Australia Destinations Western Australia

The Backpacker’s Guide to Australia’s Gibb River Road

September 15, 2016

Road tripping the Gibb River Road, I found the Australia I’d always imagined — and a side of the Outback I never knew existed. This blog has seen no end to the love I developed for Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region while living at Broome’s incredible Cable Beach, and our big road trip on the Gibb has gotten perhaps more than its fair share of attention — but with good reason, I promise! Earlier this week, I shared ten reasons the Gibb should be your next Aussie road trip. Today’s post is the last installment in all things Gibb around here for awhile: a trip-planning guide covering all of the essentials — what to know before you go, what to pack and (the good stuff!) what to see. It’s as comprehensive as I could make it, so settle in! If you’re looking for the full story, check out these earlier posts detailing our ten-day trip:

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Originally an old cattle-driving route, the Gibb River Road spans nearly 700 kilometers of the spectacular Kimberley region, Western Australia’s northernmost area. The Kimberley is wild and remote, so sparsely populated that in a region as big as California, there are just six real towns — and of those, only Broome, Kununurra and Derby boast populations over 2,000! The Gibb River Road is the perfect opportunity to explore this region, a mostly off-the-grid Outback road trip encompassing dusty red roads and crazy-beautiful landscapes, with stop-offs at lush gorges, stunning swimming holes and even waterfalls. It’s more than worth the time and effort it takes to get there, but preparation is essential. Be sure to keep the following in mind:

The Gibb is only open for part of the year, from roughly mid-April to late October.

It closes during the wet season, when rivers flood during torrential downpours and make the roads impassable. Since the road’s opening is dependent on the rain from year to year, the dates aren’t fixed — as soon as the weather allows for the road to be graded at the beginning of the season, it’s opened. At the beginning of the season, between April and June, you’ll find the waterfalls at their best and the swimming holes and gorges at their most lush. The Gibb’s peak season runs from June to August, when you may have to make some advance bookings for accommodation (more on that in a bit). We did our road trip at the beginning of October and on the one hand, it was the driest time of the entire year and obviously not ideal for seeing waterfalls; on the other, I’ve never traveled in such an uncrowded place — we had some of the Gibb’s most popular gorges entirely to ourselves. It was as every bit as magical as it sounds!

The Gibb is unsealed, often heavily corrugated and includes several creek and river crossings, making a high-clearance 4WD vehicle absolutely essential.

Trust me — taking anything less is not worth the risk. You’ll be dealing with higher water levels earlier in the season, and rougher corrugations later. Either way, having the appropriate vehicle is a must — not that this should deter you! You don’t need extensive 4WD experience; just be smart. For more detailed information about road conditions, check this link out (the rest of the website is an fantastic reference, too!).

"For Sale, $5" - painted on the side of the van. Probably the funniest vehicle we saw abandoned along the Gibb, but certainly not the only one!

“For Sale, $5” – painted on the side of the van. Probably the funniest vehicle we saw abandoned along the Gibb, but certainly not the only one!

Broome and Kununurra are the Gibb’s natural start- and endpoints.

This is where you’ll want to stock up on all your food and supplies.

Stops for gas are infrequent and expensive.

Anytime you have the chance to fill up, do! You’ll want to have a couple of extra jerry cans on hand just in case, but as long as you fill up at the roadhouses and stations along the way (don’t worry — they’re obvious!), you shouldn’t have any problems.

Be prepared to change a tire…or several.

Honestly, I don’t know if we met anyone along the Gibb who didn’t have to change at least one tire at some point during their trip. Plan on having two spares, and do double-check that your jack works — it wasn’t until we got a flat that we realized the jack our rental came with was broken. We ended up getting help from a fellow traveler, but between that and having just one spare, our tire situation was more stressful than it needed to be. Note that while Over the Range Tyre & Mechanical Repairs is the only dedicated mechanic along the Gibb (sidenote: we were so impressed with Neville’s service here!), any of the stations and roadhouses open to visitors should be able to help with tire repairs.

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Plan on driving during the day.

