As we prepared to tackle some of the more challenging aspects of our Gibb River Road adventure, we received a piece of salutary advice from the attractive young manager at Drysdale River Station: ‘Take it slowly,’ she said. ‘Learn to read the road. It can change quite suddenly — and just when you least expect it.’ How right she was. You relax enough to change up to third gear on a road suddenly free of ruts only to be met with a deep gully just over the crest of a hill — or another stretch of the razor-sharp gibber stones so deadly to the walls of tyres.
Over three weeks in July/August we travelled nearly 4,000 kilometres from Broome along the Gibb River Road to Kununurra and back along the Great Northern Highway in a 4wd campervan. We stayed at around 16 campsites with another four nights divided between a hotel and ‘glamping’. While I’m no stranger to driving on dirt, I quickly learned to differentiate between corrugated and deeply rutted roads. Much was second-gear stuff – with some of the more challenging drives being the roads to the Mitchell Plateau, Kalumburu and Bungle Bungles with many vehicles carrying two spare tyres.
It’s difficult to describe a landscape so majestic that it both demands and defies hyperbole. As each description began to form in my mind, as each ‘photo opportunity’ presented, it was overridden by the sights that slid into view at the next bend in the road.
The sheer scope of the country, the mountain ranges, cliffs, plateaus and gorges, the ever-changing colours of the road and rock, the many stony creek and river crossings, the clear cool rock pools, the bullish buoyancy of the stars in the blackest of night skies, the dark red pods of the bauhinia trees, the bronzed sculpted trunks of the boabs . . .
One of several 200 km diversions off the GRR took us through the pretty township of Kalumburu to Honeymoon Bay – an isolated spot in the far north of WA reputedly great for fishing and aggressively guarded by ‘salties’ which makes swimming impossible. But for isolation, views of sea and sunset and toilet lids which instruct to drop because of snakes and frogs, it can’t be beaten.
On another ‘side’ trip across the Mitchell Plateau with its unique Livistona palm trees, we stayed at Mitchell Falls Wilderness Lodge where a young girl named Brooke cooked meals like a Master chef.
It was here that unaware of the ‘grading’ standards set for walks (where 1 is easy and 6 only for the very skilled or completely nuts), we set out on what turned out to be a Grade 5 walk to the Falls early one morning, wandering off the uncertain path a number of times to look for Bradshaw rock art.
There were few other walkers that day, but we did pass another couple sitting on a rock, rather all-in. As we went by, the man clapped his hand to his forehead, looked gloomily at his wife: ‘Darn. I forgot to turn off the fridge.’ Perhaps, like end-of-life, these are the thoughts that filter through when the going gets tough.
A thoroughly relieved four hours later we arrived at the Mitchell River only to slip off the mossy stone crossing for an unscheduled swim.
While such a short space of time allowed only a glimpse of the Kimberley, the folk who live there and those who visit, many things surprised me.
Firstly, where were our fellow Sandgropers? Aside from one couple from Collie and another from Baldivis, we had arrived back in Broome before we met anyone else from WA. Most came from Queensland and Victoria and most of the rest from Europe – particularly Germany, Switzerland, France.
Secondly, even travelling outside WA school holidays I had been warned of the crowds, but this was not my experience, particularly on the Gibb River where sometimes an hour or two would pass without seeing another vehicle. At El Questro, the next camper was half a kilometre away from our bird-filled site – with only a bull standing between me and the eco-toilet one memorable morning. While other campsites were more crowded, the campers were helpful and friendly and spread fairly evenly across the age spectrum from young couples with babies and children (two brave Mums had three kids and were pregnant with a fourth) and certainly not dominated by the ‘grey nomads’ we had heard so much about.
Thirdly, most of the towns we passed through were places of evolving pride – polite service, no overflowing rubbish bins, no litter on the streets. In fact, it may have taken some decades, but when I think back to the trash-lined roads of my many trips between Perth and the Pilbara in my early married days to the almost litter-free experience of this trip, we’re doing well Australia.
But, finally, neither description nor photography can do this place justice. It’s so diverse that one person’s experience is quite different from another’s and the only way to appreciate the Kimberley is to see it for yourself. Thanks to a lesson on letting down our tyres from my son Viv, we came through with our teeth and most of the crockery back-of-van intact, but it certainly lent a new dimension to the expression ‘a rattling good time’.
Quite apart from the background of one of the most stunning landscapes in the world, highlights included:
- Driving the Gibb River Road itself
- The challenges of other roads and tracks – both 4wd and on foot
- Swimming in the rock pools
- A delightful hour spent at the Dessert family’s multi-awarded Hoochery rum distillery in Kununurra (yummy cakes too!) www.hoochery.com.au
- Sunset at Honeymoon Bay
- A bird-watching cruise on phenomenal Lake Argyle firstname.lastname@example.org
- Flying in a float plane over the Packsaddle Plains, Lake Argyle and the Bungle Bungles with great commentary by our pilot Nick and morning tea at the deserted Lagoon Island www.kimberleyairtours.com.au
- First flight in a helicopter over Mitchell Falls www.helispirit.com.au
- Favourite campgrounds include Munurru at the entrance to the Mitchell Plateau on the King Edward River, El Questro Station private site on the Chamberlain River, Derby’s Kimberley Entrance Caravan site, Lake Argyle Resort
- All of it, really