Riding for the Border

I don’t have to think about it
I don’t have to wonder
Where I’m going to ride tonight
I’ll be riding down the highway south of the border

South of the Border – The Doobie Brothers

I was a great fan of the Doobie Brothers in the 1970s. Great rhythm, great vocals. Surprising really as their name would suggest that rhythm and pristine throats would not be a likely asset. Well after several iterations they are still going today so maybe that is a testament to a certain lifestyle. We had a last look around Broome. Its bike path network makes it very accessible and Scout had made a study of the architecture. “Think Balinese style and lush gardens of frangipani and other exotic plants” she says. Broome houses are built cyclone proof with typically high pitched roofs and spacious wrap around verandahs with plenty of outdoor living. We left Broome with the community in shock a day after a helicopter crashed onto a highway not far from the airport and our camp. The pilot, Troy Thomas and a 12 year old family friend died and Thomas’s 12 year old daughter and another woman were in critical care. Thomas was a local tourism icon having started the famed Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures 15 years earlier. Small towns grieve big. We were on our way to Derby (that’s Derby not Darby).

Derby Jetty – loading point for the live cattle trade

This was the start of a long and hopefully fruitful journey across the Savannah Way. The Savannah Way is a route of highways and major roads across the tropical savannahs of northern Australia linking Cairns in Queensland with Broome in Western Australia. Promoted as a self-drive tourist route, it runs from Cairns through Normanton, Borroloola, Katherine, Kununurra, Fitzroy Crossing, Derby ending on the west coast at Broome. The first part of the route was a quick trip under three hours to Derby. This small town of 3,500 people (of which nearly 50% are Aboriginal) lies at the south end of King Sound. Its main claim to fame is that it has the highest tides in Australia with the difference between low and high up to 11.8 metres. Unfortunately our visit coincided with low tides during the day so we didn’t experience the large rush of water onto the mudflats in front of the camp. Again for a small town Derby has a rich history. It was bombed by the Japanese during WWII due to the proximity of its wharf and airbase used by the Australian Forces. It is surrounded by cattle country with several huge stations nearby and a meat works. Diamond mining is also a major employer in the region. The Kimberley School of the Air is also located in Derby and provides education to isolated primary-aged children living on cattle stations and in remote Aboriginal communities. Indigenous culture plays a large part in the town while the Boab Festival includes mud football and water melon seed spitting. It all happens in Derby. But perhaps the most interesting fact is that at the last census 3.4% of the population were New Zealanders including apparently for a short period the badly let down and reclusive ex-All Black Keith Murdoch. Murdoch worked for years around Tennant Creek in NT and ended his years in Carnarvon on the coast further south.

Just out of Derby on the Great Northern Highway is the Boab Prison Tree. Fifteen metres around and 1,500 years old this Boab tree was reputedly used as a lockup point for Aboriginal prisoners being transported to Derby for sentencing. There may be some confusion though with a similar tree at Wyndham a little further north. However any confusion or illusions that we might have about the gracious treatment of indigenous Australians is shattered by the stories that abound in this region. The practices that led to the Stolen Generation (children separated from their families), blackbirding and the shooting of groups of people thought to be a nuisance are well documented. Nevertheless the Boab tree (sometimes called the Monkey Bread tree) itself is sacred to the Aboriginal people and very useful. It provided large areas of shade for shelter, water and rope from its fibrous trunk along with edible fruits for food. Boabs are numerous in the region.

Prison Boab Tree – Derby

We left Derby on the Great Northern Highway for the long trek east towards Kununurra and the Northern Territory border. Queensland opened its borders on the 10th July but we have to cross NT to get there. The territory government had given a date of the 17th July, vacillated a little and mentioned the 24th but settled on the original date. We had a cup of coffee and fill up with diesel at the pleasant town of Fitzroy Crossing then a night at Larrawa cattle station. The station provides a camping area, hot showers and a walk around the farm. Well not all around the farm as it is 220,000 hectares and runs 8,000 head. The night sky in these open isolated places is something to behold. The cold, crisp evening air is pure. We feel like we are in a planetarium without the astronomer to help with the names. Everything sparkles and you can see to “infinity and beyond”. Thanks Buzz Lightyear.

