Up Your North – Parts 10 to 13


The trip from Kununurra to Katherine is about 500ks.  It takes about five hours and there is a one and a half hour time change from Western to Central Australia.  I had originally planned to break the trip with a night at Timber Creek or Victoria River, but I changed my mind to have more night in Katherine.

It was just as well – these places have roadhouse accommodation, and not much else.  They are not as depressing as Halls Creek, but nothing to write home about either.  There is some very attractive escarpment country around those two stops, and some big river views, but otherwise the trip is uneventful.

I was finishing off the Iliad read by Anton Lesser.  Since I also have him reading Paradise Lost and this was the Cowper translation, I could easily get the two epics confused – there are plenty of battles and ‘consults’.  I forget how Cowper translates the part where Priam, the father of the Trojan warrior Hector seeks out that outrageous sulk Achilles to reclaim the slain body of his son, but I recall Peter O’Toole in a frightful film saying:

I have done what no man before me has done

I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.

We find it remarkable that those lines were written between two and three thousand years ago.  The Bungles were being formed hundreds of millions of years ago.  God knows how long the blackfellas have been there – somewhere well beyond 40,000 years, possibly as much as twenty times the period between Homer and us.

Some people do not speak well of Katherine, but I saw nothing untoward – at least in comparison to what I had seen elsewhere.  The aborigines can get raucous at night, and I saw hardly any assimilation, but the parties appear to have achieved a kind of modus vivendi.  There is a strong police presence – and I do mean presence – and the liquor restrictions are different.  I was told that extra police were in town to crack down on those restrictions.

Sure enough, when I went to a bottle shop, there was a copper just standing outside, and casting a benign eye on some blackfellas kicking up a small ruckus down the road.  Chris at the Pine Tree Motel had told me I would be asked to produce my licence, and evidence of my accommodation.  I just bought some beer and wine and the young lady who served me waved aside my licence and room-key – she said I would have needed that for cask wine or fortified wine but not for what I had bought.  Since the copper was only ten feet away, I think she was probably right.  I could recall Frank saying that they had stopped cask wine in Broome, but that this had upset the grey nomads and done little for the blackfellas.

When I drove out to Katherine Gorge, I passed a stern sign: ‘Keep out – community access only.’  I take it that ‘community’ meant the local indigenous tribes.  If so, it really means ‘Whites keep out,’ a kind of reverse apartheid.  Putting to one side questions of legality, I could not help wondering about the wisdom of this policy.  Ironically, an ambulance was going in as I passed, and I assumed that the signed prohibition would not have extended to white ambulance officers called to attend to sick aborigines.  I daresay that if a pub put up a sign ‘Blackfellas keep out,’ we would hear a different level of noise.

Depending on your direction of travel, you might be about gorged out by the time that you get to the Katherine Gorge.  It is a short drive on a sealed road and there are quite adequate amenities – including helicopters, canoes, cruise boats, and a good café and shop.  The daily weather sign said: ‘38 and humid.  Start walks early.’  After ten minutes in the sun, I knew what they meant and started to feel signs of distress.  I retreated to the shop and museum and took in the sights by a slide show.  It featured very large and nasty snakes as well as crocs, and killed any idea I might have had of a longer walk.  I took tea in the café served by a Frenchman and a blackfella.  I even got in a gag.

I cased a ‘Happy’ takeaway joint just around the corner from the Pine Tree Motel.  I observed that it was being patronised by black locals and white copper (in a lethal looking Monaro) and that people of Chinese extraction were working the kitchen.  By the time I got there for dinner, the Chinese food was off the menu, and for the first time in my life I ate Barramundi, which is everywhere up here – with a load of batter that would bring tears to the eyes of the heart surgeon whose opinion I am waiting on.

On the first night at the Pine Tree, I had had a choose-your-own hamburger with other guests around the barbecue beside the pool.  This becomes a social hub, as at the Ibis in Kununurra.  This motel is very well and happily run, and it is a good place to stay in Katherine.  The staff are very friendly, and I like a place where the staff can take the mickey out of the boss –who is patiently used to switching on wifi into the iphones of idiots like me.

