‘Doing the Kimberley’ is right up there on the bucket list of every adventurous caravanner, but there are some specific things you should do – and places to visit – if you want to make the most of the experience.
A starting point is a 4WD vehicle. The Kimberley is a remote area in which road conditions vary enormously and you can you need to be prepared for surprises. This is especially relevant if you are towing a caravan.
The next key factor is when to travel. The months immediately following the end of the northern wet season – June and July – are ideal for several reasons.
The principal ‘right of passage’ for most Kimberley travellers is the unsealed Gibb River Road, which gives access to all the principal gorges, walks and waterfalls that make this corner of Western Australia one of the most scenically memorable parts of the country.
However, during the Wet, the main rivers that cross it – the Pentecost and Durack – flood and are impassable, the red dirt roads turn to tomato soup and the many picturesque waterfalls and gorges become torrents.
The Wet can vary from year to year, but it usually abates in April/May. But this does not means it’s safe or desirable to travel the Kimberley then, as the rivers and creeks can take many weeks to subside to navigable levels – particularly for caravan travellers – and when the water does recede, the roads will generally be in horrible condition.
The trick is to keep a watch on the weather pattern and to consult the main government road maintenance websites to keep abreast of closures and seasonal maintenance.
OPEN AND SHUT
If you venture onto a road that is officially closed, your insurance company will probably disown you if you strike trouble and you may face a hefty fine. Remember that the people who may have to rescue you are potentially putting themselves in danger, too.
The benefits of waiting until the roads are officially declared ‘open’ are many. For a start, the road authorities begin their annual grading operations and, as part of this, often dump truckloads of rocks into the major river crossings to make them safe, even for caravanners. However, this road reclamation happens in stages and, for example, could begin first at the western end of the Gibb River Road and move east, perhaps at some stage meeting another crew grading from the east. So you need to monitor the sections that you want to travel.
Travelling too early after the main roads open can have its problems, too, and when we last did the Gibb we were unable to access some of the best gorges and the section of the Kalumburu Road leading to the Mitchell Plateau because the rivers in those areas had not subsided and the roads were flooded.
In some cases this may require patience and, for example if travelling from the east, you may have to cool your heels for days or perhaps a week or so in places like Victoria River or Kununurra before heading off the bitumen. This is hardly a problem if you have the time, as there are some great regional tours that include tourist icons such as the Ord River Dam and the Bungle Bungles that should be on your Kimberley tour list anyway.
INTO THE BUNGLES
The Bungles offers travellers a range of options. While the 52km-long winding and unsealed road from the Great Northern Highway to the Purnululu National Park in which these ancient beehive-like ancient rock formations lie, is not suitable for caravans, you can unhitch at the caravan park at the entrance and travel in with your 4WD and a tent, take a 4WD bus tour, or make a day flight by helicopter.
The Parry Wetlands north-west of Kununurra are certainly worth a visit, as is the former Kimberley ‘capital’ of Wyndham, while you could venture down the first sealed kilometres of the Gibb River Road and visit El Questro for a week or so, taking advantage of the former million-acre cattle property’s many great gorge walks.
And if you can get across the Pentecost River, the working cattle property of Home Valley, with its many tourist programs and camping ground, is another great place to spend a few days.
From the west, Windjana Gorge National Park is an ideal place to relax for a few days, or you could spend a couple of days in Derby and take a flight out to the Horizontal Waterfall in the Buccaneer Archipelago.
Apart from the freshly graded surface, another benefit of travelling the Gibb early is that most of the scenic falls and waterholes will actually have water flowing.
Travelling late in the dry season, you will find many of these ‘must do’ places, like the Mitchell Falls, are dry and the legions of tourists that will have proceeded you will have turned the major roads into the bone shakers and suspension breakers they are renowned to be.
Once on the Gibb, there are so many places worth visiting that you could spend months visiting all of them, so if you are time poor, here are some of the ‘musts’.
- The Mitchell Plateau for its stunning falls;
- The Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary. This is a 100km deviation off the Gibb, but this former cattle station offers magnificent camping and isolation in the midst of the King Leopold Ranges;
- Bell Gorge. Close to the road and arguably the most spectacular gorge on the Gibb;
- Manning Gorge. This gorge offers great waterfall swimming after you wade across the river from the camping ground with your boots and camera in a waterproof box and then hike through great scenery; and
- Emma Gorge, with its swimming hole overlooked by towering cliffs at the end of the rock-hopping walk.
There are some other things you need to know before embarking on your Kimberley adventure:
- Carry enough fuel for at least 400-500km. The fuel supply can be irregular depending on when you travel and you might find the bowsers empty if the tanker hasn’t arrived at the few roadhouses along the way;
- Carry two spare tyres for your tow vehicle and, ideally, an extra tyre carcass for your caravan or trailer, along with a puncture repair kit and tyre changing tools. The stones on the road are particularly sharp and the rear tyres of your tow vehicle are particularly susceptible. If you carry spare tyres and wheel and tyre changing equipment, you will invariably find someone happy to help you if you travel in season. Also make sure your tyres have plenty of tread, otherwise they are more likely to be stone-damaged. Don’t rely on the roadhouses to fix punctures when you want them to;
- Carry enough water, food and a first aid kit to get you by in case you become stranded on a less trafficked road and have to wait a few days for help;
- Carry an EPIRB flare and, ideally, hire a satellite phone for your trip, just in case; and
- Pack sturdy boots, sunblock, a broad-brimmed hat, insect repellent and lots of memory for your camera.
KIMBERLEY FAST FACTS
- Watch the websites of local road authorities for advice on road conditions. The best site for monitoring the Gibb River Road and associated access roads is probably www.mainroads.wa.gov.au
- Travel early in the dry season (June/July) for best roads and access to the waterfalls;
- Allow time in your schedule to spend time in scenic places until road conditions are ideal;
- Ensure your (4WD) vehicle is in top condition with new or near-new tyres;
- Carry extra spare wheels/tyres as repair centres are few and often far between;
- Ensure you carry enough fuel for 400-500km of travelling;
- Take enough water/food for two or three days if travelling off the main tourist roads;
- Pack your camera!