Prior to commencing the next leg of our adventure, we detour back to Kununurra for yet another UHF aerial (what is it with breaking aerials). After a quick snap shot at the Gibb River Road intersection we begin our venture along the Gibb. We are met with some incredible scenery as we are fascinated by the beauty of the Cockburn Range.
The images you see in the movie ‘Australia’ are at least as beautiful in the flesh. The first 30km or so of the Gibb is bitumen sealed; in fact all the way to El Questro. Given this is reputedly one of Australia’s best 4WD tracks, we were not expecting any bitumen. Thereafter we wait in anticipation at crossing the mighty Pentecost River. Some of the footage we had viewed in the lead up to this stretch of the trip had us wondering how far up the doors the water level would be, not to mention one of the reasons we had the suspension lift done in Darwin. The footage highlighted quite a treacherous river crossing; rough and wide plus crocodile infested. Would we get through towing our camper trailer? There had been road works between El Questro and the Pentecost (approx. 30km) and as we head over the crest of a hill and start descending we hold our breath as the mighty Pentecost becomes visible at the bottom of the hill…….and its…..bone dry. We are all bitterly disappointed however try to imagine what it would be like crossing the nearly 200m river when the water is 2-3 feet deep. There was plenty of water either side of the crossing and it appears the Pentecost is about to have a causeway constructed and therefore the first 70km (approx.) will be bitumen sealed, in fact all the way to Home Valley which is our first stop on the Gibb. Home Valley Station (HV8) is a 3.5 million acre property just on the other side of the Pentecost and we decide to camp here for a few days. The property is nicely laid out and quite clean. We met some really great people here and the kids spent a lot of time with Brooke and Heath from Manly. We ventured back across the river to the popular wilderness playground, El Questro. This place has plenty of activities such as heli-fishing, cruises, horse riding, etc. We visited the renowned Zebedee springs (I was actually a little disappointed, perhaps because we had been to so many great springs throughout the Territory). After driving around and crossing a few water crossings, we made our way across to the other side of the million acre property and to a great place called ‘Emma Gorge’. The 3.2km hike was a little bit challenging as the temperature had now reached 39’C and the track had little shade. Covered in perspiration we finally reach the waterhole and are greeted by a magnificent 65 metre cliff with droplets of water landing in the beautiful swimming hole at the base.
Emma Gorge is also fed via thermal springs and is one of the nicest gorges we have swum in thus far. We swim for nearly 1 1/2hrs and wet our clothes before our descent.
After our draining hike, and today being our wedding anniversary, we enjoy (not romantic) a meal at the Dusty Bar and Grill back at Home Valley. A must is trying some of the best steak produced on the property, which is taken up by both Mike and I. Liam could not resist the crocodile balls and we assumed these were balls of crocodile meat rather than something else. Throughout dinner the kids played with some indigenous children they had met earlier that evening. Unfortunately the entertainment promised on the brochures was non-existent and no doubt ceased once visitor numbers started declining. We had been advised by a number of people that El Questro was overrated and Home Valley was the place to be however our experience was unfortunately different. We still had a terrific time having met plenty of great people however the unfulfilled promise of kids activities was disappointing.
We set off for a self-drive tour of HV8 and visited some nice waterholes including Bindoola and the lovely Nyarli lagoon. We sit and watch the water below as the occasional freshie surfaces to the top of the water then gracefully disappears. We spend the afternoon by the pool and whilst the kids play with their friends, we enjoy this time and relax over a couple of beverages.
Unsure of our final destination today, we depart HV8 and leave the gorgeous Cockburn Range behind. The scenery on the drive to our next destination, ‘Ellenbrae’, is predominately that of cattle country and the continuation of dreaded corrugation. We had heard about the most delicious scones being served at ‘Ellenbrae’ so we drop in to see what all the fuss is about. The lovely couple greet each customer and politely wait by the kitchen for orders. We decide to order two each and the ladies face drops as she politely suggests ‘ The scones are very large, why not try one and see if you can squeeze another in’ (she has no idea how much this Ball family can eat).
I must admit that the scones were rather filling however we were unable to resist our desire for another round of delicious jam and cream scones. We decide to order another two for Mike and I and we are pretty certain there will be no need for lunch now.
