First published on the Starts at Sixty website, 11 June 2015.
Reptiles, Waterholes, Ranges
Why would anyone travel to Broome in December? Well, in December 2005, my wife Rae and I had an excuse. We decided we would use Frequent Flyer points to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our marriage with a few days in the far north of Western Australia. We flew into Broome for three days. On the first day it was 35 degrees and the humidity around 90 percent. Without a car, every journey to find a meal or to walk to Cable Beach was an unpleasant sweaty exertion.
That evening, we booked a day trip out of Broome along Gibb River Road. We figured that even if we saw little in the way of scenery, we would have two meals provided in air-conditioned comfort.
Comfort, however, is not the first word that describes the all-terrain military carrier vehicle, the Hummer, which bumped into our apartment carpark at 6 a.m. Even on hard tarmac, the Hummer rides like an ill-tempered camel. We bumped along at 120-130 km/h inland to Derby, arriving at about 10 a.m., as the temperature steadily rose. At a certain point, the heat overwhelmed the air-conditioning, and it gave out, leaving us to be conditioned only by the hot easterly air gusting through open windows.
As the temperature increased, however, the interest of the journey also rose. On a long straight stretch of road, the driver suddenly stopped the bus, jumped down and ran flat out. He returned two minutes later with a frill-necked lizard in his bleeding, bitten hands: the angry, frightened frill-necked lizard gave a wonderful display of his neck, large and red with emotion.
The Hummer bounced along the gravel corrugations of the famed Gibb River Road. On our left, the sheer jagged cliffs of the Napier Range rose abruptly where Bunuma resistance hero Jandamarra had hidden out in the 1880s and 90s.
Well after 1 p.m. we struggled through a darkened gorge, and swam in the deliciously cool water-hole at the far end of Tunnel Creek. Refreshed, and relieved not to meet a snake in the water with us, we enjoyed sandwiches and drinks from the car fridge, and turned back for Broome.
A red cloud of dust haunted the Hummer as the sun started to sink in the west. We stopped at Windjana Gorge, where a skittish posse of freshwater crocs played chasey with each other in the upper reaches of the sandy beach. ‘Don’t get between them and the water,’ advised our guide. It seemed to us tourists that wherever we stood we were between the metre-long reptiles and the water. However beautiful the place, we elected not to stay too long.
Darkness fell about 8 p.m. Back on the bitumen we stopped for a barbecue dinner, and with the Hummer’s lights turned off, visibility was nil. Rae and I walked off hand in hand into the darkness for the weird experience of seeing showy diamond stars piercing the ebony canopy but not being able to see our own hands or the tarmac beneath our feet.
The Hummer trundled into Broome after midnight. The driver said he would be up at 5 a.m. to re-fuel and repeat the experience with a new group of tourists. We could sleep in.
Next morning, however, another surprise blew into our wedding anniversary. The humidity woke us at about 9 o’clock. It was almost unbearable, even in air-conditioning. ‘The Build-up’, the locals call this time of year, and it makes people do strange things. The weather too.
The wind picked up, first from the north, then, it seemed, from every direction. Round and round like a whirlpool. A cyclone, which the day before had been over Darwin, was now threatening Broome. We prepared to leave for Perth.
Qantaslink staff hurried us through the airport and on to the plane. It was the quickest loading and take-off I have experienced. Forget security. As we circled over the town, we saw trees bending in half to the wind and felt the plane struggling to bank smoothly.
The speaker hissed. ‘We will be the last flight out of Broome until the cyclone has passed,’ announced the pilot. Rae and I sat back in our seats and smiled at each other. ‘I enjoyed our wedding anniversary,’ I said to my wife, ‘but now I need a rest in a cool quiet place.’ ‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘without reptiles.’