15/10/09 – 18/10/09
While I was staying in Kununurra, I met a guy who was staying in the hostel for a few nights who didn’t look quite like the regular backpacker. He turned out to be a local-ish guy on business, opting to stay in the hostel for cost saving and a bit of banter. Since he wasn’t the standard cost-cutting backpacker, the latter was facilitated quite easily by bringing a slab of beer outside with him and watching as the moths swarmed around the proverbial lamp. Being one of those moths, I learned that Grant is actually a pretty decent guy who lives in a small Aboriginal community a couple of hours away and was in town to put some hours towards his swimming pool maintenance qualification, which would benefit a number of small communities in the Kimberley region by creating someone who could provide cover to any community when their local pool maintenance guy needs to take leave.
Soon after hearing that one of Grant’s numerous jobs was as an abseiling instructor, he was offering to take me to his community for the weekend and to chuck me into one of the many gorges there are there, so on Thursday we both headed to the Mandangala community – a 2 hour drive of which half was on the roughest road I’ve yet been on. Mandangala is a small (around 40 people) Aboriginal community in Glen Hill station with not much apart from a few houses, fields, hills, gorges, and Jungdranung Remote Community School, which employs both Grant and his wife.
Friday mornings at the school start with an hour of fitness, so, instead of my usual routine of sleeping in until it was too hot to dare move out of the air-conditioned bliss of my room, I was up at 7 to play continuous cricket and, oh yes, dodge-ball. At break times we squeezed in as much tennis and frisbees as we could too. Pretending to be a teacher and assessing one of the pupil’s reading ability was fun, although the abundance of comments in his logbook along the lines of ‘strong reader’ and ‘could speak up a little’ didn’t inspire much more compelling constructive criticism from me. School finishes not long after mid-day – at least on a Friday – and there’s only one thing that pretty much everyone does: head for a dip, or a jump, in the warm-ish water of the nearby gorges.
Friday evening gave me my first decent Australian lightening show. It took a while to get used to just how often the flashes lit up the sky, and that because most were way up in the clouds, there was usually very little noise. Needless to say, I was straight out with the camera, although I was quite lazy and just left it locked doing rolling 15 second shots, letting me eat while it caught almost all the good forks.
After playing the IT repair guy in the school on Saturday morning, we got down to way more exciting business of chucking me off one of the gorges. I think my efforts at the points where we had to do a bit of rock climbing to get to where we wanted to abseil in to the not very creatively named Second Gorge probably gave Grant an idea of how arduous a lesson this was going to be. As I peered down from the top of the gorge he explained how, normally, a beginner would probably start on a drop of about 15m and then reassured me that my judgement of height wasn’t that far off, as the descent to the bottom of our gorge was nearer 60m.
With that sorted out, we got down to anchoring a line round not one, but two trees, and a rock, just to be extra safe. Although he explained all the reasoning behind the choice of anchor points and knots, I’m sure a bit of it was a publicity exercise aimed at calming my nerves a wee bit! After running through the figure-of-eight, how to control the descent and -crucially – how to stop, Grant was on his way to a ledge about half-way down the side of the gorge. That left me, alone, at the top of the ledge pondering a number of things, like whether I’d paid enough attention to how to hook up to the figure-of-eight and control my descent, to worrying about the anchors not holding up (a bit crazy, since I was easily lighter than Grant) and so, with extreme trepidation, I was straddling the rope, easing myself towards the ledge. I can safely say that at that moment, as I stood on the ledge leaning further and further backwards over that drop, I had never been more at odds with my instincts, which were pretty much screaming ‘we’re a’ doomed’. After getting over the point of no return, the descent-proper wasn’t so bad, and I definitely was a lot more confident with pushing further away from the rock face and dropping for longer stretches at a time by the time I’d reached the half-way ledge on which Grant had been patiently waiting.
Apart from the ledge being less than a meter wide, smooth and sloping just enough away from the face to make me a bit worried that my over-worn trainers would slip at any moment, it was a brilliant spot. Being half-way down a gorge, it was still and quiet and the views in every direction were amazing, and having so much rock-face to look at in every direction did make me appreciate what I’d just done. From the ledge, we had two options, keep going down straight into the water and swim out, or drag ourselves back up the rope. If I was comfortable with dropping off the end of a 60m rope into deep water, swimming out would have probably been great, but I wasn’t, so the best part of 30 minutes later, we were finally back up top. While I caught my breath after the ordeal that was hauling my dead weight up 30m, Grant showed off how to get down really quickly: by running forwards. He was down so quick that the only shot I got was the one above. Apart from abseiling, I was introduced to a few other new experiences that day: the film Australia, and icing-sugar-popcorn; my sweet tooth knows exactly which one of those I’ll bother to try again.
Grant was quite keen on getting a bit better at photography, and my star-trail shots got him interesting in trying some night sky shooting. It was a bit of disappointing night though, as we found his Olympus SLR has a shocking bulb exposure limit of 8 minutes, and my battery died – once again, due to my own lack of attention – during the noise reduction frame. For such remote area, the night sky isn’t as good as could be as the light pollution from the nearby Argyle Diamond mine is pretty noticeable.
After a fairly sleepless night, Sunday saw me feeling pretty rotten and wondering if I’d been food-poisoned, but since we all ate the same food and I was the only one complaining, we figured it must have been the water supply, which reportedly has made some other incomers sick for a day or two until they get used to it, and has even had the same effect on locals who’ve returned to the community after being away for while. The water isn’t unsafe, it just doesn’t agree with everyone and by Monday I was feeling fine again.