Touring the Kimberley: two ways

Catherine Lawson — 27 August 2019
The Kimberley, on and offroad

A dozen iconic images lure us north to find ourselves far, far away, and while Australia’s last bastion of truly rugged wilderness is most certainly remote, it is also surprisingly accessible with two distinctly different journeys that prove equally inspiring.

If you are offroad-ready, prep your rig for dusty days on Gibb River Road and brave the corrugations up onto the Mitchell Plateau. If rattling and rolling is not your style, take the sealed Great Northern Highway south to wet-walk through Tunnel Creek, cruise Geikie Gorge and soar high above the Bungle Bungle Range. 

Driving the Gibb 

Broome to Kununurra: 875km

From the King Leopold Ranges to Kununurra, the Gibb River Road slices through the heart of the Kimberley — a rugged 1800s-era stock route across a dramatic, red savannah landscape. Although graders routinely smooth the corrugations before every dry season onslaught, ‘doing the Gibb’ remains one of the best adventures you could tackle: think gorges galore, quiet bush camps, waterfalls and swimming holes, and wildlife sanctuaries that tempt with unexpected bucket-list luxury. 

The Gibb provides access to the remote Mitchell Plateau and faraway fishing grounds at Kalumburu so prepare to clock up plenty more kilometres sidetracking to stunning Mitchell Falls and the Munurru rock art galleries on the King Edward River.  

Gorging out

About 125km out of Derby, across the Lennard River, the western Kimberley’s vast spinifex plains give way to grasslands, boabs studding the roadside that winds from Bullfrog Hole into the lofty King Leopold Ranges. Here, flat-topped mesas and pink quartzite escarpments elevate travellers above pandanus-lined streams and sweeping valleys where corellas rise in spectacular, snowy swirls.

Crowning it all are Mounts Ord (937m) and Broome (935m), but only Bell Gorge pulls travellers off the Gibb with its spectacularly chilly, five-tier waterfall that fills a deeply invigorating swimming pool below. 

One of the best places to get wet in the Kimberley, Bell Gorge demands just a 30-minute stroll before you drop beneath the falls, peel off your gear and take the plunge, kicking out under the falls and warming up afterwards on sunny, sculptured rock slabs that tilt and dip back into the pool.

Close by, Silent Grove campground tempts with hot showers, and up the track you can gorge on a string of red rock swimming pools. Find your way to the breezy amphitheatre beneath Adcock Gorge and shimmy along rock ledges at fern-fringed Galvans Gorge in search of hidden rock art. 

Barnett River Gorge is the undisputed rockhoppers’ wonderland and at my favourite bush camp on the Hann River, you can cool your heels (and your cans) in the clear, sandy flow while double-barred finches and kingfishers flit into view.

The wild ride north

The Gibb-Kalumburu junction — 50km away — is where travellers part ways, swinging east to El Questro or tackling the deeply corrugated road due north to the King Edward River, Mitchell Falls and Kalumburu.  

Some push as far as Drysdale River Station, unhitch their caravans and board scenic flights over Mitchell Falls. Others drag their vans to King Edward River where truly magnificent Munurru rock art awaits, and tackle the final, rugged leg to Mitchell Falls campground with a tent on board.

A day trip to Mitchell Falls is possible but you’ll need to linger longer to bathe in the rock pools above Little Mertens Falls at daybreak, stroll in search of monjon (Australia’s smallest rock wallabies), or take to the skies for a champagne sunset. 

Mitchell’s four-tier cascade easily eclipses any waterway you can drive to in the Kimberley, but it comes at a considerable cost. In 2019, in addition to camping fees ($11/adult, $3/child), the Uunguu Visitors Pass skyrockets to $45 for everyone over five years of age. 

East to El Questro

Back on the Gibb, the boabs return in abundance as you cross a thirstier landscape from Ellenbrae to Home Valley Station and El Questro Wilderness Park. 

There’s a top camp en route, high above the Durack River where freshwater crocodiles are revealed in the vivid green water below, but beware: the road base is razor-sharp on the Gibb’s eastern end and punctures are much more prevalent. 

For many travellers, El Questro is a huge Kimberley highlight with dramatic gorges and waterholes and a dizzying array of tours to fill your days and lighten your wallet. Float beneath the falls at Emma Gorge, hike to the rocky thermal pools and waterfalls at Zebedee Springs, and don’t miss a wet walk through stunning Amalia Gorge. 

