When it comes to legendary Australian road trips, none are as raw and exhilarating as the Gibbs River Road through the wild heart of the Kimberley region. Better known as “the Gibb”, this 660-km stretch of red dirt road will take you by stunning waterfalls, majestic sandstone domes and a few crocodiles! There are also hidden gems in abundance like a tour of a family-run zebra stone mine and a secluded swimming oasis. But be warned, a little preparation is key if you’re going to tackle this epic driving adventure. Much of the road is unsealed and you may go without seeing another car, gas station or spot to eat for long stretches.
- The dry season, from late May/early June to the end of September is the best time to visit. Roads are often closed during the rainy months of November to April.
- A 4WD vehicle is needed to navigate some of the bumpy stretches and cross flooded roads.
- The red road is not friendly on tyres! Make sure you carry at least two spares.
- Stock up on plenty of food and water. There are a few areas, like Windjana Gorge, where you won’t be able to pick up something to eat.
- If you’re planning on cooking camp-side, make sure you have a gas cooker.
- Most campgrounds offer a mixture of safari-style tents, cabins or you can pitch your own tent.
Starting out in Derby, a small town on the edge of the King Sound, which is a large gulf starting at the mouth of the Fitzroy River and opening into the Indian Ocean. Derby has the highest tides of any Australian port (up to 11 metres.) Consequently, silty water rushes in and out of the port every 6 hours. Now whilst it's not necessarily a huge visitor draw card, the drive we are about to begin most defintely is. As are the incredible sunsets viewed from the Derby Wharf. So if you're here over night, wander down the wharf and catch a sunset before setting out in the morning on your Gibb River adventure.
What better way to kick off your road trip than a stop at Australia’s prime spot to see saltwater crocodiles. Keep your eyes peeled as you stroll along the sandy banks of the Lennard River, which cuts through Windjana Gorge. As well as catching crocs swimming in the shallow waters, expect to see fruits bats and corellas (cockatoos) roosting in the trees lining the shore.
If you’re there at dusk, you might just get to see a whole colony of fruit bats fill the night sky as they go searching for their dinner. This spectacular sight is known to last at least 15 minutes.
Apart from the abundant wildlife, the gorge is also known for the steep limestone cliffs which sandwich the river. These awe-inspiring rocks are part of the 375 million year-old Napier Range.
Take a break from driving in the relentless outback sun typical of the Gibb River Road and explore this 750-metre long underground tunnel. Once known as the “cave of bats”, don’t be spooked if you see one of these nocturnal creatures flying overhead as you make your way through this cool, calm natural maze.
Be sure to also read up on the cave’s fascinating history. It was used as a hideout by aboriginal leader and “outlaw” Jandamarra in the late 1800s. After a game of cat and mouse with police, he was sadly killed outside the tunnel entrance in 1897.
Head out early if you want to beat the crowds at what many say is the most spectacular gorge you’ll find in the Kimberley region. Located 30 km off the Gibb River Road and a short walk over rocks, you’ll find a spectacular waterfall framed by steep cliffs.
Make sure you pack a picnic as the large, flat rocks surrounding the swimming hole are the perfect spot to enjoy an outdoor lunch. Once you’ve finished eating, dive right in to the clear sapphire-hued water.
Travellers are only just catching on to this secluded swimming hole located down a bumpy 4WD track, 5 km from the Gibb Valley Road.
From the carpark, it’s then a short walk and easy climb over a few boulders to reach the deep green pool which is surrounded by layer upon layer of red rock. If you’re up for it, take hold of the rope swing and dive into the cool, refreshing waters.
You can help support the diverse wildlife and endangered birds that have found refuge in the Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary by staying overnight on the onsite camp. All proceeds go directly into wildlife conservation in the region.
Stay in a safari tent, or pitch your own, and dine under the stars at the camp’s restaurant. By day, you’ll be able to explore the 300 km 2 (squared) sanctuary, home to over 200 species of birds. See if you can spot the nationally-threatened gouldian finch, purple-crowned fairy-wren or the red goshawk on a guided birdwatching tour.
Stay overnight at an old working cattle station, the first along the Gibb to open its doors to tourists. Pitch a tent beside the homestead before exploring the property’s many gorges or go birdwatching.
The Australian Wildlife Conservatory run part of the station as a wildlife sanctuary so you’re sure to see an abundance of birdlife as well as wallabies and dingoes.
Locals love this tranquil spot located around 7km from the Gibb River Road and accessible by the Mt Barnett roadhouse. Be prepared to either swim, or pull yourself across in a small boat, to cross the swimming hole at the Manning Gorge campsite. From the other side of the swimming hole it’s then another hour long walk before you’ll be able to able to cool yourself down again with a dip at a roaring waterfall. Swim right underneath the waterfall’s cascading waters or bathe in one of the many nearby swimming holes.
Head back to the Manning Gorge campsite where you can pitch your tent right on the water’s edge.
Tackle one of the gigantic beef burgers, described by many as the best burger in Kimberley, when you stay at Drysdale River Station. As you're digesting the mighty meal, share some stories from the road with fellow travellers or see if you can get a local to reveal their secret swimming spot at the lively station restaurant.
