The Gibb River Road (GRR) has a notorious reputation for destroying vehicles, shattering bones and caking everything in fine red dust. We saw plenty of this and more. Over 20,000 people tackle this Kimberley Grand Tour each year now and it is no surprise either. Without doubt this region should have World Heritage status as it is a show bag full of highlights from dry savannahs to thundering waterfalls. The mystique of the place is such that the numbers each year are swelling and the camp grounds along the track are bursting to overflowing. We must point out one clear thing first, you can not tackle this journey in a 2WD low clearance vehicle as it requires over 30 river crossings (some deep) and some moderate four-wheel driving. Also standard cars just aren't built to withstand the hundreds of kilometres of corrugations, some of which destroyed even the most tough 4WD's and off-road camper trailers. We met a bloke very early on along the track who had just ventured out of Mitchell Falls after towing his off-road caravan and he was shattered, literally! His van although supposed to be built to withstand such punishment had fallen to pieces in places and he, well after nine hours of covering several hundred kilometres, he couldn't move off his chair, slumped clutching his cold tinnie, covered in sweat and dust he was struggling to lift his beer to his lips. We met others as well that had broken shock absorbers and where waiting for replacement ones for weeks, just sitting and waiting. You see lots of broken down and abandoned vehicles (mostly burnt out, but that is a separate story), some with broken axles, something I'd never witnessed before. What were we in for then? We had two small kids with us, a 'semi' off-road van, some experience of remote tracks, but no real knowledge of what lay ahead. Should we stop here and return to the safety of the bitumen and forget about this journey? Nah, go for it we thought, what could we break that a few cable ties wouldn't fix?
Our first real obstacle was the Pentecost River, this saltwater crocodile infested crossing had a reputation all of its own. Only the night before our departure in Kununurra we heard about a motorcyclist that had crossed the river. Witnessed by some hardy folk from the bank, he was half-way across the 150 metre wide river and then the sways started and over he went bike and all, practically submerged in the flowing waters. We locked our vehicle into low-range and plunged in, other groups had made it across and were waiting with cameras out for the Team GACO vehicle and caravan to come unstuck, but we ploughed across emerging with no fuss at all. Shortly after the crossing we stopped in at the first camp, Home Valley Station, owned by the Indigenous Land Council. This camp is a must do. Do not do this track without staying here. It is a training centre for indigenous people to give them opportunities in farming, cattle handling and hospitality. For us it was paradise, as it had the best undercover playground we have seen in Australia. The kids wore the playground out, or at least the seats in their shorts from the seven or so different shaped slides the playground had. Shaded by massive boab trees, the Station has every level of accommodation from tent sites to luxury cabins. Nightly entertainment in the open air restaurant as you tackle your way through a three course dinner makes you wonder if this trip is going to be all that hard. We skipped going to El Questro Station as it was a bit of a deviation off the track and we had heard mixed reports about the hospitality offered and the costs of entering and staying at the camp ground. I think we made the right choice.
Next obstacle on the track was the Durack River crossing. This time we had no one waiting for us on the other side snapping away with cameras and of course we didn't have a another vehicle in front to test the waters, so to speak. We plunged in, with the water a bit higher this time and coming up and into the caravan step we had a few anxious moments but like a dog emerging from a river we shook ourselves off and continued unabated to Ellenbrae Station. We had been well informed previously that the homemade scones and jam there were 'scone-sational'. Well, we can confirm they are. Massive scones in fact. We relaxed in the tranquil garden setting and sipped our tea. The GRR just keeps throwing up little highlights after every dusty corrugated kilometre. What great little mixed businesses these Stations are and what great excuses they provide for taking a break. They should be awarded medals by the Transport and Road Authorities for being legitmate 'Take a Break, Drowsey Driver' compulsory stops.
We venture westwards to the junction of the Kulumburu and Gibb River Road and turn northwards towards Mitchell River National Park. By now, we thought the Gibb River Road was corrugated and dusty, but compared with this road it was a super highway. The first river crossing was deep and we lost some traction as we waded the caravan through, taking more water onboard. Our speed had dropped down to an average of 40 kilometres an hour to cope with the corrugations and large rocks and it wasn't until we came rushing towards the next river crossing that we realised that the electric caravan brakes had stopped working and the car was now breaking for itself and it had two ton of van pushing it towards each river crossing. More adjusted driving was needed and we limped into Drysdale Station for the night. This is another good spot to camp and gather yourself for the night before leaving the caravan behind, packing the tent on board and heading for Mitchell River National Park.
We drive the next morning the 100 kilometres from Drysdale Station to the turnoff to Mitchell River National Park to cross the King Edward River. Can these crossings be any deeper or the road get any worse? Yes. The 82 kilometres in on this road is bad, real bad. Big rocks, bigger corrugations, more of them, more often. It takes us nearly three hours to cover the distance but once at the camp ground we think it has been worth it. We first venture to Little Merton Falls to find the swimming hole and the curtain waterfall that you can sneak behind to see stunning aboriginal art dating back 30,000 years. We find it and are stunned by its beauty. We all swim in the refreshing water (sharing it with fresh water crocodiles only) and marvel at the rock faces covered in art. How insignifciant are we? Just think that these paintings were done 30,000 years ago by a culture that was undisturbed and mostly unchanged up until just 250 years ago. What have we done to these people?
The next day we make the foot journey from the camp ground to Mitchell Falls. We opt for the walk as opposed to taking a helicopter flight (at great expense) as we want to experience the changing landscape and the other waterfalls along the way. We are camped in what they call the 'Quiet Camp'. The quiet camp has helicopters landing and taking off right next to it from 8 am until 4 pm every day for those that don't want to walk the 3 hour return journey. Go figure. The next waterfall we come across is Big Merton Falls and we rock hop across the top of it and continue on to Mitchell Falls. Upon arriving we wade across the river in between the helicopter landing pad and swimming hole to gasp at the falls. We have never seen a feature like it. Water thunders over a number of tiers dropping 80 metres into a large pool at the base and we can only wonder what it must be like in the wet season. Later, we see images of these falls from the wet season where no drop is visable at all just a thundering stream!
Sadly we depart and grit our teeth as we head back out on the corrugated roads back to Drysdale Station and onto Manning Gorge for a few nights. This just about equals what we have just seen and the walk in first involves swimming across a river to get to the waterfall. I float my daughter across in a foam box as she can't swim yet and shoulder ride her across the rocky plateau to the falls. We spend hours here playing in the cool waters and watching water monitors bask in the sun. Reluctantly with the day coming to an end we push onto Galvans Gorge to find the most tranquil swimming hole on the GRR yet. This ticks all the boxes. Fresh water, stunning red cliffs, cascading waterfall and giant boab trees.
Our last major visit on the Gibb River Road is to drop into Windjama Gorge National Park. We are informed that this is the best place to view fresh water crocodiles and it doesn't dissapoint. The camp ground sits majestically in front of the towering limestone cliffs and we find this a fitting finale to our journey along the Gibb River Road. We emerge into the hustle and bustle of Derby and are thankful our vehicle and caravan survived without any major dramas, this was partly due to adjusting the tyre pressures to suit the condition of the roads, a tip that paid off. However, I think it is time to invest in an air compressor as if I keep using the foot pump to inflate the tyres I'll end up with tree trunks for thighs!