That El Questro is the last hurrah before the bitumen leads you to Kununurra helps to soften the blow of its pricey stays: a $20 entry fee (per person) plus nightly camping fees from $20 per person. 

After El Questro, you can prolong the offroad fun with a trip to Wyndham the back way via Parry Lagoons, or detour south into Purnululu National Park.

On the Bitumen 

Kununurra to Broome: 1065km 

Its name means ‘meeting of big waters’, and with Lake Argyle to boat upon and the Ord River to fish, Kununurra kick-starts this great, watery Kimberley adventure in style. 

Begin with a wake-up walk on the Derbe-gerring Banan trail, climbing high through Mirima National Park for jaw-dropping views of the Ord Valley (800m return).

Close to town, it’s the Bungle Bungles in miniature, and if a trip into Purnululu National Park isn’t on the cards, Mirima provides an intimate glimpse of those famous tiger-striped beehives. 

Purnululu’s rugged access track may be off limits to dual-axle caravans, but there are other options: unhitch the van at Bungle Bungle Caravan Park (or Spring Creek rest area) and drive to the park with a tent on board, join a 4WD bus tour (overnighting in luxury at the Bellburn safari camps) or book a scenic flight or helicopter ride from Kununurra or Warmun.

If you go, don’t miss the sunset lightshow above the fluted bedrock of Piccaninny Creek as the light ignites the tiger-striped scenery, and hike into Echidna Chasm at midday when the blazing Kimberley sun appears overhead, shooting down fingers of light that dance across flaring, 200m-high rock walls.

Bush camping in the Bungles is a rustic affair — bore water, toilets, picnic tables and wood barbecues ($13/adult, $3/child) — but the experience is priceless. 

Historical Halls Creek

From the China Wall to Caroline Pool, Halls Creek is a surprising place that gives a rather ragged first impression. About 45km south of town lies Palm Springs, a spring-fed freshwater pool surrounded by date palms planted by Afghan teamsters, and you can camp and swim at nearby Sawtooth Gorge beneath a towering rock face on the Black Elvire River.

If your vehicle is up to the challenge, drive 150km south on the Tanami Track to Wolf Creek Crater — the world’s second largest crater — which, thanks to that uber-scary movie of the same name, is a delightful, backpacker-free zone with free camping too. 

West of Halls Creek, the Mueller Ranges glints golden to the north in spectacular end-of-day spectacles, and you can break up the 290km-long drive to Fitzroy Crossing with free, overnight camps at Mary River spotting freshwater crocs, and atop Ngumban Cliff that woos travellers with stunning horizon-to-horizon views and middle-of-nowhere, starry night skies.

Caves and cruises

Flanked by river gums and soaring limestone walls, Geikie Gorge is a rare oasis with breezy walking trails and boat tours that take you deeper. At $50/adult ($35 concessions), a gorge cruise is the best hour you’ll spend in Fitzroy Crossing, unless of course, you can handle the 115km bone-jarring corrugations that lead north to Tunnel Creek. 

On a hot day — and it’s almost always hot in the Kimberley — a knee-deep paddle through Tunnel Creek is utterly refreshing, spotlighting in the chilly darkness for the little red flying-foxes that cling restlessly to stalactites overhead. When you go, take a torch and wear waterproof shoes. 

Further up the track, big, docile freshwater crocodiles guard a string of seasonal waterholes in Windjana Gorge, languishing on sunny banks beneath soaring cliffs etched with prehistoric fossils. Unhitch the van in Fitzroy Crossing and set out early to see Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge all in a day, or spend the night at Windjana Gorge where camping comes with hot showers and flushing toilets ($13/adult, $3/child). 

Good light in Broome

After weeks of thirsty Kimberley travel, the big blue off Broome’s Cable Beach is a soothing sight, nestled against 22 kilometres of silver-white perfection where travellers gather for watery sunsets, swimming and sipping cold beers in the sand as camel trains pass on by. 

Days in Broome are full and fun: discover 130 million-year-old dinosaur footprints, tour a pearl farm, cast a line off the beach or go sailing or sea kayaking. There are saltwater crocodile feeding shows, movies at the world’s oldest deckchair cinema and a frangipani-scented weekend market. Time your trip to catch the ‘Staircase to the Moon’ where you watch the full moon rise up a shimmering, golden staircase across the mudflats of Roebuck Bay.  

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kimberley travel broome offroad onroad caravans