Enticing swimming holes, sparkling waterfalls, snapping crocs and hot springs are all on the agenda along the Gibb River Road, writes Chris Viney.
Bunched tightly around the last turn, the racehorses enter the straight and thunder towards the finishing post. Hooves thud into the dirt, red dust rises. The silks of the jockeys are flashes of neon and the crowd roars.
I’d never imagined that a journey on the Gibb River Road through Western Australia’s Kimberley region would finish up on a racetrack. But it’s Cup Day in Wyndham and the bleakly beautiful scenery – red ranges, white saltpans, blazing blue sky – is splashed with the bright colours of frocks and fascinators as the whole town and most of nearby Kununurra enjoy a day at the races.
It’s a far cry and more than a thousand kilometres from Broome, where we rested for a few days after the long drive from our home in Tasmania, before launching our 4WD onto the Gibb River Road.
The sand, sunsets and saltwater of Broome and nearby Cape Leveque were a welcome break from the driving. We took a flight over the Mitchell Plateau, the Horizontal Waterfall and the scattered islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago.
But the Gibb River Road beckoned.
The sealed road out of Derby soon turned to red gravel and a morning’s dusty drive brought us to Windjana Gorge. No swimming here – dozens of freshwater crocodiles glide in the pools and sun themselves on the banks. At dusk, we watch them lunge at the flocks of bats that leave the gorge in uncountable numbers, many of the flying mammals dipping to the water and dodging the reptiles’ snapping jaws.
A short way east is Silent Grove, the campsite near Bell Gorge. This is what we’ve come for – swimming in cool, fresh water, a shoulder massage under the waterfall, drying off on sun-warmed rocks, then another dip.
But Silent Grove is hardly quiet. The campground is full – no surprises there – and we share the conversations of those around us. One near-neighbour is proudly showing off her new car fridge to a friend, pointing inside to its many features. The demonstration is brought to an abrupt halt by a firm command from the man of the van, who can feel his beers warming. “Close the lid, Janet!” is the order. The fridge snaps shut.
By contrast, our next campsite is a private and secluded delight. The Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, two hours south of the Gibb River Road, is owned and run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
“ ... the reward is a lovely pool at the base of a waterfall. ”
During our stay, self-guided 4WD excursions take us first to Dimond Gorge, where we paddle a Canadian canoe in deep shade below the crags to find a spot for lunch and swim across the Fitzroy River, bank to bank and back. Next day, we head to Sir John Gorge for some hot and sunny walking, relieved by several cooling dips.
Equally appealing in different ways is Mt Elizabeth Station. After a bone-jarring 20km of corrugations, we’re welcomed by co-manager Pat Lacey, who came to the station as a governess for the owner’s nieces, almost 50 years ago.
Pat gives us a hand-drawn map directing us to two wonderful gorges, reached by rough 4WD tracks. Warla Gorge, a sandyshored swimming hole on the Hann River, is the easier route.
The track to Wunnumurra Gorge is rough and rocky, needing low-range second gear most of the way. But the reward is a lovely pool at the base of a waterfall, with the bonus of some fine examples of Aboriginal rock art nearby.
At the eastern point of our journey, the corrugations finally come to an end at the turn-off to El Questro Station, the best-known destination along the Gibb River Road. This million-acre property has something for everyone – gorges and hot springs, challenging 4WD tracks and adventurous walks, scenic flights and fishing charters, restaurants and bars with live entertainment, a service station and a vehicle repair workshop.
We raise our tent in a quiet campsite on the banks of the Pentecost River. Over three days, we venture out to swim in the thermal pool at Zebedee Springs, wade and scramble to the top pool in El Questro Gorge, and glide through Chamberlain Gorge on an afternoon cruise.
Leaving El Questro, it’s a joy to drive smoothly in near-silence over the sealed highway into Kununurra, although the Gibb’s notoriously rough gravel surface hasn’t been as bad as we expected – perhaps we’re lucky to have been on the road quite soon after the grader.
But now, the rough stuff is over and we’re looking forward to an easy drive on country highways, cruising down our nation’s map to the first days of a new Tasmanian springtime.
Beat the tyranny of distance
Driving from Tasmania to the Kimberley was an amazing experience.
But having done it once, we decided next time, we’d fly to Broome and spend more time exploring parts we missed – the wild and remote Mitchell Plateau and the astonishing rock formations of the Bungle Bungles.
APT knows how to explore this spectacular region, with small group land-based tours travelling in custom-built 4WD vehicles, staying in APT’s own wilderness lodges in key locations and enjoying exclusive signature experiences.