At any campground along the Gibb there are four questions every traveller asks:
1. What was the road like where you came from?
2. Do you know where the grader is?
3. What tyre pressures are you running?
4. How fast are you driving?
If someone had come from the Mitchell Plateau there were always tales of woe – ‘the worst road in Australia’, shredded tyres, snapped axels, cooked engines, ‘corrugations you could loose a cruiser in’… These stories heightened our trepidation. We had planned to take our van up the Kalumburu Road to Drysdale River Station and then leave our van there and head up to the APT Mitchell Falls Wilderness Lodge.
Most people agreed that the very worst part of the road was from the Gibb to Drysdale River Station – yep, the stretch we planned to take Zizi on! But as we learned, this all depends on the ‘grader’ – a tractor like machine that turns hideous corrugations into outback highways (well, almost…). The word ‘grader’ brings immeasurable joy to the hearts of all travellers on the Gibb. Luckily the grader gods were smiling on us!
Thanks to the grader, the 79km from the Gibb River Road to Drysdale took us just 1.5 hours. Before grading, we had heard stories of people taking 3-4 hours! Drysdale River Station is big. According to the sign on the gate, the station covers one million acres or 4,000 sq km. For travellers, it is an oasis. There is a great campground, reliable hot showers, a restaurant, bar and a small shop.
We caught up with the Holgers at Drysdale. Sienna, Jeremy and Zoe made a movie together in the morning (titled ‘Drysdale Disaster’), and then Sienna and I went to the nearby Miners Pool on Drysdale River and spent the afternoon drawing and sketching in the shade of the gum trees on the riverbank.
During the afternoon, Sienna headed off to climb some nearby trees. No sooner had I yelled out “Be careful of snakes”, than Sienna let out a blood-curdling scream. “DAD, IT IS A SNAKE!!!”. I bolted from my chair to find Sienna standing on a large branch shaking with fear. On the ground below her, curled up in a neat coil, was a large snake. Fortunately, Sienna was able to back away easily and the snake was probably asleep. Thankfully, we later identified (with the help of the staff at the station) the snake as an Olive Python.
We said goodbye to Zizi at Drysdale and then started our trek north to King Edward River and then on to Mitchell Plateau. The guidebook suggests that the 80km from the Kulumburu Road to Mitchell Falls will take between 2-3 hours. True it was heavily corrugated and rocky in parts, but it was not as bad as we thought it might be.
Mitchell Plateau is a very different landscape. There are masses of palms that are only found in this small part of the Kimberley. It looks and feels quite tropical and while the nights had been cool across the Gibb, up on the plateau the nights were cold, dropping into single digits.
Staying at the Wilderness Lodge was a bit of luxury, having lived off-grid in the van for two weeks. We stayed in ensuite safari tents and had fantastic meals. Set along the banks of a creek, the lodge had a large and deep swimming hole, which provided respite from the afternoon heat.
We took a helicopter tour from the Mitchell Falls Campground, which is 5km from the actual falls, out to Crystal Head and along the coast before following the Mitchell River from the turquoise milky sea up to the Lower Mitchell Falls and then the magnificent Upper Mitchell Falls. During our flight we saw turtles, sharks and huge saltwater crocodiles. Seeing the wild, jagged and sprawling Kimberley coastline, you can start to understand how some parts of this coast are yet to be comprehensively surveyed and mapped.
After landing at the falls, we had a picnic lunch in the shade of the rocks at the top of the falls. The falls are spectacular - even in the midst of the dry season, the four-tiered falls crash.
Thomas was recovering from a cold, so he and Karen took a helicopter transfer back to the campground, while Sienna and I walked the 5km back to the campground. It was a hot walk back, however the highlight was taking the unmarked sidetrack to the aboriginal rock art behind Little Mertens Waterfall. Sienna was in awe looking at the art - there are even paintings of reindeer evidencing a connection to people from the northern hemisphere.
Making our way back to Drysdale, we stopped and visited two large aboriginal art and cultural sites around King Edward River. We saw the amazing Wandjina, which are specific to the aboriginal people of this area. The Wandjina are the ancestral spirits of the people and it is believed that the rock images were made by the Wandjina themselves once their time on Earth had ended.
As if completing the infamous Mitchell Plateau Road was not enough to solidify our 4WD cred, we stopped just short of Drysdale to collect firewood and then carry it proudly on our roofracks. Nothing says real 4WDer, like firewood strapped to your roof!
Drysdale River Station
Mitchell Plateau & Crystal Head
Rock Art at King Edward River