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Destination: Australia

Really roughing it in the outback

On a four-wheel drive into the wild Kimberley, adventurers encounter otherworldly landscapes as well as crocs, bats and assorted creepy creatures.

November 17, 2002|James Herron | Special to The Times

Kimberley, Australia — A sickening sensation tickled the pit of my stomach as our truck plunged over the lip of a dry riverbed, jarred along its stony bottom and lurched up the other side. It was the 50th gully we had crossed in three hours. My heart was in my mouth, and my backside ached.

My suffering was so distracting that I barely noticed the large Toyota Land Cruiser barreling around the next bend, bearing down on us for a head-on collision. Luckily, our driver, Glen Steggles, was paying more attention. He swerved off the track at the last second, narrowly avoiding the Toyota and plunging us into the thick undergrowth. A sharp metallic crack rang through the cab as we ran headlong into some boulders. We skidded to a dusty halt and clambered out to inspect the damage. The car bore a jagged scar on its underbelly and a large dent in the foot rail. "Not too bad," I said, nodding approval, and we continued on our way. This kind of thing happened all the time in the Kimberley.

The Kimberley has been called Australia's last frontier, and with good reason. The 140,000-square-mile wilderness in the far northwest is buttressed on one side by the Great Sandy Desert and on the other by an uninhabited coastline. It is home to only 25,000 people, making it one of the least densely populated places on Earth. Furthermore, at least 30% of those people are of aboriginal descent -- 10 times the national average. European civilization has barely made a mark here.

The main reason is the weather: a monsoon climate whose two seasons have a Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship, varying from baking aridity in the winter to knock-'em-down storms and widespread flooding in the summer. In the Wet, from November to April, easily forded rivers become mile-wide torrents, the temperature soars to a stifling 110 degrees and all but air traffic comes to a standstill. During the Dry, travel is possible, but only on an isolated network of rough dirt roads. And that's what draws most visitors: the glorious isolation, the rugged beauty of a wilderness that will never be tamed.

That was what stuck in my mind on my first trip to Australia in 2001, under a yearlong working visa program available to British citizens. I longed to explore Australia's wildest places from the moment I set foot on the continent.

While working as a waiter in Sydney, I met several like-minded travelers in their mid-20s, including Glen. The Aussie just happened to own a new SUV and was keen to test its mettle. We quit our jobs and cruised off into the outback with three others, Tamsin Hoare, Katharine Sidenius and Chris Tanner.

We arrived in Broome -- a bohemian town on the West Kimberley coast renowned for its long white sand beaches -- in June 2001, four months and several thousand miles after leaving Sydney. Our journey had already taken in many of Australia's highlights, but we knew that the real adventure would begin 180 miles farther west, when our steel radials first bit into the dirt of the Gibb River Road, a 417-mile track that crosses the heart of the Kimberley between Broome and Kununurra. We would not see asphalt again for more than 10 days.

The Kimberley's isolation makes it one of the great bastions of modern aboriginal culture, which has a deep and intimate connection to the land. If you travel with a knowledgeable aboriginal guide, you will probably hear countless stories of "The Dreaming," the aboriginal creation myth. Its colorful tales of supernatural animals and ancient ancestors who created the Earth pervade the landscape, breathing mystery and spirituality into every rock and tree.

The most striking vestiges of these beliefs are the mysterious Wandjina paintings, more than 10,000 years old, which adorn rock galleries all over the Kimberley. These enigmatic figures with large white heads, dark oval eyes and long straight noses represent the protectors of the aboriginal people.

Perhaps the most dramatic story from the creation is that of Wunggud, an enormous serpent that swam in from the ocean at the beginning of the Dreaming. She burrowed deep into the Earth with her powerful body, tearing rifts and tunnels in the solid bedrock that collapsed to form deep valleys and gorges. Water flowed in from the ocean in her wake, creating the rivers that crisscross the Kimberley today.

This story seemed perfectly plausible at our first stop along Gibb River Road. Here the mighty Lennard River had sliced open and punched holes through the limestone foundation of the Napier Range with an awesome power. Spectacular rock formations -- the sheer walls of Wandjina Gorge and the dark caverns of Tunnel Creek -- dominated the scenery.

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