In this part of Australia, it’s not so much big kangaroos you need to be wary of hitting at night; it’s wallabies and — worse! — cattle. Note that most rental insurance won’t cover incidents that happen while driving at night, and that if you do run into any trouble, it’s unlikely any other vehicles will pass by to help until the next morning.

Accommodation is often offered by cattle stations along the route.

We camped out every night (as most people on the Gibb do!), relying on a variety of designated camping sites offered by cattle stations open to visitors and national park campgrounds. If you feel like spoiling yourself, a lot of the stations offer proper beds, too. While we’d originally hoped to rely on the WikiCamps app to find free camping, we quickly realized that this doesn’t really exist along the Gibb as all the land is either privately owned or part of a national park (…not that this stops everyone). Having road tripped the Gibb at the end of the season, we never had trouble securing a place to stay; if you’re going during the peak season between June and August, however, I hear it’s a good idea to book accommodation in advance.

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Know that you’ll be largely off-the-grid.

No phone, no internet, no distractions — it’s a beautiful thing!

It’s not a trip for a shoestring budget.

Needless to say, having your own (4WD!) ride will go a long way. The Mitsubishi Pajero we rented was awesome and caused a lot less stress than some of our friends’ vehicles, but the cost was steep at $1,788 AUD for ten days (or $596 each splitting costs between the three of us). For reference, we spent about $620 on gas, $450 on food and alcohol (including both the groceries we bought ahead and treats along the trip), $400 on camping fees (a cost we hadn’t considered!) and $80 on our tire repair. Splitting costs between three people, we totalled roughly $1,150 AUD each for our ten-day trip. It was worth every dollar and then some, but I’ll be honest — it was more than any of us had budgeted!

…nor is it a trip to rush.

Ten days was good — I never felt like we cheated ourselves, and we had time to finish the Gibb and see more of the Kimberley besides — but if I could do the trip over, I’d give myself at least two weeks. I wanted to savor every little stop along the Gibb. Bottom line: I’d recommend taking as much time as you can afford. Moreso than perhaps any of my other travels, this experience truly felt like a once-in-a-lifetime trip — after all, as an American based on the other side of the world, I doubt I’ll find myself in such a remote and out-of-the-way corner of Australia again anytime soon!

Be prepared to deal with high temperatures…and flies.

Know what you’re getting yourself into. If you can’t deal with bugs and sweat, this probably isn’t the trip for you. Temperatures regularly soar into the 100s (or 40s, for those of you who aren’t fellow Americans!). Always have plenty of water available and be smart. As for the flies, well…that annoying little reality is just one of the costs of experiencing the Gibb in all its glory. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Be aware of where saltwater crocodiles might be.

There aren’t saltwater crocs around most of the major stops along the Gibb, but in Australia’s Outback, it’s a good rule of thumb to be wary of their presence. Look for signs, and don’t just assume you can swim anywhere. Along the Gibb, you’re most likely to encounter salties around the Pentecost River (their name is misleading: they are very much at home in freshwater!).

These are freshwater crocs at Windjana Gorge -- nothing to worry about! While you're not likely to encounter any saltwater crocs along most of the Gibb's main tourist stops, know that they do inhabit the Kimberley.

These are freshwater crocs at Windjana Gorge — nothing to worry about! While you’re not likely to encounter any saltwater crocs along the Gibb’s main tourist stops, know that they do inhabit the Kimberley.

WHAT TO PACK

We’re going to keep this short and sweet. I’m not going to list every single thing you’ll want to pack (you know you’ll need your toothbrush!), but I am going to go over the essentials — the things you definitely don’t want to find yourself without in a place as remote as the Gibb, and things you might consider to make your trip a little more comfortable. I also want to point out that by no means did we buy everything listed here! We were able to pool our belongings and borrow a lot of gear from friends, making only a few small purchases.

