Gibb River Road


Start of the Gibb River Road heading west toward the Cockburn Range (photo Sara York)

On the road again

Leaving El Questro Station, we headed west again on the famous Gibb River Road, pushing deeper into the heart of the Kimberley Plateau. We passed the dominating mesa-like Cockburn Range and 30 odd kilometres down the track crossed the wide stony ford of the Pentecost River (don’t get stuck – there be salties here!).

Pentecost River crossing

Savannah lands of the Kimberley

Once on the other side we climbed quickly up the plateau, with views back over the savannah woodlands of El Questro to the south and over the tidal flats and west arm of Cambridge Gulf to the north. The landscape changed gradually – at first hilly, then much flatter with a savannah of low stunted trees.

The Durack River

Crossing the Durack

The colours of the Gibb River Road

We forded the Durack River and had a cuppa in the shade watching other vehicles negotiate the sandy crossing. Then onwards, along a road of much better quality than I had been led to believe; a wide dirt surface that changed colour from cream to yellow to tan to pink to red to brown, depending on the local geology. The road also had the odd stretch of bitumen up or down the winding hills and long flat and smooth recently graded sections, but with enough corrugated patches to keep one alert (though not alarmed). As we drove further west, the road became redder and the trees gradually became taller and denser. Finally, five hours, four river crossings and a splash of creek crossings later we arrived at Mt Barnett Roadhouse.

From here we headed 7km north to set up camp at Manning River, a popular stopover on the Gibb River Road, beneath the orange-flowering eucalypts and the leaf-bare boabs. It was the first time that we felt “crowded” on our trip – the campground was almost full and there were a couple of tour buses in as well. The sound of generators droned through the air. Truly, these are the curse of camping – if you must have your hot water system, air-conditioner, satellite TV and light up your campsite like Las Vegas at night, at least get with the technology and go solar, if not for your fellow campers, then for the planet whose landscapes you are enjoying (I guess I am saying that I don’t like generators).

Rant aside, Manning Creek is a lovely spot, with its sandy tree-shaded beach beside a long waterhole in the river, and its popularity is understandable.

Manning River Gorge (the six swim day)

Campers beneath the big boab

What a glorious spot for a dip at dawn, a swim at six – the sun was just lighting up the paperbarks and the low red rock walls of the Manning River as we emerged to enjoy a lazy breakfast (swim #1 for the day).

Early morning reflections in the Manning River

Eventually, we got organized and headed off for the days outing to Manning Gorge – a 6km return trip. This walk starts at the edge of the waterhole at the camp site and it quickly became obvious why there were a pile of polystyrene boxes beneath the trees at the water’s edge. These are to put your gear in as you swim it across the Manning River (swim #2).

Crossing the Manning River waterhole

Sandstone ridge country

From the far bank, the track led us on a gentle climb up the sandstone ridge on the north side of the river, past a scattering of wildflowers and a small dragon scurrying across the rocks, while brightly coloured wrens flitted from bush to bush. The passing cloud bands kept the temperature down and beyond the slope, the savannah woodlands of the Kimberley stretched dryly to the horizon. 

Variegated fairy wren

Well-camouflaged dragon

Reaching the top of the ridge, we traversed it parallel to the river before descending again, first to cross a steep but shallow dry creek bed, then the descent into the Manning Gorge itself on a slope lined with sharp-edged rocks.

The walls wouldn’t have been more than 50m high, but were sheer in places. The track brought us out onto red rock ledge below one such section; to our left we could look down the Manning Gorge to a series of long tranquil waterholes, while ahead to our right the sound of rushing water indicated the closeness of the falls. As we traversed the rocky ledge, we noticed some faint aboriginal artwork on one smooth rock wall – something we were not expecting and a timely reminder that we were guests on the land of the Kupungarri people.

Manning Gorge

Aboriginal rock art

Looking down the waterholes of the Manning

Manning Falls - exquisite!

