In 1956 the Gibb River Road was completed to assist in the trucking of live cattle from Wyndham to Derby. Now, in 2017, Wyndham has been forgotten by the passing of time and the road mainly shuttles tourists from Kununurra to Derby, allowing anyone with a four-wheel drive and the desire to traverse 660 kilometers of heavily corrugated dirt road to embrace their own version of a truly outback adventure. While the Gibb River Road has gone from a lifeline of the cattle industry to a more comfortable existence sustaining tourism in the Kimberley (a remote and rugged tropical section of the northwest of Australia) it still is quite the adventure for anyone willing to tackle it, as we found out over the past two weeks.
Kane and I started our adventure in Derby, as we have been driving up the northwest coast from Perth to Darwin. Derby is a tiny town of 4,865 people (as of the 2011 census) that exists on mining, cattle, and the Gibb River Road. During the dry season (May to September) the Gibb brings in hordes of grey nomads, backpackers with four-wheel drives, and adventurous families to this little town in Western Australia that would otherwise not receive a mention on most tourism sites. We stayed for two nights, just enough time to race to the shops at 8 am to elbow other tourists over fresh vegetables (competition is fierce for limited fresh food stock in this outback town) and plan our route on the Gibb.
After a hot afternoon spent endlessly googling fuel stops, camping spots, and general information we gave up. There was little to be discovered online about the Gibb River Road, possibly due to the fact that grey nomads don’t tend to blog and the backpackers that do often don’t have the car for the road, so we armed ourselves with a roughly drawn map that I sketched out from our notes about where everything was and headed into the outback.
Cell phone service died shortly after the pavement ended, just about 50 kilometers out of derby. We let our tires down to 25 PSI and hit the dirt. The clouds of dust kicked up by passing caravans would be our constant companions for the next two weeks, but we didn’t know it yet so we just kept rolling up the windows every time someone came barrelling around a corner. Up and down, up and down, up and down. My left arm got quite the workout rolling our old hand crank windows up and down, up and down, up and down. Did I mention I got tired of rolling up windows? Sometimes I would day-dream about automatic windows, but shhh don’t tell the car. Can’t have Terrance thinking we don’t love him.
Our first night was spent at Windjana Gorge National Park, a lovely shaded campsite next to a Devonian-era reef jutting 2 kilometers above our little tent home. The gorge itself was beautiful, but it was a bit outshone by the locals, hundreds of fresh water crocodiles who call the park home. The good thing about freshies, as the Aussies call them, is that they are too small to eat anything remotely human-sized so if you leave them be, they’ll leave you be. Just don’t pull a Monica and almost walk into one because you’re too busy thinking about what to cook for dinner. Also, definitely don’t blame this near miss of a crocodile hug on your boyfriend who was trying to warn you about the reptile in your path, but couldn’t get a word in edge-wise.
We were awoken the next morning with gale-force wind, our favorite thing in the morning, which, to add insult to injury, was now whipping the dirt at the once-peaceful campsite into frenzied clouds of fine sand that got in everything from your morning tea to your eyeballs. We quickly gave up on breakfast and retreated inside Terrance to sadly munch granola bars. Every sandy bite made me appreciate my usual yogurt and fruit that much more. The trip had not gotten off to an auspicious start.
Then we hiked Tunnel Creek. The wind stopped as we descended into the bowels of a river cave system home to a couple of friendly freshies, 50,000-year-old Aboriginal cave paintings, and more than a few chandelier-esque stalactites. It was amazing. After Tunnel Creek the trip turned around. On our second, blessedly wind-free night at Windjana we met the most bad ass grey nomads ever, a couple who, at 80 and 76, had spent five weeks on the Gibb River Road and were more adventurous than many 30-year-olds. Armed with their advice it was on to swimming in the chilly Bell Gorge, a night at the Imitji Community Campsite, Adcock Gorge, Galvan’s Gorge (where I channeled my inner-8 year old girl as I flew screaming off a rope swing into the still pool below), a couple of nights at Manning Gorge (the most beautiful spot on the Gibb River Road, in my humble opinion), another overnighter at Gibb River Station where we camped with the cattle, delicious scones at Ellenbrae Station, and finally a few peaceful nights on the Pentecost River at Home Valley Station. 14 days, 660 kilometers, 34 river crossings, and two broken bull bar screws later we had made it to Kununurra, we had survived the Gibb River Road.
I really had no expectations going into the Gibb River Road, so maybe that’s what made me enjoy it so much, but it truly was a wonderful experience. We didn’t even see the half of it as we had to rush to make it to Katherine in time for Kane’s work, but what we did see was amazing. Manning Gorge was the single best swimming hole I have ever been to. Imagine crystal clear water you can dive off the rocks into with a waterfall roaring in the background and you just might scratch the surface of Manning Gorge. Ellenbrae’s scone really do deserve their fame (every single person we met on the Gibb recommended them), Clyde and Linette of the Gibb River Station are lovely people who are always down to have a chat, and Home Valley’s Pentecost River bush camp’s view of the Cockburn Ranges is worth every penny. I’d go on, but I’m saving the details of all the Gibb River Road stops (gorges and campsites) for another post, so stay tuned for that.
Anyway, I just felt the need to write a little summary of our time on the Gibb River Road, all the ups and downs and in-betweens. I loved the remoteness. I loved not having cell service for two weeks, probably the longest I have gone without contact with the outside world in my entire life, because it meant I could truly disconnect from the stress of the outside world and reconnect with my immediate surroundings. I loved the comradery of the Gibb. I loved the fact that almost everyone we met wanted to have a chat, share recommendations, or help us with our car (when the screws broke on the bull bar every single person at the campsite came over to help us jerry-rig it back on, one guy even gave us his ratchet strap to make sure we made it off the Gibb with the bull bar still attached to the car).
We are now settling into our fifth day in Kununurra and getting ready to finally end our road trip. We got off the Gibb and now we are soon to get off the road, after all reality calls. It does feel a little bitter-sweet to see our stuff go up for sale, even our trusty, under-appreciated car fridge that kept us eating fresh vegetables two weeks into the Gibb, but I take solace in the fact that we did this crazy, wonderful thing. We drove from Perth to Darwin and camped for two and a half months. We swam in stunning coral reefs, hiked ancient gorges, and even got to cuddle baby kangaroos (more on that in another post). Even after six months here, Australia continues to surprise and amaze me with its stunning beauty and endless adventures. Here’s to a trip well done and, hopefully, many more in the future. In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying wash the dirt out of my socks, they’ve all turned red.