For the first time in ten days I bought a newspaper.  That was a mistake.  Then I made a bigger mistake.  I switched on the TV – and to an Australian news service.  There I saw film of two oafs – Abbott and Dutton – standing before God knows how many of our silly imperial flags and devoutly singing the national anthem as they launched a group pf Blackshirts who had sworn, apparently, a kind of oath of fealty to their uniform.  This film was being shown because that day these blackshirted clowns had already revealed themselves as serious Keystone Cops by threatening to arrest the City of Melbourne.

The road from Katherine to Kakadu is not of much interest.  There was a venerable old store called Ah Toy’s at pine Creek that somehow reminded me of Cannery Row.  There is a further roadhouse at Mount Mary, but I would not advise staying at any of these places, like Halls Creek, Timber Creek, or Victoria River, except in emergency.  The services are better in the bigger towns, and in some of these places, it is the white people who look scratchy.  The Mount Mary roadhouse featured a large set of photos of ugly looking snakes.  I bought a black long-sleeved T with a croc on it.  It should be well received when the bikies are in town.  This Mount Mary is very different to the home of those distinguished Victorian reds.

The whole road from there into Jabiluka is burnt out.  At one time, I drove through heavy smoke, and in clear sight of an unattended blaze.  That can be unsettling to survivors of Black Saturday in Victoria.


Cooinda Lodge is about 50 ks south of the main tourist centre of Jabiluka.  It is very modern and swish.  At $300+ a night, it bloody well ought to be.  It is light years away from my accommodation for the previous Saturday, the famous Bungles Caravan Park, and I planned to savour the difference after an easy three hour drive, starting with a slap-up lunch.  It is only about 290 ks to Darwin from here, and I was checked in early, by a young French man and American woman, while a Russian maid called Emily finished servicing my room or cabin.

There is a cosmopolitan feeling all along the route, but one thing that you notice in the Kimberley is the genuine pride of the locals in what they have to offer.  You get it all the time, and I did not feel it as much in Kakadu.  As I remarked to Maria at Cathedral Gorge, I could recall going up through the centre in 1964 via Alice Springs, Tenant Creek and Mount Isa, and hitch-hiking back from Townsville.  I was struck by the number of people who would point out the window, and say: ‘Do you see that country there?  That is God’s country, mate.’  I thought that this was bonzer – until I found out about their politics

One thing I noticed immediately about my room – or suite – at Cooinda – beautifully built as it was (and opened by Clyde Holding) – is that it does not have a welcome book showing the services of the establishment, a phone, a writing desk, or even a chair inside – they are all outside, on your own portico, but not so easy to put inside.  Nor does the Lodge offer wifi.  The Pine Tree Lodge offered all this and more – at about one third of the cost.  Even the humble Derby Lodge Motel had a phone and wifi.  The upshot is that I am for the first time out of touch on-line – and in the dearest place.  We are I fear in rip-off territory.

The lunch was mostly self-serve and not air-conditioned.  The restaurant was said to be closed for a private function – for the whole of my stay, as I would discover.  The couple beside me had to clear their own table.

I had seen enough to cancel the third night.  I am very much in favour of the Scottish – it may be British – system of accredited ratings to tourist accommodation, where you have to offer certain facilities to get so many stars.  Since tourism is a real part of our economy, this is a matter of national interest.  I am wondering if the Territory does as good a job as W A.  Nor do I think that we as a nation have any interest in offering up products to people from our major trading partners that make us look like Hicks – or crooks.

You do not need a Harvard MBA to know that in hospitality, first impressions count.  If a relationship starts badly, because something obvious is missing, it may never recover.  Some people have no sense of business at all.  I was reminded of a Shell servo 300 meters off the highway as you come into Kununurra from the west.  It is invisible from the highway, but it has a car-wash that I later heard of by accident.  While I was getting change for the car-wash from the nice Asian man at the counter, a wizened local was giving him a razz about his boss.  It looked to me like she lets a large part of the population of Australia just cruise by without even knowing that she is there.

Well, what man has left out, God might put together.  As you come up from Katherine, there are the Edith Falls which are part of the Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge), and in the Kakadu N P, there is Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) before you reach Cooinda.  I had been there before, so from now on I was on ground that was not new.  They say that you can get a swim up there.

