Kimberley Road Trip

Like many others, exploring the Kimberley region of Western Australia, a vast pristine wilderness full of beautiful gorges cut through ancient orange and red Kimberley rock and possessing a dramatic and largely untouched coastline has been on our bucket list for a long time.

Windjana Gorge, the Kimberley region, Western Australia

While there are many ways to experience this wonderful part of Australia including luxury cruises and tours, we allocated ourselves six weeks and leaving on the first of June, drove from Byron Bay to Cape Leveque and back in our trusty Toyota Prado towing nothing.

All packed, only 15,000 kms to go!

Choosing this option gave us the freedom to customize our trip. We were able to visit parts of Queensland we had never seen, detour to Darwin to visit family and veer a little from the usual tourist path when opportunity presented itself. And our decision not to tow a caravan or camper trailer enabled us to sample a variety of accommodation which included motels, airbnb, roadhouses, outback pubs, glamping at spectacular resorts and camping in our very own, quite comfortable, two room tent. We loved the variety and the occasional touch of luxury and choosing to travel like this saved us a lot of time over all as we were able to travel faster and didn’t have to set up and pack up camp all the time.

Byron Bay to Katherine

The first stage of our adventure involved driving from Byron Bay to Katherine in the Northern Territory, a journey of around 3000 kms. We wanted the journey as well as our Kimberley destination to be memorable, so only drove for approximately 600 kms each day. This gave us an enjoyable taste of what there is to see and do in this part of the world. We stopped at Mitchell, Longreach, Mt Isa and the Three Ways roadhouse on our way to Katherine. Each destination and sometimes the little towns in between, many of which I had never heard of before, had something special to remember them by.

Our first stop was the little town of Mitchell in the Maranoa Region of South West Queensland.

Mitchell is on the Maranoa River, which despite the drought is still flowing. Beautiful gum trees line the banks. And actually it rained a little overnight. The only rain we experienced on our trip.

We stayed in a delightful Airbnb, Serenity House which was a delightful little cottage on acreage on the outskirts of town.

A magnificent sunset was just the start of a delightful stay.

Although we could have easily dined in, we chose the friendly restaurant attached to the local motel for a delicious dinner. But really, the most memorable thing about Mitchell was the Great Artesian Spa.

Situated in the main street, not far from the river bridge, the Spa sources mineral rich water at 40 degrees from the Great Artesian Basin, a blissful temperature on a frosty winter’s morning. We swam, soaked and swam some more. Kenn did try the cold pool for a ‘refreshing’ change but not surprisingly, he didn’t have any followers. A wonderful way to begin our drive to Longreach.

We especially enjoyed the drive from this point on as we had an excellent straight road mainly to ourselves.

We were traveling along the Matilda Way, an iconic outback highway. We stopped at Tambo but as it was a Sunday, couldn’t stop at the famous Tambo Teddies but contented ourselves with an early lunch at the Tambo Lake and rest area.

The lake was lovely and the rest area very well appointed.
And there was a very pleasant walking path around part of the lake which took you to a bird watching hide. If we had felt more energetic, the rest area also boasted a great outdoor gym.
And I couldn’t help but notice that the locals still know how to have a good time.

All too soon, we were back in the car and on our way to Longreach, still a few hours away. We arrived with plenty of time to find our motel and visit the Stockman’s Hall of Fame before dinner at the Services Club.

This is an excellent museum. Lots of interactive features as well as great items from our pioneering past. There was an informative indigenous section and an art gallery.

There is a lot to see and do in Longreach but we couldn’t see it all on this trip. After all, the Kimberley was our priority. Our next stop was Mount Isa but on the way, we stopped at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum at Winton. This spur of the moment decision, (we just happened to see a billboard on the side of the road) became one of the highlights of our trip. The museum is located on the top of a ‘jump up’ a kind of flat topped hill, about 20 kms from Winton. The views over the plains from the top are wonderful.

It is easy to envisage that there was an inland sea out there, millions of years ago. The kind of place where dinosaurs liked to hang out.
And at the entry to the museum, a replica of Matilda, one of the most complete dinosaur fossils to be found in Australia, is waiting to say ‘hello’.

The entry fee is not inexpensive but so worth it. And it is possible to customise your visit to suit your family or personal interests.

Firstly we viewed a short documentary about the dinosaur discoveries around Winton, their lifestyle back in the day and the manner of their death. A paleontologist then showed us the actual fossils of the two most famous dinosaurs found at Winton, who have been named Banjo and Matilda, explaining what can be deduced from them. To be so up close and personal with the remains of creatures who roamed Australia so long ago was a thrill. While this was a great orientation what really appealed to us about this museum was the visit to the Dinosaur Canyon. This is situated a kilometer or two from the main building and is accessed by a cute motorised train. The Dinosaur Canyon attraction consists of a spectacular building perched on a cliff overlooking a 300 metre elevated concrete pathway through a gorge, along which five outdoor dinosaur galleries have been positioned.

