Bunched tightly around the last turn, the racehorses enter the straight and thunder towards the finishing post. Hooves thud into the dirt, red dust rises. The silks of the jockeys are flashes of neon and the crowd roars.
I’d never imagined that a journey on the Gibb River Road through Western Australia’s Kimberley region would finish up on a racetrack. But it’s Cup Day in Wyndham and the bleakly beautiful scenery – red ranges, white saltpans, blazing blue sky – is splashed with the bright colours of frocks and fascinators as the whole town and most of nearby Kununurra enjoy a day at the races.
It’s a far cry and more than a thousand kilometres from Broome, where we rested for a few days after the long drive from our home in Tasmania, before launching our 4WD onto the Gibb River Road.
The sand, sunsets and saltwater of Broome and nearby Cape Leveque were a welcome break from the driving. We took a flight over the Mitchell Plateau, the Horizontal Waterfall and the scattered islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago.
But the Gibb River Road beckoned.
The sealed road out of Derby soon turned to red gravel and a morning’s dusty drive brought us to Windjana Gorge. No swimming here – dozens of freshwater crocodiles glide in the pools and sun themselves on the banks. At dusk, we watch them lunge at the flocks of bats that leave the gorge in uncountable numbers, many of the flying mammals dipping to the water and dodging the reptiles’ snapping jaws.
A short way east is Silent Grove, the campsite near Bell Gorge. This is what we’ve come for – swimming in cool, fresh water, a shoulder massage under the waterfall, drying off on sun-warmed rocks, then another dip.
But Silent Grove is hardly quiet. The campground is full – no surprises there – and we share the conversations of those around us. One near-neighbour is proudly showing off her new car fridge to a friend, pointing inside to its many features. The demonstration is brought to an abrupt halt by a firm command from the man of the van, who can feel his beers warming. “Close the lid, Janet!” is the order. The fridge snaps shut.
By contrast, our next campsite is a private and secluded delight. The Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, two hours south of the Gibb River Road, is owned and run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.