“You sure you’re OK if I leave you here?” asks my friend Steve, who also happens to be a professional wilderness guide. His shaved head is wrapped in a cotton turban as the morning sun beats down around us, out here in a distant corner of the Australian outback.
I’m lying on a large, flat red rock, my head pillowed by my bursting full-hike backpack and my right foot resting on a pile of smaller rocks that Steve has dragged over and draped with a sarong. Yesterday, just six hours into day one of our five-day hike, I broke my ankle, or at least sprained it badly, and now it’s a throbbing, purple ball; so tender that I wept last night when he wrapped it in layers of hospital-beige bandage.
“Yep. Yep, yep,” I say, only partly lying. “Just… come back soon. Don’t fall over.”
A worry line is setting in on Steve’s forehead… but he’s bouncing from foot to foot, itching to leave. We’ve been planning this trek for weeks and, if he masters it, he’ll be able to start leading gangs of high-paying adventure seekers through this gorge.
“Really, I’m happy. You gotta go,” I reassure.
It’s a stunning place to be trapped. The Kimberley is the most ravishing part of the outback, where the tropics meet the desert. The sky is a rich blue, contrasting with the steep red walls that surround us — it’s like a Matisse painting out here. We’re in a kind of sheltered grotto, with lush green fronds growing from grooves in the rock and the sound of water trickling through a rivulet just below my resting place.
The beauty of the spot may have rendered me somewhat delusional about how isolated I’ll be. This is about as far away from civilization as a girl can get. And I can’t walk. The closest hospital likely has one doctor on staff tending to all the injured and unfortunate souls of the smattering of country towns within a 5,000-mile radius. The central town, Kununurra, is a helicopter ride away across 200 miles of blood-red desert; Darwin lies 500 miles in the opposite direction; and Perth, in the country’s southwest, is more than a day distant.
All this is moot anyway, since the satellite phone with which I could summon that kind of transport is about to leave, shoved in the outside pocket of Steve’s day pack.
Will this be my English Patient moment? Am I to be called upon to do my best Kristin Scott Thomas, perishing in the desert? Will the earth rumble and put me into a James Franco situation, facing possible self-amputation with 127 Hours to flag down a helicopter? More to the point, why am I feeling so strangely, intensely… calm?
This is one of the world’s most beautiful, bizarre, and remote natural destinations: we’re closer to Indonesia than to any other visited part of Australia
The plan was for Steve and I to “do” Picanninny Gorge, a 9-mile riverbed that is perhaps the most isolated of all the isolated gorges and canyons amid Australia’s crazy beautiful Bungle Bungles. The Bungles are ancient sandstone domes — gorgeous, beehive-like structures that swell voluptuously out of the desert, way up in the northwest corner of the continent. They’ve been formed over millions of years of wind and rain storms up here in the Kimberley, a World Heritage Park that spreads across thousands of miles of Aboriginal land.
This is one of the world’s most beautiful, bizarre, and remote natural destinations: We’re closer to Indonesia than to any other visited part of Australia.
Yesterday morning at sunrise, the two of us sat side by side on a 13-seater Cessna plane. As the young pilot filled us in on the area’s culture and history, we got an overhead view of the Argyle, the world’s largest diamond mine. We pushed our noses to the window and gasped at the giant Ord River, winding blue and brilliant-green through the desert. I took photo after photo of tiny blotches scattered across the sweep of flat land the color of fried lemons.
If we were down there, we’d be squinting up at dried-out baobab trees grasping skyward, and those blotches of spinifex grass would slash our legs open like razor blades. It was like flying over a life-size Aboriginal dot painting, with hundreds of Bungles rising from the surface, bulbous and abstract. They suggested an ancient abandoned empire, once occupied by some now-extinct race of exotic desert creatures.
On the ground, a bearded man named Rusty (who possessed the brownest, most toned legs I’ve ever seen) drove us in an empty bus to the start of the walk. Steve and I squinted into the sun as miles of demented, rolling rock unfolded before us: deep grooves and ledges of the riverbed that dries up every year from May to September after being gouged by months of rainy season. This is desert land with a tropical heart.
We hiked for five miles, with the soft, striped walls of the gorge soaring 600 feet above us. Every now and then, tiny black lizards would skittle across our path. A few skinny green snakes slithered in and out of view, disappearing under rocks too low to shade us. This was Star Wars territory, every shape and sandy tone suggesting an alien presence.
Turning off the riverbed into the cool, rock cocoon around the waterhole was a Broadway musical moment. We whooped and hugged and splashed our faces. We were sweaty and delirious from the sun, our legs wobbly from hours of carefully selecting ledges and grooves to step into and over. I stretched, massaged my calves, and lay down for a deep, instant nap.
We could have lingered longer. But with several hours of daylight remaining, we knew we should push on and complete the entire, first nine-mile section by sundown. That would give us an extra day to scamper about and explore the caves at the end of the gorge. We strapped on our packs and headed back out into the sun. Steve strode ahead on long legs. I was grinning from ear to ear.
