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Swept away by the big wet
Brolgas near Derby in the wet season / Picture: Stephen Scourfield

Rain is hammering on the roof and the frogs are calling. It is 3am, and I have been lying in bed listening to this symphony of the Kimberley's wet season. The pulsing white-noise of rain on tin, now lighter, now heavier and heavier; the chainsaw and motorbike and rhythmically croaking frogs, and the violent percussion of occasional thunder.

I am warm and dry and comfortable in my bed, but it's all too enticing, and I get up and walk to the door.

Lights in the tropical gardens show palm leaves glistening, their fronds waving under the fall of rain.

And I step out into it - the gorgeous just-warm rain, not sharp as needles, but like a stiff gossamer falling in sheets, solid.

And I leave my towel on the teak table under the roof and step into the lap pool. Diluted by the exotic mixer of the freshwater deluge, it has been cooled from the tepid, blood-like temperature of the day - a temperature that seemed so equal to the body's that I felt foetal.

And I stand in the chill and then slide forward and swim, 12 strokes a lap, and then turn and see the sky from the other direction.

It is lit only occasionally by thin, shimmering lightning, for this is not a big Kimberley wet-lightning night.

When you get those, the sky pulses like human organs.

You might believe there's Zeus up there in an armchair - a magnificent man with curly beard, given thunder and lightning by the Cyclopes, throwing brilliant white spears. Angry or just reminding us. Or God himself, all in white.

Or you might think it's just an atmospheric electrostatic discharge - a spark - ripping through this Kimberley sky at perhaps 20,000C, if that's easier to imagine. Heating the air around it to a temperature about three times that of the Sun.

Yet, in the morning the rain has gone and it's cooler than Perth. The Kimberley's wet season is, perhaps, my favourite time to be in the north.

There are few visitors, just the locals who have been through a build-up that starts in November - sometimes until it feels like the whole place could burst, that they could burst with the anticipation of rain.

And then it comes. A big drop the size of a 20c piece. Then another, and another. The rain has come.

The wet is here. And with the rain comes the release of tension. I've walked outside before now and stood in it, feeling it first like pinpricks and then like knitting needles and then moving in under a veranda and watching it fall in a heavy, solid sheet off the roof. Just being poured straight out of the sky.

And then I realise that moment was exactly 20 years ago. In 1993, I was here in a big wet season.

They called it the wet of the century. The road was closed between Broome and Derby as the Fitzroy River spilled out, red-brown over the country.

There's science and shape behind the three-act annual northern monsoon that's drawn down from India and Asia. First that steamy build-up, with a lot of lightning pulses. Then the deluge arrives, turning rivers to chocolate.

And then comes the dramatic greening of the land, a wild, fluoro, high-vis green.

What comes through the Kimberley is part of the bigger Asian-Australian monsoon system that sweeps Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea and is crucial to crops, and for refilling underground water supplies.

The Fitzroy River catchment covers 65,000sqkm - coming off the high plateau and funnelling into the river and through such places as Geikie Gorge.

And when we arrive there, today, I look up high above in the roofed interpretive centre and see a sign near its pinnacle that says: "1993 flood level two metres above roof."

We are, what, 10m above today's river level, and the roof is at least 4m tall.

Flooding is part of the rhythm of life here.

Rain is hammering on the roof of the Fitzroy River Lodge - an impressive and extensive hotel on the side of the river in Fitzroy Crossing.

John Rodrigues, of Leedal, which owns the lodge and historic Crossing Inn, tells me that every year there's a lot of work cleaning up after the wet. Last year there was mud this deep on the tennis courts . . . and he is pointing halfway up his thigh.

"But that's the way it is," he says. "You love it, you hate it."

He loves the place and the rhythm of the land. "When I'm in Perth, I can't wait to get back here," he says.

But there's the erosion and flooding to be watched, and lived with. A sandbar he saw in the river this morning was completely gone by this evening.

INDIGENOUS CULTURE

In the extensive Fitzroy Valley Indigenous Cultural Values Study, a 2001 report for the Water and Rivers Commission by Sandy Toussaint, Patrick Sullivan, Sarah Yu and Mervyn Mularty Jr from the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of WA, indigenous people unanimously described the long and solid downpour during the wet as a natural way to clean the river.

The research showed that most people were prepared to live with flooding and possible isolation because the result was so positive: "Clean water, and a hope for increase in plants and wildlife, including fish".

The river flooding is generally referred to as warramba.

Darby Nangkiriny explained to the researchers the importance of a seasonal cycle which relies on flooding: "Big warramba is good for the country. When he running, he get raparapa, 'side of the river', gets all the dry leaves and old water in the river and some in the creek. Have all the water living in the billabong. Billabongs get their water from the warramba. Bakarrarra (dreamtime) story about the big flood because some bad people cause the flood to come. In the marduwarra (river) he (warramba) finish coming in the cold weather time."

It was also commonly said to the researchers that rain which contains invisible seeds enters the ground, and that it produces animal species associated with water - goannas, frogs, land crabs, freshwater eels, turtles, fish and ducks.

Depending on flood levels, fish may find the barrage on the Fitzroy River impassable for up to 10 months of the year.

Thunder is roaring overhead, and lightning briefly but regularly illuminating the landscape with a weird sodium light.

The frogs are calling.

I am in the Brolga suite at Fitzroy River Lodge, perched by the Fitzroy River, watching lightning intermittently illuminating the big, white-bodied eucalypts.

I watch it from the deck outside, and then the rain comes again, and I move in and lie back in my four-poster bed, lights off watching through the four, fold-back floor-to-ceiling glass doors.

The most dramatic show on Earth from the most comfortable bed on the planet.

Out of the blue, there's a clap of thunder so loud that it feels like it might push straight through the roof. And then it goes quiet.

There's just the rain hammering on the roof and the frogs and insects calling.

FACT FILE

For holiday planning, itineraries, accommodation, tours and other information, see australiasnorthwest.com.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Australia's North West tourism.