In the second half of our week in the Kimberley, we made a road trip, taking in three major Kimberley visitor attractions over three days. Our destinations were Geike Gorge, 20km north of Fitzroy Crossing; Bungle Bungle, in the far east of the region; and Mowanjum Art & Culture Centre, on the outskirts of Derby.
It takes four hours to drive from Broome to Fitzroy Crossing, a small town with a majority Aboriginal population, that sits beside the mighty Fitzroy River. For much of the time, the topography is a bit monotonous; even the termite mounds lose their lustre eventually. But when the Napier Range – a large section of a once vast Devonian barrier reef – comes into view, things start to become intriguing.
The Fitzroy River drains a vast catchment – more than 90,000 square kilometres – and most of it is located north of the Napier Range, which runs for about 100km in an east-west direction. The annual wet-season torrent of water in the river has, over millions of years, cut through the limestone that forms the range to create a gorge that is 8km long and lined by 60m-high walls.
The English colonists named the gorge after a leading British surveyor. The traditional owners of the area around Fitzroy Crossing, the Bunuba people, call the gorge ‘Danggu’, meaning ‘the area where water is very deep under the cave’. You can see why – even in the dry season, there is usually plenty of water in the gorge. And when we visited, it was not long after some unseasonal rain had topped up the water volume.
Soon after arriving in Fitzroy Crossing, we explored the gorge on a boat operated by a senior National Park ranger. Over the course of an hour, we saw numerous features of the gorge and the the ranger provided us a wide range of interesting information. The tour was not very expensive and was an outstanding experience.
Personally, I was sad to hear that another cruise option, operated by two Bunuba men, had fallen by the wayside due to the impact of the Covid pandemic on visitor numbers in the Kimberley. The ranger is training some younger locals who already work at the park but he’s not sure if they will take the step to replace him at the helm of the boat.
Here are some of the highlights from our tour.
Geike Gorge/Darnggu, with its year-round supply of fresh water, is home to a vast array of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, including freshwater crocodiles. This species is much smaller than the saltwater crocodile and, thankfully, has no interest in humans, nor other large animals, as a source of food. Sure, if you step on one or give it some other cause to feel threatened, it might give you a nasty bite. However, if you are sensible, it is quite safe to take a dip in the waters of the gorge. Trust me, I have done it, albeit more than 20 years ago!
We were up early the next morning, as we had another four-hour-drive to reach a helicopter that would take us over the Bungle Bungles. We drove east to Halls Creek – a town teeming with Indigenous people from several different language groups – and then north to a caravan park just along the road towards the National Park. You need a 4WD vehicle to go further, which is why we booked a flight.
The Bungle Bungles are in Purnululu NP. The traditional owners of the area are the Kija people. In Kija language, Purnululu means sandstone, the rock of the raised plateau. Bungle Bungle is from the Kija word for a cockroach that has an abdomen striped like the famous domes
The western wall of the plateau is largely protected from the erosion that is caused by sand blown on harsh, hot winds off the desert country that lies to the southeast. However, rain and heat from the sun do slowly convert lines of weakness in the sandstone into gorges of various shapes and extents throughout the plateau.
As our helicopter approached the eastern edge of the plateau, the stunning effect of 360 millions of years of erosion came into view.
It takes up to three hours to drive a 4WD vehicle from the highway to the west side of the plateau – the access road is rough and circuitous. Once you get there, you have access to camp sites and a series of walking trails.
Large, double-axle caravans aren’t allowed in the park because they cause too much damage to the road. However, the caravan park where the helicopter is based has plenty of room. Indeed, while we were waiting to board our scenic flight, at least six caravans arrived in less than half an hour.
We had another early start the next morning to begin our return journey back to Broome via the town of Derby, where the Mowanjum Art & Culture Centre is located.
The closed community of Mowanjum was formed by three distinct West Kimberley language groups in the 1950s. Mowanjum means ‘settled at last’, reflecting a history in which the three groups were obliged to relocate more than once during the years after they lost control of their traditional lands before coming together to forge a new history. You can learn more about their story here.
The community’s art & culture centre is probably the most important in Western Australia outside the Western Desert, due to the fact that the three language groups share custody of and responsibility for Wandjina law and iconography. Artworks produced according to this heritage are unlike any others by Indigenous Australians.
This website provides an excellent introduction to the Wandjina story, the elements of the art & culture centre and the festivals that are staged by the community for public viewing. During our time at the centre, we viewed an excellent video about Mowanjum; explored the extensive gallery of artworks for sale; and took in the excellent displays and information of the compact but comprehensive museum.
I don’t have any photos to share with you. Firstly, photography is not permitted in the gallery section – fair enough! And secondly, we were so enchanted by the other elements of the centre that we just forgot to click! Anyway, their website is full of colourful images for you to explore.
We flew home to Melbourne feeling both refreshed and stimulated by our week in the Kimberley. Our program of activities was rich and varied but not so crowded that we didn’t have time to relax by the pool at the Mangrove Hotel, take advantage of its excellent location and food & beverage service and stroll around the nearby town centre of Broome.
Depending on our travel priorities, we might not return to the Kimberley but we know that we would be more than satisfied if we did.
Cheers for now!