Overnight stays: Lennard River Rest Stop, King Leopold Ranges; Bell Creek Swim Hole, Gibb River Road; Kimberley Entrance Caravan Park, Derby (2 nights)
Gibb River Road
There aren’t many roads more famous in Australia than The Kimberley’s Gibb River Road. We had done very little research on it, but what we did know was that it was a hard slog of 700km gravel road. No one could tell us much about what there was to see, but it must be famous for a reason, right?
Anyway, knowing there was Buckley’s chance of getting the WomBatmobile on such a road, we decided to hire a 4WD for a couple of nights and check out some of the highlights from the Western side. We had gone as far as El Questro on the east and were suitably impressed, so our hopes were high.
We picked up a car from Derby and filled it to the bream with camping gear, ready for an off-road adventure.
We had used the tent only once before, on Fitzroy Island, where we had he worst night’s sleep of the trip. But this time we were able to carry our mattress, and had the luxury of a car to dump all our bags etc, so knew we’d have more space and a comfier underlay.
Free camp fail
It was 3pm when we left, and old mate who we rented off recommended a few spots, the first of which was a decent drive away, and we wanted to make it before dusk to avoid hitting Roos, camels. Brumbies etc.
The place he recommended to bunker down for the night was Poulton Pools. It was a nice little free camp about 5km off the heavily corregated Gibb River Road. We turned off with the sun setting and no backup plan, hoping, preying there would be someone else there, and they wouldn’t be driving a blue pickup truck and wearing a John Jarrett Akubra.
A few kms in we came across a steep embankment we couldn’t see over. It was quite sandy and the path become immediately unobvious. Loz jumped out for a Bo Peep to find a flowing river on the other side, begging to be crossed. It looked shallow enough so we plotted a path, whacked her into 4WD and set off over the embankment, down to the river’s edge. Go! We started our first proper river crossing of the trip with ease, until BANG, the car dropped like a teenage boy’s berries! The river wasn’t so shallow anymore, turns out it drops off; quickly. Thankfully we made it halfway where the water eases again, albeit with the sinking feeling (get it?) we would have to somehow either make it all the way across, or return on the nervous path we’d just shat ourselves on.
The decision was easy, as we didn’t know what else was ahead. We would cut our losses, find another way back across, and drive in the dark to the next available free camp.
I plotted the course and Loz drove like a pro back across the shallowest part of the river, over the embankment, and we shot back to the main road as quickly as possible.
Thankfully we didn’t have to navigate too much wildlife; only a handful of wallabies and (oddly) a few wild kittens.
We eventually reached a nice camp on the side of another river, where a dozen other campers were well established with fires and beers. We were forced to setup camp in blackness, fireless, and had dinner in the dark (we had a few torches but no firelight) before hitting the hay for a good night’s sleep.
Windjana Gorge was plotted on our map as a place of interest, again without knowing anything about it. We suspected there would be some bushwalking, but that was about it.
We were absolutely blown away by this place. Turns out it’s crocodile city in one of the most stunning gorges we’ve been in. There were more freshies here than Trump voters in middle America, and we were able to get remarkably close to them – like a few metres away. It was incredible, and the more you looked the more crocs you could spot – at one point we saw over 30 in our peripherals.
The gorge itself was also a beauty. It was sandier than a car floor after a day at the beach and the rock walls were steep and dramatic. The walk was only a few kms and as easy as finding a powered site at Lake Argyle.
The Kimberley was continuing to deliver the goods, and we were starting to see the appeal of the Gibb River Road.
Reading back through this blog post, I now realise how little we knew of The Kimberley before and while we were there. We had plotted a handful of places to check out, but we didn’t know how to access them or what they actually were. I reckon this worked in our favour because we had no specific expectations.
Tunnel Creek was no exception, but simply a plot on a map we were going to suss out.
The road roughened quite a bit en-route, but we were in a hire-car with no excess, so tended not to give the smallest of shits.
Tunnel Creek is famed as a place of hiding for a criminal on the run some years back. Apparently he hid in the caves for months, while the cops searched high and low to no avail.
