5 highlights along the Gibb River Road in Australia

You don’t rent a 4×4 in the golden outback of Australia and then stick neatly to the tarmac roads… The Gibb River Road (GRR) is a 670 kilometers long stretch of road, linking Wyndham to Derby. On the map, the GRR seems to be a convenient shortcut, but don’t be fooled! It’s shorter in distance compared to the Great Northern Highway (the big black road on the map below), but not shorter in time at all. Most of the road is unsealed: the rugged, ribbed and rocky dirt road shakes things up pretty good, including the car radio, all of the gear in the back and your brain, too…  Why take it anyway? Because of the amazing sights along the way…

Gibb river road sign
In the forties, the Gibb River road was built to transport livestock from the farms in the outback to the coastal ports like Derby and Wyndham.

GRR

1. Emma Gorge

Show me the water!

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It’s past noon when we arrive at the first crowd puller along the GRR: El Questro Wilderness Park. It’s a 400.000 ha working cattle station that has built up a complete tourist park around a few desolate attractions in the middle of the desert. We didn’t have the time nor the budget to take part in a helicopter flight, river cruise or horse back ride that the park offers, so we settled with the El Questro Wilderness Pass Permit (20AUD per person). The permit allows you to visit a few of the main attractions with the only things you get for free along the Gibb River Road: your feet. When coming from the east, you’ll pass the first attraction of El Questro after driving about 33  kilometers on the GRR: Emma Gorge. The word ‘attraction’ is quite fitting: after a short dirt road and river crossing, a huge restaurant slash visitor centre appears in the middle of, well, nothing. A weird setup like this would normally make me suspicious, but it’s so darn hot outside that it doesn’t even matter whether Emma is pleasing to the eye or not: the water of the gorge is cold and you can swim in it – sounds perfect. Seriously though: Emma Gorge isn’t a tourist trap at all. The walk through the giant gorge is rough but spectacular, especially with the late afternoon sun lighting up the red colored rocks and creating a welcome shadow.

2. Zebedee Springs

We're in this together...

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Zebedee Springs is another one of El Questro’s highlights. It’s only accessible in the mornings so we first spent the night at El Questro station (20 or 25 AUD per person, depending on a powered or unpowered site). Zebedee Springs are a collection of thermal pools, open from 5.30 am to noon. It lies about a hundred meters from the parking area, which means it’s more crowded than other attractions that require some hiking first.‘If the parking is full, so are the springs’, a note said right at the entrance. Pretty cruel to have someone drive all the way up there and then tell them to forget about it! Fortunately in our case there were a few parking spaces left. Just follow the path and you’ll soon see the first pools. If you want your own little private thermal pool, you’ll need to climb the slippery rocks first (the surrounding cliff faces and scree slopes are up to 1800 million years old).  The water temperature is 28-32 C° all year round. We only stayed for about 15 minutes. there were tiny black fish in the water that kept biting us. They for sure mean no harm and no other blogger mentioned these biters, so maybe we’re being hypersensitive…

3. Manning gorge

Paradise in limbo

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Our map of the Gibb River Road didn’t give this next showstopper too much attention, but it was one of the best surprises around. First, you go to the Mount Barnett Roadhouse to get your permit (the attraction is on private land), which is an experience on its own:

It was late afternoon and too late to head down to the gorge, so along with the permit, we booked an overnight stay at the Mt. Barnett Roadhouse camping. A teenage boy with a big desire NOT to be there, was on booking duty.”Are you sixteen?”, he asked us while he stared at a computer monitor. We were waiting for him to look at us thirtysomethings, smiling almost at the superfluity of his question. “No, we’re not 16.” “Are you sure you’re not 16?” he asks again and this time he’s looking right at us: we’re 31 and 34 years old, with the heat probably adding another ten years. “Yes, we’re sure.” “Fine, I won’t give you a discount then.” Do me a favor: if you ever go to the Mt. Barnett Roadhouse and the same world-weary teenage boy asks you if you’re 16, just say yes and tell us what happened next! 😉

One of the few working gas stations we saw along the Gibb river is the one from Mt Barnett Roadhouse
Our very cool camping spot at the Mt. Barnett road house

