Far and away

Trish Ainslie | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 3

On the north-west corner of Australia is a place so remote you won’t find it on any map.

“Crocodiles. They don’t worry me,” he says resolutely. “You know you’re on the menu, so you just keep away from the kitchen.”

With those words of wisdom from a seasoned ‘top-ender’ in mind, I watch as a ripple appears below in the opaque, milky water. First just a small blob; could be a gnarled stick. But then, as it approaches the shore, the glistening black body takes form.

“It’s a big one,” Bruce comments, “probably about four metres.”

The croc has now emerged completely and is meandering along the shoreline.

“Recently,” he continues, “a croc grabbed the dinghy from the yacht around in the next bay and took off with it about eleven o’clock at night. They heard the racket and had to up-anchor and chase it. Had a huge hole, but they got it back.”

Bruce rearranges the wide, floppy brim of his khaki hat to shade his face. His crusty skin shows signs of time spent in the sun. He worked for many years finding locations and setting up camps for mining companies in remote regions of northern Australia. He knows the ropes and comments wryly, “While I was working for them, I was looking for me.” His main objective was to find a place with its own fresh water supply and when he found this location he knew it was the one. Not only spectacularly beautiful, it has a fresh water spring. I am already eyeing-off the rock-lined pool clinging to the edge of the cliff, obviously fed by the spring to which Bruce is referring. After six years of negotiation, this remote and isolated 28 hectares of wilderness became his.

We’d flown in less than an hour ago from Broome and were standing on the slate deck overlooking a perfect bay through to the Timor Sea. It’s so perfect that it’s hard to believe two years ago during the wet season, the bay and the wilderness camp were ravaged by a ferocious cyclone. It was a nightmare, so fierce that the caretakers sought refuge in a container. They expected to die. The call came to Bruce and his wife, Robyn at 5.30am. “We’re alright, but everything’s gone!” Then the phone went dead.

“We couldn’t get in for three days, but by then we knew the extent of the damage,” Robyn tells me. “A cyclone chaser had taken photos and put them on a website. Someone saw them and sent us an e-mail; someone from Alabama. The cabins were blown to smithereens, lifted and carried away and the workshop area was total devastation. There was litter everywhere. The clean-up was enormous, but fortunately everything hadn’t gone. We rebuilt it in a month. People flew in to help – builders from Kununurra put other things on hold, the barge came immediately and a team of friends came up from Perth for 10 days. Everyone made an enormous effort. It was 40 degrees. The last workers flew out on the plane that the first guests flew in on.”

So it’s now business as usual at Faraway Bay, the name Bruce Ellison came up with for his astounding piece of Kimberley wilderness. His website boasts that “On the north-west corner of the vast Australian continent there is a place so remote you won’t find it on any map.” It’s true and that is the way he intends to keep it. The only people readily welcome here are his guests. There are no roads; just a dusty track to the gravel landing strip.

One of the greatest charms of the bush camp is that it accommodates a maximum of 12 guests at one time. The cabins – steel-framed now to challenge any cyclone – are secluded structures. Shrouded by trees, they line the cliff edge overlooking the bay and with the green iron roofing are hard to detect, even from the air. They are comfortable, simple, no frills structures that are clad on the outside with hessian and corrugated iron and are open at the front to the superb views. Inside are twin beds that convert to a king size and wooden flooring. A fan sits on a wooden beam alongside an assortment of local shells and a pot of insect repellent – an essential in this part of the world. The crocs won’t get you here, but the mozzies might.

All afternoon the wind blows strongly from the east, making it difficult to take a boat out of the protection of the bay. There is an obvious temptation at Faraway Bay to be indolent; to simply hang in the hammock suspended at the edge of the pool and soak up the surroundings. I am less than enthusiastic about the three-hour tour of the Kimberley bush, but somehow find myself piling onto the open tray back with the rest of them. The springs of the worn bench seats have long lost their bounce and already I’m feeling the effects as the Toyota crawls over boulders that define the steep path out of the camp. We’ve gone about ten minutes along an overgrown track when the vehicle shudders to a halt. “Look over there,” Steve, our guide, says, pointing into the distance. Apparently, somewhere out there was a peewee. Even Bob, sitting opposite me, who knows birds and has travelled to exotic destinations all over the world in search of them – he has the badges adorning the rim of his hat to prove it – is stumped. He puts down his bible, Birds of Australia and his binoculars go up. “How on earth did he see that?”

As we carry on, Steve continues to astound us and I become as intrigued as the others. He has the vision, acute and finely tuned, of a hawk. He is self-taught and to him this bush is alive and fascinating. He points out sacred kingfishers, square tailed kites, Kimberley flycatchers and wee bills. He also knows something of how to survive in this rugged terrain relying on the ingenuity of the traditional aboriginals. Along the track he finds constant examples of this; caustic grevillea used for initiation scars, black wattle seeds used for soap, calantryx for digging and fire sticks and flooded box and salmon gum for didgeridoos. By this time I am feeling decidedly ignorant. Crumbling up a wad of termite mound to show how they are constructed using grass, he relates the life of its queen. She is one smart termite, only breeding soldiers and workers for the 70-odd years of her life. When she knows her time is coming, she breeds other queens, who spread far and wide. On her death, her soldiers and workers also die, leaving her grass castle deserted.

