It is a grim scene. The cane toads have been flipped over, their soft insides eaten by crows. They now lie in a mass grave, blackened by the sun and dried to a leathery finish, looking very much how I do after registering for online banking.
There is no better place than the Kimberley in Western Australia to contemplate the passage of time. Home to the oldest continuous culture in the world, its landscape is desiccated and crumbling. Just like I feel sometimes in this super-tech world. But it is also dotted with deep gorges full of cool water, the bright yellow blossoms of the kapok tree and exudes an aura of mature resistance.
I have come to this part of Northwest Australia with my Australian husband, my sixteen-year-old son, and our two closest Australian friends. We four adults range from late fifties to early sixties and we plan to sleep in tents and dine by camp stove for the next fourteen days in the rugged outback, tender hips be damned.
The Kimberley is almost exactly the size of California and you have to make, as in life, tough choices when visiting. We have chosen the Gibb River Road—a 412-mile former cattle track between Derby and Kununurra–and so must hire a 4WD. We glance mystified at the pile of tents, stove equipment, chairs, and cots lined up next to the car. We have been left to figure out how to fit them into the canvas sac rigged to the top. It’s a test before the company signs off its $60,000 Toyota Landcruiser to a bunch of aging city slickers. We ask the manager what dangers to watch out for. ‘Stupidity,’ he replies and goes back to counting his money.
First stop–the liquor store where we become octopus-like, reaching for Shirazes and Merlots to pop into a 12-bottle box. Plus a couple of Chardonnays for the American Sheila (that would be me). Oh yes, we remember, as we glance at our son who watches his alcoholic parents with a studied eye, ginger ale for the boy.
The ‘boy’ is sixteen, 6 foot 2 and glowing with young skin and righteous living. He squeezes into the back of the car, pulls out his book and looks soulfully out at the bush. He has left his phone back home. He is not an addict like his parents whose fingers will twitch regularly to see if we’re in cellular distance throughout the trip.
At the sign for the Gibb River Road, we stop to change the air pressure on the tyres. It is deemed (by the women) to be men’s work and the elders teach the boy to the sound of snapping iPhones and the chorus of ‘Look up, smile! No, do it again…’
That evening, we notice we don’t have a gas bottle for the rented cooker. Nor do we have glasses, matches, or a beer bottle opener. We do, however, have reduced salt soya sauce, smoke salmon, Lebanese bread and 70 percent dark chocolate.
We watch as all around us the camping pros drape their tables with cloth, sizzle juicy nuggets of beef on state-of-the-art cookers and sip from wine glasses glinting in the dying sun. We stare at each other and our stomachs growl in unison. Our son turns his watchful eyes upon us and for the first time in his life I see panic.
Our friends, Shaz and Jamie, set to work and in no time make a salad of spinach, canned chick peas, and red canned salmon which we wash down with a Houghton Shiraz from Margaret River. No need to go to the dogs just yet. When the next morning greets us with the fine scent of coffee percolating on gas stoves in all the camp sites surrounding us, Shaz shakes the partially frozen milk (we forgot to turn off refrigerator), mixes it with ground coffee and voila: city-style iced coffees. Never underestimate the wisdom of age.
As we drive along the Gibb River Road we pass miles of cubist red rock cliffs on which delicate eucalypts balance like chorus girls. This is the King Leopold Ranges, land of termite hills as big as VW Bugs and pot-bellied boabs with their crazy limbs. When we stew impatiently behind road trains belching clouds of dust, we pull out our baby boomers collection of Leonard Cohen, Moby, John Fogarty—yes, 110 degrees in the shade, of course, KD Lang, and the more local Nick Cave crooning “It was hot…we drove on and on.”
Our son laughs. He is stuck in a car with four adult friends who tell the same stories over and over, ones we have been telling for the duration of our twenty-year friendship. But we are trying to pass down age-old Shakespearean truths. Like ‘All that glitters is not gold,’ ‘To thine own self be true,’ ‘Don’t forget to hydrate.’
A quick stop at Imitje, an aboriginal-run roadhouse, scores us a new gas stove with its accompanying gas canisters, and we finally arrive at Mornington Wilderness Camp after two and half hours on its rocky cattle gate-strewn road. The outdoor dining area boasts amazing views, handsome tourist souvenirs and a dreamy wine list. The camp is dedicated to tackling extinction and land degradation while providing camp spots, safari tents and first-class dining to the intrepid few. Their remit, which includes feral herbivore fencing and aboriginal-style burn-offs, is to rejuvenate the bush. Good luck, I think, rubbing my sore muscles.
