Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cattle, Crossings, Lakes and the Perfect Pool - West into a sun setting on WA's Kimberly


ODO 96,000!

I'm back on the road again (no longer on The road, though I'll come to that). And the world is as it should be. I have a day to be in Broome (which I'm just outside), and I've done most of my chores. Not the ones that involve water (because I only have enough for me), but enough to derive some sense of satisfaction.

Going back, way back, to my last entry, I was in good old Katherine. I hung around Kath about two hours too long - which was perfect for setting the mood. The road out was warm, and with some good progress made a stop at Top Springs was definitely in order. On the map this place is a rather large dot. When you arrive you find a tiny roadhouse with $2/L unleaded. That says a lot about this stretch of land. It's not that there's nothing here (you don't have servos for nothing), but the roads all lead to cattle stations or indigenous communities, so it isn't exactly urban. Once you get off the main drag, that's what the NT is all about - that and the odd mine.

I won't go into too much detail, but I was heading out back to visit Dan and Alex (uni bike club) doing toadbusting research on a cattle station. The couple of days was a treat - despite some inexplicable antipathy for actually doing stuff (sorry Dan). On the Cox trip I was spoilt for volume of food, but here I was just plain spoilt. Thank whoever for their generosity. And it was great to get out and learn a bit about the bovine blood that feeds the NT. So the visit was more than just toads!

It would have been sad to leave had the road out not been so beautiful. So much so I was actually inspired, despite excrutiating heat, to take a few photos []. I headed North from Top Springs, past the Victoria River Downs station (the only life on the road for a couple hundred kms), where I duly stopped to top up the liquid of health (water!) and to ask about the roads. The track in passed three choppers outside a shed - with a fourth inside. Quite a few for one station - they're a maintenance depot, as it turned out. A couple of the guys came out as I arrived to say hello and check my insanity ("Well... there's probably been a couple of other roadbikes in my time here" - six years!), and work out what the bike was. Despite only dropping in for a two minute pit stop, I could not have been made more welcome. I was flattered at being offered coke and beer, while the slice I didn't say no to. Waiting in the shade for the sweat to cool off Hillke approached to ask if I wanted to accompany Tass - moving one of the choppers around the back! I didn't say no to that either! And didn't complain when 'moving it around the back' meant taking a five minute flyover of the main station! They're funky little things, mustering choppers. Just sitting in it and watching the startup procedure, the range of guages and instruments - thoroughly enthralling. So I was back on the road with a special little memory of Victoria River Downs - thanks to Hillke, Tass, Andrew and the Other Guy (75% is a pass), it was a stop I won't forget.

The approach to Jasper Gorge saw an increasingly beautiful backdrop to the quite solid dirt road, and I was on the lookout for a view to stop and record when I noticed an unscheduled campground by a billabong. Only when I pulled in and got off did I realise how rooted I'd gotten - less than 300km covered, and by lunchtime I needed a shower, bath, swim, steak, ice cream and 2.25L bottle of Gatorade. In reverse order. So out came the billy for a liquid lunch - and by that stage the place had obviously become a winner for that night's camp. I was in no state to continue on without some rest.

The next day proved no less arduous, but I paced myself to handle it better. I hadn't planned it, but since I'd made such an early start I figured I'd turn right towards Victoria River (roadhouse and river valley). The decision paid off with some of the most beautiful surroundings of the trip []. It almost seemed a cheat - the only thing that would have made it better would have been doing it on a lonely dusty track, rather than a trafficed tarred highway. I was in Timber Creek in time for a lazy lunch - plan being to sit out the heat. The pub turned out uninviting, but rising cloud cover signalled an early departure for a quick trip into the (Western section) Gregory NP. Now I love [savannah woodland [], and the top end has so much of it, but it had never really hit the right note until travelling through it on a twisty little park track. The quality was pretty good - I didn't really get the '4WD Recommended' until shortly after one particular 'Dip' sign, reinforced later by a 'River Crossing' which talked me into turning back early - that and the increasingly ominous sky. Two days prior at the station (Camfield, not VRD), all the talk was of rains - which never looked like coming, and didn't while I was there. These clouds though, they definitely looked like coming. They had been gathering from quite early on, and by this stage in the afternoon they were well and truly present. Thing was, though, after really struggling in the sun for two days - more than I had at any time previously on the trip - I was willing to look past the inconvenience, and forward to the prospect of cool, wet relief cascading from above. The don't call this season the build up for nothing.

