North Kimberleys to South Africa

Well here we are, 14 months on from leaving our safety net of Margaret River, and we find ourselves in one of the most remote parts of the Kimberley’s, indeed Australia and perhaps even the world, living and working in an indigenous community amongst the most unique and pristine bushland I’ve ever had the pleasure of immersing myself in. Yes, over a year on and we still find ourselves on the best side of the Western Australian border, still not being able to bring ourselves to cross it. It’s fair to say, that this place has got under our skin a little bit. 

Having left our friends on the Gibb, we made our way up here in October in a convoy made up of our Hilux and a bit of a wet season hack Toyota Landcruiser which we had just bought and completely loaded to the roof full of supplies to get us through the next six months. The roads are bloody terrible to put it lightly. You just can’t grade bare rock. We were fortunate in that we only lost one wheel off the car on the journey up and that on an otherwise deserted road, a trio of cars came to our rescue and sprang into action chopping down trees to jack up the vehicle to make the necessary repairs. We stole a wheel nut off each wheel and on we went. Just in time for our first ever build up to the wet season. And what a wet it was!! The plan was, for Al to settle Kez, Harvey and Elsie into the community and then head back with Byron along the Gibb River Road to Over The Range Tyre Repairs near Mount Barnett, to caretake the place for a month whilst Nev, Leonie and Mira were away. We settles in to our one bedroom longer, the 3 kids sharing one room and the two of us, sharing the lounge room and kitchen. It felt so big compared to the caravan. We have a fridge, a washing machine, air conditioner and a television with no reception. We have no phone and no internet and it’s a wonderful thing. 

Well, our first experience of the community was the morning after we arrived, and due to start our school tutoring careers. As we made our way down into the community and into our ramshackle tin shed of a school, we were greeted by a dozen barking dogs and a friendly, yet snotty little girl who appeared the age of about 5, but who told us she was 11. As we struggled to understand what she was saying, we both looked at each other and wondered what the hell we were doing here. Without an adult in sight, it was the kids that took us under their wing and showed us how to make contact with the outside educational world!! We soon had kids of all sizes all around us, eager to discover the newcomers, particularly the new pale skinned children in the area. It was an overwhelming, confronting and completely amazing experience, not to mention a complete uppercut on every one of our senses. It was incredible. Oh, and the 5 year old was indeed a 5 year old, just playing a bit of a misunderstood trick on the new teachers!!

So, off Al and Byron went, leaving the others in a completely unfamiliar territory trusting that all would be well. And indeed it was. Over that month, Kez, Harvey and Elsie, were given the grand tour of this amazing part of the country by the people who know it best. And they thrived. 170mm of rain in October. Billabongs, creeks, birds and wildlife, hunting and fishing and lots of snakes!! Despite the good time they had, it was a relative bore down on the Gibb so it was good to get back up for Al and Byron. And it certainly was starting to get hot!! The build up continued and everyone began to find their feet in this amazing corner of the universe. On their arrival, we all moved from the community over to the Outback Spirit Safari camp, which we were to caretake for the wet season. It’s only a kilometre or so from the community but there are two creeks to cross, and we were to find out later that they certainly swell to raging torrents after biggest mobs of rain. 

