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Return to the Gibb River Road

(...or "Spiders and Owls and...Bandicoots???...Oh, My!")

sunny 35 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

The early hours are smothered in a low grey sky; it may have even rained a bit overnight. The ground is slowly drying from sheer will alone but the moisture in the air clogs visibility in all directions. Definitely a good time to leave Broome, by mid-day this place may very well be an unbearable sauna.

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4,843 kilometres down. Only about five and a half thousand to go.

And I found the sock. The trip can continue as planned.

Soundtrack: half an hour is spent careening down the highway towards the entrance to the Gibb River Road searching for just the right song. I skip impatiently through a playlist thousands of songs long until the right one - or at least the most appropriate one for now as patience dictates - finally starts to play. Drive by Lana Del Rey. Agreed, quite contrived but it works - and besides, the song reminds me of my younger days as an aimless and very saucy hippie girl.

If only I could record some of the conversations I pick up, eavesdropping, on UHF channel 40. I have a difficult time understanding what is going on, what with the accents and the shitty speaker, but one conversation I'm graced with goes something to the effect of "....garble garble...the black button on the brake...garble garble...looks *fine* in that dress...garble garble garble...Billy?...Billy?...static. ...Fuckin' hell...."

I hope Billy is ok.

I pass the Roebuck Plains and the clouds part, dropping me into a brilliant and very warm Kimberly day to travel. A couple hours later I'm at the entrance to the Gibb River Road. Travelling east down the road I find it familiar but also feel that the road, once the bitumen ends, seems to be in much better shape than it was five years ago; very likely the result of both frequent grading due to the increasing influx of tourism along the route and my honed experience in much worse roads.

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Despite stopping numerous times for photos and firewood gathering, I reach Windjana Gorge National Park just after lunch. I find it, as it was the first time I came, already packed. Almost every tree in the campground has camping rigs clinging to it for shade. I find a vacant spot under a modest gum tree and get out to find, to my amusement, that I'm parked in the exact same place I was when I stayed here in 2012.

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After lunch, I head off to tackle the gorge, determined to see as much of it as possible, still angry at myself for wasting so much of my time here on my previous visit searching for my sunglasses that I dropped.

And would you believe...that I find my sunglasses???

I hope not. That would be pretty foolish to think that was even remotely possible. Unicorns aren't real, either. (Leprechauns are, though).

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I explore the first part of the gorge, and take pictures of the lazy freshwater crocodiles slumming it on the shore line. I then head down the trail, hoping to this time follow it to the end - or at least as far as I can go.

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At one point the trail branches at a long sand bar that I slowly trudge along, admiring the tropical vegetation and unearthly black and red cliffs lining the gorge. At the end of the sandbar I shimmy back up the bank and rejoin the trail and head further up the gorge.

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The trail starts to get rough - washed out in places, overgrown in others. It becomes difficult to even follow the right trail, wandering through flats of tall grass and sharp spinifex that slashes at my shins. The trail is starting to resemble some of my Outback roads.

After almost an hour of fighting a trail that becomes more aggressive and increasingly elusive, and just as I give myself five more minutes at most before I turn back, I come across an old worn out sign nailed to a post in the middle of the trail.

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It basically says that the trail is closed after the second sand bar...I assume this to be the one I walked and rejoined the trail from, and this is about a kilometre back. I must have bypassed a previous warning, and I may have wandered out of bounds. This explains a lot.

Sweating profusely from the heat, I make my way back. I intentionally timed the walk so there is very little chance I'll lose daylight before exiting the gorge, but the possibility I've walked into an area I'm not supposed to be in keeps me at pace. I get back to the sand bar about 45 minutes later but find no warning sign anywhere. I suppose I'll never know if the trail I took really was closed...or just not maintained very well. A trail not well travelled, I suppose.

After sunset, dinner, and fending off some minor heat exhaustion from the walk, I hunt around for an available fire pit to burn the wood I spent time and effort gathering. The fire pits here are designated concrete rings, and were mostly ignored earlier in the day when people were claiming spots because they are all out in the open. But now most of them have been circled by convoys of vehicles. I look over to one that I had noticed earlier as not being surrounded but some people have pulled their chairs up and started a fire. But 2017 Outback Steve walks up and basically invites himself to their fire (ok, I politely ask if I can join them if I offer my wood, and they have no problem with this).

They were a lovely family from Holland (two grandparents, two younger parents, and two little ones, a boy and a girl) who emigrated to Sydney; we exchange travelling stories and I get to learn lots of cool things about Holland. I tell them about my travels through the Outback and the younger dad is amazed and perhaps somewhat jealous. Maybe I planted a seed.

Soundtrack: When the Wolves Return by Ego Likeness.

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I'm back on the road before 8am and very casually make my way up the Gibb. I found a spot on the map the evening before - a bush camp by one of the lesser known gorges, but it's small and if I get there too late the four or five usable spots will be filled and I'll have to find somewhere else for the night.

