Three years, eight months and 26 days ago I fell in love with the Kimberley while on a road trip from the NT. I was young and broke, my duel battery system and car fridge were failing me, and my friend broke her toe with an overly adventurous bouldering escapade. We made it as far as El Questro where I begrudgingly made the call to take the bitumen route to Broome instead of the Gibb River Road.
Now, I have just completed this long awaited 10 day trip down the Gibb river road and braved it in a rental car. Despite not having my own rig, I loved every second of it.
There is some controversy around venturing into remote areas in rental cars, with many people understandably arguing that you need your own rig, fully equipped, to cope with everything a remote area throws at you. However, this isn’t an option for everyone, and with preparation it is possible to plan a safe trip down the Gibb in a rental 4WD. Which is excellent news for those who are time poor, can’t afford a 4WD, or can’t justify one for the amount they would use it each year.
Road conditions and crossing depths can vary from deep to dry throughout the season on the Gibb, so regardless of when you’re travelling, ensure you have the 4WD experience to navigate changing conditions. Novices should consider taking a four wheel drive course before they go. Generally the creeks, including the iconic Pentecost River, were low, but we encountered a few deep crossings.
Day one we flew into Kununurra, arriving to the wonderful tropical smells that come with humidity and blazing sunshine, making you instantly feel like you’re on holidays!
Our rig of choice was a duel cab Hilux (with two spare tyres) from Avis at the airport and she served us dutifully for the duration of the trip.
After playing car tetris with our gear, we headed into Kununurra and filled up on supplies. At the information centre we brought a good map and a locally prepared annual guide to the Gibb for $5. Before leaving town we compiled our emergency details in case of a break down.
We then headed off to El Questro, the jewel of the Gibb River Road, with its towering waterfalls, lush gorges, private hot spring, and steep 4WD lookouts.
Our first stop was Emma Gorge, a small bush resort with eco-tents. Camping is available up the road at El Questro Station. The gorge ends at a beautiful swimming hole. It is truly a special experience floating in the cool water, dwarfed by the towering 65m waterfall above you. It was my first gorge for the holiday, so it holds a special place in my heart. It was the first of many ‘I’m swimming in a postcard’ moments this holiday had to offer.
In the morning, we bee-lined for Amalia Gorge, spotting a kingfisher along the walk. We had the waterhole to ourselves, revelling under the natural shower and I fulfilled my fantasy of sitting behind a waterfall.
El Questro Gorge walk meanders along a palm and fern-clad creek line through a towering gorge. Stop at picturesque Halfway Pool, or complete the challenging second half of the walk where you wade across pools, spider climb between boulders and scramble up a waterfall. It’s best done in pairs and has what my partner calls ‘The Mountain Factor’ – the satisfaction that you had to work hard to get there and not everyone can do it. We ran out of light and turned around mockingly close to the end, so I was again trumped by the walk that bested my friend and her toe so many years ago! Third time will be a charm – I’ll be back.
With our limited gear we opted for camping at the station, taking advantage of showers and their renowned outback bar, BBQ, and live acoustic entertainment.
The next morning we raced the sunrise up the steep incline of Saddleback Ridge to be greeted by spectacular views of the surrounding valleys and ranges. Our final El Questro stop, the magical Zebedee Springs, are thermal pools of crystal clear warm water surrounded by palms.
At this point we made the rule neither of us could say ‘I wish we had more time’ but instead ‘put it on the list for next time’ and make the most of this trip. The Kimberley is vast and you just can’t see everything.
Just down the road is Home Valley Station or HV8, an iconic Kimberley destination. It boasts prime fishing real-estate on the banks of the mighty Pentecost River, and nine unique bushwalks through rugged escarpments and gorges. The Pentecost River Campground, overlooking the spectacular Cockburn ranges, has one of the most picturesque campground views in Australia.
We indulged in a grass castle room on the edge of the Bindoola Creek. If you’re going to splash out on optional extras, this end of the Gibb is the place to do so.
Over our four nights at HV8 we tasted most of the activities on offer, including the station tour, where we learnt about the station’s history and operations, and a surreal morning horse ride guided by a tale-spinning bushman.
Home Valley has a reputation for having some of the best barramundi fishing in the Kimberley and it certainly lived up to it. The highlight for us was a long anticipated helicopter fishing trip. A fellow traveller was left tauntingly close to the 1 metre club with a catch of 96.5cm. The experience finished with a sunset flight over the Cockburn ranges, where we learned this iconic range, featured in the movie Australia, has recently been protected as part of the Wilinggin Indigenous Protected Area. We farewelled the day with fresh barra and beers.
The station walks are spectacular and highlights were watching the sunset at Bindoola Gorge Lookout and our first croc spot of the trip, a rather large ‘freshie’.The short Nyarli Lagoon walk ends at a magic waterhole abundant with bird life, and we added tackling the challenging Salmond River trails to the list for next time.
Home Valley is owned by Voyages Indigenous Tourism and it runs a successful Indigenous traineeship program. It provides remote area employment opportunities across all areas of the business, from stock work to hospitality and tour guiding.
