On the rocks

Robert Upe follows corrugated roads to find waterholes and bush tucker in the splendid isolation of the Kimberley.

David Charles Chilcott IV twists the cap off the bottle and pours some crisp wine into the glasses on the white tablecloth on a fold-out table. The salt-and-pepper prawns have been shelled and the silverware sparkles in the dappled sun. He stuffs a lemon wedge into a frosty Corona bottle and sweeps some wallaby dung out of the way with a sideways scrape of his right boot across the dry ground. We clink glass on glass, a toast to an outback picnic.

Chilcott's name implies gentry and English properness but he's an outdoor guide and one-time horse-breaker, rodeo rider, crocodile catcher and bush-tucker man better known as Chilli.

He is in a black cowboy hat that would look good at Tamworth's country music festival, blue jeans and a green KingGee shirt, the material so tough it probably won't rip on barbed wire.

We're picnicking in remote woodland at the foot of the Cockburn Range, where the pinkness of rock and sunset lured filmmaker Baz Luhrmann for some of the spectacular scenes in his movie Australia, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

It has taken me five days of driving to get here from Broome along the corrugated and dusty Gibb River Road, which cuts through the 421,000-square-kilometre Kimberley, a vastness of wallabies, gorges, waterfalls, boabs and spiky spinifex that is five times the size of Tasmania.

It is so remote that just last year a ranger from El Questro Station, which occupies 4000 square kilometres of the countryside here, found waterfalls in a canyon that had been unknown to anyone at the cattle and tourist property.

The series of 15 cascades up to 45 metres high is complemented by crystal-clear swimming holes surrounded by semi-tropical ferns in a ridgy-didge oasis that has been named Amaroo Falls, Aboriginal for "beautiful place".

"I was speechless when we landed to have a look," says Michael Bass, who was conducting an aerial burn in a helicopter when he spotted the falls. "That such a place was not known about by now was hard to believe."

Chilli lays out an antipasto picnic feast on the camping table but he is more rapt to crack open a boab nut (they're the size of large pears) to show us the sweet-and-sour white flesh the local children call "bush popcorn".

He says the kids use a stockwhip to get the nuts down from the bulging boabs that are endemic of this area and in Madagascar.

He shows us colourful wildflowers that we can eat and - stabbing the air with his knife towards a bush - cautions us about the grevillea pyramidalis because the resin in the seed pods can cause burns like caustic soda.

Then, he surprises with an admission about his own tastes. "When I come camping here I like to have goanna with vegetables in the camp oven," he declares.

The goanna has sharp claws and it can also sprint if threatened, usually clambering up a tree for safety or up the legs of an unlucky bystander who may resemble a tree to a frightened lizard.

I'm not sure if Chilli is joking about roasting them over hot coals, or how he may catch them, but he says the flesh is greasy.

Goanna imaginings aside, I settle into prawns and some green olives on a toothpick. The Mexican beer has never tasted as good as it does in the searing midday heat.

Even the red-headed brolgas with chopstick-thin legs have come to a standstill on a nearby salt pan that has been cracked open by the heat, while the black kites that earlier prowled on a circular flight path with the intent of vultures appear to have lost interest as the hot air shimmers like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia.

The Gibb River Road that has brought me to this other-worldly isolation is a rough route favoured by adventurous outback travellers who are willing to drive across rivers and creeks with dangerous-looking saltwater crocodiles and to share the gravel with dangerous-looking road trains. These cattle-carrying trucks are so big that they can be seen kilometres away, with massive plumes of dust at their tails.

Western Australia's roads department sends a grader on to the Gibb River Road a few times each driving season - during the dry between May and October - but the rocks and stones are so sharp that we carry two spare tyres in our hired four-wheel-drive vehicle and big plastic containers of drinking water in case of a breakdown.

Along the road, or at least within detour distance, there are reinvigorating swimming holes and waterfalls such as Bell, Manning and Galvan's gorges. We tiptoe close to the freshwater crocodiles sunbathing on the sandy banks of Windjana Gorge and venture with torchlight into the darkness and knee-deep water of Tunnel Creek, a 750-metre cave that has bats and stalactites and cuts through the Napier Range.

At first, I'm apprehensive about steering the four-wheel-drive into the rivers but with each plunge, confidence increases. Usually the water is still and shallow but at some crossings - such as Pentecost River - it is flowing and wide and it gets the heart pounding.

Many crossings have a submerged concrete causeway and guideposts to help you across. Nevertheless, there are stories of vehicles going under and having to be dragged out by tractors. I like to think that's early in the season when the water's higher and drivers have gone ahead ignoring the risk.

At one stop at Galvan's Gorge we are met by a black cloud of swarming flies as we trek from the road to a waterfall that we can hear through the scrub. One of those silly-looking bush hats with dangling corks would be handy.

The flies menace us and stick to our backs as if they are caught in Clag but there's relief from the drone under the pummelling cascade.

Our whoops echo around the cliffs. There's no one else around and it's like having a private waterhole.

Camping along the Gibb River Road is popular and affordable but there are also comfortable beds at cattle stations and the Mornington Wilderness Camp.

The wilderness camp is a bumpy and lonely 95-kilometre detour off the Gibb River Road and sits within a 322,000-hectare private sanctuary of gorges and tropical savannah owned and managed by the non-profit Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

The AWC has 21 reserves around Australia with the aim of rehabilitating the flora and fauna to their natural state. Part of the plan here is to remove feral pests, weeds, donkeys and cattle.

