There’s something cathartic about hitting the open road and letting it roll beneath you for hours. Welcome to the Kimberley, the ultimate road trip destination.
Thoughts and memories flow in and out as you watch the world go by, the fresh air, free time and space enabling a movie-like reel of consciousness. Then there’s the energising sense of adventure that road trips bring: you’re at the wheel, choosing where you go, when you stop and how long for – there’s no freer style of travel. Having such flexibility means you can see as much or as little as you like. In Western Australia, it’s all there for the taking. Sprawling over nearly one third of Australia, this wonderfully driveable state is crisscrossed with roads and tracks, each leading you to new discoveries.
Into red dirt country: Dampier Peninsula
By early 2020, the 205-kilometre route between Broome and Cape Leveque will be completely sealed, unlocking the remote Dampier Peninsula, where you can find pearl farms, pastoral stations and 71 Aboriginal communities. The area was previously only accessible to 4WD vehicles able to tackle the 90 kilometres of sandy, corrugated track that would coat everything in red dirt (currently, only the northern half is sealed). We reckon it’s time to plan a trip.
How long? For now, about three hours. Once sealed, it’ll be a speedy dream ride.
What’s required? For now, a fuelled-up 4WD, but by 2020 a regular car will go the distance.
Beagle Bay church and its Aboriginal community mark your first stop. Over 100 years old, the Germanic church interior is inset with thousands of pearl shells and the walls are painted in pastels.
Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm is still in the same family that started it, three generations ago. The farm tour with Terry Hunter, born on the property, is definitely worth doing. Allow time for an excellent espresso coffee and a dip in the pool beside the café.
Kooljaman at Cape Leveque is a retreat owned and run by traditional owners, perched on a trio of grainy beaches lapped by placid ocean waters. One beach is edged by saffron-red cliffs that blaze at sunset, contrasting with the pale sand, so bring your camera.
Rite of passage: The Gibb
If there’s one way to earn your stripes as a true-blue Aussie, it’s by taking on the 660-kilometre Gibb River Road, a 4WD-only track that cuts through the heart of the Kimberley. The former cattle droving route is legendary, not just for the station characters you’ll meet on the way or the bottle-shaped boab trees that look like they’re having a bad hair day, but for the stretches of corrugations that’ll rattle your teeth. The deep paprika hue of the land gives way to water-filled gorges and immense rock formations, the kind of natural havens you won’t find anywhere else in Australia.
How long? The route between Derby and Kununurra can be done in five days, but bear in mind you’ll likely be leaving from Broome (220 kilometres away). It’s best to take just over a week to do it properly, blending in memorable stays at working stations, wilderness parks and conservation sanctuaries.
What’s required? If you’re self-driving, a 4WD, water, food, safety supplies and camping equipment are essential. Otherwise, join an all-inclusive tour and enjoy the ride.
Just out of Derby, stop at Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre to meet an Aboriginal artist and watch the intricate craft of carving boab seeds or painting bark.
Windjana Gorge is rimmed by 300-metre walls that are part of a 350-million-year-old Devonian reef system. There are various walking trails through the three-kilometre gorge, where you’ll see fossils and (harmless) freshwater crocodiles.
Bell Gorge, tucked inside King Leopold Conservation Park, is regarded as the jewel in the Gibb River Road’s crown, thanks to its cascading waterfalls and glassy swimming holes.
It’s worth splashing out the extra money to fly over the Kimberley’s rugged landscape. From Drysdale River Station, 59 kilometres off the Gibb River Road, a scenic flight covers the mighty Mitchell Falls, a three-tiered cascade that’s otherwise a bloody long drive, and the Prince Regent coast, riddled with giant clefts, gorges and waterfalls.
It’s hard to choose between Home Valley Station and El Questro – if you can, stay at both. Home Valley Station is run by the local traditional owners, meaning rewarding interactions with Aboriginal trainees are part of the experience, along with fishing, helicopter excursions, waterhole dipping and sunset gazing. El Questro offers many similar activities, along with spectacular gorges, hot springs and horse riding and, if you’ve got the coin, its famous homestead offers a spot of luxury in the outback.