It was time for my ten-day adventure tour through the Kimberley region in northwestern Australia. My gracious Airbnb host, Colleen, offered to give me a ride to the meeting point at a local hostel. We arrived at 6:30 am, and there was a group of people standing on a porch with backpacks. It appeared that I was the last one to arrive. The awkward silence made me feel as if I was an outsider.
I quietly stood with my bags on the pavement because the porch was full. At 6:45 am, a van pulled up with one passenger. Shortly after, a guide pulled up in a sizable four-wheel-drive truck. The tires must have been at least three feet tall.
Our guide, Damien, stood on the roof of the truck, looking down at all of us. He was 38, tall, and had dark blonde, slightly curly hair carelessly pulled back in a bun. He had one really long dreadlock going down the middle of his back to his butt. The dreadlock was wrapped around his bun, holding it in place. He was thin but muscular. His square jaw had a small amount of facial stubble. He was attractive but very rough around the edges.
Damien looked angry and unhappy to be going on a tour. People started to gather around, but I was the closest to the truck because I was already on the pavement. I tried to quietly ask Damien if it was ok that I had brought my medium-sized cooler. I held it up by the handle:
“Is it ok if I bring my cooler? They said maybe you could use it?” He knew I was American because I called it a cooler and not an esky: that and my accent.
“No, I will not be using it. We have two huge coolers that we use.” He was annoyed.
“I asked them three times if I could bring my cooler, and they said that I could.” That cooler was expensive, and I would need it once I arrived in Darwin.
“Who did you talk to? A travel agent?” He smirked.
“No, your company.” I retorted.
“Are you coming back to Broome?”
“Is it empty?”
“Yes, well, except for a couple of drinks.” I opened the cooler. “And two ice packs.”
“Well, you can bring it, but I won’t be using it.” He condescendingly said, “You can take the drinks out and bring them along. I’ll put your cooler on the roof. But leave the ice packs here.”
I was embarrassed because the 19 other people on tour stood there and listened to this argument. Damien climbed down the ladder on the back of the truck and stood in the back where a small door opened with steps leading to the ground. He asked us to hand him our bags so he could load the back. The space was small, so they didn’t allow hard suitcases, just a soft bag, and a backpack. I shipped my hard suitcase on the Greyhound Freight and only brought my medium-sized backpack and a small-sized duffle bag. I also had the cooler and my sleeping bag. We all had the option of bringing a sleeping bag or paying $30 to use one from the company.
As I looked around at some gigantic duffle bags and backpacks, I thought my baggage was acceptable. I had two bags, but they were smaller. I handed my pack to Damien, then my duffle bag. Other people jumped in and handed bags over. Then I gave him my sleeping bag and cooler. Damien looked down at me from the back as he grabbed my sleeping bag. “Is all of this stuff yours?” he said, annoyed. “Yes,” I curtly replied.
As everyone else handed their bags over, I went inside the hostel and left the ice packets on the kitchen counter. Then I went to use the restroom for the last time. As I came out of the restroom, I turned the corner and almost ran into Damien and another guide. “Sorry,” I said. “Are you all set?” He asked. “Yes,” I told him.
I walked outside to the truck and climbed the steps inside. It was full. I looked around, and every seat was taken except for two. There were bags on the seats and people swarming in to claim their seats. I was confused and asked, “Where do I sit?” Someone said, “You’re in the front.”
I climbed back down and looked at the front passenger seat. The door handle was so high up above the tire that I could barely reach it, and I’m 6’1”. To climb inside, I put my left foot in the foot holder to the left, about two feet from the ground. Using the handrails, I pulled myself up. The cab was dirty and full of crap in the middle console between the driver and me. I put my purse on the floor and closed the door. You’ve got to be kidding me. I have to sit next to Damien the entire ten days?
Damien stood in the main section of the truck and looked around, noticing the full seats. “My list shows 19 people.” He looked down at his paper list. “Oh. I see they updated it recently. We have 20.” He was not happy. Great. I’m the 20th person who signed up only a week prior.
Most guides give a motivational welcome speech to get everyone pumped up. We’d all be spending ten days together, and I awaited some instructions on what to expect. Instead, Damien gave a tired, short message. “I just finished a tour from Darwin to Broome two days ago, and I got sick on that tour. I’m still recovering, so I’m only at 80%. I expect you all to help out with this tour. My last tour had some people that didn’t contribute, and it really pissed me off. Many of you were on the tour from Perth to Broome, so you know the drill. My truck is set up similar to your last guide.” And then he climbed into the driver’s seat, and we were off.
