Australia’s Top End
Yet once we hit the dirt and the Gibb is uncoiling in a thin red ribbon across the valley ahead of us, the road surface - and even the river crossings - soon cease to alarm. Other vehicles pass just often enough for us to feel confident, but not annoyed. The mighty boabs, known as upside-down trees, stretch their silverysmooth branches like elephant's trunks up to the sky, while a feather-trousered eagle rises slowly from the side of the road, and we are filled with exhilaration at it all.
The Kimberley has the wonderful capacity to surprise: its vast and arid landscapes will suddenly throw up a series of sandstone bluffs like crusader castles, or split open into delicious gorges with tumbling cascades and thermal pools fringed with palms. After hours of driving through the dust and heat, to plunge into a cool, green waterhole (having first checked for crocodiles, of course) feels unutterably luxurious - not a sensation I'd previously associated with this part of the world. We stop too often. The light fades as we drive towards Mount Elizabeth, wild donkeys peeping out at us behind the smooth and silvery ghost gum trees.
Mount Elizabeth Station, 990 miles
'Forty-one years ago I came up from Perth to work here,' Pat Lacey, Mount Elizabeth's owner, tells me at breakfast. 'Married the boss's son and stayed, although I didn't plan it that way. In those days the road was really rough. It was a nine-hour trip into town; we'd go twice a year.' She smiles. 'Of course, when my father-in-law Frank started keeping cattle up here in 1945, there was no road at all. Everything had to be flown in - such as building materials and diesel. They were only given six barrels of diesel per station, and once that was gone it was back on the horse!'
Before the Gibb River Road was built in the 1960s, the greatest challenge that faced cattle owners in these parts (even more so than at Bullo) was that of getting their stock to market, either to Derby at the western end of the road, or all the way up to Darwin. In Australia, Baz Luhrmann devoted the entire epic to the delivery of one herd from the Kimberley to Darwin. Yet for Frank Lacey and his mates, such journeys - driving hundreds of cattle on horseback over this craggy, spiky, snake and croc-infested terrain - were simply part of everyday life.
'Well, Frank even drove cattle over to Queensland,' says Pat. 'They were real heroes in those days. Once they started to build the road in the 1960s, it made running the stations out here easier. We send the cattle to market by lorry and they arrive with flesh on them - not skin and bone. Don't get me wrong - it's still over four hours to a shop, and then I get home and find I've forgotten something! But on the other hand, when we get together with our friends for a birthday or a celebration, it won't be just for the afternoon - it'll be for the whole weekend.'
Mount Hart Wilderness Lodge, 1,134 miles
The Gibb River Road takes us through more of West Kimberley's stunning gorge country before we turn off towards Mount Hart and through a landscape of puddingshaped hills covered with blue-green spiniflex - soft-looking, yet vicious to touch. Small, wiry and sporting an impressive outback beard, Mount Hart Wilderness Lodge's owner Taffy Abbotts moved up here in 1990; his wife Kim came later, as a backpacker, and stayed. It's quite a theme of our journey - the people along the road who came for a visit and never left, bewitched by the land's particular spell.