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Gibb River Road - Part 1: Windjana to Manning Gorge

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow... And then we return home”. Aboriginal proverb inscribed on the gates of Home Valley Station

The Gibb River Road traverses some 800km across the Kimberley; from Derby in the West to Kununurra in the East. Commonly referred to as ‘The Gibb’, the road is famous for its vistas of stunning ancient landscapes. It is also renowned for its unrelenting corrugations, washouts and deep water crossings.

Early on in planning our trip, we started the debate: to Gibb or not to Gibb. The official guidebook is categoric – “you should not take caravans on the Gibb”. After much debate and discussion with fellow travellers, we decided to go for it. In the end, we would rattle and shake Zizi over more than 1,200km of dirt roads and cross countless creeks and rivers. We peeled away the need for modern conveniences, existing without mains power, phone and Internet for almost a month… and we loved it. Paddling our canoes through the amazing Diamond Gorge, watching freshwater crocodiles bask on the banks, Thomas declared “This is the best day of my life”. But, lets start at the beginning….

After returning from Sydney, we spent a few days in Broome; readjusting to life back in the van and preparing for the Gibb. In addition, to buying a shedload of food and water, we added some heavy-duty roof racks to the Landcruiser to enable some extra tyre insurance!

In no time at all, we were heading east from Broome on the Savannah Way (which ultimately ends in Cairns). Our Gibb experience started with a bush camp at Birdwood Downs Station, 20km outside Derby & surrounded by iconic boab trees. It was a peaceful spot with just a few other vans, mostly at the end of their Gibb adventure having come in from the Kunanurra end.

Derby has a big jetty, a few local art galleries and loads of magnificent boabs. However, an unexpected treat awaited us –the Derby Speedway meet was on! And so, reflecting on the fact that exactly a week before we had been drinking champagne at the Park Hyatt on Sydney Harbour… I smiled at my wife who was now sitting on the rear tailgate of the cruiser drinking beer, eating hot chips & watching Derby’s finest flog their cars around the track!

From Derby we made our way to Windjana Gorge. This picturesque gorge follows a creek that cuts through the Napier Range. High limestone cliffs tower either side of the creek. With temperatures at the nearby campground hitting the high 30s, the gorge was a great place to escape the stifling heat. Although with over 70 freshwater crocodiles in residence, unfortunately swimming was not an option.

With school holidays in full swing, the National Park campgrounds were hectic. Thankfully the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife put on activities for kids and they had a great time learning about cane toads, making boomerangs and going wildlife spotting.

From Windjana Gorge we had a day trip to Tunnel Creek. The kids thought this was a brilliant adventure – using our torches we followed the creek deep under the hills above, at times walking through knee deep water. Eventually the creek emerges on the other side of the range.

Our next stop was Imintji Store and Campground, about 150km from Windjana and operated by the Imintji Aboriginal Community. The campground was brand new and had great facilities and so we decided to use this as a base to explore the nearby Bell Gorge and Mount Hart. On our first afternoon we headed to a local creek (on the advice of the staff in the store) to cool off. After some trepidation (lots of logodiles), we were swimming and having a good time.

The next day we headed 50km from Imintji, crossing a number of deep creeks, to reach Bell Gorge. Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful gorges on the Gibb, Bell Gorge is a natural infinity pool sitting atop a waterfall that plunges into a deep waterhole below. It is a beautiful setting and we spent the day swimming, reading and generally lazing about.

That afternoon back at Imintji, we met the Holgers –Cate, Tim, Zoe (10) and Jeremy (8) from Melbourne. Sienna and Thomas had found kindred spirits. Luckily for us, the Holgers were on a similar schedule to ours and so we would spend some time on the Gibb together. The kids worked together to produce a number of movies, including ‘Snake Bite’ and ‘Drysdale Disaster’.

Next day we took a side trip up to Mt Hart – a homestead on a former cattle farm that has now been dedicated to conservation. After a pleasant 50km drive from the Gibb River Road (crossing 14 creeks), we arrived at the homestead. We spent the afternoon drifting along in crystal clear waterholes and rock hopping through the gorges on the property. That evening we had a great dinner and managed to grab a room at the homestead to avoid a late night return journey.

Next on the Gibb was a detour to the Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary. Mornington was originally a cattle station but has since been acquired by the not-for-profit, Australian Wildlife Conservancy. It is located 100km south off the Gibb. Driving to Mornington was spectacular as you leave the Napier Range and enter open plains with groves of boab trees fringed by orange ochre bluffs.

Our stay at Mornington was definitely a highlight. Our first afternoon was spent swimming at Blue Bush on the Fitzroy River with the Holger crew. The river was wide and deep and fringed with pandanus palms. There was a rope swing, which was great fun for the kids (…and adults).

We spent the next day canoeing at Diamond Gorge. The start of the gorge was over an hours drive along a 4WD track from the campground. We had hired two canoes and made our way through the towering orange and red cliffs. With numbers at Mornington limited, it was incredibly peaceful. Gliding down the river we spotted freshwater crocodiles, although they were not enough to deter us from swimming in the gorge as temperatures soared into the high-30s. For our final day in Mornington, we headed to Sir John Gorge. We spent the day exploring the different sections of the gorge. The kids had a great time working their way across to the other side of the gorge by swimming between rock islands. We had the entire place to ourselves and were struck by its peacefulness and remoteness.

Back on the Gibb, our next stop was Mt Barnett Roadhouse and Manning Creek. Up until now, finding a swimming hole had typically involved a 4WD track and a decent hike. However, at Manning Creek, you could pretty much step out of the van and onto a sandy beach and a crystal clear pool fed by a large creek. Here, we swam in the late afternoon and watched freshwater crocodiles (albeit, small ones) bask on the rocks just meters away.

Not surprisingly, the Manning Creek campground was pretty busy. A number of tour groups use the campground as a base. One night, I was sure that one of the tour groups was actually a Tourettes Conference. My mate from Wooarmel Station would have fit in nicely.

But the main attraction here is Manning Gorge. After pulling yourself across Manning Creek in the little tinnie punt (that leaks), it is an hour-long walk to the gorge. Without doubt, Manning Gorge is one of the most impressive waterfalls on the Gibb. We swum under the huge waterfalls and lazed the day away in the shade.

Our first ten days on the Gibb had been great, but more adventures lay ahead as we headed north on the infamous Kalumburu Road to Mitchell Falls…

Broome to Derby

Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek

Bell Gorge and Iminitji

Mornington Wilderness Camp - Blue Bush & Annie Creek

Mornington Wilderness Camp - Dimond Gorge

Mornington Wilderness Camp - Sir John Gorge

Manning Gorge

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