School had it’s ups and downs as it still does. It was certainly a real eye opener for us at the level of education up here, and it makes you realise how far the gap is to bridge. I mean, you know people whinge about education standards in cities and down South. They really need to come up here and check it out. We’ve got 12yo kids here that don’t know when their birthday is. The school of the air education system, whilst so incredibly valuable to remote kids around Australia, is by nature a little bit clunky, particularly given the technological difficulties we experienced when the rains started to come. The internet and phones would often drop out, and when the rain fell on that little tin shed, you couldn’t hear yourself think (it was sometimes respite from the nagging kids however)! Temperatures inside our school shed were in excess of 40 degrees regularly, not ideal conditions for learning. Anyway, the teachers have been amazing support for us, however trying to tutor these kids from such a very low baseline, whilst trying to manage teaching our own kids, coordinating the 9 different students classes at various times during the day and also keep Byron busy has certainly been a challenge. And take it from me (Al writing here), if you think the idea of home schooling your own kids sounds romantic – think again!!! It sux!!! The boundary line is very blurry between teacher and parent and it becomes very hard for the kids to differentiate between the two. We certainly didn’t do much strict home schooling in the early parts of the trip and now we were doing it with structure, but with a handful of other kids in the class. And I don’t mind admitting, that out of a classroom full of kids from an aboriginal community, our kids were by far the worst behaved!!! Battles have been frequent. Of course when they are online dealing with their teachers, they are just little angels. But when it comes time for us to do set work in the classroom, forget it. Too much other stuff going on around them. And I have to say, my prior aspirations of becoming a teacher one day have completely gone out the window. Keryn is far more patient than me, as women seem to naturally be, but even so, we have both had some major meltdowns with our own offspring. And so it was, that we were all looking forward to the school holidays.

The wet season holidays were just fantastic!! I have never seen so much water in all of my life. There’s just got to be a way to pump some of it down to the drier parts of the country!! The electrical storms were so intense. Weather-wise, it is a completely volatile area. We experienced huge nightly build up clouds with thunderous storms and heavy down pours. I have never heard thunder and seen lightning like it before. We experienced some huge tropical lows and also 3 cyclones. On the morning of Cyclone Marcus which was due to travel right over the top of us, we had a couple of the community kids run up and knock on the door of our donger, which I had been busily securing and tidying around. “Mister, Mister, you have to come quick”. They informed me that two of the teenage boys had headed off early that morning to hunt for goanna and had become bogged out the back of the air strip in thick bush. They had managed to get two cars bogged, one on either side of the track. So, I reluctantly headed off to rescue them, with the impending Cyclone Marcus bearing down. I managed to recover one of the vehicles and no sooner than I did, off he drove at 100 miles an hour despite me running after him waving my arms to come back. We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally. To put it lightly, I was a little bit cross. The explanation I got was that he was in trouble with Jeja (Grandma) and he’s gone back there quick smart. “Well it’s alright for him, what about us?” I thought to myself. Well the inevitable happened and I myself got bogged whilst trying to retrieve the other vehicle. It had started raining by this stage and the wind was picking up and I really didn’t fancy spending the cyclone sitting in my car amongst falling Bloodwood trees and Livistonia Palms. Anyway, I luckily had the keys to a spare vehicle parked at the airstrip and I sent the young fella to run the few kilometres to get it whist I kept digging. Fortunately we managed to get my car out and then in turn, the other vehicle so I was back at home with the family before things really started getting serious. Kez was out of her mind with worry. And it’s fair to say that I think Wesley and Wyatt weren’t in the good books with Jeja for a fair while.

The plateau is largely huge deposits of laterite and dolerite rock so it is normally possible to drive around the roads during the wet season as it’s so hard and not boggy. Just don’t venture off the main tracks and you’ll normally be ok. This also means the water runs away relatively quickly and into the creeks. The roads around the area turn into rivers so for months on end we were driving through floodways. We had a few close calls crossing creeks but overall we had a ball. The kids, our own and the community kids, just lived in the water. As we are 350m or so above sea level, and not far away from the magnificent Mitchell falls, there is no risk of Saltwater crocodiles, although we had a few encounters with freshies. It was just an incredible place to be. We received mail and food on the weekly mail plane, when it was able to land, once going for three weeks without contact from the outside world. Just prior to big rains, at one stage, the whole community, all of the rangers and Kez and the eldest two kids had gone into Broome (12 hours drive away) for the end of year school camp. Well, Byron and myself and Angie (Who was care taking the APT Safari camp) were the only 3 people on the whole of the Mitchell Plateau. It would have to be tens of thousands of square kilometres to ourselves. By car the closest person would have been at least 5 hours away, if you could get over the King Edward River. And then another few more hours to the next closest person. The isolation and remoteness of this place is one of the reasons why our family love it up here. It was such a shame when the roads opened up to here from the Kalumburu road and we started having to share it again!! 