Almost immediately after, we could see the falls; a wide arc of silver tumbling down black-stained rock into the (now) best pool we had seen in the Kimberley. It was huge, dark, deep, clear, cool, invigorating and could swallow up the the other campers who were there to enjoy it, so we didn’t feel part of a crowd. From our small and private cove on the rocky edge, we swam out across the pool and under the waterfall to sit and admire the red sandstone walls of the gorge through a sparkling screen of silver drops (swim #3).

The fair Nello beneath the falls

Looking out through the silvery veil

After an energetic swim around the large pool, we climbed up the red rocks of the side walls to reach the top of the falls and see what lay beyond; another waterhole, still, deep and fringed with a sandy beach. The Manning was rapidly becoming our favourite Kimberley river.

View down the Manning Gorge from the top of the waterfall

Placid waterhole above the Manning Falls

The jumpers

The cloud was now burning off rapidly and the hot sun taking control of the day – after our climb we needed another swim (#4). Finally, after a couple of hours enjoying the ambiance and majestic setting of these falls and watching the young and the fearless doing 20m “bombs” from the rocks into the deep pool, we returned. It wasn’t a hard walk, but the swim (#5) at the end to cross back to the campsite was most welcome.

Close up of a trainee base-jumper

Water-level view of Manning Falls

Dusk at the Manning River waterhole

This left time for a lazy afternoon in the languid heat of the day. What better way to pass it than to sit beneath the shady paperbarks on the sandy beach, reading and listening to the occasional mournful caw of a crow or high-pitched quavering call of the corellas in the trees above.

All this was too much, it was time for swim #6 – we were running the risk of getting waterlogged! This really is a superb spot and, with the generator-owners having left during the day, we could enjoy our evening beer and dinner (al dente penne with salsa of sun-dried tomatoes topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese) to the much more peaceful sound of the crickets and night fauna of the Kimberley.

Adcock’s Gorge

Packed up and on the road again, we were once again heading westward on the Gibb River Road, again a little rough, a little stony and a lot very smoothly graded (I have driven on sealed roads that are far worse). The colours of the road continued to amaze, varying here from shades of red to shades of mauve.

The emerald green waters and red rock walls of Adcock's Pool

Beautiful open eucalypt forest

The reedy shores of the Adcock River

Thirty odd kilometres down the road, we saw a sign pointing to Adcock’s Gorge and followed a roughish single lane 4WD track in for 5km to stop at stony ford of the Adcock River. From here we walked, crossing the ford and following the track for a short distance to reach a picture-perfect landscape of white-trunked eucalypts on a green grassy floor, backed by the low walls of Adcock’s Gorge. It is more a cleft in the escarpment than a gorge, but that does not detract from its natural beauty.

The shady grotto of Adcock's Falls

We wandered past a tranquil lily pond to reach the dark green waters of the pool, framed by red and black rock walls. Clambering across the rock slabs on its northern side, we found a spot to sit and simply enjoy this lovely setting – dark green water, red rock sidewalls lit by the morning sun and changing to black where the falls flowed over in a gentle stream. At the far end, the shore was lined with grassy tussocks and paperbarks – idyllic!

View back to the open end of Adcock's Pool

We had our usual swim, during which I was hissed at severely by a small python that I disturbed while swimming beneath a large rock overhang, followed by a morning cuppa on the rocks (having thoughtfully included the kettle, portable gas stove, cups, biscuits and milk in my pack). It was the best morning tea location we’d had in a long while. Then it was on our way again for a slight (80km) detour from the Gibb River Road - we were off to visit Mornington Station.

Bell’s Gorge

After three superb days at Mornington Station, we found ourselves once again on the Gibb River Road, sometimes red, sometimes the more natural earth colour. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the road seemed to be getting worse, the further west we drove, as we found ourselves bouncing along its uneven surface. Fairly quickly, though, we found ourselves at the famous landmark of the Immintji Store set beneath the rugged King Leopold Ranges. It was a good place to stop for a carton of ice cold chocolate milk – strange the cravings one gets – luxury! The store is obviously a popular stopover, as many other Gibb River travellers had pulled in – interestingly, for every vehicle heading west there were three heading east. Clearly, we were swimming against the tide.