    – Map (we got ours at Broome’s Visitor Center — Google Maps won’t have your back on this one!)
    – Two spare tires (ideally, although we and others we know got by with one)
    – Everything you need to change a tire: a jack, a wrench, a tire guage and maybe a tarp to kneel on
    – A couple of full jerry cans with extra gas, just in case
    – Enough extra water to last 2-3 days (you’ll have sufficient opportunity to refill your drinking water, but you’ll still want to have plenty of extra. We carried over 60 liters of water — a minimum of 20 per person — and we did have to break into those reserves several times)
    – First-aid kit
    – Enough dry and canned (no-refrigeration) food to last the duration of your trip and a few days extra in case of an emergency
    – Tent(s)
    – Sleeping bag, sleeping mats and pillows
    – Fold-out table and chairs
    – Cooking equipment: gas stove (with extra gas!), pots and pans, plates and utensils for eating plus dishsoap and a sponge/cloth for washing
    – Headlamps, flashlights, lanterns and batteries
    – Insect repellent
    – Sun protection (sunscreen, hats, long-sleeve shirts, etc.)
    – Toilet paper (you’ll want it on hand just in case, but we were surprised to find that this was usually available!)
    – Daypacks and footwear for hiking excursions (and flip-flops for camp, while you’re at it!)
    – Chargers (solar and car, or an inverter if you want to be able to charge other electronics)
    – Extra batteries and memory cards for your camera
    – Essential medicine and toiletries (I know you know this, but remember — you can’t just stop at the store to pick up something you forgot!)
    – Car fridge (we had this for our ciders…it was both a bit of a luxury and an annoyance, definitely not essential)

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WHAT TO SEE

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll be starting and ending in Broome and Kununurra, both of which are very much worth some time. Broome is the Kimberley’s biggest town, a sort of coastal oasis on the edge of the Outback with a fascinating pearling history. It’s particularly famous for Cable Beach, and especially for its stunning sunsets and camel rides. There’s plenty to do if that’s what you’re after (think partying at the races, cliff jumping and crocs) but the real magic of Broome is simply being here — it’s the kind of place backpackers mean to pass through, but end up staying in for months!

I’ve actually heard that Kununurra has a similar vibe in that hanging around kind of way. We only had the chance to enjoy Kununurra’s Lake Argyle and beautiful scenery, but friends tell me there’s a lot more to do, from sunset cruises on the lakes and swimming at waterfalls to art galleries and hiking in Mirima National Park (the so-called Mini Bungle Bungles).

Kununurra's famous infinity pool at the Lake Argyle Caravan Park

Kununurra’s famous infinity pool at the Lake Argyle Caravan Park

Now that we’ve covered your start- and endpoints, let’s dig into everything in between! Here’s a short summary of what to see on the Gibb itself. (If you’re looking for more detail, check out the links to my earlier posts at the beginning — we didn’t make it everywhere, but most of these stops are covered there!)

    Derby: A small town, and the last you’ll pass through before hitting the Gibb if you start in Broome. We didn’t see much here, but there’s meant to be good fishing and tours to highlights like the Horizontal Falls from here (supposedly amazing, but not cheap!).

    Windjana Gorge & Tunnel Creek: The remains of ancient reef system, today one of the most popular stops along the Gibb because of its easy access from the Great Northern Highway. Windjana is the best gorge for wildlife-spotting, known especially for its freshwater crocodiles and flying foxes.

    Lennard Gorge: Less popular but reportedly stunning, particularly at the beginning of the season when the waterfalls are at their peak.

    Bell Gorge: By far the most popular of the Gibb’s gorges with a waterfall that keeps going even into the driest part of the season. Be sure to explore past the swimming hole at the main falls — scrambling around the bend was our favorite part!

Bell Gorge, the Gibb's most popular stop

Bell Gorge, the Gibb’s most popular stop

    Mornington Wilderness Camp: Home to a wildlife sanctuary run by the nonprofit Australian Wildlife Conservancy. Mornington is famous for its Dimond and Sir John Gorges, as well as for its focus on conservation first, tourism second. (Missing Mornington is probably my biggest regret of our trip — I’ve heard it’s beautiful!)

    Adcock Gorge: Adcock was mentioned as a favorite by some locals we met, but I have a feeling this small gorge is at its best earlier in the season. Lush and lily-padded.

    Galvans Gorge: A beautiful gorge for both playing and relaxing, with a shady swimming hole, rope swing and opportunities for cliff jumping!

