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.