A trip through Australia's Kimberley Ranges moved Tony Bartlett more than he imagined it could.
If you take the time, the Kimberleys will fill your lungs with the ancient breath of Australia.
This is a place you should not rush. The breathtaking gorges, carved out over millennia, cradle some of the most ancient rock art on the planet, dating back 45,000 years and possibly more.
Standing in the shade of an overhang as the sun blazes down on a sweltering Kimberley gorge, it's hard to truly comprehend the antiquity of the paintings just inches away.
The rock becomes a living gallery and the longer you stand and look, the more you begin to see. Faint curving lines that follow a slight irregularity in the rock slide into focus as the outline of a leaping kangaroo; almost imperceptible strokes of ochre resolve as the striped body of a Thylacine, a Tasmanian tiger that became extinct on the mainland thousands of years ago.
The silence that wraps itself around you deepens, and it takes only a tiny leap of imagination to slide back in time to an age when the first Australians sat on the very rock you rest on, dabbing ochre on the canyon walls.
Take time to experience this timeless land, and you will be rewarded beyond your greatest expectations.
My visit comes at the end of the wet season so the world-famous eco lodges scattered through some of the most beautiful parts of the Kimberley are beginning to stir again in preparation for a new influx of tourists.
After a Qantas flight from the east coast to Broome, my exploration of the Kimberleys began with a visit to Britz Maui where my wife and I were given a thorough briefing on the Toyota Challenger 4WD which would be our workhorse for the next 10 days, travelling between three of the region's premium eco lodges, at Bell Gorge, Mitchell Falls and the Bungle Bungles. We would sleep in the pop-top Challenger every third night, as the lodges are more than an easy day's drive apart.
Sunset over Broome's Cable Beach on our first night was the perfect way to start our trip; it's a much-publicised attraction but a wonderful experience that more than lives up to the hype.
Once you leave Broome and hit the Gibb River Rd you soon leave the bitumen behind and begin to enjoy what the locals call the "Kimberley massage". If you are doing a self-drive trip you'll soon realise that on roads where it can take two-and-a-half hours to cover 40km, trips are not measured in distance, but time.
The very remoteness of the Kimberley is close to the heart of its allure, though, and the adventure of getting to where you're going helps make the experience unique. Sleeping in the pop-top was great fun, but our first taste of the luxurious eco-lodge tents, with their own en suites and showers, spoilt us forever.
A hard day's trekking in temperatures nudging into the 40s can be tough going, but the aches are washed away by the cool waterfall pools, the wonders hidden in the gorges, and the simply breathtaking scenery.
Maybe the hard yakka had something to do with it but the food at the lodges was sensational. Knowing every morsel has to be flown in gives you a true appreciation for good tucker.
The manager of Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge, David Ogilvie, proved typical of the teams we would meet along the way at Mitchell Falls and the Bungle Bungles.
Without exception they were knowledgeable and friendly with a strong respect for the culture of the indigenous people of the region. Each offered welcome advice and tips that made any expedition much richer.
In fact, if it wasn't for David's guidance we would have missed what for me was the highlight of the entire trip.
There is no doubt Bell Gorge, the stunning Mitchell Falls and the world-famous Bungle Bungle Ranges are extraordinary experiences that leave an indelible impression on the tens of thousands who visit them each year.
But the tiny Galvans Gorge, 60km past Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge and overlooked by many as they cruise past an unmarked parking area, was the place that affected me most profoundly.
A short walk along the banks of the Isdell River, little more than a creek at times, takes you to a place of wonder.
A waterfall drops 20m into a pool of crystal water where black fish slide through the shallows. Hidden behind pandanus palms on a rock wall, framed by two rainbow serpents, we saw our first Wandjina painting, the head of a deity crowned with a headdress so clear and crisp it was hard to come to terms with the fact that it has watched over this quiet place for perhaps a thousand years.
Swimming alone in the cool silence of the pool at the foot of the falls, the spirits of that ancient gathering place felt very much alive.
Getting there: Qantas operates direct flights to Broome from Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Sydney flights depart on Tuesday and Saturday, Melbourne on Saturday and Sunday and Brisbane on Thursday and Sunday. Connecting flights are available from all other capital cities.
Further information: Bell Gorge, Mitchell Falls and Bungle Bungle wilderness lodges are just three of the eco lodges run by APT throughout the Kimberley. APT offer many comprehensive tour options from day trips to 28-day luxury 4X4 safari and coastal cruise packages.
Britz Maui are at 10 Livingstone St, Broome and offer a range of 4X4 options and thorough advice on self-drive trips.
The writer was a guest of Eco Tourism Australia, Tourism WA and APT Wilderness Lodges.
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