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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.
: Australia's Kimberley
The Bungle Bungles
Australians have always felt that the Kimberley was capable of hiding just about anyone or anything. And in 1982, we got our proof when a documentary film crew flying south of Kununurra (pronounced languidly, Kah-nah-NAH-ruh) stumbled across a hallucinatory set of geologic formations. Appearing, from a distance, to be hundreds of beehive-shaped domes, these tiger-striped mounds rose from the surrounding desert like savage blisters. They soon became famous as the Bungle Bungles. (Bungle is a mispronunciation of the "bundle bundle" grass common here.) Needless to say, Aboriginal people had known about the place for millennia and called it Purnululu. But as far as the outside world was concerned, this bizarre rock massif was a revelation. The Bungles quickly became the symbol of the Kimberley, ubiquitous on brochures, T-shirts, and postcards.
Go anyway. The Bungles may be inevitable, but they're also unforgettable, one of the most surreal sights in this already otherworldly landscape. To view them at their most memorable, fly. If you merely drive to them, they can appear to be big ruddy hillocks and nothing special. From above, however, they become an immense, nubby wonderland, empty of all visible life except for the occasional shy pretty-faced wallaby.
Flights from Kununurra to the Bungles are offered by Paul's Creek and Bungle Bungle Tours. The two-day trips include one night at a tent camp ($470; 011-61-8-91-686-217). You can also, during the dry season, make the five-hour drive from Kununurra on the Great Northern Highway. Once you've reached the Bungles, arrange a helicopter flight over the outcropping. Slingair and Heliwork (011-61-8-91-681-811) fly every half hour, weather permitting, for $115 per person.
Then, if the rains aren't relentless or the heat too suffocating, spend several more days hiking in Purnululu National Park, which encompasses the Bungles. You can only walk in designated areas; footsteps on parts of the area's soft, cork-like crust can cause permanent damage. (For more information, call the Purnululu park office at 011-61-8-91-687-300.) Luckily the permissible hikes are spectacular, especially the Echidna Chasm and Cathedral Gorge routes, which penetrate deep into the glowing sandstone. These routes are short, however, only a few miles. Another permitted walk, to Picaninny Gorge, is a more challenging, two-day project. Leave early in the morning; the trail's first four miles are in direct sun. Once you reach the gorge itself, the trail enters a blissfully cool, sand-floored crevice. Six miles farther on lies Byers Base. Throw a blanket on the sand to make camp, then spend the afternoon exploring the narrow slot canyons that shoot off from the main gorge. Later, curl up on your blanket beneath the sheer dark cliffs and watch the stars rise in some of the clearest air on earth.
: Australia's Kimberley
Running west of Kununurra, away from the Bungles, the 440-mile Gibb River Road is the dusty Fifth Avenue of the Kimberley, a former cattle-driving track around which all human life in the area revolves. Most of the land here is taken up by immense ranches, few of them measuring less than a million acresnot a profligate size when you realize that the barren soil only sustains one head per 100 acres. (Herding is usually done by helicopter.) The attractions of this region are much like those of the most remote areas of, say, Idaho: This is where cowboy culture survives, where cattle are both income and recreation, and where the landscape is a great, dusty, lonesome, poetic place.
The closest ranch to Kununurra, and one of the most idiosyncratic, is El Questro, only 90 minutes west of town. Larger than Monaco, El Questro sprawls across the leather-brown mesas of the Pentecost Ranges. In 1990 the entire spread was leased by Will Burrell, a 23-year-old English aristocrat who happily sank into the Outback way of life: He's been known to waterski the Chamberlain River behind a helicopter and to keep a wicker chair on the knife point of a bluff reachable only by air, the better to read poetry and contemplate the silence.
Under Burrell, El Questro has opened itself to the public as a "wilderness camp." It offers an entire social strata of accommodations, from a proletarian $7 campground to the Homestead, a luxurious, chaps-in-black-tie-quaffing-gin-style lodge where rooms are $460 a night. My preference is for the most atmospheric option of all, the private campsites ($7), individual swaths of riverside bushland far from the nearest tent. (Call 011-61-8-91-691-777 for reservations.)