Bungle Bungle Ranges

The Bungle Bungle Range is in Purnululu National Park. We stopped into the Bungle Bungles Caravan Park after a refuel at Halls Creek. This small town sits at the northern end of the Canning Stock Route which runs through the Great Sandy Desert. It is an indigenous support town and supply centre for the cattle stations. It also appears a sad sight of hopelessness but who am I to judge. Home to the Jaru, Kija, Kukatja, Walmajarri and Gooniyandi people the Halls Creek area is a thousand year old trading route and a region traditionally passed by Aboriginal ancestors during the Dreaming. These paths are often remembered in songs and stories known as songlines. Nowadays it also has very expensive diesel.

The Bungle Bungles have been home to the Karjaganujaru people for over 20,000 years although the landscape was formed over 350 million years ago. The ranges are sandstone and conglomerate (rock made up of glued together stones and pebbles) and the unique beehive shape and coloured bands have formed from millions of years of wind and water erosion. It is unique and spectacular. Access is by 4WD only so we took a tour from the campground. Two and a half hours and 53 kms of shaking and rattling through dry river beds and sandy tracks we made the Visitor Centre. And a toilet. About half an hour in our driver and guide Jezza (yes Jeremy called himself Jezza) announced his driver’s side mirror had just fallen out. No surprises there. We walked the Piccaninny Creek (BLM and the modern world not quite here yet), Cathedral Gorge and the narrow Echidna Chasm. The chasms and gorges still have small pools of water which will become raging torrents during the wet season. The presence of high banded walls and routes through narrow cracks in the 150 metre high chasms is cathedral like. But it is mainly the quiet, almost holiness of the walk that overwhelms. Truly communing with nature.

Jezza and our ride into the Bungle Bungles

Not that we were with nature alone. The tour group of 22 people was 60% overseas tourists caught in W.A. for the duration. We had Dutch and French families, and a Scotsman all caught by the travel restrictions. As things were easing they were planning to get home but at great expense and via convoluted routes. We walked and talked with a lovely young couple from Amsterdam on a 12 month trip. Kees and Marlous had been caught in Perth for months during lockdown and their travel plans ripped to shreds. This was a common story amongst travellers we met.

We had two nights in the Bungle Bungles Camp. Managed by a skeleton staff of three including the very pleasant Jezza and Austrian wife Barbara rather than the usual 15 or so the camp was just functioning. Again this was the story of the normally teeming tourist spots. Scout said that at least we had put something back into the industry. We were somewhat miffed then to learn that the camp on Mabel Downs Station and six other cattle stations and abbatoir in the region were owned by Yeeda Enterprises a conglomerate owned mostly by an Argentinian with South African partners. Alas our money less taxes was turning into pesos and rands. It was time to go to Kununurra and Lake Argyle to wait for the border to the Territory to open.

The author and his new Dutch girlfriend Marlous -don’t tell Scout

2 thoughts on “Riding for the Border

  1. Just Watched a doco on Alistair McAlpine ‘discovering’ And developing Broome 70s-80s. Everything You can imagine of a crazy British conservative with eclectic and eccentric tastes.


  2. Hi again,
    The Brooke’s have been my friends for a mere twenty five years -Marilyn has known them much longer and they have been part of her NZ life since the early seventies . Mike was heavily involved in the financial world but always hated it. It was no surprise when he left working for one of the smartest and good looking entrepreneurs in the country but it was a surprise when he mentioned quietly that they wear renting out their home on the North Shore and leaving for England where they had excepted a job found I think advertised in the Lady magazine as live
    In caretaker and domestic help in a baronial mansion in Bucks. It was a great loss because until then we had spent many weeks in their company in Hahai in the Coromandal at their family batch on the beach. We subsequently caught up with them at the mansion on one of
    Our UK jaunts. Likewise when they did a similar stint in the Flemming chateau in the South of France. It is the home of Lucy Flemming granddaughter of Ian. We stayed with them there and as a result I was commissioned to paint pictures of the chateau and the surrounding vineyard which Mike managed. They were there for years. Ending up, having sold up in NZ , in Queensland where they managed a holiday resort. This became a regular destination for us up to five years ago.
    Mike always wanted to write and we share this common interest, He wrote when they were in the South of France a regular column for a viticultural mag. He stead a blog shortly afterwards. They are a volatile pair but also a lot of fun. They came to our Wangaparaoa house a few times to stay. We saw them last at their home near Cotton tree near Molooloba in Queensland on the eve of their departure in Mr Gato the name of their Winnebago which Mike restored. They had a similar vehicle for their explorations through France. His current blog I feel sure will end up as a book. You would love the guy as I do. He is a big bear of a man with an equally big heart.

    Well,you did ask.


    Sent from my iPad


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