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Cycling the Kimberley

by Robbo Bennetts
first published by funkytraveller.com, July 2001


The local freight man belly-laughed when I told him why I needed to transport four mountain bikes from Broome to Fitzroy Crossing. In the event I considered his fee a joke and we were unable to do business.

"Good luck!" he chortled discomfortingly.

It was the winter school holidays. What cruisier way for a family to spend them than to see a slice of the Kimberley by bike? So we planned a six day 320km trip following an ancient reef from Geikie Gorge to the sea.

A chance meeting with Krista, a former student of mine, solved the problem of transport. The five of us — including my partner Deb and our teenage children Sunny and Jess — crammed bikes, baggage and bodies into Krista’s fumy van for an eight hour crawl to Fitzroy Crossing.

We set up camp in the dark at the historic Crossing Inn Hotel on the very fringe of white society. In the morning we woke to panoramic views of a paddock littered with more empty beer cans than you could poke a stick at. The hotel itself has a Third World African feel about it. Black workers silently hosed and raked the beer garden. Later, they silently sat and carved boab nuts.

We drove 16km to Geikie Gorge National Park where a spectacular water-filled gorge lies below 30m high limestone cliffs. The traditional owners, the Bunuba, believe that a blind elder drowned here in the Dreamtime. The presence of swordfish, stingrays and mangroves testifies to a prehistoric connection with the sea.

Each Wet, the Fitzroy River flows again. Swelling from a catchment of 85,000 square km, a mighty torrent whitewashes the bottom third of the limestone. There were plans to build three huge dams upstream to cripple this wild river. A 500km aqueduct would irrigate cash crops like cotton on land way to the west.

During a river cruise operated by park rangers, we saw brolgas and freshwater crocodiles. Afterwards, we swam in the deliciously warm yet refreshing water. This was the spot where, a little more than a hundred years ago, troopers massacred 24 aboriginal people. On the dry riverbed, we found fragments of stone-age tools.

Krista chugged off in our "support vehicle", planning to return to Broome that night. We cycled back along the pleasantly flat asphalt road for about 10km. Then we followed a deeply rutted four-wheel drive track across Brooking Creek to the hotel.

Up bright and early the next morning, we planned to do our hard yards before the heat of the day. Our tyres had been flat-proofed and lined with kevlar. Our bikes had been tuned by our local bike shop. We were carrying 30 litres of water between us, spare food and emergency gear. We had carefully mapped our route and sussed out local conditions. Yet the freight man’s belly laugh still echoed in my mind.

We rode northwest along the Great Northern Highway. After negotiating 15km of roadwork, we began the gradual climb to the Leopold Downs turn-off, 42km from Fitzroy Crossing. Once off the highway we felt as though our outback adventure had finally begun. The feeling was reinforced by the state of the dirt tourist road. We had to continually dodge boulders and ruts and concentrate 100% to just stay on our bikes.

We rode 7km down this road out of hell before stopping for lunch. We ate under the shade of some acacias growing on the cattle-trampled baked-mud embankment of a dry creek. We played cards through a long siesta.

dirt tourist road

By 3.00pm the sun was slipping down the sky. We climbed back on our bikes. Around the next corner, a stunning rock outcrop loomed up at us like a two-dimensional set out of a western movie. What a beautiful lunch site it would have been!

The road surface improved enough for us to admire the scenery. The reef had a way of first dominating the landscape, then receding far into the distance, then reappearing on the opposite side of the road. In the warm glow of the late afternoon sun, everything took on a different, almost surreal hue. Lengthening shadows told us we were running out of time to find a suitable campsite.

artwork by JessThe next moment we were staring in awe at a gigantic boab tree.

Boab trees are the suomo wrestlers of the plant kingdom. This tree was the biggest boab I have seen. And one of the biggest living things. Its huge limbs sagged with rolls of wooden "fat". We laid out our bedding beneath its immense frame. It was a special tree.

As we rode off the following morning, I swivelled in my saddle to catch one last glimpse of our arboreal host. Immediately, my front wheel twisted sideways in loose sand, jolting me forwards. Seizing its opportunity, my peddle struck savagely and bit my left heel after the fashion of a true cattle dog. Remembering that image is nothing, I rode off painfully to catch the others.

Before long we reached the boundary of Leopold Downs. This vast property was bought by the federal government and handed back to the Bunuba people in 1992. A community truck, tray chock-a-block with women and children, passed by us, everyone waving and singing out with delight.

Sunny and Jess, especially, became very adept at finding a line between the corrugations and furrows of pindan. Often this meant criss-crossing the road. In places, though, we just had to brace ourselves and bump-bump-bump over the corrugations. I thought about how these corrugations have inspired Australian art and music.

Worse than the corrugations, however, were the inconsiderate drivers. Most drivers, particularly older couples, slowed down and waved encouragement. Some (like one cowboy tour operator) sped up and seemed to take pleasure in drenching us with dust. But at least there wasn’t much traffic.

Rounding a bend, we were surprised to see a creek draining over a ford. The creek was like a linear oasis which wound through the flat, tinder dry plains. Several Brahman cattle stood ankle deep in the water, looking up at us with divine disregard.

This good karma provided the opportunity for one of those "welcome diversions." We walked upstream and found a break in the thick reeds lining the water’s edge. Here was a tranquil pool. Without hesitating, we jumped in, shattering the tranquillity.