During the wet season, humidity stifles normal activity in this region and Mornington (like many properties) is cut off by flood waters and closed, staffed by only a few hardy researchers. But during the dry, there are shady campsites and 10 safari-style tents with en suites, mosquito netting, mattresses on beds, hard floors and balconies beside pandanus-lined Annie Creek.

"If frogs are present, gently remove them from toilet," says a sign in a tent and some rubber gloves are provided to help get the job done.

Staying at Mornington, we see rock wallabies basking in the sun, hear dingoes howling through the night and wake up to a morning harmony of birdsong.

A Mornington ranger says there are 200 bird species on the property, among them emu, eagles, spoonbills, herons, finches and barking owl. The closest I get to a barking owl is at the open-air bar, where I buy a $6 glass of Barking Owl Shiraz. The bar and restaurant are a luxury after days on the road and there is a fire pit where Mornington guests can swap road stories.

There are some rough drive tracks to explore at Mornington; most notably to Dimond Gorge (48 kilometres return) and Sir John Gorge (28 kilometres return). Both are on the Fitzroy River, which has carved its way through the sandstone, which in some places is stacked in big flat layers next to the water.

There are canoes at the gorges so you can paddle into the far reaches to swim or sunbathe on the rocks, perhaps with a hamper lunch from the Mornington kitchen.

There are also gorge rewards at Mount Elizabeth Station, a working cattle and tourist property, where peacocks strut about the garden and where the homestead's pet wallaby snuggles in the dog's bed.

The lodging and food here is basic but somehow it doesn't matter after hours of rattling along the Gibb River Road in a 4WD cabin swirling with dust.

Mount Elizabeth's gorges are open for guests to explore and they are far from ordinary.

Wunnumurra Gorge has a waterfall and the Hann River Gorge has trickling streams where we soak among the rocks and water lilies clumped along the edges.

But back at the picnic with Chilli, we've waited out the worst of the heat and are ready to go again on the Karunjie Track on our day-trip circumnavigation of the Cockburn Range.

The tour is one of many exploring options at El Questro that can be done with a guide or on your own.

You can also be helicoptered to the newly discovered Amaroo Falls for a private picnic for two, trek to Emma Gorge and waterfall to swim in the cold water surrounded by high rock walls, or slip into the warm thermal water at Zebedee Springs in a pocket of rainforest.

Towards the end of the tour with Chilli, we stop near the Pentecost River, where he reckons we may see some sunbathing crocodiles. We sneak up a small rise and peek over but we see only one sleeping croc.

All's quiet except for the trickling river and the idling 4WD.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Tourism WA and El Questro.


Getting there

Qantas flies direct to Broome twice a week from Melbourne (4hr 35min) for about $907 and from Sydney (5hr 15min) for about $949 return, including tax. On other days, flights go via Perth. Virgin Blue flies to Broome via Perth.

Driving there

The Gibb River Road is about 650 kilometres long, accessed via Broome in the west and Kununurra in the east. It is open during the dry season from about May to October/November and is mostly gravel, with some short bitumen sections. Driving hazards include corrugations, dust, wandering cattle and river crossings

Four-wheel-drive or high-clearance vehicles are recommended but previous 4WD experience is not essential. Fuel is available at Imintji and Mount Barnett roadhouses. Many accommodation options and natural attractions require a detour, so it pays to calculate mileage carefully so you don't run short of fuel.

Hire vehicles are available in Broome from major rental car companies such as Budget, Hertz, Avis and Thrifty, along with Britz and Kea. A Toyota LandCruiser or similar from Budget for seven days, picked up and dropped off in Broome, is $1063 with 100 kilometres free each day and a charge of 27ยข a kilometre for more than that. The same vehicle hired in Broome and dropped off in Kununurra incurs a dropoff fee and costs $2041. Phone (08) 9193 5355, see budget.com.au.

Staying there

Options vary from dirt-cheap camp grounds to cattle stations and exclusive homesteads.

El Questro is 900 kilometres from Broome and 110 kilometres from Kununurra. (If you don't want to drive, it has an airstrip.) The property has several styles of accommodation, including campsites for $18 a person a night, safari-style tents from $270 a night a room twin share and the ultra-luxury Homestead from $1890 a room a night twin share. A 10-hour 4WD tour of the Cockburn Range with a guide like Chilli is $253 a person. Phone 1300 863 248, see elquestro.com.au.

Mornington Wilderness Camp is 550 kilometres from Broome, 565 kilometres from Kununurra and 95 kilometres off the Gibb River Road. It also has an airstrip. There are campsites for $17.50 a person a night and safari-style tents from $250 a night twin share, including three meals. Two-man canoe hire at Sir John Gorge is $60; a range of guided tours is also available. Phone 1800 631 946, see australianwildlife.org.

Mount Elizabeth Station is 365 kilometres from Kununurra and 30 kilometres off the Gibb River Road. It has basic twin-share rooms with shared bathrooms. Dinner, bed and breakfast $185 a person; camping $15 a person a night. Phone (08) 9191 4644, see mountelizabethstation.com.

More information

See kimberleyaustralia.com, www.mainroads.wa.gov.au.