Bouncing along the Gibb River Road

Billabong at Barnett (Photo: Steve de Vroom)

The Gibb River Road in the Kimberleys, part of Western Australia, has achieved legendary status. It runs for 650km from near Kununurra to Derby on the west coast. Rough and tough and strictly 4WD country, it is hard-core corrugations and was built as access for road trains to the cattle stations that stretch across the north of Western Australia’s Kimberley. The Gibb River Road is only open to traffic during the dry season.

“Doing the Gibb” has assumed the aura of a rite of passage with travellers in this part of the world. But don’t be intimidated by it. Provided that you are properly equipped and with current information on road conditions, this is a place where you can spend a week or more exploring some of the remotest country in Australia. Or you can do it in a couple of days as I did.

I left Kununurra as autumn turned to spring in most of Australia, but here in the north it is know as the late dry season. Just 50km after entering the Gibb River Road, I turned off to El Questro Station resort. This is a place of adventure and wonder, where you can lose yourself and your 4WD on a property that is larger than some countries. I stayed in the camping ground for a couple of days while I explored ancient palm-lined gorges and soaked in hot springs that trickle down from beneath the red rock mountains. A welcome respite before heading off to tackle the corrugations and red dust that would be my companions for the rest of the trip.

Driving a Toyota Landcruiser Troop Carrier (troopie) and towing a Kedron ATV (all terrain vehicle) off road caravan, I certainly was equipped with the right stuff. The troopie had long range tanks and the caravan provided me with all the comforts of home. But that didn’t mean it would be straight forward.

The corrugations on the Gibb are relentless. After crossing the Pentecost River shortly after leaving El Questro, I settled in to the task of eating up the kilometres and trying to pick the right speed to minimise the vibrations. I found that about 80km/h seemed a good compromise. The road varied quite a bit and you must pay attention, particularly with a 3-tonne van behind you.

There was little traffic at this time. There were few road trains, but of course that would be different at other times of the year. The scenery is stunning and ever changing. The half way point is Mt Barnett but before you get there you must run the gauntlet of about 50km of corrugations so severe that you find yourself restricted to driving at about 10km/h.

Camping next to a Boab Tree (Photo: Steve de Vroom)

Camping next to a Boab Tree (Photo: Steve de Vroom)

At last I reached Mt Barnett where there is a road house with fuel and a store. They were out of ULP when I was there which didn’t affect me as I was driving a Diesel and had plenty of fuel. But this is something to be aware of. If you are depending on getting fuel at a particular place out here, it pays to phone before you leave, just to be sure. I drove the dozen km to the camp ground for a well deserved overnight stay. This is the land of the Boab tree and the camp grounds are adorned with these beautiful giants, some of them thousands of years old.

I wasn’t prepared for the sight that would greet me when I opened the caravan door. One of the windows had shaken open and red dust from passing traffic covered every centimetre of the inside of the van. It was thick on the floor and the bed was tinged red with the dust. The only place free of dust was inside the fridge. Not only that, anything that wasn’t bolted down had been flying around in the van so there were a few repairs to be done. It was at this point that I was very glad for the small vacuum cleaner and a comprehensive tool kit including electric drill and screwdriver on board. Three hours later all was ship shape again. I had learned an important lesson: Seal all windows with gaffer tape and secure everything in the van.

The Mt Barnett camping ground has a most welcome feature. Just metres from the camp ground is a billabong or lagoon where you can swim in safety; (no crocodiles here). A serene oasis and a refuge from the dust and the corrugations. The words of Waltzing Matilda drifted through my mind at the sight of the billabong. I swam and the frustrations of the caravan melted away to a distant memory.

Sunset in Derby (Photo: Steve de Vroom)

The following day I continued the adventure. The second half of the trip was much better. The road improved and Derby beckoned. I reached the bitumen with civilisation just ahead. It was then that I had my only flat tyre of the trip, on a stretch of road where you would least expect it. That was lucky, because I didn’t have any trouble getting the jack under the car and was on my way in no time.

Arriving in Derby, I found the caravan park and was all set up in time to drive down to Derby Jetty to take photos of sunset over the Indian Ocean. My first view of the ocean since leaving Sydney in July.

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