Have just returned from one of the biggest adrenalin kicks I think I’ll ever experience.
I’m working on the production of my new Kimberley hard-cover book and this last few days just happened: in a flash and without even a moment’s anticipation. I’ll paint the picture:
It’s Monday night. Wednesday, I head for Perth and my new home. I’m working through my images for the new book and keep hitting the Bell Gorge one from my last book. I hate it. Can’t go to print again with that one in there. How do I resolve it? Talk to a photographer acquintance. “How about going halves in a chopper with me?” “No can do”, is the response. That rules out the 44 (A$700 an hour between two of us, but a faster machine – it holds two passengers and gear- and means the only chopper option is a one passenger 22. Got to go to Cockatoo (Island) for a shoot.
So, I ring Smithy (a Fitzroy mate). “Smithy, I need solutions”. “Ring Taffy, he’s got quad bikes out at Mt Hart. See if he’ll lend you one of those. (We snuck quad bikes in a few years back and had a blast: me and a mate).” “What’s the Gibb doing?”, I ask. “It’s closed”, Smithy responds. “What’s the fine if I get caught?” (I really need this image). “Depends who catches ya” Smithy responds again (he works for the Shire). “It’s a hundred bucks a vehicle if someone else gets ya”. We both agree that that’s not too bad a cost to wear for what’s at stake.
So, I ring Taffy. “No cigar. Helicopter dreaming. It’s the only way. All the roads are cut. Everything’s running a banker. The country is soaked and the waterfalls are all cranking. If you can do it, grab a chopper. You might not see it again like this for a long time.” “Hmmm”, I note (thinking that a muster chopper – an R22 and the smallest available - is going to cost at least A$1500 for under four hours of flying). I put the phone down and after umming and ahhing ring Anthea and book the chopper. Nervous as all hell because there’s no guarantee of getting the shots. If it doesn’t come off, it’s an expensive day. Nervous all Tuesday, and then, when I leave Broome, decide that regardless, I’m going to have a good day: if all else fails, it’ll be a good day.
I hit Derby at 2030 and then, after getting all my camera gear together, hit the kip by 2230. I’m parked at Tony Gavranich’s place; a good friend in Derby. Up at 0430 on Wednesday morning and meet Butch, my pilot, at 0515 at Derby Airport. I’ve got two cameras, a pelican case, a hairbrush, film, two bottles of wine for dinner at Mt Hart, some tobacco for Taffy, panadol tablets (again for Taffy) and my contact lens solution. The chopper simply won’t carry anything else. I’ve teed for Butch and I to stay at Mt Hart on Wednesday night. After Butch wheels out the chopper, we’re airborne at 0545. Butch suggests we do Lennard Gorge en route to Bell. “Yep, sounds good” is my response.
By 0700 we’re on the ground on the south side of the Lennard and at the top of the gorge. The falls are steaming. Think Niagara Falls steaming. Last time I was here was about six years earlier: on my own. I went for a tumble and fell 13 metres over the falls onto rocks below. Fortunately, nothing broke on impact!
By 0715, we’re scaling a small rock-face on our way to the top of the falls. First mishap occurs. Rocks slippery. I go for a tumble. Deja vu! I’m lucky and fall only two metres down what might very easily have been a 10 to 15 metre more serious fall down a rock-face. Butch is more fazed than I. “Geepers Hugh. Don’t do that to me is his comment (as I check my camera gear to confirm it is okay). You frightened the s#$% out of me.” Butch is a top bloke: a great pilot and a top bloke. He’s been in the Kimberley most of his life and one of the best pilots I’ve flown with.
We reach the top of the falls. It starts to rain. The falls are absolutely hammering. The river’s hammering. I swim an eddy to the right of the main flow which is quite safe and hug a rock-face to make sure I don’t get pulled down river as I return to get my umbrella. It has started to rain. Butch is sheltered under a rock-overhang, nursing my camera gear. I swim back and start shooting. It’s raining quite heavily. Butch decides to head back to the chopper and I note “I won’t be long”.
As per usual, I get carried away and the “not long” turns into about an hour. By the time I pack my gear up, and turn around to head back up the river has risen over a metre and a half in vertical depth and come outboard (ie claimed land) by about five to 10 metres. It’s thumping.
It’s about now, that I hit problem number two. Butch has left my remaining camera gear under the rock overhang – and which had been well back from the water. That “high and dry” area is no longer so “high and dry”. In fact, my 35mm kit and two lenses are floating. Hmmm. A A$6500 insurance job. Okay. Moving right along. But there are bigger fish to fry. My main camera is with me so that bit’s okay. However, the point at which we had entered the shooting zone is no more. It’s cannoning with water. Issue number three. “How the hell do I get out of here?”
There are two options. Both are dodgy. It’s raining and the rocks are slippery with lichen growth. Option one – which looks like the most doable – has the highest penalty. I slip and it’s adios amigos. Don’t worry about getting washed down river: it’s more like getting pulverised into the rocks below by the sheer power of the water. It’s incredible. Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Option two, looks more tricky, but has a lower penalty if things don’t come off: broken limbs at worst. I start to go with option one and am perched precariously above the falls and considering a difficult traverse across a slippery rock face.
Change of plans. A friend noted the other week that there is no such thing as an accident: rather it is the result of a series of poor decisions. The adrenalin is kicking through me. Time to reassess. I sit and allow the nerves to settle. Two options. One: wait for the river to drop. “No, not an option. There’s photos to be had and the falls are all steaming.” Two. Try the other cliff-line.
