One of Australia’s last bastions of wilderness, the Kimberley is our final frontier: remote, raw and as enigmatic as ever.
From the King Leopold Ranges to Kununurra, this vast savannah landscape of rugged red ranges and hidden gorges, adorned with ancient Indigenous art and home to rare, rarely seen wildlife, remains isolated, pristine and one of the most adventurous destinations in the country.
Slicing through it all and providing access to off-roaders is the Gibb River Road, an 1880’s stock route linking palm-fringed waterfalls, lofty lookouts and lonely bush campsites that let you know you’re a long way from anywhere.
Old timers love to reminisce about the time when the Gibb River Road was rough, rutted and often impassable, but it’s safe to say that those days are behind us.
The graders sent in seasonally to smooth away each wet season and groom the Gibb’s legendary corrugations have made ‘doing the Gibb’ a bucket-list adventure within reach of us all.
One of the Kimberley’s most celebrated crusaders, the late, great Malcolm Douglas called it “the last, truly pristine wilderness in the world, the heart and soul of the country”.
And he should know. He arrived in the Kimberley aboard a pearl lugger in 1971 and never left, spending his last years fighting to save the Kimberley’s most threatened wildlife and rallying against what would have been environmentally devastating gas developments.
Those who haven’t seen the Kimberley must be saving the best for last because this destination is the stuff of dreams. Thought you couldn’t handle the northwest’s ultimate off-roader? Think again.
King Leopold Ranges
About 125km out of Derby, across the Lennard River, the western Kimberley’s vast spinifex plains gradually give way to grasslands where spindly eucalypts and boabs stud the roadside that winds beyond Bullfrog Hole, climbing into the King Leopold Ranges.
This rugged high country capped with flat-topped mesas and pink quartzite escarpments elevates travellers, providing grand vistas of sweeping valleys and tree-lined streams where palms and pandanus green the red rock landscape.
We cruise through at daybreak, seeing it all bathed in golden, early morning light and watching corellas rise above the river in spectacular, snowy swirls.
One of the few places in the Kimberley to have retained its European title, the range is named for King Leopold of Belgium, and the surrounding conservation park known as Woonamur, protects more than 392,000 hectares of river gorges and the Kimberley’s highest peaks – Mt Ord (937m) and Mt Broome (935m).
The star of the park is Bell Gorge: an accessible red rock canyon carved by a small stream that spills over a five-tier waterfall to fill a deep, amphitheatre and plunge pool below.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best places to get wet in the Kimberley. From the trailhead car park, a moderate, 30-minute walk brings you to the top of the falls where you can paddle and dip on the edge of a staggered waterfall that drains west through Isdell Range to the sea at Walcott Inlet.
But don’t stop here. One of the most invigorating experiences of your life awaits a 20-minute rockhop away at the base of the falls where you can peel off your gear and take the plunge, kicking out under the falls and continuing downstream to discover more private rock pools.
This deep, broad waterhole is clear and icy, but the sunny, sculptured rock slabs that tilt and dip into the pool will toast you off nicely in between swims.
A short drive from the falls, Silent Grove campground is popular for the outback comforts it provides: bush campsites with hot showers, flushing loos and drinking water (the most important resource in these parts) from $12 per night.
Beyond Bell Gorge the Gibb winds on, leading travellers to a string of stunning red rock gorges. First up, Adcock and Galvans are small and often overlooked, despite the fact that they each demand a mere 10-minute walk.
Named to honour Lindsay Charles Adcock (1938-2008) and located on Mount Houses Station land, Adcock Gorge is a little tricky to locate.
Take the signposted turn off the Gibb and drive for 3.7km until you reach a red dirt clearing on your left. There is no signpost here so you might otherwise continue as we and others did, all the way to the end of the gradually diminishing track.
It was only a distant memory of the gorge’s location that made us turn at the clearing to reach a second pull-off 700m later. Park here if you don’t want to drive the rocky track that leads another 100m to the gorge entrance, especially if you have a caravan or boat behind, otherwise push on.