At Cooinda, there is the Yellow Water, and you are not far from the Jim Jim Falls turn-off, another 50+ks of brutal road, and Noarlangie Rock, which is a far more accessible site, even for wheelchairs, and which features some rock art.  I had previously gone up to the aboriginal settlement at Oenpelli where all grog is banned, and I had seen a footy match where the blackfellas were running around in bare feet kicking goals from all angles, while some white boys waddled round to make up the numbers.  The one thing that tourists should do here is to take a fixed wing flight to get a view of the escarpment, and a sense of what Arnhem Land is like.  It is as if you are seeing it as God made it.  The aerial view of the crocs in the Gulph is, for the want of a better word, impressive.

The lodge redeemed itself a little at dinner when it offered a lamb shank.  The shank was on the bar before the drink I ordered – which was a shiraz from a chilled bottle into a chilled glass, poured by a young woman from Melbourne to go with a shank ordered from a young man from Indiana.  We had quite a chat about Lincoln.  It was not until the next night that I learned that I could get a red unchilled, and a full bottle of it – after I had been unable to buy a bottle in Jabiluka – and there is not much more reason to go in there.

Breakfast was fair, but at $300+ a night, I do not expect to have to get salt and pepper in packets to apply to food on a bare unset table.  It was not nearly as good as the breakfast at Pine Tree Motel, which served the best bacon I have eaten in Australia.

After I revisited some sites, I took a pleasant buffet lunch.  When I asked the man at the bar the temperature, he consulted his iphone.  He said he was on Telstra and that they had their own signal station.  I then got reception to fix mine – something about data usage – and I was back in touch.  This is the kind of thing that should be dealt with in the introduction book, but I did notice then that they had a sign apologising for not having wifi.  And I found out that at this location they were not offering half hour flights – that is a shame, because you can see a lot in 30 minutes, and I doubt whether the extra expense is worth it.

While out, I picked up two backpackers from France, Toulouse and Lyon.  I was a little surprised that they did not know what had happened to Lyon during the Terror, or the identity of the man responsible.

There was a very scenic billabong with a jetty at the end of the path outside my cabin.  It is sternly guarded with warnings, this time in at least some other languages, about the capacity of salt-water crocs to kill people.  The nice young French man at reception told me that they used to fish off that jetty, but had lost some enthusiasm when they kept catching the eye of a seven meter croc who looked unhappy.


The bad news for the AFL is that the footy grounds from Katherine to Jabiluka are for rugby.  They only get to AFL at about Darwin, and the road into there from Kakadu is what a Danish prince called ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.’  That citation seems hardly apt since on my way in I was listening to Dylan Thomas sounding like an inflated Welsh cantor with a bad hangover.

The road is not in good nick, and for about 20ks I was locked between two four-unit road trains because there was no overtaking lane – which did not stop two presumably local maniacs whistling past the three of us, and the Welsh poet, when they could not possibly have known if it was safe to do so.  I recalled that Bob from Albany had given another reason for leaving driving up to the pros – ‘You never what kind of stuff some idiot coming the other way may be on.’  The risk of hoons rises as you get near a city – I did not see any dangerous driving in the outback.

Darwin is bigger than I recall it, an odd kind of cosmopolitan kitsch and tropical drop-out zone.  The main issue is the temperature – it is either uncomfortable or unbearable.

I discussed this and other things at the drop-off point for the Nissan.  I told the very relaxed and amiable guys there that it had not missed a beat, but that the launch had been at best farcical.  I noticed their eyes dilate on a couple of issues, and they had a firm view about the superiority of the Toyota.  (The precise phrase was ‘a shitload of difference.’)  We also discussed the weather conditions.  I thought I should have come earlier; they said it would be more dry, but it is hard to imagine it drier than I saw it.  The Wetlands coming into Darwin were bone dry and scarred by fire.  But if you go in the wet, the heat gets much worse, and you risk roads, including major roads becoming impassable.  I said that I did not fancy stalling in a stream and looking out for crocs.  They said that on the road to Oenpelli, which I had passed that morning, and driven through some years ago, you could see crocodile tracks getting closer to the road as the water rose to cover it.  That is the sort of thing that you would rather hear at the end a trip than at the beginning.  It would not be pleasant to become a person of interest to a croc in a place like that.

