I wrote a travel story recently about my first experience of group travel. It saw me looking back to a trip that I took ten years ago. Writing it was quite an interesting journey in itself – funny how when you look back patterns reveal themselves. That’s one of the reasons I love writing. The story did not get chosen for the project I sent it off to- so I thought I would post it here.
Darwin to Broome
On the first morning I woke up in Darwin with human faeces in the hallway of my hotel. I am someone who once returned the gift of a mystery flight because the idea of going somewhere new, by myself made me uncomfortable. And there I was, by myself in a very unpleasant hallway about to spend two weeks on a 4WD bus travelling though the remote Kimberly wilderness with a group of strangers. Why, I asked myself, did you give up the comfort of your couch and your knitting to come here?
Booking myself onto this holiday had been a convoluted sort of process. With my first almost full time job I had a little bit of disposable income, and paid holiday time, but there was nobody to go on holiday with. A much more well travelled cousin encouraged me to visit her in Thailand, use her home as a base and look into some group travel as a way to explore Asia. Reading trip itinerary’s got me excited, but Asia semi-alone seemed a little scary. Fear of the unknown held me back. But the seed of the idea of group travel had been planted. Perhaps I could see more of my own backyard? I switched from brochures about Asia to brochures about small group travel closer to home, and a trip caught my attention: travelling from Darwin to Broome, along the Gibb River Road, camping, swimming in fresh water gorges, visiting El Questro and the Bungle Bungles.
Now it turns out that travel agents have this great skill – you make an enquiry, they hold something – say a tour and some flights provisionally, and then they tell you you have so many days to pay or you will loose the booking- they give the reluctant, pondering traveller such as myself a deadline and a fear of missing out. Which is I suppose how I went from enquiring about availability and flights to being alone in a fetid hallway.
That day we travelled out of Darwin, and after a swim beneath sun drenched rocky escarpments at Edith Falls and a long drive, we camped on lush grass at Timber Creek under strange, majestic upside down looking boab trees. On the second morning there was only kangaroo poo outside my tent. Big improvement, but I missed being amongst my people.
In early photos from the trip everyone is standing up very straight with their hands tucked behind their backs or in their pockets. We are travelling together, but we were not together. Those first days I dwelt on the contrast of how much more comfortable I was on camping holidays with friends or family. I was hyper aware of the little groups that existed within our ‘small group’ – I was not part of any group. There were two brothers travelling with their wives who spoke minimal English and were easily thirty years older than me; other couples travelling together, two friends who had come together, and an assortment of other solo travellers like myself. I felt lonely amongst this group of strangers.
My tent mate was a British doctor, the start of everyday was a struggle for us- as we were both equally poor at functioning without coffee
and the itinerary most days demanded we pack up our tent before breakfast. After breakfast we would be on the road again. The Northern Territory and Western Australia have properly Australian distances. We drove, and drove the next day, and the day after that and the day after that. We often drove through the hottest part of the day, arriving at our camp-site in time for a bit of an explore and a swim. Sometimes staying in one place for a night or two before moving on.
I have done a couple of road trips up and down the eastern coast of Australia with my family. Between Melbourne and the Sunshine coast the landscape is dotted with towns and cities. Between Darwin and Broome there are remote indigenous communities, farms that get managed via helicopter they are so huge, wild rivers, a few small towns and rough roads. The most spectacular locations, within the wide open land of the outback that is the Kimberly, can only be accessed via roads such as the notorious Gibb River Road – and its smaller, rougher off shoots.
Even in the dry season, robust, high clearance 4WD vehicles are the only way to attempt the journey if you want to see any of the countryside not immediately adjacent to the Great Northern Highway. There are river crossings, big remote distances without street signs or easy landmarks and changeable conditions. The road can be closed completely during the wet season, and vehicles even contemplating travel in the wet must have a snorkel! The debris stranded high up in the trees marked the height of the water in the wet season. As we covered those big distances I realised how challenging it would be for me, and my townie friends and family to ever embark on this type of journey. Going with a driver who know the terrain, and with an organised group – so someone else took care of all the preparations – gear, food, water etc. was a perfect way to experience this wild corner of outback Australia.
