Australian Traveller looks at Crossing The Kimberley, one of Australia’s 10 Greatest Outback Journeys.
When it comes to crossing WA’s rugged Kimberley region, the list of “don’t miss” or “must-see” attractions is as long as the famous Gibb River Road itself. The Bungle Bungle Ranges, Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, Geikie Gorge, the Pentecost and Cockburn Ranges, Mitchell Plateau, the Ord and Fitzroy Rivers, El Questro Station, the ribbon-red road to Cape Leveque . . . the richness and diversity of the landscape is breathtaking, and anyone who advises you to make the crossing in anything less than several weeks simply doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
Ideally, you want to tackle the entire crossing from Darwin to Broome or vice versa. That way, in proximity to Darwin, you can tack on important side trips such as the spectacular waterfalls and rainforests of (smaller) Litchfield and (much larger) Kakadu National Parks. Further south, Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park is a wonderful region to explore for its 13 gorges carved from the sheer limestone cliffs by the powerful Katherine River. From there, hightail it across the NT border into WA and Kununurra – diamond country – with the stunning Lake Argyle an ideal way of preparing for some of the vast dryness you’re about to approach head on.
Purnululu National Park is your next stop, with its curious beehive Bungle Bungle Ranges a fundamental outback icon. (You’ll also start to notice the prevalence of another outback icon: Australia’s own Adansonia gregorii, or humble boab, named for early explorer Sir Charles Augusta Gregory.)
Your choices now are to stick with the Great Northern Highway, taking in the largely Aboriginal settlement of Halls Creek, Wolfe Creek Crater and the unusual limestone formation of the China Wall, or backtrack to Kununurra and really get stuck into the famous Gibb River Road. The Great Northern Highway is the longer way around, but much faster since it’s sealed. But let’s face it – you’re here for the serious stuff, so the Gibb River Road it is. And with more than 700km of spectacular scenery, including gorges, rivers and waterfalls, you won’t be disappointed. It’s not for novices, though, so take your time and make sure your 4WD is well equipped with spare tyres, fuel, food and precious water.
At the Kununurra end of the Gibb River Road, cross the powerful Durack River, named for the area’s most prominent pioneering clan, and venture into the million-acre El Questro Station. Protected by the Pentecost River and Cockburn Ranges, the highlights here are – of course – El Questro Homestead and Emma and Chamberlain Gorges, but also lofty Branco’s Lookout and the warm delights of the Zebedee Thermal Springs.
Much of the remainder of the journey from here to Derby (billed for good reason as “the Gateway to the Gorges”) is spent trying to decide which magnificent national park, gorge, creek, range and river most deserves your attention. The answer is “all of them”, but real highlights are Bell Gorge between the Isdell and King Leopold Ranges, and the easily accessible Windjana and Geikie Gorges, as well as Tunnel Creek National Park, which contains the oldest cave system in the country (with its must-see 750m tunnel that neatly guts the Napier Range). Fitzroy Crossing marks the stepping-off point for Aboriginal heritage trails and boat tours – the Fitzroy River gouged this landscape, and the wildlife includes abundant freshwater crocs and stingrays.
In and around Derby, be sure to look in on the 1000-year-old prison boab, the 120m-long cattle trough at Myall’s Bore and various other reminders of a time when the Gibb River Road was used almost solely to drive herds to market for export. And, if you’ve time, take a boat trip through (or a helicopter over) the Buccaneer Archipelago, with its famed horizontal waterfall. Afterwards, there’s little left to do but set your sights on Broome and the blessed, reviving waters of the Indian Ocean.
Who got there first? // It’s thought that the Kimberley’s earliest settlers arrived in excess of 40,000 years ago. More recently, much of the region was opened up by Alexander and John Forrest (John later became WA’s first Premier) in the late 1870s and 1880s.
Don’t miss // The three must-see, knockout national parks between Derby and Fitzroy Crossing: Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek and Geike Gorge.
Drive time // From Darwin to Broome is roughly 1880km and requires anywhere from one to three weeks to explore in detail.
Dos + Don’ts
1. Never smile at a crocodile. Both salties and freshies make their homes in the Kimberley, so treat all crocs longer than 1.5m as though they’re made of gelignite.
2. Don’t attempt the Gibb River Road without a 4WD, spare tyres, fuel, food and water.
3. Don’t litter. Can you imagine how expensive rubbish removal is in remote areas?
4. Avoid camping on river or creek beds – flash floods come from nowhere.
5. Keep a keen eye out at dawn and dusk, since the Gibb River Road is unfenced and cattle will stray into your path.
Accessibility // If you’re sticking to the Great Northern Highway, you’re in for a smooth ride. However, if your heart is set on the Gibb River Road, a 4WD is essential. April-Nov is the best time, when the road is open and clear.
Did you know? // The Kimberley is recognised as the hottest region on average on the continent, with maximum temperatures exceeding 30°C in the middle of winter. More info // Visit www.westernaustralia.com and www.kimberleyaustralia.com
Sidetracks // Crossing The Kimberley
1. Gregory’s Tree // 200km east of the WA/NT border at Timber Creek, this ancient boab bears the inscription “July 2nd 1856”, carved there by explorer Sir Charles Augustus Gregory, after whom the Australian species of boab, Adansonia gregorii, is named.
2. Mitchell Plateau // At least a 270km detour north of the Gibb River Rd, this region is home to the remote Kalumburu Aboriginal Community, as well as examples of ancient Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) rock art, and the magnificent three-tiered Mitchell Falls.
3. Cape Leveque // “Where the outback meets the sea”, as they say, 220km north of Broome on the stunning Dampier Peninsula.
4. Wyndham // 52km north of Kununurra, five colossal rivers meet here to flow into Cambridge Gulf. Check out the equally colossal view from Five Rivers Lookout.
5. Faraway Bay The Bush Camp // The ultimate in Outback Luxury, perched on a cliff top overlooking the Timor Sea 280km northwest of Kununurra. Accessed by air only. www.farawaybay.com.au