Friday, September 23, 2011

Off the beaten track

After playing it conservatively with a pregnant Tori and tending to stay on the bitumen and in proximity of towns with phone reception, we decided to be far more adventurous with a nine week old baby and headed off along the Gibb River Road and into the heart of the Kimberley. It felt great to be back on the road again and travelling to new destinations even though I was slightly nervous to be doing so with a large van behind. Apart from a few rough tracks and the occasional sand road, I'd done all of my previous off road driving without the van attached. Hundreds of kilometres of unsealed roads in questionable shape is a completely new proposition. And to places that are far more remote than we had been. “Will you be taking a gun with you?” was a frighteningly regular question put to me before we left Melbourne on our trip. Having never owned a gun in my life, it had never ever occurred to me that I may need a gun. Why would I take I gun? I didn’t even know you could buy a gun in Australia these days. “Well… if some crazy out there in the outback comes to give you some grief, you’ll have something with which to defend yourself”. Having so far managed to escape most situations in life without having to resort to physical violence or firearms, it never even dawned on me. Neither had the situation where one might come in handy. That was until a vodka and spliff enhanced night around the campfire with Steve and Heather, a couple who like us had taken their son out of school for a period to go travelling around Australia. “I saw this bloke in Derby the other day”, said Steve, “who looked like the Peter Falconio guy”. That is, the bloke who ruthlessly murdered the English tourist in the combi van somewhere in central Australia, while his girlfriend Joanna Lees somehow managed to escape into the desert night. “He had that hardened leathery face that was full of menace from underneath his big cowboy hat. He glared at me in a way that sent chills through me. I was just happy that my car kept on going and I didn’t break down somewhere in the vicinity of this guy. But you know… he’s out there. Somewhere around here”. It was our second night off the Gibb River Road, in the idyllically named Silent Grove campground near the beautiful Bell Gorge But I didn’t sleep easy that night. I kept waking with thoughts of meeting a  homicidal maniac somewhere on a remote dusty track. So far on the journey we’d spent most of our time on the coasts. Across the bottom of South Australia and then up the west coast for thousands of miles of beautiful white sand beaches.  And we’d stayed largely in caravan parks, which come with a sense of civilization and order along with the toilet and shower blocks. But now we were entering the interior of Australia and were camping in random locations on the side of the road or in national park campgrounds in the heart of the Kimberley and a long way from any town. A beautiful beautiful part of the country, but much more wild than the coast in every respect. And while this wildness and sense of adventure is what we and everybody else comes to this part of the country for, it is undoubtedly very isolated and if you start to consider the isolation it can become daunting.

For the most part, none of this has really entered the picture. This region is one that I was looking forward to spending a lot of time in and finally it has come. While Tori was pregnant, there seemed more need to be cautious as she was physically limited and carrying a fragile cargo around inside her. Now the little person is out and while we still have to carry him, it’s quite apparent when he’s uncomfortable or not enjoying himself and he essentially seems reasonably hardy. I have enjoyed the amazing countryside that has unfolded before us driving down the corrugated tracks and then walking out to places of majestic beauty. Kim has been transported along in a “hugabub” which is a type of fabric sling that has him held close and firmly to the chests of either Tori or me depending on who is doing the carrying. A day of swimming and lounging around at Bell Gorge with Steve, Heather and their son Kelly surrounded by a red rock cliff face with teeming waterfall was a major highlight. The Mornington Wilderness Camp, 100km south of the Gibb River Road was another beautifully peaceful place to spend a few days. To me the areas that we’ve been haven’t actually seemed that remote. Even though they are hundreds of kilometres from any town, way off the beaten track and Google Maps doesn't seem to have much clue about them. In these days of modern communications, the national parks such as Windjana, Bell Gorge and so on all have a public pay phone thanks to Telstra. And an airstrip. I guess if something went wrong and you had to wait an extended period for assistance in a crisis it would feel very far away. But it doesn’t seem anywhere near as isolated as it must have twenty years ago, before any of these facilities were in place and before so many people were making the journey. Tori became somewhat concerned when we got to Tunnel Creek, questioning the sense of carrying a new born baby while wading through waste high water across slippery rocks, in a pitch black tunnel lit only by the torches that we carried. I’ve tended not to want to dwell on whether we should or shouldn't be taking a baby to these places and instead enjoy the adventure in one of Australia’s last great wildernesses.

The four wheel driving aspect of the journey has been exciting. Without really having had much experience in conditions like this, I initially started very cautiously. Now that I have warmed into it, I’ve become more confident and feel pretty capable of dealing with most of the road conditions we are likely to meet. Driving through the creek crossings. Hopping up boulders. Cruising through sand. Crossing creeks and waterways. The Toyota Landcruiser (dubbed Sainter due to its number plate) has performed fantastically well. The new tyres and suspension as well as a roof rack have proved to be excellent purchases. I feel that we have been well prepared for the journey. The van too has performed well, sitting nicely behind the car and so far having no trouble whatsoever with the terrain. I need to ensure that my confidence doesn’t become cockiness. It is clear that respect of the terrain is tantamount to successful driving in these conditions.