After a dip in St. George’s gorge where my husband falls splat on his back and rips open his elbow, we dine that night on roasted lamb rump and orange cake with passion fruit puree. Discussion turns, naturally, to new knees and blocked prostrates. Did you know you can drill? Jamie, asks. My son winces, his eyes trained like a falcon’s on my last bite of cake.
Later, we gather around the fire ring and sit back to contemplate the pulsing stars in the black sky, so numerous they look like a dusting of icing sugar. It is muscle-tightening cold and in the distance dingos yip in the night. The Southern Cross with two of its bright stars pointing directly to the celestial South Pole, is blazing, even if it doesn’t exist anymore, having burned through its energy long ago.
The Kimberley knows about the mysteries of aging. The continued renewal after the Wet, the aching resilience of the Dry, all combined to create a landscape of utter beauty. My son stares out at the dead trees curled in haunting elegance as they reach for the sky. The bush is majestic in its cyclical demise. Unlike his mother.
Our favorite spot along Gibb River Road will turn out to be Manning Gorge. After hours of rumbling along the potted road, spying bustard birds walking cockily through the bush, yellow finches flying overhead, and poor kangaroos and wedge-tailed eagles struck dead by the side of the road, we arrive at Mount Barnett camping site and immediately attack the hard, rocky sun-drenched hike where dead trees look like broken branches stabbed into the ground. And yet when I peer closer I see bright green shoots emerging. We’re not through yet. At the end of the walk, we find a sparkling waterfall cascading into an emerald pool, surrounded by Pandanas trees. Manning Gorge is so beautiful I would gladly die there. But, like the roasted trees on our walk, not quite yet.
A few days later, at the cleverly-managed El Questro hub which features two restaurants and an outside bar, we settle into some well-deserved R&R. We have, after all, been on the road for five whole days. We munch on pumpkin-spiced pizzas and listen to folksy good ‘ol Australiana entertainment. The warmth and cold beers and the general bonhomie of all the families around us remind us why civilization truly is the civilized choice.
Because let’s be frank: the camping cot feels like stone under my hips. Any appendage left in the open shrivels with cold. In the more crowded camp sites, snores fill the night air like the buzz of mosquitos. I’m too scared to relieve my bursting bladder in case I encounter a marauding crocodile. And so every morning at first light, I stagger from the tent, adding a string of expletives to the deranged cackle of magpies and white galahs swooping overhead.
The boy in contrast seems to emerge from the small tent stronger, straighter, taller every morning. An amble to the table and he wolfs down a bowl of muesli, his taste buds adapting to his older companions’ preference for sawdust. He now drinks coffee, taking his turn coaxing the water to boil on the tiny stove, at home in nature as he is in the computing ether. I envy his comfort in our changing complex world, his commanding way with a browser, his ability to remember more than one password. The stance of the dying white gums with their bare branches raised to the sky reminds me of how I spend much of my life lately, imploring I don’t understand how anything works!
But this trip is about the peace promised in ‘getting away from it all’ and I look forward to soaking in the three main watering holes of El Questro. At Emma Gorge, a clear dazzling bowl of ice water, we are struck with shoe envy as toddlers walk by with newfangled protective water shoes while we pick our way, barefoot, through the sharp rocks, jerking like electrocuted puppets. Luckily, we discover a small tub of warm water hewn from the red rock and we submerge our bones like blissed-out hippos.
Tragedy strikes in Amalia gorge. Not one but two of our iPhones fall into the water. We walk back in stunned silence, our minds focused not on the possible broken bones averted but on all those fabulous photos–which got our best sides, ignored the wrinkles and showed us looking fabulous, darlink—now stewing into oblivion. The boy walks ahead, whistling, deeply unconcerned.
Midway through our walk to El Questro gorge we are stopped by a large boulder. To continue on the trail you have to wade chest-high in water and scramble up steep slippery rock. We stop and stare at each other warily—who is up to this? Just then a couple in their early twenties appears at the top of the boulder. They shimmy down, swim across with their backpack on the young man’s head and emerge before our eyes like the god and goddess of all things we once were. They stop for a happy chat and when they finally wave a cheery goodbye, the boy glances from us to them, his thoughts traveling on in their back pack.
We are quiet on the last drive of the trip, on the Great Western Highway back towards Broome as we contemplate our return to a world we have trouble sometimes understanding, politically and mechanically. But I have seen bright green shoots grow at the base of fading trees and it gives me hope. The boy smiles in anticipation of his return to his friends. He is our green shoot. And when I look at him I feel like a sugar-dusted star, hoping the best for humanity.