Travelling North – Parts 8 and 9

VIII

The Kimberley Grand reception was the scene of a minor tremor on the Sunday.  Exultant in the level of luxury I was now in, I went back to reception to find out how to equip myself to celebrate.  There was a most charming, if slightly austere, lady of Chinese extraction behind the desk.

Does this noble establishment come to a bottle shop?

I am afraid not, Sir.

Well, can you point me to the nearest?

There may not be mush point in that, Sir?

Why not?

They are closed all Sunday.  You cannot buy alcohol in containers on Sundays in Kununurra.

Well, well, well.  Let us now be crystal clear on one thing.  These are licensed premises and I can get a drink here as a guest whenever I want to – even on Sunday.

The good lady confirmed this with a sunny smile, and Mafeking had been relieved.  But what if some bunny in a group had found themselves in the position that I had been in and had been despatched up here on a mercy mission – and arrived on a dry Sunday – and had to go back empty-handed to the parched troops by then under a tree inscribed ‘DIG HERE’?

The Kimberley Grand had in its reception area two large paintings purportedly by aboriginal artists whose work I have versions of at home.  I say ‘purportedly by’ because there was no signature or ascription of the painter, but they were identifiably in the style of each of those artists.  I am not an expert, but I had the clear view that at least one of them was not the real deal.  This form of copy-catting may not be too bad, but it shows the kind of problem these people may have in marketing their art, the best of which has commanded very high prices in Paris and New York.  Over breakfast, Trevor told me that for much of the day at Warmun, I could see a blackfella sitting outside the community shop under a stockman’s hat whose work sold for $20K.  This is why I queried what would happen to the purchase price of the two little paintings by children that I bought at the Mowanjan Gallery at Derby.

Two of my favourite aboriginal paintings are by Freddie Timms, a former stockman from around Broome.  They are like the aerial views of Rover Thomas, but in thrillingly bright colours.  When I first went to Broome about fifteen years ago, I only had one, and I told the agent that I might run into Freddie at Broome.  The reply was that Freddie might well be in the Broome slammer as we spoke.  You always seem to run into these contradictions – if that is the word.

Something quite remarkable happened when I got to my previously booked accommodation at Kununurra.  I was served from behind the counter by someone who was Australian born, and it started to happen more often, although the French presence remains strong.  The Ibis Styles is what I think is called budget accommodation, but it is very adequate and very well managed by young and keen staff, with the capacity to eat around the pool when it got cooler.  I met a guy there named Don who was a painter from Geelong, and who was a dead ringer for Roman Polanski.  His wife Wala was from Germany with a Russian mother – or vice versa – and we shot the breeze over two evenings.

I had decided almost immediately on getting into my room at the prior establishment to book a fly and drive tour into the Bungles, and I had booked and paid for this on the Sunday.  It was a bit more than $800, but this was really the focal point of the trip, and the marred visit of the Saturday, even with the helicopter flight, now hardly looked adequate, and it would have been something that I would have come to regret if I had left it at that.

This town is far more settled and green and orderly than others that I have been to up here.  Perhaps it goes back to the wealth created by the Ord River Dam and the miners.  The town has a sense of confidence and purpose that I did not see elsewhere – except perhaps in Broome, which is also a tourist hub, and more of a venue in its own right, and with access to mining and other wealth.  Diamonds and pearls can do wonders for a town.

But a sense of confidence or purpose is not something that I saw in the first inhabitants of this land.  I can hardly recall seeing many such people doing a job with a sense of purpose or at all.  The contrast with the young Europeans and Australians in work is as marked as it is depressing.  What you do see everywhere is groups of indigenous people sitting in public places in the shade of a tree – you never see white people meeting like that.  Or you see people on their own flip-flopping about aimlessly, and in a dishevelled fashion.  We know that these people can rise very high in art and sport, but we have a lot of trouble helping them out in other ways.  It is very sad.

One way to see the Kimberley would be to use this town and Broome, or possibly just one of them for the base for tours.  You could visit a lot of places around both in cheap orthodox vehicles and get professional operators to traverse the hard parts by 4WD, air, or water.

