Remote, raw and utterly wild, the Kimberley remains one of Australia’s last bastions of wilderness, a place as enigmatic as ever and the stuff of dreams for enthusiastic offroaders.
Old-timers love to reminisce about the rough and rugged Gibb River Road of days past, before the seasonal graders started to soften its legendary corrugations. I’m old enough to remember the Gibb as it was circa 1995, but, alas, times have changed. Today, too many Kimberley communities and businesses rely on this late 1880s stock route for it to be left unmaintained and off-limits.
KING LEOPOLD RANGES
About 125km out of Derby, across the Lennard River, the western Kimberley’s vast spinifex plains gradually give way to grasslands, and spindly eucalypts and boabs begin to stud the roadside that winds into the lofty King Leopold Ranges.
One of the few places in the Kimberley to have retained its European title, the range is named for King Leopold of Belgium, and the surrounding conservation park known as Woonamur protects more than 392,000ha of river gorges and the Kimberley’s highest peaks – Mount Ord and Mount Broome.
From the trailhead car park, a moderate, 30-minute walk brings you to the top of the falls. But don’t stop here. One of the most invigorating experiences of your life awaits a 20-minute rock-hop away at the base of the falls where you can take the plunge, kicking out under the falls and continuing downstream to discover more private rock pools. This deep, broad waterhole is clear and icy, but the sunny, sculptured rock slabs will toast you off nicely in between swims.
A short drive from the falls, Silent Grove campground is popular for the outback comforts it provides: hot showers, flushing loos and drinking water (the most important resource in these parts).
Beyond Bell Gorge, the Gibb continues on its winding path, past a string of stunning red rock gorges at Adcock, Galvans, Manning and Barnett rivers.
Adcock and Galvans are two lovely, small gorges without facilities that many vehicles bypass, despite the fact that they each require a mere 10-minute walk. Located on Mount House Station land, Adcock Gorge is a little tricky to locate. Take the signposted turn off the Gibb and drive for 3.7km until you reach a small, red dirt clearing on your left. There is no signpost here and it was only a distant memory of the gorge’s location that made us turn at the clearing to reach a second pull-off 700m later. Park here to avoid negotiating the rocky track that leads another 100m to the gorge entrance. It’s then a short rock-hop beside Adcock Creek into the amphitheatre at the base of the falls that stills to a trickle in the dry. This is a great spot to swim away from the crowds and enjoy a picnic on the creek’s mossy banks.
Back on the Gibb and another 20km up the track, Galvans Gorge is a picturesque sight: ferns feeding on the waterfall’s mist, fig trees clinging to the rock face and a shady pool fringed by pandanus palms. Arriving here soon after sunrise, we welcomed the day with an invigorating shower beneath the falls, noticing after about half-an-hour, the sleeping northern brown tree snake curled up on a ledge within arm’s distance of us.
We left Galvans with big smiles, bound for Mount Barnett Roadhouse to fill up on diesel at $2/L, crossing our fingers and reminiscing about the times we’ve had to pull up here for a tyre patch. Manning Gorge is a popular overnight stop close to the roadhouse but, with a full day ahead of us, we pushed 27km on to Barnett River Gorge.
It’s amazing how a good wet season can enhance the appeal of this spot, which we remembered with fondness for the lush green camps beneath the paperbarks. On this visit, the pools had evaporated, and the thirsty landscape and high temperatures couldn’t tempt us on a hot hike into Mount Barnett’s broad, open chasm. It’s easy enough to explore, though, with a multitude of cairns marking a rocky trail along its rim, guiding you into the gorge.
After a lunch break we retraced our path three corrugated kilometres back on to the Gibb and called it a day at Hann River. Now this is a stellar spot! Lush, cool and shady, we spent an amazing afternoon swimming and walking along the river. Double-barred finches and kingfishers flitted into view as we swam and cooled our drinks in the sandy shallows.
Just over 50km on, the Gibb meets the road to Kalumburu, leading travellers on a wild ride to Napier Broome Bay on the Kimberley’s far northern edge. When you’ve just come off the manicured Gibb, the corrugations on the Kalumburu Road come as a shock, but you might want to detour as far as Drysdale River Station for a swim at Miners Pool or continue merely 3km on to take a dip in the famous Gibb River itself.
THE ROAD EAST
The boabs return in abundance as the Gibb turns east through a thirstier landscape, making a beeline for popular El Questro Wilderness Park, 213km away. I’ve always found this end of the track to be a little bumpier and the road base a little more razor-sharp.
I’ll also go out on a limb here and say that, for me, the landscape lacks the dramatic diversity of the west, and there are far fewer spots to bush camp. If you’ve already spent a week or so on the Gibb, this might well feel like the home run to El Questro at the end of the road.
But there are two homestead camps with gorges and swimming holes that might tempt you. Head to Ellenbrae Station to sample the widely advertised fresh scones and sangria, and Home Valley Station for horse riding, barramundi fishing, scenic flights, nightly entertainment and walking trails.
Between the two, there’s a great camping spot high above the eastern bank of the Durack River where you can stoke a campfire and spend an afternoon spotting freshwater crocodiles in the vivid green water below. Panoramic views atop Rollies and Gregory’s jump-ups put your location into perspective as you near the Cockburn Ranges and the infamous Pentecost River crossing.
This flat-topped plateau is the perfect backdrop to an old western flick, so much so that you almost expect John Wayne to come riding across the plains. At its base, the Pentecost River carves a path across the Gibb, providing salties the chance to meet offroaders at its wide, sometimes deep, river crossing.
Twice, I’ve crossed the Pentecost with extreme trepidation, steeling myself against the deep, swift flow and trying not to glance at the washed-away trucks and 4WDs cast aside downstream. But this year, I watched a convoy of vehicles barely wet their bottoms on the crossing, and travellers must surely have wondered what all the fuss was about, with not a croc in sight.
EL QUESTRO AND THE END
About 24km beyond the Pentecost, the Gibb’s thin ribbon of red dust ends abruptly at El Questro Wilderness Park, one of the most picturesque destinations in the Eastern Kimberley.
El Questro is the last hurrah before the bitumen leads you to Kununurra which, depending on how many tyres you’ve blown, will come as a huge relief or leave you itching to turn the car around.
With an unlimited amount of time and supplies, the Gibb River Road is only the start of your travels through the Kimberley. Once you’ve been there, you’ll agree it’s a pretty special place and, for adventurous travellers, it’s about as far away as you can get without a passport.
The Gibb River Road stretches for 650km from Derby to the Wyndham-Kununurra turn-off.
It is frequently closed during and just after the wet season. Contact Main Roads WA for current conditions.
- Swimming in the numerous waterholes and falls along the way
- Walking through the dramatic and impressive gorges
- Peaceful bush camping
Fuel is available at Imintji, Mt Barnett Roadhouse and El Questro Station.
Tyre repairs can be tackled at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, Over the Range Tyre Repairs (35km west of Mt Barnett Roadhouse), Ellenbrae Station, Home Valley Station (plus mechanical repairs) and El Questro.
The national park campground at Silent Grove (Bell Gorge) costs $12/adult/night ($8.80 concession; $2.20 for children aged five and over) plus a $12 vehicle entry fee.
Close to the Gibb, you can camp at Mt Hart Homestead, Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge, Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, Charnley River Station, Manning Gorge, Mt Elizabeth Station, Home Valley Station and El Questro Wilderness Park. Expect to pay camping fees of around
Free camp at the Lennard River crossing, March Fly Glen Rest Area, Hann River, the Gibb River/Kalumburu Road junction, Russ Creek and at the lookout above the Durack River.