Monday, September 26, 2011

Up the Duncan

We first heard about the Duncan Road from a couple we met at Tunnel Creek. “There’s an unsealed road that runs from Halls Creek through to Kununurra round the back of the Bungle Bungles”, they said. “A much more beautiful drive through the Kimberley than up the Great Northern Hwy. But we’re in a camper trailer. You’ll never get your caravan into the camping spots along the Duncan. Too rough. Too up and down”. They had sold their house and had been travelling around Australia for fourteen months with their two young daughters. They were looking for somewhere new to live and carried with them an air of superiority that they were the real deal and others were on a less significant adventure. Much like the backpackers that you meet through Asia who claim that they are “travellers” as distinct from being “tourists”. The places that they go to are inaccessible or unavailable to you and are always much more beautiful than anywhere you’ve ever been or are likely to go. Their quest is somehow far more noble and important than your own. I always find this interesting because they are also treading the path of thousands before them, with maps and guide books at their disposal. I couldn’t help but feel that these people at Tunnel Creek fitted into this mode and were perhaps giving us misleading information so as to place us lower on the traveller pecking order. I put the question out to the Bushtracker owners forum on the net and got a few replies indicating that our type of van should have no problem along the Duncan as they had previously made the same journey. Unlike others who may feel that they need to be the first to go somewhere or do something, I prefer to know that somebody else has been there before and take advice from them. I’m not really much of an explorer. So I was buoyed by this information and we set the course of Utopia for the Duncan Road.

There are small pockets of time on a big trip where everything seems to come together. The first three days on the Duncan was such a time. Travelling across the corrugations and avoiding the pot holes seemed natural now and in some way more normal than driving along the bitumen. We free camped the first night at Caroline Pool, a beautiful fresh water swimming hole and we had the place to ourselves. We moved on the next morning to Palm Springs, a naturally fed spring that used to be the water supply for the old town of Halls Creek back in the gold rush days. Fringed by banana palms planted long ago, it appears like an oasis in the middle of an already spectacular countryside. We all swam and splashed around together in the cool water or sat under the warm spring water flowing from the rocks forming a natural spa. The kids climbed the rocks and trees and launched themselves into the water. Tori sat in the water holding Kim. With a campfire blazing under the stars and again with the place to ourselves, we decided to have a bit of a family jam and made a good cacophony of guitar, blues harp, tambourine and Aboriginal clap sticks. We felt very close as a family with everybody getting along well and all of us feeling there was no place we’d rather be. It couldn’t be any better. 

The next morning I climbed to the top of the large hill behind where we were camped. It was early and I had no takers for my offer, so I ventured up solo to survey the spectacular 360 degree views over the valleys and gorges below. When living in a caravan with four other people, it is quite difficult to obtain any time alone, so I relished this small opportunity for a piece of solitude. After a morning swim we moved on to check out Sawpit Gorge, one of the places that our Tunnel Creek friends had told us that we would find inaccessible. The van cruised down comfortably into the upper camping ground, though I thought it prudent not to push it and we didn’t venture further down across the creek. We had a quick look around Sawpit Gorge, but as we’d only travelled about 50km up the Duncan and had 450km to go to get to Kununurra, we thought we’d move on.

One of the places that all of the Bushtracker folk had mentioned to stop at was Marella Gorge. This is a gorge on the Nicholson River and is contained on a large cattle station, effectively somebody’s private property. The owners are happy for people to stop and camp there but permission is required. I had tried to contact the owners prior to us heading up the Duncan but only got through to their answer machine. Now well and truly out of mobile phone range, we weren’t sure what to do, or even if we could find the place. After driving the hundred or so kilometres to where we thought it should be, we came across an unsigned dirt track turnoff. Feeling this may be it we ventured on up and came to a gate that had an unobtrusive sign indicating that we were in the right place. Through the gate and a couple of kilometres in, the red track became a little problematic. It also split off in a couple of directions. Not really sure what lay ahead, I got out with Finn to walk down and have a look. The first track led down a steep stony path but came out right next to the river. There was a rope swing hanging over the water from a branch and another piece of rope dangling into the water to assist swimmers in climbing back on to the shore. The area was shaded by large trees and it was hard to think of a place more idyllic. Finn and I walked back up to the other path which led to the top of the gorge. It was quite a spectacular view but was totally exposed with no shade whatsoever. Being so late in the dry season the water up at that end of the gorge was mostly gone and the little pools didn’t seem at all inviting for swimming. 

