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Australia’s Top End

What better way to explore Oz's remote north than from behind the wheel?

Australia’s Top End
Herding cattle at the Bullo River Station. Image: Lisa Young

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“Remember rule number one,” our gleeful pump attendant tells us. “If you break down in the Outback, stay with your car. Someone will eventually find you.”

Who this ‘someone’ might be and how long we should expect ‘eventually’ to last is anyone’s guess though, as you can travel in this rugged terrain for weeks without seeing another living soul.

But then I think of the shifting colours of the Outback, from burnt orange to indigo as the sun melts into the horizon, whip-cracking Aboriginal cowboys going about their daily business, and the timeless Aussie bedrock that at any one moment instils a feeling of awe, inspiration and drama.

We were about to embark on an epic adventure, a thrilling road trip through the heat and dust of the Australian Outback, from the frontier town of Broome in Western Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory. Otherwise known as the Australia Way, it slices through 1,165 miles of Australia’s ‘Top End’ and the incomparable Kimberley region, putting travellers at the heart of the scenery that lit up Baz Luhrmann’s epic movie, Australia.

The route is notoriously harsh on tyres, and rivers flood regularly, but it’s not difficult to navigate. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended, as the ground can become rugged, especially on the Gibb River Road. The only trouble is, when it comes to car engines I’m all at sea under the bonnet. Fortunately, my driving companion, Limmy, knows a thing or two about flat tyres, broken fan belts and steaming radiators.

Leaving Broome, we drift through untamed territory and pass tiny towns capturing the true spirit of the Outback. It feels utterly remote. With a change of pace, the bitumen gives way to a dirt track. Full of excitement and anticipation, we hit the bumps and dips of the ‘unsealed’ Gibb River Road. The adventure soon kicks in. With whoops and hollers, we create roof-height bow waves as the car careers through flooded creeks, then ploughs through piles of fine red dust. Within an hour, our vehicle is unrecognisable.

Dry, dusty and red, with low bush and spindly trees, the landscape doesn’t look like it’s seen a drop of water in years. Then, in great contrast, we come across a flooded creek.

Barely more than a dirt track, the Gibb is a 410-mile ordeal that’s notoriously unforgiving on cars. The 4WD option of two routes that pass through the heart of the remote Kimberley region, it’s only open during the ‘dry’ season — generally between May and October. The usually soaring temperatures are a bearable 15-30C at this time of year, but drivers should check local road conditions before departing, especially during the wet season.

In the distance, I spot a menacing-looking reminder that we are in cattle country: a road train ploughing its way towards us. Each of these vast juggernauts can carry hundreds of cows. We hastily roll up the windows as the intimidating monster thunders past, making our Land Rover wobble and causing everything around us to vanish in a billowing red dust cloud.

Alone again

Along this section of the Gibb lies the Tunnel Creek National Park, home to Western Australia’s oldest cave system, and the Windjana Gorge National Park — part of an ancient barrier-reef system. Carved out of the limestone of the Napier Range, this 2.2-mile gorge is dotted with liechardt, fig and paper bark trees and a scattering of deep, croc-filled waterholes.

We roll the windows down, turn the stereo up and sing out loud — out here no one can hear our screams! An occasional vehicle appears; our existence acknowledged by a wave from the driver, then we’re alone again. The only other signs of life are kamikaze cows and suicidal wallabies, which appear from nowhere and dart across the road in front of our car. Refuelling points provide surreal interludes, a pump owner diligently mowing his tiny patch of lawn — surely the only plot of the green stuff for hundreds of miles — and, later, a group of Aboriginal children clambering excitedly all over our vehicle.

And as the sun begins its magnificent descent beyond the horizon, all manner of beasts, birds and bats appear along the narrow off-road track leading to Mount Elizabeth Station — a vast cattle station — run by true Kimberley pioneers, the Lacey family. The lack of street lights means I’m soon having to slalom to avoid the animals picked out fleetingly in the headlights.

The Lacey family’s primary business is beef production, but over the past few years they have developed a tourist business aimed at travellers wishing to learn more about station life and the natural landscape of the spectacular Kimberley region.

The 494,000-acre station operates between May and October (weather permitting) and is dotted with pretty creeks, deep gorges and stunning rocky outcrops. The friendly hosts, Peter and Pat Lacey, offer comfortable and traditional homestead accommodation with breakfast and dinner thrown in, and campers can set up their tents in the well-appointed camping area.

Come morning, we’re back on the road, heading towards the end of the Gibb, where the dramatic Pentecost Range rears up. It’s a stunning sight; dark and rugged, with the broad tidal Pentecost River flowing below. The riverbank is littered with debris warning of strong tidal currents and — more worryingly — huge saltwater crocodiles patrolling below the surface.

This well-marked crossing point is one of the easiest places to tackle the Pentecost. That said, the water is deep and care is essential, even when the tide is low. Within seconds, the brown, soupy, croc-inhabited water is halfway up the Land Rover’s door, and I find myself thinking back to the crocodile warnings we just passed. As we bump over rocks — or are they crocs? — I can feel the strong pull of the river. As luck would have it, the wide-toothed predators are nowhere to be seen.

Back on dry land and low on fuel, we continue along the Gibb before arriving among bulbous baob trees — a Kimberley icon — at El Questro Wilderness Park, a working cattle station with an unimaginable abundance of activities for exploring this wild stretch of the unknown.

Almost one million acres in size, El Questro offers several different types of accommodation, from camping through to five-star suites. We don’t stay long but could quite easily have remained here a week, with everything that’s on offer — 4WD vehicles, off-road tracks, hiking trails, horse riding, swimming holes and helicopter tours.