During the holidays we had some great friends come and visit over Christmas as well as a few cyclones. Nutty and Nic and Cleo and Harty along with kids, made the voyage by air just before Christmas, and it was a fantastic time. They ended up having to stay 3 days extra as it ended up being too wet to fly out which was a bit exciting. We took the tinny out and got some fishing in down at the coast of Port Warrender, and made a trek into the falls. The kids had a ball!! Our Boxing Day Test backyard cricket plans went a little underwater however the well prepared pitch was put to good use by the kids as a mud slide. Other than that, we didn’t find the wet season heat too oppressive. I think the altitude certainly helps and also the fact that we had so much rain and a swimming hole right there to cool off in. All in all, we had 2.5 metres of rain from October to April. Gave everything a good clean out thats for sure. We also had Al’s Mum and Dad come and visit at the tail end of the wet and they had a jam packed week of boating, killing and cutting up wild cattle on the ground, hiking into the falls and helping us do a few jobs. It was great to see them and I’m pretty sure they would have had a good rest after they left us!! I was a bit over enthusiastic to get Dad to a favourite Barra spot on my boat and managed to break his tail bone whilst sitting up the front, but he put on a brave face for the week. Sorry Dad. 

So, anyway, here I sit writing this and it hasn’t rained for a couple of months now and everything is starting to dry out. In fact, despite us doing a lot of burning off in Autumn, there has been a few big fires around the place up here lately. But it all seems to be the norm up here. We finally managed to drive off the plateau last month into Broome town, for school camp. It was the kids second school camp and such an important event for all these students of school of the air to interact with each other. REAL COFFEE!! FRESH MILK!! BEER ON TAP!!! FRESH FRUIT AND VEGGIES!! It’s amazing what you miss when your out in the bush for that long, but to be honest, as the week drew to a close we were all glad to be heading back up the hill. Haircuts, Doctors, Dentists and shopping and the wallet was starting to bleed. During our time in town we renewed all of the kids passports as it was decided at some point during the wet season, that we would join our friends Lee and Anita in South Africa to celebrate their wedding. So we’re off next week and I have to say I am really bloody excited!!! It will be so good to have a family trip where we don’t have the stresses of school to deal with daily, we can actually go and have some fun with the kids in a new place. And we can enjoy some relative luxury. But most of all – we can swim and surf in the beach!!!!! Even if it is winter. Yep, not much swimming goes on in salt water up here. The kids have followed the local kids into the water down at the coast a few times but I didn’t for one second feel safe. I’ve seen some BIG lizards up here. 

