A five-day drive through the Kimberley

By Diana Plater/AAP with AG staff 27 September 2010
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Diana Plater takes us on a drive through typical Kimberley country: gorges, red cliffs, and boab trees.

THEY SAY THE KIMBERLEY has the ability to put a spell on you. I was taken by its magic about 30 years ago when I lived there. And the charm hasn’t worn off.

It’s gone through lots of changes but mainly that’s in the towns, particularly Broome, and Derby to a lesser extent, where a construction boom is being fuelled by the building of a new jail and could be even bigger with the possible extension of the controversial detention centre at Curtin Airbase. But the bush remains much the same – to me, this area in the far north of Western Australia is the most beautiful part of Australia.

  • Tips for driving in the Kimberley

We spent five days driving through the Kimberley. Here’s the diary:

TUESDAY: My Qantas flight arrives in Broome – it’s a direct, five-hour one from Sydney, filled with mainly grey nomad holiday-makers. There’s a buzz of excitement as they get ready to do the driving trips they had planned for years.

I pick up the huge four wheel drive, a Toyota Prado, that’s been organised for me and find it’s one of those new-fangled ones that doesn’t need a key. It takes me about 45 minutes and the contents of the car manual to figure it out.

After visiting old friends I head out to Cable Beach to do the traditional sunset viewing – a glass of wine at the cafe that overlooks the beach is the perfect way to see the huge red sun disappear behind the Indian Ocean. Later we watch the full moon come up over Roebuck Bay.

WEDNESDAY: A couple from down south and I are passengers on a half-day Buccaneer Explorer scenic flight run by King Leopold Air. It’s a tiny plane but the view is incredible – what a vast, remote and stunning landscape unfolds below us. We fly north over the Dampier Peninsula and King Sound to the hundreds of deserted islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago, as well as the iron ore mines of Koolan and Cockatoo islands.

A highlight is the Horizontal Falls, which can be rafted by day-trippers. I’d rather not. The falls have been created by one of the highest tides in the world. (Later we hear there are plans to mine copper there.)

We stop at Cape Leveque and swim in its warm, turquoise waters. On the way back we’re shown the site of the planned controversial $30 billion gas hub at James Price Point.

THURSDAY: We leave very early this morning.

First stop is an Aboriginal-run tourism venture at Udialla Springs, about two-and-a-half hours from Broome, run by Neville Poelina, who is descended from the Nyikina people of this country and Timorese pearl divers, and his wife Jo Camilleri. Poelina was a pearl diver himself and also taught the skill but prefers now to show tourists – particularly ones from Europe – his mother’s country.

They have a bush camp on the 1214-ha station known as Oongkalkada, which was bought back by the Aboriginal Land Commission, which represents traditional owners who don’t have access to native title.

Like other tourists, he takes us down to sit by the Fitzroy River – it’s a way to suss out his visitors. Their tours, fittingly known as Up Tu Yu, are adapted according to what individuals want, with variable costs. “My culture stayed strong with their (the elders’) knowledge and they pass it on and we still pass it on,” he says.

We manage to get to the Aboriginal-owned cattle station Noonkanbah in the late afternoon.On the way on to Fitzroy Crossing it’s already dusk and we have to slowly and carefully weave past cattle. As the sky darkens you can only see their glowing eyes in the headlights.

After finally getting into our room at the Fitzroy River Lodge and having a much-needed shower we decide to go to the old pub, the Crossing Inn, on the banks of the river, for dinner. But the car won’t start. Exhausted we leave it for the morning.

A phone call to Broome and finally information is conveyed from Toyota. We have to turn around three times and do three Hail Marys to get it started – well, it appears like that. You lock and unlock the doors, put the clutch in, make sure the hand break is fully on, the break pedal down, hold the key over the button with the Toyota emblem towards the button and then push the start button. Hurray, it finally works!

We head to Mangkaja Arts to view local Aboriginal art. One of the artists, Eva Nargoodah, gives us a tour, and explains the work there. She says many of the artists are represented in the Canning Stock Route Project, now on display at the National Museum in Canberra.

Nargoodah paints the seasons from stories her grandmother told her as a child. She would explain the best times for collecting food. “She’d tell us when it was good for fat goannas or bush potatoes,” she says.

Leaving town, we head back 40km on to the Northern Highway and then turn off on to the Tunnel Creek road. From here it’s 124km of dirt to the Gibb River Road. This would have to be one of the most beautiful roads in Australia. It’s typical Kimberley country – gorges, red cliffs, and boab trees.

We climb out of the car at Tunnel Creek and wade through the tunnel carved through the Napier Range. (Luckily my friend had brought a torch.) This is where Aboriginal outlaw Jandamarra, who was believed to have magical powers, was finally shot and killed, after leading a long armed rebellion against the European settlers.

We stop again at Windjana Gorge, where freshwater crocs laze in the Lennard River and ancient marine fossils line the gorge walls.

After turning right on to the Gibb River Road, we stop at a makeshift cafe surrounded by potplants overlooking the Lennard River and chat to the extremely dry Robert Hadley, a former lay priest who drives up every day from Derby because, as he says, it stops the boredom. His card describes his place, where he serves snacks, icecreams and very welcome cuppas, as “your Oasis pitstop in the heart of Gorge country”.

We stay that night at Imintji Safari Camp and at a meet and greet around the fire pick up travelling tips and hints from some fellow travellers.

SATURDAY: It’s at the Imintji store that I discover the newly re-published book of my great-uncle JRB Love, Kimberley People, originally published in 1936. Love was a Presbyterian missionary and anthropologist and linguist who lived in the Kimberley before World War II, based at Kunmunya in rugged and wild Worora country north of here.

After a walk and swim at nearby Bell Gorge, we head back down the road to Derby, stopping at the Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre known as Spirit of the Wandjina – from the air it appears as one of these supreme spirit beings that created much of the landscape and continue to bring the wet season rains and who can be found depicted in rock paintings in Worora, Ngarinyin and Wunumbul country.

Since 1950, the people who were at the Kunmunya mission have endured many forced moves, finally to this site about 10 km from Derby. It’s ironic that a popular tourism site just outside town is the prison boab tree, used to restrain Aboriginal people in the 19th century.

SUNDAY: A smooth drive back from Derby to Broome, a quick coffee and rental car drop-off at the airport, and it’s time for our Kimberley adventure to end.