The road more travelled
The best months to drive the Gibb River Road are from May to September / Picture: Stephen Scourfield

There can be no doubt that the Gibb River Road is the best-known of WA's serious outback trails.

This dramatic 700km transect through the heart of the Kimberley, with Derby at the west end and Wyndham and Kununurra at the other, is internationally famous.

And, even for us, it's in "the other country" within our own State. For the Kimberley is a dramatic piece of geology which drifted in and "welded on", and is quite different from what are mostly urban lives.

"Doing the Gibb" is as big for us West Australians as it is for anyone.

For it takes travellers into gorges, cattle stations and the Aboriginal history of one of Australia's most spectacular regions. Travellers can expect the authentic and really experience the Kimberley.

Most accommodation is open from April to October. The best months to drive the Gibb River Road are May to September. Earlier in the year, there is more likely to be water in gorges - but go too early, or get caught by late Wet Season rains, and the road may be closed. Towards the end of the year, it is hotter, but the build-up to the next Wet is from November onwards.

It is certainly mostly 4WD territory, mainly because it needs robust vehicles.

Most of the road is gravel, unsealed, and it can be potholed and corrugated. It is notoriously hard on tyres.

Over recent years, it has increasingly become the territory for offroad camper-trailers but is not suitable for caravans.

I suggest there are four ways of thinking about travelling the Gibb River Road.

Serious travellers, offroaders and campers might drive the Gibb River Road as part of a longer outback adventure.

Other travellers might fly to either Kununurra or Broome, hire a 4WD and drive the road's length, staying in accommodation each night, with meals provided. To negate the cost of a one-way hire, there's also the option of "completing the loop", to the south, along Great Northern Highway through Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek and Purnululu (Bungle Bungle Range). There is accommodation in all these places.

I have flown into both Broome and Kununurra, at different times, hired a 4WD and headed off down the road, staying in comfortable accommodation and enjoying good meals.

Others might opt to join an organised tour. These have the advantage of a set itinerary, no driving or navigating, and a fixed and competitive price.

The final option is not to drive the whole length, but fly to either Broome or Kununurra and just sample either the west or east ends of the Gibb River Road. Even with this (from Broome, perhaps as far as Mt Hart or Mornington, from Kununurra, El Questro, Home Valley and Mt Elizabeth), there will be a real taste of the road and the Kimberley.

When the Gibb River Road was opened as a cattle road in the early 1960s, it was only really used by pastoralists and Aboriginal communities. In the mid-1980s, when I drove the length of it twice over a couple of weeks, I saw just a handful of other vehicles.

The road has been continually improved, especially at the west end but most recently with a sealed section at the east end, from the Kununurra end past Emma Gorge Resort towards El Questro Wilderness Park.

Creek and river crossings are also much improved over the road of old. What was once an epic is now a holiday.

But it is all still dramatic to me, after all these years.

There is a sense of both the long story of the geology and the story of human culture.

It is about 1800 million years since the Kimberley continent collided with the Australian land mass and was welded on. And it is still our other country, in every sense.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

There is the sheer size, the red dust, the big skies, blue by day, full of stars to the horizon at night.

And specifically in terms of landscape, easily accessible gorges along the Gibb River Road include Bell, Adcock, Lennard, Galvans and Manning.

Each traveller will chose a favourite.

There are the King Leopold, Napier and Cockburn ranges, each so different. The Napier Range was once a reef on the seabed, and the King Leopold's are the result of incoming geological pressure, corrugating the land.

The red, castellated Cockburn Range is recognisable as the backdrop to the station in the film Australia.

There is indigenous art at Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre, near the Derby end of the road - dipping into the culture of the Worrorra and Wunambal, the Guwij, the Wila Wila, the Ngarnawau, Munumburra and the Miriwoong Gajirrawoong.

There are wilderness parks and stations to stay at, including Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge and Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, Birdwood Downs, Drysdale River (on the Kalumburu road), Mt Elizabeth, Ellenbrae and Home Valley stations, APT's Imintji Wilderness Camp, El Questro Wilderness Park and Emma Gorge Resort.

The cattle stations among them are now geared up for more visitors, and they combine a taste of Kimberley life with plenty of comforts. Places like Mt Elizabeth, Birdwood Downs or Drysdale River stations (just up the Kalumburu road), or Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge, give a real sense of place. Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary gives an insight into the area's conservation values. Home Valley Station, El Questro Wilderness Park and Emma Gorge Resort are fully geared to tourism.

DRIVING THE ROAD: WHAT YOU'LL SEE - WHERE YOU'LL STAY

Broome

A multicultural history, Cable Beach, a wide range of accommodation and tropical food. Pearl shops and the Staircase to the Moon at low tide on Roebuck Bay. Broome has become the place to be.

Derby

Derby sits like an island amid its broad mudflats. A real phenomenon. There's a choice of accommodation, dining and sunset on the jetty's not to be missed.

Mowanjum Arts & Cultural Centre

With a gallery full of spectacular artwork, particularly that of Wandjina stories, Mowanjum offers an entree into the deeper stories of the area.

