What turned out to be one of the best, most exciting trips of my life was also one of the least expected. It wasn’t on my list of must-see places here in Australia, nor was it part of my pull to the west coast. In fact, before moving to Broome, I’d never even heard of the Gibb River Road.
I first learned of the iconic road trip during my second week in Broome, when the name caught my eye on the cover of a local visitors’ guide at my hostel. Flipping through the pages, I gathered that this wasn’t the kind of pack-your-bags-and-go road trip you could take on a whim. This was a journey into what might truly be the middle of nowhere, an old cattle-driving route turned outback adventure cutting straight through the heart of Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region. Beneath photos of dusty dirt roads and sweeping gorges, the article advocated caution: you should be experienced with four-wheel drive, be sure to bring enough water to last you for days, be wary of crocodiles. The list went on.
It was unlike any trip I’d taken before, into a place unlike anywhere I’d ever been. It sounded just like the outback of my imagination.
As I put down the visitors’ guide, I considered the logistics of such a big trip. Between the expense of acquiring a four-wheel drive vehicle and all of the other travel plans I was saving up for, the Gibb, I thought, was not probable. Still, the idea stuck. I heard more and more about the Gibb the longer I stayed in Broome, and with every week, I craved it harder. When, in September, a friend casually mentioned looking for people to join her, I knew immediately that I was absolutely and unconditionally in.
Three months after arriving in the Kimberley, we hit the road headed out of Broome and into the outback.
DAY 1: FROM BROOME TO DERBY AND BIRDWOOD DOWNS
The day we left was long, hot, tedious, and — above all — surreal. Jadine, Woody and I had all been working in Broome for months, splitting our lives between long days at work, the beach, and the backpackers where we all lived. Sure, we lived in paradise, but that didn’t stop our days from getting repetitive. After months of going hard on the “working” part of our working holiday visas, we were itching to get back to some travelling. This was exactly what we needed: ten days to take on the Gibb River Road and explore as much of the Kimberley beyond it as we could possibly fit in. We were more than up for the challenge.
Before we could hit the road, though, there were errands. Between picking up the rental, packing up the car, getting groceries, re-packing the car, running by the bank and filling up with gas, it felt like we would never leave. By the time we finally headed out of Broome and into the outback, the feeling in the Pajaro was equal parts bliss and disbelief.
Our plan that day was to make it past the next town of Derby. As the last place to stock up on gas and food before the Gibb, Derby’s much more a pit stop than a destination. It’s small and slow, the kind of town that makes Broome seem cosmopolitan by comparison.
One of Derby’s biggest attractions is the Boab Prison Tree just outside of town. At fourteen meters in circumference and over 1,500 years of age, it’s an incredible example of a boab, a hollow species of tree unique to the Kimberley region. The tree is rumored to have been used to lock up Aboriginal prisoners on their way to Derby for sentencing at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whether or not the tree was actually used to imprison them is debatable, but its significance as a symbol of the injustices suffered by indiginous populations in the development of the region is undeniable.
We lingered around town just long enough to visit the Prison Tree Boab, fill up the Pajaro and stop by the supermarket, where we picked up a trip mascot we named Derby. Just before sunset, we pulled into Birdwood Downs.
A cattle station just off the beginning of the Gibb, Birdwood Downs was a cozy, unassuming place to pass our first night on the road. We parked in the empty campgrounds under the amber glow of twilight, passing peacocks and a small picnic area with bright fairy lights strung from the trees. Another car pulled in next to us as we finished setting up camp, and I was surprised to see that it was Andy and Lars, acquaintances from back in Broome. Let me tell you: for such a big country, Australia gets to be a very small place.
That first night was early and easy. After cooking dinner around the picnic table and comparing travel notes, our trio retreated to our snug little tent to watch the stars and snack on lollies. It was the clearest, brightest sky I’d seen in Australia yet.
DAY 2: WINDJANA GORGE & TUNNEL CREEK
We woke up with the sun the next morning. After cooking our first of many porridge breakfasts and quickly packing up camp, we hit the road again. We were on our way to Windjana Gorge, and we hoped that with an early start we might beat the heat during our hike.
Not long after leaving Birdwood Downs, the Gibb’s last stretch of sealed road gave way to dirt. Immediately, the drive became louder, bumpier and dustier. We’d finally hit the real deal — from here on out, it was all four-wheel drive.
Even from a distance, Windjana was impressive. The charcoal- and brick-streaked walls of the gorge towered over the surrounding bush, teasing us from the road. The closer we got, the tinier everything else felt. When we finally arrived in the parking lot, our world, too, got even smaller: there, in the only other car around, were Camille and Simon, more friends from back in Broome. We knew they’d left for the Gibb earlier that week, but we’d expected to be days behind them. Luckily, the road had other plans for us. We set off to explore Windjana together.
