Friday 28 August 2009

Boab trees - Kimberley W. Australia

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Geike Gorge- Fitzroy Crossing W. Australia

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Kimberley 7 Tim

3 pm. Tim’s phone rings out. Just as well. I have time to calm myself.
Eventually a girl’s voice answers. It’s not Renee. It’s a young backpacker’s voice but she’s smart enough to read the emotion in my voice.

‘Tim. It’s for you.’

‘Hi Tim. It’s Steve here. Hummer Steve. Remember? Yeah the cars running well.’ I’m practicing my calm voice. ‘But the tent situation is a f…ing disaster.’

I tell him the whole story. Upside down, inside out, dissemble, reassemble. I’m not about to let him be unclear about our predicament.

‘Someone had better sort this out’ I tell him '‘cos sleeping under the stars is not worth the premium price we’re paying for the Hummer plus camping package.'

‘I’ll check with Rennie’ he says. Rennie? Is there a Renee and a Rennie? Is he trying to do my head in. I suppress the conspiracy theory growing in my head.

I suggest airbeds instead of stretchers. He agrees, surprisingly enthusiastically.

‘Can you get them to us at Cape Leveque tomorrow somehow?’ He is suddenly less enthusiastic.

‘I’ll have to call Brisbane’ he informs me and promises to call back in the next hour.

It’s 4 pm and I haven’t heard from Tim (or Rennie or Renee). I call Tim’s number. It’s engaged. I walk once around the campground. I call again. Engaged. I report back to the silent team on the lack of progress. Andrea has taken to one of the beds. The third time Tim answers.

Tim is less chatty this time. He tells me the boss from Brisbane will call me.

My mission to negotiate a solution by sundown is looking less achievable. I report to the team. We waste a lot of energy trying to second guess the Brisbane boss and finally agree to the inevitable. We’ll sleep out tonight.

We now work hard at finding the silver lining. What a stroke of luck. Without this we would never have chosen to do this. How romantic. Under the stars. Full moon.

Andrea spoils the mounting euphoria by pointing out that we’ve now taken four and a half hours to set up camp. Denis and I claim it as a new world record. We’ll call the Guinness book of records tomorrow.

Pauline giggles. Denis rolls his eyes. Andrea says she’s going to lie down. She has a choice of inside or outside. What luxury.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Kimberley 6 Stretchers

The Hummer hums. We head north to Cape Leveque, 200 kilometres up the Dampier Peninsular.

We’re novices in the 4WD business so we take it easy. Plumes of dust envelop us as we pass vehicles returning from this one way in and out red strip of road.

Beagle Bay community would have made a nice stop for lunch but we miss the turn off.

In just over three hours we’re checking in at the Cape. The lighthouse sits on top of a short rise overlooking the campground. We’re directed to tent site number six.

We need to know where the sun will rise so we can orient the tents for the next day. The Hummer has a compass readout on the rear vision mirror so we’ll always know approximately where we might be. It only does the compass points by quadrants so we do some guesswork and set out the tents to maximise where shade might be throughout the day. Then we unpack.

We’ve left one of the maxi six person tents behind preferring to use the bambino tent Denis and Pauline have brought along as our second. Time and space are our key criteria.

‘Time us will ya’ I call to Pauline. It’s 12:15pm.

It takes us until 1:15 to set up both tents, one of which we’ve never seen before. Renee’s magic ‘clickety click’ assurances are way off the mark. But we’re pleased with our first attempt.

The girls have dragged out the camping table and six green eco friendly bags of food lie scattered across the sandy site. They’ve made some sandwiches and a cup of tea on the gas stove. Denis and I are filthy. We have red dust in every orifice. We all sit around the table and survey our home for the next three nights. ‘Clickety click’ – we toast ourselves and Renee on completion of our first stage.

Thirty minutes later we set to work on putting the stretchers together. As we bang them into a bed shape I’m thinking ‘fuck they’re big’. Long and wide. You could sleep two in these comfortably. When we have four set up all I can see is an ocean of canvas. They take up the whole campsite.

Then the fun begins. It’s clear they’re not going to fit into the bambino. We’ll all have to sleep in the big house I muse. We’re all secretly trying to imagine how that might work.