On foot, it’s a short, breezy rockhop up Adcock Creek into the amphitheatre at the base of the falls that stills to a trickle in the dry. This is a great spot to swim away from the crowds and enjoy a picnic on the creek’s mossy banks.
Back on the Gibb and another 20km up the track, Galvans Gorge is a picturesque sight: ferns feeding on the waterfall’s mist, fig trees clinging to the rockface and a shady pool fringed by pandanus palms.
Arriving here soon after sunrise, we kick-started our day with an invigorating shower beneath the falls, only noticing after about half an hour later the sleeping northern brown tree snake curled up on a ledge within arm’s reach.
Shimmying along rock ledges, we discovered Indigenous rock art hidden behind boulders at the water’s edge and watched water monitors soaking up the sun as it finally inched over Galvin’s high gorge walls.
As the morning ticked on, a trickle of travellers arrived to swim and bomb dive in the deep, cool pool, including a adventurous granny well into her 80s who had tackled the walk in her house slippers, intent on swimming in every gorge on the Gibb.
We left Galvans with big smiles, bound for Mount Barnett Roadhouse to fill up on overpriced diesel, crossing our fingers and reminiscing about all the times we’ve had to pull up here to patch a blown-out tyre.
Manning Gorge is a popular overnight stop close to the roadhouse, but with a full day ahead of us, we pushed 27km on to Barnett River Gorge.
It’s amazing how a good wet season can enhance the appeal of this spot, which we remembered with fondness for the lush green camps beneath the paperbarks that have produced some of our favourite Kimberley memories.
At sundown, we sank into little campsite rock pools, cooling off with chilly ales as the campfire coals baked us the best damper I’ve eaten anywhere.
On this visit the pools had evaporated, and the thirsty landscape and high temperatures couldn’t tempt us on a hot hike into Mount Barnett’s broad, open chasm.
It’s easy enough to explore though, with a multitude of cairns marking a rocky trail along its rim, guiding you into the gorge pockmarked with pools and smooth granite rockslides.
Instead, we headed 3km back to pitch a tent on the banks of the Hann River, a lush, shady spot with cool pools and a gentle flow just perfect for kids (ours launched her old baby bath and had a ball).
Double-barred finches and kingfishers flitted into view as we swam and cooled our cans in the sandy shallows, watching rainbow bee-eaters hunt down their daily quota of up to 100 bugs.
Just over 50km on, the Gibb meets the road to Kalumburu, leading travellers 266km past Mitchell Plateau on a wild ride to Napier Broome Bay on the Kimberley’s far northern edge.
When you’ve just come off the manicured Gibb, the corrugations on the Kalumburu Road come as a shock but if your vehicle and itinerary are up to it, detour here to King Edward River and and Mitchell Falls .
At the very least, nudge 3km up this road to take a dip in the famous Gibb River.
The Gibb’s Eastern End
The boabs return in abundance as the Gibb turns east through a thirstier landscape severed by the swollen Durack and Pentecost Rivers, making a beeline for popular El Questro Wilderness Park, 213km away.
I’ve always found this end of the track to be a little bumpier and the road base a little more razor-sharp so be warned!
I’ll also go out on a limb here and say that for me, the landscape lacks the dramatic diversity of the west and there are far fewer spots to bush camp.
If you’ve already spent a week or so on the Gibb, this might well feel like the home run to El Questro at the end of the road.
However, there Ellenbrae Station and Home Valley Station just west of the Pentecost River crossing tempt with gorges and swimming holes, horse riding, hot meals, barramundi fishing, scenic flights and more.
Between the two there’s a great camping spot high above the Durack River on its eastern bank where you can stoke a campfire and spend an afternoon spotting freshwater crocodiles in the vivid green water below.
Panoramic views atop Rollies and Gregory’s Jump-ups put your location into perspective as you near the flat-topped Cockburn Ranges. At its base, the infamous Pentecost River flows north to Wyndham where saltwater crocs are in abundance and often travel upstream to meet off-roaders at this wide, deep river crossing.