Lake Argyle, including the Ord River Dam, is most imposing from any perspective.  It is set deep in a dry and craggy landscape – like a sand-blasted loch in the Highlands.  You can take a tour by catamaran.  I was told that in some places you are out of sight of land.  People swim there all the time – they do not worry about the fresh-water crocs.  There is a division of view about the salties there – they are the local Loch Ness Monster.  Either category was enough for me to keep my togs dry, and keep the swimming to the pool; I also inclined to the view that I would require something in the nature of the Dreadnought to go out in a boat.  On my last trip to Kakadu, I heard on the radio of two blokes fishing in a tinnie – that tipped over – obliging them to test the world record for the 50 meter freestyle sprint to save their skins.

Wyndham, if you look at the map, is the end of the line – and it bloody well feels like it.  It is at one degree of separation from Halls Creek, but there is somehow a more stately and historical feel to its sense of decay.  You feel like you could make a film about the end of the world there.  It has a racetrack, a footy ground (that bristles with signs banning booze), and three cemeteries – including one for the Afghans, comfortably off limits, thank you.

It also has a sparkling police station and courthouse.  God knows what you have to do to get sent to the former, or to get taken to the latter; God only knows the troubles they see there.  Yet you go into places and meet people who are surprisingly normal and sane.  I even managed to buy an HB pencil in the Post Office and the affable young man in the bottle shop – yes, a bottle shop – was at least part aboriginal.  But Wyndham was also about three degrees hotter.  The heat now is a matter to think of when touring – these temperatures make any kind of sustained exercise tricky – as I would find out.

El Questro offers walks, gorges and swimming about 50 ks off the Wyndham Road, and accommodation which ranges from the merely expensive, as everything is up here, to the utterly fabulous.

When I got back to my comfortable budget hotel, and went to check out dinner prospects, I came across a blackfella in the middle of town flopping aimlessly around in the middle of the road, and shouting obscenities into the dusky sky.  But for his anguish, he might have been baying at the moon.

IX

The words ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ may not stand for much in our culture now – nor, for that matter, may the word ‘culture’ in a realm of selfies.  White people up north, especially those with roles for tourists, tend to refer to the culture of the indigenous people.  This is I think a handy way of saying that they have different ways and customs to ours – although many of their customs will I think be much older than ours.

You will see admonitions at tourist sites to protect the culture of the indigenous people.  This, too, I think is right.  So when I flew over the Bungles in the chopper with Ben, he pointed to an area that I think was called Horseshoe Valley, and said that they were precluded from flying over that area out of respect for the religious beliefs of the aborigines.  I was not clear what kind of preclusion he was referring to.  Was it illegal to fly over there?  I think not.  Certain gorges could only be entered with an elder.  Is it illegal to go in without one?  I thought of this when a guy said that at Kakadu, you can be fined up to $50K for disturbing crocodile eggs.  I doubt whether anyone will get fined that amount for disturbing the religious sensibility of anyone, let alone that of a blackfella.  It is curious how we sometimes put animals above humans.

On Tuesday, I was mighty glad that I had decided to take the fly/drive trip back to the Bungles, and into Cathedral Gorge.  This was to be the highpoint – the grail of the quest.

A bus picked me up at the Ibis at 8.15am and dropped me back at about 5.30pm.  The staff at Aviair were assured and professional.  The flight down in a single engine Cessna took about an hour.  There were about eight of us on board, although two Swiss people were just doing the two hour return trip – I would run into them later at Kakadu; I noticed that they held hands during take-off – and the ground tour would take others from another airline.

The pilot, Michael, gave a very good commentary on the way down.  We learned all about the Ord River Dam and Lake Argyle.  The idea was to water our food basket.  We instead flew over plantations of sandalwood and pumpkins.  The sandalwood is used for perfume, and that is a good business to get into, but you have to have the right strain – like grapes for wine, I suppose, and heaven knows that they depend on terroir – but it takes about fifteen years for these trees to mature.  Then when you look at the size of the cattle stations, you get an idea of what is meant by the word capital.  And you certainly get that idea on the way back when you fly over the diamond mine – which I and the lady across the aisle were happy to hear was owned by Rio Tinto, a company we held shares in.  That is a good business to be in too, but the undertaking is truly immense.  There is a huge inverted ziggurat carved out of the earth, which is worked from a large village, and the labour is flown in by jet to a privately owned two kilometre long bitumen airstrip – capital, indeed.  The miners are flown for two shifts of seven days, one of night shift, and the other of day shift.

