We left Fitzroy Crossing far too late, watching the sun disappear over the horizon ahead, the darkness of night creeping up behind us with alarming speed and inevitability. We were doing what everyone always warned us we should never do: riding at dusk. The kangaroos were out suddenly hopping across the road. One appeared out of nowhere in front of Pippa. Luckily Aidan managed to slow down in time.
We were torn between crawling along to be safe and riding as fast as we can to try and find a suitable camping spot by the last light. But the fields either side of the highway were fenced off and the few dirt tracks ended abruptly at locked gates. We sped along in slow motion, eyes strained for meandering wildlife and stray cows as darkness settled in.
The first turn-off we finally found was the unsealed road we had hoped to take to Tunnel Creek the next day. A converted minivan was tucked into a corner at the crossroads, the campers settling in for the night. But we decided to ride on. WikiCamps had promised a spectacular free place by some spectacular rocks and that was only 10 kilometres or so ahead. We might as well!
By now it was pitch black and we couldn’t see much by our flimsy bike lights. The road was our worst nightmare. Deep soft sand corrugations. We swam along, slipping this way and that, feet stretched out to kick the bike back up as it threatened to fall over. Too fast and the front wheel would swish uncontrollably from side to side. Too slow and the rear tire didn’t have enough grip, Lea’s little engine screaming with the effort. At least the kangaroos posed no danger at these speeds.
We slalomed from one side of the road to the other trying to avoid the deepest sand. Pippa threw up dust and I was eating and breathing grit my eyes reduced to slits. So I fell back. But the dust refused to settle.
To make matters worse the two 4x4s we’d overtaken earlier were now racing up behind me. The backpackers had obviously managed to fix whatever problem they’d had and cars can drive a lot faster in this stuff. Would they see Lea’s dim, dust-covered rear light in time to avoid me? I opened the throttle, dropped the clutch, the engine screaming, propelling me forward in a desperate slide as the first car flew by.
They had seen me last minute and swerved too. Phew! Before I knew it they were gone, leaving me to battle on through a thick cloud of sand and dust. The 10 kilometres seemed to go on for ever and I began to doubt the wisdom of riding the whole 80 kilometres to Tunnel Creek. How much did we really want to see it?
Then the road began to improve. The sand disappeared making way for had packed gravel that was magically not even corrugated. We sped up and almost missed the turn off to the camping spot in the dark. But the sat nav insisted it should be there so we turned the bikes sideways to shed some light onto the road side. Before long we had found it. A bit more riding around on sand tracks till we found the first big rock and pitched camp under it by the headlights. After dinner Aidan got all creative with the camera wishing the milky way was above the big rock, not behind us.
The next day we woke to a stunning scenery. I jumped into my boots and ran about the place with Aidan’s camera. This place was phenomenal! Turns out we could have camped up a few metres ahead and the milky way and rock composition would have been perfect! It was a real shame we didn’t have enough water and food supplies to stay a second night. But Aidan vowed to come back here for the perfect photo.
The road remained good all the way to Tunnel creek and it was real nice to be riding on dirt through stunning landscapes, seemingly in the middle of nowhere with hardly anyone else sharing the road with us.
At Tunnel Creek the illusion of solitude shattered. The car park was full of 4x4s and big white caravans. I guess that was to be expected. We changed into shorts and trainers as we’d heard you have to wade through water with sharp rocks in it and neither of us was keen to soak the boots. Then we followed the trail and climbed over some rocks into the cave.
Tunnel Creek is a river that goes underground at these hills. During the dry season the water is low and you can climb in, following it through the tunnel out to the other side. In parts the ceilings have caved in letting daylight illuminate the rubble and river. But for most parts you need a torch. And the best bit is that the authorities have left it all natural and exactly as is. No silly signs advising of the next step or other common-sense-numbing advice.
If you wade through the water little fish and sometimes small fresh water crocodiles swim around your legs. Freshies are usually pretty harmless unless you piss them off. Sadly we didn’t see any though. There were probably too many tourists sloshing about. We did spot a few of the resident ghost bats though.
The road leads around in a loop to Derby where we wanted to replenish our supplies. It is supposedly unsealed for another 44 kilometres and then our map promised tarmac. Just as well because from here on it was corrugation hell. Most tourists obviously came from this end, making a small detour off the notorious Gibb River Road. At first it was just dusty and hard corrugated gravel. I kept repeating in my helmet that it wouldn’t be far like a mantra to keep me going.
But at the junction with the Gibb we were greeted with deep red sand, heavily corrugated by weeks and weeks of dry-season tourism. I was willing the tarmac to turn up as caravan towing 4x4s flew past intensifying the red fog. When it finally did I pulled over to clean my visor inside and out and drink some water. I had been riding almost blind and my throat was dry with dust. Thus refreshed I almost cheered up despite being quite hangry by now. But the hunger could wait. We’d be flying along the last 100 kilometres to Derby where a cold beer surely awaited.
A I sped along I saw a big red cloud loom ahead of the tiny black spot that was Aidan in he distance. Knowing better I prayed it was just the dust tossed up by a road train joining from a side road. Of course it wasn’t. A sign advised “roadworks next 10km”. Roadworks my arse. There wasn’t any work going on. Just deep red sand and corrugations. And it went on for much longer than 10 kilometres. The road was busy and I was breathing red dust squinting, wiping the visor every few seconds. This was hell. My mood worsened and when the tarmac reappeared I just gave it a cynical snigger. It wouldn’t last.
It didn’t. We were soon greeted by another so-called 10 kilometres of road works. At least this time there was one giant yellow machine crawling about actually doing something even if it wasn’t quite evident what.
By the time we rolled into Derby we were the embodiment of fed up. Thoughts of returning to the amazing rocks had been abandoned somewhere in the red cloud. Instead we took the last tent spot at a caravan site and began the laborious task of getting Skunk and ourselves dusted off and cleaned up. The red stuff had gotten in everywhere!
Finally squeaky clean and refreshed with a giant ice cream and a bottle of wine we felt human again and settled in chatting to a British couple over dinner a couple of hours later. The conversation turned to politics and the mutual relief that Nigel Farage was stepping down. All watched over by the resident white peacock who lived on the roof.