Still, I don't rush. I continue stopping for pictures, and take a sidetrack down to a gorge I have either not heard of or don't remember, called Adcock Gorge. I'm happy I did, as this gorge turns out to be quite remarkable, with a deep aquamarine pool beneath a tall waterfall pouring down a black cliffside.

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I fill up with diesel at Mount Barnett Roadhouse which is also the entrance to the Manning Gorge campground, and decide that if there is no room at my intended destination, I'll head back here. I've seen Manning Gorge but a repeat visit won't be a bad thing - it was one of my favourite gorges the first time.

I stop a few times to gather wood, and then find the turn-off, an unmarked road leading off the Gibb. The fact it's unmarked may either be a good sign as people won't notice it...or I'm not on the right road. The gps is convinced however, so I proceed (with caution...remembering she's likely still trying to kill me).

It is a semi-rough road for about three kilometres in and when I reach the end I find a small cluster of campsites tucked up by the Barnett River, and one of the sites by the river is being vacated as I drive in. Perfect timing.

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This is the Barnett River Gorge. First, I make my way up to the top of the gorge for pictures...

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...and then down to the river for a swim. I dive in and swim up the gorge maybe a couple hundred metres to some small water falls. I climb up and explore the creek and find several rapids cascading down long rocky plateaus.

I don't have my camera, so all of this is just for me.

Outback Solo Observation #4: have you ever had an entire river gorge to yourself, as though nature has given you your very own natural water park, without screaming children, uncomfortable line-ups, and no pot-bellied white middle-aged guys ruining the vibe? Well, fine...one pot-bellied middle-aged white guy.

I sit under the small waterfall for what seems like forever, just letting it pound me in the back. I have no desire to leave - no 'next thing to do' on my mind, absolutely nothing clouding or occupying my thoughts. It is an incredible feeling to not be thinking of where I came from or where I'm going, only where I am. No moment exists except the one I'm in now.

The only thing on my mind is how lucky I am to have gotten here, what an amazing place this is, and what a wonderful life (and wife!) that allowed me to find this place.

Back at the campground - if you can even call it that - I chat with some people camping in off-road trailers who have done many of the same roads I have. They are mildly impressed with what I've accomplished in only 3 weeks, and recommend I seek out some of Len Beadell's books; apparently, he was a good writer and possessed quite the wit.

The following morning, I break camp as quickly as I can. I have a very long day ahead: the trip to Mitchell Falls National Park. The way to the park starts off the Gibb River Road about 80 kilometres from where I am, and then travels north beginning as a long wide road riddled with vehicle-decimating corrugations for about 160 kilometres...and then another 80 kilometres west-ish along a narrow, winding, unmaintained road that leads to the park. I have to admit I have developed some amount of confidence with rough roads, but still I'm not taking any chances. I don't want to have to rush.

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Soundtrack: Alcubierre Drive by Psy'Aviah.

I'm thanking myself now. The road from the Gibb River Road to the Drysdale Station is 60 fairly terrible kilometres. I have taken some air out of the tyres but this is still pretty bone-rattling. Not quite as bad as some parts of the Canning Stock Route, but what this road has that the Canning didn't is lots of traffic, headed both ways, many of whom are whizzing along at a fair clip. At some of these ridiculous velocities I imagine you don't really have a useful thing commonly referred to as 'steering' (you're coasting over the corrugations so your wheels have very little, if any, contact with the ground). I putter along at a comfortable speed with some vehicles passing me like I'm standing still.

I pull into Drysdale Station to check it out, and find a beautiful little homestead with a campground, fuel, a store, and an outside restaurant/bar. I only buy a bottle of non-alcoholic ginger beer since it's only 10:30 in the morning, but make a note to perhaps stop here for lunch on the way back if it times right.

I continue up the road and only a few minutes later come across a very large puddle in the middle of the road perhaps 10 metres long. It isn't a creek crossing, and the water is a cloudy brown and there is no way to really tell how deep it is. On the other side of the water hole there is a person who appears to be struggling with a motorcycle. I get out and lock into 4wd just in case, and then slowly start to drive right through the centre of the puddle...to find it might be really deep. Probably not deep enough to present any real challenges to my Landcruiser, but there is no point in taking any chances. I back out and inch my way along the right side until I reach the other end. Once on solid ground I get out and find that the guy with the bike is bogged about 3 metres from the edge of the puddle and can't get his bike out. It takes about 10 minutes for the two of us to haul his deceptively heavy Kawasaki out of the mud.

Once I know the guy is ok, I continue on. Some people are still driving fairly fast but I just let them pass me. Then, coming the other way, is a huge Outback Spirit tour bus - a massive tank-like 4wd 'bus'. He's blazing along I don't know how fast. And then...