In the end, rain fell - but not on me. The clouds had proven as reluctant as those from earlier in the week, though through sheer weight they did appear to inundate the highlands a few kms to the south of camp. I'd set up camp just in time to catch what did come, but the few drops were little more than symbolic - the night was as stuffy as ever, and as usual I woke with myself the only soggy object.

The next morning was the last little trot into Kununurra. After an hour or two riding through escarpment-bordered valleys the WA border approached with a change of scenery as much as any man-made formality. By the time the border was reached the land had taken on a dryness so much more stark than anything else in the NT - only the country around the Gulf of Carpentaria had the same feeling. The whole of the NT was dry - but the plants seem resigned to it, almost happy with a restful parching. Out here though it feels like the country is struggling with it - even as the road got nearer and nearer the sea.

That is not to imply there was any less beauty in it - the rocky hills on the road to Lake Argyle would have overshadowed any lesser lake. But Argyle! I suggest you look it up on a map - the quantitative comparison to bodies like Sydney Harbour does it no justice. Check out [some of the photos I took []. You see before you a huge lake - what's amazing is that the water does not stop with the valley, but extends through headlands to left and right as far as the eye can see. The section the dam and lookouts overlook is about a quarter of a tiny section near the top - perhaps itself ten percent of the total surface area. It is classed, apparently, as an inland sea, and the moniker is not unjustified - if you didn't know better you might assume it extends out into the Indian Ocean. Perhaps the most startling fact is that this whole area was brought about by a relatively small dam on one modest river about fifty years ago. A river, no less, which would have been more or less dry at this time of the year (hence the need for a dam). Wow.

Kununurra proved to be quite a nice little town. One of the county's newest (built to service the dam construction, and then the farmland that it irrigated), it has many different faces for such a little place. It has a bit of the sunshine/holiday of the Gold Coast, the getaway/resort of Noosa, the community of Tennant Creek, the agricultural variety of Atherton, the laid-back feel of the NT and the culinary feel of Darwin (well, a tiny bit). And it's built right up against a national park which rivals Kakadu for sheer, rocky gorgeousness. If you wanted to drift away from it all you shouldn't have much trouble getting work in tourism through the dry ('winter'), or agricultural stuff at many other times of the year. It's one of only two places off the East Coast which I'd describe as 'liveable' - Alice being the other. The only downside is that with 5/6 thousand people it is, despite its many faces, far to small. No aspect is developed enough to really engage. But that said, if you like small - or just want to get away from everything else - it'd be worth a try.

The only place I could think of better to spend a weekend catching the Phillip Island GP is the Island itself - a couple thousand kms less of a journey and that's where I would have been. Stoner having duly won it - a blow against his critics as much as against his competitors - it was time to head off - down the might Gibb.

Ask anybody that knows it and they'll respond with an understanding nod and a smile - the Gibb River road has an aura about its name. Part of that aura is the treachery and the challenge - the boss at Kununurra bike shop (cheers to Neville for letting me use the drill outside working hours!) declared in no uncertain terms "yes, you'll be breaking levers on that thing". A random ex-biker in Tennant Creek is still watching the news for the crazy biker from Sydney lost in the Kimberly. I was told even before I left that there is no way I should do a round trip on an SV, "because you will have to explain when people ask, why you didn't do roads like the Gibb."

For other people (mainly in 4WDs who've just done the journey), the first thing they tell you is about how amazing the trip is, how it's the most beautiful country in Australia. How it's hot, it's hard - but it's worth it. How you won't forget it - presumably, like they won't. And these are the people that tell you it's not as bad as others might say. "A roadbike!?" they might exclaim - but "brave" is their assessment, not "suicidal".

It doesn't take long to realise the assessments of 4WDers need to be taken with due respect to the their looking glass (a big metal cage with four drive wheels which won't fall over if you hit a big rock at 30kph). But they had one thing right - the road ain't that bad. 80% of it is rough, but easy going. 19.99% of it is rough as guts, but not dangerous. The other 0.001% is the Pentecost.

There are two crossings of this river. One into El Questro Gorge (resort, cattle station, and more importantly - source of fuel), and one on the road proper. I got into El Questro without drama. The crossing is long, wet (25cm) and rocky, but after two laps getting the boots nice and soggy I'd developed a plan which worked better than expected. On the way out... lets just say making it once doesn't mean it will be easy with 15kg more fuel (including a 6kg jerry perilously strapped), 5kg more bag - while vainly to keep your boots dry. First thing in the morning. No one factor would have been terminal, but as [they say;], accidents are all to often result of a set of seemingly innocent factors.

