I’m daydreaming of the Kimberley as I sit here, writing our blog. I’m huddling by a wood burning fire in an old, converted church that we’ve rented. It’s in Major’s Creek, near Braidwood, in Australia’s wintery southeast corner. Wintery is definitely the right word – it’s so cold here at the moment that the condensation freezes on the windows and we need to wear four layers to feel comfortable.
It seems odd to think that just a few weeks ago we were travelling through Australia’s tropical north. We were at the tail end of a year-long Australian adventure, revisiting some of the places we fell in love with at the start of our trip: Broome, Derby and Kununurra. We went back there to buy some local Wandjina art, see some of the beautiful Kimberley sights we’d missed on our first time through, and visit some friends we made at the beginning of our journey. It was the perfect end to a spectacular year.
The experience feels dream-like now, as we wake up to frosty mornings, freezing fog, the drudgery of trying to find a place to live, and…wait for it…new jobs. (That’s right – we’re trying to rebuild the security and stability we wantonly gave up so that we could swan around the continent for a year in a Land Rover with two dogs in tow. Giving that all up might’ve been a rash decision, in retrospect!)
Landing back on planet earth is tough, I have to admit. We’ve only been back for 10 days, and the novelty of not having to pack up the car and head into the unknown has already worn off. I think Bailey and Saffy feel the same way – they disappear early each morning, and we find them sitting by the car, waiting for their next adventure to begin.
“Is it too early for wine?” Al asks hopefully, throwing another log on the fire.
“It’s only 4pm,” I reply.
“It’s getting dark though!”
“True,” I say. “Must be Wine O’clock.”
We pour two large glasses.
We knew the transition back to normal life would be hard after a year away, but we tried not to dwell on it too much as we headed into the final few weeks of our trip. And when we did think about it, we overlooked the fact that we’d be arriving back in the middle of winter. That explains how (when we were sweltering in the tropics) we chose to rent a beautiful, romantic, freezing old church with only a wood fire to warm the cavernous space. We’ve discovered that once the sun has set, it barely gets above freezing even when the fire is blazing. No wonder the landlords were so thrilled when we made our month-long booking! We doubt anyone else would be mad enough to stay here in winter. Our pyjama-wearing dogs agree.
Outside, the sun is sinking behind the hills that surround this tiny, picturesque village, and the first stars are appearing in an icy sky. The fiery colours of the Kimberley feel like they’re a world away now, and the truth is that they really are – Australia is huge, and the northwest corner, where we spent the past three months, is a long, long way away. Five thousand, two hundred and sixty kilometres, to be precise. Or in other words, an entire week of daytime driving.
We drove that distance at quite a fast pace, speeding headlong from the tropical north to the depths of the southern winter. We’d opted to follow the Stuart Highway, which cuts straight through the Red Centre, all the way from Darwin in the far north, to Port Augusta in the south. It’s a hell of a hike, and to be completely honest, it’s not the most exhilarating of drives. We chose it because it’s one of the fastest and easiest routes from the northwest to the southeast.
Our plan was to do a couple of side trips to liven up the journey, including an interlude in the famously remote, gigantic and photogenic Kati Thanda (formerly known as Lake Eyre, a 9500 km salt lake in South Australia’s outback). That didn’t work out, unfortunately, because our Land Rover’s engine mysteriously blew up the day after we had it serviced in Alice Springs.
But despite breaking down, and despite having to swap our Land Rover for a hire car for the rest of our trip, we still saw some amazing sights on our long drive south. Outside Tennant Creek, we came across a water hole that was literally teaming with birdlife – thousands and thousands of budgerigars and zebra finches converging on one small area, circling in deafening waves of tiny, colourful wings. It was jaw-dropping to watch. And we passed through rainbow landscapes, from the red, gorge-carved deserts of Alice Springs, to the arid moonscapes of the Breakaways (just north of Coober Pedy), the sparkling, salted sands of Lake Hart, and the flower-studied winter plains of Lake Gairdner and the Flinders Ranges.
Each time we stopped, we felt the temperature drop a few degrees. By the time we’d reached Alice, in Australia’s vast centre, the nights were getting cold. Coober Pedy, in northern South Australia, was starting to feel chilly even in the daylight, but when we reached Port Augusta and the Flinders Ranges we knew we were on the edge of winter – the sun was sinking earlier, and our fingers and toes were starting to remember the sensation of never truly warming up. Having followed the summer around the continent for a year, we’d actually forgotten what that feels like!
“Shall we pack up and head north?”
Al and I have asked each other this question at least once a day for the past week. It’s tempting. So far we’ve resisted, but the pull of Australia’s magical northwest is incredibly strong. I wonder how many people have tried to settle back into an Australian winter after being away on similar adventures, and have succumbed? I’m guessing it happens quite a lot. At night, as I pull the duvet over my head, I dream of Wandjinas, of the last light on the Indian Ocean, of camels trekking along beaches, and locals gathering on hot wharfs to watch fiery sunsets and catch fresh fish for their suppers.
But for now, northwest Australia will have to remain a dreamlike memory. It’s time for us to settle back into normal life again. We could continue our gypsy existence for ever, but life should be more than just adventures and experiences, however fun. We’ll have to push through winter and get our chilly feet firmly back on solid ground. Meanwhile, where did I put my snorkel? There’s nothing wrong with planning our next trip, is there?
From “The Time of the Turning” by Peter Gabriel
…We’ll last through the winter
We’ll last through the storms
We’ll last through the north winds
That bring down the ice and snow
We’ll last through the long nights
Til the green field’s growing again
(You can listen to Peter Gabriel’s song and see some of the highlights of our long drive south in Al’s stunning “Landscapes of the Outback” video).