Evacuation to the West
Darwin - Kununurra - Derby, 25th – 27th October
When will I learn to listen to my sixth sense?
Today will again be a day of long driving to find a campsite, which isn’t easy. Now we have set a new budget we need to be careful about spending money. On top of that we just found out that there is an actual border between Northern Territory and Western Australia - there are checkpoints to scan for biohazards you might be taking in or out of the state.
Australia is so huge and different in every one of its corners that the tomatoes from one state could be harmful to the neighbouring one. Everything natural and raw is forbidden for transportation - fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds … Perhaps raw animal products aren’t allowed either but that doesn’t affect us. Not that this is a big problem but yesterday in Darwin we bought fresh produce for $60 and we can’t just leave it behind. Therefore we decide that tonight we will sleep in Northern Territory, we’ll make a big vegetable dinner and finish up the fruit for breakfast.
The app informs us there are two campsites on the way. One of them is slightly better equipped than the other so let’s try going there. We divert from the main road and drive a few kilometres on a gravel road to arrive at the campsite gates. And because we have been so lucky lately - it is closed. They aren’t open between April and October - the dry season. Well, don’t the tents get flooded in the other half of the year!?
Okay, we’ll go to the next one then. It is in Keep River National Park. We arrive after 15 more kilometres of gravel road driving. The campsite is wonderful. Surrounded by tall cliffs and hills and nested down low. Well equipped too - benches, BBQs, a toilet. It is also free and currently, it is just us here.
BUT! There is no phone service and not a soul around. It is 15 kilometres on gravel back to the main road. My heart stiffens immediately and is telling me not to stay - to cross into Western Australia and sleep at a paid campsite. The mind responds to it that we would lose all of our food and it is free here. They try and convince each other and I even tear up because they can’t reach a decision and are getting wild inside me. I really want to leave but in the end, we decide that it won’t be that bad and we will manage.
Eventually, we succeed to both calm down and enjoy the place. We will have dinner, go to bed and in the morning we might even go on a little walk as there are a few routes in the area. I relax with a book in hand while Nic is working on the future mini boomerang. We make a huge vegetable stew and I do my best to use up everything we have. This was probably the healthiest yet most expensive dinner of our trip. The rest of the night was as normal - dinner and a film in the tent.
Minutes after we get to bed and switch off the torches the wind sped up noticeably. It is not that worrisome as we’ve been through stronger winds before and we have managed. But very quickly this wind begins to carry a stronger and stronger smell of smoke - more saturated than ever before. We don’t have an internet connection to check where the fire is, is it even existent and would it catch up with us soon …
Nic still thinks there is nothing to worry about and we just need to relax and fall asleep. I tried! I used all kinds of calming practices, meditations and methods for thought distraction … Nothing works. The smell is so obvious! Even Nic begins to sense the situation isn’t negligible. We decide to at least go out and scan the surroundings. In the night sky, we should be able to see a glow if there is a wildfire nearby.
There is no glow but the smoke is visible even in the dark - thick and a bit suffocating. It is time to leave - Nic thinks so too! It might not be that close, it might not catch us up but we are absolutely isolated geographically, socially and by phone and simply cannot risk staying. And now it will be completely impossible for me to sleep here anyway!
Still in our pyjamas, we pack the tent speedily and evacuate ourselves. The drive to the main road is empty and wild. We meet some sort of wild animal - might be a dingo, might be something else. The closest village is 20 minutes away but on the other side of the border.
We get closer to the checkpoint - with a few avocados and bananas in the back. We are stopped and they ask if we’ve been checked at a border like this before. We say that we haven’t. They instruct us to bin everything biological. They don’t check the car but notice the cooler in the back so we quickly say goodbye to the avocados that would have been such a good breakfast. No one remembers about the bowl of vegetable scraps from dinner so we accidentally smuggle those through the border. We ask them about bushfires in the area but they claim there is nothing closeby. How could there not be? You can smell it in the air! Later on, in Canberra, we will learn that the smoke can be sensed 300 km away from the epicentre of the fire.
We arrive in Kununurra and stop at the first campsite we find. It is currently 11:30 pm on Western Australian time. Our bodies, however, are still in the Northern Territory time zone and for us it is midnight (yes, the time difference isn’t a full hour but has a half as well). But no campsite would take newcomers at this time of the day - the office is closed and you can’t see a soul around. We consider just pulling into an empty space and leave the whys and hows for the morning but decide it’s not the best idea.
