There are many, many wondrous things to see along The Gibb River Road in WA’s Kimberley but, no matter which way you do it, there are some experiences you really, really can’t miss. Georgia Rickard has narrowed it down to our top seven.
1. Land of the crocodile
To visit Windjana Gorge is to visit the bottom of a tropical sea – or what was one, some 380 million years ago. It is perhaps here, more so than anywhere else, that the prehistoric heritage of the Kimberley is most tangible: this stretch of land was once part of WA’s own Great Barrier Reef; a living structure almost 1000 kilometres long, which is today preserved here in a Mordor-like gorge of jagged black and orange cliffs. A walk into the valley reveals fossilised remnants of an ancient sea-dwelling creature – the nautiloid – etched into the gorge wall alongside you, and an olive green valley of prehistoric proportions. We are the only souls here when we visit, and our voices bounce off the canyon walls, echoing back at themselves as if answering their own loneliness. But the highlight is in the middle of it all; a bottle green stillness where dozens upon dozens of freshwater crocodiles lie stationary, only their rippled backs rising from the water. It feels like a land lost in time – and perhaps it is. Where else in the world can you sit so quietly, and observe such a thing?
2. The world’s best day spa
If you don’t end up experiencing all the sights along this road (and you won’t, not unless you have months to spare), this is arguably the one, true must-do: Bell Gorge. Unlike most iconic natural wonders, which build with suspense as you get closer until you’re finally greeted with a first, beautiful sighting that smacks you across the face, Bell works backwards. First, it beats any excitement out of you, by making you scramble over boulders and down a precariously steep series of rocks. By the time you’ve arrived some 45 minutes later, you’ll be hot and sweaty and probably trembling, and have almost turned back. Twice. But you won’t care. This gorge is considered the most beautiful of The Gibb, and with good reason: there are not one, but two Olympic-sized silken black pools here, cupped by an ochre amphitheatre and multi-tiered waterfall, which can be followed downstream to another waterhole, and another, and another. Though that means you’ll usually be surrounded by other visitors – a good 15 people are here when we visit; practically crowded by Kimberley standards – it’s nothing a swim downstream can’t fix. And let us tell you, little in life compares to sitting back and staring at the sky, as some of the world’s purest waters slide over your shoulders from the waterhole above.
3. A cast of 482 characters
We meet Swiss-Germans Tomas and Isabelle at Silent Grove campsite under a blanket of stars, where they sit in camp chairs, matching VBs in hand. For their first visit to Australia, they decided on the Kimberley because “the map showed it had the least number of people”, says Tomas. They also show off their German travel guide to Australia, which is full of questionable survival information (‘kangaroos are edible. Shoot between the eyes’), and express amazement at the 4WD tracks here, which they have found so rough in comparison to those of Europe, that at one stage they were convinced they had accidentally turned onto a hiking track, and decided to get out and walk for a while, just to see. “But it was road,” says Tomas, with a shrug. At another campsite, we meet a gentleman from suburban Melbourne who sadly never shares his name, but tells us about the bird trap he constructed for his backyard. “In the past year alone,” he says solemnly, “I’ve caught and killed 482 myna birds.” Indeed the campgrounds are filled with characters. Eighteen-year-old Nathan, a local from the Kupungarri community, wants to know why white fellas get sunburnt. What’s the bump on my back? (It’s a mole.) He hasn’t seen a mole before. Did I know that there’s a type of bark here that you can use to draw bullets from wounds? No, he’s not lying. How big is Sydney? Are there lots of girls there? Camping is not everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s not the only way to do The Gibb – there are plenty of fantastic lodges and stations to stay at along the way – but if we’re honest, the natural beauty of the area is only half its charm. The rest comes from conversations had along the way, the best of which take place away from the gorges’ grandeur at the dusk-lit hour that campgrounds do best. Indeed, if there was one place in Australia to consider roughing it, this very well could be it.
4. A best-kept national secret
Most Kimberley guidebooks don’t have a lot to say about Adcock Gorge. Which is fine by us. The short, five-kilometre trip off-road leads you to a fairly ordinary scene – a small, cloudy billabong, filled with a few plants – but follow the creek away from the grassy ‘carpark’, over an easy scramble up rocks, and you’ll find a network of well-worn paths leading to a best-kept national secret. The waterhole here – a beautiful, deep, shockingly turquoise pool – is a lush little den, framed by the majestic red-black swirl of rocky cliff face and lit by sunshine as soft and light as cotton wool. Don’t bother attempting the precarious climb up the waterfall – the very shallow creek you’ll find up there is not worth the potential broken leg – but bring a piece of fruit and your camera, and when you’re lying on your back, swimming in that water, take a moment to think about how fantastic life can be.
