The Gibb River Road and this area of the Kimberleys has been one of the long awaited items on our agenda, but the reputation of the corrugated road had left us wondering if the bone rattling would be worth it all. Like many of the the nightmare road stories that we have heard along the way this one was over-hyped too. Certainly there were corrugations and a few holes and dips through creek crossings, but nothing that would stop you coming to enjoy this fabulous part of the country.
Our first stop along the great Gibb River Road was El Questro Station, although from most accounts the ‘station’ part of the operation is now very minor compared to the tourist part. It is a fairly commercialised port of call, but the natural beauty that the station has to offer definitely makes this a must-stop for at least a couple of night. We walked gorges, swam in the hot springs, viewed some amazing vistas and Indianna was very nearly horse-napped by a friendly, nibbley horse! From Branco’s lookout we could see way down below into the clear water of the Pentecost River and saw a pretty big croc making his way along the river in search of lunch. He obviously found something when he dived down into the depths and we didn’t see him again.
With the intention of putting the boat in on the Pentecost River we made our next stop a short distance down the Gibb at Home Valley Station. We’d unfortunately missed the high tide necessary to launch the boat for that day and because of the neap tides that occur on the Pentecost we wouldn’t get another opportunity to launch the boat for a couple of days. The kids weren’t too upset by the circumstances though as Home Valley Station had the most amazing playground and a beautiful pool to entertain us all for the afternoon before moving on.
Turning off onto the Kalumbaru Road heading to Mitchell Falls we were told that the bone-rattling corrugations were to get worse, but the road wasn’t too bad. Pretty dusty, but nothing like the red plumes of the Peninsula Development Road on Cape York. We headed into Drysdale Station to support the locals and fuel up. At $2.09 the diesel was no more expensive than we’d anticipated and we were just pleased that we weren’t having to pay the Kalumbaru prices – reportedly $3.70 per litre for diesel! We travelled around 350kms from Home Valley to the King Edward River on the Mitchell Fall Road on this day, arriving at camp before 3pm, so you can see that the roads were not too slow going, there were places where we travelled at 40-50 km/h, but there were also stretches where we were up to 80-90km/h.
There is an amazing amount of Aboriginal art in this area of the Kimberleys (and other areas I guess), but we have noticed that you have to be fairly committed to find much of it. There are information boards and maps showing the general area of art, but not a lot of great signage at the actual art sites. I guess this goes some way to reducing the number of people stamping up dust around the sites and protecting the art for years to come. The age of the art is just amazing, the oldest art, usually depicting humans, animals and plants in an irregular style is around 30,000 – 40,000 years old. Just imagine if Dulux could make paint that lasted that long! I personally really like the Gwion style of art (also known as Bradshaw Art) which is no less than 17,000 years old. It’s painted mostly in red ochre and the colours are still so very vivid. The subjects are mostly humans in ceremonial dress and postures. Then there are the Wandjina painting which have a very distinctive head shape and are the youngest style, considered to be less than 1,000 years old, but made famous by that image being included in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
From King Edward River we made our way into the Mitchell Falls camping area, over a rougher road, so the going was a little slower at times and we hit a couple of dips with a bit of a thud! Everything remained intact though.
Mitchell Falls was definitely worth the extra miles and the fairly rugged walk in. Even at this time of the dry season the falls are a beautiful sight… they would certainly be awesome in the wet. The walk into Mitchell Falls also takes you past Little Mertens and Big Mertens Falls, with the first spot being a great place to swim and cool off a little sitting in the dry behind the water fall. There’s more rock art along this walk too, but due to the lack of signage we missed one lot. The highlight of our Mitchell Falls visit would have to be the return to camp though, one and a half hours there and six minutes back… by helicopter! What a fantastic ride, we were taken for a few swoops across the falls at a precarious angle before heading back to camp. The view you get from up in the air is so very different to that on the ground, especially in this type of country which is gouged out with all of the different waterways. This treat has been a long time coming for the kids, we’ve been taking about taking a helicopter flight for a long time now and they were all itching to get aboard. Thank goodness the reality matched their expectation, everyone was absolutely buzzing at the end of the ride.
The western side of the Gibb River Road, from the Kalumbaru Road on is stop after stop of magnificent gorges and waterholes to swim in. We didn’t venture into all of them, we had to pick and choose somewhat to save the kids legs! We made a quick late afternoon stop at Barnett River Gorge, negotiating the roughly marked track to get to a great swimming spot complete with rope swing. A few miles further on is Mt Barnett Station and the campground for Manning Gorge where we arrived late in the afternoon. This is a beautiful spot, a little dusty perhaps, but the campground is in amongst big boab trees on the banks of the Manning River. You have to get wet crossing the Manning River before walking into Manning Gorge itself. We set off fairly early on the walk as much of it is unshaded and over rocky terrain. We decided to make a day of it so packed lunch and a pack of cards to spend the day swimming, jumping from rock ledges and relaxing near the falls. It was a great day and for much of the afternoon we had the whole place to ourselves. We walked back around mid-afternoon and the rest certainly paid off as we made the return journey half an hour quicker than the trip out.
