It hadn't been a great start to the morning: I had been out of bed at 5am to try and phone Kristina in Copenhagen but had been unable to get through. Now, with the time slowly ticking up to 630am, I couldn't help but smile. In a matter of a few minutes we'd be climbing aboard the big truck parked outside and heading off on the next leg of the trip up to Darwin. After three days amidst the noise and commotion of the Cable Beach Backpackers Lodge, I couldn't wait!
Some of the other people joining the tour had been lucky enough to have spent the last few days elsewhere - presumably somewhere a little more salubrious - so, as we awaited their arrival, we were introduced to Garry, Helen, Trev 2 and Bubbles. Garry was our driver, Helen was his truck, Trev 2 was the trailer (he broke the first one in case you were wondering!) and Bubbles was his fish. Don't ask! The others boarding the truck (sorry... Helen) were Roger, Nicole and Bettina from Switzerland; Mathias, Ellen and Heinz from Germany; and Claus, Sam, Sandra, Isabelle and I from the Perth - Broome trip.
I was sat up front with Garry as we headed out of town but soon became aware of a drama in the back of the truck. Surprisingly it wasn't down to my music selection - DJ Craig rocked apparently - rather it was due to rain. Not much that can be done about the weather, I thought, until I realised the ‘rain' was falling from inside the truck. In fact it was issuing from the aircon units on either side of the truck; the ones directly above the seats. Garry assured us that he would take care of it as soon as we stopped but, as the trip progressed, it would become increasingly apparent that he had no intention of doing so and we would just have to live with it.
The first day went well and any fears that the new members on the tour would struggle to fit in were quickly allayed. After a quick stop in Derby for lunch, and to pick up provisions, we turned on to the famous Gibb River Road. The first 100km or so of The Gibb were paved and we tore along towards our first proper stop: Windjana Gorge National Park in the Napier Range. All too soon though we bounced off the end of the smooth tarmac and on to the dusty and bumpy Gibb River Road that we had all been expecting. We had to get used to it fast - it would be our home for the next four days - and I thought I'd left the Dempster Highway behind in Alaska!
We dropped Trev 2 at the Windjana Gorge campground and headed off to nearby Tunnel Creek National Park. We spent the rest of the day exploring the huge 750-metre cave system which was the hideout of Aboriginal leader, and outlaw, Jandamarra in the 1800s. After years of playing hide and seek with the authorities he was finally tracked down and killed by another Aboriginal tracker. Our exit from the cave was, despite having to dodge the hundreds of bats, somewhat more relaxed and we arrived back at the campground just in time to observe a spectacular sunset from the roof of the truck. Whilst I was up top I threw down enough swags for everyone in the group. Everyone but one, that is. I had spotted the best sleeping place of them all and had firmly staked my claim to the ‘roof garden'! Later that evening we discovered that we had a pyromaniac in our group - Claus doing sterling service in preparing the coals on which we would cook our dinner.
Sleeping under the stars was new to most people in the group and most were awake as soon as the sun came up next morning. Of course, I had the experience of the ‘midnight sun' in Alaska under my belt - as well as a good few beers the previous evening - and I stayed asleep until just a few minutes before we set off for the day when luckily someone remembered I was up on the roof and decided to wake me! After exploring Windjana Gorge itself we headed back to the truck, hooked up the trailer and headed off along an increasingly rough Gibb River Road towards Bells Gorge. There were no changing rooms at Bells Gorge so we stopped at a rest area 30 minutes away prior to our arrival there - it was lucky that we did as we found a nasty surprise waiting for us. The trailer hitch had broken en route and it was only by some miracle that the trailer hadn't completely fallen off some way back along the road. It was debateable whether it would have stayed attached for another 30 minutes of driving but, with us stopped, it took us a full twenty minutes of struggle to even unhitch the trailer. With a dozen faces peering at him, Garry announced that the trailer would have to wait - the cooling water of Bells Gorge was far more important... and how right he was!