Windjana Gorge is part of the Napier Range, the limestone remains of an ancient reef system that fringed the Kimberley 350 million years ago. Today, Windjana marks the first major stop on the Gibb coming from Derby and is known especially for its freshwater crocodiles. Within minutes of starting our hike along the Gorge Walk, we spotted dozens of them sunning lazily around a sparkling pool.
As thrilled as I was about the freshies — I mean, how much more Australia can you get than stumbling across crocs in the outback?! — I was even more psyched to find a group of flying foxes huddled together in a tree, sleeping the day away. As much as I’ve become fascinated with crocodiles since moving here, these huge bats are my hands-down favorites when it comes to Kimberley wildlife.
Our walk along the gorge was as hot as it was beautiful. By the time we returned to the parking lot, we were sweaty and hungry. A picnic lunch and several liters of water later, we left for the cool caves of Tunnel Creek National Park.
Tunnel Creek is home to Australia’s oldest cave system. It was also the site of a legendary shoot-out between police and the famous Aboriginal outlaw Jandamarra. After years of defending his people and their land from European settlers, evading police and narrowly escaping death on several occassions, Jandamarra took refuge at Tunnel Creek. Eventually police tracked him down and in 1897, he was killed here at the entrance to the cave.
It’s easy to see why Jandamarra would make Tunnel Creek his hideout. The cave is immense, a wide tunnel 750 meters long carved into the limestone of the Napier Range. Here we’d rejoined Camille and Simon as well as Andy and Lars, and I think that every one of us was completely awestruck by Tunnel Creek. We waded our way through pools of cool water and gazed at the amazing stalactites in wonder. I spent a good while watching flying foxes soar overhead in a gap between portions of the tunnel before rejoining the group in the cave. As we made our way through another pool of water, someone mentioned seeing a crocodile. Back on land, we scrambled to shine a torch on the dark pool. Two little eyes glowed back at us.
(I guess I should mention here that we were on the designated path through the cave, and that freshies aren’t generally harmful to humans. Apparently they’re only seen in the caves at Tunnel Creek occasionally, so I’d count us lucky!)
Maybe it was the sun; maybe it was the excitement of walking through croc-infested waters. By the time we finished exploring Tunnel Creek, we were all pretty beat. Our campsite at the base of Windjana Gorge was a beautiful setting for relaxing, and relax we did. As we napped, sipped on cider and talked travel dreams around the picnic table, the afternoon quietly slipped into night. We’d acquired by then a proper crew, four cars of friends and acquaintances from back in Broome. Surrounded by good company, a little wine and a super-satisfying dinner (really, is there anything more fulfilling than a camp-made meal after a beautiful day outside?!), camp almost felt like home that night.
DAY 3: BELL GORGE
Bell Gorge is the Gibb’s biggest star. In fact, a lot of people take on only the first stretch of the Gibb just to to visit Bell. Many consider it the Kimberley’s most beautiful gorge.
When we arrived the next day, I understood why.
The magic began even before we reached the gorge. Bell is part of the King Leopold Range Conservation Park, and our drive through the mountains that morning was more beautiful at every turn. The green-dusted ridges were a world apart from the first day’s mostly flat, red drive.
And as for the gorge itself? Bell feels like the very definition of an oasis. Even at the very end of the dry season, when most of the Kimberley’s waterfalls had stopped running, Bell was still flowing. The water was dark and glassy, almost like obsidian, and all around the gorge were flashes of miraculous green.
The most stunning part of Bell Gorge was what I couldn’t photograph. After climbing around to the waterfalls and dropping our bags on a shady ledge, we hit the water for a cold, refreshing swim. From the main pool, we followed the water downstream, swimming through shallow pools and sliding ourselves over slick algae-covered rocks. Eventually, we came to the end: a steep drop-off with an incredible view of the river snaking its way through the high red walls of the gorge. There wasn’t another soul in sight, and so we lingered, stunned to have such a glorious view all to ourselves.
Eventually we pulled ourselves away and returned to our bags for a picnic lunch. There, too, for a solid half-hour while we rested by the main pool of the most popular stop on the Gibb River Road, we were alone.
This is the advantage of doing the Gibb at the end of the season. While some of the waterfalls may be dry and the green less lush, it means far fewer people. To witness places this stunning without crowds — and often without anyone at all — is both overwhelming and humbling. Even now, it astounds me.
Bell was everything I expected and then some. Only staying longer could have made our day more perfect. As hard as it was to leave, we had more to see.
And you know what? In the end, Bell Gorge wasn’t the most beautiful after all. Almost unbelievably, it only got better from there.