Gibb River Road Adventure

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.

Negotiating this crossing without mishap, was what Kenn was particularly looking forward to. In this photo from Outback WA, notice the width of the crossing and the depth. This is what the crossing generally looks like after a normal wet season. The river can be 60 plus metres wide and flow very quickly. Late in the dry around September, the depth can be less than 50 cm and relatively easy to cross. But we were crossing in early June and adding to the challenge would be the sharp, stony nature of the crossing itself. We knew several people who had come to grief here and found themselves changing a tyre on the other side.
However what we found was virtually a dry, stony river bed. Kenn was so disappointed. On the plus side, we didn’t get a puncture. And as we crossed in the morning, we didn’t capture that iconic picture of the crossing with the Cockburn Ranges, rosy in the afternoon sun, in the background.
Instead, a little further on, close to the turn off to Home Valley, there was a lookout where we stopped. Still beautiful but not THE shot!
It was also here that I reached over the back to grab my pillow only to find that it was not there. Our super comfy latex pillows had gone missing in action! Oh well, every adventure has its challenges. I was sure we could improvise some item of clothing into a suitable head rest!

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.

The station is a welcome haven of green and the rustic building you can see in the background was the original homestead complete with an open air kitchen. We found out that there was only Optus reception but the manager kindly rang Emma Gorge for us and we were able to arrange to pick up our pillows on our return journey. Amazing! When we picked them up we discovered that they had even laundered our pillowslips! Outback hospitality!, got to love it!
There were lots of places around the large garden where you could enjoy a cappuccino and a picnic lunch. At this stage of our trip, I hadn’t realised what a luxury Lawn is in the Kimberley.
And they even had a children’s play area.

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.

If you camp at Ellenbrae, you get access to Sandy Beach Gorge. This was quite a long gorge and I wished that there was a kayak or two to borrow. But the water was lovely and there were no rocks so you could laze around very easily. It was quite a hot day, and the beach had very little shade. A sun umbrella would have been nice, but you can’t carry everything with you can you?
It was perfectly safe to swim across to the rocks on the other side.
However, the billabong which is accessed from Ringer’s campground was virtually dry. Such a shame as we could see that it would be an idyllic spot with water in it and so accessible.

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!

And as we watched the flames flicker, they told us how great the campground at Imintji was. Apparently it was relatively new with excellent facilities including free barbeques! We had intended to stay at Manning Gorge the following day, but as Imintji was just another 100 kms further. on, we decided to stay there. Our cooking problem for one night at least would be solved.

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!

The waterfalls at upper Manning Gorge, on Mount Barnett Station, off the Gibb River Road. This photo from Red Dirt Rentals gives you an idea of what we missed. I don’t think that there would have been this much water flowing over the falls though.

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.

We had this part of the campground entirely to ourselves. Just across the road was a lovely, grassed common area with a very spacious and clean amenities block and a covered camp kitchen complete with free electric barbeques. They also had some glamping tents for those a little short of time.
Certainly not as crowded as most places on the Gibb! A really good hot shower is one of the luxuries of life!

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.

The upper pools are surrounded by these wonderful rocks
And fringed by wonderful reeds.
The reflections were lovely and the water deep enough to float around in. And there were plenty of accommodating rocks to serve as a picnic table for afternoon tea.

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.

They created fairy houses and gardens on rock platforms and in tree nooks and we were treated to a special guided tour. And the fairies left them a little something in the morning! It was so delightful to see little ones so happy in the great outdoors needing nothing but imagination to be happy.

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.

You have to walk 750 metres to the other side and return the same way. At the entrance to the tunnel you have to clamber around some boulders before the tunnel opens up. Initially, you are walking on a sandy beach beside the creek but ...
there are residents keeping watch. At least five species of bats also live in the cave, including ghost bats and fruit bats, and every strange sound had me wondering if something nasty was about to drop on my head or snap at my heels.
In a few places, the tunnel roof has collapsed and a little light filters in. But for much of the time you are in complete darkness with only your torch to guide you
And the stalactites cling in strange shapes from the roof.
We did have to wade through some water. Luckily for us, the water was quite low. On the way through it was OK as we were following others but on the return trip, we were on our own and I went to the right instead of the left. The water was getting deeper and deeper and then I heard a suspicious sound. I backed out … very, very quickly. Kenn found the right path and we had no further dramas. I don’t know that I could have swam through the tunnel if the water had been higher.
On the other side, the creek opens up to form a lovely swimming spot. I did get wet but couldn’t get the image of the crocodile back in the tunnel out of my mind so didn’t linger.
Tunnel Creek is also where Jandamarra made his last stand. His story is very well documented here.