Heading east

Twenty-six miles east along the Victoria Highway and Western Australia is disappearing in our rear-view mirror. Having entered the Northern Territory and a new time zone, we duly wind our watches forward 90 minutes as we draw closer to the Bullo River Station.

This homestead is at the end of a twisting, graded dirt track and we’re forced to dodge desperate dingoes and wavering wallabies as they dart to avoid the wheels of our vehicle. Driving into the most spectacular sunset, we’re accompanied by legendary Australian country singer, Slim Dusty — his voice blasting out the car speakers.

“You know, you couldn’t get any further outback if you tried,” yells Limmy, as we rattle through the dusky landscape. I couldn’t agree more. Five-hundred miles south-west of Darwin and sprawled across half a million acres of the spectacularly desolate Eastern Kimberley region, Bullo is a commercial cattle station only accessible by four-wheel drive, private charter flight or helicopter. Founded by pioneering American Charles Henderson in the early 1950s, today it’s run by his daughter, Marlee, and her children, offering visitors a real taste of station life.

At the front gate, we’re greeted by head stockman Evan Houston. A roll-up aglow in the corner of his mouth, his craggy features speak of years spent in the harsh outback. “I’ve been described as an old bloody saddle that’s been rode hard and put away wet,” he laughs.

We spend a few days trying our hand at barramundi fishing, cattle mustering, bull catching, rock-pool swimming and exploring the station’s hidden nooks for Aboriginal rock art.

Work on the cattle station doesn’t stop for guests — it simply carries on around them. I venture down to the stockyards to see the action first-hand. In a maze of steel drafting pens, hundreds of cows are waiting to be branded and castrated.

Ruth, a station hand, climbs in with the cows. With the aid of a long stick, she slowly encourages the huge beasts to move through the pens. Marlee is positioned on a fence, yelling out instructions. “Hold the stick at 45 degrees, Ruth… You need positive body language… Show them who’s boss… You’ll get a lot more men in life if you get this right.”

Late afternoon, we clamber into a helicopter for a tour of the property. At such a height, it’s impossible not to be over-awed by the sheer size of the place.
After Bullo, the next stopping point on our Outback odyssey is the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, which impresses with its massive rock escarpments, floodplains and collections of Aboriginal rock art. Sunrise and sunset boat tours on Yellow Water give us close-up sightings of colossal, fearsome-looking saltwater crocodiles — prehistoric throwbacks that can trouble the tape measure at 16.5ft in length. The warning not to dangle our arms over the side of the boat is hardly necessary.

On the Western boundary of the park, buffalo, wild brumbies and hundreds of wallabies roam the grounds of Bamurru Plains, a working buffalo station and the only place in Australia where you can skim wetlands in airboats; they need just a few inches of water to glide upon. We hang on tightly as we brush over the croc-infested wetlands, while sea eagles loop overhead. Giant lily pads cover the water’s surface and tiny frogs leap from pad to pad. Entering eerie swamp areas that look like backdrops from The Lord of the Rings films, I half expect Gollum to jump out at any minute.

By now, we’re increasingly aware that we’re on the home stretch, with only the final 30 miles to Darwin remaining. Once a wild frontier town, Darwin has developed into a cosmopolitan city, full of parks, cultural attractions and some of Australia’s finest beaches.

At Mindil Beach, we kick back on the soft, sandy beach in traditional Aussie style, sipping on a cold tinny and reminiscing about all the good times we’ve had on route. It’s been a long and arduous adventure but — even as I watch the sun slide into the Timor Sea — I desperately wish we were back in Broome, stuck in an endless Groundhog Day loop, the keys in the ignition, just about to set off.

 

ESSENTIALS: Australia

Getting there
British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Emirates, Etihad, EVA Airways, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways, Royal Brunei, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic all operate flights from the UK to Australia via their respective hubs. Qantas and Virgin Blue offer onward connections to Broome.
Average flight time: Around 25h to Broome, depending on connections.

Getting around
4WD campervans are available from rental companies such as Britz and Maui. www.britz.com.au  www.maui.com.au
Airnorth and Skywest both fly daily between Darwin and Broome. www.airnorth.com.au  www.skywest.com.au

When to go
Australia’s ‘Top End’ has a year-round tropical climate: winter (April to October) is a great time to visit, when the weather is dry and warm. The tropical summer (November to March) is hot and humid.

Need to know
Visas: All UK visitors need an ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) — a visa issued electronically valid for 12 months, allowing the holder to stay up to three months at a time. An ETA costs A$20 (£13). www.immi.gov.au
Currency: Australian Dollar (A$). £1 = A$1.55.
International dial code: 00 61.
Time difference: GMT +8 in Broome. GMT +9.5 in Darwin.

Places mentioned
Mount Elizabeth Station: Twin share from A$185 (£120) per person per night, including breakfast and dinner. Children from A$99 (£64) per person per night. Camping from AU$16 (£10) per person per night. www.mountelizabethstation.com
Bullo River Station from A$800 (£520) per person per night. www.bulloriver.com
Fitzroy River Lodge from A$150 (£97) per person per night, staying in the Safari Lodge; A$310 (£201) for a River View Studio. www.fitzroyriverlodge.com.au
El Questro Wilderness Park, for prices visit www.elquestro.com.au
Bamurru Plains, for prices visit www.bamurruplains.com

More info
www.australiasoutback.com
www.westernaustralia.com
Lonely Planet guide to Australia. RRP: £16.99.

How to do it
Austravel offers the 11-night Broome, Gibb River Self-drive and Darwin tour, taking in Broome, the Gibb River Road, Mount Elizabeth Station, and El Questro Wilderness Park, among others. Prices start from £1,895 per person, excluding flights.  www.austravel.com