The predominant feature of the Kimberley is the pindan; the red dirt that the Australian outback is famous for. It is the finest of fine red sand that coats everything and seems to sit in a perpetual state of suspension in the air. It has a sweetness to its smell and is a predominant scent of the Kimberley as it finds its way continually up your nose. It gets into everything. You wake up in the morning and it’s all you can smell. On travelling down to Windjana Gorge, I discovered that the back window had not been properly closed. Thanks to the layer of pindan wedged in the top, it had not sealed and was effectively left open creating a nice little vent through which the van could be filled with dust. And filled it was. Particularly Jazzy’s bed which was completely coated. Her doona, pillow, bunny and assortment of various clothes and junk that seem to share her bed had all turned orangy red. And on the outside of the van the pindan had mixed with the grease on the van hitch to form a gloopy red and black mass of gunk that doesn’t seem conducive to the best functioning of critical machinery. The van suspension has taken on a squeaky sound at times as the pindan has lodged between the wide metal leaves. Not much chance for a quiet shag when the kids are asleep as with every movement of the van, a loud groaning sound emanates from the springs and across the campground regardless of any other groaning sounds that may be coming from the occupants. And everything is completely dried out. Nostrils. Lips. Eyes. Hands. When another vehicle comes to pass along the road, it is followed by a cloud of dust so severe that it is impossible to see more than a few feet. Not what you want on a road that could present you with a jagged boulder or deep pothole at any turn. We have our routine pretty well worked out now on getting the vents closed if being approached by another vehicle. Usually you will see the large billows of dust approaching before you see the vehicle. Windows up, air conditioning off, vents closed. A few moments of stifling heat before the relief of fresh air and a layer of pindan can once more be let in when the vehicle and dust cloud have passed. Some dust will still always get in. On occasions, such as when a particularly long and ladened road train thunders by, it is impossible to see at all and necessary to come to a complete stop for a couple of minutes until the air has cleared sufficiently enough to see. 

The abundance of wildlife has been one of the other major features of the Kimberley. Snakes, large monitor lizards, kangaroos, wallabies, bats, crocodiles, stray cattle of all sorts of weird varieties, frogs and a huge assortment of birds have all been prevalent. Driving at night is hazardous as much of the larger wildlife seems more active then. It is standard to come around a bend and have a wild herd of brahman cows standing in the middle of the road. And of course there are the corrugations. We have all got used to them now. Even Kim. He just sleeps through the bouncing and rocking of the car.  Every now and then they set up a rhythmic pattern through the car that seems to perpetuate itself onwards and increase the intensity of the shaking with every corrugation until your teeth and everything else in the car is rattling uncontrollably. The only course of action then is to stop completely, let everything and everyone settle and then start off again. The van must be extremely well built to survive these corrugations. Occasionally we will find a light bulb has unscrewed itself from a socket or something similar, but on the whole it has remained unscathed. The only casualty was the microwave some months back, which was fine for us anyway as it was only being used as a defrosting cupboard. It was never even turned on, just essentially a well insulated cupboard that we could throw some frozen meat into and know that it would defrost and not start cooking in the heat of the van while we were off for the day. The gap where the microwave used to be is now taken up by a box with Kim's clothes, so it has been a useful customisation. We have needed the extra space. All of Kim's stuff takes up so much room. We still haven't really worked out where to store everything to best effect. It's ok when we're travelling and it's ok when we're fully set up somewhere. The trouble is during our transitory stops for a night here or there. The tiny toilet room has been unused for months. It now usually has a load of dirty washing, a baby bath and a box of shoes blocking the way. As well as the upended shoe rack, optimistically purchased at one stage to try and create order out of the chaos of everybody's shoes which seemed to occupy all corners of the van. Brushing teeth involves squeezing past these items to try and get to the sink. It's not ideal but I guess we'll eventually work it out. 

All in all our home has been very comfortable. And the ability to relocate it from one beautiful location to the next is truly amazing. And of course it's also my mobile office. On this journey up the Gibb my satellite dish truly came into its own. There is no phone or wireless internet reception for hundreds of kilometres, but I was still able to work. Writing emails to large corporations in Singapore or Japan or other parts of Australia while looking through the trees to the enormous cliff wall of a gorge is quite amazing. The ever changing view from my office has been a major highlight as has been the ability to work in the great outdoors, even though I essentially have an office job. And apart from some minor readjustments in once more getting used to living on the road in such close proximity with three other people and a baby, it's pretty much my ideal existence. 

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