We carry one of the giants into the tent and discover it fits. That’s a win. Unfortunately it’s so fucking big there’s no way a second can follow.

Unwilling to accept defeat Denis and I ignore the wailing in the background and assure the distraught wives that we’ll sort it out.

There are two compartments in the tent. First we try turning the said stretcher sideways across the tent. It fits. But it fails to resolve our problem. It blocks access to the rear compartment. We try straddling both sections from front to back but that means we’ve lost the use of the second compartment.

‘What if we try assembling the second stretcher in the back compartment’ suggests Denis. By this time we’ve removed the first stretcher and tried carrying the second stretcher in on its side, on its back, at a forty-five degree angle, shoving it, stretching the ten to its nylon limits, all to no avail.

We begin by dismantling the stretcher and carry the pieces (there are only three) into the tight rear space. We mange to assemble it, though both of us fear permanent damage to our backs as we adopt some advanced yoga positions in order to join up the pieces (of which there are still only three).

Ultimately we accept defeat when the best we can do is achieve three legs in contact with the ground and the fourth suspended six inches above terra firma. The only other option is to cut a hole in the brand new tent to allow the final leg to find the ground.

We’re tempted. The thought of having to explain this to Tim and Renee causes us to pause.

Denis and I look at each other. Resigned to our fate we emerge from the tent stretcher carried between us to face the music. I’m fuming.

‘I’m going to call Tim. This is fucking ridiculous.’

It’s not your fault’ Andrea offers reassuringly.

And I’m not sure it’s Tim’s either but I march off to the phone to abuse whoever answers my call.

Kimberley 5 Supermarket

In the supermarket the girls have a Hummer load of groceries piled high in their trolley.

‘Shit’ I think.
‘No room for food’ I joke.

They stare at me darkly, add another bag of oranges and send me off to get a second packet of Vita Brits.

I’m getting nervous. I make eye contact with Denis – but there is no eyebrow raising this time, just two pairs of staring eyes.

At the car we swing open the back door. ‘Where are we going to put our stuff?’ asks Andrea. ‘We’ll be fine’ I reassure her. ‘Denis and I are expert packers’.

The car appears full, it’s true. We have 6 bags of groceries, four backpacks, four day packs and another tent to come. We decide to pack in the morning.

A meal at Matso’s, two bottles of wine, a whiskey each is followed by a sleep ruptured by dreams of packing solutions and retribution.

It’s a foggy morning next day. Unusual for Broome. It’s an omen. But of what.

Over breakfast we realise we need to add pillows to our list. And a toaster.

We may have to choose.

Monday 17 August 2009

Kimberley 4 Hire-car

Two men in grey QANTAS t-shirts are talking to Renee about the 4WD camper they’re here to pick up.

‘It’s the black Hummer’ she says
The large ebony vehicle glinting in the sunlight and packed full of camping gear stares back at the three of us. Denis and Steve exchange looks. we were expecting a white Toyota Land Cruiser. ‘It’s not what I was expecting’ I mumble.

‘There’s two six person tents there’ continues Renee. My heartbeat starts to pick up. Not from excitement. Fuck. They’ve supplied enough tents to house a small army but none of the creature comforts illustrated on their website. Andrea will spew.
'I’m happy to go to Broome as long as it’s not a bloody boot camp.’ Her words ring in my ears.

‘It’s brand new’ calls her offsider from inside the shed.
‘Don’t know why they bought a black one. Everyone knows they show every scratch.’
I wonder if Renee is trying to be helpful. She doesn’t seem like the nasty type.
‘Stupid colour’ confirms Tim the sidekick.

‘There’s been a change of owner in Brisbane’ she tells us. ‘It’s a mess. Tthey’ve been moving cars all round the country to cover their bookings.’

‘Some of 'em on backs of trucks’ chips in Tim. ‘This one came up from Perth couple a days ago.'

'But it’s not what we ordered’ I say with a little more intent.

‘It’s almost new’ repeats Tim. ‘You’re bloody lucky. You should se some of the cars this lot send us. Useless.’

We don’t have a lot of options. The girls are at the supermarket getting supplies ready to load up the 'land cruiser' they’re expecting. We follow Renee into the office and dutifully ask a few questions about insurance and conditions of hire while resignedly initialling every page of a document which would do justice to a legal firm arranging a lease on Kirribilly House. Every black scratch is listed on the condition report.