Still, we had other swimming in mind (what else in this natationally-oriented trip) and a little later turned off to follow a good 4WD track with a couple of obligatory creek crossings northward towards Bell’s Gorge. In this land of many gorges, Bell’s is considered by some to be the most beautiful – a tall claim that we felt obliged to check out.

Heading towards the King Leopold Ranges and Bell's Gorge

The Immintji Store - a landmark of the Gibb River Road

Campsite at Silent Grove

Some of the birds of Silent Grove

We first stopped at the very pleasant Silent Grove campsite to claim a shady spot and have some lunch, then drove the final 11km up to the gorge area. Lots of cars and a bus were already there and our spirits sagged a little. However, as we set off down the track, cobbled with the rough brown stones of these time-worn hills, we passed many people on their way back. Apparently, just after lunch is the changing of the guard at Bell’s.

Cobbled path leading down to Bell's Gorge

The brownstone track led us down a gentle slope to meet a side creek of the Bell River, at the place where it formed a tranquil little lily pond. Rounding a rocky crag, the path continued on, following the pleasantly shaded creek-valley on a much flatter line.

A short distance later, the track broke out into Bell’s Gorge.

The tranquil lily pond en route

Here the river flowed in from the north across the pinkish-tan water-polished sandstone slabs to tumble over the falls and into a large green plunge pool. Upriver, the reflections of a conical rocky hill rippled in the river water. The immediate impact of Bell’s Gorge was … wow!!!

Polished pinkish-tan sandstone slabs

Clouds reflecting at the top of the falls

The upper pool at Bell's

We walked a little upstream to cross the river via series of natural stepping stones and then climbed the tilted slabs of glossy pink sandstone up to the top of gorge, high above the actual falls. From here, a bit of rock-climbing and boulder-hopping brought us to the base of the falls and plunge pool. It was a spectacular sight -  between the steep and jagged orange-walled cliffs, the waterfall tumbled foaming down a set of five tiers into the deep green pool. The water was the perfect temperature for a hot afternoon and, strangely, we found ourselves alone (at least for an hour) at the Kimberley’s favourite swimming hole.

The waterfall and plunge pool at Bell's Gorge

The rich red and black colours of the sandstone walls

Water-level view of the wide tiers of Bell's Falls

How pleasant to swim laps from shore to falls or swim downstream to explore the full length of this long waterhole with its narrows, shallows and cascades. It is a curious thing – the urge to see what lies around the next corner – and in the case of Bell’s Gorge, the pools continued on.

A bit of sunbaking on the sloping pink rock slab that served as a beach, a bit of swimming and a bit of exploration on foot – it was a great way to while away the afternoon. Eventually, the late afternoon wave of visitors arrived with swimming on their mind and we (antisocial as ever) left to follow the brown brick road home from Oz, tired and contented.

A peep around the corner at Bell's Gorge

Looking deeper into Bell's Gorge from the falls

Goanna basking by the pool's edge

So, is it the best gorge – that is a call we don’t plan to make. In fact, what actually makes a gorge beautiful? - sheer high walls, coloured rocks, waterfalls, lush vegetation, deep clear pools to swim in? All the gorges that we have visited so far have some different combination of the above and all are beautiful in their own right. Compact, rugged, with beautiful falls and pool, Bell’s is a must to visit, but the best? – so long as it is when you’re there.

Tunnel Creek

As has been the pattern, we were woken by the chorus of bush birds announcing a new day, and were up as the sun rose, washed, breakfasted, packed and on the road by 7.30am. Soon we were back on the Gibb River Road, heading west as always. For the past couple of days we had skirted or traveled alongside the King Leopold Ranges – today our flirtation with these rugged hills was over – on a sealed “jump-up”, as climbs are called here, the Gibb River Road took them on, winding up and over the rocky hills to follow the creek valleys down on the other side.

