Monday, March 24, 2014

Day 8: Fitzroy Crossing & Geikie Gorge

The Kimberley boasts a few unique features not found elsewhere in Australia. Of course, there are the crocodiles, both freshwater (harmless) and salt water (deadly), of which we've seen neither yet. Another striking and somewhat comical feature of the landscape is the Boab tree. These corpulent deciduous trees, said to have evolved from stray seeds migrating here from Africa, resemble bowling pins with scraggly arms reaching out the top. The really ancient ones can get up to 25 metres in girth, fatter (though not taller) than our biggest evergreens in the Pacific Northwest. Botanists have a hard time calculating their age because they grow hollow inside their trunks as they age and hence have no tree rings. Some are thought to be well over a thousand years old:

Fitzroy Crossing is a sleepy town mostly inhabited by Aborigines. We like it for its unspoilt authenticity -- untouched by tourism, commercialism, marketing hype or the mining industry. It feels sweet and safe and friendly.

Geikie Gorge is the only Kimberley gorge that has a paved road going to it and thus may be the only gorge we get to see (stay tuned). Twenty kms out of Fitzroy, we arrive right on high noon -- not a good hour of the day for hiking. Despite the current wet season, the park seems quite dry and the mighty Fitzroy River unassumingly low. That's OK by us because when it floods (which it does several times after particularly cyclonic weather patterns) the entire park, including the carpark, toilets and several out buildings, are completely inundated. The last great flood was in 2012 when the water levels peaked at nine meters above the central pergola (meeting place for dry season river tours). It's hard to imagine this volume of water, especially when it now seems so dry and tame.

We resolve to hang out in the shade of the gum trees for a couple hours, giving time for the overhead sun to bend sidewise a bit. I do some computing while Johan wanders off to explore the gorges (despite the heat -- hard to keep a good man down...). We have lunch about 2pm, then set off up the gorge, the vertical rock walls that encase the breadth of the Fitzroy River. The river currently meanders at about a third of its potential width (200 metres) and the white marks in the sandstone canyon walls mark the highest water level, circa 12 metres above its current level. The craggy red, black and white sandstone rocks are tempting for a climb, but they're also sharp as razors and one slip or fall could end in a blood bath. We opt for a leisurely stroll a couple kilometres up the canyon and back. The shade of the western gorge wall keeps us cool on this hot day.

Upon our return to the van, Johan asks me if I enjoyed that. No doubt about it, being out there amongst the gums and the red rocks is a sure recipe for happiness. Even despite the heat, bugs and other hardships. It’s hard to explain to outsiders, who only hear about the dreadful insects, the soaring heat and the other dangers lurking in the outback (crocs, snakes, spiders, to name a few). Over dinner we speculate on where we might find this kind of experience in America. Sure there are the red rock canyon deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, equally beautiful. But they lack the endless expanse, hundreds of empty miles between towns, a road that only rarely hears the roar of passing cars or trucks, the freedom to camp in the bush without getting hassled by police or rangers or residents who assume you’re a bum if you camp for free. There’s Alaska, but not a chance of stripping down and living on the bare minimum of clothing or jumping in local water holes for a cooling off bath. No, there’s something very freeing about the Australian outback. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but we love it.

We drive 100kms from Fitzroy Crossing to a rest area that allows free overnight camping. It’s slightly elevated amongst the surrounding plains and offers a spectacular evening view. We’ve spent most of the day picking or pushing or shooing out dung beetles from inside the van and are happy when none turn up after dark. A light breeze flows through the van during the night and we both sleep long and restfully.

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