BootsnAll Travel Network

The Final Countdown

(After a two week self-imposed computer hiatus, I have added more pictures to my smugmug homepage.)

Our initial arrival in Broome proved to be anticlimatic. Lora and I settled into what turned out to be a really good hostel, The Kimberley Club, which was more like a resort than a hostel, with a nice pool area, bar and TV and game room. Because of the heat and humidity, the building structure is open, which high ceilings in the bedrooms, and open reception and kitchen areas to allow air flow. The pool looked inviting as did the bar, but as it got later on our first night, the thought of needing to do laundry and getting a good night’s sleep won us over. Our main reason for being in Broome was to find a tour that would take us into The Kimberley, a remote area of Australia in the Northwest. Aside from Antarctica, the Kimberly is said to be the most uninhabited area of land on the planet, and remains mainly inaccessible without at least a 4WD, better still an airplane, boat or helicopter. Tours were unsurprisingly expensive because of this, and due to a late wet season, some weren’t even running yet. The northern part of Australia runs on the wet/dry seasons instead of the 4 temperate seasons we have in N. America. The wet should have ended at the end of April, but a late cyclone causing heavy rains and flooding put off the dry season by about two weeks, just enough for us to completely miss almost everything the Kimberly had to offer.

On Tuesday morning, we had to decide what we were going to do in order to explore the Kimberly. Because our rental car wasn’t 4WD, we had to join a tour to see anything, or so we thought. The main sights in the Kimberley are gorges, waterfalls and hidden valleys and rockpools, all set in the middle of the area off of dirt roads, or closer to the sea to the north and only accessible by sea or air. Since we had limited time and funds, we decided to do a quick one day tour of Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, only to find out that these were not yet open due to flooding. Our desire to make a quick decision and plan the rest of our travel time until we had to return our rental car in Darwin on the 4th of May, made us make a rash decision and book a one day tour of Geike Gorge, one we didn’t know much about, but was seemingly on our way out of Broome on the highway. Because we didn’t want to miss the Kimberly completely, we booked a tour with a company our hostel recommended for Wednesday, and decided to relax and run some errands on Tuesday. After Lora searched again in vain for a camera repair shop to clean her lens, we window shopped in art stores and pearl stores, looking for gifts and souvenirs. Broome was a huge pearling town, and much of the industry, including the tourist industry, is based on pearling. Both of us were also in the market for some Aboriginal Art, and as we got further into the northern part of Australia, the art because both more accessible, authentic and expensive. We managed to both find pictures that we wanted in one store, and due to the seemingly high cost, decided to sleep on it overnight. Aborignal art comes in many forms, the most recognizable is the “abstract” dot paintings you might have seen in photographs, but can also be forms of people, animals, plants and food and other aspects of their lives. These painting can range anywhere from $50 for a small 8×10 painting to tens of thousands of dollars for huge dot paintings that take months to draw, and depending on how famous the artist is, may set you back hundreds of thousands at an auction. The painting that I was looking at was nowhere near on that scale, but it was the first one I had seen that drew me in, a seemingly simple painting of honey ants drawn in a circle over and over again. After looking at it more closely, I realized that the circle was perfect, the hundreds of ants almost in complete symmetry, like a fake stamp had been used instead of a person’s hand and brush. But the cost was slightly daunting, and I realized I needed to think about it for a day, as it would take money away from my travels, and since I currently don’t have a wall to hang it on, seemed kind of insane.

