“Well, folks, it’s that time of year again… It’s the end of the wet and the Gibb River Road is open for business. As the station staff head up to prepare for muster and the road trains can finally break through with supplies, hundreds of thrill seekers from around the world have one thing on their minds – it’s Cannonball time! That’s right – adventurous souls are gearing up and preparing their vehicles for some manic mayhem across Australia’s most remote outpost. There’ll be laughter and there’ll be tears as the terrain and the beer (or lack of it) pulls the vehicles and their drivers to pieces. To whet your appetite for the start of the season, here’s a rundown of last year’s rally. And remember, unlike other Cannonball events, the aim is not necessarily to get through the fastest, but to cover the ground and finish in one piece. Good Luck Y’All!” From “The 100% Unofficial and Entirely Fictitious Gibb River Road Cannonball Run.”

Stage 1

Broome to Windjana Gorge 350km, 6 hours Hit our first major obstacle before we’ve even started – late discovery of a broken pin (don’t ask, I’m not the mechanic) means our vehicle, Frank, is still unroadworthy. A friend stupidly lets on that this segment doesn’t require 4WD and we don’t want to delay another day, so we bribe him with a feed and a few beers to bring the car out to us later. Amid promises that “it’s only a couple of hours drive…” we steal his wheels and high tail it out of Broome. We check out the Prison Boab and some other sights, and it’s all good until we pass Willare Bridge and the mighty Fitzroy Rive]. Goodbye bitumen, hello spine jarring gravel and corrugations. But a bit of Guns N’ Roses goes a long way, and Axel and some air guitar carries us all the way into Windjana National Park where we set up for the night.

Stage 2

Windjana Gorge to Mount Barnett 250km, 5 hours After a six am alarm (painful) we go for an amble around the gorge before brekkie. Much more impressive by day – the sun hasn’t quite got going yet and it’s the perfect time to enjoy the trek along the sandy path through the paperbarks. Any thoughts of a dip are quickly canned when we see the water – basking nose to nose are some of the wrinkliest die-hard sunbathers I’ve ever seen. They’re only freshies, but it’s still a bit too croctastic. A fry up and a short ride later we hit Tunnel Creek – a 750m passage under the Napier Range. I nearly lose my breakfast a good few hours too early as we wade through – the torch is only good for picking out more gloom and all four of us completely brick it as a hitherto unseen croc suddenly thrashes to life to our left and then disappears completely. Thankfully all 16 fully attached limbs wind up back in the car as we head for Mount Barnett and, courtesy some madcap Danish driving, we arrive in time for the sunset with one puncture, one worn out thingummy bob (already said, mechanics is not my forte) and four sore arses. Easily fixed by Shane and his tool kit and a brief foray into the esky.

Stage 3

Mount Barnett to Drysdale River Station 130km, 4 hours After a decadent morning swim in Manning Gorge to wake us up and wash off yesterday’s sludge, it’s more straight driving north. We make stops to buy an ice cream at a mini roadhouse, inadvertently getting some rather gritty sprinkles on our 99s as the hi-speed dust cloud of the Gibb River Road express hurtles past in a flurry of gravel. Despite stoppage, we made it to Mount Barnett in record time. (Possibly why half a slab of unsecured beer exploded en route.) As we had scrapped plans to try to drive to Mitchell Plateau – apparently the former mine access road would more than scrap the car – Kerstin and Rich handed over the readies for the scenic flight. They said it was worth it, but Shane and I were skint so we went for a swim in Miner’s Pool to scare off the dust and throw out the swags for the night instead.

Stage 4

Drysdale River Station to El Questro 220km, 4.5 hours A good run today, through the Cockburn Ranges where we stopped for tea and scones (seriously) with an APT bus. Apparently the ‘P’ stands for ‘Pacific’, not ‘Pensioner’, but you’d never have guessed. Then on to the Pentecost River crossing and possibly a future candidate for a Darwin Award. For those unfamiliar with this tongue-in-cheek prize, the website explains it thus: “We salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who remove themselves from it. Awarded posthumously, by necessity.” You’ve probably received nominations as an office forward and I reckon this brain dead Aussie Sheila will definitely feature in the future. Firstly, she’s driving a Suzuki Grand Vitara, a 4WD designed for suburban mums to cut up commuters when they do the morning primary school run. It’s got the clearance of a roller skate and she’s trying to ford the Pentecost without a snorkel. Engine, water, yada yada – unsurprsingly it’s died about a third of the way across. She sees us make a quick photo stop on the opposite bank, but rather than hang fire until we come across – as we’re clearly going to – she hoiks up her pants and wades, WADES through the surging green water to speak to us! The Pentecost River is renowned for literally HEAVING with salties, and we were all amazed (and maybe a little disappointed) she made it across, but after securing our assistance she then turns around and goes to wade back. I had to practically drag her into the car. Unbelievable! We dragged her out with a snatch strap no worries, but a quick glance into her car showed how unprepared she was. Compared to us with enough gear to stage a small siege, she had nothing – no water, no food, no spare fuel. Just some books and some clothes, and she was headed all the way to Broome. And her appraisal of the situation? “Thanks guys. I’d run out of cigarettes and didn’t know how I was going to last the night.”

Stage 5

El Questro to Bungle Bungles 300km, 8 hours Still glowing from our first shower of the trip the night before, we shirk the crowds heading to Emma Gorge in favour of the lesser-visited Amalia Gorge, where a mad scramble over rocky outcrops and shimmering green pools is well rewarded by a swim in the inky black chill of the icy plunge pool. An hour later the guys are still trying to retrieve their ‘nads from somewhere near their ears (it was cold), so the girls take over driving duties. With the overpriced “authentic bush resort” tourist trap – aka El Questro – firmly in the rear view mirror, we head south, past the Argyle diamond mine and Carr Boyd Ranges to Turkey Creek, to grab some more supplies and then finally reach the turn off for Purnululu National Park. This 50km stretch of road was a real roller coaster ride – Kerstin sustained a head injury from falling tableware and Frank took a heavy pounding and a puncture, but everyone was too busy taking in the hazy purple sky and the spectacular sunset over the tiger-striped beehives to care. Awesome stuff.

Stage 6

Purnululu Frank gets a well-earned rest as we just drive the few remaining kms to the cones and walking trails. We check out Echidna Chasm, a narrow 1000m long fissure between 150 metre-high sheer rock walls, and Cathedral Gorge, a cavernous natural amphitheatre that returned our ridiculous catcalls with pleasing acoustics. It was good to get the pegs working before enjoying another Hollywood-perfect sunset that I reckon trounces Uluru by a long shot. And not a soul in sight…

Stage 7

Purnululu to Lake Argyle 350km, 7 hours As we exit the park, funny noises indicate something on the truck has given up the ghost on that ridiculous access road. But as we make an emergency pee stop, Shane manages to pull an A-team job with a length of wire and apparently “she’ll be right”. Fuel stop at Turkey Creek again, and then straight through to Kununurra and the bottle shop, getting every road train driver to join in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” over the radio. Kersten hit the big 32 today and after taking on birthday supplies we head to Lake Argyle and our finish line – tonight’s campfire drinkage marks the end of our Gibb River Road Cannonball Run. Thanks to good planning, constant tinkering with the car (well done the lads) and strategic beer stops – we’ve all made it in one piece. More or less. Everything is a uniform shade of red, and we’re so grubby our own mothers wouldn’t recognize us, but it was well worth it. Roll on next year! The experience: Western Xposure, Ph: 618 9414 8423.