Traveller’s Tales #2: GGGiiibbb RRRiiivvveeerrr RRRoooaaaddd!!! In A Word – FFFUUUNNN!

The sights and gorges in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia are reputed to be well worth a look, and the Gibb River Road, which traverses most of the good bits is a Four Wheel Driver’s ‘must do’.  Additionally, a friend was killed in a helicopter crash in the Silent Gorge region of this area on 27 June, 1996.  So in a multi-part adventure/holiday/in memoriam trip Maggie and I, and Tony’s former wife Gillie, took off to ‘do’ the Gibb River Road in late August, early September.  August and September are the months just before the wet season in the Kimberley region of north Western Australia and almost at the end of the tourist season.

It’s hot, it’s dry (apart from the gorges and larger rivers), it’s dusty.  A fine red dust that, no matter how well the car is sealed, eventually seeps in and forms a fine film on everything (including you).  On unsealed roads a cloud of dust follows your vehicle as you drive through the road rubble and corrugations.  Blown tyres and smashed windscreens are regular occurrences.  It’s rough, it’s bumpy, and it’s risky driving at speed as evidenced by the photos at various stops of wrecked vehicles.  The knack appears to be to reduce tyre pressures (from highway levels) and drive at a reasonable speed so that the vehicle isn’t bumping along in the corrugations, doesn’t skid on tricky bits like corners (and the road!) and you have a reasonable chance of regaining control if things go awry.  Slowing down to pass oncoming vehicles is prudent, for both parties, especially when the oncoming vehicle is a road train.  It’s even wiser in the latter circumstance to get off the road, if you can, and let these juggernauts thunder by.  To be heartily condemned in such circumstances are the facile idiots who drive, and pass you either way, at speeds more appropriate to an autobahn.  I object strongly to me, my relatives and friends ending up as collateral damage when one of these morons comes unstuck.

The trip took us from Broome (initially staying at ‘Palm Grove Holiday Resort’) up to Derby, on the Gibb River Road, with overnighters at ‘ATP’s Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge’ at Imintji, ‘Mount Elizabeth Station’, and ‘El Questro’ along the way, across to Kununurra (‘Lakeview Apartments’) after a quick look at Derby.  The return trip by way of the bitumen through Hall’s Creek and Fitzroy Crossing (‘Fitzroy River Lodge’) and back to Broome for some comfortable R&R at ‘The Frangipani’ before returning home to Sydney.


Fig. 1: Western Australia’s Kimberley Region

Days 1 and 2:  Were primarily about getting to Broome (Qantas), having a quick look round, picking up the 4WD Toyota Prado diesel from Hertz Rental, buying provisions, stuffing the Prado full of luggage, food, water, fuel and us before setting off on our Kimberley adventure.


 Fig. 2:  Me:  Wife Maggie:  Gillie,  Me + luggage at Broome:  Broome from the air.


 Fig. 3:  Picking up the Prado:  Cable Beach (North Broome):  Sunset at Cable Beach (going):  Cable Beach Sunset (gone).

Day 3:  An early start off on the bitumen to Derby with a brekky stopover at the Willare Bridge Roadhouse and a look at the Prison Tree just outside Derby.  Aboriginal prisoners were actually kept in these Boab’s (there are several) in transit to the gaols or elsewhere (circa late 1800’s).  The story of the treatment of Aborigines in the region is not one that our forbears can be proud of.


Fig. 4:  The journey begins:  Willare Bridge Roadhouse (a long way from everywhere):  Boab Prison Tree outside Derby:  Tidal flats Derby.

Back to the Gibb River turnoff and off the bitumen heading towards the first overnight stay just outside Imintji at APT’s ‘Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge’.  Around fifteen kilometres along the ‘rough stuff’ one very pointy stone ends the life of a rear tyre with a bang!  Our first blowout, and once we had dropped our tyre pressures based on advice from those who stopped to help, our last.  This was contrary to ‘advice’ from Hertz who had advised us to maintain max tyre pressure – naughty Hertz, and costly for us!  All the advice we received from other travellers, as well as Nev (the tyre man at Imintji who provided the replacement tyre) was to keep tyre pressures down to reduce the rough ride and minimise blowouts!

