THE GIBB LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE
Gorges formed by raging rivers, exciting creek crossings, amazing wildlife and flowers – this is the ultimate RV paradise
WORDS BY LORRAINE HOLLOWAY, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN AND LORRAINE HOLLOWAY
Having driven the Indian Ocean Drive, cruised the Coral Coast, and called the Pilbara home for three months, our adventure into the Kimberley was now only a matter of days away. However, with Derby as our starting point, a day trip to Horizontal Falls took priority.
At Derby Airport, we boarded a seaplane, and were quickly en-route to Talbot Bay. The beautiful blue lagoon, surrounded by the remains of the McLarty Ranges, has a house boat and pontoon permanently moored for house guests and day visitors. On arrival, and after a mandatory safety brief, we were off on “Jetstream”, a 600hp boat, for an exhilarating ride over the falls. We zoomed through the falls and whirled around in circles, creating even more turbulence so that we bounced over our own wake. While we were not guaranteed we would get to go over the second fall, we were lucky enough as the tides were with us that day.
These tidal waterfalls are unlike any other waterfall, as the water flows horizontally. The natural phenomenon is caused by massive tidal movements of up to 10 metres, creating a waterfall effect as water banks up against the sides of the narrow cliff passage faster than it can flow through the gap. This is repeated at the change of the tide.
Back on the stable pontoon, donning snorkel and goggles, we entered the swimming tank and watched through a security screen as sharks were hand fed by one of our guides. It is a bit intimidating to suddenly see a shark a matter of inches from your face! Fortunately they were more interested in the food the handlers were feeding them, rather than the ‘live bait’ in the tank beside them.
Next was a far more peaceful boat ride in nearby Cyclone Creek, where we drank in the sight of gorges and mangrove swamps while we listened to stories of how pearling luggers used to take refuge from cyclones.
After lunching on local barramundi and salad and lining up for another exhilarating ride over the falls, we returned to Derby via the Buccaneer Archipelago, a massive outcrop of over 800 islands.
Back on solid ground, we explored Derby, specifically for the photogenic and historic boab trees in the area. Boab trees, along with termite mounds in the shire, are treated as sacred by the indigenous; it is illegal to mark or deface them. In Derby, roads have been diverted around these protected trees. The 1500-year-old Derby Prison tree is a large hollow boab used back in the 1890s as a lockup for prisoners on their way to Derby, while the One Mile Dinner Camp Tree is a must-see at sunset.
We left Derby to set off along the Gibb River Road, a distance of 660 km from near Derby to the junction of the Great Northern Highway. The first 100 km of this track is a narrow bitumen road. As we drove the Gibb, we were constantly reminded that the road needs regular upkeep – and that means graders. It had only recently been opened after the wet; we hoped it would be in reasonable condition.
Windjana Gorge, in the King Leopold Ranges is carved out of the Napier Range by the Lennard River. The area is part of an ancient barrier reef system, formed during the Devonian period, 300 – 375 million years ago, when the whole area was under the ocean. The walk into the gorge is via a natural crevice, with a 3.5km walking track beside the lagoon left after the wet. Freshies float around in the water, languidly digesting the morning’s feed. The walls of the gorge rise between 30 to 100 metres, and in parts are up to 100 metres apart.
35 km from Windjana along the unsealed, corrugated Fairfield–Leopold Downs Road is Tunnel Creek, a 750 metre long tunnel carved by the creek through the walls of the Napier Range. You’ll clamber over rocks and through crevices to enter the cave, followed by a walk through shallow water in unlit caves – make sure you pack a torch and sturdy waterproof shoes.
Moving on from Windjana, we fuelled up at Imintji Roadhouse, approximately 325 km from Derby. Imintji boasts at being the cheapest fuel on the Gibb – at $2.36 per litre, we couldn’t imagine what the most expensive might be! We had heard that it was almost mandatory to try one the famous Imintji Roo Burgers or homemade pies; we were not disappointed.
Having filled the 4WD with diesel, and our bellies with food, we backtracked to the turnoff to Silent Grove National Park, where, after 19 km, we found the campsite. Like Windjana, this boasts flushing toilets, hot showers and level grassy sites. After self-registration, repairing a puncture on the run and selecting a site, we were then able to continue without the van into Bell Gorge, about 30km off the Gibb. In our opinion, this is one of the most beautiful gorges along the track.
A hike of less than 1km takes you into Bell Gorge where you can paddle in pools, or follow a track down to the bottom to enjoy views of the spectacular waterfalls. We felt we were a million miles away from dust and traffic. We bathed away the dust of the past few days in a quiet pool, and in general, just enjoyed the peace and solitude with fellow travellers Anne and Bruce, a couple from Lancelin that we’d met up with several times as we travelled through the Pilbara.
