Let the fun begin. Finally, we would be roughing it: an unforgiving dirt road, an untried tent and campfire meals under the stars. What could be better?
Leaving beautiful El Questro, we turned onto the Gibb and headed for Broome about 800 kms away. Almost immediately, the bitumen gave way to the rough stony surface that the Eastern Gibb is known for and as we bounced our way towards the famous Pentecost River crossing, I wondered what the road held in store for us.
I knew we couldn’t stop at every landmark or experience everything the Gibb had to offer. For example, it was such a poor wet season that the iconic Mitchell Falls were reduced to almost a trickle, so we decided very early on not to tackle the Kalumburu Rd which intersects with the Gibb and which is the only way to the falls. But like everyone else, we had to cross the Pentecost River.
Our first stop was ‘Ellenbrae’ Station which was only a few kilometres off the Gibb and just over 200 kms from El Questro. We had been on the road for only about three hours, but the Gibb had been so rough in patches, that one of the bolts which hold the driving lights on had broken off. Kenn needed a little time to make repairs. Staying here would also give us heaps of time to explore and set up our new tent for the very first time in a great spot in the campground.
We were keen to sample their famous scones and they were delicious. Like many places on the Gibb, you can’t book in advance: it’s first in, first serve unless there are special circumstances. . We had hoped to stay at Ringer’s campground which has its own billabong but unfortunately that was taken by a group of bike riders on a charity ride. So we ended up in the Jackaroo’s Campground. This was still a great option. Campsites came with a fire pit and we were allowed to collect wood from the bush. There were hot showers with the water heated by a donkey heater ( I had never seen one of these in action before) and flush toilets. And everything was clean! Soon our tent was up, bed made ( with jumpers as pillows) table and chairs arranged and wood for the evening fire collected. The driving light was safely disconnected and now it was time for fun.
But our mishaps didn’t end with the loss of a driving light and our pillows. Back at camp, we started preparing dinner. I was planning a tasty Tuna Pasta dish and went to put the water on to boil for the pasta when … our gas stove nearly blew up! We hadn’t realised that when Kenn exchanged our near empty gas bottle for a full one back in Byron, they had given him a bottle with an incompatible fitting. What to do? A friendly couple offered to boil some water for us so I busily chopped shallots and capsicum and grated some cheese. When the water was boiling, I bought the pot over to the table, put in my egg noodle nests and put a lid on. Hardly the orthodox method for cooking pasta but it worked. I drained the water, added the tuna in oil and the vegies, stirred and put the lid on again to heat through. Surprisingly, it was quite tasty. Our new friends from Western Australia invited us to join them for a cuppa around the campfire. Ah, a coffee to soothe the jangled nerves!
So after a healthy breakfast of weetbix and fruit, we packed up and headed for Mt Barnett, Manning Gorge and Imintji Campground. Now we had checked, double checked and triple checked that we had left nothing behind at the campsite at Ellenbrae. But we had scarcely gone any distance when Kenn realised that his iphone was not in his pocket. We knew that it had to be in the vehicle but where? The car was so jam packed with stuff that it would be a serious mission to stop and search for it. Kenn made an executive decision that the search could wait until we set up camp at Imintji later that day.
And so we continued along the Gibb. We passed the Kalumburu turnoff and the road conditions changed. Instead of a rough stony surface the Gibb now presented us with some of the worst corrugations that we have driven over. And the wonderful escarpment scenery that we had driven through to that point had given way to relatively flat savannah as we bumped, bounced and shook our way to the Mt Barnett Roadhouse about halfway along the Gibb. . It was approaching lunchtime and given our cooking situation, we treated ourselves to takeaway. Kenn also topped up our fuel, as we thought that this was the only place on the Gibb where fuel could be purchased.
It is here that you buy the permit to visit Manning Gorge. But the iphone issue hung over our heads and we wanted to press on to Imintji as we had been told there were limited campsites and we didn’t want to miss out. As it turned out there were heaps to choose from which a phone call from the Roadhouse to the Imintji store would have confirmed. Ah you live and learn! As a consequence, we missed our opportunity to visit this beautiful gorge. Our loss!
