses earned him a good reputation on cattle stations in the region, eventually bringing him to the attention of the police, who hired him as a bounty hunter.

When he was engaged to capture and imprison a large number of elders, including his revered uncle, Jandamarra’s tribal loyalties came to the fore.  He killed a policeman named Richardson, stole guns, and set his prisoners free.  It was the beginning of “The Bunuba War,” one of the few organised armed insurrections against European settlement.

Jandamarra used the gorges and tunnels through the Napier range to escape the police raids time and again.  Even after a posse attacked his followers in Windjana Gorge and shot him, he escaped and survived.  The brutal, three year war was eventually brought to a close through the talents of another blacktracker brought in by the police.  Micki tracked his prey to the mouth of Tunnel Creek and killed him.  Exalted by their victory, the white troopers cut off Jandamarra’s head and sent it to England.  ” First Australians” tells the tragic tale in the excellent series–http://www.sbs.com.au/firstaustralians/index/index/epid/5

Our visit into Tunnel Creek is peaceful and beautiful.  There are bats hanging overhead in the hundreds, but no crocs to worry about.  We make our way slowly through the cavern with the help of torches (flashlights), wading through the shallow water.  A collapsed roof lets in the light, revealing a cathedral of limestone.

We wind up our first day in the campground at Windjana Gorge.  The Gorge is beautiful, but in my haste to change shoes I have forgotten my camera.  Freshwater crocodiles enjoy the last warmth from the setting sun.  Back in camp, Anthony starts throwing down tents and swags (sleeping rolls), and setting up camp.  It will be dark soon and dinner will be very welcome.

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