One has to wonder whether the Hertz advice was more about the companies self-interest (higher pressure = longer tyre life and if it’s a blown tyre Hertz gets a new one at no cost anyhow) rather than in the best interests of the hirer.  Now that’s food for thought! [POSTSCRIPT: Hertz kindly refunded half of the cost of the tyre following our complaint. That WAS nice of them! Thanks Hertz!]


Fig. 5:  Off the bitumen and onto the Gibb River Road:  Bugger!:  A dusty tyre change:  Rim damage to tyre, the offending stone went through the tread and steel belting!

Back on the road again to finally reach Imintji for fuel (diesel only here) and a new tyre from the laconic Nev and his ‘doing a roaring trade’ tyre repair and replacement joint.  Thirty two pounds pressure is what Nev and his mate put in the tyres and they stayed that way until we got back on the bitumen.  Tyre replaced and it was on to our stopover, just down the road at ATP’s Wilderness Lodge to be served a delightful evening meal and to a good night’s sleep.

 Fig. 6:  Nev’s tyre joint at Imintji:  APT’s Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge encampment:  Very ‘comfy’ tent interior:  Sunset outside our tent.

Day 4:  Back on the road again down to Silent Grove and Bell Gorge in the King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park before returning to our final night at the lodge.  I’ll do a ‘picture worth a thousand words’ for a bit.  The plaque attesting to Tony’s accident is just off the far end of the parking area for the Bell Gorge and overlooks the valley – a peaceful resting place.


Fig. 7:  Escarpment outside tent at dawn:  Water python at Bell Gorge (note water clarity):  Bell Gorge (upstream):  Bell Gorge (downstream).

 Fig. 8:  Bell Gorge waterfall:  Bell Gorge across upstream lagoon):  Looking down into the Gorge beyond the waterfall (downstream).


 Fig. 9:  RIP Tony:  The ford into Silent Grove 1:  The ford 2:  R&R with the Boabs at Silent Grove.

Day 5:  After another lovely meal and an equally nice rest it was back onto the dusty Gibb River Road heading for Mount Elizabeth Station for an overnight stay.  At the suggestion of one of the staff at the Bell Gorge Lodge we also stopped at Galvan Gorge as it contains some Aboriginal drawings on the rock face.  Definitely good advice and well worth the look.


Fig. 10:  Wrecked and stripped on Gibb River Road:  Galvans Gorge 1 & 2:  Aboriginal rock art at Galvans Gorge (Wandjina figure and two snakes).

Off again, a quick stopover at Mount Barnett and then onto one of the roughest roads I’ve ever travelled.  The track (and that’s flattery!) into Mount Elizabeth Station possessed corrugations of huge proportion, created by cattle trucks I suspect.  Adjusting your speed, within the bounds of sensibility, was effectively useless, you just couldn’t avoid the vibrations and bouncing about at whatever speed you travelled at.  Thankfully nothing fell off the Prado, nor us for that matter.  Although someone had lost a filter system off their vehicle sometime earlier, and it lay, forlorn and no longer functional, in the middle of the track.


Fig. 11:  Mount Barnett Roadhouse:  Going through the gate didn’t make the track any better!:  Mount Elizabeth Station homestead:  One of the resident bulls on an afternoon stroll.

Day 6:  Following dinner, showers, a decent night’s sleep and breakfast it was back on the track (as bumpy on the way out as in) and onto the Gibb River Road again.  Destination El Questro gorge and accommodation at the EQ Wilderness Park bungalows (two nights stay).  After crossing the Durack River Ford stopped at the top of the hill overlooking the river for a coffee break.  This ford was the first decent sized one which, to a novice 4WDriver like me, gave you a little thrill as you drove into the water and any unexpected surprises that lay beneath it.  Oooh exciting!

This ford was good preparation for the next, Bluey O’Malley’s Crossing, which appears as a surprise as you come over a hill at 70 kph and see a pretty wide and rocky expanse of water spread out before you.  Ha! But easy-peasy for the now well experienced forder, eh? It wouldn’t be a place that you’d try crossing in the wet season!  In fact, none of the fords would be!