In the end the only real casualty was my bag of rice (although there's a fair chance it wasn't just the heat which cooked my mobile battery a couple of days later), and I actually picked myself up out of the water with more cheer than I'd gone in. It was annoying, but it's still funny when a bike ends up in the river, no matter whose it is. (Especially when the exhaust fills with water!) I guess I was pretty lucky, I had a lot of things which shouldn't have gotten off so lightly.

As it turns out, the main crossing of the Pentecost wasn't anywhere near as bad as it could have been. The rocks are worse, and it is probably a good 100m wide, but there was actually no necessary water crossing - everything had either evaporated by this point, or flowed underneath the rubble. The footing was boulderous by 4WD standards, but as solid as it was intimidating - I'd dropped it earlier because smaller loose rocks shifted while I was trying to steer around a big one. A bit of calm planning and cowboy throttle control (less is not more, more is more!)

If I wasn't so happy about having dominated the worst the Gibb had to throw at me I'd have stopped to take a photo - but as it was I thought that was just the beginning. In a sense, it is - the Pentecost marks the 'real' beginning to the Gibb, like a gateway that demands for you to prove you're serious before you pass. But in another way, the Pentecost is the only real hurdle to the Gibb. Any half-abled road bike with some sort of tyre (no canvass please!) would be able to do the rest, at some level of comfort and speed. It really isn't a 4WD track like some will have you believe (and like I was looking forward to, to be honest...) - it's two and a half lanes of flat, dusty, corrugated road. If they paved all the crossings you could do it in a hatchback or on a scooler. You might have half your bolts rattled out (I actually lost none!), but as long as you were expecting it you'd be fine.

But you want to hear about the Gibb River Road!? Well it is charming, and it is beautiful. As good as the road is, though, it is neither a back country track, nor a walk in the park. You need to watch it all the time - watch for rocks, sand, gravel, livestock... And it didn't have the momentous sense of adventure like a real track does - like the road should.

Once you get over the road not being the highlight of your time on the Earth you realise how much there is to appreciate. We all know I love savannah woodland, and it has it in spades. The far Eastern End (before the Pentecost) is absolutely stunning, as it cuts through the King Leopold Ranges at one tip of their crescent. Most of the middle is plains (/valley - but a big one!), and really pleasant country if not rivetting. When you get back into the King Leopold Ranges once again (and their foothills) the real charm of the Kimberly comes out. Mt Barnett River is nice, Bell Gorge is lovely, but Manning Gorge is heart rendering. This is exactly what the Gibb - nay, the whole Top End - is about, at least as far as the nature thing goes. It's so far from anything it's a miracle to be able to get there, and it has the perfect mix of swimming-spotted campground, with walk to even more astonishing higher pools - palm fringed, rocky or sandy as you choose, shady or sunny, with goannas, cormorants, fish, even a selection of warm or cool water! If I had known I'd have a day to spare I'd have spent it up there, walked it a couple of times, lounged by the various pools... As it so happens, it's the one I didn't get any photos of : ) I spent all my time there enjoying it so much, I'll just have to let you go and do the same. Go on! It'll be worth it.

In the end, that spare day I ended up with (today!), was because of an unexpected closure - I was pushing on to get through an elongated route down to Fiztroy Crossing when I hit a 'road closed' sign. Bushfires - just my luck. And that more-or-less meant the end to my Gibb River adventure. (All the more sad because it was just hitting the heat of the day and I was already ragged - very appreciative to come across a wonderful specimen of grotesquely beautiful Australian flora - giant, shady boab!)

I didn't complain when I'd filled up in Derby and discovered my economy calculations were spot on - I'd have made my original plan, I think, but if I'd gone another 15km down that road before hitting the closure I wouldn't have made the nearest servo. So my luck hadn't deserted me, just transmuted itself into a convenient ending.

I spent a pleasant enough five minutes in Derby - discovering a little something about WA which I sort of always knew... but that will wait for another time.

So today popped out of nowhere (I'm in Broome tomorrow and for the weekend, as MotoGP heads to Malaysia) - free of charge - and I suddenly have too much time to put off updating the blog. (I started writing entries four or five times, but I was always too tired to get beyond the first paragraph.) That ain't so bad. It's been a long week and a half. You've missed a lot. Me, I'm happy enough to sit down and relax.

Speaking of which.


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