For company, drive back up to El Questro's open-air bar, the Swinging Arm, for a steaks cattle country, after all, and vegetarians are viewed askancechilled Emu Bitter beer. If you're lucky, you'll get to chat for a bit with Buddy Tyson, the Aboriginal jackaroo, or stockman. Ask him about the time he was arrested for rowdiness in Broome and brought his dog into court as a witness.
Next morning, rent a motorboat and chug slowly up the Chamberlain, casting a line for barramundi, Australia's most succulent white-fleshed fish. The boat costs $95 for a half day. Canoes used to be available as well, until a crocodile tore one in two. In mid-afternoon, when the sun often glares penitentially over the earth, rock-hop down the river to the dribbling waterfall at the end of Emma Gorge. The vine-fringed sinkhole here, locals claim, is "the most beautiful swimming spot in all of Oz."
: Australia's Kimberley
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.
: Australia's Kimberley
The Shipwreck Coast
Every explorer, given enough time in the Outback, begins to dream desperately of reaching the sea, with its promise of soothing breezes and sensual, lapping waves. But in the Kimberley, to stagger from the dry bush into the region's coastal capital, Broome, is to fight a powerful sense of anticlimax. It's hard to fault Broome itself for this, with all its Maugham-esque tropical bars on stilts, where bronzed young locals who look Asian or Polynesian but speak with broad Aussie accents watch blazing sunsets color the city's 14-mile-long beach. But when you're still shaking the Outback's dust out of your pack, Broome and its iced cappuccino culture can seem a bit too ... civilized.
So sate your water lust and end your Kimberley sojourn more appropriately at Cape Leveque, a little-known outpost on Aborigine-owned land about 135 miles north of Broome. When the English pirate William Dampier landed here in 1688, he dismissed the area as worthless, and its inhabitants as "the miserablest people on earth." He might reassess today. Cape Leveque's sands are creamy white, the Indian Ocean an extravagant blue, and the pandanus-leaf-covered shelters a kind of Platonic ideal of the beachfront cabana ($11; 011-61-8-91-924-970). Rent snorkeling gear so you can explore the circling reefs that protect this coast from crocodiles and sting rays.
For a touch of regional color, sign up with Vince, a local Aboriginal guide who leads mudcrabbing trips into the mangroves. You'll dodge stingrays and a few small grey nurse sharks just offshore as you search for that night's seafood supper ($40, including all the crabs you uncover). Later, raise a glass of Emu Bitter (bring your own; the community is dry) and watch the sun sink in the direction of Jakarta, Indonesia, the nearest city. The Outback is behind you, the carnivorous crocodiles somewhere off to the side, and your palm hut is cooling pleasantly in the evening's breeze. I'd nominate this as the most beautiful swimming spot in all of Oz.
: Australia's Kimberley
Outback and Forth: Navigating the Most Remote Region Down Under
Qantas and Air New Zealand both fly to Sydney from Los Angeles (15 hours) for prices ranging from $1,100 to $3,700. The domestic carrier Ansett Australia (800-262-1234) will fly you to either Kununurra in the Kimberley's interior or the coastal pearling outpost of Broome. Round-trip cost for either destination is about $400; tickets must be purchased in the U.S.
"It's 'arsh out there," a woman in a roadhouse store told me while squinting out at the shimmering horizon and cracking another beer. "Farkin' 'arsh." She was right. Distances between attractions in the Kimberley are huge, water is scarce, and anyone who thinks he can just hike or mountain bike off into the wilderness should make out a will before leaving. Instead, rent a four-wheel drive in Kununurra or Broome; Down Under Answers offers Land Cruisers for about $109 a day, unlimited mileage (800-788-6685). If you'd prefer not to lead your own expedition into the Outback, Down Under also offers organized Darwin-to-Broome camping tours in a breakneck seven days for $636.
When To Go
Everything in the Kimberley depends upon the climate. From February until April, the wet season turns the desert into a glorious gardenbut it also makes many roads into muddy sinkholes. Transportation during "the Wet" is best accomplished in light planes. Charter flights are easily arranged between almost all of the Kimberley's towns and attractions. For information, call the Broome Tourist Bureau (011-61-8-91-922-222).
The finest time to visit, however, may be in early May, when the land is still lush but the rains have tapered off. Days are warm and nights cool, making for perfect campfire weather. Beware of October and November, the height of "the Dry." Humid and scorching, that's when Outback characters go "troppo," or dotty, a 'arsh thing to see.