I'm not a fan of organized tours or camping. But when you're in hyper-expensive Australia, unwilling to waste zillions on a 4X4, a camping tour of The Kimberley, one of Western Australia's premier sights, may be your best bet. That's how I find myself on a nine-day, eight- camper for a still exorbitant $2,150.
Day One: We're 16 of various nationalities and ages on a high air-conditioned, four-wheel drive. I'm older than all of them combined. The driver-guide (DG) says ours is a "hands-on" tour. Translation: We muck in -- unloading, setting up tents, collecting firewood, cooking, washing up and re-loading again at the camp sites.
We'd barely left Broome for Darwin when I win the Klutz of the Year award -- I pour a cup of scalding tea over my left wrist and now sport a painful and incredibly scarlet two inch wide skin wrist band.
We jog past savannah, yellow-tinged trees, bottle-like boabs, red tiered ant hills, up the dry-season-only Gibb River Road and on to the Napier Range, a 185-mile reef that was in the ocean and similar to the Great Barrier Reef zillions of years ago.
Hollow boab tree in which Aussies used to imprison Aborigenes
Our main stop of the day is Tunnel Creek. Wading the underground river through the range, I lose my Klutz of the Year Crown -- a Swiss lady loses a shoe in the mud amid the most obscene sucking noises, and an English lass has just given her camera a full immersion baptism.
At Windjana Gorge the setting sun bathes the jagged saw teeth in incandescent red fire. The camp site is rudimentary but has sit down flush toilets and solar showers.
Another Windjana view
Our pup tents have see-through mosquito netting tops. I share with a Swiss guy in his late 40s. I've this terrible problem of not only not being able to sleep in a sleeping bag or mosquito net, but getting into terrible entangling fights with them. Instead of counting sheep -- or kangaroos -- I count the Milky Way through the netting -- four billion, 360 million, 180,552; four billion, 360 million, 180,553...
Windjana Gorge after sunset
Day Two: "You haven't rolled your swag and sleeping bag tightly enough," says DG, making me do it again. And I'm paying $2,000 for this?
My scalded scarlet "wrist band" is a deepening crimson. But DG has no fingers on his right hand, just a thumb and tiny vestigial stumps -- a birth defect. He drives and lifts things fine, though.
A flock of red-bellied birds flies past. Vast clouds of dust shoot upwards and cloak everything in an impenetrable orange-brown fog every time a quadruple tractor-trailer -- they call them road trains -- sweeps past. At Galvans Gorge a waterfall tumbles from a boab-girt ridge into a bowl of orange crags. Various inmates go swimming. A bearded German guy has woman's breasts with hairy aureoles -- zehr strange, Liebschen.
An hysterical scream: A Swiss lady has encountered a teeny mouse on a branch. We reach our campsite. An even louder scream: Mouse Lady encounters a tiger snake, quite small, poisonous, but not aggressive. Its eyes shine yellow in her torch beam.
Another Kimberley sunset
Day Three: DG makes me roll my frigging swag up again "so it'll fit on the roof, mate." I tell him I have an arthritic thumb. "You're barking up the wrong tree there, mate, talking about a dodgy hand," quoths he, giving me the finger with the thumb of his fingerless right hand.
A mini mutiny is brewing: The inmates complain DG is not explaining enough. We're meant to visit Manning Gorge, an hour's walk away, but now he says we have to swim across a creek to get to the path. "Do you know how unpleasant it is to walk with a wet bikini," Mouse Lady protests, "not the top part; the bottom. It chafes right between my thighs." You should be so lucky!
Back in the bus a Belgian lady with a laugh to shatter glass goes to the front, seizes the mic and says it's time for "silly fun." She leads in making daft gestures to an Aussie song, arms circling around her head for an
"O" for home ("ome"), hands swaying for gum trees in the breeze etc. Oh, how jolly!
At the site of the finest sunset in Australia, the lengthening rays set the Cockburn Escarpment ablaze in fiery red -- except it's pitch black. "We're 25 minutes too late, mate," quoths DS. Well why the hell didn't you get us here 25 minutes earlier, dummy?
Fording the Pentecost River
El Questro campsite: proper loos, hot water showers. Great excitement in the women's loo. Well, how was I to know it was the women's? The sign's all but invisible. I'm having a nice squat listening to all the girly talk, and a great shriek wells up as I open the door. Great excitement in the men's bathroom, too. A tiger snake's sleeping on a ceiling ledge and a very drunk Aussie's trying to chase it, listing uselessly to starboard.
At the outdoor bar, I'm tapping away at my netbook when another very drunk Aussie lurches over, eyes swimming in booze. "Hi, I'm Mitch," he slurs. "Waddya doing?'"
"Playing the piano," quoths I.
"Ah, good on yer, mate," quoths he. "Nice tune."