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.

As you can see, you can walk all the way through the gorge on sand if you wish. I loved the play of light on the rocks as the sun began to set.
The rock formations were highlighted by sunlight and shadow
But on the opposite side of the large pools, we were amazed by the number of freshwater crocodiles, sunning themselves or seemingly asleep in the water. Obviously we kept our distance.
Many were bigger than I thought they would be. As the sun set, they became more active. They were jostling for a good spot from which to try and catch a bat or two for supper when the bats leave their daytime caves and fly down the gorge to drink and feed. We didn’t get a picture of a bat being taken but in the gloom did witness some crocs find success. Nature at work. While you could feel sorry for the bats, there were thousands of them making their way down the gorge so maybe this was Nature’s way of keeping numbers in balance.

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.

We started at about 730 am as we didn’t know how much shade there was on this walk and didn’t want to get too hot. It was a great time as the birds were very active and it was a very pleasant temperature. The trail is not difficult and certainly didn’t take us four hours even though we were strolling along.

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.

Just a youngster judging by some of the monster specimens we had encountered.
The dark berry like things are the fruit while the flowers are at the end of the branches. Lovely against the sky.

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.

El Questro Wilderness Park

The protected oasis of Zebedee Springs

Located just 110 kms west of Kununurra, El Questro Wilderness Park was the first stop on our exploration of the Gibb River Road. We hoped that it would be wonderful and we weren’t disappointed. There was just so much to see and do in one place. (Admittedly a very large place: the park covers an area of over 700,000 acres in the heart of the Kimberley.)

We loved driving around flanked by the majestic Cockburn Range, exploring dramatic gorges and testing out the snorkling capabilities of our vehicle in the process.

Driving into Emma Gorge, this little creek posed no problems but El Questro Gorge was another matter. We found a deep hole in the creek crossing on our return journey from the gorge and for a moment, as the water cascaded over the bonnet, I wondered if we might get stuck. But the Prado just kept chugging away and we emerged, a bit damp, but triumphant.

We loved swimming under cascading waterfalls in beautiful rock pools, relaxing in thermal springs, picnicking besides waterholes and admiring beautiful sunsets.

El Questro has a variety of accommodation options to suit every budget. These are at three locations : Emma Gorge, The Station and the Homestead. Initially, we intended to camp over at the Station on a powered site in our tent. After all we were following in the footsteps of pioneers and were prepared to rough it a little. But after I’d booked, I noticed that El Questro was offering an opening of the season special: three nights for the price of two with buffet breakfast included for their upscale accommodation at the Station and Emma Gorge. Investigating further, the glamping safari tents complete with private ensuite at Emma Gorge really appealed.

We’d still be camping but with a few more mod cons. And surely I could put up with a little bit of luxury whilst in the middle of the East Kimberley Wilderness? Someone to make my bed, tidy my tent and fill my glass at happy hour? And who wouldn’t enjoy standing under their very own blissful rain shower while they washed away the rigours of the day while admiring the branches of a magnificent gum tree against a deep blue sky framed by towering red cliffs?

You guessed it, I cancelled the camp site at the Station and booked Emma! Part of the accommodation cost included the compulsory Wilderness Park Permit, the proceeds of which help with the maintenance of the roads etc within the park.

Emma Gorge

We reached Emma Gorge with plenty of time to walk the gorge and have a swim before we booked in. The walk involved a bit of rock hopping and scrambling as we made our way through the stunning gorge.

But it was so worth it. The final rock pool with its gentle waterfall was so perfect. The water was quite cold but very refreshing and when you swam under the waterfall on the other side of the pool, it was like being in a natural rain shower, nicely tingly. And of course floating around and gazing up at the majestic red cliffs and a perfect blue sky and knowing that you were in the middle of the Kimberley wilderness was special just by itself.