I took pot luck on the Novotel in town.  It was more than adequate and a about half the price and much better appointed than my lodging the night before.

Before dinner, I watched a documentary on NITV about an aborigine who had been very badly on the grog for many years.  He had got off it, and now holds a solo pilot’s licence.  That seemed to me to be a very large achievement.  He spoke very movingly.  The young people need to learn their culture ‘because that is their life.’  The risk is that they end up between cultures and with no tribe.  No wonder so many succumb to the empty darkness of the bottle.

I took dinner at the hotel outside on the most balmy evening I had felt the whole time away.  I joined an Irish environmental scientist from Limerick.  He was very interesting on the economic recovery of Ireland and the reversal of the great migration that is now happening – he and his New Zealand wife will certainly stay here.

Later we invited Heinz, a German from Frankfurt not far south of me in years.  Heinz had just spent about two weeks in the middle of nowhere – Arnhem Land – with some colleagues and a guide.  He regularly comes here or goes to Africa to hunt.  Hunting in Germany is much, much more upmarket than here.  It is obviously a lifelong passion for Heinz.  You could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.  His specialty – if that is the term: ‘party trick’ would be tart – is that he uses what is called a flintlock rifle.  It is a replica of a muzzle loaded rifle in use about 250 years ago.  It is literally ‘powder and shot’ – but you only get one shot.  You need to be within 50 yards to kill one of those big bullocks, so you need to have a steady nerve, and a back-up, who presumably knows how to operate a weapon with a lot bigger calibre than my 30.06 Steyr (made in Austria, and used by Australian infantry).  I forget the calibre of the shot that Heinz uses, but I think it was at least of the order of the biggest used in orthodox bolt action rifles made today.

This was a really compelling discussion – with photos.  I have only seen passion and acquired skill like that in fly fishermen.  I remember a discussion at the Ballarat Fly Fishers’ Club when I was discussing shooting.  The guy I was talking to pointed to a member who was on the land.  He said: ‘Do you see that guy – he hunts like he fishes.  Just bloody deadly.’  You come across it in all sports.  At one casting lesson, I said ‘Who’s that old bugger over there trying his hand’.  ‘A former Australian champion, you bloody idiot.’  That’s the bloody trouble – they make it look so bloody easy.

We discussed the different kinds of lightning in Europe, Africa, and Australia.  I was amazed by it in Africa, and Heinz was attracted to it here.  Lightning is likely to be of interest to white hunters and blackfellas.  The one I had seen on TV earlier had spoken of how the land is renewed in the wet, our word for the monsoon.  He referred to the thunderstorm ‘the giver of life, the mover of clouds – it gives you life back.’  It called to mind the music of Richard Wagner in Das Rheingold for the entry of the gods into Valhalla – a dazzling invocation of tribal rite and faith.


When I did bankruptcy cases, more than forty years ago, the late Mr Justice Sweeney, with the inevitable politesse of a knight of the church, said to me on more than occasion: ‘Mr Gibson, you are too young to have seen this, but during the war, the trains used to carry a sign, ‘Is this journey really necessary?’’  The great German philosopher Wittgenstein had a recollection to the same effect in his common-place book – he thought that most bad thinking came from asking the wrong question.

You learn more from a journey than a book, and it does not make much sense to ask whether my journey from Broome to Darwin was really necessary.  (It was originally planned in the other direction, but Australian 4WD said that I could avoid the return fee of one thousand dollars if I reversed it.)  I wanted to do this trip, and I am glad that I have.  I have now travelled overland over most of Oz.  I had seen Kakadu and the West Kimberley before, but I wanted to traverse the lot.  The Bungles were a prime objective and duly became the highpoint.

But, as I heard a lady say after a walk, ‘I am glad that I did it, but I feel no need to do it again in the near future, if at all.’