The boys (big and small) love jumping off any rock ledge that they can find and the water here is so clear and deep that it is all safe enough for cautious-Mum to let them do it, I’ve even been known to get in on the action too – on the smaller jumps at least!
We had hoped to stay at Bell Gorge for our next stop, but the camping at the gorge is currently closed so we had to settle for a spot at Silent Grove. The facilities at the National Parks along the Gibb River Road (GRR) have been brilliant, with flushing toilets and hot showers, all cleaned daily – but you do pay a decent price for them. We’re paying $26 a night in the National Parks, on top of the annual parks pass which we purchased in Kununurra, and there are very few options for free camping along the way with most of the land bordering the GRR being private land with “No Camping” signs at most potential camping spots.
Bell Gorge, like Manning, is stunning and we spent a fair few hours whiling away the time here too. With the very high cliffs to the sides of the waterfall there was plenty of entertainment as various (usually French) travellers hurled themselves off. This time cautious-Mum put her foot down and directed the jumping Malpass’ to a lower section of the river to jump from! The orange and black King Leopold stone that makes up most of the gorges in this area is extremely hard and dates from billions of years ago. Even with the immense amount of water that passes over this stone there appears to be barely any wearing of the gorge walls.
We have not seen a huge amount of wildlife in the last week or so, there are a fair number of birds around, but mostly small birds such as finches, not the flock of big Brolgas and Jabirus as we saw in Kakadu, although we have seen the occasional one. There must be a lot of dingos around though, we saw a very confident dingo sitting on the road out to Mitchell Falls, he just wandered to the side of the road and watched us cruise by. One caught us off guard one night as Ben and I sat by the fire at Mitchell Falls. We had all the lights off and no torch handy as a dingo trotted through the camp a few metres away, by the time we managed to find a torch he was long gone. Then I saw another pass through at Silent Grove as I sat up alone writing our blog, they just saunter through though, not particularly bothered by humans, just on the look out for some tasty morsel from the rubbish. As much of the driving has been bordered by cattle stations we have of course seen a lot of cattle. Goannas are starting to reappear again too, we have not seen any for such a long time thanks to the cane toad in Queensland and much of the Northern Territory. The cane toad has glands on it’s back that secrete a toxic liquid and are deadly to the goanna and many other toad eating natives. The cane toad is making it’s deadly march through Western Australia though, with toads being found as far west as Kununurra, so I guess it’s only a matter of time before the goannas in this area are effected too. We’ve heard stories about the remaining goannas in Queensland learning to roll the cane toads over and eating them from the underneath, thereby avoiding the poisons… clever little things, lets just hope there are enough clever ones to let the species survive and that the other reptiles and birds learn similar tricks.
The highlights of the Gibb River Road itself really ended for us at Bell Gorge, from there we travelled a little further along and then south, through the Windjana Gorge Road back to the Great Northern Highway, missing the last 120-odd kms of the Gibb into Derby, but allowing us to see Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek and Fitzroy Crossing without a whole lot of doubling back.
Windjana Gorge (like Tunnel Creek and Geike Gorge which are yet to come) is gouged out of the Devonian Reef, which is a build up of the dead calcium organisms that lived on the ocean floor covering the Kimberley area over 360 million years ago. Over a period of something like 50 million years the remains of these dying little creatures created a reef in excess of 2kms tall in some parts. As the Kimberley region was lifted through movements in the Earth’s crust the reef became the cliffs that we can see today. Pretty amazing to think that these towering cliffs are made up of billions of dead little animals. Windjana Gorge is also famous for the number of freshwater crocodiles that you can see in the river. There are certainly a lot, on the 3.5km walk up the gorge we got fairly close to some, (probably could have got a little closer, just didn’t want to scare the little biters!) and we saw probably 25 or so sunning themselves in the early morning sun. Check to the right of Tobey in the photo below for one of our little friends!
The gorge walk itself was not all that special, all of the huge cliff formations were most spectacular at the entrance to the gorge. I think we may have been a little spoilt for amazing scenery over the last week or more with the gorges through the King Leopold Ranges.
