Taking its complete circuit-of-the-country, Highway 1, in its Great Northern Highway guise, skirts along the southern boundary of the Kimberley region. Between Derby and Kununurra the road runs through Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek, but if you want to really get to grips with what is arguably the country’s most authentically ‘Australian’ region then you have to abandon that comfortably smooth thoroughfare and tackle the Gibb River Road.
It runs through the heart of the Kimberley and is 125 miles (200km) shorter, but way slower. It can be a car-breaker. Tackle the Gibb River Road in wet conditions and you can be stuck there waiting for a river to subside. Tackle it in the dry after a long spell without a grader coming through and the notorious corrugations can shake the fillings out of your teeth and rattle your car down to its component parts.
Assorted early explorers touched on the convoluted, inlet-cut, island-dotted coastline of the Kimberley, and today a convoy of adventure travel boats shuttle along this spectacular shoreline. Inland, the Kimberley is something of an open-air gallery of amazing Aboriginal rock art, whether it’s the comparatively recent Wandjina paintings or the much older and still puzzling Bradshaw works. The English name comes from Joseph Bradshaw, a late-1800s pastoralist turned rock-art hunter who first categorised and labelled the paintings.
Today they’re called Gwion Gwion paintings, but it’s uncertain how old they are or even who did them – today’s Aboriginals sometimes comment that they’re ‘not by our mob’. Bradshaw paintings are usually in ‘galleries’, often rock faces protected by overhangs, while the Wandjina works may be in everyday living areas. The later Wandjina figures are more varied in their subject matter, their design and their colours, but lack the subdued, calm elegance of the Bradshaw figures.
The secret of a successful foray along the Gibb River Road is to take your time, not to hurry. Drive too fast and those corrugations, loose stones, unexpected potholes and sharp edges can shred a tyre in seconds. This is a route where a second spare can be a very good idea. It’s not just travelling slowly that can stretch the time, lots of the Gibb River Road attractions are excursions off the main route. You can add days to the trip if you plan to turn off south to the Mornington Camp, or if you head north up the road towards Kalumburu and then decide to divert to the Mitchell Falls.
Close to the Kununurra end of the road is El Questro, with its magnificent gorges and places to stay that range all the way from budget campsites to the luxurious Homestead, which is dramatically perched on a cliff edge above the Chamberlain Gorge. El Questro started out as a Kimberley cattle station and although today it’s the best example of combining four-legged and two-legged business, for a number of the Gibb River Road cattle stations tourists are today just as important as ‘beasts’.
Travelling east, Derby on the coast is the place to stock up, fuel up, admire the boabs – the Kimberley’s signature tree – and enjoy the last stretch of bitumen before the rough stuff starts. Ninety miles (144km) from Derby is the turn-off to the dazzling Windjana Gorge and then Tunnel Creek, you can follow this track all the way to the Great Northern Highway, intersecting it not far west of Fitzroy Crossing. Don’t plan to visit these sites in the wet season, but in the dry they’re a vital diversion.
There’s a campsite at Windjana Gorge and more places to stay at Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge and Charnley River, but many Gibb River Road travellers turn south to visit the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Mornington Camp near the Fitzroy River. The camp makes a great base to explore over a thousand square miles (3000 square km) of stunning gorges, creeks and waterholes. In between paddling canoes along Annie Creek, visitors can dine under the stars or front the outback bar for a refreshing cold beer. As ever, Australia’s outback night sky can offer an extravagant backdrop, while birdwatchers can add their ticks to the checklist of more than 200 bird species which have been spotted in the sanctuary.
The halfway point comes up soon after the Mt Barnett Roadhouse, followed by the turn-off north to the Drysdale River Station and, almost up at the coast, the Kalumburu Aboriginal community. Another turn from that road takes you down an often very rough track past the Mitchell Plateau airstrip to the Mitchell Falls. They are worth the effort. Tumbling down from one pool to another, these are the most spectacular waterfalls in Australia. There are also swimming opportunities in the pools, as there are at other gorges and waterholes throughout the Kimberley. Of course, you have to keep an eye out for crocodiles at certain locations, but usually it’s the reasonably friendly freshwater variety. Only on the way down towards the coast, well away from the Gibb River Road, do you encounter the distinctly less friendly saltwater crocodiles.
In the dry season there’s usually a helicopter or two waiting to offer flightseeing trips over the Mitchell Falls. Helicopters also run from the Mitchell Plateau airstrip to the Kimberley Coastal Camp, one of the most remote Kimberley outposts which, if you can afford the entry cost, attracts near fanatical enthusiasts. Finally, there’s Ellenbrae and assorted rivers – including the Durack River and the Pentecost River – to ford just before you reach El Questro. Soon after this final taste of the Kimberleys there’s bitumen road to signal that it’s not far to go to civilisation once again at the town of Kununurra.
Step out of the car
It’s a Gibb River Road surprise that you often find excuses to abandon your car for alternative transport. This could be your feet on the many interesting walking tracks; exploring the gorges by canoe, kayak or boat at Mornington Camp or El Questro (where horses are also on offer); or, if your credit card will stretch far enough, helicopters. Banking down those Kimberley gorges around El Questro in a chopper is simply mind-blowing.
Start – Derby, Western Australia; end – Kununurra, Western Australia; distance – 440 miles (704km)
- Getting there: Broome (138 miles, 220km from Derby) and Darwin (517 miles, 827km from Kununurra) are the major gateways to the region, though there are flights to Kununurra.
- When to drive: Not when the wet season kicks in around November, unless you’ve got the experience to ford deep rivers and the patience to wait if they really are too deep. The road dries out by April.
- Where to stay: Bring your camping gear. However, some places offer more permanent accommodation, including real luxury at El Questro.
- What to take: A 4WD, though when the road is good a rugged car can tackle it with enough ground clearance.
You can find this drive – and over 200 more two- and four-wheeled adventures – in our Epic Drives of the World book. This route has been categorised as 'epic', taking into account not just how long, remote and challenging it is but the logistics and local conditions too. Looking for a gentler ride? Check out our 'easy' and 'harder' routes.