Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Gibb River Road and El Questro

Beautiful gorges.

Everything's open on the Gibb River Road.
Fiela had proven himself time and time again in the 4WDing stakes, but it was still with some trepidation that we faced the Gibb River Road and all the accompanying lambast that came along with it. Take it slow and you'll be fine... It sorts the men from the boys.... It's just a dirt highway... The toughest road in Australia... Poor Gibb, he was certainly suffering from an identity crisis if not a full blown personality disorder. But still, I was excited and full of nervous expectation as we drove down the 'major' arterial linking the East and West Kimberley regions.

We eased into it from the Kununurra side (after a few days of shopping to survive the two weeks on the supply barren Gibb. I won't bore you, Kununurra has its charms I'm sure, we just didn't encounter any of them) with about 40kms of bitumen and amazing scenery straight off the bat before we even saw any red dust. Moody and majestic ranges of red ochre unfold themselves and take your breath away as you roll down the Gibb River Road (GRR) westward: the dawning realisation you are entering an area which is magical, hard and incredibly special is immediate.

Beautiful ranges, still beautiful bitumen.

So I've grudgingly been acknowledging Fiela's driving prowess, and as we had to cross the Pentecost River every day to see all that El Questro, our first stop on the GRR, had to offer, my knotted stomach began to relax and I could look at why, when  I had a competent driver and a car built to do what we were doing, why I was still so uptight with every engagement of 4WD. I looked at my role models- my father and my oldest brother- who had been the stalwarts of any off-roading I'd ever encountered. My brother is an excellent 4WDer,  but like me, can be a bit impatient on and off the road (strange but true) leading to the odd bog and string of swear words (yes, also strange I hear you murmur), but always triumphing in the end. But it is my father who is the reason I'm so nervous now. I remember sitting in the back of an old Landrover with Dad driving up the beach on Fraser Island, on the back of the tractor as he gunned it up a steep slope thick with slippery red mud... and through it all he never faltered or panicked or moved suddenly or with anger. Mum on the other hand often had little conniptions (yes, the repetition in behaviours is not lost on me!), but Dad just drove on. The difference with Fiela is that I've witnessed his 4WDing evolution,  unlike my father's, whom I assumed, as a child, just knew how to do it right. Anyway, I have reprimanded myself, and when I feel like the river crossings and the 4WDing is getting a bit much, I just put my head down between my knees and sing a little Kylie, it seems to get me through.

One of the creek crossings at El Questro, this one only 45cm deep.

Anyway, El Questro was our first stop on the GRR, and what a slick operation it is. I can imagine that having travelled from the Western side, arriving here after a few weeks of drop toilets and cold showers must be like entering an oasis of forgotten luxuries, like a bar, upmarket restaurant, some non-dusty groceries and hot water.... You'd be constantly opening your wallet in an attempt to gorge youself on civilisation. They even have their own line of shirts and singlets, which I was tempted to buy straight away but in a strange fit of sensible shopping decided not to. The property is a 'working' cattle station, but is more like a camping resort with some pretty amazing natural scenery within its boundaries (El Questro is not a National Park and so can capitalise on its assets as it sees fit).

Manicured grass at El Questro... we were unaware that this would have induced hysteria three weeks later. 

El Questro camping.

We eventually found a site in the non powered section ($60 per night being a bit rich for our tastes at this stage for powered) and joined in with the rest of the plebs in trying to find a spot which wasn't on top of someone else. To say it was busy would be a bit of an understatement but it was a long weekend and school holidays were tantalisingly close for everyone. No sooner had we set up than the Doves (the collective pronoun for our Purnululu friends) zoomed by looking for their own little piece of quiet. We spent the rest of the afternoon not talking to our 'Brought Their Own Friends' neighbours (please refer to the note at the end), swimming in the creek running through the property and trading notes on what we'd seen thus far on our collective trips over drinks with Lizzie and Mike.

El Questro Gorge.

We awoke the next day to hundreds of kettles whistling their morning corrals and set off soon after for El Questro Gorge. We came across our first 4WD victim on the Gibb, a much Greyer now Nomad had managed to bog himself in sand coming across the opposite side of the river. When he was finally dug out and the rest of us could get past, he was sucking back on a cigarette so hard I was surprised he hadn't inhaled the filter. It just goes to show that while the GRR might not be that tough anymore, stray off onto a sideroad and you WILL be 4WDing.

Walking up the creek bed into El Questro Gorge.

Anyway, so we got to the gorge and walked up its rocky creek bed to the first swimming hole. It was only a kilometre, but with all the rock hopping and creek crossings it took well over an hour. The gorge was beautiful though, with high cliffs and green green foliage dappling the creek with what little sunshine could make its way from the top of the narrow walls to the bottom.

El Questro Gorge.

A little snake chomping on a frog.