Damien cursed, was blunt, was dirty, and he seemed to hate me. As we drove down the straight, boring road, he asked where I was from. I told him, “LA.” He replied, “I’ll be in LA for a month in January surfing, hanging out with my friend, and smoking a lot of weed.”
I told Damien that my car had broken down, so I signed up for the tour to get me to Darwin. He seemed to ask out of obligation and wasn’t very interested, so I kept my answers short. Damien asked what I did for a living in LA, and I told him I used to be an Operations Manager. He replied, “We’re looking for an Operations Manager. Ours just put in her notice, and she’ll be gone in a week.”
Damien told me that he is from New South Wales and lives in a van. It was currently parked at his brother’s house. He has lived in a van for the last five to six years. He said it’s great because he has all he needs, which isn’t much. He had a bed and a small number of clothes and personal items. I asked Damien how he showered. He said, “Whenever I can. Sometimes I just get into a pool or a lake. Sometimes I go to a gym and use a shower there. I only shower every two to three days. I don’t think I’ve showered for two days right now.” It showed.
As the sun warmed the truck up, I asked if he could turn on the air conditioner. “No. It makes me sick,” he replied. Thinking he was joking, I said, “Are you serious?” He was serious, “Yeah. It makes me sick.” I rolled my window down a little bit but didn’t want to roll it down all the way because the back of the truck had air conditioning. I took off my hat and put my hair in a ponytail, so the wind didn’t blow my hair everywhere. I said, “This is my Australian hat I got in Broome.” Damien disagreed. “That looks American.” I explained, “My Airbnb host made it in Broome. But yes, she styled it like an American hat because she said it fit me better.”
After about two hours on the road, we stopped at a gas station, and Damien pointed across a park to the public toilets and said after he filled up the truck, he would go next door and get groceries. I hurried across the park to use the restroom and went inside the gas station to get a Gatorade. I stood outside of the truck, which was parked to the side. Damien was inside the store for 30 minutes as we all gathered in the shade of the truck.
It seemed like everyone knew each other, and I had a hard time believing they all became friends in the two hour drive. Then someone explained that 11 of the people were on the prior leg of the trip, which spent 12 days going from Perth to Broome. Most people who were not on that trip stayed at the hostel the night before, so they all met already. Some people were traveling with friends or family. Many others were traveling solo. They were from Australia, Switzerland, France, Ireland, Belgium, England, The Netherlands, and Taiwan. I was the only American.
Here is the group breakdown:
- Suzanne – 42 years old from France, living in Belgium
- Kayla – 19 years old from Perth, Australia
- Oliver – 20 years old from The Netherlands
- Armelle – 50 years old from France
- Linda – 28 years old from The Netherlands
- Grace – 29 years old from Taiwan, living in Perth, Australia
- Phillip – 40s, from Belgium
- Alex – late 30s to early 40s, from England
- Brock and James – Brock was 18 years old and traveling with his father, James, who was in his 50s. They were from Brisbane, Australia
- Patricia, Nieve – Early 30s, from Switzerland and Ireland. Teachers traveling together.
- Sophie, Kate – Early 30s, from France and Australia. Connected with Patricia and Nieve on the first leg.
- Glenn and Karen – late 50s to early 60s. From Brisbane, Australia.
- Three women in their 30s-50s from Switzerland. Didn’t speak much English so I never really talked to them.
I talked with Linda from The Netherlands. She was 28, had long wavy, light brown hair. Her tight, faded, high-waisted jeans were rolled at the bottom, making her look European. She quit her job as a travel agent so that she could travel. She had a work visa in Australia, which she planned to use after the tour. Linda had done a longer Perth to Broome trip, but it was with a party bus. She told me how they drank on the bus during the day, did some hikes, and drank at night. They all sang along to songs on the bus and had a great time. She looked around at our group, “This tour is going to be much different.” She didn’t understand why everyone was so quiet. It was clear the prior group had already bonded, and the nine of us newbies were not necessarily welcome.
We talked as we stood around, waiting for Damien. It appeared they all thought Damien was a poor communicator too. We had no idea how long he’d be in the store or what we were supposed to do.
Once Damien returned, he loaded the large rectangular coolers with food, and we continued driving. In the middle console, he had a jar of peanut butter and a jar of honey. He would take a spoonful of one of them and eat it. Damien made it clear that was his console. Sometimes he pulled a plastic container of food out and ate some food with a fork. This caused him to swerve occasionally. Sometimes he filled out some paperwork on a clipboard while he drove.