SMASH!!!

The behemoth whizzes by me and in doing so fires a large rock straight into my windscreen. It hits right at the top: another couple of centimetres up and it would have missed...another few centimetres down and it may have gone right through. A huge dent shows up in the glass, tiny glitter-sized particles of sharp little windscreen shards raining down on the passenger seat. Three long cracks in three different directions radiate out from the impact site.

The windscreen needs to be replaced. The only question is whether I can drive like this until I drop off the truck or if it will need to be dealt with sooner. I'm guessing the latter - it may be drivable at the moment but it will not likely withstand another direct hit.

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I reach the turn-off to head towards Mitchell Falls National Park and after a short drive in I stop at a campground by the King Edward River and duct-tape the large crater in the windscreen for now. I'll call the hire agency next chance I get but isn't likely to happen before I leave the Gibb.

I putter along the last stretch to the park through a spectacular tropical forest along the plateau. It's a beautiful drive though rough and with no shortage of stress due to some of the on-coming vehicles Autobahn-ing the track. After more than one 'could-have-been-a-head-on' I really begin miss the desert.

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I reach the campground and pay for two nights, my only planned multi-night for the entire drive - though I won't rule out others. A wise decision: I find it took me well over 4 hours from Drysdale to get here. there was some time spent when I stopped and ate and had to apply ugly gray Reject Shop duct tape on the windscreen, but that is still a long drive. Also, the walk to Mitchell Falls is upwards of 2 hours one way from the campground, so I'll want to take that casually, and then maybe spend the afternoon relaxing...and doing laundry.

Outback Solo Observation #5: ever sat in a small warm rock pool at the top of a massive waterfall (safely away from the edge of course) by yourself at sunset with the Kimberly sky in front of you radiating with lavender and sapphire and platinum, with a vast lush green and copper below?

My fire is dying, many people have retired for the evening...when I hear a small crash beside me in the dark. I scramble for a light, finding only my phone, and search the ground, expecting to find a dingo. What I find instead is a white owl, perched on a tree in front of me. I quickly take a lousy picture on my phone, and then inch forward to look closer.

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What I find is perhaps the most evil looking owl I have ever seen in my life. They don't make them here like they do at home.

It isn't frightened of me; I step forward and quietly greet the creature. It responds with a roll of the head and the mouthing silent owl words from its beak. Evil looking perhaps, but utterly fascinating.

I step back and appreciate the moment. Not sure if it did.

It was still there when I went to bed over an hour later.

  • **

I embark from my campsite towards the falls around 7am the following morning, the air still cool-ish, or at least as cool as a Kimberly morning up here will get...meaning it hasn't quite hit 30 degrees yet.

The first part of the trail passes by the top of Little Merten Falls (little...as in 30 metres or so straight down little...) where I enjoyed the sunset from the evening before, and down to the gorge below the falls.

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Behind the waterfall is an ancient Aboriginal rock art site. Amongst the ornate drawings are handprints...captured by a person thousands and thousands of years ago. I stare at them quietly. Then make me feel very small in comparison.

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The walk continues through shady forests and then over rock plateaus, leading to another Aboriginal art site.

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As I walk I can hear the constant thundering of the tour helicopters that take visitors from the campground directly to Mitchell Falls. Odd, I think, for a supposedly eco-conscious park that highlights sacred Aboriginal sites (remembering a common aspect of Aboriginal culture is to treat these sites with respect and quiet) to not consider the impact of noise pollution on the environment. But what do I know, I've never ridden in a helicopter - it's probably really fun.

I emerge along the top of Merten's Gorge (the 'Big' falls) that cascade straight down well over 100 metres.

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Later I can hear the roar of Mitchell Falls as I approach. The trail leads through the Mitchell River - a shallow part of the stream that requires wading across. Easy enough now, but likely difficult or impossible earlier in the season when the river is higher.

I pass by the helicopter landing pad and over cliff sides, and finally arrive at the main lookout spot for the falls. And the walk, the drive, the glass shards, the potential owl hex...all worth it.

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I sit and quietly admire the falls for a while, they emit a quiet magic that helps one appreciate why this is a sacred place.

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I spend quite some time just absorbing the experience before I climb back up to the river above the falls and cool down with a swim in one of the pools before heading back along the trail. On the way, I detour back under Little Mertens Falls for a second swim in the gorge. Here I find the most unique looking spider hanging on the underside of a large rock.

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When I get back to the campsite I find it mostly empty except one vehicle right next to me that was here the night before. I hand wash some laundry, and then just sit back and relax with the entire afternoon ahead of me.

Ok...with no small amount of hypocrisy I walk back to the helicopter booking booth and inquire about rides. It's not as if me boycotting the helicopter ride will in any way contribute to them ceasing operations. And besides, I've never ridden in a helicopter before. They're probably fun.