A little further down the road we had a scenic delight of quite a different kind. Tunnel Creek is a tunnel (of course!) through the limestone cliffs of this area. You walk through the tunnel, at times in complete darkness, having to negotiate around and through the creek which runs through the tunnel. The water gets a little deeper than waist height and it is pretty cold in parts. There is a fair amount of wildlife around for a dark place, there’s a colony of Ghost Bats hanging at the half way point, there are lots of butterflies at the end and there are those two shiny red eyes in the water in the dark, dark section which belong to the resident freshwater croc. Even though you know he’s highly unlikely to come and take a taste of your legs it’s still a little unnerving walking through waist deep water less than 10 metres from him.
Still wet from walking through the creek we made the last 112km dash to Fitzroy Crossing and were pretty dried out by the time we got there! On the road south we saw a huge dust whirlwind, it was mostly over by the time we realised what it was and scrambled for the camera, but had started with a black base as it whipped up all of the ash from burn-offs on the ground.
We also passed a Combi spending it’s last days in the company of a Boab, she’s obviously had a pretty hard life.
We headed about 40kms the wrong way (East!) on the Great Northern Highway to spend some time in Fitzroy Crossing and to check out Geike Gorge. Camping for a couple of nights near the old concrete crossing of the Fitzroy River with a couple who we first met at Barnett River Gorge. Chris and Marion are not much older than Ben and I and are semi-retired, on the road almost indefinitely and picking up bits of work occasionally when they feel like a break from travelling – nice! The camp spot was pretty dusty though, so two nights were more than enough here, just enough time to allow us to work our way around the time slots which are available to launch your boat on the Fitzroy to go through Geike Gorge. You can’t access the boat ramp in the National Park when the commercial boats are operating – so you don’t impact upon the quality of those tours! Geike Gorge is really very beautiful, especially in the late afternoon sun with the reflections on the glass-like water. We had a great afternoon motoring up the river, lunching on the sandbanks and trying to catch that elusive Barra… it remained elusive. We did gather a whole bunch of freshwater mussels though, thanks to our new found knowledge gained from Patsy in Kakadu.
Up close to the gorge walls there was a lot to see, we saw thousands of tiny birds zooming in and out of their mud nests, the ‘high tide’ mark of the summer rains up the walls of the gorge (in these photos it’s very hard to gain perspective of that, but the lighter coloured rock is about 10 metres high) and some of the water and wind gouging of the gorge face reminded Ben and I of Gaudi’s ‘Chimney Pots’ in Barcelona… now we know where he got his inspiration.
Before heading out of Fitzroy Crossing we took a quick look at the student art which is displayed at the Crossing Inn. The art displays here were inspired by a Fitzroy student winning a national art prize in 2000 which coincided with the Olympic Games. All fuelled up it was time to head west again. Although we didn’t travel the entire length of the Gibb River Road we are calling our stop at Derby the end of our GRR adventure.
The first stop around Derby was to try to lock the kids in the Boab prison tree, unfortunately access to the tree itself is not allowed, so we’ve had to settle with locking them in the car instead! This boab tree is said to be over 1500 years old, although because it is hollow and therefore has no growth-rings it is difficult to age it. The tree was used by policemen to hold prisoners in the late 1800’s as they were being transported through the area.
We’ve used our fair share of water in Derby to get the GRR dust off everything and are finally starting to feel a little cleaner, Ben’s even had a shave – we hardly recognise him now. I’ve changed my mind about the dust being worse on Cape York, now that we’ve had a chance to clean everything out the GRR dust certainly got in places that the Cape York dust did not. Maybe everything is a little looser now or maybe it’s just that the dust here is so so fine that it’s hard to keep it out.
The must-do in Derby is to visit the wharf at low and high tide to get an appreciation of the huge tides that King Sound has, the day we were here the high tide was over 11 metres and the low tide just over 1 metre – that’s a huge amount of water flooding in and out every six hours or so. It was interesting to understand just why the tides are so big here. The tides, like everywhere, are influenced by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, when the sun, moon and earth are all aligned you get the high (spring) tides, these occur with a new and full moon, when the moon is a quarter or three-quarters full you get very low (neap) tides because the moon and sun are at 90 degrees to each other, so their gravitational pull cancel each other out somewhat. The ‘Macro’ tides that occur in Derby and in a handful of other places around the world are caused by the shape of the coast. King Sound at Derby is near the edge of the Continental Shelf, so as the sun and moon pull the water from the deep ocean to cause tides in King Sound the water hits the shallow Continental Shelf it is constricted and the tides are amplified as the water makes it’s way up the narrow sound.
As the sun sets in Derby we are really excited about getting to the West coast, we are all so looking forward to the crystal blue waters of Broome and the Dampier Peninsula, we may even keep the tent pegs hammered in for a week or so if we find the right spot! That will be a novelty, the last time we stayed a week anywhere was in Bingal Bay, QLD – near Mission Beach and that was in the middle of May.