We decided that the spot by the river was the go for us. I walked back down it just to make sure that we would be able to get the van out if we took the descent. All seemed ok and so I slowly edged the van down the steep hill and pulled in beside the river. Again we were on our own. Running off our solar charged batteries, water tanks loaded up, no facilities whatsoever for the last few days, it truly felt like “proper” camping. Need a crap? There’s the spade. Go and dig a hole. As soon as we’d set up we were into the river. Launching off the rope swing and splashing around with abandon. The climate is so hot up in the Kimberley. Even in the “cooler” dry season. We had hit a period where the temperatures were soaring every day to around 36 degrees so being camped near water was a necessity, needing the ability to jump in and cool off at regular intervals. I clambered out of the river and left the kids to continue their water play and went to join Tori who was sitting about 20 metres down the bank. “Have a look across at that bank”, she said. ”Do you think that’s a crocodile? Or is it a stick?”. Must be a stick, I replied trying to see what she was seeing. “Look it’s moving. Perhaps it’s a water monitor”. Yes it must be a water monitor, I responded. I’d seen quite a few of them over the last couple of days at our other camp sites. Nevertheless, I went to the car to retrieve the binoculars just to make sure. And there through the lenses, it was clear. There was a large crocodile on the bank. I panned across the water just out from where we were sitting and slowly counted fourteen crocodiles. They looked like freshies, but it seemed a pretty big assumption to make. I scanned around looking for the telltale long snouts and felt reassured that they were indeed freshwater crocodiles. And it seemed unlikely that the owners would have put a rope swing out into the water if there were salties around. Unless it was part of some macabre practical joke. I walked up to where the kids were, out on the bank in between launches into the river. I suggested they look through the binoculars across the bank and tell me what they could see. “A crocodile!”, exclaimed Jazzy. “We’re swimming in crocodile infested waters”, she cheerily shouted as she jumped back in to the river.

And so the perfection continued, right up until it was time to leave. I walked up the three tracks that were possible routes out of the camping spot and started to feel a little nervous. I realised that the stones on the tracks were looser than I'd first thought. One track seemed too steep to pull the van up. Another had curves that seemed too tight to negotiate the van through without toppling over the edge. And the other was up over a giant boulder that looked like it may cause damage to the underside of the van. After a lot of consternation, I finally decided that I'd try the first option and head straight up the steep path that we had come in on. So I gave myself as much of a run up as I could and with 4WD engaged and Tori and the kids looking on from a safe distance, I gave it all I had. About half way up everything came to a halt. My wheels were spinning and my head started to as well when I realised I was stuck halfway up a hill that now seemed frighteningly steep. I know that it defies logic and the laws of physics, but suspended there at that angle, it felt like the car could almost flip back over itself and the van with everything cartwheeling down the hill. I reversed back down gingerly and got out to see where I had become stuck. It was quite clear. Where my wheels had hit a rock in the path, all of the loose stones had just spun away. There seemed no way that I could get the momentum required to get past that point without any traction. I expect that a more experienced four wheel driver or van puller would have had more chance of success, but I felt it was beyond me. And the ordeal of being stuck halfway up such a steep hill didn't sit well with my anxiety of heights. The second option now seemed fraught with even more danger. If the stones were that loose, with the wide path I'd need to take to get the van around the curves, there was a strong likelihood that the van would just slide or topple sideways down the hill. Now I really started to worry. We were 150km from Halls Creek. 350km from Kununurra. Two or three kilometres off the main road; a road on which we'd seen maybe three other vehicles on the drive up. No mobile phone reception. Nobody knew we were there. And we were there without permission. I started to discuss with Tori what she would do if everything came unstuck badly and I was left lying at the bottom of the hill under a pile of car and van. To her credit, she remained calm and confident. She even laughed when I suggested that perhaps I should put on my bike helmet just in case. I decided to go for the least likely option; over an enormous boulder but with much less of an incline on the approach. It seemed touch and go as to whether the van would have the clearance and damage was a definite possibility, but at least I wouldn't topple off the edge from this angle. And second time lucky, I got over the boulder and closer to the entrance with the van appearing to be unscathed. But I was still facing the wrong way to get around on to the path, wheels still spinning on stones, seemingly stuck for a while longer.