Birdwood Downs Station

Focused on sustainability of landscape and community, Birdwood Downs is owned and run by the international Global Ecotechnics Corporation. The station's restored landscape is now home to quality horses available for riding. Eco tours and horseriding give guests an authentic feel for the Kimberley, and the core of Birdwood Downs' purpose, which is to restore overworked savannah landscape. The stone bungalows have a big double bedroom, double-venting roofs and louvred windows. They have shared toilets and showers. There's home-cooked breakfast and dinner in the homestead.

Windjana Gorge National Park

Windjana Gorge is worth turning off the Gibb River Road. There's a camping ground, a range of marked walks and, a little further on, Tunnel Creek National Park.

Napier Range

Recognised as a classic feature of world geology, perhaps the most recognisable spot on this exposed 380-million-year-old Devonian reef system is the aptly named Queen Victoria's Head. Travellers on the Gibb River Road will easily spot it.

King Leopold Range

The King Leopold Range marks the south-western edge of the Kimberley Plateau. The Kimberley continent collided with the Australian land mass, causing folding and buckling - including the King Leopold Mobile Zone. It has continued to be a barrier for pastoralists - Inglis Gap today marks the peak of it on Gibb River Road.

Lennard River and Gorge

The road has a good crossing over Lennard River, but it's worth calling in at Lennard River Snack Stop and looking for freshwater crocodiles. Lennard Gorge is a climb down to swimmable pools.

Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge

At the heart of the King Leopold Range Conservation Park and run by APT, Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge has cattle station homestead rooms and its newer counterparts. They feel like the real deal.

There are double and twin-share rooms, and plenty of history. There's also a nice campground with a good ablution block.

Bachsten Bush Camp

On the lip of the Prince Regent Nature Reserve north of Gibb River Road, Bushtrack Safaris' Bachsten Bush Camp is in remote country. It is near a gorge, so there's plenty of water, and plant and animal life.

Bush cabins are comfortable and there are dining and kitchen facilities and composting ablutions. There is a number of tour and accommodation options, for a minimum of four days.

Bell Gorge

There's camping at Silent Grove campground, which has facilities, or closer to Gorge Walk. The short walk in to the gorge is worth it - for many this is the favourite gorge on the Gibb River Road. A great place to hang out on a warm day.

Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge

Just off the Gibb River Road, APT's Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge has standard tented cabins with twin beds and private ensuites. All have a front deck and comfortable chairs. There's also a store, fuel and tyre repairs.

Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary

Owned and run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary is a non-government reserve covering more than 350,000ha.

There are safari tents with ensuites and there is camping. But the emphasis is on conservation and education.

The Fitzroy River runs through its heart - a wonderful spot with more than 200 species of birds. Mornington Wilderness Camp has a restaurant and bar. There's purposely limited accommodation (it's there primarily for conservation), so booking early is important.

Mt Barnett Roadhouse

Near Barnett River Gorge, it has a store, fuel and camping.

Mt Elizabeth Station

Frank Lacy walked 960 head of cattle into Pantigen, north of the Gibb River Road, in 1931 and fell in love with the land. He took up the lease for Mt Elizabeth Station in 1945, and married Teresa - a Broome woman.

The antbed home he built was the station homestead until 1978. Today, the station has modern and comfortable accommodation, good meals and the welcome warm - but it is still authentic Kimberley.

Drysdale River Station

For those venturing north off the Gibb on to the Kalumburu road towards the Mitchell Plateau, Drysdale River Station is a must. It has a great family-run feel, great meals, a bar, and a range of accommodation options.

Mitchell Plateau

Mitchell Plateau, up the Kalumburu road, is famous for its falls. APT has accommodation at Marunbabidi Wilderness Camp, the Kalumburu road, and Ungolan (Mitchell Falls) Wilderness Camp, Mitchell Plateau.

Ellenbrae Station

Accommodation, camping and meals. Ellenbrae, 230km from Kununurra, has eco bungalows - a genuine remote retreat. Look for the outdoor claw bath under the boab tree, plenty of finches, and the memorial to my old friend Byrne Terry,who, with brother Eddie, set the place up.

Home Valley Station

There is a range of accommodation, from camping to safari tents, very comfortable station rooms to suites. An excellent bar and restaurant, swimming pool and plenty to do, including a little cattle mustering and guided walks.

A highlight is just being able to see the Cockburn Range with the sun setting on it - another is being able to ride horses and join the mini-muster. Homestead guesthouses are very comfortable while the Grass Castles suites on Bindoola Creek are lavish. There are also safari-style eco tents, camping, and a good restaurant and bar.

El Questro Wilderness Park

With camping and bungalow accommodation, as well as the plush homestead, ELQ is famous for the number of gorges within half an hour's drive of the township. Many have permanent water.

Gorges, ranges and walks - guests can get as remote as they like but come home to comfortable accommodation at night. The bungalows have queen-size beds, and four original bungalows built from Kimberley river stone. They all have ensuite bathrooms and overlook either the Pentecost River or the gardens. There's the good alfresco Steakhouse Restaurant and the Swinging Arm Bar.

