THE WORDS of writer Patrick Rothfuss are accurate when he said “a long stretch of road can teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet”. A long stretch of road is just a minor characteristic of the Oombulgurri Track in the north-eastern section of Western Australia. Make no mistake, this is final frontier country.
You can begin your journey in the little town of Wyndham, visiting the ‘Prison Tree’ and the mighty Look Out, home to the legendary Blood Drain Travelling a further 116km south-west will bring you Valley Station, the starting point of the Oombi Track. If you would like to sample a few creature comforts before embarking on the Oombi Track, then this is the place to do it, with accommodation ranging from campsites to the luxurious ‘Grass Castle’ rooms on the banks of Bindoola Creek. It’s both a working cattle station and a tourist operation owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation.
More importantly it is the meeting place for our guide, Ronald Morgan from Just Over The Hills tagalong tours. With a deep affinity for this country, the Morgan family as traditional owners have the experience and permission to share cultural stories, traditional hunting, survival skills, locate barramundi, and guide you through this 400km of mind-blowing low-range track. Take a look at Ronald’s website for the list of recommendations for your vehicle, and it will start to give you an idea of how serious this track is (www.justoverthehills.com)
Leaving Home Valley Station and not even having enough time to finish my espresso coffee, I’m out of the 4x4 staring down at the Bindoola Creek crossing. It’s a rocky crossing with murky water flowing through its course. Not keen on walking downstream and meeting the four-metre croc that lives there, I lock the hubs and follow Ronny in his dual-cab Cruiser across. As Ronny chattered on the CB, sharing some local knowledge, he became unusually quiet. Skirting the edge of the Cockburn Ranges, he had in sight the low lying salt pans that have snavelled up unsuspecting vehicles in the past. Not one to be shy in feeding the Cruiser the mangoes, Ronny pedaled it and launched through the muddy creek and onto the other side of the salt pan. I was shaking in my boots, partly because I didn’t want to get them muddy, but more the fact that I was towing a camper trailer. Time to put my new Toyo tyres to the test. Low range, first gear with double diff locks were my weapons of choice. With mud flying and my Cruiser roaring, I landed on the other side.
Passing through some spectacular country that is constantly changing, we arrived at the Durack River. Consisting purely of rocks, this 330m-wide crossing is extremely bumpy. Towards the northern side, the rocks become incredibly slippery and it’s hard to hold the line you have mapped out. Watched by many sets of croc eyes, we climbed up the escarpment to a campsite with breathtaking views of the Durack, which eventually merges with the Cambridge Gulf. It was named back in 1882 after explorer and Kimberley pioneer Michael Durack during his expedition with John Pentecost, and is at its fiercest during the wet season.
With the dingoes howling the next morning, we departed camp and nosed the vehicles to the edge of a rocky descent leading to Wilson’s Crossing. These tracks haven’t seen a bulldozer in 30 years, and this was a prime example of erosion from the Kimberley rains. With layers of shale rock shifting with the weight of the vehicle, it made it extremely hard to navigate the deep channels, causing that uneasy feeling of side angle in the cab.
As we were only averaging slightly less than 50km a day, it was time to pull up for camp again. Heading upstream from Wilson’s Crossing, we found a campsite down on the sandy riverbed. This was all well and good until I drove down the 5m bank and, weighing in at five tonnes [with camper], my Cruiser was devoured by the soft river sand. I lost count of how many recovery tracks recoveries I did just to get close to where I wanted to camp.
With the Western Australian sun shining down on us, we crossed Warambur Creek, Moon Creek and Jilla Crossing, all presenting various 4x4 complications such as steep exits on the creeks. There was also soft sand and tracks dotted with gum trees in the most inconvenient spots, where you’d have to weave around them and lose all momentum.
The next campsite was on top of a plateau with good clearing from a recent bushfire. After setting up camp, I jumped on the quad bike and trekked 10km to a stunning piece of landscape called Camera Pools, appropriately named as the emerald green waters sparkle against towering red sandstone cliffs. This is a special place to Ronny’s people. They would often spend time fishing here whilst avoiding the saltwater crocodiles. It was also the water source for the now-deserted indigenous town of Oombulgurri, on the fringes of the Forrest River. This community is now a ghost town and has a highly debated history.