The landscape changed completely from the flat plains and mesas of further east. Once the climb was over and the bitumen ceased, we found ourselves on a much smoother dirt road. It seemed that the central section was the only part of the road that was still a bit rough, perhaps because it is at the extremities of two distant shires. This is just an observation, not a criticism, as overall we have been very favourably impressed with the condition of the road (it is now early June).

Crossing the King Leopold Ranges

The Lennard River

View of the ancient Devonian Reef from Windjana campground

Black kite soaring by

Approaching the gap through the Napier Range - an ancient coral reef

Bustard in the bush


Once the King Leopold Ranges were behind us, we found ourselves again crossing a flat plain on a long straight road, a large plume of dust trailing behind the HiLux, slowing only for a feral cat that raced across the road in front – as black as its evil, marsupial and reptile killing ways. A low dark ridge began to grow in size on the horizon until we zipped through a narrow gap and were once again looking at flat plains. We had just passed the Napier Range, the limestone remnants of a long past coral reef. This range was going to be our playground for the day and, after crossing the pretty Lennard River, we turned eastward down a badly corrugated road. This was the access road for Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge and, interestingly, is declared suitable for all vehicles, not just 4WDs. Give me the 4WD Gibb River Road anyday.

The dark ridgeline of the Napier Range gradually converged on our left, and we pulled into the Windjana campsite, beneath its jagged blackened walls. Over 300 million years ago, this area was all beneath a vast sea inhabited by Nemo’s ancestors and where trillions of coral polyps built a massive reef system. However, sea-levels rise, land uplifts and erodes and voila, a jagged and narrow limestone range rises out of the flat floodplains of the Fitzroy River. This is Devonian Reef country.

After brewing a cuppa at the campsite, we headed off again along the juddering, bouncing, jolting (see box at end) 35km of road to Tunnel Creek. The darkened limestone ridge was on our left and the flat plains on our right, until we passed through another gap in the Napier Range and reversed the topography.

Shortly after, we reached the carpark at Tunnel Creek, full of vehicles. This is a favourite stop in the Kimberley, visitable by people not intending to tackle the Gibb River Road, and not without reason. The creek has cut its course through the Napier Range, creating a 750m long tunnel in the limestone, through which you can now walk.


The limestone cliffs above Tunnel Creek Cave

The entry lay impressively beneath a sheer black and orange cliff, protected by a jumble of delicate pink and white limestone boulders. Having squeezed our way around these, we entered the halflight of a large vaulted chamber – high above were our heads remnants of flow stone and stalactite formations, long since dried up.

Jumbled pink boulders at the cave entrance

Then it was into the darkness, illuminated faintly by the dim light of our LED headlamps, and wading through shallow pools inhabited by small cave fish. The ceiling height varied from low and flat to many metres high and ornately sculpted. A small bat flitted by as we stopped to find the source of running water – a small subterranean spring that fed the creek.

Entering the 750m long cave at Tunnel Creek

Looking back at the cave entry

A low section of the cave

Pushing on, we passed an area where the roof had long ago caved in, opening up the system to the light, then it was back into the twilight and darkness, wading calf deep through pools, or crossing sandy sections and flat rock slabs. We passed a beautiful little waterfall trickling out of a sidewall and tinkling into the creek – its glossy white shawl the only active limestone formation that we saw – very special.

Wading through a vaulted section of the cave

A bit of sunlight breaks through in the middle of the tunnel

The limestone waterfall in Tunnel Creek Cave

The eyes of Jandamarra

Looking out of the cave exit

Tunnel Creek emerging from its vaulted chamber

The creek beyond the cave

Finally, we emerged into the sunlight via another large vaulted chamber to look down the valley of Tunnel Creek, a series of tranquil waterholes surrounded by lush vegetation and high walls – cool and beautiful. After some time enjoying the scene, we retraced our steps back through the tunnel getting the same enjoyment at seeing it (metaphorically speaking) all again. In the darkness, small spots of light cropped up as other people approached us – I fear that in high tourist season, Tunnel Creek could well resemble a glowworm cave.

