Our first stop in the Kimberley was El Questro, which is at the very start of the famous ‘Gibb River Road’, 600 kms of off-road travel through some of the most remote parts of the region.
El Questro markets itself as an upscale tourist destination and for the most exclusive parts of the resort, charge upwards of $2000 per night for rich tourists who want to see the Kimberley in style.
However, we were opting for ‘El Cheapo’ and we were planning to camp there for four nights in what they described as their ‘Private Camp Sites’. These sounded idyllic on their websites, being described as private little camping spots, well away from the hustle and bustle of the main camp-site, close to the river with private swimming spots and surrounded by nature. What could be nicer?
We arrived mid-afternoon, planning to have plenty of time to get ourselves set up and settled in. Tanya headed off the reception, while I stayed in the car with the A/C on to keep the dogs cool. However, after 10 minutes, and no sign of Tanya I headed over to reception to see what was going on. Tanya was locked in conversation with the lady on the reception desk.
“Emu is gone and I’m afraid Eagle and Kookaburra aren’t available either” was all I heard.
“You can have “Friar Bird or Finch” the woman on reception concluded. It sounded like we were trying to choose something off the menu for a wild bird barbeque.
“They’ve lost our booking” Tanya explained. “There’s only a couple of spots left and the one we wanted, Emu, has been taken by someone else”.
It turned out that the campsites were named after birds. “Oh dear”, I helpfully added, secretly relieved that munching the local wildlife wasn’t part of some bizarre local custom we were expected to join in with. Irritated with the fact that they had given away our site, but aware of the rapidly failing light, we went in search of the “Friar Bird” campsite.
When we found it, about 5kms from the ‘Homestead’ where we had first arrived, it turned out to be not so much a campsite, more a dust bath with about an inch of thick dust across the whole site, and not a blade of grass to be seen. Furthermore, every time a vehicle went along the track a couple of hundred metres away, another thick cloud of dust wafted across the site, covering everything.
Concluding Friar Bird wasn’t the site for us, we set of in search of Finch. “Finch” turned out to be the furthest site from the Homestead, and involved fording a river and navigating a further 4kms of what was little more than sand dunes and rocks to get there. It was certainly private! The dust at this site was almost as bad however, but we chose what we concluded was the least-worst part of the site, and as it was starting to get dark, pitched the tent and set up our camp as quickly as possible.
While setting up the site, despite the failing light, we noticed a warning sign on a tree. A picture of a crocodile and a ‘No swimming’ pictogram. It wasn’t hard to interpret. So much for the private swimming holes.
“Apparently there’s a four and a half metre saltwater Crocodile hanging around”, Tanya explained. While discussing our lost booking, the reception staff had thought to warn her about the local wildlife.
“Great”, I sighed. Before we had set off, we had made many jokes about crocs and camping and vowed and promised that we would not be so stupid as to set up camp within 100 metres of a river where salt water crocs could be hanging out. And here we were, the very first time we were camping in the regions where salt water crocs inhabited, camping some 3 metres from the water’s edge in an area where at least one large croc had been spotted. I sighed again. Fortunately, the water was clear and shallow and there was a steep bank at this point. We decided that any hungry croc would be more likely to head upstream to the other campsites where they could munch on whoever had taken our ‘Emu’ campsite.
The dust was caking and coating everything and great clouds of it arose every time you walked across the site. As the light faded, we turned on our torches, which attracted great swarms of flying ants and other bugs which surrounded us and made almost anything impossible to achieve without getting bugs in your eyes and mouth. With that, we went to bed.
We awoke to the sound of birdsong, moderately refreshed and checked out our campsite in the morning light. It was a beautiful spot, with a view over to one of the escarpments, with a backdrop of the babbling river. We could see paw tracks over our tyre marks from the previous night and concluded the local dingos had been by to check us out overnight.
We drove down to the Homestead for showers to wash the dust off, find some coffee and to start exploring the region.
By the second night, our camp site didn’t seem so bad. Helped by a bottle of wine from the camp store, we relaxed in our mosquito net, did our best to remember the Italian we are trying to learn (more on that in another blog), before we settled down for the night and tried to ignore the dust and dirt.
We awoke with a start about 1am. There was something large and noisy crashing through the undergrowth just outside the tent.
We ran through the potential list of large animals in our mind. No bird could possibly be making that much noise and there are no wombats in this part of the country.
Dingo? – no, too clumsy
Wallaby? Whatever it was, it was big. Of course, there was only one other option. Crocodile!
To be fair, Saltwater Crocodiles or ‘Salties’ were mostly noted for lying in wait in the water for their prey and leaping out at them, not for lumbering clumsily around campsites, but then again, they are also noted for being cunning and smart; watching and learning the habits and routines of their prey, then being in the right place and the right time to grab them when they come down to the river for a drink. Suppose a particularly cunning one had learnt that the best way to lure campers out of their tent was to blunder clumsily around their tent until they come out to investigate, then lunge at them? After all, hadn’t someone recently been grabbed when sleeping in his tent at night?
We lay quietly in the darkness waiting for some indication of what might be waiting for us. Was our tent really about to be attacked by the Einstein of the crocodile world? Maybe if we just lay quietly in our sleeping bags, it – whatever ‘it’ was, would give up and go away. However, our intruder had no intention of going anywhere it seemed. There was much crashing and rustling which seemed to be moving round the tent.
After a few more minutes of rustling and blundering, we heard a distinctive and lonely bellowing sound a couple of meters from the tent. Either this really was one cunning crocodile – or, perhaps, more likely, our camp had been invaded by a cow. It was time to be manly and go and investigate.
I clambered out of the tent, dressed only in a fetching pair of underpants and bravely shone the torch in the direction of the noise. A large pair of eyes flashed back at me from the undergrowth accompanied by a snorting noise. Yes, it was a cow. What caught my attention, however, was the impressive set of horns on each side, and an equally impressive set of testicles hanging down below.
At that moment, the cow – or bull as it now was – decided to give another loud bellow. He had a somewhat angry look on his face, no doubt irritated that I had disturbed his night time ruminations. And was that shreds of fabric on the ends of his horns? Maybe the remnants of the last victims who chose to camp here? Ok, maybe it was just leaves, but still, those horns looked vicious.
Still somewhat relieved that we weren’t being stalked by a super-smart Saltwater crocodile, it was time to take action against our night time intruder. Thinking that some loud noise would surely send him on his way, I grabbed the only things I could see in the dark – our camp kettle and a wooden spoon, thinking that I could easily scare him away – and so I started bellowing myself, while walking towards him, banging the kettle with the spoon.
Any thoughts I had that our intruder would turn tail and run were quickly dispelled when he snorted, lowered his head and started moving towards me. Whether he was planning to charge me and decorate the camp site with my insides, or maybe he was just curious about this strange person and the odd noise they were making, I didn’t wait to find out. Dropping my impromptu drum kit, and diving back inside the tent, I quickly zipped it up and declared that my bull chasing days were over and if he wanted to wander around our camp site bellowing all night, that was fine with me.
Still better than this!