On a hot tip from a local we stopped at the quirky Ellenbrae Station for some of the best homemade scones I’ve ever had. The Kimberly splendour was perfectly captured in the David Byard artwork adorning the walls. The outside drop toilet with bush views was a memorable toileting experience.
People you meet are always a trip highlight. Two of our favourites were a duo of feisty women who started travelling together after losing their husbands. Their itinerary was enviable and their sense of adventure admirable. Another highlight was running into a large mob of postie bikes scooting along the Gibb. We stopped for a yarn with the charmingly Aussie support team, and discovered it was an annual pilgrimage of dedicated folks raising money for Bright Blue, a police charity.
After making a donation, we continued to Manning Gorge. We camped surrounded by magnificent Boabs that have stood watch for over a thousand years. The Gorge walk starts with crossing the campground swimming hole on a pulley-system boat. After climbing escarpments we spotted faded rock art before the gorge opened into a huge natural amphitheatre. In the afternoon we stopped at Galvan’s and Adcock Gorge, each beautiful and unique.
Our last stop was Mornington wilderness sanctuary, a twitchers heaven brimming with wildlife. It even offers up the chance to spot the rare Gouldian Finch. We camped in the beautiful bush campground, woken on the first night by the haunting sounds of dingo howls, their population playing an important ecological role in the landscape.
We used the free guide from reception to navigate our action-packed day at the sanctuary. We watched the sunrise, swam at the secluded sandy beach of Diamond Gorge, went spotting for Rainbow Bee-Eaters at Cajeput, and lay in the bubbling creek shallows at Bluebush. I had my first rope swing experience cheered on by a group of sanctuary volunteers. As we ate dinner under a vivid sunset at Sir John Gorge, we were lucky enough to glimpse the very rare Northern Quoll.
That night we went to a free slideshow where we learnt that Mornington is owned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. This not for profit organisation are working towards achieving their goal of protecting all Australian mammal species through donor funded strategic land acquisition.
The last day of our trip was a huge drive, skipping most of the Western end of the Gibb River Road. We frantically packed at Cable beach, making our flight just in time to return our trusty Hilux.
One of the best things about the Kimberley was the dramatic colours. Yellow grasses, every shade of green, vivid red and browns soils, and endless blue sky. Sunrise bathes the landscape in beautiful soft light creating perfect photos. In the afternoon the sun immerses everything in a warm glow as the ranges change colour and the sun sets on another Kimberly day. However you choose to travel the Gibb River Road, you will truly feel like you escaped to another world. Now that you know you can go rental on the Gibb, rope in your mates or family and book a trip. I know you want to.
Written June 2013.
When to Go
The Gibb River Road is only accessible in the dry season which runs from approximately May to October, weather dependent. Check www.mainroads.wa.gov.au before you go for road closure information.
The Gibb River Road runs for 659km in Northern WA between Derby and the Wyndham/Kununurra turn off on the Great Northern Highway. Flights leave daily from Perth to Kununurra through Virgin Australia www.virginaustralia.com or from Darwin to Kununurra through Airnorth http://www.airnorth.com.au/ or www.qantas.com.au
Flights depart Broome daily with Qantas www.qantas.com.au and Virgin Australia.
We booked with Avis www.avis.com.au however most rental companies also hire from Kununurra. Check with your chosen Kununurra depot for off road restrictions before you book. Compare as many companies as you can, there is a lot of variation in price.
Where to Stay
Emma Gorge – wilderness Tent Accomodation & El Questro Station – unpowered campground or private sites and a range of accommodation options. Book through Hotels Combined (which searches multiple online sites for the best deal) or directly with the resort at www.elquestro.com.au (1300 863 248) or [email protected]
Home Valley Station – powered/unpowered station campground, unpowered river campground and a range of accommodation options. Compare online available rates through See Something New Bookings powered by Hotels Combined or book directly with the station at www.hvstation.com.au or (02) 8296 8010
Manning Gorge (Mt Barnett Roadhouse) – unpowered campground (08) 9191 7007
Silent Grove Camping Area (King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park) – unpowered camping www.dpaw.wa.gov.au or http://parkstay.dpaw.wa.gov.au or phone directly on (08) 9195 5500
Windjana Gorge NP – unpowered camping www.dec.wa.gov.au or (08) 9195 5500
Always Have a second spare. Flat tyres are renters responsibility, so know how to change one
Bring a tyre pressure gauge and run your tyres at the recommend pressure for gravel
Purchase a quality map
Purchase a large water container for emergency breakdowns and take 1 litre per person per hour when hiking
Consider emergency precautions like a satellite phone
Have all your rental and roadside assist details handy in case of a breakdown
Pack a hat and sunscreen
Take care when around waterfalls and rocks for slippery surfaces and floating objects
Watch for livestock on the road
Head to www.gibbriverroad.net for a wealth of information to assist you in planning your trip.
Take a snorkel mask to spot fish in the swimming holes
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