Emma Gorge Resort

To the north of the Gibb River Road, this is part of ELQ, has tented cabin accommodation and has an excellent restaurant. The walk up Emma Gorge leads to a pool and droplet waterfall. Brilliant. (Head to the right for the warm water).

Kununurra

Set against the backdrops of the Sleeping Buddha rock formation, Kelly's Knob and Mirima (Hidden Valley National Park - a "mini Bungle Bungle"), Kununurra is a modern town with plenty of accommodation, dining and bars. There's barramundi fishing, particularly on the lower Ord River, boat cruises on the upper Ord and trips on Lake Argyle, which often holds about 21 times the volume of water as Sydney Harbour.

Wyndham

From the Five Rivers lookout, see the Durack, Pentecost, Ord, King and Forrest rivers converging. This is remote, tidal country with plenty of history.

GORGES ON THE GIBB

Particularly early in the dry season, the gorges of the Gibb River Road are oases. On the road are the likes of Bells, Lennard and Adcock gorges. But stations such as Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge and Mt Elizabeth Station have their own and point visitors towards them. Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary is owned and run as a conservation centre by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Dimond Gorge and Sir John Gorge are both spectacular. El Questro Wilderness has a density of gorges, many with water all year. Chamberlain and El Questro gorges and Zebedee Springs are among the favourites, but there are many more. Emma Gorge has a big pool and waterfall.

BIRDWATCHING

The Gouldian finch is perhaps the most recognisable of Kimberley birds, but other notable species include the black grasswren (Bachsten Creek on the Munja Track), the purple-crowned fairy wren (Mornington Station), white-quilled rock pigeon and grey shrike thrush (King Leopold Range), the red goshawk and rose-crowned fruit pigeon.

CAR HIRE

There is a number of car hire companies, particularly based in Kununurra and Broome. But book early, and be sure to tell them what you are planning, so they can advise on suitable vehicles and insurance. Ask for advice from visitor centres.

It is recommended to carry to spare tyres and tyre repair equipment, and plenty of water.

ALL ABOUT TYRES

The Gibb River Road is notoriously harsh on tyres, so take a couple of spares and have the equipment and know-how to be able to fix them if the need arises. There is also help at Over the Range Tyre and Mechanical Repairs at Imintji Roadhouse. This is also a major fuel stop, along with Mt Barnett Roadhouse. Fuel can also be purchased at most station accommodation stops.

No travel permits are required to drive along the Gibb River Road.

MUNJA TRACK

I first drove up the Munja Track in the late 1980s, in the footsteps of one-time _West Australian _ motoring editor Frank Platell - and it's still an epic.

It runs north from Mt Elizabeth Station (about halfway along the Gibb River Road) and is serious four-wheel drive country. Don't take the camper-trailer, but just a bit of light camping kit.

The reward for a rough ride is the Prince Regent River National Park. Rock art dates back up to 20,000 years, there are massive river courses, waterfalls and wildlife - even northern bandicoots and quolls.

The track was originally built in the 1960s, to get to Pantijan Station, and is maintained to give access to Bachsten Creek and the Walcott Inlet. There are fees to use the track for Mt Elizabeth Station (which is the main contact point). There are also self-drive tag-along tours, run by Bushtrack Safaris.

FACT FILE

For information on the Kimberley, itineraries and holiday planners, see: australiasnorthwest.com.au.

Kununurra Visitor Centre: kununurratourism.com and 1800 586 868.

Derby Visitor Centre: derbytourism.com.au and 1800 621 426.

Broome Visitor Centre: broomevisitorcentre.com.au and 9195 2200.

Birdwood Downs Station: birdwooddowns.com and 9191 1275.

Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge: mthart.com.au and 9191 4645.

Bachsten Bush Camp: bushtracksafaris.com.au and 9191 1547.

Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary: australianwildlife.org and 9191 7014.

Imintji Store: imintji.store@bigpond.com and 9191 7471.

Over the Range Tyre & Mechanical Repairs, Imintji: overtherange@bigpond.com and 9191 7887.

Drysdale River Station: drysdaleriver.com.au and 9161 4326.

Mt Elizabeth Station: mountelizabethstation.com and 9191 4644.

Bushtrack Safaris: bushtracksafaris.com.au and 9191 1547.

Home Valley Station: homevalley.com.au and 9161 4322.

APT Wilderness Camps: kimberleywilderness.com.au and 1300 334 872.

El Questro Wilderness Park and Emma Gorge Resort: elquestro.com.au and 1300 863 248.

Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre: mowanjumarts.com and 9191 1008.

Department of Environment and Conservation

Kimberley Regional Office, Kununurra: 9168 4200.

West Kimberley District Office, Broome: 9195 5500.

Shire of Wyndham-East Kimberley: 9168 4100.

Derby-West Kimberley Shire: 9191 0999.

Shire of Broome: 9191 3456.

Main Roads Western Australia: 13 81 38.

Main Roads Kimberley Regional Office: 9158 4333.

The West Australian

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