Driving the Gibb River Road through remote northwest Australia is a classic outback adventure.
The Kimberley is an old battered landscape and home to the Gibb River. Its mountains have been worn down to humps, its flatlands split open by gorges and its Methuselah surface baked orange in the sun. Even the trees seem ancient, twisted into bonsai arrangements by heat and wind. Remoteness is its great attraction, and its spectacular scenery of rugged hills, plunging gorges and rust-coloured rock. In the evening, red earth sets fire to the sky in lurid sunsets.
The Gibb that keeps on giving
This region of northwest Australia is one of our continent’s last great frontiers. However, stick to Gibb River Road and you’ll get the full outback experience, without an impossible challenge. At least during the May to October dry season. You need to be self-sufficient in food, water, spare parts, tools and communications equipment. As long as you plan well, this classic adventure can be tackled by most travellers. At an unhurried pace, it takes about four days to drive the 700-odd kilometres of unsealed road between Kununurra and Fitzroy Crossing.
Getting to the Gibb
Many people fly into Kununurra at the eastern end of the Gibb River Road to start their journey. The small town of 4,000 is quickly swallowed up in a vast landscape as you start the drive. As you turn onto the Gibb River Road, yellowed grass rustles and giant boab trees are outlined against a blue sky. Tarmac vanishes and dusty corrugated dirt road begins. In less than an hour, you can turn off at Emma Gorge to admire its sheer sandstone cliffs and turquoise pool. Which can be reached on a shortish hike. Lie on your back in the pool and watch droplets from the waterfall spiral down like rain for one of those moments that make travelling the Gibb River Road so wonderful.
You can overnight at Emma Gorge Resort in a deluxe safari tent. Or nearby at El Questro Station, whether in a tent or at its deluxe homestead. The immense property hides glorious canyons, as well as easily-accessed Zebedee Springs, a pocket of lush rainforest in a rocky red landscape, fed by water that bubbles up at 30°C.
Roadside Gibb River
Heading west, travellers arrive at the Pentecost River, which separates true Gibb River Road travellers from Kununurra excursionists. As crocodile-haunted waters gurgle past your hubcaps, a sense of adventure grows. On the horizon, flat-topped outcrops look like the sandcastles of giant children. Worn-down hills are streaked with layers of improbable colour. The enormous emptiness of the landscape is exhilarating, and you’ll feel your mind unwind.
Just across the Pentecost River is Home Valley, a cattle station where visitors can camp, stay in guesthouse rooms or wallow in Grass Castles. Stand-alone suites that provide the most outback luxury you’ll find between El Questro just to the east and Broome some 700 kilometres to the west. Apart from horse riding. Guests can participate in musters, go fishing for barramundi in the Pentecost River, and explore the locations used for filming Baz Luhrmann’s epic movie Australia. The landscape’s raw beauty is uplifting. It gives you space to think, far away from the rush of the city and the ring of the mobile phone.
Homely Home Valley
Home Valley is more than just a tourism provider. It’s a working cattle station owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation. It provides pastoral and tourism training programs for the young indigenous people of the East Kimberley. Trainees get the chance to learn everything from welding and animal husbandry to operating a commercial kitchen. As for visitors, they get the rare pleasure of meeting some of the Kimberley’s indigenous people. One of the delights of Home Valley is riding out with the station workers. The Cockburn Range spread blue against the horizon and kites circling overhead.
There’s beauty hidden behind the discomforts of the road as you bounce and jolt further into this burnt landscape. Bindoola Falls, some 16 kilometres onwards from Home Valley is a stunning sight early in the dry season, and a refreshing antidote to the dust of the road. Its frigid pools are a shock at first. Yet when your heart settles. You can float on your back and watch sunlight sparkle on water, as it tumbles over the lip of the blushing cliffs above your head.
Strung out over the following hundreds of kilometres are Adcock, Galvan’s, Manning and Barnett River gorges, which are wonderful places. Kept fresh with trickles of moisture that expand into roaring waterfalls during the wet season. Although saltwater crocodiles inhabit the Kimberley coast, these inland waterholes are safe. Visit here for a swim among purple waterlilies, surrounded by high cliffs and shrieking cockatoos.
Towards the western end of the Gibb River Road, it’s a slow haul through the purple King Leopold Ranges. At Windjana Gorge, where ancient fossils are embedded in the honey-coloured limestone, you finally return to sealed road that takes you onto Fitzroy Crossing. The first town since leaving Kununurra. It’s almost a shock to be back among the trappings of civilisation. However, as soon as you drive out of town again, the Kimberley landscape envelops you once more. You can stand on a hilltop and see no sign of humans. The silence is spectacular. You feel like you own the entire universe. Or maybe, a little unnervingly, that you’re alone in the entire universe. It’s exhilaratingly grand, and the experience of a lifetime.
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