A journey through the Australian Outback

Bob Ramsay 22 September 2021

A road through a remote Australian region leads to glorious landscapes and insights into the nation’s original inhabitants

We were lucky we got our flat tyre as we drove into the Mount Barnett Roadhouse on Western Australia’s notorious Gibb River Road. Luckier still, three burly guys changed our tyre, with dire warnings to get to the Over the Range service station to fix it, pronto. Otherwise, well… I guess that’s why our rented four-wheel drive came with a satellite phone, an emergency locator, and ten gallons of water.

My wife, Jean, and I had wanted to experience one of the English-speaking world’s most remote places that non-explorers can navigate on their own: the Kimberley region, an area in the northwestern corner of Australia much bigger than Germany or Japan, with a population of just 34,000 people. And in May 2018, we got the chance to visit.

The Gibb is an iconic, tyre-ripping gravel road that runs 410 miles through the region along, as its name suggests, the Gibb River. In the May-through-October dry season, it’s hot and desolate. Still, your four-wheel drive better have an air-intake snorkel so it can ford the dozens of rivers you’ll cross.

"In the May-through-October dry season, it’s hot and desolate"

Oh, and watch out for the “road trains,” those linked trucks that can measure up to 176 feet—more than three times the longest standard truck allowed on European roads—and take two miles and clouds of blinding dust to pass. In the wet season, don’t even think of driving the Gibb. You’ll drown in the rain-flooded plains that for half the year are bone dry.

The only way to explore Kimberley is by this very bad road, or by air. That is, unless you’re an Aboriginal. Young Aboriginal males still take part in a rite of passage called temporary mobility (it used to be referred to by the outdated, colonial term “walkabout”), which involves going into the wild as boys and returning up to six months later as men. 

We did the latter first, taking the lay of the land from the sky before we set off down the Gibb on four wheels. To do that, we went to the jumping-off point for helicopter tours in Kimberley: the HeliSpirit hangar in Kununurra. 

A jeep going through the Pentecost river

A jeep going through the Pentecost river

“You from Canada, mate?” asks James Bondfield, our young helicopter pilot. “Uh, yes, I am.” When we Canadians open our mouths in Australia, we’re almost always mistaken for Americans.

“I worked in Canada,” says Bondfield, explaining that he had built up his flying hours in the oil sands in northern Alberta. He also flew in the forests of Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesia before returning home and rising to be, at age 30, the chief pilot of a company whose 25 helicopters are opening Kimberley to visitors drawn to the vast, dramatic, relatively untouched landscapes.

"When we Canadians open our mouths in Australia, we’re almost always mistaken for Americans"

During the next two days, Bondfield, like any great guide, takes us where we want to go, then shows us his own secret places there. We first picnic atop King George Falls in the Balanggarra Indigenous Protected Area, a 1 million-hectare homeland of First Peoples in Australia and whose rock art, dating back to more than 40,000 years ago, is drawing global attention. 

Bondfield lands us near some caves covered in the ochre images of ancient plants and animals. Their brightness is barely faded despite tens of thousands of years of torrential weather. We crawl into crevices all afternoon, snap photos and return with shots of paintings that are among the oldest made by humans anywhere in the world. 

The Berkeley River Lodge

The Berkeley River Lodge is so remote that it can't be accessed by road—visitors have to be flown in 

From there, we fly to the remote Berkeley River Lodge, a 20-cabin resort on the Kimberley Coast. Over dinner of grilled barramundi, Bondfield asks if we’ve had a chance to go fishing in Australia yet. No, we have not—not with local rivers filled with “freshies” and “salties”: fresh- and salt-water crocodiles. The former may attack you, while the latter will.

“Well, if you want to get up before sunrise tomorrow, I can fly you to my favourite fishing hole,” he tells us. And so, the next morning at dawn, we land on a ledge of a tributary of the Berkeley River, feeling safe in Bondfield’s charge. And it doesn’t matter that the one barramundi I hook gets away. What matters is the thrill of watching the sun rise over one of the most ancient landscapes on the planet. Later that day, Bondfield drops us back in Kununurra, the starting point for our journey on the Gibb.

"What matters is the thrill of watching the sun rise over one of the most ancient landscapes on the planet"

While drivers often carry two spares because tyres get shredded, not just flattened, on the Gibb, the rental company we hire our four-wheel drive from assures us we’ll be fine with just one. Three days later, after we got our flat changed by those three burly men, we limp into Over the Range, the garage seemingly at the end of the universe, to get the tyre fixed. It looks like a junkyard, filled with hollowed-out tyres and skeletons of cars.

Owner Neville Hernon—who looks like the Mad Max of tyre repair—lives on-site with his wife. Their leaflet, pinned up at every roadhouse along the Gibb, says: “Drop in to our depot for advice, have a look at our Wet Season photos, or just to say hello.”

A Camping with Custodians art class

A Camping with Custodians art class 

As we wait for Hernon to fix our flat, we do have a look at those aforementioned wet season photos. All the scraggly desert surrounding us was underwater. Everywhere. Hernon soon approaches with a grim smile and bad news: the tyre has to be replaced. 

It takes him 15 minutes to do just that, hand me the credit card machine and charge me $385 for a used replacement tyre. And so we continue to our next stop, happy as clams that we had to drive only 12 miles to reach the Over the Range garage, and knowing the law of supply and demand is working perfectly in the Outback.

When we arrive in the tiny settlement of Imintji, we are greeted by a man who appears to be the perfect Aussie Outback wrangler. John Bennett is tall, dust-tanned, with tall leather boots that even the fangs of the local, lethal king brown snake surely couldn’t pierce.

From Canadian Geographic (September 10, 2020), Copyright © 2020 by Ramsay Inc.

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