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August 31, 2019 8 min read

There's a long, dusty road along the Gibb River that is perfect for losing yourself in. The Kimberley, in Australia, is for those who want the thrill of adventure and a bit of mystery, shrouded amongst spectacular landscapes and horizon-bending red tracks that seem to go on forever. This area is also home to enormous intensity: present in the colour of the ranges, the dramatic gorges, the majestic waterfalls and the crystal-clear swimming holes, all executed in such an everlasting, monumental scale that it's as if they had been made, centuries ago, for otherly beings that were far grander, bigger. Ever since then, the area has seen some slow change come and go; in some places, it feels to have never arrived at all. Through time, the landscape has remained still and unspoilt, save for the ever-shifting rock faces chipped away, bit by bit, by an invisible wind, blasted by scorching heat or by the unforgiving force of the heavy monsoonal downpours during the wet season. For every Australian, or willing foreign visitor, this rolling discovery of the great wild country, should be a must to add to the bucket list. 

For Sarah-Jane and her partner, children in tow, the trip started in Darwin before taking a loose turn west towards Broome. 

SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - The RoadSARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - FamilyImages by Sarah-Jane Clarke.


Practical Facts:

  • Best time to go: July
  • Best way to go: fly to Kunnunura and hire a Land Cruiser; drive to Broome on Gibb River (allow 4-5 days)
  • Alternate route: Otherwise, fly to Darwin and drive to Gibb River (allow 2-3 nights)
  • Pit-stop accommodation: due to limited accommodation, book a year in advance
  • On-the-go accommodation: We recommend free roam camping or luxury safari tents
  • Means of transport: Land Cruiser or Prado with one of the major hire companies
  • Playlist: Australiana by Austentayshus
  •  Skills: how to change a tyre, how to deal with minuscule red dust
     

 SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Beginning of the road Images by Sarah-Jane Clarke.

 

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The Beginning: Darwin

The capital of Australia's sparsely-populated Northern Territory and a former frontier outpost, this is the northernmost, wettest and smallest of the Australian capital cities. This is the gateway to Kakadu National Park, and also a port of call for backpacker country. Named after Charles Darwin, it has been built and rebuilt almost from scratch four times over, due to natural disasters (several potent cyclones) or man-made ones (Japanese air raids during WWII). It's a particular, fascinating place. Retirees, hippies and young tourists congregate in bars along the harbourfronts downing pints while watching the spectacular lightning storms during the wet season, or at Mindil Beach Sunset Market during the dry season. Due to its proximity to South-East Asia, you'll also notice a robust Asian influence - a visit to the Parap Village Markets will make you feel like you've been plucked straight out of Thailand or Indonesia. 

Pit stops:

  • Stay: at the Adina Apartments on the waterfront for an unbeatable location close to waterside restaurants, the family-friendly Wave Pool and walking distance to the CBD. An excellent base to explore Darwin or relax pre or post-Gibb River adventure.
  • Eat: Asian food, anywhere you go.
  • Must-do: Croc-feeding tours - the best way to get personal with these mighty creatures.
  • Culture: visit the War Memorial for a bit of history on the Darwin bombing during WWII.
  • For the kids: diving and splashing at the Wave Pool or Big Bouy Water Park to spend energy and cool down from the unrelenting heat. 
  • See:  Stop and take a picture of the hundreds of peculiar spires lining the roads like strange stalagmites poking up from the ground. Known as magnetic or compass termite mounts, this is a particularly intriguing landscape feature of the area.  

 


Image by Sarah-Jane Clarke
 


Driving through Gibb River, it doesn't really matter which way you go; west to east or east to west, the road slowly reveals its wonders, lazy peeling through its relentless film of dust. The area is quite busy these days, not as daunting or remote as it once was in simpler times when exploring the region required a certain sense of bravado. Now, a steady stream of 4WDs and grey-haired nomads make their way along the track, counting blessings and stars in their sun-bleached, weather-battered gear. 

No particular skill is really required to drive the Gibb River Road, except knowing how to change a tyre, and perhaps a shred of mental resilience necessary to brave the wild (or to leave the comforts of the city, at the very least). If you didn't pack your own sense of mindfulness or mental pliability, don't worry: at the Gibb River, this specific headspace will eventually find you and hit you square in the face, whether you like it or not. It is essential to keep going forward, and to - horror of horrors, be flexible.  At such places, life unfolds, and it is guaranteed that at least some plans will go out the window. One thing to keep in mind though is you can't travel through during Monsoon season, so you must wait for the dry season to cross it, the best time peaking around July. 

 

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Middle of the Road:
Somewhere between Northern Territory and Western Australia

SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Middle of the roadImage by Sarah-Jane Clarke.

 

STAY:

El Questro

Find a welcome respite from the dust at the Emma Gorge Resort at El Questro - hidden within the Cockburn Ranges, this little oasis of tented cabins and shaded pathways will undoubtedly add a little comfort to your adventure. Complete with a pool and a restaurant, it's the perfect pit-stop along the way.

Stay in the Station Bungalows and enjoy the excellent tour desk and fun activities like Barra fishing, hiking, swimming and horse riding. 

 


Images by Sarah-Jane Clarke.


DO:

  • Watch the sunset and the spectacular colours of the dusk (the top of your car makes for a great viewing platform).
  • Take a bath in one of the many thermal springs – go early before the crowds arrive.


SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Gibb River Road SunsetImage by Sarah-Jane Clarke.