Fig. 12: Bluey O’Malley’s Crossing (going in):  And to the left:  And then the right:  And, on the way out.


 Fig. 13:  Range formation on the Gibb River Road:  And again:  At last, the El Questro turnoff:  On the El Questro road.


Fig. 14:  El Questro river view bungalow (very noice):  The view:  A bungalow visitor:  Oh! Another ford (yawnnnn).

Day 7:  Saw a morning trip to Zebedee Springs, a thermal spring fed from a geological fault reaching to a permanent water supply deep underground.  Water temperature ranges from 28 to 32oC year round.  The water clarity is remarkable.  And hot water half way up a hill ever more remarkable!

 Fig. 15:  Zebedee Springs.  The trees in the right hand photos are in water as transparent as glass.

The late afternoon was taken up on a guided tour of Explosion Gorge and then to Branco’s Lookout for the sunset.  The ford and roads to both these places were, I suspect, a committed 4WDriver’s fantasy.  Our tour driver Carrie well deserved our accolades for her accomplished driving skills.


Fig. 16:  Explosion Gorge:  The vehicle used to get there, the boat, and the scenery.

The drive and then the boat trip on Explosion Gorge are a treat in themselves and well worth the trip.  Then on to Branco’s Lookout (on a hill climb that’s a little bit hairy) for aperitif’s to celebrate the tour and the going down of the sun.  The lookout is above the Pentecost River.


Fig. 17:  Branco’s Lookout view of Pentecost River upstream:  And downstream:  The sundown aperitif’s (los trios travellos plus guide Carrie):  Sunset at Branco’s Lookout.

Day 8:  On the road again and off to Kununurra to stay two nights at the Lakeview Apartments (with a quick look at Wyndham) and, thankfully (or not if you’re a keen 4WDriver) the last part of the Gibb River Road is becoming increasingly bituminised.  Easier to drive on and you stop closely scanning the road ahead for pointy rocks who are just busting to penetrate a tyre.  Actually I have never seen so many rocks that appear solely created to insert themselves into a tyre at the first opportunity.  The worst traveller’s tale from a dinner compatriot – two burst tyres, a smashed windscreen and stranded overnight until assistance came along.  For someone not used to the Australian bush this could be a very scary overnighter!

Wyndham is a sad and sorry place, slowly dying as it becomes just a port for the dispatch of iron ore overseas.  Kununurra, on the other hand, is thriving and is quite a lovely town without the hangdog look of decrepitude and decay exhibited by Wyndham.  However Kununurra town centre has an air of the fortress about it, a sad product of alcohol induced violence in country towns with Aboriginal populations.  Nevertheless, it’s clean, tidy, and green and good restrictions on alcohol availability have considerably reduced the problems associated with its abuse.   Kununurra is a pleasant relief from fine red dust in your nose and on your body, unsealed roads and a dust trail following you everywhere you go.  The dust has a unique smell.  Most noticeable thing in Kununurra compared to Sydney – the lack of graffiti and the moronic daubings of idiots on everything that will accept spray paint.

 Fig. 18:  Back on the Bitumen:  View from Lakeside Apartments (strangely reminiscent of Vietnam):  Fortress Kununurra:  And again.

Day 9:  The usual touristy bits like the Zebra Rock Gallery, had an evening meal at the Pump House Restaurant, and spent an interesting few hours wandering about in the Hidden Valley National Park.

 Fig. 19:  Hidden Valley (Mirima) National Park just outside Kununurra (reputed to be reminiscent of the Bungle Bungles).


Fig. 20:  Dawn across the lake at Kununurra.  Couldn’t believe that I had captured this!

Day 10:  Off again South on the bitumen heading for Fitzroy Creek by way of Halls Creek for a two night stay at the Fitzroy River Lodge.  After the Gibb River Road driving on the highway, though faster, is pretty ho-hum stuff.  Please note Hertz we raised our tyre pressure once we were on the bitumen.  Thankfully the road trains we met with were all going the other way thereby relieving us of the knuckle gnawing ‘God this is taking FOREVER’  as you pass these behemoths of the road.

