Driving along the Gibb River Road

You don’t rent a 4×4 in the golden outback of Australia and then stick neatly to the tarmac roads… The legendary Gibb River road in the Kimberley is Western Australia’s most infamous dirt track. The red sands, ubiquitous wildlife, breathtaking lookout points, tricky river crossings and ever changing scenery form the perfect backdrop for some amazing four wheel driving. Here’s our story.

The Gibb River Road is a 670 kilometers long stretch of road that is mainly unsealed, with rugged mountain ranges, meter high termite mounds and even higher baobab trees, golden spinifex landscapes, withered river beds, hidden waterfalls, dramatic gorges and spectacular animals – dead and alive. In short, everything Australia’s wild west is (in)famous for, on a single route!

Unusual, exciting and possibly dangerous

Exploring the golden outback means getting your wheels dirty on an unsealed road adventure. I agree, the word ‘adventure’ is being used for just about anything these days, but in case of the Gibb River Road, the term is more than justified. Let’s define the word ‘adventure’. Or better yet, let the dictionary do it for us:

Adventure: an unusual, exciting and possibly dangerous activity such as a journey or experience.

  • Unusual: Perhaps when you’re born and raised in Western Australia the Gibb River road is nothing special to you, but to all others out there I can assure you, the GRR is unusual indeed.
  • Exciting: broken tire belts every 10 meters, empty gass stations when you desperately need to refuel, dead end roads with abandoned buildings that have sentences like ‘trespassers will be shot’ painted on them, burnt cars or what’s left of them along the road … Exciting enough for ya?
  • Possible dangerous activity: Australia is home to some of the world’s most poisonous creatures. Getting out of the car for a little stroll in the bush is considered ‘possibly dangerous’!

Gibb river road sign

GRR

The shortcut no one really takes

On the map, the Gibb River road (GRR) seems to be a convenient shortcut when you want to get from Derby/Broome to Kununurra or vice versa. It isn’t, though! It’s definitely shorter in distance compared to the Great Northern Highway (the big black road on the map above), but not shorter in time at all. It took us three days to do the entire length (655 kilometers), taken into account several stops along the way. The truth is you could easily spend a week on this road if you want to see everything there is to see. Most of the road is unsealed but big stretches of tarmac are either already constructed or in the process of being constructed. A pity in retrospect, but quite a relief when you’re actually driving it: 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… You have to be focused all the time, drive at a constant speed and mind the big holes and rocks, otherwise your wheels start having a mind of their own.

The original ‘beef road’

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. Today, large road trains transporting cattle and other cargo still make use of the road (we saw about two or three road trains a day), but the road mainly is a tourist attraction now. In some ways you could compare the road to the route 66: it’s slower than the highway, but so much more fun and eccentric. Everyone who has a property along the Gibb River (mainly large cattle stations), tries to make it a tourist attraction. And why shouldn’t you if there’s a drop-dead gorgeous gorge or desert paradise in your backyard! Just be aware that you’re in a desolate area: there’s no way to go but forward or backward, so gas, food, drinks and accommodations (mainly gas though) is way overpriced. We filled up our two 90 liter tanks just before taking the GRR (price tag: 180 AUD) and managed to get to the other side without a refill.

Gibb river road

Road train!

The road (and all its oddities)

The thing that’s great about the Gibb River Road is, that even though it takes forever to drive the 665 kilometers, there’s always something around the corner that piques your curiosity. A funny sign, a sudden change in vegetation from green and vivid to black and withered as if someone forgot to put on the sprinklers, big birds of prey flying low in the late afternoon, a road train causing a giant wall of dust, whirly winds occasionally moving across the bone-dry plains, the evening sun reflecting on the zillions of crown corks in the sand making them look like little shells glimmering in shallow water, the torn-up tires covered in dust and the colored cans hung up so neatly in the trees that you start thinking maybe they’re a clue for a hidden treasure (it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of imagination with all the trash scattered around), the constant up-and-down road revealing the immense magnitude of the Kimberley at every ‘up’-point and along with that, the countless ‘dips’ in the road that force you to imagine this whole desertlike landscape being flooded in the wet season. Even the clouds play their part in the ever changing landscape.