It had already been three stressful hours and it seemed there were another one or two at least in front of us until I could manage to back and forward enough times to change the angle sufficiently to be able to get out. That was if I could even manage to do it at all. When all of a sudden, a vehicle emerged from above. Like an angel descending, with a winch at the front. Ash and Amy had just come to look down this way as an afterthought while looking for somewhere to camp. And thank goodness for that. After assessing the situation, Ash attached a snatch strap to the back of his car and to the front of mine. Essentially he just dragged the front of my car to point in the right direction while I drove for all I was worth to get some traction. On the third attempt, we were out. I was so relieved I felt like kissing him, but managed just to hold back. After a celebratory beer, we were out and back on the road. So so relieved. And an hour down the road we got a puncture. Perhaps a weakness caused by the tyres spinning over the stones. Perhaps hitting something sharp on the Duncan. I couldn't really tell. But the tyre was as flat as a tyre can be. So already exhausted and with the sun going down I jacked up the car and changed the tyre. That had been enough for one day, so 50km further up the road, in pitch black, we pulled off the road at the Negri River to spend the night.

The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed. After the ordeal of the day before, surely today would be better. There was only another 150km or so to Kununurra, the last 50km of which was the Victoria Highway, back on the bitumen. And it was just on reaching the Victoria that we got puncture number two. As I'd already used the car's one spare wheel, I was going to have to put the spare tyre I'd been carrying on the roof on to the rim of one of the flats. So everybody was ushered out of the car again. The car was jacked up and I was struggling in the hot sun with the tyre pliers, trying to remove the flat tyre from the rim. That was when Finn called over to me. "Dad, I feel really weird. I can't see properly. Everything's going fuzzy. I CAN'T SEE..." and with that he fell over backwards and passed out, smacking his head on the ground as he landed. When he fell, he had pulled down the handle of Kim's stroller, which he had been holding and completely upended it. Kim wasn't strapped in and so he slid head first down to the roof of the stroller which was now pointing downward. My heavy Nikon camera, at least in its case, fell from where it had been resting on the edge of the stroller and on to Kim. It all felt a little surreal. I rushed over while screaming for Tori to come and help. I picked up the stroller and could see that Kim appeared ok albeit a little stunned. I then raced to Finn who had come to after being out for only a couple of seconds. He was very dazed and so I took him over to the side of the van to have a seat and some water.

And that is when we truly entered the bizarre. Jazzy, who had been inside the van with Tori and had been seemingly ok only seconds earlier, also passed out, falling flat on her back and smashing her head into the van floor. All kids down and out in a matter of minutes is not something a parent really wants to see. I guess it was the heat and not enough water but it seemed a very strange series of events. Jaz also came round quite quickly, but was much less calm than Finn, bordering on the hysterical. And I still had a flat tyre to deal with. I decided to dispatch with the tyre pliers and instead used one of the spares from the van. Different size wheels, but I figured that it would get us away much quicker and I'd just limp the car and van into town. When we finally arrived and got set up, I couldn't get to the pub quickly enough to have an ice cold beer in celebratory relief that we'd finally made it to town.

So the trip down the Duncan had been some experience. It started amazingly and finished with a bit of a negative twist. The beginning was so great and everybody was ultimately fine in the end, so I guess I'd have to say that the trip was worth it. But if somebody had have mapped it out for me prior to it happening and offered me that sequence of events, I expect I would have declined. Kununurra now becomes a pit stop. A place to have the tyres fixed, recharge my own energy and get some work done now that I'm back in phone reception. And really just breathe another sigh of relief that that ordeal is all over.


1 comment:

DougS said...

Wonderfully written Duncan Travelog and so glad you got there in the end. I find after any trip it is the tough times overcome you remember. I have met people like the superior couple and after years of struggling with it realised they are living within their own frame of reference which travels and adjusts with them. They all eventually come unstuck as this internally generated context founders on the jagged rocks of reality.
Safe travels onward! D&N