You know how there are the 'Great Drives', like Highway 1 on the West Coast of the USA, Stelvio Pass in Italy or the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, yeah? Well, I've never seen the Gibb River Road on any such list, but I'm convinced it should be on all of them. Why? Firstly, because it is filled with natural wonders - epic gorges and pristine waterholes, and grand vistas that reach out forever and ever and ever. Secondly, because if you do it and make it to the other side in one piece, you're pretty damn great! Haha. Ok, I'm totally exaggerating, but it really is one hell of a journey and though most cavalier Aussies who have conquered it are likely to tell you that it's 'fine mate', or 'no worries', don't believe them. I found it difficult to get a straight answer from anyone about the roads condition before we left. No-one wanted to admit to anyone else that it's kind of difficult. So I'll be real - it's no piece of cake and it does require a bit of gumption to drive for several hours on shitty, heavily corrugated, unsealed roads. I did pronounce several times on one particularly bad stretch of road that I was 'bleeping over it'. Haha! But you know what I'm gonna say - it's totally worth it!
We started out from Derby on another sunshine day and went on our merry way. First destination: Windjana Gorge. This stretch of road was easy and we got to Windjana around midday (with a brief stop at Mowanjum Art Centre on the way to purchase some local art!) and set up camp in a very dry, very dusty, and very hot campsite! We found the only tree that hadn't been claimed by other campers and set up our site, waiting for the sun to recede and for the air to cool a little before embarking on a walk inside the gorge.
Windjana Gorge is neat to visit because it is full of freshwater crocodiles! We saw heaps of them swimming in the river and basking on the sandy shore. It was really cool to see them in their natural habitat, and though they've got a mouth full of sharp teeth, they are not a threat if you keep a respectful distance. We also saw a few sweet little rock wallabies on our walk, with one stopping to engage us in a staring competition before bounding away like the professional rock hopper that it is!
It was really hot walking, even in the late afternoon, and we learnt here that hikes were going to have to be an early morning activity. This set the tone for the rest of our trip as we started rising with the birds every morning to go on our adventures.
From Windjana Gorge we drove about 150k's to Bell Gorge, arriving at around lunch time. We spent the hottest part of the day just resting under a big tree at the campsite and did the Gorge Walk as late in the afternoon as we could without risking darkness on the walk back. Bell Gorge was magnificent! Think of beautiful cascades that fall in shelves to a large waterhole encased by 100 metre high walls of red rock. Oh my! This is what we'd come to the Kimberley to experience! We spent the afternoon swimming in the pools at the top of the falls. Benny braved the scramble to the bottom.
The next day we woke early and headed further along the Gibb River Road towards Manning Gorge, stopping along the way to check out Adcock Gorge and Galvan's Gorge. Adcock Gorge, another magnificent waterhole, was down a bumpy track, but it was only a short stroll from the carpark and a beautiful place to explore. Galvin's Gorge was like a movie set with a perfectly formed waterhole fed by a waterfall that careened down a wall of rock dotted with ferns and greenery. It was very picturesque and the water was cool and refreshing in the heat of the day. Thankfully it was also a short walk from the carpark so it was lovely to be able to wash the dust off and jump back in the car still feeling fresh.
From there we chugged along to Mount Barnett Station, had a servo lunch, and booked in our camping for Manning Gorge. Then we headed down the track to our camp and we were stoked to find a stunning creek right next to our campsite. We spent our entire afternoon by the river, swimming and chilling out. I drew in my journal on the shady, sandy riverbank while Ben did a bit of freshwater snorkelling.
The next morning we woke before dawn, pulled ourselves across the river in a little tinny boat moored to the riverbank, and started our trek to Manning Gorge. It was one of my favourite walks of the trip, not just because the scenery was beautiful in the early morning light, but also because we had the path (and the gorge) all to ourselves. For the first time on the trip we got to explore the bushland and scenery on our own and feel the immensity of the landscape in silence and solitude. We discovered that walking in the early morning provided the best opportunities for wildlife spotting, especially if we were by ourselves and walked quietly. Down by the gorge we discovered some Aboriginal rock art on a cliff face - lean figures had been painted on the rock wall. Seeing these figures here taught me to look out for paintings in other locations.
The gorge itself was again spectacular and we spent a good while taking it in, listening to the wind and the water falling down the cascade. On our return journey the sun started to beat down and on returning to the river where we started a swim seemed the best reward for a morning well spent.
Then, we were off again, onto the most gruelling day of our trip. Little did we know we were about to spend all day on horrific corrugation! We only had 290 kilometres to travel, but it took us all day (over 7 hours!) to get to Home Valley Station. We did stop a few times to give ourselves a break from the bumps and the dust but it felt like a very long day and we were glad when we got to Home Valley to see fantastic facilities, a restaurant and a bar! Needless to say we scrubbed up, ate and drank.
On rising the next morning we headed off refreshed and rejuvenated towards El Questro where we would spend the next couple of nights. El Questro is a privately owned station and it has been developed to accomodate travellers with a campsite, shower and laundry facilities, a small shop, restaurant and bar, and activities. We loved it here and enjoyed both the natural wonders and the creature comforts (the restaurant especially!). We visited Moonshine Gorge, did half of the El Questro walk to the half-way pool which was a beautiful spot surrounded by ferns and palms, and we visited Zebedee hot springs for some thermal healing. A helicopter ride was on our list of 'must do's' here and we were lucky to nab a spot for a quick 20 minute flight late in the afternoon. Such fun! Seeing the landscape by air was truly something special, and it was cool to get a glimpse of the exclusive 6 star resort that's on the property. It looked pretty lush from up in the air!
Perhaps the most iconic landmark in El Questro is Emma Gorge and we visited this amazingly beautiful place on the morning of our leaving, hiking to one of the prettiest waterholes we'd seen in the Kimberley. It was so lush and the water was incredibly clear (and quite fresh too!). Swimming in the pristine waters of Emma Gorge was the perfect way to end our Gibb River Road adventure. All up it had taken us 6 days to do the 660 kilometre journey and though there were things we missed out on (Tunnel Creek, Mitchell Falls and heaps of other lesser known sites) we felt like we'd experienced a lot of the gems of the Kimberley. No doubt you could spend a lot longer exploring and enjoying the landscape if you had the time.
Stay tuned for Part 3...
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