We try another campsite but we can’t even go into this one - it is fully fenced off and the huge gate is locked. On the way between the two camps, I saw a hostel - maybe we should try our luck there. We park the car in front and I go in to understand what the situation is. The office, of course, is closed but I can walk further into the property. There I find a group of young people, sitting on the floor - chatting after the party that was raging here - it is Friday after all.
I ask if they know somebody who works at the hostel and it turns out one of them is even an employee. But he isn’t responsible for accommodation so he will have to get in touch with his colleague, who on a Friday is at the pub finishing off the working week. But says he’ll help. Okay, we’ll wait.
While we chat to the group it becomes clear that Kununurra is not a safe place theft-wise and it would be best to take everything valuable from the car. They even suggest leaving Bertie unlocked so whoever decides to look around doesn’t break a window to do it. Well, we took the valuables but locked the car.
We sit and wait. On an uncomfortable bench first, then on a hammock. Time goes by, we are exhausted both because of the emotions and because of the time difference. The others start falling asleep on the floor. No one has come to help us yet.
The waiting comes to an end! 45 minutes later the accommodation person arrives and puts us into a room. it will be just the two of us plus there is air-conditioning! Well, that’s better now! We have a shower and get to sleep without much hesitation. Later on, we consider how much this luxury will cost us in the morning. But at least we’re in a safe place and everything valuable is with us.
We also checked online to determine how close the danger was before we evacuated and perhaps there was no fire closeby. How could we have known?
We thank the Universe for air-conditioning! Last night we slept so well and because of the time difference we even managed to sleep-in. Naturally, we had to pay for this pleasure - double what it would have been if we had followed my intuition and had crossed into Western Australia on time. But what can you do - can’t always expect the unexpected.
We start the day off with rain - what was that? I had forgotten all about it after so many weeks without a drop but we quickly remembered its refreshing abilities. Short-lived … afterwards we are crushed by the sticky humidity.
There is also free mango this morning - the hostel is primarily for workers that pick mangoes in the region and the beaten ones are free in the communal kitchen. We shop to replenish the lost food last night. We walk up Kelly’s Knob - excuse my language, I didn’t name it. I wonder why they would give this name to their local hill that sticks out of the flat area …
Up there the heat is unforgiving. It is so hot that I end up having to sit on the burning iron steps just so I don’t fall down them. Considering it is only the two of us I take off my top to put it on my head as my hat is in the car still. I continue the quick walk in a bra. But the plans for the day include swimming in natural pools again so we will cool down from this impossible heat.
We leave Kununurra towards the water adventures that this new state has to offer. As I’ve mentioned the state, let’s not miss out the facts about it. Western Australia is the biggest Australian state and the second biggest state subdivision in the world - two and a half million square kilometres (the first one is the Russian Yakutia). This number is roughly the same for its population too. 80% of the people live in the state capital Perth where we’re also headed towards. After all, the entire idea to come to Australia started with an invitation to visit my godmother in Perth. Before that though, there is plenty to be seen.
The first waterhole turns out to be a complete disappointment. From the entire pool only a swamp is left in this dry season - green and smelly. Well, we can’t swim here. Should we try another one? The second one is also not suitable for swimming but is still incredibly impressive. It is a small canyon built as if from carved bricklike rocks. We are once again at the top and we see a pool down below and a rope hangs from a tree leaning over the water. There is currently no water running down and the pool is again swampy but I can see the beauty of it in the wet season. I can picture a huge waterfall, fresh blue waters and happy human buzz. I regret that we can’t feel it fully but also the view of the dried waterfall and the dry cascades that lead down deserved the stop.
There are no more water pools on the schedule for today but in Warmun we will be able to visit an Aboriginal art gallery and we will also discuss our options to enter the Bungle Bungle National Park.
Naturally, the gallery has long been abandoned and a helicopter flight over the Bungles costs $500 per person. To go in with the car will be 2 hours one way on a gravel road and the campsite inside are incredibly expensive. And we don’t quite want to go. We keep thinking about how people will be asking us later on if we saw the Bungles and we will say we haven’t and would regret it. So we sit in the car for about ten minutes before making a decision. The formations are truly incredible - naturally wavy tall pyramids and domes with dark and light even layers like a chocolate cake with vanilla sponges (I leave here a link to the pictures). And yet the investment of effort and money seems to be excessive. We decide to skip them, also worried about Berties capabilities in such harsh conditions.