As you can see, the path is very accessible and follows the natural contours of the jump up. Surrounded by massive boulders and aromatic Australian bush, the dinosaur galleries give you a glimpse of life as it would have been during the Cretaceous Period, over 95 million years ago. The galleries include
The recreation of the billabong where Banjo and Matilda met their deaths. How the paleontologists can put the bones back together though is a mystery to me.
And further along, a little group of pterosaurs sits precariously atop a giant boulder. These were flying reptiles, members of the Pterodactylus family, not dinosaurs and definitely not the ancestors of birds or bats. I thought they looked a little grasshopper like but with big beaks.
And then there was the recreation of the famous dinosaur stampede found at Lark Creek. Hundreds of dinosaur footprints have been found and they believe that these little dinosaurs were running away from …
This … a big bad and hungry sauropod! I would run too.
And then there were these dudes. Just hanging out having a good time. They had a very fancy name: Kunbarrasaurus ieversi. I think I prefer cool dude.

While it was fascinating to look at these wonderful bronze exhibits in the wild as it were and listen to the informative commentary, children and adults alike were encouraged to make brass rubbings at each exhibit and take away a personal reminder of their visit.

One gallery remains very much a work in progress. This is the valley of the Cycads. This is because drought and white ants have damaged the original plantings but the curators are determined to succeed.

These beauties are waiting to be planted.

I will admit that our visit was enhanced by the weather. It was a glorious early June day and all around us, the bush was flowering and the birds were in full song.

I couldn’t capture it, but this bush was covered in butterflies.
I assumed that this was some kind of wattle tree
And even the grasses were lovely

Back at the reception area, we lunched at the cafe, which also has a lovely outlook. I appreciated my cappucchino, something not always readily available in the Outback. Back in the Prado, we still had a quite a way to go to reach Mount Isa by nightfall but managed it easily.

Our overnight stay at the Copper Gate Motel was very pleasant and after refueling we headed north and west over the Barkly Tableland. It was sad to see how the drought has really put its mark on this area. Even so, it had an eerie beauty of its own.

The dry grassland and the sky just seem to go on forever
And the road just keeps on going west all the way to the Northern Territory.

Our next stop was the Three Ways Roadhouse where luckily we didn’t have to fill up with fuel as it was well into the $1.90’s for diesel. Our accommodation in one of the ‘Glendale’ rooms was very basic but clean and relatively quiet.

However the sunset certainly wasn’t basic!

Next morning, we were on the road early as we wanted to stop at Mataranka and take a dip in the Thermal pools before reaching Katherine. I could easily spend a couple of days here and noticed that the camping facilities were very good. The area was made famous by the novel We of the Never Never – a book written about nearby Elsey Station by Jeannie Gunn and there is a lot of memorabilia about Jeannie at Mataranka Homestead where we stopped for lunch and had a quick swim in the Thermal Pool. This was a lovely experience but we enjoyed our trip to Bitter Springs which lies about two kilometers to the north even more.

The walk into the Springs is framed by these lovely palm trees. So lush in an otherwise dry landscape.
And the springs themselves are a lovely colour and are not crowded. It’s just you and nature.

But our time in Nature’s hot tubs was not at an end. Arriving in Katherine, we got to spend quality time with our daughter Lyndsay, husband Reece and eleven month old Ilyssia. And where better than the Katherine Hot Springs which are in the middle of a major restoration.

There are two main sections separated by a little waterfall. As we had Ilyssia with us, we stayed in the shallower, less occupied upper section.
This was an excellent option as we could float, swim or walk down the creek to the waterfall and we had this section virtually to ourselves.
After her swim, Ilyssia was ready for a nap while her mum and grandparents sampled the delights of a pop up restaurant in the adjoining park.

As we had two nights in Katherine, we also visited Katherine Gorge. Although we last visited the gorge a few years ago, I was surprised to see that the cost of kayaking and cruising the gorge had more than doubled. This time, we chose to complete a bush walk which brought us out to a great lookout.

All the colours of the rock reflected in the water! So beautiful.

The first part of our big adventure had come to an end. I was surprised by how rewarding this part of the trip was. Even though I experienced some serious twinges of NB (numb bum) syndrome as a result of sitting for too long in a seat that could only recline a couple of inches, the changing landscapes, the experiences and the people made the journey a worthwhile end in itself. And still the Western Kimberley beckoned. Would it live up to all the hype? I’ll let you know next time.

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