Monday 10 October 2016

Adventures in simple travel: Extreme camping in the Kimberley

One of the things I love about travel, apart from the way it temporarily simplifies your life, is that it opens your eyes to different ways to live. Lately I’ve been meeting people who live simply in various ways, whether by design or as a means to other ends.

Still life with frypans, the Kimberley
There was Harry and his mission to cycle from Canada to Patagonia, Simone who escaped a Dutch winter to surf for a month on a remote NZ island, James who “longgrasses” in Darwin's sand dunes.

It fascinates me. I could be the Marie Kondo of travel writing (she wrote the New York Times best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, among other odes to simple living).

Now meet Bruce Maycock, a guide at Berkeley River Lodge in the north-east Kimberley, where I stayed last month (see my previous post, about sea-houses and Timor Sea sunsets). He knows this part of the Kimberley probably better than anyone alive – because he has spent much of the past 15 years “extreme camping” out there.

In 1993, he and a friend spent five months camping above King George Falls, near the northern tip of Western Australia. They were just two young Aussie blokes from Melbourne in search of an adventure.

Bruce in guide mode
But Bruce became hooked on the bush lifestyle and kept returning to the Kimberley, first for several months every Dry season with just his dog for company (1995-2000) then during the Wet (between 2000 and 2012 when Berkeley River Lodge opened and he started working there).

He showed us his current campsite on Atlantis Creek and we all swam in "his" swimming hole. He still stays out there on his days off and spends about a month there at the start of every year now, before the lodge re-opens for the Dry season. 

To give you an idea how remote this place is, and how much he loves its wildness, in a video Bruce made during the 2003-4 Wet season, during which he lost his camp and his boat during a cyclone, he says, "I’ve got a 150-kilometre radius around me where there’s no people, no roads, not even a fence. It’s just wilderness and that’s why I come here and why I selected this spot. It’s just beautiful."

Here's the interview I did with Bruce at Berkeley River Lodge about how he came to live this way and what he loves about it:

Where did the bush-camping idea come from?
I don’t know exactly, but when I turned 18 and got my drivers license in Melbourne, I travelled around Australia with a friend and the big eye-opener for me was that up north, it never gets cold. Once I figured that out, I ended up migrating north pretty regularly and on the odd occasion I’d come across a roadside stop or a little creek and there’d be no one else there, I always remember how exciting that was. And how easy it is to live outdoors when it’s warm all year; you just need some sort of shelter, a tarp or something.

That inspired me to think, Australia’s a pretty big place, surely there’s some rivers and creeks that haven’t got anyone living on them that I could find and maybe go out and camp.

Atlantis Creek in the Dry season
How did you end up in the Kimberley?
I started thinking about it and I never thought I’d ever do it until I was discussing it with my friend Chris in Melbourne over a few beers one time and he said "Well, if you want to try and do it, I’ll come out and help you."

So we bought a heap of camping gear and an ex-Army Land Rover and started looking at maps trying to decide where we were going to go. We ruled out north Queensland and the Northern Territory because there are a lot of people up there, and we started looking at the Kimberleys.

Then I was watching a Bush Tucker Man episode and he was swimming across a waterhole up there and when he got to the other side he said, "The reason I can swim across this waterhole without worrying about crocodiles is because there’s a big waterfall between me and the ocean, and saltwater crocodiles can’t get up a waterfall."

A "small" saltie we saw
That’s how we ended up at King George Falls, which is massive, it’s like 90 metres high, 70km up the coast [from Berkeley River Lodge]. It wasn’t easy to get to but we managed to find a spot on the river and set up camp about 10km above the falls and lived there for five months. I was just totally hooked after that.

When did you start camping solo?
Well, after that first year Chris had to go back to work in Melbourne so I went over to the east coast and worked on a prawn trawler for a year out of Southport, fantastic job.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what we’d done. So the following year [1995] I said to Chris, “I’m going to go back out there.” He had work commitments, but he came up for three weeks and helped me set up my camp and I stayed there for six months, on my own, and learned a hell of a lot about living up there.

What kinds of things?
The most important things are what to take and what not to take. You’re so limited with how much weight you can take in a vehicle, and you want to be out there for as long as you can. With this spot, I could drive right to where my camp was. So I would take out maybe 80 kilos of flour to bake bread (the first time we went out, we had FOUR kilos) and 10 or 20 kilos of rice, a 20-kilo bag of onions, a 20-kilo bag of potatoes.

Bruce, in situ
What made you start camping in the Wet?
I spent every Dry season up on the King George until 2000 when I started getting work with a mining company in diamond exploration. I used to see them out on the tracks and they kept offering me work so I thought I might as well do that. So I started working for them in the Dry season and going out to my camp in the Wet season.

It took me about five years of living out there in the Dry season to feel confident enough to do it in the Wet season, because once you’re there in the Wet, you can’t get out. All the roads are cut off.

What’s it like bush camping in the Wet?
It’s so exciting, because you get all these thunderstorms and all the vegetation is green, there’s a lot more stuff to eat as far as bush tucker goes, the fishing’s heaps better. It’s just exciting. The river starts lifting and flooding...