    Manning Gorge: Access Manning Gorge from Mt. Barnett Roadhouse (there is a fee, which was included in our camping here overnight). The walk to this stunning gorge may be long and hot, but it was one of my favorite hikes — and Manning itself is a truly beautiful gorge!

Adventuring into Manning Gorge

Adventuring into Manning Gorge

    Mitchell Plateau & Mitchell Falls: This one’s a long and reportedly rough drive down the Mitchell Plateau Track off the Gibb, but the falls have a reputation for being among the most spectacular sights in the Kimberley and the hike to get to them is meant to be especially beautiful. Ask around about road conditions and plan for a couple of extra days on the Gibb if you go.

    El Questro Wilderness Park: Basically the five-star resort of the Gibb. El Questro feels like the iconic red Outback with lush jungle vibes, and there’s lots to explore here. El Questro Gorge was one of my favorite hikes of the whole trip, while Zebedee Hot Springs felt like straight luxury. We also had a blast driving around some of the 4WD tracks to catch sunrise one morning.

    Emma Gorge: Hands down my favorite stop of the whole trip. Technically part of El Questro Wilderness Park, but with a separate access down the Gibb and a big enough reputation on its own to list separately. This place feels surreal, with steep gorge walls, magical droplet falls and sublime swimming.

Truly one of the most incredible sunrises of my life at El Questro Wilderness Park

Truly one of the most incredible sunrises of my life at El Questro Wilderness Park

In additon to all the beautiful stops along the Gibb, there’s heaps to see around it — all of which make for natural extensions to the trip. Definitely consider making these desinations part of the adventure, too!

    The Bungle Bungles: The UNESO Heritage-listed Bungle Bungles of Purnululu National Park are famous today for their beehive shapes, but they weren’t actually known to most of the world until about 35 years ago. The park requires four-wheel drive (it was even rougher than the Gibb!), has beautiful campgrounds and features two distinct halves — one with the Bungle Bungles themselves, and the other with beautiful palms as well as the spectacular Echidna Chasm.

    Fitzroy Crossing: A small and remote Outback town with a primarily Aboriginal population. It’s a good place to spend the night as you’re passing through; we camped at the Fitzroy River Lodge surrounded by wallabies and eucalyptus (so Aussie!), and we had a relaxing night chilling at the pub here.

    Giekie Gorge: Fitzroy Crossing’s primary draw. Giekie Gorge is similar geologically to Windjana, a good place to explore via short walking paths or a boat tour. As the most accessible gorge in the Kimberley, it is also the most visited.

    The UNESCO Heritage-listed Bungle Bungles

    The UNESCO Heritage-listed Bungle Bungles

    Wolfe Creek: The second-largest meteorite crater in the world, famous also for the well-known Aussie horror movie named after it. This one requires another long, rough drive, but the meteor is reportedly impressive and the hiking and camping pretty scenic.

    Mirima National Park: Known as the Mini Bungle Bungles, this small park is located just outside of Kununurra. It’s known for its sandstone formations and beautiful, easy walking.

    Cape Leveque & the Kimberley Coast: Cape Leveque is perhaps the pinnacle of the Kimberley Coast, located at the very tip of the Dampier Peninsula. The only place to stay here is at Kooljaman Wilderness Camp, owned and run by the indigineous Bardi Jawi communities on their native lands. It’s known for being stunning and the reputation is well-deserved — but so is the rest of the Kimberley Coast! Relax, snorkel, camp and enjoy tours at Cape Leveque, or check out less famous beaches like Middle Lagoon. Like everything else worth visiting in the Kimberley, the drive is dusty and corrugated, requiring four-wheel drive.

Cape Leveque, perfect for some post-Gibb beach time

Cape Leveque, perfect for some post-Gibb beach time

MORE RESOURCES

Of course, I had some help planning my own trip! Make the Visitor Center your first stop on arrival in Broome or Kununurra — they’re really very helpful, and the best place to pick up a map for your trip. The website kimberleyaustralia.com is basically a Bible to the region and has tons of helpful information about the Gibb River Road. I also found Western Australia’s tourism board site really helpful while trying to plan a rough itinerary around our limited time.

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The Backpacker's Guide to Australia's Gibb River Road

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