There was an open rectangular section between the cab of the truck and the rest of the group. There was a plastic tub with snacks behind our seats, which I didn’t know about for days. There were also charging stations with USB ports. I could see the people in the back if I turned my head, but I couldn’t hear them over the truck’s engine unless they shouted. I could tell people were concerned when Damien would swerve.
Damien had been a tour guide for about ten years. Before that, he worked several jobs – mining, office jobs, all sorts of jobs. He liked guiding, but this year he asked to do the Broome to Darwin and Darwin to Broome trips more because he was missing out on that section when he did the Perth to Darwin.
I pulled out my ziplock bag of skittles that I had in my purse. I told Damien he was welcome to eat them if he was feeling tired. I said they really helped me when I was driving. He condescendingly said, “They’re not going to help you much now.” I snapped back, “That’s why I said you could have some.”
I was frustrated. I was attracted and drawn to Damien, but he was often rude to me and made me feel like a silly little girl who didn’t know anything. My therapist pointed out two years ago that I have a tendency to go for guys who treat me poorly, and guys who are “hot and cold” and put me through a roller coaster. I sat there and knew that Damien and I were drawn to each other, but it would not end well. I knew I should distance myself from him. Yet, I still wanted his approval.
Damien played sad, boring music. It made me sleepy, so I fell asleep for a while. The hot air was making me sweat. After a couple of hours, we arrived at the Boab Tree Prison. Damien didn’t tell us much about the tree, but he let us walk around for five minutes. The Boab tree was blocked off with a fence, but we could still get pretty close. Boab trees are beautiful. They look like bottles, fat at the bottom, with smooth trunks. Their leafless branches extend, making them look eerie.
This one was unusually large at the bottom. According to the sign posted, “The significance of the Prison Boab Tree derives from its reputed use as a rest point for police and escorted Aboriginal prisoners en-route to Derby, and principally, its prior but less publicly known connection with Aboriginal traditional religious belief.”
We continued driving and were now on dirt roads. After another hour or so, we stopped on the side of the road. I had no idea why we were stopped. Damien shouted to the back and explained that we were going to hike up to a lookout point. He told everyone not to bring anything, not even a camera. Someone asked if we couldn’t bring a camera because of the Aboriginal observances. Damien simply said, “No.”
We all got out of the truck and hiked up a rocky, steep trail to a lookout point. The trail wasn’t really maintained, but we could find our way. We climbed over rocks, and about 15 minutes later, we were at the top. It was a beautiful view, and we wished we had our cameras. Damien arrived at the top and told us about what we just climbed and how it used to be coral under the sea.
We continued driving, briefly stopping at a gas station and a bottle shop to buy alcohol. Damien said we could buy cans, no bottles. Unless it were wine – he’d allow a few bottles of wine. I bought some cans and two bottles of wine.
At 2:30 pm, we arrived at Windjana Gorge. We pulled into a dirt campsite with dry, yellow grass about two feet high surrounding our spot. Damien parked the truck, and on the side that provided shade, he told people to start setting up lunch. I had no idea what to do since I wasn’t on the last leg of the trip. Thankfully, some teachers in their 30s started pulling out tables and chairs. The chairs were tiny and foldable with a small piece of cloth in the middle that dipped when you sat on it and didn’t have a backing.
People pulled out plastic cutting boards and vegetables and started chopping and grating. We made this salad every single day for lunch: broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, tomatoes, beets, and carrots. We could put the chopped veggies in either wraps or bread. Meats and cheeses were occasionally available. Once we were finished eating, we cleaned our dishes in small white plastic tubs. The truck had a few small doors on the side which opened up and became little tables where we set the tubs.
Once lunch was over, we drove for 30 minutes down a corrugated gravel dirt road to a cave. After climbing down a short trail, we arrived at the entrance. It was the first large cave that I’ve seen that wasn’t a tourist cave with lights and stairs.
We turned on our headlamps (which they call torches in Australia) and walked through. There were still water sections, and Damien shined his light to an area pointing out a crocodile. He assured us that they would leave us alone because they eat insects and rodents. We just needed to leave them alone. The crocodile was small and about ten feet away, but I could see large water trails on the sand where another one had crawled.
We only saw a handful of people in the cave. We arrived towards a section that had a large opening. It was too steep and rocky to climb out, and the light filtered in and made the water look like a mirror.
Once we finished exploring the cave, we drove back to the campsite where we had lunch. The sun was setting as we drove, and I was happy to have a front-row seat to view it.
