Lost in Space

Australia's huge and haunting Kimberley might just be the last frontier.

Aug 9, 2001
Outside Magazine

Nothing turns an Australian misty-eyed like talking about the Kimberley, the isolated northwestern plateau where the Outback intrudes into the tropics. This immense, deserted landscape has had mythical status since the 1880s, when the first white cattle ranchers arrived. What they found was a harsh paradise, its plains riven by giant river gorges, the sandstone cliffs blazing a hot, bloody scarlet at sunset, the coastline alive with the writhing outlines of monstrous, man-eating crocs. The Kimberley quickly became an Aussie byword for frontier, for all that's at once beautiful and brutal. Violent skirmishes between settlers and the native, nomadic Bunuba Aborigines lasted for years, with newspaper readers in faraway Sydney devouring sensational penny-dreadful-style stories of a native gunman, known as Pigeon, who shot at ranchers and eluded posses for years. His skull was finally sent to England in a sack in 1897.
These days, the Kimberley is less Hearstian, but no less rugged and lonesome. The last gruesome campaign to clear out the Aborigines was 70 years ago (and fortunately unsuccessful). Battered cattle tracks today double as main roads, many of them marked on maps as "approximate location only." Gas stations are few and far between. Grocery stores, fewer and farther between, offer such retro Aussie staples as meat pies and sausage rolls. On some of the emptiest, dustiest stretches of road, handpainted signs proclaim: "Welcome to the Last Frontier!"

But if the efforts of man can seem meager and makeshift in the Kimberley, nature operates on a gargantuan scale here. Canyons plunge vertiginously. Cliffs tower hundreds of feet. Strange, humpbacked rocks rise from the red dust. And then there's the weather, biblical in its extremes. At the peak of "the Dry," in October and November, the Kimberley becomes a merciless desert, with leafless boab trees clawing towards the sky and death adders slithering across the sand. Three months later, during the height of "the Wet," 18 inches of rain can fall overnight. Lightning storms rake the horizon, tiny streams become rivers eight miles wide, and the Kimberley begins to resemble an inland sea. In such a landscape, men and women can grow twisted; Kimberleyites are famously eccentric. But you needn't have odd tics to immerse yourself in this vast, empty wilderness. Just plenty of water, reliable transport, an air mattress (tent optional), and the distinct lack of a master plan. This is a land, after all, of nomads.

Filed To: Nature, Australia