Windjana Gorge (7km)

Back again at Windjana campsite, we had a late lunch and then set out for a late afternoon exploration of nearby Windjana Gorge itself – the light at this time was really bringing out the orange tints in its dark fluted walls. The gateway to the gorge is via a short and narrow crack in the cliffs, emerging to a vast arena on the far side. Here the Lennard River flowed slowly westward out of the gorge and paralleling the black and orange jagged limestone spires of the Napier Range.

White-trunked eucalypts line the track
leading to Windjana Gorge

Inside the gorge

Orange and black limestone walls reflected
in the waterhole

Freshwater crocodile - just floating

On our right, the dimple-surfaced cliffs soared directly upwards, the odd fossil testifying to their marine origins. Similarly, across the river a sandy beach led back to equally tall and sheer orange-tinted black spires.

Marine fossil in the limestone wall

Yet another freshie in Windjana

The beauty of a still Windjana afternoon

Looking down from the tree-lined banks, we could see a mini-flotilla of freshwater crocodiles floating completely still in the long green waterhole, while striped archer fish patrolled beneath overhanging branches ready to shoot down any unwary insects with a volley of water droplets.

Crossing the long sandy beach, we passed Bandjading Rock, where according to aboriginal lore, baby spirits reside. If you hunt in here and they like you, they may well follow you home and enter your wife. You have been warned!!

In fact, a group from the local indigenous community were fishing  alongside Bandjading on the opposite bank, as I suspect their ancestors have done for thousands of years – it seemed there was a distinct risk of a population explosion in the near future.

Banjading Rock

Continuing on, we followed a track that led us further up Windjana through lush vegetation rich with birdlife – iridescent bee-eaters, patterned finches, wrens, honeyeaters and insect-feeders darting out from the branches to snare their prey. The track led us on to another broad sandy flat, where the now predominantly reddish rock walls turned away.

Windjana riverscape

Looking up the Lennard River

Double-barred finch

Willy wagtail

The far end of Windjana Gorge

An imperious black kite

Rainbow bee-eater

The sun was getting low, so we reluctantly headed back in time to sit with a cold beer and watch the setting sun illuminate the dark walls of the Napier Range. With its lofty fluted walls, lush vegetation and palpable sense of tranquility, Windjana was yet another beautiful, but different gorge of the many in the Kimberley – our favourite for the day. It also had a big population of crocodiles, which meant that for the first day since we started out on the Gibb River Road we didn’t have a swim. Luckily the campsite had solar-heated showers!!

The next day was our last on the Gibb River Road. When we finally reached the bitumen, we felt a touch of sadness – for the past 11 days and over 1000km, we had explored the dirt roads of the Kimberley and we missed seeing that long plume of dust behind us.


While travelling the long and dusty outback roads of the Kimberley, the mind tends to wander – mine led me to think about driving on dirt roads. There seem to be two main issues – traction and stability. As far as stability goes, the car and its occupants can experience bounce (uneven surfaces), judder (corrugations), jolt (potholes or embedded stones) and splash (creek and river crossings – a stability issue as too deep and you might just float away), while traction problems can produce slide (loose gravel), drift (sand – actually I find this quite a pleasant sensation), slip (wet surface) and spin (which could lead to getting bogged in mud or sand).

Driving off the sealed roads in the Kimberley will introduce you to several or all of these factors, but to make the experience pleasure rather than pain, all you need is commonsense and to give the road the undivided attention it deserves.

Indian Ocean sunset

We followed the road westward to reach the peaceful town of Derby, self-styled gateway to the Kimberley and home of the second biggest tidal range in the world (over 12m). Hence, it is surrounded by wide mud flats across which the incoming and outgoing tides race each day.

Tide's out - the amazing mudflats of Derby

Our time here was spent in making a few repairs and catching up with washing etc., but we allowed plenty of time to do the very touristy thing of taking our deckchairs down to the jetty to watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean as we drank a cold beer followed by a large juicy steak at the Spinifex Pub (a celebration of the end of camping food). We liked Derby.