Santa's Travels: Red-letter day

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The Independent Online
One way to make someone truly happy just before Christmas is to say: `You've just won a gap year holiday for two, and pounds 2,000 spending money.'

This what we were able to tell Katharine Hourston, of Quorn in Leicestershire, on Thursday. Her prize of two London-to-Sydney tickets (with the option of stopping off in Thailand) and a generous cheque comes courtesy of Campus Travel and Royal Mail International.

She and her fellow student entrants were asked to tell us in no more than 500 words where they wanted to go in Australia or the Far East, and why. Judging the entries proved to be challenging. They were assessed according to how much research had been done; what the entrant felt he or she would gain from the trip; and writing ability. In the end, it was the originality of Katharine's entry and the evident depth of her knowledge that tipped the balance. This is her winning essay.

They're all over here! The Minogues, the Wallabies, Mark Little ... It's impossible to avoid the pervasive drip, drip of Australian culture. It's time for this Sheila to take a gap trip, get away from Home and Away and Neighbours, and say G'day to the real thing. I need to know if men wear hats strung with corks, and, like Crocodile Dundee, think bidets are for washing feet.

The question is, where do I find the answers to these, and more, in a country one-and-a-half times the size of Europe? I'll go along with Victoria Wood's recommendation and pay her best mate, Kimberley, a call.

If you want to find the real Oz (not the wizard) the Kimberley has it all, gift-wrapped. Situated at the northern end of Western Australia, it is one of the country's "last frontiers", a true traveller's challenge. Its scenery includes a spectacular coastline, mighty rivers such as the Fitzroy, gorgeous gorges like Windjana, the Great Sandy Desert and the Synot mountains.

The weather varies from the baking "dry" when temperatures peak above 40C, to the "wet", with ethereal thunder and lightning, when temporary waterfalls cascade near towns. The Fitzroy's width swells from 100 metres to 10 kilometres. The landscape changes and is reborn in lush green. Wildlife is extraordinary. The very rare black-footed wallaby resides in Geikie Gorge, not to mention sawfish, stingrays, crocodiles and wallaroos. Many indigenous Aboriginal people live here, in communities such as Beagle Bay, where you can admire their mother-of-pearl church and the Barrett River Gorge paintings. Wolfe Creek meteorite crater, the Bungles National Park, rock towers menace, striped like tigers in orange (silica) and black (lichen). The region's history includes pearling, diamond-mining near Lake Argyle, and gold rush claims. Whatever bounty you're hunting, you'll find it in the Kimberley. For me, its gold lies in Broome.

Broome is a slice of paradise. Its small, cosmopolitan population originates from the 3,000 mainly Japanese pearlers who once crowded into the now quiet port. Cable Beach's miles of white sand and turquoise water provide would-be surfies with endless exhilaration. The less adventurous will find sunset camel rides equally memorable. Roebuck Bay spoils the bird- watcher with 270 species, a third of Oz's total. At Gantheaurne Head at low tide, dinosaur tracks are visible.

Broome knows how to party, with several annual festivals: the teeth-rotting Mango Festival, and Shinju Matsurei (the pearl festival) comprising the O Bon, Japanese festival of the dead, a beach concert and a firework display. Nature, however, surmounts it all. Try to catch a glimpse of the Staircase to the Moon. On a cloudless night the moon's reflections rippling on the mudflats build a golden stairway to the heavens. Pure magic.

The Kimberley is, in microcosm, the real Australia. A gap year experience there would leave no questions unanswered. It would instil the confidence to build a stairway to one's dreams. Like Victoria Wood, I can only say, "Ooh Kimberley!"