Big Trip special: Not everyone made it home in one piece from Australia's north-west
Eleven riders tackled the Kimberley region of Australia’s far north-west – a trip packed with crocodiles, dingos, helicopter rescues, tunnels, gorges and mountain ridges. Grant O’Brien tells MCN his version of events on the trip of a lifetime.
The shirts and stubbie holders had been printed: “Walcott Inlet And Back, June 2007”, so that was the mission firmly in the minds of the riders, myself included, as the bikes were unloaded from the trailers where the tar meets the dirt 60km into the Gibb River Road.
Above our heads was the most eccentric-looking tree I’d ever seen, towering over the site where we unloaded. The Boab tree, fat at the bottom, skinny at the top with branches resembling roots.
It was mesmerising, and it haunted me for miles down the dry, red, dusty Gibb River Road, one of the main thoroughfares running through the heart of the Kimberley.
We powered along, each rider at least 500 metres from the next to avoid choking on the dust and to help keep our vision clear as possible. The Gibb River Road is actually fairly busy, even early in the tourist season.
Every few minutes a four-wheel drive travelling in the opposite direction would leave a wall of dust in its wake, and at other times, if you were unlucky, a road train would eyeball you in the distance and head towards you at speed, holding its line as though you were a fly that would squash against the thousands of others on the grille.
Once past they left the biggest cloud of dust imaginable as you crawled very slowly along the far left-hand side of the road.
The landscape of the Kimberley is wonderful. The ranges run in every direction and ridges with dead-flat tops and embedded with red rock that locks together like a jigsaw run as far as the eye can see. As we rode by I could have sworn faces were peering down from the shapes and lines that made them complete.
Awe-inspiring views of browns and pale greens made up the rugged terrain that flowed and bumped its way up and down the ridgelines. We didn’t so much mind riding the long straight 120kph (75mph) dirt roads when there was so much to absorb along the way.
After passing through the Napier and King Leopold ranges it wasn’t far to our first camp at Bells Gorge and our first team effort, unpacking the three support vehicles and trailers full of swags, bags, spares, fuel, food and the like. It became a daily ritual we slowly warmed to.
Winter daytime temperatures in the Kimberley region head up towards 35°C and at night drop to as low as zero, so gathering wood for the fire was a priority.
A warm sleeping bag and a good tent was a must. Rock-bottom temperatures kicked in around 3am, and you needed to be snug as a bug or you’d freeze your balls off counting stars until sun-up.
It was still cold for the first few hours over breakfast and pack-up, but come 9am a riding jersey would get you through the day comfortably.
Our second night’s stopover at Mount Elizabeth was our gateway to the real adventure. ‘Off the beaten track’ as they say, and the four days ahead promised very remote territory.
The first 130km of the track from Mount Elizabeth is privately owned and everyone must first ask permission and pay the fee.
We had taken care of this beforehand, so the big challenges between us and Walcott Inlet were the black soil in places still being too wet to pass through, and spear grass 10-feet high in places making it near impossible to find the way.
That night around the campfire it was decided we’d go as far as Pearsons Creek, 40kms short of our next camp, and send the riders on to check the trails to Bachsten.
It didn’t take long to carve our way to the Pearson campsite. The terrain showed glimpses of ruggedness as we rode past areas of burnt bush, large ant nests and interesting rock formations known to be full of Aboriginal art. At the speeds we were doing you’d have needed an eagle’s eye to spot such wonders.
An hour past Pearson’s we all pulled over to make sure all riders were feeling up to the rougher track to Bachsten. It was one of those moments where the riders longing for more adventure wanted to push forward rather than wait another day, and the more cautious riders wanted to just chill, set up the new camp, and do any necessary maintenance.
It was decided six riders would go ahead to check the track while the others turned around and rode back to camp.
I rode on with the more adventurous riders and the track tested us all the way. Hitting a hidden rock in the spear grass at speed caused the front wheel to buck to one side and left you feeling you were going to crash every time until the wheel grabbed again.
