West Kimberley, Fitzroy Crossing, the Fitzroy River; this is a very remote part of the Australian outback that is full of indigenous culture, natural beauty and early Settler history, both good and bad.
My name is Tom. Together with Captain Bill, Doug, another Bill, Roger, Deane, and Russell, we were the inaugural group to trial Kimberley Country P/L's new West Kimberley 6 day walk/tour. Wow, and what an adventure it was.
What made the trip so meaningful was the presence of three Bunuba Ranger's (Aboriginal) guides; Shannon, Rory and Percy. Being in their company for five days gave us all an amazing appreciation for their culture, history and belonging to country, a unique experience. Logistical support from Rob, Steve and Jen was also critical in getting us around.
In short, for the first three days the plan was for a combination of shorter day walks, us hikers only requiring day packs with vehicles carrying our main packs, food and supplies from camp to camp. The grand finale of tour walk was a 2-day hike covering 32 kilometrescarrying all our camping gear and food, before meeting up with the punt for a trip down Geike (Dangku) Gorge on our way back to Fitzroy Crossing.
Captain Bill has spent several years planning and initiating this walk. He was our leader, hopefully more Winston Churchill than Burke of Burke and Wills. Amongst the many pieces of advice he gave us was that he warned us not everything went to plan in this part of the world, that we needed to be flexible with our itinerary. Bills prophecy was well founded, but it didn’t matter as there was always a plan B, and C, and D!
Every-one in our group came from Victoria and Qantas delivered us to Broome by lunchtime Sunday. Bill and Rob then drove us 400 km to Fitzroy Crossing where we pitched our tents in the camp-ground, a good opportunity to make sure we all had everything we needed before going bush.
Monday arrived with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. What would we discover, were we fit enough to carry those packs long distances, would we handle the 30 degree temperature, what would be learnt about the hikers we didn’t know? The day 1 walking program was soon cut short as Captain Bill encountered a few issues - one driver no show and mustering on Brooking Station. While Plan B was being implemented we spent an informative time at Women’s Refuge Centre. Otherwise known as Marinwarntikura (Marin = women, warnti=big mob of women, kura=belonging to, website mwrc.com.au), this centre cares for Aboriginal women in many ways; providing peer support, trauma counselling, social enterprise (Marnin Studio), legal services and many other programs which help thecommunity overcome disadvantage. Jen and Bill have developed a special bond with the Centre and in particular its leaders, June Oscar AO and Emilly Carter. With ourstay we were able to observe and learn about the vegetable garden program, the painting of the boab nuts and the screen printing. Then we sat down with June Oscar and talked about a multitude of issues to do with the Aboriginal community in this part of Australia. Articulate, measured, passionate and caring, June is a beacon of light and hope in her community as she and others fight for the major issues confronting Aboriginal people, in particular the effects of alcohol.
It was disappointing to note the end of government funding for the garden project, a full-time gardener made redundant. The position included running a garden at the centre, educating local women about how to establish a garden and improve diet, as well as helping establish, gardens out in the community.
Finally we were on the move. We loaded ourselves into the vehicles and headed out to our camp-site on Brooking Station.
During the drive, Deane put the first nomination in for the Magic Moment Award when he asked Shannon; “What do men only areas mean?” Shannon coolly replied; “only men”. Tents up, camp-fire burning, a delicious dinner, a couple of beers and some wine, we were in heaven, six in the tour group, Rob offering logistical support and the three Aboriginal guides.
Day 2, Tuesday, and our regular hearty breakfast of Muesli, Weet Bix, yoghurt, milk and canned fruit set us up for the day. As an added bonus some damper was cooked in the camp stove. Today was to be a 12 km day walk along Brooking Gorge. We began by walking the one km down to the creek down a rocky track. The leading couple of walkers were surprised by what would be the only snake we would see on the trip. It was probably the non-venomous Olive Python as most other snakes are in hybernation during the winter months.
Before we left on our walk, Captain Bill with a radio had given us last minute instructions which put Shannon at the front of the group, Rory taking up the rear with a radio, and no-one was to wander off by themselves for fear of getting lost. On the way Shannon introduced us to the bush tomato, a spicy version best cooked, and a Conkerberry bush, a bush plum, with tiny but very sweet berries. It would take a seriously long time to pick a bucket full – but they are delicious and on the way to becoming the next “super-food”.
Once at the river, Shannon explained that if we wished for a safe passage down the river, we should get a rock, rub it under each armpit and throw it in the river. The spirits of the river would then know we came in peace. We came to a large pool ideal for swimming, and performed the rock ritual. On the other side of the river was steep rock-face in which was located a large cave with some impressive rock art. A sacred place used to store hunting weapons between seasons, it was a ‘no photo’ zone because of its cultural significance. Magnificent. We then walked along the river to our lunch spot, a beautiful small swimming hole. It had got very hot and it wasn’t long before every-one had dived into the green fresh water. After the last of us climbed out the Aboriginal guides threw in their fishing lines and within a few minutes they had 4 good-sized black bream which were packed away for that night’s dinner. Kites (falcons), pigeons and a couple of black cockatoos watched over us. After lunch it was back to walking along the creek, avoiding the spikey pandanus palms, then away from the creek over lots of rocks all the way back to camp making it a 12km walk for the day. We were back by around 4pm to prepare dinner, but the locals reckoned on shooting a bush turkey to go with the fish, and just before dark, they returned with their prize.
