Prior to this trip, my knowledge of The Kimberley was that it is in the outback and there are crocodiles there. I had never really thought of visiting, mainly because of its remote location.
One of the numerous great things about doing ‘The Big Lap’ is that areas like this don’t really feel that remote. We have watched the landscape change over and over again as we drive through towns and then back out into nothingness. We’re used to it now. It doesn’t feel like we’re far from home even though we are on the other side of the country, because hey, we drove here by car, from home. Being Australian, everywhere you go has the familiarity and comfort of being at home, which is a nice feeling. Having said that if you flew straight from Melbourne to Broome there would be a lot more adjusting required I think!
The Gibb River Road itself is about 650kms long between Derby and Kunnanurra and is a mix of national parks and privately owned land. I had never heard of this road prior to watching ‘The Big Lap’ DVD, which follows a family of four as they make their way around Australia. Driving The Gibb was high up on their bucket list and is touted as ‘Australia’s last wilderness frontier’. It’s famous for getting cars into all sorts of trouble, whether it be suspension falling out, sharp rocks slashing tyres, and other damage caused by the corrugations. With absolutely no idea what there was to see and do and how long to take along the road I downloaded Birgit Bradtke’s ‘Destination Kimberley’, which was and continues to be incredibly helpful. She provides the distance from your starting point (whether in Derby or Kunnanurra) to the attraction which is particularly helpful as there is no phone reception along the road (apart from a surprise spot on a hill we were driving down just before Home Valley where our phones unexpectedly went crazy. We turned around and drove back up and joined some others there making calls and sending messages, lol!). All my planning was done through that, it was so detailed.Based on that we decided on eighteen days with the following itinerary if anyone is interested:
Day 1 – Go to Windjana Gorge campsite – set up
Day 2 – Explore Windjana Gorge and Tunnel creek
Day 3 – head to the King Leopold Range and Silent Grove campground (Bell Gorge)
Day 4 – head to Mt Barnett (Adcock and Galvins Gorge)
Day 5 – Mt Barnett, Manning Gorge
Day 6 – Mt Elizabeth
Day 7 – Mt Elizabeth
Day 8 – travel to Drysdale River station, leave trailer and continue to King Edward River campsite
Day 9 – drive to Mitchell Plateau (374km return trip from Drysdale River)
Day 10 – explore Mitchell Falls
Day 11 – return to Drysdale river station and stay overnight
Day 12 – travel to Home Valley station and stay at Bindaloo bush camp
Day 13 – explore area/rest day
Day 14 – head to El Questro (spend 4 nights, Day 17)
Day 18 – arrive in Kununurra
While most of the time we take each week as it comes we were super organized for the Gibb! It is important to have a rough idea of how long you plan to spend on the road as there are no guarantees as to what food will be available at the roadhouses and even then it is so expensive, so you need to plan out all your meals beforehand and do a mega shop before you set out. Jason and I ended up shopping in Broome like the apocalypse was approaching, I don’t know what came over us! We bought three bags of Doritos when we normally might make nachos once a month. Jason came up with a two litre bottle of chocolate milk which we have never bought before, but I made him put it back. Good thing too, as the fridge was full to bursting. Having said that, we did end up eating all of it by the time we had arrived in Kununurra so the planning paid off. We threw in a few dodgy Ainsley Harriet dried instant couscous meals for an emergency that I was very dubious about needing, but we ate those up too, so well done to Jason for insisting on that!
I knew the road was likely to be busy, as the Kimberley has had it’s best wet season in five years and all the falls were flowing, which apparently isn’t always the case. There was apparently a lot more water on the road than previous years as well. As an indication of the damage that had been done to the roads over the wet season, the road to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek had only opened in the first week of June, the week before we set off, when normally it has opened around late April. Our timing couldn’t have been better as it turned out. I don’t think I was quite prepared for how busy it was going to be though. The road itself was usually pretty quiet, but the campgrounds were always full of people and everyone was a lot louder and a lot less considerate of other campers than what we’ve usually come to expect. There were also a lot of young families around with screaming kids that were annoying as hell. I think my favourite was a mum yelling at her kid in the morning “stop pissing all over the caravan like a cat, what is wrong with you?!?!?!” Charming. There were also bus loads of tour groups as well, with dedicated spots for them at each campground which we made sure to steer well clear of when finding a spot to set up. So it was a bit of a shock to the system after a few months of peace and quiet amongst the grey nomad set.
This itinerary worked pretty well for us. We felt like we weren’t rushing too much and we saw all the main sights. We were a bit disappointed with Mt Elizabeth as we paid for two nights and then they told us their main gorge was closed. We would not have bothered had we known that, we thought it very sneaky that they didn’t tell us upfront. Lesson learnt, always ask before you pay! What we also didn’t realize is that all the stations are bloody expensive to stay at, averaging out at about $20 pp a night. The national parks were between $10 and $12 pp a night. Fortunately there wasn’t too much else we wanted to spend our money on and all the gorge visits were free, except for El Questro where there was a $20 per person pass you had to buy on top of the accommodation fee to access the gorges. El Questro station was definitely the most touristy and commercial. I thought I would hate it for this reason, but the attractions on that million acre property are pretty spectacular. Plus after two weeks of dust, corrugations and crappy amenities, we were pretty happy to be back on bitumen with modern facilities and a bar with happy hour. You get what you pay for I guess.