A couple of hours later, we headed back to the rest area to be reunited with the trailer and, whilst the others prepared lunch; Claus, Garry and I tackled the broken hitch. With a lot of brute force and ignorance (as well as the tried and trusted method of smashing seven shades of shit out of it with a length of scaffold bar!) we finally managed to re-couple the two. Of course it would be impossible for me to go anywhere and not upset someone and, sure enough, I received an ear-bashing from an old couple who were enjoying the peace and quiet before our arrival back at the truck. Quite how they expected us to recover the situation so far out in the bush without making any noise I have no idea.
All safely hitched back off we headed off towards our accommodation for the night - our first night of proper bush camping alongside the nearby Adcock River. Dinner was a nice curried-chicken affair, cooked in a pot on the open fire. It was quite an atmosphere - especially when we were introduced to Dougie; the spade. I will leave it up to your imagination as to the purpose of said spade!
The following day was all about getting some kilometres behind us and we spent the majority of the day in the truck with just a couple of hiking and swimming stops at Galvins and Mannings Gorges. Both gorges were beautiful and we spent a lazy couple of hours relaxing in the sun and cooling off in the water before getting back on the bus. By now the trickle of water from the broken air conditioning units above our heads had become a torrent and, combined with the incessant bumping along the Gibb River Road, it took a little bit of the shine off a great day which ended with us abruptly turning off the road - knocking down bushes and trees as we went - before arriving in a clearing out of sight of the road. Garry claimed that the site was a new discovery but it was clearly a regular little show he put on for his passengers. Either way it was a hell of a way to end a great day. Except the sun hadn't set on the day quite yet - we watched that, sat in a long line, down the centre of The Gibb. When we were done with the sunset we turned to return to the camp and promptly sat down again - to watch the moon rising from the opposite direction! All in all we were sat there for over an hour - in which time not a single car came along.
The novelty of The Gibb was quickly wearing thin so it was good news to wake up with the knowledge that day number 16 was our last full day on the road and that we had a reward for our perseverance in the shape of the El Questro campground. After another long day in the truck we finally forded the Pentecost River and turned left into El Questro mid-afternoon. After another well-deserved cooling dip - the temperature was increasing exponentially as he headed north - we set off on the short drive to the nearby campground. With hot showers, a laundry, a payphone and a bar it was like stepping out of the dark ages and we arrived all smiles. Initially we didn't pick up on it but very quickly we began to sense an atmosphere around the place and it wasn't due to us pitching our tents in the wrong place. Whatever - it would have to wait - I had a date with the laundry and there was a hot shower with my name on it.
Back at the truck word had begun to spread about an accident at the nearby Purnululu National Park which had closed the park. There were no details of the accident at the time but it was disappointing to hear the park was closed as we were heading there ourselves the following day. A friend who had done the tour previously had told me how the highlight of her trip was a helicopter flight over the Bungle Bungle area of the park and I had been talking it up amongst the group. I was desperate to do it and a good number of the others were up for it too. Slowly though the full story began to trickle through: one of the helicopters had crashed, killing the pilot and his three young passengers. The news hit the group like an Exocet and there was nothing else to do but retreat to the bar. Whilst we sat at the bar we learned that one of the girls who had been killed had been working at El Questro and, understandably, there was a sombre mood around the place. It truly was a surreal evening and I was pleased to head off for an early night.
Early - very, very early - the next morning we rolled up our swags and headed off to Zebbedee Hot Springs. Being up before the sun was a real pain but it proved to be worth sacrificing our precious sleep as we had the hot springs entirely to ourselves. It was a fantastic start to the day; and it only got better as the it went on. When we headed back to the truck we discovered that Garry had made us all breakfast pancakes which we devoured before heading to the stunning Emma Gorge where we spent a couple of hours hanging out, drinking in the scenery and relaxing. Whilst most of the group were swimming I spent some time in another hot spring chatting to Bettina and a girl named Helen who had been working at El Questro. But the best part of the day? The very best, most exciting, part of the day? Simple: finally hitting the other end of The Gibb and turning onto tarmac again. Beautiful, smooth, lovely tarmac...