Since we had to be up before dawn for our gorge tour, we had an early night, which was starting to be a theme on our road trip. One thing we hadn’t anticipated when renting a car was just how tired driving would make us, and if we didn’t have to be up early for a long drive, we probably had to be up early for a tour or something else, and didn’t need to be drinking the night before. The tour we booked for Geike gorge was expensive for a day tour, not as much as the whale sharks, but still slightly painful. We knew we would be eating pasta for the next five days because of it, and after our quick dinner, went to bed. The next morning, our tour bus picked us up, and explained our tour. We would drive the 500km to Geike gorge and have lunch, then get on a boat tour with an Aboriginal guide through the gorge for two hours. We would head home, stop for dinner, and get home at 10pm. Lora and I sort of looked at each other, and realized we would be sitting on that bus for 10 hours. Somehow we hadn’t realized that when we booked the tour, or if we did, didn’t let it deter us from seeing the Kimberly. The tour itself was fine, as there wasn’t really much to it. Morning tea and lunch were good, but as we reached the road the leads to the gorge, Lora and I looked at each other again, this time in much more dismay. The road was totally sealed. The main highway leading to Geike Gorge was the highway we would be taking in a few days across the Kimberly to Kununurra, and the road to Geike Gorge was completely paved. We sighed a long, frustrated sigh. Another bad decision, another plan not thought out properly. We could have driven here ourselves in our rental car on our way to Kununurra, and saved a ton of money. Think positive thoughts, positive attitude. But it didn’t help. We were frustrated and annoyed we had spent the money unnecessarily on a tour.

Our boat trip through the gorge was good at least and very informative. Our tour guide had grown up in the area, and both his sons were also National Park rangers, so he was very knowledgeble of not only the area, but of how Aborignals in the area lived. The boat trip lasted about 2 hours, and we serenely floated down the gorge, trying to spot freshwater crocodiles on the banks. Luckily enough, we did see a few and managed to snap a few photos before these shy creatures plunged back in the water. The freshwater crocs were not considered aggressive like their “saltwater” counterparts, and were much harder to see as they tried to avoid humans. Our guide also told us about many Aboriginal traditions, including their treatment of people who had commited a crime in their communty, and marriage and kinship ties. It was the first time I had heard of these traditions from an Aboriginal, and it was really eye-opening. Because there was so little crime in their communities, when it did happen, it was punished harshly. There were also very complicated marriage and relationship issues, and who was allowed to marry whom, etc.

Our boat trip concluded, and we set off again on the bus for what turned out to be an excrutiatingly long trip back to Broome. Our stop for dinner at a roadhouse was our only salvation, and while the food was surprisingly good and fresh, it did nothing to placate us for sitting on a bus for 5 hours. The tour company thoughtfully had a DVD player in the bus, and we watched National Treasure (2 1/2 stars) for part of the way. But after the movie ended and it was completely dark, there wasn’t much else to do, and we nodded in and out of sleep the rest of the way. When we arrived back at our hostel, we went instantly to bed, not wanting to think about the money we had spent on our tour needlessly, or the painful 10 hours we had just spent on the bus. Tomorrow is another day, after all, and we decided we just wouldn’t talk about the tour again, trying to block it out of our memory.

The next day, fully deserving rest and relaxation, we lazed around the pool most of the day, caught up on some reading, played cards (our continuous running game of King’s Corners was getting intense) and slept. Thursday night was supposed to be a big party night in Broome, as the big bar there at the Roebuck Bay hotel hosted a wet T-shirt contest with a $500 prize (a ton for a backpacker) and of course attracted hundreds of people. I was inwardly pleased to learn that the bar was having trouble getting girls to be in the contest, and they managed to only get 4 up there by the time of the contest. This, along with a bar fight, lots of drunks, Lora fighing a cold, and my inability to not be tired, made Lora and I leave earlier than we had planned. We made it back to our hostel, and hung out at the bar there for a few more drinks and card playing, glad we went out finally but actually realized we didn’t really care if we weren’t out partying all night. The next day, we headed back into town for groceries and bottled water, and to pop back into the art gallery to have another looks at some pictures. When we got there, I thought it was fate that my painting was lying on top of the pile, and I studied it again to make sure I really wanted it. A woman standing there offered that I could move it and look at the other ones underneath, but I told her this was actually the one I was considering buying. She had a funny look on her face, and “Well, my husband is buying it right now,” sort of apologetically, but also in a weird, this is awkward, face. Sure enough, her husband was literally at the cash register buying MY painting. Though I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to buy it, I would have liked to make the decision myself, and it certainly would have been better had it just been gone and not seen it again. I was bummed out, to say the least. Lora ended up buying a small painting for herself, and we left the gallery, yet another in a string of disappointments that seemed to be following us around. We had to laugh at it, because neither of us seemed to have this many problems before we started traveling together. But luckily, it wasn’t affecting our ability to get along with each other, and we just tried to shrug it off.