Let us put to one side cruising the coast, which is very expensive, or doing an air safari, which is even more expensive.  Let us put to one side big bus tours.  Let us also put to one side those who pull vans or camp – they do it because they like it and it suits them.  From my observation, the range of sorts of people travelling this way is as wide as the range of means to do so.  For example, the bigger new vans come with all facilities, and you can get home units built into the vehicle – I am told that there is a growing trend here to follow the US model of using one of these and pulling a small 4WD behind for travel at the destination.  These people have access to social life – a communal drink – in the evenings that motels are learning to seek to emulate with the barbecue and pool.

Let us look at my model – driving yourself across the region, and staying in reasonable or better fixed accommodation.  You will be told, or should be warned, that you will need the biggest and best 4WD at least for the Jim Jim Falls, the Bungles, and the gorges off the Gibb River Road.  That raises the cost of the exercise, and what for at least some will be the worry of driving through hazards.  The rough roads also increase the risk of breaking down – I met a guy at Darwin airport who had blown two tyres on one trip to Jim Jim Falls; the second one led to a long delay while they brought in the replacement.

My base costing is shown in the original itinerary set out at the end of this book.  I varied this by reducing the stays at the Bungles and Kakadu for the reasons I have stated.  The fuel costs (diesel) were about $760.  The two flights into the Bungles cost about $1400 between them.  If you add the Itinerary costs of $6692, you get about $8800 without meals.  That is a lot of money, but a lot of it is the cost of travelling alone – the accommodation and land travel costs would be the same for a couple.

An alternative would be to base your trip around one or more hubs, and hire professionals to do the hard and dirty bits.  You could then just relax, whether at your base or on the move, and come out much better informed – and, as like as not, much more relaxed.

One variation would be to fly to Darwin and hire a cheap orthodox car to go to and from Kakadu for say three nights, and then fly to Kununurra for say four nights and then fly to Broome for say five nights – allowing for say a two night tour into the West Kimberley, and possibly a flight to the Horizontal Falls.  You would want at least a full day tour in Kakadu, and the fly-drive tour to the Bungles.  I also wanted to do the flight to the coast and Mitchell Falls, but the one day a week this was on did not fit my schedule.  You might also consider something like that schedule with a train trip from Adelaide to Katherine or Darwin, or from Perth to Sydney.

If you pursued an option like that, you would have as good a notion of the vastness of it all as someone who has driven all the way.  The roadhouses are not worth stopping at; a lot of the scenery is tedious; and you do not have to go up every gorge, or gaze upon every waterfall.

If you wanted to go that way, and narrow the focus, I would suggest cutting out Kakadu and concentrating on the Kimberley and the two main towns.  They are much, much better served for accommodation and other amenities and chances for tourists – the prices and services are so much better because of the competition – and they are in no way deficient for things to do and see.  Broome of course is a beach resort in its own right, but Kununurra struck me as being surprisingly amenable for tourists, and if you shout yourself a stay at something like the Kimberley Grand – which is much cheaper than Cooinda Lodge and much better appointed – you will have a very comfortable and relaxing stay.

If you would prefer to drive all the way, and include the Bungle Bungles or Jim Jim Falls, you will need the big 4WD with snorkel.  You should then do the following.  Work out what car you want.  I believe that the big Toyota enjoys the best reputation, but you can make your own inquiries.  Work out which company you want to hire the vehicle from.  Before booking anything, ask if they have a slot where you will not have to pay the return fee.  Hire a satellite phone for the time you will be in charge of the vehicle.  You should require instruction of at least one hour on the controls of the vehicle, the use of 4WD, and driving on the roads that you will encounter.  You should also require a demonstration of a change of tyre on your vehicle to ensure that you and the equipment on the vehicle are up to it.  Unless you go through these procedures you will not have sufficient confidence in the vehicle or yourself fully to enjoy the majesty that awaits you.  I of course did none of them.

My own view, which is that of Bob from Albany, is that there is a lot to be said for people over sixty from the city leaving at least the hard bits to the experts.  I repeat that I am glad that I did what I did, but I am also glad that I made it – and I will not be doing it again.  If you do not come to terms with the facts of life in this country – for example when swimming in the surf or driving in the outback – you might easily be worse than a bloody idiot – you might be a dead bloody idiot.  And those forms of death are not attractive.