5. A Manning Adventure
From the moment you exit either of the two main towns that bookend The Gibb, mobile reception splutters and then disappears, boabs crowd the roadside like proud old men, and a subtle shift occurs in the car’s interior. Unimportant details, like what day it is, start to slip out the window, and the lines of the law – while not entirely abandoned – become somewhat… smudged. Nowhere is this clearer than on the walk to Manning Gorge, an hour-long journey along a ‘path’ through the bush, defined only by a smattering of painted rocks and strategically-placed bits of plastic. There are no council-posted signs. No boardwalks. At points it feels a little like you’re playing an obstacle course – indeed, just to access the track you need to cross a billabong, using a little wooden boat – but the journey’s worth it for the adventure alone. The gorge itself does not at first seem terribly beautiful (you’ll be getting spoilt by now), but turn right to follow the billabong upstream and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful, deep pool that you can jump into from several ledges on the waterfall; climb the waterfall to its top and there is another pool above that. Alternatively, turn left when you arrive and you’ll find waterhole after waterhole downstream. Say hi to Daff if you see him there, too.
6. Scones and tea
An English garden in the middle of the outback: why not? But the owners of Ellenbrae weren’t satisfied that they’d done enough to create an outstanding Kimberley experience with their verdant oasis: their locally-famous scones, served with jam and cream on the homestead’s balcony ($4.50 each), have made this a required pit stop along The Gibb. Hosts Jason Yates and Karen Lucas had a record month in July 2012, baking 2550 scones – “that’s 197 batches,” Karen says – but can’t answer why they’re not more well-known around Australia. “In 2011, we had a fella who did a story on us for a caravan magazine,” Jason offers, scratching his nose. Another best-kept secret.
7. A true wilderness park
The previous owners of El Questro Wilderness Park, who purchased the million-acre property in 1991 for $1 per acre, were quite the visionaries – and not just because they transformed the run-down cattle station into what it is today. “See this river in front of us?” asks ranger Ben Kerley, gesturing at the grandiose panorama of Chamberlain Gorge. “The owners once water-skiied behind a helicopter down that,” he says gleefully. “The pilot lost his licence for it.” It’s the kind of wild hijinks you could picture happening here, where a certain level of lawlessness, so often found in truly remote areas, mixes all too seductively with privilege. And of the latter, there is plenty – for though the park is home to several different kinds of accommodation, including basic camping and air-conditioned bungalows, it is El Questro’s six-star ultra-retreat that draws travellers from across the globe: The Homestead. With an upper limit of 18 guests at any one time – media moguls, music legends and movie stars often among them – the civilised microcosm of The Homestead sits in perfect contrast to the wilderness around it; a gentle blend of silver service and the rugged outback. Indeed the scene on arrival – which could be the setting of a tropical African safari lodge, if it weren’t for the outrageously Australian scene beyond open doors – almost draws tears from our pindan-streaked faces, so lazily luxurious as it is. Ceiling fans whir overhead. Deep, wide lounges beckon. And behind it all is the glimmering rust of a Kimberley afternoon, complete with twinkling infinity pool set among extravagantly green lawn, and the spectacular show of the Chamberlain River beyond. Over three days we explore the park’s billion-year-old gorges and drama-queen vistas, stopping only to rest fatigued limbs in our thoroughly modern Cliff Side Retreat, or laze about in a haze of champagne (and nothing else) during a private dip in the thermal waters of Zebedee Springs. It is a suitably climactic ending to a blockbuster journey. Although we are, of course, a million miles from Hollywood and its relatives, and that’s without doubt, one of the best parts of it all.
FAQ: The Gibb River Road
Q When is the best time to go? The Kimberley’s dry season starts around mid-April, but roads stemming off the Gibb River Road to most of the area’s attractions, as well as many accommodation options, don’t open until May. (Check road conditions at mainroads.wa.gov.au or via the 24-hour hotline on 138 138.) The road remains open and wonderfully free until the end of the season in late October, although it’s busier in school holidays and on long weekends. Also, take as much time as you can. You can’t do this place properly in a week.
Q What if I break down? Fear not – The Gibb is still a place of handwritten signs and friendly waves, so if you break down, someone should pass by and stop within a number of hours, or even minutes in peak season. You can minimise your risk of flat tyres by letting them down in Kununurra or Derby before you hit the gravel. (As a rough guide, 5psi should do it, but check with a local mechanic or service station.)
Q Is the road really that corrugated? No. In recent years the track has been well graded, almost to the point where the entire thing is suitable for 2WDs. (Almost.)
Q Is petrol stupidly expensive? Yes. (Sorry.) There are two roadhouses along the way, Imintji and Mt Barnett, but only Mt Barnett sells petrol. Both sell diesel, however, so look at hiring a car with a diesel engine. On a related note, make sure your car has good air conditioning, too – it gets mighty dusty driving with the windows down.
Q What do I need to pack? Water Gibb River Road might be a lot more accessible than it used to be, but you’re still in the middle of the Kimberley – a very remote area with no mobile reception and large fluctuations in temperature.
Snacks There are no 7-Elevens here. Even if you’re staying in catered accommodation, you won’t regret having things like muesli bars and trail mix on hand.
Inflatable tyres Or pool noodles, or lilos. Great fun at waterholes.
Alcohol It can be expensive to buy here, and a challenge to buy in some areas, as many of the local Aboriginal communities are dry.
Baby wipes Dust. Gets. Everywhere.
The Gibb River Road – an ‘easy’ 11-day itinerary