Lost in Space: Australia's Kimberley

The Gorges

Aug 9, 2001
Outside Magazine

If East Kimberley is cultivated ranchland, West Kimberley, which begins at approximately Mt. Elizabeth Station, is its less settled, lonely cousin. Here you can begin fully to appreciate the Aboriginal legend of the "serpent dreaming." At the dawn of time, this story goes, the Kimberley's orange dust plains were sliced open by a great slithering snake, leaving one sandstone-flanked gorge after another to fill up with life-giving water and protective trees. Today each of these gorges has its own character and attraction. So how to know which to visit? Consider following the old Outback rule of thumb: The harder a gorge is to visit, the more satisfying it will be. Skip, then, the famous, brooding Windjana Gorge, a favored ambush spot for Pigeon, the Aboriginal Robin Hood (although there's something memorably chilling about wading through the icy waters of his underground hideout while the red eyes of freshwater crocs reflect your torchlight in the darkness).
Drive instead to Bell Gorge at the end of a 20-mile turnoff from Gibb River Road. Get there early; the ten riverside campsites fill quickly ($11, no reservations). From the campground, hike a mile to where the earth suddenly cracks open like a wound above a 300-foot waterfall. Just below you, the gorge stretches out in a series of ice-cold swimming pools, all connected by multi-level falls; swim the shallowest sections by pulling yourself amphibian-style along the slippery algae before doing a few laps in the final, Olympic-size pond.

To have a gorge completely to yourself, however, you will probably need to head deeper into the remote, wind-swept King Leopold Ranges. Raw brown bluffs loom here over dry expanses of ghost gums, the region's eerie, white-barked eucalyptus. Rent a canoe ($14) at Mornington Camp, 100 miles southeast of Bell Gorge, then push off for the four-mile float down the river at the bottom of Diamond Gorge. (These waters are blessedly free of man-eating crocs, allowing worry-free swimming.) The silence will be broken only by the slap of your paddle echoing from the cliffs on either side. No wonder Pigeon chose to flee here at the end, when the white men were closing in. The first martyr of the Outback could not have found a lovelier, wilder, or more haunting place.

Filed To: Nature, Australia

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