The highlights of my trip?  The putti outside the IGA at Derby; 180 ks up the road, mate, if you want a bottle of grog; and, above all, the unexampled glory of the Bungles.  If I can convey one thing to you, it would be this – before you quit this earth, go to the Bungles.  Go right into them – I should know, I have made three bloody trips in or over them.  Go down to the bottom, where it gets like Arizona.  Go to where they made that Qantas ad.  Go up the Picaninny trail and into the Cathedral Gorge.  And just drink in the wonder of it all, and, yes, the Australianness of it all.

If you are Australian and you shuffle off this mortal coil without having gone into the Bungles, you might end up being a lot worse off than a bloody idiot – you might go out as a dead-set bludger.


18/8 Melbourne – Broome (Tuesday)

18-20 Broome (Tues –Wednesday nights) Ochre Moon B&B $320

20-21 Derby (Thursday night) Derby Lodge Motel $160 (222 ks from Broome)

21-22 Fitzroy Crossing (Friday night) Fitzroy Crossing River Lodge $220 (293 ks from Derby)

22-24 Bungle Bungles (Saturday, Sunday nights) Bungle Bungle Tourist Park (En suite) $450 (468 ks from Fitzroy Crossing)

24-27 Kununurra (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday nights) Ibis Styles Hotel $400 (304 ks from Bungle Bungles)

27-28 Timber Creek (Thursday night) Victoria River R’house (Motel) $150 (226 ks from Kununurra)

28-29 Katherine (Friday night) Pine Tree Lodge $120 (286 ks from Timber Creek)

29- 1 Kakadu (Saturday, Sunday, Monday nights) Cooinda Lodge $1042 (258 ks from Katherine)

1/9 Darwin – Melbourne (Tuesday) (285 ks from Cooinda/Kakadu)

Road distance about: 2342 ks.

Accommodation about: $2862

4WD (return fee waived, unlimited ks): $3000

Airfares Melbourne – Broome, Darwin –Melbourne: $830

Total cost about $6692 – without sight-seeing flights and fuel, and meals

Travelling North – Parts 8 and 9


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.


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.

UP YOUR NORTH  Parts 1 and 2



Broome to Darwin in 14 days by 4WD

[These are the first two of eleven parts of a small book on this subject.]


But things may not be so bad after all at an airport hotel – God knows that they charge enough in this country – and you find that the staff are more cosmopolitan than the guests.  Far more.  I did not realise then that this would be a recurring theme on this trip.

And I was offered a lamb shank for dinner – and it was decently cooked and served.  I gathered from glancing about that mashed potato is in vogue at this level of accommodation, and of course there were the dreaded microwave greens, but they both happened to be right for the shank.  There should be a law requiring airport hotels – or those serving footy crowds – to serve shanks, or ox-tail, or osso bucco, or fore-quarter – meat on the bone – with mashed potato.  I recalled the time I went down to the café in the Beverly Wilshire after enduring three hours in a queue for immigration at L A and feeling a wave of blessing when my eye fell on the special for the night – meat loaf and gravy with mashed potato, truly a meal offered as a balm to the soul.

The staff at this unostentatious but over-priced hotel (a Holiday Inn) were at least trained a bit and they seemed keen to participate.  We have during the second half of my life changed a lot for the better in businesses meant to serve people – we now follow the American rather than the Russian model.

The crowd was desultory and white, except for four guys who came in well after me.  The looked both relaxed and assured, and of very mixed backgrounds, but of a common calling – one of them of colour had something like a tea-cosy on his head.  They were courteous, if casually dishevelled, but they were not on the grog.  I surmised that they worked on rigs or were perhaps itinerant (fly-in) miners.  Two other guys in the lift confirmed this when I said that the others looked like they were feeding up for a year.  These guys said that the food on the rigs was good – I bet it is – but that these people would feed up big because it was on the ticket.  That had a ring of truth, but these guys, who were being picked up by helicopter at 6 am, did not look to me to be spongers.  Nor did they look to me to be likely to have any trouble with the girls – even putting to one side their doubtless astronomical incomes.