‘The tents are on the roof ‘ Tim tells us. ‘and four stretchers, four chairs, a table’
Everything is big. Feels like were moving house.

‘The tents are those new ones’ Renee says, excitement in her voice. ‘The poles just pop into shape as you set them up. Clickety click.’ She adds.

In the boot is a giant esky and four more of everything contained in four large plastic crates. Other stuff is spilling over into the back seat. It’s chock-a-block.

We get a call from the girls. ‘Pick us up from Coles. We’re almost done.’
I look at Denis. He looks at me. We both raise our eyebrows thinking the same thing. There’s no room for food, let alone our travelling gear sitting on the veranda back at Moonlight Bay.

‘One thing' says Tim. ‘Don’t on any account leave your keys in the car and then close the doors.’ He pauses. we wait for the punchline.
‘The Hummer automatically locks you out. Some kind of security system’ he says with gravity. ‘I’ve done it once already. Lucky I had the window down. Last renter lost the spare key.’ He explains. Denis ands I exchange raised eyebrows a second time from opposite sides of the bonnet.

Tim demonstrates how the auxiliary battery works and gives us instructions about when and how to use it. The charge light flicks on and off. Tim swears, gets it to work long enough to convince us it'll be okay and closes the boot door. It never works properly again.

‘When you get back, tell us how this thing works.’ says Tim casually indicating the multitude of dials and knobs on the dashboard. 'It's automatic' he says proudly stating the bloddy obvious. By now Denis and my eyebrows are just jumping up and down, twitching in disbelief. Shit. Andrea is going to spew. She hates surprises.

‘Call us if you need anything.’ says Tim as if he cares. We climb into the black cabin with its dark tinted windows and its bullet proof metal frame and inspect the array of options facing us. Feeling like a pair of Hummer virgins we carefully reverse from the storage shed intent on avoiding the embarrassment of having our first accident in the carpark.
Shit, it’s a big monster.
‘But you’ll need to call Brisbane if anything goes wrong’ calls Renee as a parting reassurance.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Kimberley 3 Idiots

It’s early afternoon. The phone at the Broome QANTAS Service Desk rings out. Pauline calls Perth. There’s been a delay. Bad weather. The plane should be in around 2pm.

At 2:40 Pauline phones the Service Desk. We’ve starting to get jittery about a second night in our gray issue PJs. They answer.

‘There’s been a mix-up’ says the sleepy voice, slowed by the afternoon tropical warmth. ‘Apparently your bags were left in Brisbane.’

Pauline explodes. She gives them a serve. We’re cheering in the background. ‘I can’t believe that QANTAS, the national carrier, could be so incompetent etc etc’

‘Hang on’ says the now alert voice. ‘No. No.’ a voice in the background is giving an excited commentary. ‘I’ve just been told they’re here. Yes. Right behind me.’

The rest of us garner this information from the roll of Pauline’s eyes and her wild sign language.
‘They were there all the time, the idiots.’

Silence from Pauline. Silence from the Service Desk. It’s not a stalemate. It’s a rare I’m speechless moment from Pauline and an I can’t think of what to say next from sleepy voice. It appears that QANTAS has also outsourced intelligence.

We all get dressed in our gray QANTAS gear to greet the arrival of our luggage. Steve goes into role. Pulls his shorties up under his armpits, stumbles down the stairs like a drunk and greets the cab driver and the neighbourhood in a too loud voice. ‘Hello everybody.’ He bounces forward pushing the others out of the way, sticks his head through the open passenger window and asks: ‘Have these come all the way from Brisbane?’ And he recites the inaccurate list of identification numbers checking off each bag in turn. ‘I can help if you like?’ Steve has had a sudden relapse into his former life as a clown.

The staff at the check-in desk of the apartment complex don’t seem to share our sense of humour.

Saturday 8 August 2009

Kimberley 2 Luggage

The bags for our party of four have been delayed in Perth. They’ve put us on the connecting flight with a promise that our bags will arrive on the first flight the next day.

‘About nine o’clock tomorrow morning’ they call after us as we run across the tarmac towards the impatient plane, its engines roaring at us.