“No crocs here,” we are assured, as we pull up alongside Gumboot Creek. I need no more encouragement. It’s hot. I wade in. The tall, sleek stems of the waterlilies are clearly visible through the clear, fresh water, their delicate flowers floating on the surface amongst the wide, green, flat leaves, crimson underneath. Bleached white trunks of the northwest paperbarks that border the creek reflect in the still water. The billabong, shaded and cool, is the complete antithesis of the bay.

Just before sunset, back at the camp, we spring at the suggestion to gather oysters for tonight’s barbie and are soon speeding in the centre console to the outskirts of the bay, where the rocky bottom creates a surface crocs don’t like but oysters do. Wading in the shallows, we prise loose large clumps from the ocean bed with screwdrivers – clusters of shells the size of a football. On shore we chip them apart and prise open the odd one just to test. I am baulking. It is going to take me two bites to complete this. But Bruce had obviously done this before, often. Head back, down it goes, whole, a swig of cold beer to help it on its way.

The self-satisfied hunters and gatherers collect around the open fire at the edge of the deck after sunset. Cocktail hour. There are no rules when it comes to the well-stocked fridge and the champagne is chilled to perfection. The heat from the flame under the hot plate slowly prises the oysters open and Bruce adds a squeeze of lemon. While we have been collecting these, Adam, a young aboriginal boy on work experience with a grin as wide as his feet are large, has been fighting off his homesickness by casting a net down in the shallows of the bay. He has an impressive catch of sea mullet. “Not a great eating fish,” I am warned quietly, but on trying it, ‘Faraway Bay-style’, lightly coated in crisp tempura batter, all doubts dissipate. Firm, delicate and delicious.

“No bad news,” Bruce says, putting an abrupt end to a political discussion that was starting up. “We’re here for a good time.” We move to the long wooden table that runs down the centre of Eagle Lodge, the main structure and social centre of the camp, and are far more interested in how Bruce had gone about its construction. Huge wooden beams hold the iron roofing and frame the spectacular view across the bay. The beams, all the timber and the slate for the floor and deck were brought in by barge from Wyndham – and that was the easy bit. They then had to be hoisted up the cliff to the construction site. Astoundingly, the camp was completed within three months.

Rita, our resident chef extraordinaire, has hung up her hat for the evening and it is over to Steve, who is emerging as a man of many talents. Wiry as a roo dog and thin enough to see through, he has energy to spare. “Sandalwood is the best wood to use,” he explains, scraping the ash off the lid of the camp oven that had been immersed in coals for hours. “It makes the best coals and also smells good as it burns.”

The Kimberley beef has been slow cooking for four hours. Seems like an awfully long time, but once again, ‘Faraway Bay-style’, it proves exceptional. The cork is coerced from the odd bottle of top Aussie wine and it is on. It’s late when I decide to leave them to it. Bruce, being the perfect host, always sees the last guest out and it looks like it will be a while. I head home under a million stars to the haunting howl of distant dingoes.

As if by magic, the next morning the wind has died, the white caps have disappeared from the outskirts of the bay and we are on the 13-metre cruiser, Diamond Lass motoring passed the coastal cliffs and deserted mangrove lining the bays of the Diamond Coast. Fortunately, the tide is high enough for us to bounce across the sand bar at the entrance to the King George River and begin the eight-kilometre trip upstream to the Twin Falls. “Don’t get over-excited and start snapping too early,” I am warned as I pull out the camera. “It gets better the further up river you go.” The crocodiles are proving as elusive as the turtles and dugongs as the boat hugs the river’s edge in the shade thrown by the steep ochre walls of the gorge. It is impossible to imagine how the gentle freshwater river, whose path we followed across the Cambridge Gulf as we flew in yesterday, has carved this canyon out of 1.8 billion-year-old sandstone. Huge boulders, striated with colour and deeply creviced, balance by some mighty freak of nature against the flawless sky.

My grip is firm on the railing as the bow of the boat nudges its way towards the falls. Looking up through the mist, I can see the white foaming cascade plummeting its 100-metre course over the edge of the sandstone cliff towards the tidal waters – and us. During the wet, from December through to March, these falls are in full force; an extraordinary sight, but fortunately the river has receded enough for them to be negotiable. Drenched and chilled to the bone, for me the day is complete. The die-hards fish – all kiss and release – at the mouth of the river on our way back to camp, but by this time the lid is off the iced-up esky and the rest of us are celebrating… well, just being here I guess.

Faraway Fact File

Where? Latitude: 13, 55’ 42” S. Longitude: 127, 11’ 36” E. The Kimberley, Western Australia.

Reservations: Tel: (08) 9169 1214; Fax: (08) 9168 2224.

Address: Faraway Bay, PO Box 901, Kununurra, WA, 6743.

E-mail: farawaybay@bigpond.com; website:www.farawaybay.com.au.