We collected on the ground and about eight of us proceeded on a trip in a ten passenger 4WD with Bruce, a very experienced and professional guide.  We would spend about an hour on the bus to and from the south of the Bungles, and have about two hours down there for a short walk and the lunch that had been packed.

Bruce filled us in about the basics of the geology, fauna and flora and the local aboriginal customs.  For example, because local aboriginal men tended to marry much younger women, a custom had grown up that a married man would not look his mother-in-law in the eye; to this day, they do not like to ride in the same vehicle: then we got the guide’s gag about the similarities to white culture.  Bruce told me that he had tread Darwin’s Origin of Species, and I believed him.  I also inferred that he had been mangled in the Palm-tree Palace.  I asked what he did during the wet, and he said he just enjoyed being a tourist.

We were right in the middle of the famed bee-hive domes, and very near the site where they shot that ad with the schoolchildren choir for Qantas to that awful song by Peter Allen.  We were to walk along the Picaninny track to the Cathedral Gorge, which is one of the famous spots in the Bungles.  We passed a sign offering a quick 400 meter round trip and I nearly told Bruce that that would do me.  We had lots of water, but I soon felt drained, and then distressed.  I was struggling.  It was 35 and very humid.  It felt intimidatingly hot.  When we got within the cool of the Gorge, in a protected wadi, I was glad to be able to sit down in the shade and tell Bruce that he and the others could go on the extra two hundred meters or so and pick me up one way back.  It was an interesting if unsettling lesson in the brutality of the bush – and the frailty that comes with age.

That incident in no way detracted from what I got out of that whole visit.  We were astounded.  I spoke to a number of people, from here and Europe, and they were all entranced – entranced is I think the word, because where we were had a certain magic about it.  It is definitively Australian magic, although I was again in part reminded of the Grampians in Victoria and Table Mountain in Cape Town.  In addition, there were aspects down there that reminded me of Arizona – sharp, deeply coloured escarpments etched into the skyline with promontories broken off like charred icebergs.  This is elemental territory.

I asked Bruce about sealing the road in.  He said that those who controlled the area commercially were in favour of it, but it would have to be a major government initiative.  Controlling the resulting human flood will take care.  One thing I appreciated at the Grand Canyon was how unspoiled it was.  The tourist hub is more than 20ks away, and there is very little on the rim itself.  If tour operators get a free run here, there could be mayhem.  I spoke to a young couple from Zurich.  They were quite carried away in an un-Swiss manner.  They had seen where we had just been on TV and decided that they just had to come here.  When I was fading on the walk, I was helped an encouraged by a woman of Italian heritage half my age and with a religious name who spoke in the same terms.

It is very odd that this substantial jewel in our tourist crown was only ‘discovered’ about thirty years ago.  A Channel 9 crew went into do a story on a cattle station, and the resulting documentaries started a tourist trickle that just keeps growing.  It is a natural asset that is part of the world’s heritage, and I suspect that it may come to have a kind sacred value even to God-doubting white people, and even without the lachrymose ad.  And even to those who can’t leave their iphone alone, but just keep taking selfies.

These small group tours in people-carriers are very different from big bus tours – in both numbers and duration.  They are therefore easier to handle and much less risky in whom you draw.  There was a farmer from Albany named Bob, I think, in our group who was five years older than me – and fitter on the walk (although I incline to the view that he cheated by firming up with a Mars Bar before we started.)  Bob was travelling with his wife – they said something about hay – and both had that weathered face of people on the land.  Bob had quietly dancing eyes, and his wife’s face was suffused with a kind of permanent youth.  Bob said that he had been on the land all his life and that he would not mind having a go at the Canning stock Route for what he called historical purposes.  But for going to major attractions off the better roads, he much preferred to leave all the worry and the risk to experts, and travel in the way that he and I and his wife and Maria and the Swiss couple were.  Bob and his wife were being picked up at 6.30 the next morning to go to El Questro, and Maria was giving his wife the heads up on a hard gorge walk there.

For myself, Bob’s view has a lot to be said for it, especially for people getting on and who have less mechanical skill or knowledge of the bush than Bob.  He looked at me – in that kindly way that he shared with his wife – and said: ‘Geoff, this is a big country, a bloody big country, and a lot of people lie dead out there because they just did not see how bloody big it is.’

You know exactly what Bob meant if you have just got into trouble after only half an hour in walking over sand under a brutal and unforgiving sun.

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