UNDEFEATED ON THE OOMBULGURRI

WORDS BY GRAHAM CAHILL, PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT CAMERIERE

After five years of waiting and wanting to have another crack at the Oombulgurri Track, it was finally happening. We’d spent the last few days battling tough tracks from Kununurra to reach Oombulgurri and we were ready to finally finish what we had started five years ago, on what I now consider the best stretch of 4WD track in the country.

I wouldn’t say I was in a hurry to leave Oombi, rather I just didn’t feel like I wanted to hang around. The abandoned buildings, toys left in the street, personal documents flapping in the wind and the shadows of feral dogs and horses seen out of the corner of your eye was slightly unnerving. Even Ron agreed, it was time to move on.

Crossing those massive expanses of salt flats heading towards the first of many break away ridges reminded me of the flats we risked all those years ago; this time however the danger was minimal and to be honest, the driving just solid good fun. It was hard to believe but in two weeks a king tide would inundate those flats erasing all suggestion that we had been there; amazing country.

Pays to be careful though; as the crew were driving alongside us, getting those travelling shots that always look so awesome, they didn’t see a drainage dip up front. I don’t remember who was driving but luckily they managed to wash off a bit of speed before hitting it hard. Camera gear, clothes, packets of chips and dignity was upended and redistributed about the crew 4WD but importantly, nobody was hurt. They did get the shot though…

Those flats were far and away the fastest bit of travel we would do for the next few days. Soon as we entered that first jump up, it was back to low range and crawler gears. There are no real utter gnarly sections on the track, I mean there are challenges, don’t get me wrong but nothing that you’d call A or even B grade. Instead it’s more a case of nursing the rigs over broken, rutted and rocky ground. Never once picking up more momentum than second gear allows. Do this day after day and it takes a toll; it’s harder than you might think.

We arrived at a makeshift camp late that first arvo, up atop a rise that captured the breeze and gave a glimpse out over the distant salt flats. We burnt a type of native pine-like hardwood that night that had one of the most distinctive smells I’ve ever experienced; like a mix of sandalwood and perhaps citronella. It burnt better than anything I’ve before seen, lasting all night and still smoldering ready for the billy in the morning.

With another big day ahead, the trucks were packed early and engines warming before the sun had fully met us on our ridge. Due to that ever present demon of time, we were keen to do a big push through to the Berkeley River crossing. This would put us in a good position and make up for the slow nature of filming. I guess that’s something that we don’t show, the constant battle with timetables and schedules; it’s a fine balance but one I think the whole crew pull off well.

[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”I now rate the 00MBI track as the single best I’ve done in the country”[/blockquote]

The ever changing nature of that northern Kimberley terrain fascinates me. My guess is that it’s due to the constant valleys and ridges that create small micro climates of differing vegetation. Couple this with sporadic and numerous small river systems and it’s little wonder that within an hour you can travel through distinctly different ecosystems yet only have driven a short distance.

Of course, this also translates to slow travel and by lunch, it was clearly evident that the Berkeley was just not going to happen in one day. Instead we opted to bunk down at a location that I know I will never forget. That massive mountain range as a back drop, boab trees surrounding camp like sentries and a setting Kimberley sun lighting the whole scene was almost too bloody perfect to be true. Ron invited me to climb up that small hill behind camp and play a bit of Didj, an offer I didn’t take lightly given the respect Ron and Col have for the traditions of the land and knowing full well that the Didgeridoo is a foreign presence in the Kimberley. It was a rare honor and a true privilege.

All of us opted for the obligatory wet-wipes shower to begin that next day, something that’s become a bit of a ritual on longer trips with wet-wipes being traded like hard currency. The longer the expedition, the rarer the commodity. Fresh as we were going to get, the push was on to make the Berkeley that night; no mean feat but one we were committed to doing regardless of the hour of arrival.

