Whether we were driving in Bruce or tramping through the outback, we got to have a pretty good look around the Kimberly. But it’s always good to get a different perspective on a place and, as budgetary concerns had been left in Asia, we grabbed the opportunities presented to try something new. Horses and helicopters aren’t traditional bedfellows, but they’re both spectacular ways to get around, and the 108 minutes we spent either in the saddle or in the air were some of the most memorable of the three weeks we had with Bruce.
After fording the mighty Pentecost River (so mighty, that we actually forded it three times just to make sure that we got decent photos), our first stop on the legendary Gibb River Road was the lovely Home Valley Station. As we settled Bruce in, Evan spotted that they had a set of stables, and that kids were being taken out for riding lessons around the campsite. He loves horses, and ever since he’d been for a ride on Nanna’s mate Kate’s horses in North Wales, he’d been bothering about having another go. We dodged the problem of Evan not being old enough to go for a ride by not strictly telling the truth about his age; after the hassle we had getting Sam diving on the Great Barrier Reef, we thought that dishonesty was temporarily going to be the best policy.
We were up with the sun at 5:30am and managed to keep a lid on the excitement until we arrived at the stables at 6:30. We had a brief introduction to the horses and we were off. Floss was on Bugsy, so called as he had massive eyes. Way too big for his skull, they bulged out of his face giving him full 360 degree vision. Evan clambered aboard Mr T, the laziest horse in the world, who was asleep thirty seconds later. Sam got Goldie, a massive beast with a flatulence problem who had very little interest in the morning’s ride. And I heaved myself onto Midnight, bigger than a block of flats and thankfully perfectly obedient.
It only took five minutes to get out of the campsite and into the wilderness and we were presented with an amazing view of the Cockburn Ranges as the sun came up. Up and down hills, by the side of creeks, through bushland and across the savannah we plodded. Passing aboriginal burial sites, old herdsman’s campsites and the airstrip which is used on a Tuesday to deliver the mail, we must have covered all the major periods of human occupation in the area.
Although these places gave us a fascinating view of the human history of the area, it’s the environment that is the story here. The Cockburn ranges used to be a massive sandstone mountain range, forced up from the seabed millions of years ago. Ever since, wind and rain have worked their magic and they’re now a set of rolling, red, rocky hills. Seen from horseback, they look like mountains but I reckon that from a helicopter, they’d look like massive ripples left on a beach by the tide. The savannah that we rode through used to be the tops of the mountains but is now just dust, held together by the plants that cling to life, having adapted to live in an environment that is either bone dry, flooded or on fire.
If Evan gets the credit for going horse riding, then Floss has to be rewarded for getting us up in a helicopter. As we were passing, she suggested that we just pop into the Bungle Bungle airstrip to see how much the helicopter flights were. Surpisingly, whilst not reasonably priced, they were much less extortionate than we were expecting. And they had the bonus of us not even having to fib about the kids’ ages to secure a discount. Ten months of malnourishment in Asia meant that their combined weight was less than that of a adult, and therefore we could squeeze them into a single seat and only pay for one of them. Huzzar!
We’d walked through the beehive domes of the Bungles and had been completely blown away by their scale, their colours and overall weirdness. If we’d brought the horses with us, we’d have got to see much more of them, but we wouldn’t have got any sort of view like we did in the helicopter, not least because most of the area is completely inaccessible.
The twenty minutes we spent in the air showed us everything we’d spent hours looking at on foot and so much more besides: the spectacular Picaninny Gorge, Elephant Rock and the surrounding flood plains. These aren’t ripples on a sandy beach, these are recycled mountains. They started life as proper mountains that were eroded away to nothing, being washed into a massive sandy basin. The sand was transformed into sandstone of varying densities and then pushed up into a new set of mountains. Erosion kicks in again, with the different densities giving rise to the stark black and orange stripes that are seen today.
It’s a bonkers place that was only “discovered” in the 1980’s. Even today, it’s a hard two hour drive from the main highway and is only accessible to four wheel drive vehicles. The staff at both the visitor centre and the airstrip turn up at the start of the season in May and generally don’t leave again till the place shuts up with the start of the rains in October. It’s that remote.
So, you have to ask whether you’d buy a horse or a helicopter if you won the lottery. I loved our time with Midnight and his homies, but until someone invents a saddle that’s more like a seat than an instrument of torture, I’m definitely a helicopter person. Horses are an adventure. Helicopters are awesome.
Quite like horses. Want a helicopter.