There’s a range of accommodation on offer from camping sites to self-contained cabins. You’ll also be able to replenish your food supplies, and repair any punctured tyres at the onsite shop.
Watch as water flows down into layer after layer of emerald-green pools at this majestic waterfall located in the Mitchell River National Park. This multi-tiered stunner can be seen from helicopter, or if you’re up for it, it’s a two hour walk (4-6 hour return) from the Mitchell River National Park campsite.
If you take the walking option, you’ll also get the chance to explore Little Mertens Falls. See Aboriginal art in the cave beneath the pools or take a dip in the swimming hole. The walk will also take you through dense rainforest on the Mitchell Plateau.
Ellenbrae Station famous scones have made this a must-do pit stop for weary travellers on the Gibb. Indulge in a scone, served with lashings of jam and cream on the homestead balcony. From this vantage point, you’ll be able to appreciate the lush English garden the owners maintain meticulously.
If you’re there for the night, you can choose to pitch a tent on one of the two campsites or stay in one of the comfortable cabins and let your hosts treat you to a home cooked dinner and breakfast.
Stay in a “grass castle” nestled among the eucalyptus trees on the banks of the Bindoola Creek at Home Valley Station. These ultra-private cabins are constructed from steel and timber - a nod to the cottages built by Kimberley’s early settlers. Unlike the early settler cottages, you’ll be able to escape the heat with air conditioning!
If you’d prefer star-gazing from your bed, try one of the station’s eco-tents or pitch your own tent at the campground.
Get lost in the vast El Questro Wilderness Park to discover why it’s described as one of Australia’s last true frontiers. Across the property’s 700,000 acres you’ll find a varied and ever-changing landscape filled with thermal springs, rainforests and waterfalls.
If you’re itching to catch some fish, the park offers boating tours. Let the local guides direct you to some of the best spots along the Chamberlain River to catch barramundi.
If one day isn’t enough to see all this amazing park has to offer, stay a couple of nights in the park’s campsite or in the luxury homestead.
It’s easy to see why roadtrippers rave about this thermal oasis hidden in El Questro Wilderness Park. A short 750-metre walk through lush palms will lead you to a series of natural pools dotted along the forest floor. Spend some time jumping between the pools to find one that’s the perfect temperature for you. The warm, healing waters will have you feeling refreshed and rejuvenated so you can continue exploring another area of the vast El Questro Wilderness Park.
Another highlight of the El Questro Wilderness Park is Emma Gorge. Head out in the late afternoon to enjoy watching the setting sun cast shadows on the burnt-orange rocks and see if you can spot butterflies fluttering in the trees above. After an hour-long walk, you’ll be able to dive into the deep, green swimming hole lying beneath the waterfall at Emma Gorge.
Rising hundreds of metres from the ground, these impressive beehive-like sandstone structures are likely to be the most unique natural wonder you’ll find on the Gibb. Aboriginal people have revered the area for 40,000 years but it wasn’t until a documentary crew discovered it in 1983 that tourists started falling in love with it’s unique beauty.
Make your way through shady ravines between these red and black-striped domes. You’ll discover Aboriginal rock art, abundant wildlife, and palm-fringed pools perfect for a mid-afternoon dip.
The 50-metre infinity pool with sweeping views of Lake Argyle at this peaceful resort is the perfect spot to watch the sunset after a day of exploring. Stay overnight in one of the cabins, or treat yourself to a night of luxury in a lake view villa.
Have dinner at the park’s restaurant or make use of the BBQ and outdoor kitchen.
Stretching an area of more than 900 square kilometres, this massive man-made lake is Australia’s biggest expanse of fresh water. Take a helicopter ride to appreciate its sheer size or explore its countless bays and beaches by car. Engineering buffs may want to take a cruise led by local guides to find out how this massive reservoir was created.
Make sure you keep an eye out for crocodile warning signs especially when fishing or going for a dip! Even though it’s a freshwater lake, saltwater crocs are known to frequent its banks. Your safest bet is to take a dip in the small creeks, waterfalls and and rock pools.
Learn all about how zebra rock is mined and transformed into furniture and jewellery at this quirky, family-run business near Lake Argyle.
The friendly owners run regular tours of their small-scale mine where you’ll be able to see three rock types not found anywhere else in the world. If you like what you see, take home a souvenir from the gallery.
After a day exploring, pitch a tent at their campsite or stay in a safari tent. The on-site restaurants is known for it’s fresh fish and chips.
Return to civilisation in Kununurra, a now lively farming town set up in the 1960s to support the construction of the Ord River Scheme. Learn more about how this irrigation scheme drastically transformed the Kimberley landscape with a stop at the Pumphouse Bar and Restaurant. Here you’ll be able to eat locally-caught barramundi alongside the huge water pumps that kept this station working until 1971.
You’re spoilt for choice if you need a place to stay tonight. There’s a wide range of accommodation, from campgrounds to big-name hotels.