We watched while they plucked the feathers, seared the body, then removed the insides, retaining the kidney, heart and gizzard for a pre-dinner delicacy, the wings a separate snack. These and the turkey were wrapped in silver foil and placed in the coals. The fish went in whole. The pre-dinner treats were enjoyed by some, not all! The turkey was great and the fish very tasty. Jacketed spuds, carrots and a salad rounded out the meal.
Day 3, Wednesday, I awoke to the squawk of a crow, the chirping of a few finches and a beautiful sun-rise. After breakfast, we packed up our camp-site, Captain Bill carefully roping down all the back packs on top of the Toyota. It was a work of art. We were just about to all climb into the vehicles when Bill realised the car keys were in his pack on the roof! The ropes had to be untied and Bill was not happy but qulaified for the second nomination in for the Magic Moment Award
Today was principally a travel day, with our destination being our camp on the Fitzroy River. We soon re-entered Leopold Station, stopping at the largest wind-mill I’ve ever seen. Now lying on the ground, this old technology has given way to a solar powered pump to supply cattle with water. We passed very close to the old Leoplod air-strip, used by the Americans in World War Two, before calling in to the now deserted Leopold Station complex, the place where Junee Oscar and her family spent their formative years.
Next stop was the Birudu community, a remote collection of recently built buildings housing some 30 locals. We met one of the elders, Keith Andrews. Nearby an eco-tourism camp had been established but was now closed, although it was been cleaned up for a visit by Government officials the following day. We were then welcomed to country by Keith’s cousin Christian in a special smoking ceremony in the middle ofPigeon Creek. By walking through the smoke, would enlist goodwill from the spirits of the forefathers for safety in our ongoing travels.
We then travelled to our beautiful sandy riverside camp-site on the Fitzroy River – not far from Dimond Gorge. To our surprise, a couple of local Aboriginal families were enjoying an afternoon of fishing and swimming. The men had caught a large goanna and were degutting it in preparation for that night’s dinner. We went for a swim, established camp and were happy with our steak and snags.
Day 4, Thursday, we packed up camp, off-loading anything we didn’t need to carry in our packs. Russell carried the 2 kg defibrillator (for the whole trip), Captain Bill had the GPS ipad, satellite phone and first aid kit. The rest of us carried food and utensils.
Rob and Shannon then drove us 4 km downstream to the starting point of the big walk. Shannon was leaving us with one of the vehicles but had some parting advice; “watch out for rogue bulls and pigs, and if they start charging you, climb the nearest tree real quick”. He chuckled and I am still not sure whether he was serious.
We got going around 9, and it wasn’t long before it warmed up. Captain Bill had done his homework, the plan was to walk along the river, enjoying its beauty and maximising the shade. Some parts were difficult so we would walk inland. It was on these stretches we saw lots of cattle, and at one point began heading for the trees when some bulls started towards us – fortunately that was all bluff – they must have enjoyed the joke too! We got to our lunch spot at 12, time for a swim. Captain Bill said we were going well, we’d done 8.5km. He’d talked about a day’s walking which would be to find a campsite yet to be determined but between 13 and 20km from here, so 8.5km seemed a nice number, right on half way.
We got to the Sandy Creek/Fitzroy junction at 3pm. Not particularly appealing, it was decided to push on to Pigeon Creek, a beautiful spot Bill promised. We had travelled 13 km, so we only needed to travel another 7km we thought. We were hot but we could do it. With 4 km to go a few of us slowed up! We finally made camp at Pigeon Creek around 5.40pm in the semi-darkness, a quick swim easing the pain of walking 20 km. Taking into account the zig-zagging required, we had probably done about 25km which we all agreed was too much for future walks. Dinner tasted magnificent, the retirement to my bed at 7.30pm even better. As I dozed off into a deep sleep I felt a great sense of achievement.
Day 5, Friday, last day, no-one was saying much but I reckon there were a few blisters, sore feet and tired shoulders in the team. We were quickly on our way as we had 11 km to walk before meeting Bill Aitken on his punt at Geike Gorge around 1pm. To finally see the punt for the first time was a wonderful moment, most importantly it meant we could finally rest our bodies. We had walked 32 km with our packs. We’d made it.
Once on board, Bill Aitken gave us a colourful oratory of geological, cultural and environmental aspects of Geike Gorge. Within 5 minutes of boarding Deane had asked how the gorge had been formed. As a career geologist Roger had suggested that it was the ice melt from a glacial age millions of years ago. Bill Aitken replied in no time that that was all bulls..t and that it was water from the Fitzroy River from the beginning. And that was that! We travelled down the gorge, observing the magnificent limestone cliffs, the magnificent body of fresh water, and the variety of bid-life which included brolgas, egrets and kites. We also saw a sun-baking freshwater crocodile.
Bill Aitken had a couple of treats for us, a freshwater spring with cultural significance and a camp-site where we ate lunch and enjoyed some of his billy tea. Geike Gorge is truly stunning and the punt trip down the gorge was sensational. It was a truly spectacular finish to our 5 day journey.
We all made it safely back to the Fitzroy Crossing campground, where a hot shower was appreciated by all. Shannon, Rory and Perc joined us for dinner at the local Crossing Inn as we enjoyed a shared sense of achievement in surviving the inaugural Kimberley walk. It was a truly amazing experience in a remote part of Australia, an adventure that we felt very fortunate to a part of, and a revelation of understanding Aboriginal culture. The opportunity to learn about the indigenous way of life through the Women’s Centre, living with the three guides and meeting local communities out in the bush gave us a valuable understanding of what it means to be an aboriginal in this region.