Road trip: The Kimberley, WA

By Justin Walker 13 October 2015
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Talk to any keen road tripper about their bucket-list journeys and “doing the Gibb” will invariably come up. The mighty Gibb River Road transects the even mightier Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The perception of driving the Gibb River Road (GRR) – all 660km of it, from Kununurra in the east to Broome in the west – is of a rugged, torturous drive through some of this country’s most inhospitable terrain.

The reality is far different; these days, a lot of the route is sealed and, if you time it right (i.e. after the graders have been through at the start of touring season) the unsealed sections are no more rugged than most gravel country roads – you definitely don’t need any extra skills to drive this route. All you do need is a well-prepared 4WD vehicle (if not your own, you can hire one easily for this journey), good planning and an adventurous attitude.

The rewards of the occasional bump and crunch of potholes and gravel are many and include the chance to explore some of Australia’s most spectacular tropical landscapes. The Gibb will take you past innumerable beautiful gorges, waterfalls and waterholes (some of which you can swim in; however, be mindful of all crocodile warnings), as well as some brilliant aboriginal art sites and a number of welcoming cattle stations that offer accommodation ranging from basic campsites through to uber-luxo digs. Simply put, there is a very good reason the Gibb River Road enjoys its lofty position on most road-trip bucket lists: it’s freakin’ awesome.

Related: A new Broome

Kimberley’s best gorges

Although you can drive the GRR in a few days, this would be a disservice to your experience – we’d recommend six days minimum (and that’s without the northern side trip to Kalumburu and/or Mitchell Falls on the northern Kimberley Coast.)

If possible, we’d start from the GRR’s eastern start-point of Kununurra. This regional centre allows you to stock up on supplies before heading off and it also means you’ll have the sun behind and beside you for most of the driving each day; this makes a lot of sense in regards to safety when driving these outback routes.

From Kununurra, the first stop for road trippers is the immense, million-acre, El Questro Wilderness Park, 110km west of Kununurra via mainly sealed roads (the last 16km is unsealed; caravans can be taken along here with care). This former cattle station includes an incredible variety of landscapes, ranging from subtropical rainforests and mountain ranges, through to numerous gorges with pristine waterholes and tidal mudflats. Accommodation ranges from campsites through to luxury digs at Emma Gorge or the station homestead. We’d go for the riverside campsites and then get out and explore this huge property. There are numerous 4WD tracks and walking tracks that will take you to some of the most unspoilt wilderness in this country. Highlights include a swim at El Questro Gorge (or Emma Gorge) and then wash away any dust and worries in the thermal waters of Zebedee Springs. There are numerous guided and independent activities at El Questro, including 4WD touring, walking, swimming, barramundi fishing, horse trekking and even heli-tours, which are a great way to really understand just how big this place is. And it is just the start of the Kimberley.

El Questro Gorge in Western Australia.
El Questro Gorge in Western Australia. Image credit: shutterstock

Secrets of the Kimberley

From El Questro there are numerous accommodation options via the Gibb River Road. Home Valley Station is “just up the road” (around 60km), at the foot of the Cockburn Ranges, but makes for another great stopover. The resort is run by the Indigenous Land Corporation and is aimed at providing employment for local indigenous people. It is both a working cattle station and a holiday resort, with plenty of available activities for road-tripping families. You can camp there, or opt to experience more luxurious digs, all while tucking in to some very tasty cuisine. Activitywise, there are horse trail rides, riding lessons for children, fishing (barramundi, of course!) on the Pentecost River, hikes to some magnificent gorges (where you can swim as well), and even airboat rides through the wetlands.

Further west, you will also find Mount Elizabeth Station that – in my personal opinion, anyway – contains Australia’s best-kept secret waterhole: Wunnumurra Gorge. The station itself is 29km off the Gibb River Road, and around 365km west of Kununurra, so is usually the second or third stop on your Gibb River Road journey. Mount Elizabeth is a working cattle station that also offers accommodation and camping, but the big attraction is definitely going for a swim at the beautiful gorge. Reached via a 10km 4WD track, then a 1.5km (moderate) walk, Wunnumurra Gorge sits on the Barnett River and has a waterfall flowing into it, and some brilliant red-rock cliffs to jump off into the cool (croc-free) waters of the gorge itself.