Bruce's Atlantis Creek camp
Why did you move to Atlantis Creek?
When I’d been camping near King George Falls, I realised that when you get to the coast, there’s so much more food: you’ve got oysters, the fish are bigger, there’s just so much more to eat.

So in 2000 when I had some time off from the mining job, I had a look around for a spot that had a freshwater pool with easy access to the saltwater so I could come in with my little boat, my tinny, and then walk up the creek to my camp.

Eventually I found that spot where we went today. Everyone used to refer to it as Bruce’s Creek, and I thought that doesn’t sound right, so I said let’s just call it Atlantis Creek, because it comes out right next to Atlantis Bay [which is named after a seaplane that crashed offshore in the 1930s].

Did you have to get permission to camp there?
When I was on King George, I used to get a [free] six-month permit from Kolumbaru Aboriginal Corporation. Atlantis Creek is managed by a different community, Oombulgurri, with a different Aboriginal corporation, so I used to go into their office in Wyndham, that’s where I’d put my boat in.

The first time I went there, I took in a huge map and said, "This is where I’m going" and that I’d like a permit for six months. They said that’s fine. I kept going back for the next four or five years but I got the impression I was being annoying, so on the fifth year the guy in charge just said, "Bruce, we know exactly where you are, you can go there whenever you want." That was a huge relief.

Dugong rock art found by Bruce
Does surviving take up most of your time?
No, not at all. You can go down and catch a fish in half an hour and it’s like, I’m done! I also grow a few veggies – zucchinis, some tomatoes – and look for bush food. But mostly I would go swimming or read or look for [Aboriginal] art.

What’s it like being out there for months on end?
I spend a lot of time making my camp more user-friendly. I paved the floor [in my old camp] with sandstone and river sand, just collected pieces of flat sandstone, because there was a dip in there that would fill up with water when it rained. And I do a lot of leatherwork, tanning kangaroo, goanna and barramundi skins. 

What have you learned that you can live without?
I can live without refrigeration, that’s the biggest thing. I just use evaporation. If I’m staying out there for a long time, I’ll have five tubs of margarine, to go on the bread I bake. I’ll sit those one-kilo tubs of margarine in some water at the bottom of a plastic tub and put a wet sack over the top and the sack draws the water out and keeps everything cool.

The mouth of Atlantis Creek
So you live without electricity?
Well, I’ve got a 12-volt battery like a car battery and a solar panel so I can charge my GPS, my iPod – I was going to say my Walkman, I had a Walkman when I was first out there! And I’ve got a little car stereo with some speakers so I can play some music or listen to the cricket.

You're not completely Stone Age then?
Not at all. I’ve got a satellite phone. I didn’t when I started, they were too expensive, but it gives me a bit of peace of mind and I can ring my family and let them know I’m ok. I also carry a personal EPIRB now in my backpack at all times.

Do you enjoy the solitude?
I do, yeah.

But you had your dog with you for a while?
Yeah, Doogsy. Once I lost her [she ran away during some fireworks for Territory Day in Darwin], I did two years without a dog and I really missed her. Now I bring a friend’s English staffy out sometimes. They keep you entertained. They think they’re on an endless walk, like every morning you wake up in your swag and they’re sitting there going, “C’mon, let’s go! Where are we going to go today?”

Is there anything you miss about town life?
Probably pizzas! And a cold drink, a refrigerated drink. I might take out a two-litre cask of red wine, for the odd special occasion, but I can’t bring out beer, it’s too heavy. Although I usually bring a couple of tins of braised steak or something because if things are really full on, if there’s a low pressure system or a cyclone comes through, I won’t be able to catch fish.

Stone tools he showed us on the beach
Do you feel any connection to the people who once lived in the Kimberley?
I wouldn’t say I feel a connection, but I’m forever wondering what it was like for them, like when you find the art.

Some of the caves I walk into have still got stone and hand axes and spears and all of their tools in there. You can’t help but think, wow, who was that last person who was in here? What did he or she look like? Was it a family group?

What do you love about being out there?
I feel different when I’m out there. There’s so much time to think about life, I look at the stars a hell of a lot. And the endless exploring. Because it’s remote, all these little creeks I go to, you’re pretty confident of being the first white person to walk up some of them, which is really cool, and you just want to see what’s around the corner. You might walk 10km and it’s like, but what’s around there?

This is one of my longer posts, so thanks for making it this far. Keep exploring, and asking what living simply means for you. I'm still working on it myself, with a little help from Marie Kondo.

Big thanks to Bruce for his time and for the inspiration, and to Berkeley River Lodge and Tourism WA for getting me to the Kimberley. It's a special part of Australia.


  1. Bruce made a video of his six months camping at Atlantis in the wet with Doogsie. I had a copy but can't find it. Anyone seen it or know where a copy can be found on youtube or somewhere

    1. Hi there - I used to have one but gave it away, not sure where you'll find a copy but you could try contacting Berkeley River Lodge, see if he still works there :-)

  2. Hi - did you find the DVD as I have one

    1. Hi Graham - thanks for offering, but not sure who posted that comment asking for the DVD, sorry.