On the right hand side of the main pool is a thermal spring to warm you up. If you can, carry some reef shoes in your backpack. The rocks are very sharp and getting in and out of the pool was a little challenging. One three year old little boy gave Kenn a lesson: ” walk with your bum” he instructed as he demonstrated floating in a sitting position with his legs outstretched. Alas I didn’t get a photo of Kenn ‘bum walking’ as I was in the middle of the pool at the time but it was a sight to behold!

Back at the resort, we booked in and were thrilled with our tent. It was elevated, boasted a very comfortable queen bed, two single beds, outdoor furniture, a fan, basic tea making facilities and a very well appointed ensuite.. It was very private and had a wonderful view of the escarpment and the bush which was flood lit at night.

Next it was time to sample “happy hour” and dinner at the resort hub. There on the deck, we met fellow travelers from around Australia and the world. Most were travelling as part of tour groups but there one or two who were travelling on their own like us. Talk flowed as we sipped our drinks ensconced on super comfy sofas. And there were plenty of options to choose from on the a la carte menu for dinner. Yep, we were very happy campers!

Zebedee Springs

The following morning we up early, keen to drive over to the station and explore Zebedee Springs and El Questro Gorge. Both were fabulous.

The walk into Zebedee Springs is through a Livistonia Palm forest which is thought to be unique to this area.

The path is very pretty, quite flat and in comparison with the other walks at El Questro, very easy.
The palms are so tall, protected by the red cliffs which surround the springs.
Such an ancient land. Zebedee Springs is only open to the public until 12 noon but that said, a couple of hours is more than enough time to savour the experience.
There are lots of places to stow your gear. We found a friendly rock. And the water flows from quite high up and if you’re willing to climb up, there are lots of little pools where you can soak in the beautifully warm water and you would never know anyone else was around.
Only a few people can fit in each pool, and I noticed that most people tried to find a pool to themselves.
Sometimes you can angle yourself so that you are under one of these little waterfalls. So good!
Downstream, there a are a few larger pools that you don’t have to climb up to, but these can get quite crowded. We got to Zebedee around 830 am and it was lovely but as we were leaving, lots of people were arriving and these pools became a little muddy.

El Questro Gorge

Back in the Prado, it was time to drive to El Questro Gorge. We knew that the water crossing into the gorge was quite deep. Only vehicles with a snorkle were advised to cross. Needless to say, Kenn was excited by the prospect! Low range was selected and we sailed across with no problems. A few kms further on and we were at the start point.

The walk obviously is through El Questro Gorge. What is spectacular about the walk is the variety and lushness of landscape you pass through. Initially, the walk is fairly flat and as you can see, you are shaded by palms and towering red cliffs.
The walk is not overly long but it is the nature of the path, this sharp rocky stuff and the amount of climbing you have to do at the end which make it a class 4 walk. If you have them, I would recommend wearing proper hiking boots.
Mud and slosh. Now who isn’t built like a gazelle, able to leap such obstacles with a single bound and wasn’t wearing their hiking boots which were nestled in the back of the car? You guessed right. That would be me! But who can resist a bridge or two even if toes are squelching around in socks.
And as you follow the creek more closely, you have to navigate your way around fantastic rock formations like this.
And that! Kenn’s Indiana Jones hat really looks the part doesn’t it?
The creek was fairly low. We had been told that the Kimberley had had a poor wet season but there was enough water to create beautiful rainforest vistas. And even though there were lots and lots of people staying at El Questro at the time, we never felt crowded. Most of the time, we only met one or two other walkers on a track.
We only went as far as the first major rock pool. You had to swim over to these rocks and climb up to continue to the end of the gorge. As we weren’t carrying a waterproof pack, we didn’t want to risk our phones and car keys. And we didn’t see anyone make it without a dunking and all were a lot younger than us.
So we rested and swam and had our picnic lunch. The water was so clear! Just to the right, under the big rock in the foreground, a little family of fish darted out to say ‘hello’. .