One more missed sunset
Day Four: Wardrobe malfunction looms. My jeans are wearing out -- great rips and rents, fully air-conditioned behind. Will they or won't they last?
At Zebedee pools, thermal ponds in lush rocky palm groves beneath towering orange cliffs, everybody's squatting, raising their legs out of the water for photos, hooting with laughter, whooping galore. All that is except Yours Truly. Now an English lady has a leech nibbling at her foot.
Two things peeve me most: boundless time wasted squatting in pools, and collecting firewood for cooking every evening; the barbecue food for all of us for all nine days couldn't have cost more than a few hundred dollars.
Today we're going to see blazing red sunset rocks on time. But the petrol pump at El Questro is out of order, and DG hasn't got enough fuel; if he tries to climb to the hilltop, the little he has will move to the back of the tank and not reach the engine.
Pool at the end of Emma Gorge
Day Five: DG makes all sorts of Eeyore noises at a pair of passing donkeys -- he communicates better with them that with us. Wardrobe malfunction is fast approaching wardrobe crisis. The rent at the back has morphed into the grand canyon.
Start -- or end- - of Gibb River Road
We reach Purnululu National Park -- a magnificent collection of strange striated domes, snaking gorges and the massive 600-foot high bright orange sandstone walls of the Bungle Bungle range -- deservedly a U.N. World Heritage site.
Echidna Gorge in Purnululu National Park
At last we're in time for sunset -- except that today the sun turns the rocks ever more incandescently orange; not the slightest splash of fiery red.
Sunset won't go red
Day Six: A terrible night-long battle with the sleeping bag, and I've just put my foot into the grand canyon in my jeans; now it's even grander. A pair of cheeky blue winged kookaburras stare us out as we prepare a quick breakfast.
Blue kookaburra wants our breakfast
The Bungle Bungles spreads out in tiers of beehive domes in the early sun, incandescent orange, dark grey and black, hundreds of feet high on a verdant plain full of trees in different shades of green and bushes bright with yellow flowers. A helicopter whizzes us over the superb setting for an extra $10 a minute for a total of $300, across Horseshoe Gorge blazing with brilliant red walls.
Another Bungle Bungles view
Great excitement on the bus: An elderly English lady brandishing a couple of biscuits in her mouth and a flyswatter in her hand is going hell for leather after a wasp. Now she's whooping, almost drops the biscuits, and does a victory dance on its remains.
Bungle Bungles from the air
Day Seven: A sampler of Australiana. A woman at a store produces a month-old baby wallaby in a towel. Its mother was killed by a car. It's a beautiful little creature with big eyes.
In Kununarra, a mining town of 6,000, Aborigines rest on the grass. They have very deep-set eyes and prominent lower cheeks that give their faces a pouting look. The children are delightful, playing and posing in laughing gesticulating groups.
Aborigene children in Kununarra
Rio Tinto is busily extracting diamonds, including the very rare pink, producing a third of all the world's diamonds.
A Belgian with a long, narrow face, hooked nose and chin struggling to meet it, doesn't think I'm doing enough camping chores. Well, up yours, cobber, I'm not throwing my back out for you.
One of the many warnings against voracious saltwater crocodiles
A perky 43-year-old Aussie traveling with her 65-year-old mother is sitting in the driver's cabin with DG, bouncing up and down in time to the music, jiggling her shoulders, giving the finger with both hands, doing some great lap dancing in the seat.
Our camp at Lake Argyle's pure luxury -- proper toilets rather than self-dug holes for the first time in two days, and showers for the first time in three.
Day Eight: Everybody's posing with silly grins and daft gestures under a road sign -- we're passing from Western Australia into Northern Territory. Much ado, though Lord alone knows why. The only difference is we put our clocks forward one and a half hours.
Atop a lofty outcrop a splendid view over the Victoria River meandering through green woods between red cliffs. Back in the vehicle, another splendid view - a 31-year-old German lass sitting in the driver's cabin lifts her legs onto the windscreen, opens them in a wide V, and takes photos from where her thighs meet. A vagina eye's view.
View over Victoria River
Day Nine: 10 miles from Katherine Gorge, one of the premier sites, and DG refuses to take us there. The program says Edith Falls or Katherine Gorge. He plumps for less impressive Edith since it's closer to Darwin. Put it to a vote, quoths I. "No, mate,' quoths he, "the final discretion remains with me."
The falls are only a few meters high. At the lower pools there's the same sign as in so many other spots: Beware, saltwater crocodiles. These are the most aggressive and voracious. Come here, DG, let me give you a gentle push, cobber.
At last we jog into Darwin; my jeans have completed the 1,500-mile drive. But I cross the finishing line with far more warp than weft, my arse hanging out. I'm a total sartorial disgrace.
I offer these pioneer remnants to Darwin Museum. For some inscrutable reason they decline, mate.
Saltwater Croc jumping for food in Northern territory
By the same author: Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available for Kindle, with excerpts available on Amazon.