I edge up the cliff bit by bit. I’ve got about 15 or 16 kilos of camera gear, including a tripod. It’s hard keeping one hand free, let-alone two. I’m not placing two much reliance on my sandstone hand-holds. In wet-weather they fracture far more easily. Just as well. A big slither sheers off and canons down into the river below. Bit by bit, foot-step by foot-step, I manage to make it across the cliff-line. No broken bones. That’s positive.
By now, it’s time for issue number four. The previously swimmable eddy has now become a definite “no-go” zone. It’s boiling with whirlpools and undercurrents and has become down-right dangerous. More climbing. Bummer.
I place the pelican-case and dry-sack in a tree canopy which I plan to use as a leverage point to propel me up a small vertical piece of rock. The pelican case and tree canopy decide to part company and so it’s back to the drawing boards. I need to get it to rest on the ledge above without sliding off. Mission accomplished.
Eventually, I reach Butch. He’s amazed that the camera gear has succumbed. “I never even thought about it”. “Me neither, Butch”. The river has risen so quickly and so much that our shelter point has become awash with water. I relay the story and note that “if I go over the falls, I’ve got issues”. “Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it. I would say you’ve got major issues. In fact, I would say you’re totally ^&*%$#”. True.
Within minutes, we are airborne and powering over what is a deep chasm raging with water. It’s an awesome spectacle. We’re on to Bell Gorge. Bell too is powering. We’re there for a couple of hours - at least - hammering different angles and looking for something that no-one else will have got before. That’s the beauty of this time of year and this place. These areas have not been shot properly when they’re going at full-pelt. Everyone is there to photograph them when they are more readily accessible. Now, the only access mode is chopper and some sometimes tricky cliff-climbing (for more information, refer above!).
The country is magic. I’ve never seen it like this before: even in the six previous wets that I have been up here and even when I have taken choppers out in monsoon times. Seeing it like this is like buying a lottery ticket and you can’t say whether it will continue or what will happen: the weather up here can be fickle; even in the wet.
For much of the time, we’re flying metres above the tree-tops. The country is a luminescent green. The whole experience affords a surge of energy that happens rarely in a lifetime. Water is cascading off every hill. Every place that might become a waterfall is flowing with water. On leaving lower Bell Gorge Falls, we make for Mt Hart, but are again diverted by a beautiful waterfall and pandanus-lined waterhole. I’m looking for something that will convey the essence of the Kimberley as much as its beauty: something more than pretty pictures and raging water. To me, these waterholes are the essence of the west-Kimberley. We’re there for more than an hour, before again we are airborne. There are waterfalls coming off every hill.
By 1830, we’re eating dinner with Taffy and Annabelle. We’re being treated like royalty. A three course dinner and wine is followed by bed. So much for “I hope you don’t mind roughing it a little; we’re not really geared up for visitors at this time of year.” Taffy has two pure-bred dingoes which are quite beautiful. One is the tamest dingo I have seen. I’m pumped and don’t sleep much all night. The whole day has blown me away. I awake the next morning to the howls of dingo packs and birds. More magic. Breakfast is a repeat of the efforts of the evening before: cooked and big. Butch takes Annabelle for a joy-flight as thanks for their hospitality while I talk with Taffy: they’re both lovely people and we all know many of the same people.
We’re slow getting airborne this morning: it must have been around 0800. The legs today are sore: mainly muscle-tired from boulder hopping and climbing up and down rock-faces with gear. We fly over Twin Falls, down past the Dromedaries and along spectacular Isdell Gorge to the confluence of the tidal and the salt. The gorge is grand and flanked by two hundred metre perpendicular cliff-lines.
Butch spots a couple of wedgetailed eagles and approaches for closer inspection, before we land so that I can get some shots shooting up the gorge: probably not shots to write home about, but a spectacular, awesome seen nevertheless. I’d love to raft the Isdell next Wet. The sun is trying to break through the cloud and it is steamy. The river is running hard and the negotiation of the spinifex and sandstone hard-work as we work around to get the shots I sighted from the chopper. Again, we’re airborne. We drop from the edge of the cliff into the void of the gorge. We’re headed for Reva Falls. This is all amidst some of the most remote, yet spectacular, country on the Australian mainland.
Reva Falls are also stunning and we spend a couple of hours there. I take a swim in between shots – fully clothed (it’s too hot to take the shirt off) - before we make our way up the Sprigg and the largest perpendicular cliffs in the West Kimberley: another magic rafting location. I might need more than one trip per Wet! Our return to Mt Hart is halted by a stop at one of the largest Boabs in the Kimberley: possibly the largest. It has a chest-height girth of around seventeen metres: an old tree. A scrub bull nearby makes us aware of his presence. We spot him as we make our departure.
Lunch and further Mt Hart hospitality is followed by a second trip to Lennard Gorge. I am not confident with my shots from the day before. Rain and the difficulties of manoeuvring safely had compromised my ability to shoot freely yesterday.
The river has dropped to the pre-rain heights of yesterday morning. We’re there a couple more hours, before we have to make tracks. We will be pushing into a headwind and we have to reach the ground before dark and allow ourselves time to fly around any storms with which we might cross paths. The country is still awash with water: the Lennard, the Fletcher, the Barker, the Meda and the May are raging torrents of brown. The plains of Napier Downs are one giant soak and the country is a luminescent green.
Even if the photos don’t come out, I’ve had one of the experiences of a lifetime. The best A$2000 I think I’ve ever spent. Wow. And all without a change of clothes and just my camera, film, toothpaste and two bottles of wine.