[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”It’s the very best of everything a 4WD track should be: ultra-remote challenging and blody spectacular” [/blockquote]

No sooner had we gotten underway than Ron came over the radio urging us off the track to check something out. A massive and I mean bloody massive boab tree had been hit by lightning during the last wet and was literally blown apart. There were limbs and wood scattered all around and the charred remains told a savage tale. Imagine the power involved in exploding then burning a solid hunk of wet wood of that caliber. Nature you are one potent son of a gun and I’m damn glad we weren’t camped under the sucker when it happened.

The remainder of that day was one of pushing hard. Long stretches of slow, grinding torturous terrain in first low, second at best. Watching the kilometres mount up was like waiting for a kettle to boil; best done by occupying yourself with something else. It seemed like we were making no head way at times yet by mid-afternoon it was clear we were definitely progressing.

Everyone likes to get into camp at a good hour; the reality of filming is that’s not always an option. Feeling good we all opted to push on into the early evening, which rapidly turned into night and became one of those runs that I’ll add to the list of memorable from all over the country. The convoy was strung out to stay clear of each other’s dust, when I stopped to look back, the sight of light bars and spotlights strobing across the Kimberley sky for a kilometre to the rear was epic in the extreme. I remember having country on the stereo, windows down and just enjoying the heck out of that night drive; I’d go back in a heartbeat.

I don’t know what time we finally hit the rocky crossing that is the upper reaches of the Berkeley but it was late; the kind of late that makes you set up camp as quick as possible, get a small fire going and hit the relax button immediately. Felt pretty good to be on the banks of the mighty Berkeley under a billion stars with the knowledge that almost all who do the same do so by charter boat or helicopter… we had come in by our own means.

I love waking after getting into camp at night; you get to see just what camp looks like for the first time. The Berkeley didn’t disappoint. The river proper was still a solid hours walk down stream (something Shauno and I did at first light with fishing rods in hand) however the crossing was full of small pools of croc free water that just begged for a swim. This was my kind of paradise.

Then I noticed the puddle of diesel under Shorty. Halfway along one of the most remote and demanding tracks in the country, with limited fuel supplies and only one shot at a resupply at the end of the track, this wasn’t the most ideal place for a cracked fuel tank.

Removing the protective (or not so protective) shroud revealed a tiny hair line fracture right on the fold of a dent. A dent I thought I remembered doing the previous night when I dropped into a small creek after dark; bugger. Soap rubbed over the crack stemmed the drip but the first river we crossed would dissolve that idea. This needed a far more solid fix. Metal putty was the call and is pretty much designed for this purpose.

In order for this to work, we needed to drain and thoroughly clean the crack, otherwise the putty simply dissolves when it touches the diesel. Two jerry cans full later and Shorty jacked on a jaunty angle to drain fuel into the side away from the crack we were good to go. I scuffed up the crack with a wire brush (carefully so as not to create a spark, which could have solved my leaking diesel issue in one big bang) to give the slick surface some purchase. Then it was a simple matter of forcing a 50 cent sized block of putty into and around the crack creating a solid metal plug; cross my fingers and wait for it to dry.

We added one jerry and waited. Not a drip. You bloody beauty; back in the game. Course by midway through that day I was to discover just how much flex a fuel tank has and that despite that putty weld holding, it could do nothing for the myriad of other tiny fractures that were now appearing. Diesel is a lot like blood, even a small leak can look like a river. I wasn’t losing much but it was enough to be a constant concern. We had two packets of metal putty and I figured I’d use all of it before Kalumburu. I was spot on.

My tank was cactus. Way worse than I’d thought back at the Berkeley. When Shorty was stopped, the leak wasn’t too bad. By keeping the fuel cap on tight it built up suction and would almost hold over night. Soon as I got going there was a constant drip from two main cracks. The putty would only hold for so long before it became saturated and either fell off or leaked. The good news was we looked like having way more fuel than we needed. That made me a lot happier.

Every creek crossing or rocky outcrop had me clenching my teeth and crossing everything I had. It felt like one solid hit would open that tank like a ripe melon. I’ve had to baby Shorty once or twice in the past but this time it felt serious. The idea of being towed across this country was insanity. I had to make it under my own steam.

