The Gibb River Road is one of Australia’s classic outback drives. This 660 kilometre unsealed track runs eastwards from Derby in Western Australia and through the heart of an area of outstanding beauty called The Kimberley to Kununurra.
Anyone who has read my blog will be able to tell you that I love a road trip. The thought of missing out on one of Australia’s most epic road trips was simply too much to bear and I couldn’t wait to tackle the mighty Gibb River Road.
And I’m so glad I did. What I encountered along the way was nothing short of incredible: from age-old gorges, breathtaking panoramas, craggy bluffs, remote homesteads and aboriginal art. It was worth every bump in the road and now I’d love to share this journey with you.
The Gibb River Road
The Gibb River Road is an old stock route dating back to the 1800s. It is a historical pioneering route through one of the remotest parts of Australia. For Europeans this area has only been reasonably accessible over the past hundred or so years but the area is rich with sacred aboriginal site that depict an ancient world of mythology. It runs between the western township of Derby and the Kununurra in the east.
Views On The Road
What struck me almost immediately about the Gibb River Road was the colour changes in the soil as we bumped along over the corrugations. The earth varied from a light, sandy colour to a deep red ochre.
As the kilometres passed by the landscape treated us to an ever changing palate of colour and textures; from flat plains to rocky outcrops.
We passed a beautiful creek full of the most beautiful lilies that struck me as a little oasis of delicate beauty in this vast, hot and dusty landscape.
Depending on the time of year that you visit, the river crossings and floodplains may be filled with water. I can only imagine how that would change the landscape and how thrilling the water would be to forge across in your vehicle!
El Questro Station
Shortly after you begin your journey on the Gibb River Road from the Kununurra end there is a turnoff to El Questro Station. I would highly recommend diverting your path down to El Questro as there is simply heaps of fantastic places discover there. Wander through the lush tropical vegetation to the thermal pools of Zebedee Springs or tackle some of the walks to discover hidden waterfalls.
From the ethereal, faerie grotto that is Emma Gorge to the challenging but fun hike and clamber through El Questro Gorge. Both of these walks are reasonably demanding, especially in the heat of The Kimberley, so make sure you have all the necessary items such as water, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses.
El Questro Station has camping facilities and, more importantly, a great outdoor bar where you can sit and relax with a cold beer to the sound of live acoustic music.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the land on which I travel in Australia has a deeper past that I realise. Because the original owners of the land, the aboriginal tribe of that area, do not leave an obvious presence on the land, it can be difficult to picture them living here. It was humbling to discover some little known aboriginal art tucked away down the Wyndham turnoff.
Although not much is known about this art – there is no plaque giving you information about it, for example – it is safe to assume that this could possibly date back thousands of years. I liked to think that people have called this land home for many hundreds of years and continue to do so to this present day.
Mount Barnett Station
First night camped in Mount Barnett Station campground. We set up camp under a couple of giant boab trees. Boab trees are indigenous to parts of Western Australia and Africa, so they really are uniquely special.
The campsite here was right next to the Barnett River and its proximity was too tempting to ignore. Walk down to the river from the campsite and on the bank on the left hand side is a rope swing that can provide you with hours of entertainment.
You can walk into Manning Gorge from the Mount Barnett Station campground, so this is a clear winner for staying there. The first adventure is to cross the Barnett River, either by swimming across (you’re wearing your swimmers under your shorts and tshirt, right?) or by using the little pully boat. I opted for a swim because the day was already warming up even though it was only 6.45am.
After crossing the river the walk takes you over a kind of plateau (without much shade – so bring plenty of water) before dropping down into the gorge.
At the end of the walk you will find a wide, open plunge pool with a waterfall that falls off the lip like a giant curtain. When I visited it was quite dry, but I could still appreciate the beauty of the area and wasted no time jumping into that water.
After the Manning Gorge walk, the trip down into Bell Gorge is very easy. It takes only about 15 minutes to walk there from the car park. The views here were absolutely superb.
I loved how there were two layers; you could choose to relax at the top pool and watch the water cascading over the edge, or cross over the water and walk down the other side of the falls to the plunge pool below.
If you are a bit of a geology nut then Windjana Gorge is simply unmissable. Even if you pretend not to be, when you realise that the 300 metre cliffs you are looking at used to be on the ocean floor, it’s hard not to feel impressed. Windjana Gorge is a Devonian (an era dating back 419.2 – 358.9 million years) limestone reef dating back 300 million years.
Windjana Gorge is a highly spiritual place to the Bunuba people. Wandjina are the powerful creation spirits that reside here and the early pastoralists misspelled the name back in the 1800s.
There is a campground at Windjana Gorge where I stayed the night. After setting up our tents, my group and I walked into the gorge at sunset to sit on the banks of the Lennard River.
Here we were stunned to see at least 20 (if not more) freshwater crocodiles idly floating around or on the banks.
The next morning we returned and spotted a load more, plus a confused barking owl who should probably have been asleep.
The highlight of Windjana Gorge for me had to be the colony of fruit bats that filled the night’s sky at dusk. Just as we sat on the banks, hundreds of thousands of fruit bats erupted onto the scene in search for that night’s meal. This spectacle continued for at least 15 minutes of activity and left me gobsmacked. Layers upon layers of bats flew across the sunset, wheeling and whirring through the sky like in the largest air show I have ever seen.
You guessed it: Tunnel Creek is a creek that runs through a tunnel. It is part of the same Devonian Range as Windjana Gorge and is Western Australia’s oldest cave. It runs for 750 metres under the ground and has been carved out by the waters of Tunnel Creek to form fascinating stalactites and stalagmites.
It’s quite exciting to kick off your shoes, put on your head torch and clamber into the tunnel to wade through the water inside. The rock formations within the tunnel were beautiful.
Deep inside the tunnel we discovered another colony of fruit bats hanging from the ceiling. Also, further into the cave there were more freshwater crocodiles lurking in the water. At that point we gave them a wide berth and decided it was time to turn back again!
Tunnel Creek has a fascinating local history. It was the place where Jandamarra, an indigenous Australian of the Bunuba tribe, was shot and killed after leading one of the few organised armed insurrections against European colonisation of Australia.
Derby is a small town at the south end of the Gibb River Road. Derby is a good place to refuel yourself and your car. I called into the Visitor Centre and had lunch in a small park by the commercial jetty.
Just outside of the town there is a very significant place There is a giant boab tree here that has been hollowed out on the inside. This area has a turbulent history because it is said that in the late 1800s white men would imprison local aboriginal people here on their way to Derby for sentencing.
Hints and Tips
- The Gibb River Road is accessible from May to October
- You will need a 4WD high clearance vehicle to drive this unsealed road
- Take a jerry can of fuel for your car, just in case!
- Bring all your supplies with you, including food and water, as there is limited availability of resources along the road.
- Don’t expect to have phone signal. Download a few maps to access offline or bring old fashioned maps with you.
Have I inspired you to drive the Gibb River Road? Have you attempted this or another outback drive? What were you favourite places to visit and the best memories from your trip?
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