I find one drawback of solo travel - they simply cannot accommodate a single person in any of their bookings. They do offer that I can purchase two tickets if I want. How generous of them.

Minutes later I'm hanging out under my awning and playing guitar. It is so peaceful here, apart from the distant heli-noise briefly drowning out my out-of-practice noodling. What a beautiful afternoon.

That's when the tour group arrives.

I'm in the designated tour group camping area, but had forgotten this minor detail until now. They all climb off their military-grade monster bus and spread out over the area like a virus - I suppose an unkind and unfair comparison but it conveys the appropriate image. Only moments later there are tents everywhere, the entire area occupied.

I admit that when they first started snooping around for spots I *may* have started playing louder...and much worse (if that is possible)...*maybe* on purpose. But these folks were all cool and friendly, and very aware that they were seemingly invading despite them technically having more right to this area than me and my neighbours. The people who set up their tents closest to me make sure they aren't blocking me in or in any way inconveniencing me. I don't stop playing, but I tone down the awfulness as much as I have the skills to.

On the way, back to camp after another sunset swim below Little Merten's Falls I see a furry creature hiding under one of the rocks. It is small and gray, with large black eyes and a long tail. We stare at each other for a moment before he scurries away into the rocks. At the end of the trail I consult the info board to hopefully learn what I just saw. I want to believe it was a bandicoot, because that would be awesome. It is far more likely that it was a possum. But let me believe.

I stop by the dunnie (for you Canadians, the shitter) on the way back to my site to find the most beautiful spider and web. So later, on my next visit I bring my phone and snap a picture.

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That's when I notice some legs protruding from just under the overhang. I look closer...and just when I'm about to try for a picture, I sense movement behind me.

I come face to face with my first good sized huntsman spider. It is perhaps the size of my palm - definitely larger than any spiders we have back home. I snap a quick picture, and then try to put my hand up to it so I can take a comparison photo. The beast quickly scuttles away along the wall. It is so big I *hear* it walk on the metal siding. It may be a nothing experience for an Australian, but I'm profoundly happy to have found one.

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This picture, as photos of Huntsman spiders tend to be, indulgently makes it look *way* bigger than it actually is. Honest. Also, please appreciate me sharing this, because I just erased any possible hope of my wife accompanying me on any future trip to Oz...evah!

Tonight I over-hear my neighbours trying to start their vehicle with no success; apparently their battery has bit it. I wander over and offer to jump them in the morning. Fine folk from Tazzie, and very grateful as well. So many people here in Australia have stopped to help me, I need to pay it forward.

Karma or not, the owl doesn't return.

  • ***

My alarm is the sound of dozens of tour group people tearing down their tents, at around 5:30am.

Knowing I have to deal with the long road back to the Gibb I swing into high gear as well, and I'm pulling up and helping my neighbours with a jump start around 7am. Once they are good to go, I'm on the road and heading back down.

I'm partly thankful I have to take this route again, because it really is gorgeous. I pass a grader in the opposite direction on the way, after which the road gets much smoother. If only he had started work two days earlier.

Just before crossing the King Edward River close to the intersection with the road leading back to the Gibb, I encounter my first snake, under very unfortunate circumstances. For the snake, not me. It is mid-sized, and black with coloured rings. I'm not sure exactly what colour the rings are...or were...because I only get a brief glimpse of it as it slithers across the road...right in front of me. I hope I didn't flatten it, but I have my doubts.

I don't really see any attractions to see today, instead I'm concentrating on the few hundred kilometres I want to cover by sunset.

By late afternoon I make my way to a lookout, just west of my destination, that overlooks the Pentecost Valley.

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And the lookout has cellular service from Wyndham almost 200 kilometres away. This allows me to email the hire company about the windscreen so that perhaps they can arrange something for me in Kununurra tomorrow. This poor vehicle...

I check into Home Valley Station, and struggle with the choice between the main caravan-park style campground - close to all the amenities - or the river-side bush-style campsite about 4 kilometres down a side road. I ultimately choose the former and decide to spoil myself with a shower.

I also make a booking at the restaurant, an outdoor Country-Western-themed bar and grill with live country music. I could do without the American-ese country-western, but I appreciate not cooking and cleaning for the evening.

While I sit at my campsite waiting for my reservation time at the restaurant (*bookings essential*) a friendly bloke from the next site wanders over and offers that if I haven't eaten dinner yet to join them since they have some extra food. Extremely grateful, I decline, but I continue to be amazed at how friendly and neighbourly this country can be.

I finish this entry as the warm evening wind begins to pick up. Once again, as I did many years ago, my heart is heavy at the thought of leaving the Gibb River Road. But the time has come for new places and new discoveries.

Like if, sometime tomorrow, I'll have a new windscreen.

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Posted by stevecrow 05:22 Archived in Australia

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