This drained the energy from us all and around 10km short of Bachsten the terrain became harsher, spear grass longer, and with the sun dropping we played it safe and returned to the crew to let them know what lay ahead.
When the group split earlier that day I’d ridden off with a terrible premonition of disaster. Sure enough, 20km short of camp we ran into what was clearly an accident. One of the riders, Kim, was in a bad way.
He’d come down hard after lifting his front wheel over a rut, which then high-sided him. A few riders got straight on the first aid, and after assessing the situation sent two riders back to the four-wheel drives and the satellite phones. A quick call and a helicopter was dispatched.
It was a scary reality jolt.
On a good run it was at least 450km and a day of careful driving back to the closest hospital, and even if we could’ve lifted the rider into a vehicle we didn’t know the severity of his injuries, so we were praying a helicopter would make it out in time before the sun dropped. And it did.
Five hours later, just before the sun set, the chopper managed to land close to the track where Kim deliriously hung on for his life. The site of the chopper was a welcome relief for those who’d comforted him during the wait.
We later found out he had broken seven ribs and his left collarbone, punctured his lung and diaphragm, and cut his spleen, which fortunately healed itself over the five hours.
The doc said if his spleen hadn’t patched itself he could’ve bled to death internally.
A SLOWER PACE
It was a sombre group around the fire later that evening. Kim’s closest mates were rocked, and there was talk of: “Are we doing the right thing, risking our lives for a lads’ week away?”
By the look of the trail towards Bachsten it looked near impossible to ride much further anyway as the adventurous group had found out, but there were still those that at least wanted to experience one of the most breathtaking gorges in the Kimberley, the Bachsten Gorge, so we decided to push on for another day to reach it.
Some of the less experienced riders struggled along the rocky trails, but the lead riders pushed on with determination through long grass until the end of the track, and visiting the gorge was well worth the 5km return walk from the campsite.
Following the creek’s edge until the water started rushing rapid-like towards the edge of the falls, and then reaching the edge to look out over at the gorge that widened to three football fields in size was one of those experiences that stays with you forever.
It’s a special place very few get to visit.
We came away from Bachsten fulfilled, and even though we didn’t get to feel the salt water on our skins at Walcott Inlet or throw out a line for a big Barra, we knew our adventure still had a few days to go and there was plenty more exploring to do.
The run out of Pearson and back to Mount Elizabeth was very enjoyable. We knew the tracks and had plenty of opportunities to stop and swim, take photos and discover Aboriginal art.
At one lagoon one of the older fellas came face to face with a crocodile. We’d all been swimming for a good half-hour when Andy joined us in the cool lagoon.
He swam across to a ledge and as he stood on a submerged rock he noticed a pair of eyes floating a few metres away. He was taking a closer look when the croc raised its head and showed a big set of shiny white teeth and let out a huge, “hissssss!”
Cool, calm and collected, wide-eyed Andy set about making his way back to the other side of the lagoon on top of the water at break neck speed. Funny as hell!
The remaining days saw us ride the red dusty dirt roads past more incredible mountain ranges to Mornington Station where we had the comforts of an outback bar, showers, even a restaurant, which made everyone feel a bit spoilt after roughing it over the first four days.
Then we camped a night on the final stretch back to the Gibb River Road at Windjana Gorge and explored Tunnel Creek, a dark, 750m long tunnel full of stalactites and stalagmites.
At times the water came to our knees and the odd croc joke was thrown in as the torches shone into the darkness ahead.
We didn’t make it to Walcott Inlet, but the adventures we had trying gave us more than enough good memories to last a lifetime.
RIDE THE KIMBERLEY WITH RUGGED RED
There are seven and 11-day trail bike tours in the Kimberley, on a fleet of Suzuki DR-Z400s. Tours usually start in the first week of June and run through to the end of September.