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A Dusty Trail Through the Kimberley

01 October 2011

by Sue Webber 

Trev and I were filthy. Sweat, caked with red dust, covered our bodies and permeated every accessible orifice. It had been a long, hard day... and on the map, May River looked like a great place to camp. We allowed ourselves to fantasise about plunging into the cool waters, or even indulging in a splash bath out of our billy. Only that morning we had departed the relative luxury of the Windjana Gorge National Park campsite - complete with drinking water flowing freely from taps, showers and even flush toilets.

Our tour of the Kimberley had begun at Kununurra, in the top right hand corner of Western Australia - arriving there (perhaps unethically) by plane from Darwin. A warm-up ride of 75km out to Lake Argyle (nine times the volume of Sydney Harbour and getting bigger with every telling) turned out to be one of the hottest excursions of the whole trip. I collapsed in the shade and wondered how I'd survive the 1700 kilometres to Broome.

Back at Kununurra, we loaded up our panniers with food and headed south along the Great Northern Highway. I'm not a big fan of highway riding but it's the best way to reach Purnululu (formerly Bungle Bungle) National Park. I'd wanted to visit the park since I first saw photos of the orange and black striped domes that make the place look like a tea cosy convention on steroids. We had forwarded a parcel to the Warmun roadhouse with a week's worth of lightweight, high energy, easy-to-cook food which we then collected en route. The riding became interesting once we left the highway and joined the dirt road to Purnululu. We swapped our slicks for knobblies and attacked the hill climbs, flood worn tracks and steep drops into creek beds. Even though it was the dry season, we still found five creeks running quite high. Trev did a fine job portaging our loaded bikes through the deepest one.

Purnululu was everything I'd imagined - spectacular rock formations, wild flowers, magnificent sunsets, great walks into the massif - but the riding was really hard. The deep sand track that leads to Piccaninny Creek is a challenge to all but the most masochistic riders. The go is to let some air out of your tyres and pedal until your quads ache... or catch a lift with a friendly 4WD! We had four nights in the park and I could have happily explored it for another week but we were running low on supplies so had to flee to civilisation.

We restocked the panniers at Halls Creek, and then spent three days covering the next 300kms to Fitzroy Crossing. We scored a boat trip along Geikie Gorge with local Aboriginal Guide, Joe Ross, and had our minds opened to the culture of the area's traditional owners. We relaxed at the Darlgunaya backpackers, run by the local Aboriginal community in the old Fitzroy Crossing Post Office. A great place to hang out.

Forty kilometres west of Fitzroy Crossing we dived off the highway and hit the "corrugations". The terrain became interesting again as we crossed a low range dotted with the leafless baobab trees. They looked just like children's drawings - with their wide trunks that end in a spray of branches. Tunnel Creek National Park is famous as the hideout of Aboriginal rebel-hero Jundumurra. We arrived early, before the tour groups, and waded through the stream that has worn a tunnel through the Napier Range. Our torches picked up the eye-shine of fish and fresh water crocodiles in the darkness. "Freshies" aren't supposed to be dangerous but the one Trevor nearly trod on looked like it could cause some damage with its long row of pointed teeth.

Next stop, Windjana Gorge. It was magnificent with glowing sunsets over the water and a bush walk to find an ancient Aboriginal Wandjina painting. From there we rode about 20 kilometres to reach the western end of the Gibb River Road. Sixty kilometres of corrugations, red dirt and 4WDs scooting past - filling our faces with their dust... I was ready to kiss the bitumen when it finally appeared. After another 20 kilometres we found a stockyard and windpump by the road. Water gushed seductively from the tank's overflow pipe. I was keen to strip off for a shower and put up the tent. Trev however was convinced that a better camping spot would soon appear, so we filled our water containers and pushed on. The turn off down to May River took us over six kilometres of deep sand and corrugations. I was too wacked to ride and ended up pushing the bike towards the river and the promise of water. As we reached the entrance to the camping area a large sign proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, "Crocodile Country" - not the small, laidback freshies but big, hungry, stop-at-nothing salties. A swim was out of the question and without the ability to get more water we had to conserve what we had for drinking and cooking. At last, our store of baby wipes came into their own. We got through a few that night, wiping arms and legs and faces until the sand and dust came off.

From May River it was an easy run into Derby for beer and pizza and then down the highway to Broome, which is a sort of heaven where all good cyclists go when they've finished touring.

Nitty Gritty

  • July and August are the best months for touring the Kimberley. It's the dry season and the heat is less extreme. 
  • Take plenty of water containers and water purifying tablets with you. We found that we needed to carry nine litres each to cover a night and two days.