There wasn’t a lot else that we wanted to do in Broome, the only other thing was to see Cable Beach and try and see these old fossils of dinosaur tracks at low tide. We went to the beach early the next afternoon, a huge expanse of sand that stretched for 18km. There had been a stinger attack two days before, so we were hesitant to enter the water, and I went in just long enough to cool off and got back out quickly. The dinosaur tracks were visible only at really low tide, and we were told it might be possible at 4:45pm today. They were located at Gantheaume Point, which was located down the beach on a small peninsula. Even though we had our car, we decided to walk along the beach to get some much needed exercise, and set off an hour before low tide. The sun we really strong, and the longer we walked, the less progress we seemed to be making. We estimated it would take us about 25 minutes to reach the Point, but it ended up being almost an hour, on sand in glaring heat. We actually missed low tide, and scarily enough, we both out of water when we reached it. We were completely unprepared for such a long walk, which is actually something we are both pretty good at. And we also made the realization that we had to now walk back to the car, another hour with no water, in the sun, sand flies biting. As we trudged along, Lora and I were silent; I was concentrating on the pain in my foot from walking so far in flipflops, she told me later her ankle was bothering her as well. When we finally had sunset and it cooled off considerably, I unenthusiastically took some photos of the water, and continued on. We reached the car, sweating, thirsty and irritable, and dove into the trunk for our emergency store of water we had been carrying, which was literally hot from being in the trunk all day.Yet another day of insane, weird, inexplicably bad decision-making led us to drive directly to McDonald’s and screw any plans for eating healthy and saving money. It was only my third Mickey D’s visit since I had been traveling, and I felt no guilt about it whatsoever.

We had one more day in Broome, spent shopping, buying presents and researching the next few days of our trip. We had to leave incredibly early the following day to make the 1050km drive across the Kimberly to Kununurra, where we would tour the Bungle Bungles National Park, and then cross the state line into the Northern Territory. We got up at 5am on Saturday and got ready to go, loading the car with what was amounting to an incredible amount of stuff, easy to buy and carry more stuff now that we had a car. We had to make it to Kununurra by sunset, as the roads were potentially hazardous with nocturnal animals and cows in the road. We checked out of our hostel, got gas and off we went on the Great Northern Highway. The trip uneventful for the first 4 hours, both of us grimacing as we passed the turnoff for Geike Gorge, but sticking with our plan to never discuss it again. Lora and I had settled into a routine of driving, switching about every three hours, opening water bottles for each other, she driving to Johnny Cash, me to Dave Matthews. The radio situation was still frustrating, though we did get some music and news for a few hours of the trip. The stations cut out inexplicably, one minute it is there, the next second it disappears into oblivion, using the seek button relentlessly, sometimes just trying each and every station one by one. We passed the halfway mark, and it began to change a bit. There was water over parts of the roads, potholes you would only find in Chicago, bush fires along the side of the road. One particularly deep creek over the road shook Lora enough to have me drive again for a while, slowing down to barely a crawl over the next one. Some had warnings, some didn’t, and as we crested over hills and around turned, we braced to find another pool of water or rough gravel covering the road. It was strange country, wet water surrounded us in the bushes, but we literally drove through the smoke of bush fires as well, and flew past huge cows grazing right on the side of the road. The last leg proved treacherous, our brightlights in the car never seemed bright enough, dusk is worse to drive in than complete darkness. I couldn’t blink for an hour, keeping my eyes peeled for wallabyes trying to cross the highway. The sun set much earlier than we though it would, about 5pm, and we didn’t arrive in Kununurra until almost 6. We finally arrived at our hostel, drained and weary.