For those keen on aboriginal artwork, there are some fantastic examples of this at the waterhole’s western end, reached either by swimming to the western shore, or walking around the waterhole from the eastern side.

Station stays: Gibb River Road

Leaving Mount Elizabeth Station, there are numerous highlights on the way to Windjana Gorge campground, including King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park, which houses the beautiful and must-see Bell Gorge, Mt Hart Homestead, Lennard River Gorge and – if you’re a keen birdwatcher – a side trip (and overnight stay) to Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, which is inhabited by more than 180 bird species.

It is through this middle section of the GRR that you will be close to gorge overexposure but thankfully all of the gorges you pass possess their own unique identity and history. Even though the distance from Mount Elizabeth to Windjana is not long, it is very easy to spend a few days exploring this part of the Gibb, with Windjana Gorge and the nearby Tunnel Creek definite highlights.

Windjana Gorge, off the Gibb, on the Fairfield-Leopold Downs Road, is actually the remnant of an ancient barrier reef, and runs for 3.5km. The gorge itself is beautiful, and the campground is  fantastic, but it is the chance to see freshwater crocodiles up close that really makes this a must-stop on your Gibb River Road trip. These shy animals come out of the waters of the Lennard River and bask in the sun as it hits the bottom of the gorge so time your walk for around midday.

Nearby Tunnel Creek is another part of the same ancient reef system that Windjana Gorge formed from and is only 24km from Windjana. Not only is the tunnel itself amazing, running for 750m through the Napier Range (you can walk it, with a bit of wading through permanent waterholes), but the history of this cave system (believed to be WA’s oldest) is intriguing. The tunnel and cave system is famous for being the hideout of Aboriginal resistance leader Jandamarra. This Bunuba tribesman waged battles against European settlers for three years, garnering a reputation for his near mythical ability to disappear from pursuing parties in the Tunnel Creek area (he used an undiscovered collapsed section of the tunnel roof to evade search parties). Ironically, Jandamarra was shot dead by another aboriginal (a tracker called Micki) in 1897 after being cornered at Tunnel Creek.

Walking through the tunnel is a brilliant experience, especially when you reach the end and it opens up again into a more lush, fertile landscape, the opposite of the dry, rocky terrain at the tunnel entrance to the east.

An aerial view of the Gibb River Road in Western Australia
An aerial view of the Gibb River Road. Image credit: shutterstock

Windjana Gorge to Broome

From Windjana Gorge campground, there are two options: for those keen to check out the pearl town of Broome, you continue west along the Gibb River Road. For those interested in prolonging their Kimberley experience, you can drive southeast along the Fairfield-Leopold Downs Road to join the Great Northern Highway, then backtrack east slightly to the town of Fitzroy Crossing, and nearby Geike Gorge NP.

For those continuing west, it is not far from Windjana Gorge that you’re back on bitumen road again. After a brief stop at the famous Boab Prison Tree, of which there is no actual evidence of it ever being used as a prison (even though its hollowed out trunk is large enough to house six to eight adults) it is on to Derby. This town sits on the shores of King Sound, and offers boat access to Buccaneer Archipelago. From Derby, you join, firstly, the Derby Highway, then the Great Northern Highway that leads to Broome and journey’s end.

The “big city” feel of Broome is quite a shock to the system after a week or more exploring the ancient landscape of the Gibb River Road, but getting out and exploring this pearling town – and discovering its rich (excuse the pun) natural and multicultural history – is a great way to finish this road trip. And of course there are few more quintessentially “Kimberley” activities than joining a sunset camel ride at Cable Beach, and finishing off with a nice cool ale to wash away the last of the dust – but none of the memories – from one of Australia’s most famous road trips.

boab tree Kimberley Related: How did the iconic boab tree get to Australia?

The essentials

Getting there: Kununurra is 829km from Darwin. The Gibb River Road runs for 660km and is suitable for 4WD vehicles only.

Best time to go: The dry season is the best time to visit the Kimberley. This is usually from late May/early June to the end of September. Temperatures are warm with nights cooling off.

The adventure: 4WDs can be hired from a number of operators or you can use your own 4WD vehicle. Take two spare tyres and be sure to have plenty of food and water aboard. Try to avoid driving at night as wandering stock can cause serious accidents. The Gibb River Road is quite busy in the dry season, so help from fellow travellers is never far away.

Accommodation: Campsites and station accommodation varies considerably in terms of level of facilities and pricing.

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