We’ve had such an incredible time up here and we all feel really privileged to be living on the country of and with the Wunambal people. They have been such a welcoming mob to us. We’re really thankful of the relationships we’ve been able to forge whilst here. The kids are just awesome. Harvey and his mate Winston are virtually inseparable and go on daily fishing, hunting and exploring adventures, making cubbies in the bush to spy on kingfishers and falcons, spotting dancing brolgas, setting up traps for dingos, and just walking around this country (barefoot of course) and taking it and it’s stories in. Harvey has really grown during his time here and his passion for birds and wildlife is so infectious. We’ve been on quite a few camping and boating trips together down to the coast and I’ve really enjoyed watching his enthusiasm for nature and also fishing. Elsie is a bright little spark. She certainly gives us a run for our money. She is FIERCELY independent and as stubborn as a mule, and although she is the source of most of my stress, she has grown into a great little bush girl. There’s two girls Shianne and Shanita who are both similar to her in age and she for the most part gets along with them swimming, picking flowers and colouring in. She has got so much energy and she is a real little fish in the water. She is such a confident little thing too, who always takes her chances humbugging the staff at the camps to help her colour in books. She has got so much character too, when she reads her reading books to us at night time, Keryn and I are both captivated by the stories, such is her expression, grammar and comprehension. She really does know how to get what she wants which can be a blessing but I suspect may be a curse and cause me many more headaches one day. Little Byron isn’t so little anymore. With his 4th birthday due whilst we are in Africa, he is just in his element up here. His two best mates up here are 3 year old Kingsley and a 14 year old boy with cerebral palsy who can’t talk but is completely mobile and these three just run around or ride around on their bikes around the community all day!! We often see Byron sitting on a trolley, ordering Junior to pull him along down the rocky hills. He just keeps busy all day and has turned into such a strong little bugger, yet so caring too. He often surprises us with his understanding of what is happening around him and his ability to portray it. Byron can swim now although it really was a worry for us that he might get washed away down the creek when it was a raging torrent over the wet season. One of the best things which we have noticed about the kids is their lack of prejudice. Kids are just kids and that is such a beautiful thing to see. They just accept what’s around them with this blind innocence and get on with it which has been so refreshing for both of us. Last weekend we managed a trip up to Kalumburu to check it out but also fix one of the Wunambul Gamberra rangers cars (Yes I’m getting my hands pretty dirty these days). There is obviously a very high concentration of state housing within that community. It’s kind of the stereotypical community that you conjure up in your head, car wrecks everywhere, heaps of dogs cruising around etc. Yet our kids just walked along the street and sniffed out all the other kids there to play with, and took no notice of the dogs, or the stark difference in property appearance and life up there. It just didn’t matter to them. They just wanted to kick the footy with kids. And it helps that they kind of speak like this mob up here now too. One lady said her older daughter came running over to her and proclaimed, “Mum!! Have you heard these kids talk?? They talk just like Kalumburu mob here now!” And her reply was “Oh well it’s not our fault – it was that mob up on Mitchell that broke ‘em in!!”. We had some of the traditional owners take us right up to the old Pago mission where we spent the day fishing with them, an awesome experience and such beautiful coastline. Such hospitable people.

So anyway, we’re pretty sure we’ll finish the year and do another wet season up here. We’re over in South Africa for 6 weeks, which will give us a nice spell. And then we’ll finish the school year within the community and then move over as we did last year to caretake the Outback Safari camp. It’s just too good an opportunity to leave. We have a great job, so varied and rewarding in so many ways. It’s such amazing country and the experience for the kids and us too is just invaluable. We’ve had the chance to hunt for and sample local delicacies like dugong, turtle (Fresh and saltwater), goanna and emu. We’ve had snakes in the school, snakes in the house and snakes in the car! We’ve had the arrival of the dreaded cane-toad. We’ve learnt how to catch Barramundi and baitfish. We’ve been to corroboree’s and swam at cascades. We’ve seen rock art and rare birds. We’ve flown in choppers and cooked cherabin on the coals. We’ve felt the spirits of the lands on the wind. We are all learning so much. And also, we feel like we have started this educational journey with some of the kids in school and feel we owe it to them to take them a little bit further along on that journey. There is some classic people around the Kimberleys, all with several stories to tell. Really welcoming, salt-of-the-Earth, genuine characters and I must say that it’s just a complete pleasure to hang out with them. Of course we miss our friends and family back home, but gee whiz, the quality of some of the people up here is incredible. 

Aside from the people, it’s the environment and way of life that has really stuck it’s claws into us up here. It’s complete remote wilderness, one of raw beauty. It’s stark and scary, empty yet entertaining, powerful yet peaceful. It is BIG and it is OLD country. Prehistoric looking in many ways, where you expect a big T-Rex to come bursting out of the bushes at any moment. As it is, we’ve only seen frilled next lizards and crocodiles, but you sense that their distant ancestors certainly weren’t out of place here. It’s also so refreshing to be in an environment where image is not important and bureaucracy takes a back seat. Everything is so laid back and relaxed and just happens on Kimberly time, if at all. Once you step out of it, you realise what a fast paced and stressful life we live in the Western first world, often not stopping to smell the roses. So it’s kind of nice to be out of that bubble for a while. And that’s why we’d like to stick around. 

If you can brave the ridiculously rocky and rugged roads, we encourage you to come and visit. Bring 2 x spare tyres.

And that’s about it…