So we pressed onto Imintji. In the Ngarinyin language, Imintji means “a place to sit down”. The campground is located at the foot of the spectacular King Leopold range and you pay for your campsite at the store. The people at the store were lovely and very quickly we selected a campsite with a sunset view of the range, put up the tent and found the iphone! We were happy campers.
Imintji is relatively close to Bell Gorge and we had the whole afternoon with which to explore it. On the way, we passed Silent Grove, the National Parks campground. It too looked very pleasant. The track to the gorge is not very shaded and we were quite hot by the time we reached the upper gorge. It was beautiful, a series of shallow pools which trickle into each other and eventually form a waterfall which cascades to a pool in the lower gorge.
Back at Imintji, we reconnected with a young family who were travelling for a year around Australia. We had first met them at Emma Gorge back at El Questro where their three delightful little girls, (the youngest was just four and a half) had chatted to us, showing us their special discoveries: pet rocks and special pools and giving us helpful hints of where not to walk. The family was spending a couple of days at Imintji before travelling to the Mornington Wilderness Area. And the girls put the time to good use.
As we checked into the store next morning for cappuccinos , we also realised that we should have bought fuel here as well. We were unaware that the store sold fuel! It was over 30cents per litre cheaper than Mt Barnett! And when you’re filling a thirsty Prado, that can make a considerable difference.
We were now traveling from Imintji to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek. To get there we drove through the magnificent King Leopold Ranges. Sometimes the road cut through the ranges and at other times the road opened up to reveal incredible vistas of unspoilt wilderness.
We were surprised at how quickly, we got to Windjana Gorge. It only took a couple of hours from Imintji. One of the things that had determined our itinerary was the booking at Windjana Gorge. According to the WA National Parks website, sites must be pre-booked and paid for online. So of course we did, only to discover that we could have just rocked up and put our payment in a box. But maybe that was only the case for this early part of the season and being locked in to a particular date did enable us to maximise our exploration time..
Windjana Gorge is one of the most spectacular gorges in the Kimberley. The gorge cuts through the Napier Range which part of the ancient Devonian limestone reef which can also be seen at Geikie Gorge and Tunnel Creek. While the Lennard River runs through the gorge in the wet season, in the dry it forms large pools where the freshwater crocodiles lurk.
What to see first? Since we had a whole afternoon at our disposal, we decided to go to Tunnel Creek and then visit the Gorge for the evening spectacle of crocodile bat hunting.
Tunnel Creek is WA’s oldest cave system and it is here that you can walk through a tunnel following the creek as it flows through the Napier Range. We knew we had to wear old sneakers, carry a torch and be prepared to get wet as at certain points in the tunnel you have to wade or swim through pools. I was surprised by how eerie and thrilling I found the whole experience. I led the way, carrying the torch while Kenn took our photos.
Back at Windjana Gorge, we had time for a cuppa before our first walk into the Gorge. It was late afternoon and the reflections on the water were lovely.
Walking back to our campsite, we were surprised to see that the campground was full to bursting Surprisingly, we hadn’t felt crowded when exploring the gorge and hoped that the crowds would stay away when we walked the Gorge Trail next morning.
There was a lot to see on the trail which follows a track through beautiful bush which fringes the gorge.
And beside us and across the gorge, was the incredible Devonian reef, complete with fossils!
And of course there were Boab trees. But here the Boab was flowering and fruiting.
And so our time at Windjana Gorge came to a close. Even though we had booked an extra night at the gorge, we had experienced the main attractions and some extra time in Broome beckoned. After all, we had a lot ( and I mean a lot: everything was coated in bright red dust at this point) of washing to do, a camping store to visit and some pillows to buy before we continued our camping adventures on Cape Leveque.
This road trip along the Gibb had been amazing despite our minor hiccups. I wouldn’t mind doing it again, but after a really good Wet season and perhaps making it up to Mitchell Falls and down to the Mornington Wilderness Area just to mention a couple of places we didn’t visit.
But the road delivered what I had been hoping to experience: sweeping wilderness vistas full of deep, rich colours and the magical interplay between rock and water that is so symbolic of the Kimberley. And we had a real sense of being on an adventure, of living a little bit on the edge. After all you’re a long way from suburbia on the Gibb.
I hope you can join me as Kenn and I get a taste of Broome, the gateway to the Western Kimberley Coast.