Purnululu National Park, it transpired, was open again. More than that, the helicopters were flying again. This gave everyone something to think about whilst we were hiking through the Beehives area of the park and, when we reached the natural amphitheatre of Cathedral Gorge, we sat down to discuss the matter. Out of the group just five of us still wanted to do the flight. Understandable, I guess, but I thought it a little sad that the others missed out. Sure enough it was a strange - some may say eerie - atmosphere at the helipad but it was obvious that the pilots there were very skilled and professional and I am sure that the investigation will prove that it was just a tragic accident.
Later in the day it was apparent that the atmosphere amongst the group had deteriorated with Bettina and Heinz now completely refusing to talk to each other. They had had words earlier in the trip - about what I have no idea - but I was finding it increasingly frustrating that they couldn't act like the adults they were and sort it out. The whole thing wasn't helped in the least when we got back on the truck only to be drenched within a few kilometres by the aircon. I finally lost my cool with the whole situation and, having fired a few f***s into a shocked Garry, I sat back down. I felt better at least; if not drier. Later that evening he was heard on the satellite phone to his office demanding that the fault be looked at when we reached Cunnanara the following day.
Cunnanara itself was a bit of a hole but it was memorable for Bettina and Heinz's feud finally coming to a head. Having arrived at the campground; she showered, grabbed her bag and headed off in the direction of the Greyhound Bus Station. It was an amusing way to end the day and a spectacular way to end her tour! Garry was fuming and, his pride having taken a knock, switched to the full charm offensive to try and keep everyone else happy. It was apparent that there were underlying tensions but with us so near to Darwin most people seemed content to count down the days.
The final couple of days saw us take a cruise on the man-made Lake Argyle, enjoy the hot springs at Katherine and swim at Edith Falls. The thing that will stick with me most from those last few days was the amazing Archerfish of Lake Argyle which can spit jets of water at its prey. Traditionally this would be insects but in this case it was little bits of bread we were holding over the side of the boat. It was quite a remarkable sight to see them spitting up to 2 metres with such accuracy.
And then it was all over. I had enjoyed the trip up the west coast and through the Kimberleys but I was relieved that it was all over and I could get back to my trip. I knew at the time that it wasn't winning me any friends but I couldn't help but grin inanely as we rode through the outskirts of Darwin. We were dropped at the bus station and, having made my way to my hotel room, the grins turned to girly giggling and me dancing round the room as if I had just won the FA Cup. I was that happy to see the back of that truck!
We met one final time that evening for a few beers at Shennanigans - surely the least Irish Irish bar ever - before a few polite handshakes and us all going our own separate ways. It was quite different to that final night in Anchorage and, looking back, such a shame as it was a good group of people and a great bit of country. I'm not sure why it didn't gel as well as it should but, hey, that's life. The only thing that I can come up with is was the lack of options. By that I mean we were always together - 24 hours a day - whether it was sleeping as a group, eating as a group, swimming as a group, hiking as a group... you get the idea. Perhaps we were just naive to imagine it being any other way in such a remote and, at times, inhospitable location.
I had just 24 hours to explore Darwin and, if I'm honest, that was about the right time. Whilst wandering through town I heard a familiar voice calling out my name - it was Bettina. She had made her way from Cunnanara to Darwin on the Greyhound bus and had been staying locally. The break from the confines of the group had done her the world of good and she was a new person. We decided to hop on a bus and head off to the Darwin Museum that we had both read about in Bill Bryson's book. He was fascinated by it and I can see why. Well worth a visit if you are in the area. We spent far longer than we expected there and, by the time we had headed back to town and had a beer and a bite to eat, it was time for us to say our goodbyes and for me to head off to the airport. Singapore beckons!
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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