Twice I’ve crossed the Pentecost with extreme trepidation, steeling myself against the deep, swift flow and trying not to glance at the washed-away trucks and 4WDs cast aside downstream.
On our most recent trip however, I watched a convoy of vehicles barely wet their bottoms on the crossing, and travellers must surely have wondered what all the fuss was about as they rockhopped across with not a croc in sight.
Exploring El Questro
About 24km beyond the Pentecost, the Gibb’s thin ribbon of red dust ends abruptly at El Questro Wilderness Park, one of the most picturesque destinations in the Eastern Kimberley.
The dramatic gorges and waterholes aside, El Questro offers a dizzying array of tours and experiences with facilities that belie its remote location.
Located just 100km from Kununurra on sealed roads, El Questro can pull quite a crowd so don’t expect the delicious isolation you’ve cherished at camps further west. On the upside, there’s a dozen ways to fill your days and spend your cash if a splurge is overdue.
Favourite, popular spots include Emma Gorge for a swim beneath the falls (and a resort lunch afterwards), the rocky thermal pools and waterfalls at Zebedee Springs, and Amalia Gorge for the rainforest trail that disappears into waterholes you have to rockhop and wade through.
El Questro charges a weekly entry fee and higher than average camping fees, but it’s the last hurrah before the bitumen leads you to Kununurra.
If your Gibb adventure leaves you yearning for more you can prolong the off-road fun with a trip to Wyndham, taking the back road to Kununurra via Parry Lagoons, or head south to explore the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park.
With an unlimited amount of time and supplies, the Gibb River Road is only the start of your travels through the Kimberley’s 421,000 square kilometres.
Once you’ve been there, you’ll agree it’s a pretty special place and for most adventurous Aussie travellers, it’s about as far away as you can get without a passport.
The Gibb River Road stretches for about 650km from Derby to the Wyndham-Kununurra turnoff. It is frequently closed during and just after the wet season. Contact Main Roads WA for current conditions before setting out.
Stock up on essential supplies in Broome, Derby or Kununurra, and top up fuel at Imintji, Mt Barnett Roadhouse and El Questro Station. Tyre repairs can be tackled at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, Over the Range Tyre Repairs (35km west of Mt Barnett Roadhouse), Ellenbrae Station, Home Valley Station (plus mechanical repairs) and El Questro. Rubbish disposal points are located at Imintji, Mt Barnett Roadhouse and a spot about 70km west of the Pentecost River crossing. Save your recyclables for disposal in Kununurra or Broome.
There is lots of free camping on the Gibb River Road: at the Lennard River crossing; March Fly Glen Rest Area, 19km west of the Silent Grove turnoff (toilets, tables, fire places); Hann River, 54km east of Mt Barnett Roadhouse; the Gibb River/Kalumburu Road junction (toilets, picnic tables, bins); at Russ Creek, 46km west of Ellenbrae Station (no facilities) and at the lookout above the Durack River.
There’s also a national park campground at Silent Grove (Bell Gorge) and private camps at Mt Hart Homestead, Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge, Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, Charnley River Station, Manning Gorge, Mt Elizabeth Station, Home Valley Station and El Questro Wilderness Park where you can expect to pay camping fees of around $20/person/night.
During the May to September dry season, cooler temperatures average 15˚C to 31˚C and monthly rainfalls average less than 28mm.
Contact Kununurra Visitor Centre www.visitkununurra.com, Broome Visitor Centre (www.visitbroome.com.au), Main Roads WA www.mainroads.wa.gov.au, Shire of Derby/West Kimberley for road reports www.sdwk.wa.gov.au and the Department of Parks and Wildlife at www.dpaw.wa.gov.au.
KIMBERLEY TRAVEL TIPS
- Carry plenty of fuel, water and spares (including 2 extra tyres).
- Drive to the conditions & avoid windscreen damage by slowing when passing vehicles.
- Be croc aware at all times (if in doubt, stay out).
- Light campfires only in designated fireplaces and extinguish after use.