The next small village on the road is Holes Creek and from there we will take a turn to get to the free camp for tonight. Leaving the village we get pulled over by a police car for a routine check. They pass a breathalyser to Nic and in a minute or two let us drive off. Well, congratulations, Nic! This is his first time being pulled over in his entire driving career so he wants to keep the disposable nozzle - for the memory box.
The driving is on gravel road and my heart begins to sink yet again. I don’t want to repeat yesterday’s events. The phone service disappears. But because of last night we have made a rule - we will not be sleeping at a campsite where there are no other people or no service. We can probably stay with one of those, but not both. We reach the camp and, of course, there is no service or people. We keep going then. There is a paid one down the road and it is only $10 for the night.
We settle down calm and relaxed. The toilets are next to us and we are surrounded by people, though the area itself is very run down. In the distance we can see a glow which is probably a bushfire but this time we aren’t worried - we have the protection of experienced Australians.
I sometimes think I overdo it with the worries. For many nomad travellers, a dried-up pool and lonely campsite are the desired experience. The stories online look as if everyone is braver than us and the potential lack of safety doesn’t bother them, But after the many warnings from family, known and unknown people about wild animals, bushfires and ill-meaning people I can’t imagine not looking for safety. After all, I need to be able to get home eventually to tell all these stories one day.
It was very windy last night but we still managed to get some quality sleep in. I think the time difference has still not balanced out so sleep comes easily. The car is packed, we’ve both showered - first stop the China Wall. “What do you mean China wall, you’re in Australia?” - you’re probably saying right now. And you are technically correct. And yet here in the centre of the continent, there is such a sight. Two main characteristics separate this wall from the other one in China. This one isn't Great so you won’t be seeing it from space. It also doesn't have tens of years of human labour put into it but thousands of years of “labour” by nature.
The white-rusty wall is a natural sight. The piled rocks are about a meter and a half wide and in some areas are balanced up to 5 meters high. On the top of the hill, you can climb on top and follow the wall into the distance which according to Google is another 15 kilometres. But in the way they take on every wave of the hills they’ve chosen, they do remind me of the Great Wall of China (we will have to go one day and compare). The place is quiet, undisturbed by human interference, different. The weather is nice as the heat hasn’t yet settled onto everything, we’ll see how long that lasts.
On the cover of our road map, there are three pictures. One of them is Sydney harbour with the bridge and the Opera House - we’ve been there. The second one is from the lookout at Hill Inlet at Whitsunday Islands - we have pictures from there too (nicer than this one). The third picture is a view towards some flat cliff formation that have probably been canyons in the past. Well, what kind of collectors of views would we be if we don’t check this one off the map too? We will be having lunch up there on the plateau - Ngumban Cliff Lookout.
This place excites me but also annoys me. The view is incredible. We are on a cliff 20-30 meters above the road and we see an endless plateau in front of us. With hanging white clouds in the vivid blue sky, the perfect landscape for a desktop. It turns out that it is also a free camp with phone service. Why couldn’t we have slept here? Why are we always at places without views or (potentially) dangerous ones!? If only we could wake up to this view!
We have lunch here. I don’t remember exactly what but I recall we needed the camping stove. I tell you this so you don’t think we only eat chickpea salads and beans from a tin.
Shortly before we arrive in Derby (pronounced 'Derr-bee') we catch up with a bushfire - very close to the road a tall and grey smoke. Which provokes existential thoughts - to see the raging element or at least the 2-3-5-year-old marks from it. I know that here the wildfires are something common but I still see it as the cymbal of the uncontrollable nature which takes over the human. A sign that we are not as all-capable and all-knowing as we’d like to think. There is something to bring us down.
Although, who wants to live in endless fear and uncertainty. Happily we dedicate the evening to a different burning object, much further and more beautiful. We will send off the sun. On the path from the campsite to the pier we veer off to take pictures of the local art. With the background of the setting sun, hiding in dark clouds, a sculpture has been placed - a cutout silhouette of a male Aboriginal face. The photoshoot is endless.
We also continue to the pier. We sit down cuddled up and stay like that until the last golden piece of the day is gone. And we take pictures till the end. Sometimes you need to look for the romantic things purposefully. Sometimes it comes on its own. And then you can only be.
Vassya (and Nic)