As we pulled into the car park we noticed people walking out of the caves in sexy crocs (those ridiculously ugly shoe/thong things), with towels over their shoulders, and headlamps on. Okay, looks like it’s going to be dark and wet – cool.
It didn’t take long before we were wading through knee-high water in our joggers, with headlamps (albeit with incredibly low battery) leading the way through the darkest of caves. No wonder old mate hid so well, you can’t see a bloody thing.
As we deepened into the cave it became darker, narrower and more chlostrophobic, as bats whizzed past our ducked heads while we scratched along a narrow ridge beside water only who knows how deep.
It all became a a bit too much for Liv, and we reached a point where we couldn’t seem to walk any further. So we returned to the car, continuing our adventure deeper into the Gibb.
The further into the Gibb we travelled, the more we liked. The scenery became more dramatic, the roads sketchier, and remoteness huge. Every now and then we would pass an oncoming vehicle that would create a cyclonic puff of dust for a couple of hundred metres, where you would literally be driving blind in a dense cloud.
Up and over the King Leopold Ranges we pulled into Bell Creek Swim Hole to setup camp for the night. This place was a ripper. There was one other group there, and a plethora of firewood (if you searched far enough), alongside the gently flowing Bell Creek. Old mate from the other group there told us he’d stayed here plenty of times before and reckoned it was his favourite campsite on the Gibb. He also said he always laid traps in the creek to catch something I can’t remember, but once he returned to find it torn apart by a croc 🤔.
Arriving in daylight gave us plenty of time to setup a sophisticated camp and get the fire cranking for our best night of wild camping as the sound of flowing cascades eased us to sleep.
Our final stop on the Gibb was to be Bell Gorge. We hadn’t originally planned to visit it, but after chatting to our neighbours at Bell Creek who had driven there the previous day, we were convinced it was a must-do.
It was an easy walk in, only a couple of kms max, and when we arrived we knew we’d made the right decision. This place was truly spectacular. Before our toes even hit the water we knew there hadn’t been nor would there be any swimming hole on the Wombatical like this one.
It was Gunlom Falls on steroids. There’s a decent sized pool where you can wade right up to the edge of the most beautiful 6m waterfall that drops into the vast and who knows how deep pool below.
We started with a swim in the upper pool before I crossed the creek in my budgies and wrapped around the rocky mountain on the other side to the lower pool for a solace swim, not to be beaten this trip. This last hurrah to the Gibb River Road couldn’t have been better, and when we finally returned from the dustiest, roughest drive of a lifetime, we finally understood why people love driving this famed road. Had we had the vehicle for more time I suspect we would’ve continued deeper, but that will have to wait for another day.
I remember Loz’s mum, recalling her trip around Oz nearly a decade ago, saying we would need to make a decision while in The Kimberley, whether or not to fork out a fortune to experience the Horizontal Waterfalls. If I’m totally honest, my mind was made up as soon as a I first saw a Paspaley Pearls ad on a Qantas plane that runs reel flying over the spectacular scenery of Talbot Bay and the famed falls. And who said advertising doesn’t work?
Our decision was backed up by everyone whom we had spoken to who had done the falls, and said it’s truly was one of the best things they had ever done.
It started with a seaplane from Derby Airport (turns out seaplanes also have wheels) where our legendary pilot gave us a guided overhead tour as we ventured into largely inaccessible and uninhabited territory of the beautiful Kimberley. This combined with the Bungle Bungles flight reinforced that you absolutely must see this remote part of he country by air – it is just spectacular.
This particular plane ride soon became the best flight in living memory, as we lowered over Talbot Bay and sensationally circled the Horizontal Waterfalls a couple of times at seemingly extreme speed. It really was a hell of a fun ride.
Then we skidded into Talbot Bay and pulled up at the pontoon, surrounded by turquoise water, sunshine, monumental mountains, and complete isolation.
From there we didn’t muck around – straight on a boat, bound for the falls. We had the choice of two boats – a large comfy sit-back boat, or smaller, hold on for dear life, extreme boat. No guesses which one we chose 😛.
