Port Hedland to Broome
The Big Empty stretches from Port Hedland to Broome, as the highway skirts the Great Sandy Desert. It's 609km of willy-willies and dust and not much else. There are only two roadhouses, Pardoo (148km) and Sandfire (288km), so keep the tank full. The coast, wild and unspoilt, is never far away.
Like a paste jewel set in a tiara of natural splendours, Broome clings to a narrow strip of red pindan on the Kimberley's far-western edge, at the base of the pristine Dampier Peninsula. Surrounded by the aquamarine waters of the Indian Ocean and the creeks, mangroves and mudflats of Roebuck Bay, this Yawuru country is a good 2000km from the nearest capital city.
Derby to Wyndham & Kununurra
The first 100-odd kilometres of the GRR from Derby are sealed. After only 4km, Mowanjum Art & Culture Centre, with its striking Wandjina and Gwion Gwion images, is well worth a stop. Nine kilometres further, 2000-hectare Birdwood Downs Station offers rustic savannah huts and dusty camping.
Kununurra, on Miriwoong country, is a relaxed town set in an oasis of lush farmland and tropical fruit and sandalwood plantations, thanks to the Ord River irrigation scheme. With good transport and communications, excellent services and well-stocked supermarkets, it's every traveller's favourite slice of civilisation between Broome and Darwin.
Gibb River Road
Cutting a brown swath through the scorched heart of the Kimberley, the legendary Gibb River Road ('the Gibb' or GRR) provides one of Australia's wildest outback experiences. Stretching some 660km between Derby and Kununurra, the largely unpaved GRR is an endless sea of red dirt, big open skies and dramatic terrain.
Stretching north from Broome, the red pindan of the Dampier Peninsula ends abruptly above deserted beaches, secluded mangrove bays and cliffs burnished crimson by the setting sun. This country is home to thriving indigenous settlements of the Ngumbarl, Jabirr Jabirr, Nyul Nyul, Nimanburu, Bardi, Jawi and Goolarabooloo peoples.
Late at night while Derby sleeps, the boabs cut loose and wander around town, marauding mobs flailing their many limbs in battle against an army of giant, killer croc-people emerging from the encircling mudflats… If only.
Port Hedland ain't the prettiest place. Confronted by its railway yards, iron-ore stockpiles, salt mountains, furnaces and massive deepwater port, the average tourist might instinctively floor the accelerator. Yet Hedland is not just another bland prefab Pilbara town.
Fitzroy Crossing to Halls Creek
One of the Kimberley's best-kept secrets is the vast subterranean labyrinth of Mimbi Caves, 90km southeast of Fitzroy Crossing. Located within Mt Pierre Station, on Gooniyandi land, the caves house a significant collection of Aboriginal rock art and some of the most impressive fish fossils in the southern hemisphere.
A gold-rush town fallen on leaner times, Wyndham is scenically nestled between rugged hills and Cambridge Gulf, some 100km northwest of Kununurra. Sunsets are superb from the spectacular Five Rivers Lookout on Mt Bastion (325m) overlooking the King, Pentecost, Durack, Forrest and Ord Rivers entering Cambridge Gulf.
Devonian Reef National Parks
Three national parks with three stunning gorges were once part of a western 'great barrier reef' in the Devonian era, 350 million years ago. Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek National Parks are accessed via Fairfield Leopold Downs Rd (linking the Great Northern Hwy with the Gibb River Rd), while Geikie Gorge National Park is just northeast of Fitzroy Crossing.
Purnululu National Park & Bungle Bungle Range
Looking like a packet of half-melted Jaffas, the World Heritage Purnululu National Park is home to the incredible ochre and black striped 'beehive' domes of the Bungle Bungle Range. The distinctive rounded rock towers are made of sandstone and conglomerates moulded by rainfall over millions of years. Their stripes are the result of oxidised iron compounds and algae.
On the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, Halls Creek is a small town with communities of Kija, Jaru and Gooniyandi people. The excellent visitor centre can book tours to the Bungles and tickets for Mimbi Caves. Check email next door at the Community Resource Centre and across the highway, Yarliyil Gallery is definitely worth a look.
The Tanami Road
With care and extra fuel, 2WD vehicles can normally make the desolate, corrugated 1000km shortcut to Alice Springs, though if you're freaking out by Wolfe Creek, turn around, as it doesn't get any better.
Enormous Lake Argyle, where barren red ridges plunge spectacularly into the deep blue water of the dammed Ord River, is Australia's second-largest reservoir. Holding the equivalent of 18 Sydney Harbours, it provides Kununurra with year-round irrigation, and important wildlife habitats for migratory waterbirds, freshwater crocodiles and isolated marsupial colonies.