The famous backdrops of the Kimberley
One of the fewer river crossings where water was actually present

Flat tyres ahead

All travel guides and web pages tell you the same thing: when driving the Gibb River Road, you’re bound to get at least one flat tyre. The irony of our adventure is that we got a flat tyre right beforehand… During our canoeing trip on the Ord river, our car was parked on the domain of Go Wild adventure tours in Kununurra, a few miles from the Gibb river road. Our tyre was flat right then and there. “Bugger”, the canoe owner reacts. Bugger indeed! It was after dark when we get back to the car, we still needed to find a camping spot, we were exhausted from the kayaking. The canoe owner watched us flounder around on his domain like two nervous puppies making their first steps down a staircase, trying to figure out where the car jack has to go (in case of a 4×4 you have to crawl underneath the car) and then he kindly offered to help us out. In just a few minutes the tyre was changed and we were ready to go. We eventually stayed here for the night: http://www.kimberleyland.com.au – great choice.

Having a laugh…
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Waking up next to Lily Creek Lagoon near the Kimberleyland Caravan Park. Not bad eh!
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Big baobab tree at the caravan park
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Admiring a road train while our flat tire is being fixed at Bridgestone – it was a tiny little stone that had caused the leak.

Without trucks Australia stops

All animals are equal – except for toads…

At one point during our drive on the Gibb River Road, we noticed a big container with a note attached on it: “Toad container”. Cane toads were introduced into Australia in the thirties. They were supposed to control pest beetles in the sugar cane industry, but instead became a threat to the local ecosystem themselves: the toads have a poisonous skin, so whichever animal eats it, dies. At Emma Gorge along the GRR, you are allowed to catch toads if you see them, and put them in the container. The animals are then ‘humanely euthanized’, the note says. I wonder what the point is of ‘humanely euthanizing’ them though: first you let tourists catch them with whatever means necessary (there are several stories on the attached ‘toad spotting calendar’ of tourists boasting about how they hit a toad half-dead with rocks) and then secondly you have the animals put in a container that is only emptied twice a week: the injured toads are stuck in the heat for several days.  They’re probably dead before they are euthanized!! And just then, we noticed this little creature sitting in the public toilets at Emma Gorge…

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Food along the Gibb River Road

Apart from the food options at the occasional gas station (where you can buy things like diced kangaroo meat, milk for dudes and take-away kangaroo tails), there are limited options for food and drinks along the Gibb River Road. We didn’t stop everywhere of course, so this is just based on our experience. At one point on our way to Windjana Gorge, we stopped at a roadhouse for some rice and we asked the cashier what the number of visitors was around this time of year (end of September). Turned out she kept count of the cars that were driving by: about 80 a day this month. In July and August, there are about 500 of them…  Apparently the exceptional heat was keeping a lot of people away. If she knew what the temperature was? “I don’t follow up on that anymore”, she replied. “But I can tell you it’s over 40 C°. It’s not about living out there, it’s about surviving.”The only place we visited that had a restaurant on their domain was the El Questro station. After the umpteenth self-made pasta meal we were really craving a nice non-pasta feed in an air-conditioned facility, so we immediately made reservations at the restaurant. However, being too exhausted to look around first, we never noticed that the dining room was actually outside and not air-conditioned at all… Not even a little fan in a corner. Sweating through your whole meal: that was a first for us…

A little snack to chew on along the way?

Milk for dudes!

To be completely honest

Before all of this, we didn’t know much about the Gibb Riber Road, apart from the fact that is’s legendary. Even though driving the Gibb River Road was an adventure of a lifetime, it did let us down just a little bit. A huge part of the road is being made into tarmac and that makes the road itself so much duller. You don’t really need a 4×4 to hit the main road (you really do though for all the side tracks). Also, we had a detailed map of about 30 highlights along the way (HEMA maps), but a lot of those so-called highlights are either closed for the public, demolished due to storms or just inaccessible because it’s private property. Also, you need to get permission to see some of the gorges, or book beforehand in order to access some of the highlights. But then you need cell reach of course, which we didn’t have most of the time. So while planning your trip, be sure to make those reservations beforehand.