Every destination was absolutely worth the chunk of driving that it took to get there. The contrast of hot, hot days relieved by swimming opportunities in spectacular locations like Bell Gorge was without a doubt a highlight for me. On one of our hiking/swimming adventures we made a non-vehicular deep river crossing. Some strong swimmers (myself included) pushed inner tubes across, floating our boots, camera’s etc. to keep them dry. As I gained the far bank, with the kit safely ashore I looked back to see that one of the men in our group was loosing confidence. The water was slow moving, but dark, chest high and the river bed was slippery bottomed. Within a moment one of the tanned and barrel chested German brothers had taken his hand and supported him for the rest of the crossing. The moment: these two men, previously strangers to each other, holding hands as they emerged from the river was not captured by my camera, but the memory is one of my strongest from the trip.
Bell Gorge, Western Australia 2007
There were great reminders that the driving itself was part of the destination. When we drove the 50km 4WD only track into the Bungle Bungles I sat up the front with our guide. In the truck I could feel every bump, taste the dust and see the blind corners coming – I truly felt like I was in the Kimberly.
The vast glory of the Bungle Bungles was a great reward for surviving that terrain without the air-conditioning and good suspension of the cabin. We hiked through dry river beds at the base of ancient canyons in temperatures above 40.C and picnicked in the shade of Cathedral Gorge. You can see the evolution of friendships in those Bungle Bungles pictures, we are all a little wilted, very exuberant and our arms are interlocking in the foreground of images capturing a fragment of that majestic Martian landscape of orange beehive domes thrusting up from the earth’s crust.
And somewhere along those hot dusty roads, and in between swimming, walking, sweating and wildlife spotting I found I was not travelling with a group of strangers anymore. Perhaps it was Pip and I laughing together everyday in exasperation at our own continued inability to pack up our tent; perhaps it was those helpers who came along and sorted out our tent mess; perhaps it was conversations unfolding along dusty walking trails, by camp-fires and over card games on long drives; perhaps it was sharing snacks and beers at sunset over-looking the Bungle Bungles, watching the colours change on those ancient masterpieces in the cool of early evening. Somehow the alchemy of heat, dust, shared exploration and discovery, bumpy roads, river crossings, the minimal comforts of camping, spectacular locations; combined with cold beer, starry evenings and being away from everyone you know came to equal friendship. I don’t recall exactly when the cross over happened – but I do remember looking around at our group scattered about the camp-site one evening and realising that thesewere my people. I was not on the outside looking in anymore.
Bell Gorge, Western Australia 2007
On the last day I woke up in a tent pitched with a view Roebuck Bay in Broome, Western Australia. I was part of a group formed from people from all over the world who had shared the adventure of travelling through the Kimberly. I was soon to discover the main draw back of small group travel – that hollow feeling you get when the trip is over and everyone disperses back to their real lives.
But you carry those memories with you. And if you are lucky – like me, you will keep some of those friendships going. I caught up with one of my trip mates for a beer a few weeks later in Melbourne – she had continued on from Broome to Perth along the coast – and as I heard her highlights I began planning for my next small group trip. It turned out to be a road trip across America, but that is another story.
Cable Beach – Broome, Western Australia 2007
Many years later I went to visit my old tent mate in her home in Devon. I spent an idyllic few days walking forest and beach trails with Pip and her dogFinn before heading to Scotland to go on another small group trip – hiking in the highlands. I had been travelling in Africa, the Middle East and Europe – doing some small group trips, a family visit with my cousin in Egypt, (I never got around to visiting her in Thailand) and some completely solo travel, again that is another story.
The part that connects to my Kimberly trip, is where that Australian girl, who was a slow starter to solo travel, but was converted by spending two weeks driving through the outback with a group of strangers, found herself on the other side of the world, trekking through bogs, up and down rain pelted mountains, making more friends from around the world and falling in love with her tour guide.
Four years later I am still here in Scotland, married to the man who led us up to the misty top of Ben Nevis. We have had plenty of adventures together, some of the travel variety, and some involving the birth of our two sons. Lately I have been reflecting that if I had never taken the plunge, gotten out of my comfort zone and gone on that first trip, perhaps I wouldn’t be living the life that I am now. And oh what a pity that would be.
Rover mum, Rafa and Finn, Cairngorms, Scotland late 2016