The swimming hole was pretty small, fairly cold and the massive boulder blocking the creek meant there was just time for a dip and some fruit before we walked back out.

The swimming hole and Fiela on a rock.
Quiet woodland fairies.
More rocks and water at El Questro.

We arrived back at El Questro to find four families of camper trailers travelling together had parked themselves next to us, and so for the next few days we endured poolnoodle fights, flying footballs and hissy fits metres from our bed. I had a small moment when at 7.05am (after the dawn joyflights had taken off 200metres from our camp. Note the plural on 'joyflight') I exited our camper to find a creche of little girls sitting under our annex playing with Marguerite's small box of toys. I really felt like the camping grinch.

Alright, it wasn't all bad at El Questro!

We traipsed into the unfortunately named Zebedee Springs with every other person from the campground and for once had the advantage by combining forces with the Doves and comandeering one or two of the warm rockpools for ourselves. The springs are beautiful,  but only accessible to 'the public' between the hours of 7am and 12pm, after which time the people staying at the $1800 per night accommodation up at The Homestead can have their champagne in the pools without those pesky plebs about. Another perk for the winners in the Game of Capitalism. That aside, the water is always around 30 degrees, and I'm sure this is what landscapers are trying to achieve when they imitate nature in their rainforesty water features, with gorgeous water cascading from one small pool to the next.

Beautiful Zebedee Springs.

Livistona Palms and red ochre at Zebedee Springs.

Then it was Emma Gorge time, supposedly the most beautiful on the GRR. The walk in is certainly not easy,  but the reward of water cascading over walls surrounding a circular pool, with green ferns and rainbows colouring the cliffs is wonderful compensation. It was spectacular,  one of my favorite moments was lying on my back, looking 60 metres up and watching droplets fall through sunlight to the cold deep water below. There is a thermal spring running into the swimming hole, but it does little to heat what is a shaded and deep pool. My chin was numb after a 10 minute swim.

Starting off at Emma Gorge.
Emma Gorge.
More Emma Gorge, that's my head in the water, bottom left.

Playing mermaids in the sun with Phoebe, a friend from camp.
Post Emma Gorge, not feeling very photogenic after a number of stacks on the way out.

We also walked Moonshine Gorge another day, which was probably not one of our brighter moments. It was not a shaded gorge, required a lot of dexterity in that there were many rocky creek crossings and the path being creek bed itself; I ended up carrying Marguerite for quite a bit of the way, such was the difficulty of the terrain. The swimming hole at the halfway point was not as spectacular as those we'd seen thus far, but it was refreshing as we readied ourselves to walk up and over the saddle of the ridge, back to the car park.  I was knackered after this walk, I think we all were.

Swimming hole at Moonshine Gorge.
More Moonshine.

Negotiating the terrain... slowly.
The view from the Saddle at Moonshine Gorge. 

One afternoon we decided to drive up to the Pigeon Hole Lookout with the Doves for sundowners overlooking the Kimberley and the Pentecost River. Of course getting up there in time for the sunset was problematic, what with Fiela and the Dove boys feeling the need to ride their bikes across the Pentecost a few times... Anyway, we made it just in time to really piss off every other person there hoping to find their moment of Kimberley Quiet, what with four adults and five children ranging in age from 11 to 2 years of age all hungry and ready to fight over camembert and carrot sticks, scrambling around a small lookout.... Aah, so peaceful. The sunset was lovely, but we all agreed that children,  whilst enriching our lives in priceless and innumerable ways, are not especially conducive to quiet times and sundowners.

Sunset at Pigeon Hole.

Enjoying the sunset, having got rid of every other person there...
Sunset over the Pentecost River and the Kimberley.

El Questro had been a good introduction to the Kimberley, but I felt like we'd managed to miss something sitting diamond-like  underneath all that touristy gloss. I couldn't put my finger on it or words to it; I think I'd glimpsed it at Emma Gorge staring up at those fat droplets cascading down, maybe heard it over the noise of the kids at Pigeon Hole Lookout... Either way, we would have to keep searching the GRR to find whatever it was, that Kimberley feeling.

Note. 'Brought Their Own Friends' is a label Fiela and I came up with fairly early on in our trip,  and refers to the types of fellow campers who are travelling in a group, and therefore feel it unnecessary to exchange any information or pleasantries, nary a hello over the water tap, with other campers: they have brought along their own pre-approved people with which to make social niceties with and thus had no need of us. We found this type of behaviour baffling in the beginning and even quite disheartening. Afterall, what's not to like about us, we conjectured, we're smart, funny, a little dirty maybe but we don't smell much !? Now we realise the Brought Their Own Friends are just a bit rude and lacking in social skills, karma will get them in the end,  which it definitely did to these El Questro people when half the group left and suddenly the leftovers were all over us like a rash. Too late dipsticks, too late.

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