We met a family at Ellenbrae that were heading in the opposite direction to us and they informed us there are major bushfires ahead. They had been evacuated from the camp ground that we had considered travelling to in the King Leopald Range and told of how they were up all night concerned about the fires and had been receiving regular updates from the rangers. As we head towards Mt Barnett Roadhouse I can picture a country style roadhouse with picturesque campgrounds. Well it is nothing special, and thankfully it’s not the Roadhouse that you stay at. The friendly Spanish girl informs us the campground is down by the river in Manning Gorge. She tells us that if we are interested in walking the gorge we will need to take a boat across the river and it is safe to swim (not sure I have complete confidence in the backpackers advice on croc free swimming). We pick out a campsite close to the river and then inspect the vehicle and van and notice a part missing on our bull bar. Missing and loose parts on both the vehicle and van are becoming common place on these rough and corrugated roads. We wander down to the river and find plenty of people having a dip. With the smell of bushfires in the air and the temperature rising, I still don’t like the idea of these river swims. Anywhere I see Pandanus by the edge of the river I think crocodiles. Two Dutch girls are screaming as they head to the shore opposite us; a friend had slipped on some rocks and is laying injured. She was supposedly at least 30 mins back and sunset wasn’t far off. The young lady was with a tour group and fortunately, and almost unbelievably, somebody else at the camp was carrying a stretcher in their vehicle. A group of six set off just prior to sunset and returned a couple of hours later. After speaking with a couple of rescuers, it appears she had badly torn a muscle and thankfully the royal flying doctors, who were on standby, were not required.
After packing up camp and setting off early in the morning, we make our way to the boat that is required for the Manning Gorge walk. The small tinnie that awaits us is rigged up to a pulley system. We all pile into the tinnie and Mike pulls us across the river as we all scan the surface of the water for prying eyes. We reach the other side and set up for the hike ahead, remembering that some of the walk must be difficult following the young lady’s accident the previous evening. We scramble over boulders that take us into the high country, followed by the open plains. The temperature up here is getting very warm however we are carrying close to 2 litres of water each, which is what’s required when it’s up close to 40’. We start to descend quite steeply, again over large boulders, and it’s quite slippery due to the sand that lies on the rocks. Reaching the gorge after an hour and a half we find a nice little pool of water to cool off. We have a very early morning tea as we girls are exhausted today, and the thought of the return trip is even more draining. Another hour and a half passes by and we finally reach the tinnie, pull ourselves across the river, then hitch up the camper and hit the road.
The stretch of road is uneventful and there are plenty of shredded tyres by the road as maniacs speed over the corrugation every ten minutes or so. This place is relatively busy, given the remoteness of the location, and I cannot imagine what it was like possibly 20 years ago when the road really was in poor condition with very little accommodation choice (must look out for the Leyland Brothers series). There is plenty of smoke up ahead and it looks fairly aggressive. Exploring the Gibb River Road now consists of mainly outback station hopping. One place that does catch my eye in the travel guide is Mornington. We decide to pull into Mornington Wilderness Park, the gateway points us in the direction of a small tin shed.
We are required to proceed to the very old CB radio and follow the instructions. Mike steps inside and calls ahead on their CB radio and the lady advises Mike the park is only 88km down the road and should take about 2 hours. I was feeling a little worried the fire may cut the only access road however the lady assures us they have not experienced any fires as yet. ‘OK, see you in two hours, over and out’. The road into the park is stunning as we approach several mountain ranges, and as quickly as they appear they disappear behind us. The fires are to the north of the property and as the wind picks up it is likely they will be around for some time. We pass through several properties and, ranges aside, it’s as flat as flat can be. There is spectacular cattle country on either side of us as we witness the most unusual range, giving the appearance of enormous stock piles of dirt. The road/driveway is shared access for several stations and is the best road travelled on since commencing the Gibb; very smooth, not quite as good as bitumen but pretty close.
We arrive in the Mornington Wilderness Park two hours later as we find ourselves in a park very different to others in the East Kimberly. The 1 million acre property was purchased in 2001 by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and by circa 2005 the property had been destocked of cattle, donkeys, and many feral animals. The aim is to return this property to its original and native state through effective conservation. After setting up camp we follow the map provided and take in some of the glorious scenery whilst spotting animals such as the bustard and eastern striped skink. We pass through some small water crossings before we reach a steep incline with several small boulders in our path. After engaging low range 4wd, and with the kids yelling in excitement, we crawl over the boulders and continue on our way. We make our way to a place called Sir John Gorge situated on the mighty Fitzroy River. We prepare our trusty baked beans and bread for dinner whilst taking in the most magnificent sunset. There was nobody else for miles and watching the rocks on the Sir John Gorge (adjoining the King Leopold Range) change colour as every minute passes by, in the lead up to sunset, was quite incredible. You really feel at peace in a place like this and we are sorry to have to leave as nightfall is just about upon us.
