“Why don’t we wake up every hour, on the hour, throughout the night to check on the progress of the fire?” says my travelling companion while I attempt to focus on her through bleary eyes. I mutter something to the effect that I’m sure everything will be fine, and roll over to go back to sleep.
Over her shoulder, a throbbing red incandescence throws a forest silhouette into sharp relief, emphatically distinguishing the soot-black trees from the night sky. We first noticed it when we arrived at our campground at 10pm and — since nobody else seemed too worried — decided to ignore it, cook dinner and go to bed. It’s now 2am; apparently we’re no longer ignoring it.
“I think it’s got closer,” insists my friend, palpably irritated by the lack of urgency in my response. I’ve had just one hour’s sleep after an exhausting 20-hour day; 10 of which were spent driving. I can’t have slept more than 30 hours in the past week, so even a bushfire blazing by my campervan’s window fails to keep my eyes open. An unbidden slap brings me back to my senses.
The night manager of the wilderness lodge seems decidedly unperturbed, laughing out loud when we alert him to the fire. “Oh, that’s been going for days,” he smirks to nobody in particular.
The fire department isn’t much help either. “I don’t know where that is,” says a disembodied voice, as my fretful friend dutifully reports the situation over the phone, telling him we’re on the Gibb River Road at Home Valley Station. “That’s a huge area out there. Do you have your exact co-ordinates?” he asks.
We don’t. I begrudgingly agree to fold away my bed and hit the road.
As my wheels bounce over the cragged track in the pitch-black of a starless night, the fiery skyline recedes over the horizon in my rear-view mirror. Ahead, my headlights illuminate nothing but the glowing eyes of the massive estuarine crocodiles that ply the deep creek that now cleaves our path like a stygian river of bone-char ink.
The words of a friend back in cosmopolitan Perth ring in my ears: “If you drive the Gibb River Road. You. Will. Die.” They don’t have much faith in us Poms.
Accordingly, I’ve crammed my 4×4 camper with emergency supplies, from 30 litres of drinking water, and food for double the estimated duration of our trip, to a satellite phone, emergency radio beacon and air compressor, plus enough fuel to drive the whole route in reverse gear.
I haven’t, however, prepared to test my mettle — nor my vehicle’s metal — against killer crocs in the dead of night. In order to engage the four-wheel drive necessary to cross the river, I have to get out of my vehicle and manually activate the locking hubs on each of my front wheels.
It’s an unenviable task under the watchful glower of saltwater crocodiles but, caught between these unholy waters and a baptism by fire, I leap out of my LandCruiser, blindly twist the mechanisms as I run a frantic lap of the jeep, jump back in, and put my pedal to the floor.
My ride lurches bonnet-deep through the crocodile-infested waters, wheels clawing at the rocky creek bed like there’s no tomorrow.
As morning breaks, I pull up to a camping spot at El Questro station. Weary on a night of 60 minutes of shut-eye, I finally climb into bed as the sun crawls over the horizon… just in time for a dawn chorus of cockatoos that manages to keep me awake, succeeding where a belligerent buddy and a woodland inferno had failed.