This walk isn’t a circuit so we had to retrace our steps. And as is so often the case, the walk seemed so much easier on the return journey even if the drive through the creek was a little more problematical.

Jackaroo’s Billabong

Managing to chug our way out of a deep hole, Kenn and I decided to have a look at Jackaroo’s Billabong which was on our way back to the main road. A cup of coffee and some afternoon tea was needed. I was so happy we did as this was a really beautiful spot.

Unfortunately, you can’t swim here as crocodiles might be lurking.
But there were a couple of picnic tables and some open sandy ground from which to admire the billabong.
And beyond the billabong, the land stretches forever.

The afternoon was closing in, so we headed home to Emma Gorge. We had just enough time for a quick swim in the resort pool and a rest on the sun loungers with our books before getting ready for dinner. A great way to end a perfect day. Could tomorrow be as good?

Chamberlain Gorge

Chamberlain Gorge is regarded as one of the things not to be missed at El Questro. It is a 3 km long fresh waterhole surrounded by magnificent cliffs. But you could sail to the end of it in 10 or 15 minutes. So, since we had done the 55km Ord River cruise through a similar landscape in Kununurra a couple of days before, we decided to give the cruise a miss. But it is possible to get an idea what the gorge holds by driving to the boat jetty.

But the drive to and from Chamberlain Gorge was interesting in itself as you are traveling in more open savanna country .

Having taken a look at Chamberlain Gorge and enjoyed a coffee break at the Station, we hiked through Amalia Gorge.

Amalia Gorge

The lack of wet season rain had affected this gorge the most. We were there in early June and the creek was no longer flowing but a few waterholes remained. Despite this, it was easy to see why this gorge is a favorite with so many people. The walk along the creek is shaded and very beautiful and and normally there would be lots of private swimming spots to enjoy along the way. We spotted one couple swimming in a pool but we didn’t join them as the water looked a bit stagnant.

And it looked a little shallow as well but so pretty.

Then the path started to climb and at the end you had to shimmy around and through some pretty scary rock formations to reach the upper pools at the end of the track.

We were scrambling along a ledge about half way up where the tree is. It was reasonably wide but then
we had to step around this tree and shimmy yourself between two rock ledges.

But again the effort was worth it. There is a little cascade of waterfalls and rock pools falling down into one larger pool which acted as the most marvelous mirror. And we had the place entirely to ourselves!

The end of the gorge is surrounded by these high cliffs which change colour depending whether they’re in shade or sunlight.
The water trickles down from one pool to the next,
until it reaches this main pool, There was only the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves and the occasional bird call. And despite all the rocks and the warm weather, we didn’t see so much as a geeko let alone a snake.
We especially loved the gum tree reflections.
It’s a perfect combo: water, rock and Australian flora.

As we retraced our steps we were extra careful navigating the rock ledge. It was a lot harder going down than it was climbing up. But we did it! Feeling very chuffed with ourselves we drove back to Emma Gorge. It was our last night at El Questro and we had loved every minute. As we sipped our pre dinner drinks, there was a beautiful sunset.

This photo doesn’t capture how spectacular it was. Phone cameras have some limitations.

Final Thoughts.

El Questro does give the visitor a wonderful wilderness experience. And while every place in the Kimberley has its own unique beauty, what sets El Questro apart is that it is a microcosm of everything that the Kimberley has to offer

We had had three action packed days here but there was still so much that we could have done. More gorges to explore, more 4WD tracks to conquer, more lookouts to reach and perhaps even a helicopter flight or two.

In hindsight, much as I loved staying at Emma Gorge, a stay at the Station would have been more central to most attractions. As we had our own 4WD vehicle and we had filled up in Kununurra, we found that we didn’t spend much money at El Questro except on dinner and accommodation and these I felt were reasonably priced.

You could spend a great deal of money here if you wanted to complete all the tours and experiences on offer. Like everywhere in the Kimberley, the organised tours offered by El Questro are not cheap. But for many, they are the stuff memories are made of. If you are lucky enough to have unlimited funds, check them out on the El Questro website.

Now the real test was about to begin. The Pentecost River crossing awaited us in the morning the the challenge of the Gibb River Road beckoned. Join us as we bump and shake our way to Broome.