Spending a few weeks exploring the Kimberley from the Gibb River Road was definitely one of the highlights of our Big Lap around Australia.
So I've put together this quick highlights video from The Big Lap Film Series and following that are 6 of our favourite places that we discovered on the trip.
The Gibb River Road
The Gibb River Road runs between Derby on the western side of the Kimberley and Kununurra on the east and was constructed as part of the 'Beef Roads Scheme’ between 1949 and 1956 as a cattle route.
Today it is still the only land access to many of the cattle stations and National Parks in the Kimberley as well as the town of Kalumburu on the northern coast.
Being mostly unsealed road, it is closed during the wet season between November and March.
At around 660 kilometres long and with many offshoots and detours to explore along the way, it’s a magnet for 4 wheel driving road trippers like us.
Yes you will need a 4WD to drive the Gibb River Road, without one you'll need to follow the Great Northern Highway which is sealed and runs around the southern edge of the Kimberley through Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.
You could easily spend a month or two exploring the Kimberley from the Gibb River Road so to get you started, I’ve compiled a list of 6 of our favourite discoveries we visited on our Big Lap trip.
1. Tunnel Creek
Heading 113km east from Derby along the Gibb River Road you’ll arrive at a turnoff south for Windjana Gorge. This is the usual first night stop for most road trippers heading West > East along the Gibb.
Windjana Gorge is a great place to spend the day exploring and having some freshwater crocodile encounters but 36km further down the road is Tunnel Creek National Park.
Tunnel Creek is a cave that runs through the base of the Napier Range escarpment for about 750 metres from one side to the other and is a great little adventure, especially with the kids.
You’ll need a good torch each as most of the walk through the cave is pitch black and you’ll also need thongs or sandals or old runners to protect your feet from rocks.
Be prepared to get wet as you’ll be wading through pools up to your waistline or higher depending on how tall you are.
For Sara who was only 2 years old at the time, the water level came up to her armpits a couple of times.
About half way through the tunnel you’ll arrive at a roof cave in and you may be tempted to think you’re at the end, but you’re not. Keep walking into the darkness and you’ll find the cave opens up to the other side of the escarpment a few hundred metres further on.
There are bats in the cave and we saw an eel slither past Sara in one of the pools - fortunately she didn’t see it and we didn’t bother to tell her!
2. Wunnamurra Gorge - Mt Elizabeth Station
At about the halfway point along the Gibb River Road, 40 km east of Mt Barnett Roadhouse, is a turnoff on the northern side of the road to Mt Elizabeth Station. It’s then another 30km along the ‘driveway’ to the station house and camping grounds, but it’s well worth the detour.
We only planned to stay one night at Mt Elizabeth but when we arrived at the homestead to book into the campground for the night, the owner and manager, Pat Lacy, suggested we take a drive out to Wunnamurra Gorge for a swim which is 10km away down a low and slow 4WD track.
It was a bit late in the day to head out there then so we booked in for two nights so we could take a leisurely drive out there tomorrow.
And I’m glad we did.
The campground is a beautiful piece of shady grass with fireplaces and firewood and a simple but clean amenities block.
Best of all, we had it all to ourselves apart from another couple who came in later and camped far enough away from us that we basically forgot they were there.
Next day we followed the mud map to Wunnamurra Gorge and after about an hour of crawling along the track and a 20 minute walk we discovered the gorge.
The gorge is on the Barnett River and includes a beautiful waterfall flowing into a huge swimming hole.
We spent about 5 hours there lazing around in the pools and eating cheese and vegemite sandwiches for lunch and didn’t see another person the entire time - it was basically our own private gorge for the day.
That night back at camp we made damper on the campfire which rounded out what was pretty much a perfect day.
UPDATE FEB 2017: Mt Elizabeth Station was sold late 2016 but I have contacted the new managers and been assured that they will be open as usual in 2017 when the Gibb River Road opens.
3. Branco’s Lookout - El Questro Wilderness Park
El Questro is a one million acre cattle station on the eastern side of the Kimberley and a great spot to spend a few days or more on your Gibb River Road trip.
There are no shortage of activities to spend your money on . . . Helicopter joy flights, river cruises and horse rides to name a few.
However, being on a tight budget that we were, we spent our time exploring the park instead.
There are numerous 4WD only tracks running through El Questro and on our first full day there we set out to see as much as we could.
Later in the afternoon we found ourselves near Branco's Lookout so we decided to head up there and enjoy a drink and some nibbles while we watched the sunset.
The view from Brancos is truly spectacular and overlooks a horseshoe bend in the Pentecost River.
As the sun slowly set behind us the panorama in front lit up and it was one of those magical moments that you don’t soon forget.
In the distance we could see the lights coming on at the exclusive El Questro Homestead and a couple of helicopters buzzing across the plains on their way back to the station.
The next morning I was up before dawn and headed back to Branco’s to film the sunrise which was just as spectacular.