Being nice to Brahmans

Mounted again, we soon arrived at Tunnel Creek. The main attraction of this national park is a 750m natural tunnel hydraulically gouged through the limestone reef. The tunnel is historically significant because it was the refuge of Jandamarra and the site of his last stand. Jandamarra was a Bunuba warrior, sometimes known as the "black Ned Kelly." He led a running battle a century ago against European colonisation of his land. He eluded capture for over two years. He was finally killed by a black-tracker at the far end of the tunnel. There, we saw rock art decorating the walls of an initiation site.

Walking through a tunnel big enough to drive a road train through, you become conscious of your own insignificance. Stalactites hang from the ceiling. Midway, the sky breaks through and big taproots drill down into the rock. It is a cool, dark, magical place.

By now, we were low on water. I swam across a pool 50m inside the tunnel to an underground fountain which I could hear, but couldn’t see. Pure water trickled down through a fissure in the limestone. Filling our two 10-litre water bladders, I noticed how warm this water was. Returning later, the light from my head torch picked up a pair of beady red eyes — a freshwater crocodile — right next to the fountain, no doubt drawn to its warmth!

Freshwater crocodiles are nowhere near as dangerous as their saltwater cousins, but they can still inflict serious wounds. I was unimpressed when I realized I had swum through "crocodile-infested waters" in the pitch black! I didn’t attempt it a second time.

That night we slept on a dry creek bed not far from Tunnel Creek. We dug a pit in the gravel and made a small fire. We imagined what it would be like if a flash flood came rushing down the watercourse. In the night, an animal came padding around. Deb is convinced it was a dingo.

Entrance to Tunnel Creek We were now following the Pigeon Heritage Trail ("Pigeon" being the European name for Jandamarra). Windjana Gorge National Park is only 24km from Tunnel Creek. On the way we cycled past the ruins of Lilimilura Police Station, built during the war against the Bunuba. The fluted walls of the reef stood mute in the background.

A battle between the Bunuba (led by Jandamarra) and cattlemen took place in the gorge in 1894. In the same year, an extraordinary flood nearly ruined the white intruders.

The path into the gorge runs through a natural gothic archway. Great cathedrals of rock tower above. Freshwater crocodiles sunbake on the edge of permanent pools. It felt like the mystery of life itself could be hidden here.

In the afternoon, we took tea with Joan Kirner, former premier of Victoria. Sunny had earlier quite innocently arranged for a couple nearby to look after our bikes at the campground while we went sightseeing. This couple, of course, turned out to be Joan and her partner Ron. On our return they boiled the billy, and treated the kids with biscuits and ice-cold drinks. Joan is no stranger to the Outback. Her passion is bird watching, but she impressed us with her broad knowledge of this region. We spent a lazy hour with Joan and Ron, comparing notes about bowerbird bowers we had seen, zebra finches and trumped-up corellas.

In the cool of the afternoon we peddled off. 14km down the track we stopped at a moonscape quarry. We cooked in fading light and marvelled at the brilliant night sky. From out of nowhere a squadron of mosquitoes launched themselves at us like miniature zeroes. We hastily retreated into our sleeping bag liners.

Day 4 was to be our longest, about 90km. Early in the day, we reached the Gibb River Road. This famous beef road runs 660km through the heart of the Kimberley towards Kununurra. It is also dirt, apart from the last 60km into Derby. The cycling was horror-zontal and monotonous.

Peddling almost meditatively, I had to suddenly swerve. A young whipsnake, about a foot long, writhed and wriggled near my wheel. I stopped and it faced me. It had beautiful markings, pale yellow underbelly and bright yellow tail. Then I noticed a 10mm open end/ring spanner right next to it, like one I had lost. I felt a strange kinship with the snake. It was as if it wanted me to find the spanner.

Finally, we reached the bitumen. No more dust. No more corrugations. We ate lunch under the shade of another large boab tree. Soon, another cyclist peddled up, panniers way over-loaded. He was Sebastien, a Frenchman who has cycled the world and was now cycling Australia. He was planning to ride the full length of the Gibb River Road on his way to Darwin. This, he said, would be his last big bike tour. He was sick of it. We watched him ride away, un peu triste.

As we were about to go, Deb popped a spoke. Her wheel was so buckled that we had to release her rear brake and lighten her load.

Later, a head wind blew up, making the riding more difficult. We had planned to camp that night at May River Crossing, still a fair way off. The wind cranked up a windmill set back in the bush. We heard it groaning and rode in. The tank was overflowing into a spout. We took turns to stand fully dressed under the lovely tepid water.

We decided to camp right there. We filled our bidons and other containers.  We rinsed our clothes in a collapsible tub and basked in the late afternoon sun, carefully observing the Outback Code.

In the morning, we were woken by bush flies crawling over our faces. These masters of torment would not relent. We packed up quickly and rode off, leaving them behind.

We were only 40km or so out of Derby. We had arranged a lift with Krista back to Broome and expected to meet her any time. Sure enough, here she came driving a plumbing truck with the plumber (Mark) dozing on a mattress in the back. We now had a support crew!

With Deb’s rear wheel wobbling erratically, we rode into Derby. We arrived in time for the annual Boab Festival. In six days we had ridden through an amazing museum of natural and human history. And without paying a penny to the freight man!


Freshwater crocodile