Even with a sombre past there is nothing forlorn about the landscape that embraces this ghost town. Walking down the main street of town you are in awe of the massive time-worn boab trees that line both sides. It’s a beautiful little town even in its vacant state, with vegetation reclaiming the remaining buildings. It’s somewhat eerie and quiet, but you are able to walk through the doors of the once residential homes. In some there are still TVs, lounges and personal belongings, like they have simply walked out the door and left everything behind. It makes you wonder what actually happened here, to a town that in its heyday was home to 200 people. The state premier at the time advised that the town was not viable and had some serious social problems. Hence it was closed down in 2011, to the immense disappointment of the people that called Oombulgurri home. Ronny paints a contrasting firsthand story of misrepresentation, and has fond memories of a childhood spent hunting and enjoying the traditional Balanggarra Homelands.
The country spanning 170km as the crow flies from Oombulgurri to Kalumburu is wild and untouched. The open grassland plains departing north from Oombi allow the Land Cruiser V8s to breathe as we stretch their gearing from low range first gear to high-range fourth gear. For a short time we follow a tributary of the Forrest River that provides refuge to powerhouse barra that you can do battle with on a reel.
Our time in high-range fourth gear was limited, and we took off as fast as a bale of turtles as we began to ford many creeks, forcing us back into low-range. Every creek is unique. With so many soft crossings ahead, I dropped my tyres to 15psi in an effort to get enough traction in this bottomless coarse sand.
This next crossing was a double whammy, with two sand banks to breach to access the other side. Dropping down into the first creek holding about 300mm of water, I made it three-quarters of the way up the middle bank, approaching it on an angle to try and dissolve some of its steepness. Suddenly, down I went to the road of 4x4 hell. Even reversing and having another crack proved ineffective. Unleashing the recovery tracks, I placed a set at the front and back wheels of the Cruiser and used my trusty longhandled shovel to chisel out the camper tyres.
I only needed to move forward another four metres to the crest of the sand bank. Jumping back in the cab, locking in first gear low- range to get moving, I changed to second gear, which is the most useful for low-speed gnarly stuff in a V8-powered Land Cruiser. Since the start of the trip, I had been having a few issues with my factory electric lockers, not knowing if they were engaging when I wanted them to. This all created the perfect storm; a massive bang from the back of the Cruiser ricocheted through the paperbark trees. It was devastating as I was under no illusions that help was close by. We were on possibly one of Australia’s toughest tracks, days from help, and we still had a long way to go. This was a serious problem.
Ronny came to my rescue and we used a combination of winching and snatching to get me out of the creek. Further investigations showed I had grenaded my rear diff lock, damaging my axle in the process. The crew consoled me with a stiff cup of tea and removed my tailshaft and axle. They had essentially converted me into a front-wheel drive Toyota Camry.
It now became a survival mission, as I spent the next three days completing this gruelling track in front-wheel drive only. Even in these circumstances, though, the track was as breathtaking and spectacular as it was at the beginning.
With Ronny’s guidance you too can experience the Oombi Track for yourself. Be sure to secure a spot, as the tours are very popular and can book out in the short time that you can actually access this country in the dry season. One of the leading travel industry’s reports for this year predicts that the next 12 months will be a time when travellers will be wanting to discover less-visited destinations, with a desire for unspoiled natural beauty. The Oombi Track is all of the above, plus much more
Just Over The Hills tours depart from Home Valley Station – located on the Gibb River Road, 114km west of Kununurra, WA – and end south of Kalumburu.
Hema’s Australia Road and 4WD Atlas.
Camping or cabin-style rooms are available at Home Valley Station if you would like to stay a few nights before embarking on the tour. Ph: (08) 9161 4322 Accommodation on the tour is completely self-sufficient, with enough food, fuel and water for up to 10 days.
No fuel is available at Home Valley Station. It would be advisable to fill up in Kununurra or Wyndham. At the completion of the tour, fuel is available at Kalumburu or Drysdale Station. Allow enough fuel to complete 400km of the Oombi Track and enough to arrive at your fill-up location at the end of the tour, depending on what route you take.
Just Over the Hills tagalong tours are the only group with the sole permissions to enter this indigenous country. It is no longer available through a permit-based system and is a private track. Please call Ronny for tour details. Ph: 0473 950 686 or visit www.justoverthehills.com
This is a serious 4WD track best suited to experienced off-roaders. Vehicles must meet a minimum standard, based on Just Over The Hills guidelines. A decent lift kit with tyres in near-new condition, winch and extensive recovery equipment are essential. It is not recommended to tow a camper trailer through this country.