4. El Questro Gorge - El Questro Wilderness Park
Another discovery I made at El Questro was El Questro Gorge.
Leaving the Landcruiser in the carpark at the bottom, I followed the track through the fern lined gorge for about 1.5km before reaching the ‘halfway pool’ (above).
This is the spot to stop for a swim to cool off, before tackling the second half of the walk.
A large boulder is blocking the gorge at the half way pool but you can climb up and around the left side of it to continue the walk along the gorge to the waterfall at the end, about another 90 minutes further along.
5. The Ord River - Kununurra to Lake Argyle
The Ord River is the water supply for Kununurra and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme.
The river starts it’s life in the south eastern Kimberley region near the Bungle Bungle Range and heads north where it flows into the southern edge of Lake Argyle and is the main water supply for the lake.
Around 50 km north, the water from Lake Argyle flows through the Ord Dam and follows the Ord River once again to Kununurra where it is held back by the Diversion Dam and redirected down the M1 Channel to supply the farms surrounding Kununurra.
The 55km stretch of the Ord River between the Ord Dam at Lake Argyle and the Diversion Dam at Kununurra is something special.
While we were camped at lake Argyle we put our tinny in the Ord River below the Ord Dam and spent a day exploring the river. The water is calm and slow moving as it snakes its way through the red rocky ranges contrasting with the lush green along the waters edge.
We probably travelled about 10km down river before turning back and we reckon it’s one of the highlights of the Kimberley that most people probably don’t see.
If you have your own boat then I’d highly recommend spending some time exploring the river - if you don’t, then book yourself on one of the Ord River Cruises that run between Kununurra & Lake Argyle. These are a great way to see the sights but they move pretty fast so you don’t get the ‘serenity’ of going at your own pace.
On my next trip there I’m planning to spend a few days canoeing down from Lake Argyle to Kununurra.
6. Lake Argyle
Last but certainly not least is the mighty Lake Argyle.
No trip along the Gibb river Road is complete without spending some time at Lake Argyle.
While technically, Lake Argyle is past the eastern end of the Gibb River road, it is a perfect start or finish point of your Kimberley adventure.
On our Big Lap we initially spent 5 days at Lake Argyle Resort but we loved it so much that we came back a month later after exploring the Red Centre and spent another 6 weeks there.
Getting out on our boat and exploring the lake was one of the highlights of our entire Big Lap trip.
We’d pack some lunch and drinks and just take off from the boat ramp and head south and for the most part it felt like we had the whole lake to ourselves.
When you think of reservoirs in the southern and eastern states, like Lake Eildon, there are water ski boats and houseboats everywhere.
Lake Argyle is the other extreme - it’s the largest man made freshwater lake in Australia but there is almost no-one there.
Just like the Ord river, If you have your own boat then definitely plan to get out and explore the lake - if you don’t, then get on board one of the Lake Argyle Cruises and see it that way.
You’ll be glad you did!
We loved Lake Argyle so much we made a film about it!
It didn't take long after arriving at Lake Argyle to get a sense of the incredible story that was just waiting to be told about how it came to be here in the wild and rugged East Kimberley.
In one of the most remote areas in Australia is this massive body of fresh water that makes the famous Sydney Harbour seem like a pond by comparison. It's so big that it's actually classified as an inland sea rather than a lake.
The Ord Dam that creates Lake Argyle was completed in the early 1970's but to truly appreciate how it came to be here you have to go right back to Ireland in the mid 1800's and meet the Durack family.
With dreams of making their fortune, the Durack's fled famine ravaged Ireland for a better life in Australia and over the proceeding decades built a cattle empire in the Queensland Channel Country before hatching a plan to open up the East Kimberley.
What followed was the largest cattle drive Australia had ever seen from Queensland across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia, finishing on the banks of the Behn river where the Durack Homestead was built.
With so much water flowing down the nearby Ord River during the wet season, the Duracks dreamed of building a dam to create a lake that would provide an unlimited year round water supply for cattle and crops.
And in the early 1960's the Ord River Scheme was born and with it the Kununurra Diversion Dam, the Ord Dam and the mighty Lake Argyle.
To make the film 'Discovering Lake Argyle' I spent 6 weeks travelling around the East Kimberley by 4WD and boat interviewing local experts to piece together this regions amazing history starting from the Duracks in the mid 1850's right through to today.
It's an incredible story that will give you a whole new perspective on the sheer grit and determination over 100+ years that it took to make what we have today.
As an added bonus I managed to secure the rights to include on the DVD the complete and untouched original dam construction documentaries that were made for the Kununurra Diversion Dam and Ord Dam construction projects.
These films shot on 16mm film are a priceless insight into Kimberley life in the 1950's and 1960's and the job of constructing the dams.
The Discovering Lake Argyle DVD has 3 films with over 2 hours of content and is available to buy for $19.95.