AWE-INSPIRING gorges, impressive mountain ranges, spectacular waterfalls and wonderful camping grounds make the Gibb River Road an unforgettable experience for anyone travelling deep into the heart of the Kimberley.
This was first published in 4X4 Australia’s July 2012 issue.
It’s amazing to think that Alexander and Matthew Forrest were the first explorers to traverse the Gibb River Road region in 1879 – an epic journey that almost led to their deaths but resulted in the discovery of 25 million hectares of pastoral land. Today the trip across the Gibb River Road isn’t quite as dangerous but good preparation is the key to a safe and enjoyable 4X4 trip.
It is still early in the tourist season when we pack the car and start the long drive up the Red Centre. When we finally reach Kununurra, we’re all ready for a break and the trailer suspension needs to be looked at. While staying at Kimberleyland Holiday Park we hear many colourful stories from keen four-wheel drivers, but for all the wrong reasons.
One family hobbled into Kununurra with broken suspension and had trouble obtaining the right spare parts for their vehicle.
They ended up limping all the way back to Adelaide and having their 4X4 fixed there. Another 4X4 enthusiast used up all his spare tyres within the first 100km and had to rely on a generous traveller lending him yet another spare tyre to make it safely to Kununurra. The tyres were fixed and the borrowed spare tyre was returned along with a slab of beer.
We figure we’d better learn from other people’s mistakes. A local mechanic, Luke Robinson, replaces our front wheel bearings and brake pads. Upon inspection of the trailer, he tells us, “Mate, you’re fortunate to have made it to Kununurra because the trailer leaf-spring hangers and bushes are in terrible condition and need replacing.” Would we have made it to the other end of the Gibb River Road?
Shaking his head, he says, “No way.” The repairs were costly, but the reality is that without them our trip would’ve most likely come to an end in the middle of the Kimberley.
After a week in Kununurra we hit the road, stocked up with groceries and a full water tank, confident that our rig will make the distance. We pay a three-day visit to the Bungle Bungles before heading down the Great Northern Highway past Fitzroy Crossing to the turn-off onto Fairfield-Leopold Road.
Windjana Gorge is our first destination. Our 10-day journey across the Kimberley has begun.
The first stretch of road is badly corrugated but closer to Windjana Gorge it becomes better. We arrive early in the afternoon and pick one of the few shady spots, close to the solar-powered showers and toilets. That night the sun slowly sinks below the horizon while setting the gorge walls alight in a fiery red and orange display – a spectacular sight that is engraved in my memory.
Up at the crack of dawn we are some of the first people to head into the gorge. We know we’re in the right place when Shannon shouts, “Croc! Mum, I see a crocodile!” The two older kids point at the two large crocs which look rather dangerous with their big mouths wide open, ready to swallow their next victim. People don’t go swimming here.
After a relaxing two-day stay we reluctantly leave Windjana Gorge. Our next destination is Manning Gorge, just a couple of kays behind Mt Barnett Roadhouse. It is a relatively short drive to the turn-off onto the Gibb River Road where we take a right.
The road has just been graded and is in excellent condition – this is as good as it gets on outback roads. The drive through the King Leopold Ranges is spectacular with breathtaking views and made easy with the steep sections completely bituminised. The ranges are named after King Leopold of Belgium who was the patron of the expedition by Alexander and Matthew Forrest.
The trip to Mt Barnett Roadhouse takes about four hours and we arrive at the Manning Gorge campground without any trouble. This particular campground is extremely popular because it is very close to the Barnett River where you can go for a refreshing swim. We pitch our tent among the trees and make a run for the river. It is a welcome relief after the long and dusty roads of the last couple of days.
The next morning we gear ourselves up for the hike to Manning Gorge – it is a fairly strenuous 1-1.5 hour walk but well worth it. Shannon and Chantelle walk the entire way and Hannah has the best ride of all – in mum’s backpack.
Manning Gorge is a fantastic place for swimming and we even find a little beach with shallow water for the kids to play in.
Our next destination is Ellenbrae Homestead, which we’re glad to reach after a rocky ride. The camping facilities have been built with whatever was around at the time and bush improvisation takes on a whole new meaning here.
A donkey is used to heat the hot water for the shower and the big bath (which was absolutely fantastic for our three kids) and the camp kitchen has large rocks forming the walls. Everything is in rustic tropical style with plenty of ventilation to keep the place cool.
That night we sit out under a star-filled sky and enjoy the peace of the outback. We’re up early the next morning and treat the kids to the famous Ellenbrae scones – they live up to our expectations.
The drive from Ellenbrae to El Questro Wilderness Park is magnificent. We stop at the lookout and marvel at the impressive Cockburn Ranges in the distance. It’s a great spot for a family portrait.
After a short break we continue along a badly-corrugated road to the turn-off to El Questro. Talk about contrast after the peace and quiet of Ellenbrae. There are 4X4s, camper-trailers and vans everywhere and the shop is so busy it takes us a while to buy a camping permit. We find a big site right next to the river under the shade of a big tree and the kids go wild after sitting in the car for way too many hours.
El Questro is a massive park with many gorges to see, 4X4 tracks to explore and cruises or tours to enjoy. Every visitor has to purchase a Wilderness Park permit and camping fees are payable separately.
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They also have safari tents, cabins or a room in the homestead if you don’t want to rough it.
We stay two nights and travel down two 4X4 tracks to explore Pigeon Hole Lookout and Branco’s Lookout. This latter 4X4 track takes you across the Chamberlain River and is a long creek crossing that never seems to end. You certainly don’t want to meet another vehicle along this creek crossing because it is quite narrow and quite deep in one particular spot.
The view from Branco’s Lookout is worth the drive through with Chamberlain Gorge stretching out before you. We complete our visit to El Questro with a soak in the famous Zebedee Springs.
After 10 days on the dirt it is nice to say goodbye to the dust. We are all sad to leave the Kimberley – this wilderness destination is a place to be experienced at least once in your life.