At Broome there is a line up of forlorn Brisbane travellers at the service desk. The attendant gives us the impression that this is not an unusual occurrence. He fishes four overnight packs for stranded passengers from a giant cardboard box sitting behind him on the floor. The Brisbane contingent will spend the night in one size fits all QANTAS issue shortie pyjamas.

‘What does your luggage look like?’ The attendant yawns us towards a large poster on the wall with depictions of typical traveller’s bags. They are all coded.

‘Isn’t it all marked and listed in your paperwork?’ Andrea has some expectation that there will be a sophisticated system to this obviously oft repeated event.

We gaze stupidly at the poster.
22A is a duffle type bag; 24 is a medium sized bag with wheels; 25 is a backpack.
‘Ours is a backpack with wheels’ we tell him.
‘Choose the closest match’ he says.

He reads back his inaccurate list: ‘one 22A, one 24, one 25A (small) and one 25B (large).’

‘And a tent in a small bag’ I add. ‘sort of fawn. Khaki.’
‘Two tone’ chips in Denis ‘orange and brown’
‘Makes khaki. If you mix them.’ I laugh at my joke.

He looks at us curiously.

‘And they’re all in the name Peel.’
‘But we’re not all Peels.’
We give him our actual names.
We turn to go, then remember ‘Oh, and when you send them to our accommodation at Moonlight Bay the booking is in the name Lynch.

We leave. It’s a balmy night. You can feel a slight chill in the sea air. June in Broome.

A taxi takes us to our apartment. The driver doesn’t bother to offer to help us with our luggage. It’s 8:30 pm. After nine hours on the road we rip open our QANTAS packs and queue for the shower with our baby tubes of toothpaste and our single shower sachets of shampoo.

Our first experience of Broome is a ten minute walk into what we imagine is the centre of the town. Chinatown, on the waterfront. We can’t quite get our bearings. We pass a noisy cluster of corrugated iron buildings on our way. It’s the only sign of life. Chinatown is dark and largely deserted with no sign of water. It doesn’t feel right. We were expecting the main street of a country town. This feels like a movie set. We manage to find a Thai restaurant opposite a bottle shop. The bottle shop is doing a bit of trade. We have a surprisingly good meal and the first two bottles of wine of the trip. We need them.

Back at Moonlight Bay we’re too whacked to peruse all the brochures strewn on the coffee table and elect to have a QANTAS fashion parade to celebrate our arrival. It’s a pretty ugly affair. Grey cotton elastic waisted shorts and grey t-shirts; tops and bottoms sporting the flying kangaroo in red. Australia is in big trouble if this becomes our national dress.

None of us looks good in grey. No one looks good in grey.

Friday 7 August 2009

Kimberley 1 Two Words

It’s day two of our trip to the Kimberleys. I’m sitting here in the apartment listening to Neil Murray sing his songs of country. ‘I am your native born….

Andrea is calm now. Six hours ago her face was stone – a frown permanently etched on her usually smiling face. Two words, luggage and hire-car.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Hummer Envy 2

At One Arm Point our presence had provoked interest, at Cape Leveque we reverted to curiosity status. Our campsite was centrally located on the pathway between the East and West beaches. There was constant foot traffic past our tent and around our giant stretchers which were scattered around the Hummer (we couldn’t fit them in the tent).

Was it our strange sleeping arrangements or the Hummer which caused people to pause and stare as they passed by?

To compensate for our embarrassment each of us told our Hummer/stretcher story to whomever was unwise enough to slow their pace and make eye contact. At times we found ourselves prompting each other to tell the hapless visitors another chapter of our harrowing story only to find that we were repeating a story already told.

We had become Hummer obsessed. We were at risk of becoming Hummer bores.

‘Watch out. It’s those people from the Hummer again’ families were heard to mumble as they returned from their evening appointment with another glorious sunset.

After leaving Cape Leveque the kilometres rolled by and our Hummer phobia began to fade. Our Hummer love affair was beginning.

We mastered the complexities of the CD player, the sun roof opened on command; we learnt how to override the automatic locking mechanism (which locked everyone into the car until the driver agreed to set them free); we became mesmerised by the compass and temperature readout appearing electronically on the rear view mirror.