When we got back to the campsite, Damien told us to walk down a path to the gorge, and as it gets dark, we’ll see bats fly out of a cave over the water full of crocodiles.
They come out at night looking for fruit. First, they dip into the water and let it soak on their belly, and as they fly away, they will lick the water off of their stomach. The bats can’t stay long in the water, or the crocodiles will eat them. The crocodiles spread out in the water and wait for the bats to lower into the water so they can have dinner.
As we walked down to the water, I talked with Suzanne. She was 42 and from France, but had been living in Belgium for the last ten years. She had thick, short, black, shiny hair. She had black-framed glasses, was around 5’1” and was spunky. She was a research scientist for years but recently moved into teaching. Suzanne studied the relationship between humans and computers and helped with the design of a new breast cancer screening machine. She was a university professor in Belgium and told me that it’s good she was on the research side for years prior. That way, she is up-to-date on all of the new technology. Now being on the teaching side, students challenge her and help her stay engaged.
We arrived at the water and stood on a ledge overlooking the crocodiles lying out on the sand. I moved to a couple of locations around the water to get a better view. There were other people from the campsites waiting for the bats as well. Then, as the darkness set in, we could see large bats come around the gorge, fly over us, and then over the water. Thousands of bats came out in what seemed like a never-ending rush. A few started to circle the water, but most flew past and disappeared into the distance.
Once the flow of bats stopped, we walked back to camp. Damien cooked up some fish and veggie salad. We ate while sitting around a campfire. After dinner, Damien stood up and gave a brief overview of what we could expect the following day. He also told people that they should move around seats in the truck during the trip. Some seats might have a better view than others, so we should all look for a new one each day. I felt insulted because I felt like he was trying to get rid of me. I enjoyed sitting in the front, even though there was no air conditioning, and he was often rude. I had room for my legs and a good view. I also liked being able to talk to him.
Linda spoke up and said, “Can you change the music, though? Because it’s very depressing. It’s putting me in a sad mood.” We all sat in silence because Damien didn’t seem like he’d accept criticism. He just stared at her and made some comment about “too bad.” We took showers, but the women’s shower didn’t have working lights. There were three stalls, and the toilets were separate (they were just outhouses). There weren’t sinks available, and instead, there was a water spout on the outside of the showers.
I used my headlamp and showered in the cold water. It was time-consuming and difficult to shower and take out contacts using a headlamp.
For sleeping, we had to use swags. It’s basically a thin mattress pad inside of a thick canvas sleeping bag that zips up. It rolls up so that it can be pretty compact to travel with. They were stored on the roof of the truck, and Damien threw them on the ground. I grabbed one and put my sleeping bag inside. I didn’t know where to sleep, but Oliver and Brock agreed that they did not want to be near snorers. We set our swags near the fire, and Oliver got inside. Brock, Kayla, and I sat at the fire talking while the others slept farther away.
Brock was 18 – the youngest in the group. He was from Brisbane and traveled with his dad, who he called Cedric (even though his name was James). Brock was tall, had blonde hair, and played basketball in high school. He even did some tournaments in the U.S. He dropped out of high school right before his senior year to start carpentry training.
Kayla was 19 and had just graduated high school. She had long, straight, light brown hair and looked innocent – like a flower child. She was from Perth and was traveling solo. Kayla started the tour in Perth, so this was day 13 for her. She had an expensive camera with her and loved taking pictures. When we watched the crocodiles and bats, she got too close on the other side of the water, not realizing the danger she could have been in. Kayla wanted to travel the world and photograph it. She liked the idea of taking a gap year, and she was still figuring out what she wanted to do with her life.
It was around 10:00 pm, and we had to be up at 5:30 am, so we went to bed. I crawled into my swag and was nervous about bugs – especially spiders. I hadn’t seen many around, but I had never slept in just a sleeping bag or swag. I’ve always had a tent. This time, my head and shoulders were totally exposed. I tossed and turned all night because my hips hurt on the ground. I could hear snoring from the girls from Switzerland, so I used my earplugs. It got frigid in the early morning, so I did my best to cover my face a little because my nose was freezing.
As I fell asleep, I couldn’t help but think about Damien. There was something about him. He was unique and seemed intelligent and fun (when he wasn’t a jerk). I hadn’t met anyone like him. I figured if I could sit up front again, I would ask if I could play some music. I was also determined to get him into a better mood. I was confident that if I were my charming self, it would work. It would be a new day, and I wanted a fresh start. I also told myself I was not going to fall for him.
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Post Edited By: Mandy Strider