Halls Creek is a pretty uninspiring refuelling stop along the way to somewhere else.  Not so obviously decadent as Wyndham but with that air of decay and misuse found in country towns that are slowly dying.  It will always be a refuelling stop, and there are obvious signs of development there, but you get the feeling that it will ever be a town that sits on the edge of prosperity and decline.


Fig. 21:  Road train at Kununurra:  And another at the turn off to Halls Creek:  Entering Halls Creek:  Halls Creek Primary School (wonder if the barbed wire was to keep people in, or out?).

After Halls Creek the landscape became a bit more interesting but it’s a long, long drive over a lot of same old, same old.  Ohhh for the Gibb River Road!  Finally arrived at Fitzroy Crossing, booked in, undertook a futile search for some wine to drink.  Finally had to settle for a dozen cans of Hahn Light to help quench the thirst.  Just one more of the management rules to minimise alcohol abuse in the local Aboriginal population.  Had dinner at the Fitzroy River Lodge and weren’t able to have the bottle of wine on the table until our meals were on the table – how’s that for weird?  Even stranger, obtaining a bottle of wine to take back to our rooms for a drink after dinner required me signing off on a register to show that I had high strength alcohol in my possession.  Well it wasn’t with me for very long I must say, given that there were three of us!


Fig. 22:  Halls Creek to Fitzroy Crossing landscapes 1 & 2:  At last Fitzroy Crossing Lodge:  Fitzroy Crossing itself!

Day 11:  Saw us in the Geikie Gorge (by motorised flat bottomed boat).  If you pass through Fitzroy Crossing this is a ‘must do’ from my perspective.  Quite beautiful scenery and a very interesting explanation of the area and history by the Aboriginal guide/boatperson.  We saw our first crocodiles (freshwater) in the gorge and though we were keen to see the saltwater variety we thought that going to a Crocodile Farm to do so ‘just wasn’t cricket’ really!


Fig. 23: Geikie Gorge:  Interesting sand abrasion patterns on the rock:  Ripple reflections on the rock wall.

Fig. 24:  More Geikie Gorge and fresh water crocodile (about 2 metres in length).

Day 12:  Back to Broome to the Frangipani (5 nights) to be joined by Gillie’s husband Alan for the last few days of taking it easy, lazing about, and NO MORE DRIVING!  All up we drove 2,546 kilometres on the trip.  On the following day we tizzed up the Prado (a good wash and de-dust) and returned it to Hertz.  Apart from the tyre pressure business, and the lack of a manual in the vehicle the hire was good value and the company efficient.  I’d suggest that carrying two spare tyres, and a half decent jack (the Prado one is atrocious) would give a bit of added assurance on such a drive.


Fig. 25:  Frangipani Lodge – definitely the ideal R&R place in Broome.

The remaining four days was about not doing too much, except riding the local bus service (excellent) to visit the town, and leisurely taking in most of the sights around Broome (township, the museum, Matso’s Brewery, the Japanese cemetery, Gantheaume Point and a walk from here along the bay back to Cable Beach and the Frangipani, as well as the obligatory sunset camel ride at Cable Beach).

One serendipitous occasion occurred while waiting for the local bus into town.  Another bus turned up to collect some tourists going whale watching and through the courtesy of a phone call by the bus driver we ended up going off whale watching, a much more interesting alternative than the trip into town!  Breakfast and whales – what more could you ask for?


Fig. 26:  Thar she blows!:  Matso’s Brewery:  Peaceful Broome Sunday:  Obligatory sunset camel ride (we’re on the second camel).

Day 17:  Saw us off to Broome airport, a wait in the dinky Qantas lounge, a flight home to Sydney, a moment’s doubt when the car, which had been long term parked, decided whether to start or not, and finally home again with fond memories of a great trip with lovely people – and enslavement by that fiend of the traveller – the digital camera and 934 photo’s to be sorted and culled!  Ahhh well, it was certainly fun and the next trip up into Northern Australia is already being contemplated – roll on August/September 2013!!


About deknarf

Australian born and bred who has spent most of his working life in R&D and IP management with earlier forays in the newspaper industry and martial arts. Fortunate enough to be living in one of the best countries in the World, even though I might get grumpy with it from time to time.
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