So the road itself was pretty good to start with and we weren’t sure what all the fuss was about. We were excited and nervous to do our first river crossings on the way to Bell Gorge and all was well. But progressively it got worse and worse. The corrugations on the Drysdale turnoff up to the King Edward River and back were particularly horrendous, the car and trailer rattling violently, and me preparing for everything to have fallen apart at the end of each leg of the trip. The track up to Mitchell Falls was a mix of corrugations, big stones in the ground to navigate around and some beginner 4WDing in parts. We averaged 30kph for that part of the trip, taking two and a half hours and that’s where we saw the majority of the breakdowns. It wasn’t as bad as many had led me to believe, but it all depends on the level of experience you have with these types of tracks I guess. Plus many people were driving way too fast. We also left Mable at Drysdale Station, they have a free care taking service, as we didn’t want to risk taking it up to the Mitchell River. That was definitely a good decision, we have our tent and portable gas burner for cooking as a back up sleeping option, so we chained the solar panel to Mable and she was as we left her when we got back!
We were very lucky overall, the biggest thing to go wrong with the car and trailer was the CV radio antenna snapping off, which we never use anyway. Our 12 volt plugs have also stopped working for some reason, which is annoying but not a major inconvenience, we can still charge things whilst driving in the car. Jason also discovered a 12cm tear in the top of the water tank, which isn’t a big deal for the moment as it still holds our water, but could become an issue down the track. Fortunately we had booked in a service in Kununurra as we figured both the car and trailer would need a once over so hopefully we can get those things fixed. It’s so funny though, Jason was under the trailer for most of the day taking the water tank off and working out the problem, and doesn’t everyone want to come over and have a look and a chat and offer some help! Best way to make friends at the caravan park is to get your tools out and start tinkering away at something, you’ll have people over in no time! I love that about traveling folk, people will usually always stop and offer help when a fellow traveler is having car issues.
We were cautious though, and stuck to about 60kph and made sure to do consistent checks of the tyre pressures and everything else at the start of each leg. However, we passed countless people broken down on the side of the road, who had gotten a flat or some other issue, saw car bonnets up at camp sites and even heard of a few stories of people being towed out. We were quite surprised to see so many dual axle caravans being towed along the road, we were nervous enough towing Mable, there is no way I’d risk a caravan, even if it’s off road! From what we saw, it doesn’t matter how off road or good quality your rig is, the chances of something going wrong are high so best to take it easy and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
So why put yourself through the hell of driving this road, where you have to put up with so many inconsiderate idiots, as well as dirt and dust that filters its way into every nook and cranny of the car, trailer and human? If we weren’t going to Mitchell Falls I reckon we would’ve done all the attractions up to Manning Gorge and then turned around and then taken the highway to the Kununurra end and visited El Questro. There really is not a lot in between except for many opportunities to screw up your car. But Mitchell Falls was one of the highlights of the trip and even though it was a long, tough drive getting up there it was totally worth it. We even got taxied back to the campsite on the way back.
The Falls are magnificent enough without doing the chopper ride, but we had never done one before, and although I would prefer to take a flight over the Bungles or Lake Argyle, at $145 each this was the only one we will be able to afford. It was only six minutes but it was awesome!
We loved all the gorges that we visited and it’s hard to pick a favourite. My favourite to swim at were Galvins Gorge and El Questro Gorge – El Questro in particular was one of the most challenging walks I’ve ever done with lots of rock scrambling, but it was great.
Emma Gorge at El Questro was also very pretty. But we also had such a great time swimming and chilling out at Manning Gorge and Bell Gorge, as well as seeing the freshwater crocs at Windjana and putting my claustrophobia to the test once again walking through Tunnel Creek. We also absolutely LOVED seeing all the amazing Aboriginal rock art up around the King Edward River, including the Wandjina’s and Gwion-gwion dolls. It is amazing that you can just walk around these boulders and find so many paintings intact, some estimated to be as old as 40,000 years. The fact that you can just walk around these unfenced sites for free is incredible and I feel very fortunate to have had that experience.
So if you ignore the fact that it was touristy and busy and there were a high percentage of annoying people all in all the trip along the Gibb was pretty amazing. Swimming in and around waterfalls is one of my most favourite things to do and I got to do that almost every day. There’s really nothing better than that really! We had never experienced anything quite like it before and are now feeling much confident with 4WDing, particularly navigating water crossings. Which is just as well, because we are heading to the Bungles this week and apparently that road is a shocker as well with lots of water crossings! Fingers crossed we make it through that road as well! Here are a few final photos of our fun filled 18 days.