In the heart of the Kimberley, at the western end of the Gibb River Road, lies Windjana Gorge. It’s a place I’ll never forget. Not because it is especially beautiful and photogenic (it isn’t) but because it literally made my spine tingle. While I was there, all my senses were heightened and I felt as if time stood still.
I walked into the gorge completely alone, across a frazzled Kimberley landscape. It was so parched that the vegetation snapped and crunched underfoot. As I walked, I noticed that my footsteps and my breathing were the only sounds. There was no sign of any other living thing, apart from some hardy plants and six huge black buzzards, which were soaring high above me.
It was an eerie sensation. I was so hot and uncomfortable that I was tempted to turn around and head back to the car. What kept me going was the memory of Al’s face earlier that morning. He’d already been down to the gorge before me, and as I watched him stride back, I could feel an unusual energy radiating from him. He was elated. “You have to go down there,” he gasped as he reached me. “It’s incredible!”
So I grabbed my camera bag and headed off across the shadeless desert. The path led me across a vast open savanna and over a dry riverbed and then through a narrow gap in a towering rock face.
As I emerged through the other side of the passageway, everything changed. The space echoed with the sound of hundreds of cockatoos, which were all around, perching in trees but hidden from sight. Their raucous calls were so strange and unexpected after the stony silence on the other side of the passage. It was almost as if the birds were warning: “Hey! Watch out! Don’t come in here! Go back!”
That’s when my spine started tingling. The sudden drop in temperature, and the dramatic change in vegetation also contributed. In a couple of seconds, I had passed from flat, rain-starved desert to a fossil-peppered passageway, then out to a deep water-filled gorge that was fringed with towering emerald palms and herb-scented eucalypts.
I felt like I was dreaming as I picked my way across the rocks, searching through the trees for the thing I’d really come to see: dozens of freshwater crocodiles, stranded by the dry season in the shady, lime green pools of Windjana Gorge.
As I rounded a bend in the path, I saw them. Piled up on top of each other, looking like a tangle of prehistoric creatures, they lined the sides of the rock pools. The closest were only a couple of feet away, suspended in the clear water, staring at me, glassy-eyed.
It was an unforgettable experience. Although we visited other beautiful gorges and spectacular outlooks as we travelled “the Gibb” over the next couple of days, nothing affected me as powerfully as Windjana.
I think part of the magic of my Windjana experience was created by a couple of events in the days leading up to it. One of them, which I won’t go into here, involved a day in hospital in a small outback town. At Windjana, I was still experiencing the surge of intense gratitude and joy that follows the release from extreme pain.
Just as significant, the previous day, I’d visited the Mowanjum Cultural Centre (just outside the town of Derby at the start of the Gibb River Road). There, I’d been introduced to the cave art of the Western Kimberley, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s dominated by visions of ancient Aboriginal spirits called Wandjinas. These spirits, which are painted in bold form in beautiful earthy tones, decorate cave walls all over the Kimberley. They’re so striking that they’ve stayed with me. And I think what made Windjana so special was the feeling that the Wandjinas were all around me, staring out from the ancient rock face as I passed from the desert and into the gorge.