 

STAY:

Mornington Wilderness Camp

A naturalist's paradise, Mornington Wilderness Camp is located at the eponymous Wildlife Sanctuary in the heart of the Kimberley. Featuring acres of spectacular landscapes - from incredible gorges to stretches of tropical savannah - the Mornington Wilderness Camp is a great, comfortable base to explore the region. With so much to do and plenty of incredible nature to see, four nights here go by in a blink. Stay in the camping ground by the river (spots are limited so book in advance) or in the tented cabins (expensive, but worth it). The restaurant also provides delicious breakfast, picnic lunches and an excellent 3-course dinner. The top experience in the area? Pack a picnic and canoe up the gorge for a sandwich and a swim in a perfect, tick-off-the-bucket-list location. Finish off with a helicopter ride over the canyon for an unforgettable, mesmerising experience. 

 SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - CanoeImage by Sarah-Jane Clarke's family.

 

DO:

See the Boab trees

Make sure to stop to marvel at the Boab trees, famous in the region for their swollen trunks, sometimes spanning five meters in diameter. Even though a few of these majestic trees can be spotted in parts of Queensland and NSW, they are a feature of the Kimberley and NT landscape, and can only be seen outside from Australia in Madagascar, mainland Africa and the Arabian peninsula. 


SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Boab treeImage by Sarah-Jane Clarke's family.

 

Make the most of the photo opps (all the time)

Stop for a picture at the Willare Bridge Roadhouse, a place seemingly untouched by time and where life seems to pass by in particularly slow and friendly fashion.



SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Willare Bridge RoadhouseImage by Sarah-Jane Clarke.


Bath Time in Nature

Bathe only when you find a patch of clear crystal water, under the magical swing of the trees. 

 

 

The best parts about the trip are the light and the colour, the dramatic landscapes, the swims in the gorges threading through shimmering waters that dance in the baking hot afternoon sun. Spotting freshwater crocs at a distance during the day or, come evening time, watching an endless blanket of stars envelop the vastness of the landscape both feel like memories to treasure forever. The best part, however, is embracing a more straightforward way of life: walking barefoot in the mud, hanging the washing on a line haphazardly tied on a tree, sitting on a rock by a creek and watching the sunset, face caked with dirt, wide eyes, smiles bright and full. It's a trip that eschews any excesses but celebrates the little luxuries. It's roughing it up in campsites without hot water, and snuggling on a warm jumper at night (it does get very cold once the sun sets, pack jumper and socks to sleep in). It's sleeping in the 'penthouse suite' on the car roof or stretching oneself in out the open by the fire. It's surrendering to the dust.  

 

 

For the more practical souls, a little planning goes a long way: from either end of the journey you can pick up a 4WD complete with all camping requirements - tent, chairs, stretchers, cooking utensils. A big food shop, spare petrol and an abundance of water are essential before embarking on your red road adventure. We also suggest asking a caterer to pack three prepared meals and a cheese platter (why not?) - it's always nice knowing there are little pockets of indulgence to look forward to. 

 

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End of the Road: Broome

An outpost city famous for pearling, Broome is a beach resort town in Western Australia sitting along 22km of pristine Indian Ocean coastline. White sands abound for moments of relaxation, while nearby, dinosaur tracks revealed in the red rocks during low tide awaken the explorer spirit. Famous for its jaw-dropping end-of-day vistas, people from all walks of life enjoy taking their cars and blankets to Cable Beach, and set up camp for the most spectacular sunsets the Kimberley region has to offer.

 

SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Broome Beach Sunsets

Image by Sarah-Jane Clarke.

 

STAY: 

  • Billi Resort: relax amongst tropical gardens, tranquil surroundings and raised timber walkways
  • Cable Beach Club Resort and Spa: seaside serenity under swaying palm trees - in the perfect place to watch the most spectacular sunsets 

    EAT:

    • The Zookeepers Store: A great place to eat, specialising in local gourmet produce and fresh, house-made delicacies.
    • Fishing Co-op: Go for the freshest, mouth-watering lobster and mud crabs, caught right within sight. 

       

      SARAH JANE CLARKE Gibb River Road Travel Diary - BroomeFishing Co-op, image by Sarah-Jane Clarke.

      SHOP:

      • When in Broome, shop for pearls. Fine pieces showcasing the local wares abound; this is where the world's most beautiful pearls come from, and you'll find stores from many big jewellery houses specialising in it. 
      • Broome's iconic Chinatown, with its unusual mix of colonial and Asian architecture, sells the usual tourist knick-knacks but is also home to dozens of pearl showrooms.

        

      DO: 

      • A trip to Short Street Gallery is mandatory for the best Indigenous art, including bold, pigmented compositions by Mabel Juli, one of Australias' most revered painters. 
      • Shell House - a small museum dedicated to the rather picturesque story of a local lady who collected seashells, down by the seashore. 
      • Visit the Broome Historic Museum for a bit of local culture.
      • Head down to Sun Pictures, the world's oldest-operating outdoor cinema for a taste of the old days, in a historic building that is pure local authenticity. 
      • Hire a bike and get riding: the best way to explore the area.

       

      SARAH JANE CLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Sarah-Jane at Short Street Gallery, BroomeSarah-Jane at Short Street Gallery, Broome.
       SARAHJANECLARKE Travel Diary Gibb River Road - Detail from Mabel Juli artwork, Seashell Museum, BroomeDetail from Mabel Juli artwork at Short Street Gallery, Shell House - both in Broome. 
      Images by Sarah-Jane Clarke.

       

      For Sarah-Jane and her family, the adventure came to a close 14 days after its start, all fresh from a digital detox in its most real sense. Meeting indigenous communities and fellow travellers along the way, one gets a taste of connecting to communities, and to the earth that binds our country together. Tying the experience in a final bow, the helicopter flight over the Mornington wilderness provided the most visibly lasting, genuinely incredible memory - from the earth to the sky, on the road and far, far beyond. 

       

       

       

       


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