There was a different kind of itinerant worker at breakfast the next morning, but I will come back to that in my discussion at Broome on the subject of bogans.


I had forgotten how red the earth gets up here.  It is a kind of earthy ochre – it is so often balanced by the grey-green of spinifex.  This is a very Australian palette.  It looks permanent, but perhaps forgotten.  As had been my 4WD reservation.

The laid-back approach of the outback started the moment I got off the plain at Broome, in a temperature about 20 degrees higher than the one I had left.  They took their own sweet time getting the luggage off the plane, and almost immediately the conveyor belt seized up.  No one said anything – or appeared to be doing anything, except for a man whose title was Quarantine Officer, who was desperately trying to look relevant – and failing.  It eventually started and after about twenty minutes – Qantas would shatter this record on my return flight – it got going.

By the time I reached the taxi queue, there was not a taxi in sight, but some rather anxious resort seekers a little curious about what they might be in for.  We tried to join forces but it is hard when you do not know the lay-out of the town.  Eventually a very nice man from Pakistan drove me to the address of the 4WD agent.  (My host at the Ochre Moon B & B that night, Frank, thought he may have been a Timorese posing as Pakistani, but he was well acquainted with the hill-towns of the Raj, as was the Rajasthani cab driver who would drive me home two weeks later from Tullamarine.)  When we got to the address I had been given, I could not see a sign for my company Australian 4WD so I asked the driver to wait

G’day, I gave to pick up a car.

Not from us mate.

Are you not Australian 4WD?

Shit no.  They haven’t been here for months.  They are right over the other side of town.

That’s a bit of a bugger.

You’d better take it up with them, mate.

If I had been told of a change of address, it certainly had not come to mind – I was going by the contract.  So the Pakistani and I resumed our discussion about the Raj while I took a Cook’s tour to refresh my memory of the lay-out of Broome – at, of course, some expense.

When we made it to the new address, I could see no sign, but there was a Nissan Patrol with the name Australian 4 WD stamped on it.  As a precaution, I again asked my Pakistani mate, who was of a genial and philosophical disposition, to wait.  I thought I was picking up a Toyota Land Cruiser or the like, which I had formed a high opinion of in a trip into the desert from Dubai.

G’day, mate.  Have you got a 4WD drive for me?

No, but I have one for some guy tomorrow.

Shit, mate, we had better do something about this – otherwise it could get ugly.  At least I have now found the correct address.

I went with Graeme, who was from Vancouver, into what might be called an office, and Lo!, there on the computer was an email which had come in just then saying that I was to have the Nissan outside.  This was done after Graeme – I am not sure of the spelling – had rung his boss – not the HQ of Australian 4WD.  He began stripping the vehicle of camping gear and jerry cans that I did not need.  He said that opinions varied on Toyota Large 4WD against Nissan.

Graeme was extremely affable.  He and his girlfriend were working their way around Australia after he had done an exchange course in Cairns and fallen in love with the place.  He was right into American football, and we discussed the differences with ours’.  He had heard of Jared Hayne, the NRL guy trying out for the 49ers, and was keen to see him in action.  Graeme was keen to make up for the bugger-up at HQ, but I fear that he may have been better informed on gridiron than the Nissan Patrol.  Graeme did demonstrate to me how to engage 4WD and put it into Low 4WD, something he said I would only use very rarely.  I scribbled some notes on a scrap of a brochure – subsequently, I found the basics of the 4WD transmission on the back of the sun visor.

I had frankly expected and sought a lot more instruction on driving in the outback – across desert tracks and fording creeks – because although I had driven a small 4WD in Kakadu before, I had not been exposed to the big 4WD in what I saw as the extreme conditions I was now heading into.  Graeme had not taken long to get laid back in the outback.  He said that he was not completely au fait with this vehicle, but that if something went wrong on the road, there would be plenty of people about who knew a lot more about this vehicle than he did and who could help.  If something went really wrong, I should just ring the company – in which my confidence was fast ebbing.  Their number was on the door.  The assumption of course was that I had a phone that would be in range all the way – which was not the case.  If my phone did not work, I suppose I should just have to wait for some bastard to arrive with one that did.

