I hear about people who walk the Bibbulmun Track or the Cape to Cape walk down south, but Ian Obern walks the Kimberley where there are no tracks.

Each year, Ian goes on at least one trek to this remote part of the world with a group of like-minded people who are armed with maps, compasses, and GPS technology. Ian got hooked 25 years ago and has a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Here is Ian’s story.

I have spent over 27 years in the Kimberley around Derby, Broome and Imintji Community on the Gibb River Road. I started Boab Tours in Derby about 25 years ago, specialising in 4WD safari–camping trips along the Gibb. A lot of my passengers asked to go bushwalking and this is where my passion started.

Living in Derby, I became very good mates with Tony who was known for his love of bushwalking. Tony invited me on a 13-day walk with a group that had already been walking for a few years. Since then, I have completed over 30 walks (ranging from 6 to 17 days) and have walked a total of 373 days in the Kimberley wilderness. That’s over a year.

Tony started his bushwalking group with Andrew, a bloke from Perth, over 30 years ago. There is a nucleus of experienced walkers and then family or friends ask to come along — it grows organically from there. The groups average about 15 people, although sometimes we go on a specialised trip with just four people who can fit in a helicopter with their packs. The most we have had is 23 walkers, and the average age of a group is late fifties. Each person must carry their own gear — food, clothes, bedding, water, and personal belongings. A pack can weigh around 16 to 22 kilograms.

A lot of planning goes into each walk, getting various permissions and notify authorities of where we are going. We travel with maps, GPS, EPIRBS, satellite phones and a good old compass. Over the years, we have had emergencies such as sprained ankles and falls so personal insurance is a must. We may have to get a helicopter or RFDS in to get the injured person out — there are no roads!

We usually walk in June or July, although I have done wet season walks which really sort you out as it’s hot and the ground can be wet and boggy. The river and creek crossings are also harder, so it’s not for everybody.

We always try to walk in a different area, and we use topographic maps to plan where we are going and how far we can go each day. There is an agenda for each day, and the tempo of the walk is set by the last person walking. We may walk a circuit where we start and finish in the same place, or we arrange to get picked up at a location by bus, helicopter or small plane. There are certain timelines to meet, although most things can be changed, and we are not in a rush.

Food is very important as walkers must weigh it all. We might catch fish, but they are not everyone’s cup of tea. Breakfast is porridge or muesli. Lunch is cheese, salty biscuits, peanut butter, soup and dry sausage. Everyone has their scroggin made up of fruit, nuts and nibbles, and then there is the evening meal. There is no group cooking, and some walkers have been quite inventive by preparing and dehydrating meals at home and rehydrating them on the walk. It is an art for some — pasta, rice, tuna portions, mince mixed with noodles or dehydrated vegetables.

We have a campfire, and everyone has their own billy for tea, coffee, hot chocolate etc. We usually cook and eat around sunset as most people hit their sleeping bags very early — 7.30 is a late night. We sleep well but we sleep lightly and wake up with the birds. The early risers get the fire going and put on the billies. Water is never a problem. The Kimberley has streams, creeks, rivers and billabongs, and most of it’s drinkable unless cattle are around. Water is heavy to carry at one kilogram per litre, so we collect water for drinking and cooking along the way.

The people who come on the walks have various interests— birdwatching, geology, being in nature, Indigenous art, and a love of being remote. They’re also from a great cross-section of the community — shopkeepers, lawyers, school teachers, bus drivers, doctors etc. Sitting around our bush TV (fire), we are a melting pot and, after 12 nights in the bush, we get to know each other well. It’s not an individual walk — everyone comes together to help out and discuss things. We hear other people’s stories. Maybe the politicians should come out as we solve all the world’s problems!

We get to experience some absolutely, glorious places that most people will never get to see. It’s amazing how the walking varies underfoot — loose rocks, boulders, swampy ground, river sand, flat rock and pindan. We never get 10kms of the same conditions. Remember there are no tracks.

We don’t see a lot of wildlife as we are a noisy bunch, always talking. I love the dingoes and to hear them howling at night is very special. Then there are the quolls. They are shocking and have caused a few dramas in the camp when clothing, especially underwear, cannot be found. We rarely see snakes and they are mainly pythons. Unfortunately, we are now seeing cane toads. The worst animals we encounter are feral cattle. Some aren’t scared and they stand their ground. Donkeys can be trouble as well, but they are becoming rare. Then there is the pandanus, the spinifex grass and the green ants.

On day one, everyone is slow. All the stuff in your head — money issues, family issues or general stress in life — it just goes. Days two to four are ‘What the hell have I done?’ and everything aches, but people have gained more confidence by then and walk a lot quicker. The backpack is a little lighter, and by day eight they are almost Olympians. They are in survival mode. People really do not want the walk to end.

By the end of a 13-day walk, everyone is a few kilos lighter, and they feel wonderful mentally. No television, no phone, no computer, and early nights in tune with nature and the rhythm of the sun rising and setting. They bond with a group of people that they really get to know, and they also get to know themselves. The Kimberley gives us everything for survival — water, tucker and shelter. We realise that life is good.

I am 65 now and my goal is to keep doing this till I am at least 70. My body will tell me when I have had enough. We have been so lucky to have explored this Kimberley country for all these years.

FOOTNOTE: Ian is setting up a web page to help and advise people to plan their Kimberley trip or to help/advise/plan any walks. If you are interested, contact him by email at [email protected]