Both hostels in the small town of Kununurra were full for some odd reason, and for the first time in a month, Lora and I wouldn’t be in the same room. I let her take the 4 bed dorm since she was still sick, and I went to the 8 bed mixed dorm, where people were semi-permanently living as they were in picking season. After checking in, we talked with the hostel owner about our plans, to visit the World Heritage Sight of the Bungle Bungles, and then head to Katherine quickly on our way to Darwin. He sadly looked at us, and asked if we realized the road was closed to Katherine, due to a major bridge covered in 4meters of floodwater. No, we hadn’t realized that. There was no prediction of when the water would recede, it all depended on if we got more rain, how sunny it was, etc. We had planned on two days in Kununurra, one day for hiking and the other for a plane ride over the Bungles. He told us it would be at least double that, and to keep checking with him to find out when the road was open. This is where Lora and I started panicking. We had to get the rental car to Darwin by May 4th, though we could have extended it to the 6th if absolutely necessary. Paul was meeting us in Darwin on the 6th alone, and we needed to book a Kakadu tour for that weekend for the three of us. Neither of us wanted to book anything if we for some reason couldn’t make it to Darwin, as it would be a huge waste of money. But I knew that Paul was counting on us to be there, so for the next 4 days, it was a stressful time. Kununurra was not a place we wanted to spend 4 days in, there wasn’t much to do and our hostel was sort of gross and annoying. The only saving grace we had was our flight over the Bungle Bungles.

We had booked our flight in Broome and it wasn’t very expensive for a plane ride. The Bungle Bungles, it’s real name was Purnululu National Park, earned itself a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2003. They are only accessible by 4WD or air, and we opted for a scenic flight instead of a hike around them, to get a proper view. The Bungles look like huge beehive domes of orange and grayish/green stripes, and strech for miles around. There are thousands of these domelike structures, and some have gorges, or valleys, in between them. They were a beautiful sight, and I had been wanting to fly over them since reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under. It was totally worth the expensive, though if I had known we would be stuck in Kununurra for so long, I would have done a combined hike/fly package to see them properly. But I was happy with our decision to do the flight, especially because the heat of the day would have made hiking around them very hard. After our early morning Bungles flight, we had literally nothing to do in Kununurra. We went to the lone art gallery, strolled in the Target store, walked around the grocery store in the cool air conditioning. We sat at the pool, we watched sunset from a lookout point, where we met an older Australian couple who had lived in Wilmette for a few hours and shared their champagne with us. But other than that, we did nothing but check weather reports, road reports, and call Kakadu tour companies every day for their availability. We finally got the go ahead on Tuesday, as the bridge was open to 4 ton traffic only. For one, having a small car was a bonus as we were allowed across, but people traveling by tour bus and Greyhound were not. While the bridge was stable, the big trucks and buses ruin the seals on the roads when they are so waterlogged. As soon as we heard the news, we quickly booked our Kakadu tour for the upcoming weekend, and wasted no time packing up the car and heading to Katherine, 500km away which was small potatoes to us. Nothing against Kununurra, but we couldn’t wait to get out of there.

We arrived in Katherine after a pretty uneventful drive, though the road was dotted with potholes and water remaining from the flooding. One big difference, was about 50km after we left Kununurra, we crossed into the Northern Territory. The NT is a weird little anomoly in Oz, not a true state but a territory, where the residents relish in the crocodiles, a large majority of the Aboriginal population still lives, some in somewhat traditional ways, and most importantly, there is no speed limit on the highway. We reached Katherine in record time, and treated ourselves to a twin room in the hostel, where we cooked a big dinner and watched TV in our room all night. On the other side of the planet, I’ve managed to watch new episodes of Lost, Prison Break, Er, The OC, Survivor and THe Amazing Race, and sometimes, even though we are traveling and seeing great things, you just want to watch a little TV. Our arrival in Katherine was again marred by the news that because of the late wet season, they weren’t allowing canoeing on Katherine Gorge, which was our plan. We would have to settle for some hiking, which was fine, as we really had our sights set on reaching Darwin, and Katherine was just a short stopover. We were leaving Katherine the next day, and would stop at Katherine Gorge on our way to Darwin. We had only one more day to go, one day to reach our final destination. Certainly nothing else could go wrong, nothing else could happen, right?

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