After a good night’s sleep, despite a tree limb falling close to our van during heavy winds, we set off in search of more animals and places of tranquillity. Cajeput, a narrow section of the Fitzroy River, is truly a very special place. We sat there for close to 2 hours and spotted double barred finches, rainbow bee eaters, short eared rock wallabies and plenty of other wildlife. It’s hard to fathom that just down from this section of the river, and during the ‘wet’ season, it can peak at 50 metres where the river intersects with the King Leopold Range. The floodplain it creates on the other side of the range can stretch from Mornington Wilderness Park to King Sound (just outside Derby, over 200km away). Unfortunately our stay at Mornington was only a short one and by late morning it is sadly time to say goodbye as we once again make our way through this contrasting countryside.
After stopping briefly at Imintji we head through the King Leopold Range, which is still closed, and therefore no Bell and Silent Grove Gorges (apparently they are both amongst the better gorges in the Kimberley). We are disappointed not to be stopping here as the scenery is spectacular.
We were able to take some photos from the road however a number of fires were still burning fairly aggressively close to the road as we view the thousands of hectares that are now burnt.
After arriving at Windjana National Park we set up camp and decide to relax for the afternoon… or more accurately, let the kids loose as they kick the footy and ride bikes. Windjana Gorge was part of the Devonian Reef that first appeared some 350 million years ago. The signs clearly indicate not to swim and you can see why. There are approximately 90 freshwater crocodiles in a very dried up section of river that is no more than a couple of acres in size. The water appears quite shallow and we estimate the water could dry out completely within the next 4-6 weeks should heavy rain not arrive during this time. Tunnel creek is another day trip and it is definitely preferable to wear water proof shoes and you certainly need to bring a torch. Tunnel creek is WA’s oldest cave system and is situated further south within this ancient reef.
We find a narrow opening in the rocks and enter what looks like a cave. There are a few spots of light in the distance so we must be in the right area or are they crocodile eyes glistening. We wade through some water and hear bats screeching in the distance. Yasmin is bordering on petrified and I must admit that as the cave goes into complete darkness I am feeling quiet nervous as well. We reach an opening in the cave and see some light. The water gets deeper and Yasmin in particular is very keen to turn around at this point as freshwater crocodiles look on. I feel a sense of relief as well once we turn around as I had been really concerned about the thought of what lies in the water, not just the crocs but also what the bats may have deposited.
We discover the fridge has stopped working on gas so after much tinkering, and with the toss of a coin, we are heading to Derby as everything in the fridge would be off in a matter of hours in this stifling heat. We arrive in Derby and after having been away from the coast for so long now we find the smell of salt in the air intense. We are able secure a powered site to power up and keep the last of the food cold. With the smell of the sea in the air I feel the urge to eat fish and chips for dinner. So into town we go and eat our fish and chips in the courtyard area at the front of the shop. Mike has a knack of continually attracting the local indigenous. This clearly intoxicated and homeless fellow is rambling on and pulls out a lighter (I thought he was going to try and set the fish and chips on fire). As usual Mike’s lack of linguistic skills does him no favours and I chime in and try and clarify what he has said. I almost offer him some of our dinner, knowing this is what he was really after, when the shop keeper comes out yelling at him to leave the premises. He informs us that if we give him some food then the whole tribe will appear. I see the shop keepers point but I also feel sorry for the fellow as he wanders the streets.
Bright and early we set off to see the oldest Boab tree, which was once used as a lock up whilst transferring prisoners to Derby. It is estimated to be at least 1500 years old. These trees are known to swell to 25 metres (circumference) during the wet season. Liam was very excited to see the largest cattle trough in the southern hemisphere at 120 metres long. We also stop by the Jetty at Derby where the mud flats look perfect for crabbing, although with the incredible tide changes (rise and falls of close to 11 metres) in these parts, you would certainly want to know what you are doing.