I picked my way from loose rock to loose rock. My legs were shaky but I couldn’t feel it. I stepped over a mini chasm, first right, then left. Then back to the right, just a little too far and… Crack!
Weighed down by my pack, I couldn’t stop the turn of my ankle. I landed on all fours and felt an immediate wave of nausea. Time stopped; I gulped down lung-fulls of hot air; I couldn’t move. The bag was keeping me down. I could do nothing but yell for Steve to turn around. I dry-retched, then tears burst through. It was serious, searing pain. And a kind of heartbreak.
Steve carried me to a sandy patch, unscrewed the lid on the whisky flask, and tried to move the ankle. I yelped. He wanted to radio for a helicopter. But I wouldn’t have it. Just give me a night, I insisted. I needed rest, and more whisky. I’d make it. I had to. There was no way I was giving up now. All the anticipation, all the preparation, all the buildup — the flights from New York, to Sydney, to Darwin, to Kununurra. The packing and weighing: seven pairs of undies, extra socks, the epic grocery shop for cans of beans and pasta and sauce in a packet.
And here I was. Down.
The next day, I insist one more time that “I’m really fine!” Steve finally kisses me on the forehead, then bounds away like a wallaby. If one of us doesn’t make it to the end of the gorge, the whole thing is a bust. I see him disappear into the glare of the sun. And then, I am alone in the wilderness.
I breathe and blink. And lie back. If I wanted out now, there’d be no way.
An hour later, I’m still lying on the cool red rock, gazing dreamily up at the pure blue sky. I’m not hungry, I don’t need to pee. Something is happening. Peace? Steve’s out there rock-hopping, his adrenaline pumping. And I’m approaching some sort of zen state.
Wisps of white cloud drift across the blue. I follow them. Their soft shapes lure my eye to the human-like figurines standing tall along the rim of the rock walls. Termites have been building these mounds for years, and now I have all day to ponder them. They look like ancient Chinese warriors standing guard against the sky. Some are slender and tall like totem poles, others are lumpy yet regal, the shape of curvaceous women wearing figure-hugging robes.
Last night, as the heat of the whisky rivaled the fiery throb of my ankle, Steve had introduced me to the face game: looking for human features in the rock walls.
Today, I’m seeing eyes, smiles, and noses everywhere, and find myself quite willing to believe these are spirits of the Kimberley — the ancestors whom the Aboriginals believe live on in the land. I’m also starting to think that my accident might be a blessing. What else would I possibly rather be doing, right about now?
A crow flies in overhead, his laconic caws floating into my consciousness. He lands on a rock wall and is still, the whooshes of his wings echoing off the cave walls. For a moment, my eyes widen: if he wanted me, he could have me. In fact, if a dingo or a grumpy lizard were to saunter up, I’d be at their mercy, too.
Maybe I’m delirious. But as crow glides over and around me, dipping from rock to rock, he seems to be letting me know that he’s here with me. He’s not just dropping by; this is his spot. I smile up at him, goofily. I feel protected. And maybe in love.
I must have dozed off. I open my eyes and look for crow, and see Steve hoisting himself on to the rock beside me. The sky is glistening, and I can feel beads of sweat glistening on me, too. I realize that I’m feeling no pain.
The next three days, though more of a physical feat than I’d ever imagined myself capable of, are strangely… leisurely. We practically stroll back down the river bed, Steve carrying my pack on his belly, his own on his back. All the weight I can handle is a few jars of food in a light day bag. I use both of our walking sticks, as though I’m skiing, to step gingerly from one treacherous ridge to the next.
We stop for spoonfuls of peanut butter and light naps on slivers of shaded rock. We spend one night on a cool bed of sand over another waterhole, where Steve tells the story of a guy who woke up out here in the embrace of a Taipan snake. He’d resisted telling me this the night I bust my ankle; now he figured I was tough enough to take it, and could maybe also use a lesson on what to do in such a circumstance. (Short answer: Don’t panic.)
Around noon on our final day, we reach Cathedral Gorge, a sweeping stone cave with natural acoustics — the desert version of the Sydney Opera House. “We can sing all night,” Steve says. We spread out our sleeping bags and light a day fire for tea.
He does actually start to sing. I’m shy at first, but as his voice echoes from wall to wall — the way crow’s cawing had awakened me to a kind of bliss back there — I can’t help but join in.
And finally, all my feelings of guilt evaporate. I may have failed this physical challenge almost instantly, mangling my ankle before the sun even went down. But here I am, my voice ringing through the desert. My foot is still grossly purple and, I’ll find out soon enough, indeed broken. It’ll take surgery, and more than a year of healing, when I finally return to New York.
But every time my chunky scar catches my eye, I think of the crow out there, cawing and gliding around his waterhole. And as I storm around NYC on my new ankle, always late for some meeting or other, I imagine him helping some other wandering stranger fall under the spell of this beautiful, otherworldly place.