The boys twiddled with every button on the dashboard, constantly consulting the manual while missing vast tracts of stunning countryside. The girls in the back pretended to be dismissive of this obsession with dials and gadgets but were secretly in awe of our technical expertise

'Open the back door please'

No worries

'Turn up the airconditioning'


'There’s too much bass on the Leonard Cohen CD'


'Can you please just watch where you’re driving and stop fiddling.'

Sorry can’t help ourselves.

The envy we created was subtle but palpable. Our black Mariah entering campgrounds turned heads, drew stares, created division. Some approached, others avoided us.

‘Great to see a Hummer doing what it was designed to do’ said a fellow camper as he circumnavigated the beast inspecting tyres, ground clearance, towing points and remarking on the absence of a bull bar, a serious oversight in his opinion.

They were designed for desert warfare I’d say without any information to back up my claim. Iraq I’d add. There’s no country they can’t conquer I’d observe without irony.

We were challenging the 4WD paradigm. The Toyota Land Cruiser hegemony was under threat.

In the bush there is a clear hierarchy. At the top sits the Land Cruiser – the more battered and dirty the higher the status. The Land Rovers and Nissans come a close second but clearly in the minority. Then come the also rans – the Mitsubishis and a range of baby Toyotas, Mazdas, Holdens and 4WD campers.

But we were the only Hummer. In the whole of the Kimberley. We were the one black mean machine driven by a team so inexperienced that it wasn’t until the Pentecost River, 1500 klms into the trip that we figured how to use the 4WD mode - and then only because we were faced with a 100 metre stretch of deep water. We furiously read the manual as we watched Land Cruisers and 4WD buses inch their way across the boulder strewn riverbed with water up to their doors.

We may have been able to make this crossing in standard 4WD but conversations overheard between blokes in campgrounds convinced us that we needed to be cautious and engage low low low 4WD mode.

‘Let the engine do the work’ a friendly camper had advised us, sensing our inexperience.
‘Know where your wheels are’ said another overweight bloke who looked like he’d spent his life in a mechanics shed on a cattle property and had retired to his camping chair never to move from it again except to get another stubby from the fridge.

The Hummer was an automatic. We sat there engine running all set to go. We had a choice three buttons. We pushed the ‘low 4WD’ knob. It blinked at us and automatically returned to the standard 4WD setting. Bugger. We punched the ‘high 4WD’ button. It flashed and engaged. We were out of standard but our camp advisors had emphasised that ‘low’ was the only option in this situation.


'Where’s the manual' said Denis. I found the page and read aloud.

‘To select low 4WD the car must be at a standstill’.


‘Place the auto shifter in the neutral position’.

We were in ‘park’.

Denis shifted to neutral. I hit the ‘low 4WD’ button. The light flashed beside the correct button and held.

We were ready. We were mentally prepared. Select low, handbrake off and let the engine do the work - use the accelerator sparingly. We glided slowly into the brown water and watched it rise to door level around us. We entered the water smoothly, our foot off the accelerator and slowly came to a halt.

Denis was driving. I was shitting myself. The girls were a little nervous but oblivious to our ineptitude. The river surrounded us and stretched before us.

After what seemed like an eternity, of TV images of cars being swept off river crossings into foaming torrents, of me swimming for help through croc infested waters, Denis and I realised that we were still in neutral. Not only that but two Toyotas (our arch enemy) had followed us into the water and were lined up behind us.

‘Oops’ said Denis.

‘Better put it in gear’

‘Well done boys’ chorused the girls from the back.

After 1500 kilometres of knob twiddling and manual perusing we had failed our first major test. And there were witnesses to this moment of Hummer humiliation.

Two days later on a two hour walk into the beautiful Emma Gorge a man and his son passed us on the track returning from their early morning trek.

‘Dad, isn’t that the man….’

‘Yes son, It’s the man from the Hummer’ said his father shepherding him protectively to the side of the path. As we walked on we could see the young boy looking over his shoulder unable to let go of the image of the Hummer man and his Hummer mates. On his face he had a quizzical look. Part admiration, part confusion. I had the feeling that he knew there must be more to this story than was evident.

I have no doubt that in many a Kimberley journal, alongside the notes about the grandeur of the Mitchell Falls, the cave paintings of the Wandjina figures and the magic of sunsets over the Bungle Bungles there are small but memorable notes in the margins:

‘saw the Hummer man again today’.