To get to Manning gorge, you first have to swim across a lake and then walk 1,5 hours through no man’s land. The pathway is marked with white signs on the stones and white ribbons in the trees. We were told that a reasonable level of fitness is required to complete it and that is correct. But it’s mainly the heat and the flies that make this walk a true challenge. As you get closer to Manning gorge, bird noises break the eerie silence and the trees get their colors back. And then… the revelation: two huge pools of water and a waterfall. The gorge is a little paradise in limbo! Apparently there are crocodiles present behind de rocks, but it’s safe to swim if you don’t get too close. The next photos of Manning Gorge are all taken with a small compact camera because we didn’t want to risk swimming with our Canons.

The lake that you first need to cross.

Sharp rocks, charred trees and sandy soil dominate the entire landscape

The gorge

Can you see me? 🙂
18 km before the Mt. Barnett Roadhouse there’s a turn for the Barnett River Gorge bush-camping site. We thought of spending the night here, but we didn’t feel very welcome…

4. The King Leopold Ranges

Proud to be Belgian!

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Back at the Barnett Roadhouse camping, a talk with an Aussie couple from Adelaide convinced us to change our schedule for the time left along the Gibb River Road. Our initial plan was to drive to Bell Gorge, but we really, really wanted to see crocodiles in the wild so the couple told us to go to Windjana Gorge. “Croc viewing guaranteed!” The sooner in the morning the better, because the crocs are less moody before sunrise and therefor more tolerant. Windjana was another 200 kilometers away so we took off right then and there. We had a few hours of daylight left so we were confident that we would make it in time before dark, but that was without taking the King Leopold Ranges into account… The magnificent views and beautiful hillsides slowed us down tremendously!  You’re treated to magnificent views and beautiful hillsides: the King Leopold Ranges. These impressive crescent shaped ranges are named after a Belgian King! In 1897, explorer Alexander Forrets and his team were assigned to find a way through these rugged ranges and apparently our Belgian king at the time, King Leopold II, showed great interest in the exploration. So Alexander named the ranges after him! His team never completed the task, though. It was the explorer Frank Hann that managed to cross the ranges a year later. There’s a National Park in Perth named after him.

Around the King Leopold Ranges is where the road’s sand is at its reddest

Right beside the King Leopold Range and close to the turnoff to Windjana Gorge lies the Napier Range, with one of the granite rocks shaped like Queen Victoria’s head! Or anyone’s head if you ask me.

5. Windjana Gorge

Come out, come out wherever you are…

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Windjana Gorge is your best chance of seeing freshwater crocodiles in the wild along the Gibb River Road. Spend the night at Windjana Gorge National Park and wake up as early as you can the next morning: this is when the crocodiles (there are about 150) are the easiest to approach (they’re more at ease because of the cool temperature) and easier to spot (they’re more likely to stay at the surface instead of cooling down in the water). 6am would be a good time to get out there! The gorge is formed by the Lennard river and is 3,5 km long (so 7 km in total). Most of the time you’re plodding through piping hot sand and on stony pathways with hardly any shadow, while dozens of buzzing horseflies mistake you for a walking dinner… But the effort pays off: a narrow gap in the rocks leeds you straight to the river and the Windjana spectacle begins. There’s crocodiles everywhere! It’s very tempting to try and get very close: most of the animals seem to be very uninterested in what you’re doing. We managed to get as close as 5 meters, we made a few photos and then gently stepped back again. Tip: watch the signs at the entrance of the gorge, a part of the path may be closed due to erosion after the rainy season.

Sunset set the Windjana camping site
Our camping spot with the gorge walls behind us
Early morning
Inside the gorge

The big finale: crocodiles on land! While some of the crocodiles immediately slide into the water as soon as you try to get closer, others don’t even blink. If my dad would have been there, he would have called it a wind-up croc… It’s very tempting to try and get very close: all the animal did was lying there seemingly at ease and very uninterested. We managed to get as close as 5 meters, we made a few photos and then gently stepped back again to hit the horseflies that were taking advantage of the situation!

Freshies!

Another inhabitant of the gorge: a flying fox.