There are two Horizontal Waterfalls. The first, about 20m wide and the second about 8m. They aren’t technically waterfalls, but small cavities that separate mass bodies of water. They create a waterfall effect as the tides up there are some of the most extreme in the world, with the difference between high and low about 6m, or 1m per-hour. A waterfall effect is created through the cavities as mass amounts of water from the huge bays on either side flow through when’s the tides change.
When you look at the first fall from a boat you immediately think, “there’s no way we’ll make it through there”. It looks like a massive washing machine, swirling around with no obvious path through. And the water level on the other side is higher than where you are, so surely it can’t be done.
Then, before you have anytime to think, the driver whacks it into gear with 600hp behind him and hammers through the falls on a water ride only Dreamworld could dream of recreating.
Once through the first fall we got a glimpse of the second, far narrower and increasingly extreme cavity, a mere 8m wide. Knowing full well what is going to happen, but not believing it possible, everyone holds on for dear life as the boat once again ramps into gear and spanners through the scariest spa in the world, even more petrifying than being bathed by a massive hairy, sweaty man in a Turkish Bath.
On the other side it opens right up again to a beautiful Bay surrounded by more mountainous goodness. Knowing full well we would need to get back through, and that the tides move faster than our heart rates, we were again terrified as the boat began to go back through the falls, in reverse 😧. The driver suddenly stopped halfway through the falls, facing backwards, and described that we were driving at 25km/h, sitting completely idle while the falls flowed below us.
Then back through the first falls again, thinking we were done, only to turn around and do it all again. So. Much. Fun!
While we chewed down morning tea on the safety of the pontoon we had already decided this was one of the greatest days of our lives. Even Liv, whom could’ve made or broken our day was a little trooper, and had an absolute blast. Phew.
After a feed it was the local sharks’ turn to eat, as many of us swam millimetres from them in a semi-submerged cage. Only a few weeks later I heard on the news of a girl who lost a finger in this neck of the woods from a shark, and when you see them eat basically from the Marine Bio’s hand, you can understand why.
Before we knew it we were back on a boat, this time on a scenic ride into Cyclone Bay. Here the contrast of Kimberley colours was well and truly on display, accompanied by a few crocs and crabs. Had we not just been on the most extreme boat ride of our life, this would’ve been a highlight for sure.
Fresh caught barbecued barramundi for lunch accompanied the adrenalin to get back on the boat for one last ride through the falls. We jumped on the bigger boat this time and snagged the front row – the best! We lost count of the amount of times we cycled back and forth through the falls, each time just as exciting as the last, especially from the front.
The relaxing plane ride home gave us ample time to digest what an incredible experience we had just encountered. Loz had the best view of the archipelago from the front seat while the pilot gave tips on everything to do in Broome.
There’s no denying this as an absolute highlight of the trip, and one of the best experiences of our lives. Yes, it cost an absolute fortune, but when you’re there you understand why, and realise the enormous value you get with the plane rides, boat rides, food, and incredibly professional service. If you were going to do one thing in The Kimberley, this would be it.
We had heard about the legend of Derby’s extreme tides, only seen to be believed. Apparently they hold second place for the largest difference betweeen tides in the world.
So we set off at sunset, with every other tourist in town, towards the Jetty to watch the sun drop on the ocean, witness the extreme tides, and hopefully catch dinner. It was nice to throw the line in again, and I almost pulled something resembling dinner in, but dropped him as he was coming up out of the water – the one that got away.
The sunset was a ripper, and watching the tide change was about as interesting as learning about surds in maths class.
Prison Boab Tree
Every now and then you come across ‘attractions’ in towns that you feel you need to check out, just in case it’s a ripper. On our way out of Derby we pulled in to the ‘famous’ Prison Boab Tree.
You can’t call a tree a thing if it is nothing special and “is believed to have” significance. This ridiculous excuse for an attraction goes down in our book as the worst ‘thing’ of the trip – so poor it makes The Big Pineapple look like Christ the Redeemer.
The stories surrounding the tree say things like, “It is believed to…” and “may have…” more times than England have gotten World Cup fans’ hopes up only to be disappointed time and time again.
I reckon the prison itself with a full-size AFL pitch was far more interesting than the Prison Tree.