There was one highlight of the track I’d been looking forward to since Col had hinted at the prospect of getting in for a look; that being the famous Guion paintings (you might know them as the Bradshaws but I do not call them this out of respect). These images have been controversial since their discovery as there is some debate as to the origin given their age. I’ve followed the debate for some time so I was very keen to not only see these mystical figures in person but hear what Col had to say. I wasn’t disappointed; in fact that afternoon was perhaps the highlight of the trip for me. I will go back and spend more time among those amazing rock paintings, hopefully with Ron and Col by my side.

Our last night on the track just happened to coincide with that big named Kimberley river, the mighty Drysdale. It was also the first time we bumped into other humans in well over a week. They had come out to spend a night camped on the river from Kalumburu. Despite having to place a bucket under Shorty at night to catch the dripping diesel, I knew at that point I was going to drive into town without a tow rope.

We pitched up on a small sandy rise above a fresh clear water fall. This area was safe from crocs so nobody wasted a minute jumping in. I was filthy from two days of rolling in diesel covered sand, that river was like a tonic. Tomorrow we would all make it into Kalumburu and on out towards the coast; I’d done it.

The town of Kalumburu is a friendly little place with basic amenities and most importantly, fuel! I filled up everything I had and made my way out towards McGowan Island. Seeing the ocean brought it all home for me. Five years in the making but finally I’d driven the entire length of the Oombulgurri Track. I honestly couldn’t have been happier.

I now rate the Oombi track as the single best I’ve done in the country with second place a very long way down the list. It stands head and shoulders above anything I’ve done previous and will no doubt remain that way for some time. It is the very best of everything a 4WD track should be to me; ultra-remote, long, challenging and above all bloody spectacular.

I urge each and every one of you to get in touch with Ron and challenge yourself to the Oombi Track. Trust me when I say, nothing else will compare afterwards; it’s the pinnacle 4WD track in Australia. Don’t take my word for it though…

Oh, my fuel tank. Of course they didn’t have one in Kalumburu so with more metal putty than original tank under the old girl, I nursed Shorty those few hundred corrugated, bumpy and rocky kilometres back to Kununurra. I must have stopped a dozen or more times along the way for repairs and was utterly knackered when I got in. But we did it and that’s all that matters!

Catch ya later. 

FACT FILE

WHERE: The Oombi Track runs from Home Valley Station to Kalumburu in the northern most section of the Kimberley region of WA. CAMPING: There are so many perfect bush camps along the track that the hardest part will be choosing which to stay in for the night. From river to gorge to valley to ridge, there is honestly the best camping in Australia along that stretch of track. Firewood is plentiful but be sure to clear dry grass from around your fire place before you light it, especially late in the dry. You would be amazed how quick it can get away on you. WHAT TO TAKE: This is one of the most remote and demanding trips you can do in a 4WD vehicle. I do not recommend this undertaking to those who have not yet had some form of long distance remote area travel experience. This isn’t the place to learn what should and shouldn’t be left at home. It goes without saying that spares, recovery gear, solid first aid supplies and long range comms are a must. BEST TIME TO TRAVEL: This track is only navigable during the northern dry season, from roughly April to November. Early on the rivers will have more water but there is the very real risk of being turned back by late season rain or worse, becoming stranded. Middle of the season is perhaps the most reliable while late in the season is hot and dry with very little water in any of the river systems. FUEL AND SUPPLIES: You will need a fuel range of well over 600km of mainly low range driving. There is zero fuel resupply along the route. Your last chance for fuel is Wyndham then you must be self-sufficient till Kalumburu. TRIP STANDARD: Trips are rated A though E, with A meaning only suitable to vehicles with an extreme level of off-road modifications and meaning perfectly suited to all types of 4WD vehicles. Due to the remote and unforgiving nature of this trip, it is an A early in the season followed by a B for the remainder. RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS: Due to the trip covering Aborginal and private lease land, you’ll need to tag along on a guided tour of the track. We went along with Col and Ron at Wundargoodie Aboriginal Safaris at a cost of $250 per vehicle.