This was unsettling.  Surely these companies have a commercial interest, as well as a humanitarian if not legal duty, in instructing people about the controls of the vehicle, which they are charging out at $200 a day, and its use in conditions that most city folk have not experienced before.  As I set off, I got Graeme to note on the contract that the tank was only one quarter full.  The reserve tank was reading empty, but in my uninstructed state, I thought that may because it was not switched on.  I was wrong there, too.  The problem was that Graeme was not ready because of some glitch at HQ.

I navigated my way to the Ochre Moon without a prang, and was glad to get out and get the low-down on the town and the area from Frank.  When he referred to issues with the indigenous people, he did so with that slight downward glance and inflection that people get when they are feeling their way on an issue that their audience might find sensitive.

At Frank’s suggestion, I drove down to the Divers’ Tavern that I had patronised about fifteen years beforehand.  I went to get a meal, and to buy some wine.  As I pulled into the drive-in bottle-shop, there was a blackfella as full as a state school, nursing three bottles of grog precariously in a paper bag who began to scratch at my driver’s window.  This is confronting when you have been away from it for a while.  You get this kind of in your face meeting with the bottom of the human pile at Calcutta or Mumbai – where the beggars are not pissed – but in a first world country?  God only knows what the answer is – it is not, I expect, to put them in funds to get the next three bottles of grog.

It is either me or the girls, or both, but the girls behind the bar at the Divers’ seemed a lot more leggy than I remembered them.  And they were sent out very smartly and cheerily in sinfully hot pants.  Broome was starting to remind me of the snowfields here fifty years ago as a collecting place for people from other lands.  The leggy girl behind the bar was from South East London.  I picked her accent.  I was fairly confident that the one who brought the meal to the beer garden was from Northern Ireland – until she said she came from Munich, Germany.  When I got back to Frank’s, I met guests from Milan – at least they were tourists.

Because I was still on Melbourne time, I went to the Divers’ early, at about five thirty.  In the course of my taxi tour, I had seen what were described as eagles landing on the road.  In the forty-five minutes I was at the Divers’, I saw another horde descend for feeding – the fabled grey nomads, of whom I was one for that day and the following.  They came in a bit of a rush, as if on a cruise.  For some reason, I found it a little unsettling – would these polite ageing folk be up to helping me out if I broke down in the middle of nowhere?  Could they lift the wheel and tire when I could not?  I was also a little unsettled by what looked like some subservience on the part of the male of the species.  Some of them looked fatigued and downtrodden.  They looked like they were there to carry the bags and order the food and grog, and accept instructions on the well-being of themselves and others.  Travelling on your own may have its benefits.

The next morning I had a swim at Cable Beach for old time’s sake – it is quite a sight, the scene of sunsets and camel tours – and visited some other sights of note.  That night at Frank’s, there was a young guy of Chinese extraction – I think called Wai: I am not sure of the spelling – who was working for a South African guy who was trying to get going with a small company working in the tailings of mines.  He was most interesting on the mining industry in W A.  Neither Wai nor Frank had any time for riggers.  Frank’s definition of a bogan was someone who wears his sun glasses on top of the cap.  These were the dudes who had turned up breakfast at the airport hotel that morning.  I never liked the word bogan, but I now think it may have some use.  It is snobbish, but there may be occasions when it is fair to look down at some conduct – especially when they turn the cap back to front before putting up the sunnies – and then the coup de grace – putting the hoodie over the lot, black gray and white camo over Adidas trackies, and shot sneakers without laces.

Frank, who with his wife runs a first class B & B, was interesting about one company, Woodside, in which I hold some shares.  He said they went of their way to instruct their workers on the kind of behaviour that they expected.  He had seen a manager shirtfront a bogan making a pest of himself with an attractive woman by telling him that unless he pulled his head in, he would go back where he came from on the next plane, even if it was full, and that by the time the plane landed, this idiot would be unemployable in this industry in this country.  I was enormously impressed by this good conduct on the part of one of my companies.  Here was a time when the notion of brand could actually do some good.  Thanks, Frank.