The woman in the tourist office in the minute town of Kununurra, in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, had a face burnt dark by the sun. She was paler around the eyes where sunglasses had protected her skin. She looked bug-eyed and hysterical.
As she spoke she italicised words, terrorising me with her comments.
“There’s no problem with the Gibb River Road surface at the time being,” she assured me.
“Actually, it’s just been graded, so it’s dry and passable, if a bit corrugated in places. Naturally road conditions can change very quickly. You do of course have a four-wheel drive?”
All I and my sister Nicola had was a clapped-out VW Kombi dating from 1979, and when I said so the tourist official began thrusting brochures in my direction, offering a variety of other more sedate attractions, as if she couldn’t imagine I’d be foolish enough to abandon the highway.
“Is there anywhere to get petrol on the Gibb River Road?”
The woman pursed her lips. “It’s possible,” she said, as if speculating on the arrival of snow.
“Some of the stations out there might have some. It depends when they had their last delivery.”
Her tone gave me reason to imagine this event may have been decades ago, so cut off were these unfortunates from the rest of civilisation.
With the tourist officials warnings about flash floods and lack of petrol ringing in our ears, we bade her farewell. I knew a bit corrugated meant spine-crunching and longer than anticipated meant bones bleached white under the pitiless sun. But I’ve never been able to argue with my sister, who claimed that her independent research among the locals suggested that there was indeed petrol available – “somewhere” as she airily expressed it – and that she certainly hadn’t driven all the way to this northwest corner of Australia for nothing.
With the legendary Kimberley, truly one of the last great frontiers, just down the road, she was determined to have her Crocodile Dundee moment.
The next morning we left the tarmac behind and started down the Gibb River Road, good judgement fuddled by yesterday’s bottle of vodka.
Nicola drove as I squinted out at stunted bushes and potholes. It was difficult, because of the dust, to see the corrugations: if the van hit them unexpectedly there was a tremendous rattling through the bodywork, and saucepans and books were sent flying. At other times the road was pale sand, causing the wheels to spin and the van to slew violently from side to side.
I clutched my head and moaned as Nicola cackled in amusement.
Next day, though, I began to relax and see beyond the dust and difficulties to the weird beauty of the Australian outback.
Barnett River, Manning and Galvan’s Gorges were beautiful places, tight valley ends of plunging rock, cupping deep water-holes afloat with water lilies.
With their coolly refreshing water, these gorges offer a well-earned respite from the heat and aridity of the track, and we wallowed and washed like hippos.
On the fourth afternoon, 400kms into the Kimberleys, my sister and I turned off the Gibb River Road down a long, winding track, and camped at Adcock Gorge.
The next morning we scaled the gorge walls (well, hauled and panted our way up anyway) to sit triumphantly on the lip of the waterfall.
Cockatoos, disturbed, wheeled indignantly along the cliff face, their white wings catching the sunlight as they swooped around the stunted bushes that grew miraculously from its fissures.
“Bloody screaming chickens,” said my sister dismissively.
Up shit creek…
Back down under the boab trees the engine of our van made a noise like a rhino with a bone stuck in its throat and fell silent.
In my unease I shouted insultingly at my sister and bundled her out of the driving seat, but I made no impression on the recalcitrant motor.
“It’s a two-hour walk to the Road,” Nicola said.
“You’re supposed to stay with your vehicle if you break down. Wait for someone to come along.”
“Come along! This isn’t the Champs-Elysées on a Saturday morning. Next time someone comes along, they’ll be poking at our skeletons.”
“You’re trying to tell me you’re going to walk two hours in this blazing heat?” I asked.
“No, I was thinking of opening my umbrella and flapping off over the gum trees.”
Half an hour later Nicola yelled, “Who was the one wanted to come to the Kimberleys anyway!?”
“I didn’t!” Self-righteously, I remembered how I had been cajoled into the trip under the influence of cheap Australian wine on a beach in Darwin.
“I told you the tool kit was hopelessly inadequate and we wouldn’t have enough petrol,” I added.
This was perverse, because we had, in fact, managed to tank up at Mt Barnett, although I didn’t feel it necessary to mention this.
And just then Nicola turned the ignition key once more, and the engine caught.
“Get in, get in!” she screamed, pressing down on the accelerator and almost leaving me behind.
We kept going, almost afraid to stop now, aghast at our own inadequacy, hauling our way up through the King Leopold Ranges and finally turning southwards, leaving the Gibb River Road but staying on an unsurfaced track that would lead us back to the highway near Fitzroy Crossing.
We stopped in the relative safety of the campsite at Windjana Gorge, a quiet and atmospheric place, haunted by giant fruit bats and freshwater crocodiles.
With the sun gone, the limestone cliffs, deeply indented and eroded into Gothic fantasies, now glowed honey-coloured in the last remaining light.
After all, the Kimberleys were beautiful.
I smiled at my sister, glad we’d been.
The damage: Whatever you’ve paid for vehicle rental, or to buy some demon wheels.
The details: The Gibb River Road is accessible May to October. For more info, visit www.kimberleytourism.com