About 50 km east of Imintji Roadhouse is Over the Range Tyre and Mechanical. Owner Neville Hernon, who has lived on the Gibb for over 20 years, recently opened this service, stocking a range of new and second-hand tyres, , as well as offering minor mechanical and welding repairs. He does not offer towing, but can help to arrange it.
As we travelled further along the corrugated dirt road, not seeing much more than the occasional 4WD towing a camper trailer, Galvan’s Gorge caught our eye. It’s definitely worth the short walk down to the horseshoe-shaped pool, with its waterfall plunging over the escarpment. We swam amongst the ferns in this beautiful spot, before heading further down the Gibb to Barnett River Gorge.
We topped up again with diesel, at the Mt Barnett Roadhouse, the other roadhouse on the route. The price of $2.50 per litre for diesel confirmed that Imintji had, in fact, the cheapest fuel.
About 30km from the roadhouse is the turnoff to Barnett River Gorge. After a 3km 4WDrive, we found several sites situated along the river, and near the gorge. Our campsite was the best one we had in the entire time on the Gibb. We found a fantastic secluded spot beside the river, where we set up camp for five glorious days. We bathed in the river, hiked into the gorge and in general, veged out.
Reluctantly we left Barnett River and headed for Ellenbrae Homestead. Approximately halfway along the Gibb, this property is predominantly a cattle station, but is becoming a popular stopover for tourists during the dry. We stayed there for two nights and explored their private gorge, watched the double barred finches drinking from the water pipes, and made use of their quirky amenities block in the campgrounds. The water for the shower is heated by a donkey system, and well into the evening, there was still plenty of hot water for all. The kitchen is in full swing daily, making up to 200 fresh scones to satisfy hungry tourists during their peak period.
Anxious to see the Pentecost River, we rattled further along the dusty corrugations to Home Valley Station, where we camped beside the Pentecost, rather than in the caravan park near the homestead. Home Valley provides trail guides to a series of graded walks on the property. Guided fishing tours, croc-spotting safaris, station or sunset tours and horse trail rides are also available. The sunrises and sunsets over the river and the ranges a re spectacular; with spectacular hues over the colourful Cockburn Ranges. The 3.5m-acre property is bordered by the mighty Pentecost River, and the crossing of the river is another of our bucket list items.
We camped beside the river for a couple of nights; watching the tide come in and out, watching the sun rise and set, watching the crocs appear and disappear! We knew the river was tidal, and sat at the crossing one day for over an hour, watching 4WDs cross, noting the route they took and seeing how deep the water was as the vehicles waded through. Despite the crossing being fresh water, salt water crocs as well as freshies are known to lurk, so it is not a wise idea to “walk” the crossing first. Our homework paid off. At 6.30 the following morning, deciding this was to be a ‘good tide’, we packed up, and set off before breakfast.
After all those sleepless nights, worried about the depth and flow of the water, it was a breeze! The water was only about knee deep and the stones not rough to cross. We just walked the truck and van over slowly in second gear, low range. We parked up on the other side in the rest area enjoyed our breakfast, and watched others make the crossing.
You can’t go past the El Questro Wilderness Park entrance without driving down its 16 km driveway to find out what it is all about. No different to theme parks of the east coast, there is plenty to do if you want to pay for tours but there is much to see without having to spend any more. Once you have paid for your Wilderness Pass and camping fees, you can drive and walk into any of the spectacular gorges – El Questro, Amalia, Moonshine – wade in the thermal waters at Zebedee Springs, or hike from the station to Telecom Hill or Saddleback Ridge.
The caravan park is lush, with powered and unpowered sites, clean amenities, and both fuel and a general store located at the town ship. Bush camps with eco-loos are located along the river.
To complete our stay at El Questro, we joined the late afternoon boat trip on the beautiful Chamberlain Gorge. This peaceful afternoon, topped off with champagne and fruit at the end of the gorge, was a way of celebrating our journey along the Gibb. After El Questro, the road becomes bitumen, all the way into Kununurra and beyond.
We learnt to be careful of cattle wandering on and off the road. Mostly, they stayed clear of moving vehicles. Dust from passing vehicles is always an issue and corrugations vary from stretch to stretch: some sections of the road are smooth but dusty, others stony. This varies from season to season, and according to how recently the road was graded.
The Gibb in May, recently fresh from the wet, gave us its best. In eleven days, we saw boab trees and termite mounds, sappy gums and savannah grass, Kimberley roses, wild rosellas and purple mulla mullas growing wild along the side of the track and spiky spinifex in rocky outcrops. In gorges we saw waterholes, waterfalls, babbling brooks, and what could have been raging riversrivers, as well as freshies and salties. Blue-winged Kookaburras serenaded at dusk, whistling kites soared above the gorges, bower birds stole food from our site and spinifex pigeons camouflaged themselves amongst the grasses. What more could you ask for?