Part 8: The Gibb River Road

Posted on: 31/08/2016

Pentecost River crossing Hema Nomad Explorers

After over four months on the road, our Hema Nomad Explorers made it to the beginning of Australia’s greatest adventure drive: the Gibb River Road.

This wasn’t our first trip down the iconic Gibb River Road, but it’s a bit different with a caravan and a small dog!

Bear in mind this isn’t just any caravan, and just as well! We chose the Sunland Patriot because we knew that destinations like the Gibb were part of our dream travel itinerary. We needed quality design and engineering that could withstand everything Australia’s toughest terrain could throw at it. Nevertheless, we started out wondering just how it would be towing all this luxury where many fear to go at all.

With Max along for the ride, we researched the campsites where he would be welcome and planned our trip accordingly. While there is no doubt that some still just pull up and camp along the road and riverbanks, local property owners much prefer that official campsites are utilised, and so we respected this.

Kimberley Gorge

Our first destination was El Questro. After several photo stops along the way, the junction into El Questro was the spot to stop and air down, as the dirt begins there. It is necessary to cross the Pentecost River just before the resort campground, which proved to be another typically breathtaking photo opportunity. Although water levels are low this year, we were grateful that both the Ranger and the van are high clearance and have the luxury of quality airbag suspension, ensuring the contents of both vehicles remained safe and sound. 

El Questro has everything you could ask for in a campground, with options to suit every traveller. The rightful drawcards are El Questro and Emma gorges and many other natural attractions. We were not disappointed, making the most of the time we had to walk as many tracks and swim in as many water holes as possible. Max was happy relaxing at camp, as are most nomad dogs. We took advantage of Happy Hour at the bar to engage with Hema users and other like-minded nomads, while catching up with Brett & Di (some travellers we had met earlier on our journey).

Kimberley Gorge

Next stop was Home Valley. It seems like it’s just down the road, but that section of road is both gnarly and picturesque, so it’s easy to spend a few hours getting there. The much photographed Pentecost River Crossing with the Cockburn Range backdrop is on this section of the road, and we took full advantage and plenty of pics ourselves. Upon reaching Home Valley, we felt it had a more cosy feel than El Questro, while still providing all the amenities of a good campground. It’s a great place to spoil yourself with a nice meal in the restaurant too, and there is even a swimming pool onsite, as well as a kids playground for those families on the road. At Home Valley we started to hear some tales of equipment failure, but the Ranger and Sunland Patriot were travelling well.

The following morning, after a full vehicle check and some tightening of nuts and bolts, we set out towards Ellenbrae, unsure if that would be our destination or a lunch stop. This section of road was the worst we had encountered, with heavy corrugations, loose sharp rock and big dips. The going was a little slower than we expected, especially as we were regularly slowing down for oncoming traffic. Unfortunately many others are not so courteous, so we often found ourselves enveloped in dust clouds. About two-thirds of the way to Ellenbrae we encountered our only issue for the trip, a particularly sharp object that we failed to avoid, causing a flat tyre. We opted to change the tyre then repair it with plugs to give us an emergency spare. We were back on the road fairly quickly, but we realised that Ellenbrae would pull us up for the day. That meant we could enjoy their specialty homemade scones on the green lawn, before finally heading to the Ringers Campground; a lovely spot by the creek, where we again met some travellers we had seen earlier in the trip. This made for a great campfire night, and by this time there were many more tales of woe in the campground, with several vehicles waiting for parts. We were increasingly pleased with our choice of tow vehicle and off road van.

El Questro river crossing Hema Nomad Explorers

Next day we were pleased to find the road conditions much improved to the west. Really we had no further issues with conditions at all, remembering of course that this is a remote area so all roads are somewhat corrugated and variable. Gibb River Station boasts a camping area where dogs are welcome, however we opted to continue on to Mount Elizabeth Station, earning the luxury of a two-night stay. Wunnumurra Gorge is accessed through Mount Elizabeth by a rocky track that requires a high clearance 4WD to get there comfortably. The drive in is 10km and takes around two hours, with a short walk to the gorge at the end, which was well worth it. The waterfall was still flowing and the waterhole welcoming for a swim. There is some rock art just a short walk further on, so we enjoyed this spot for a couple of hours before heading back to our shady camp, where we enjoyed an extended Happy Hour with like-minded travellers. I would recommend this campground regardless of how you are travelling.  For the adventurous, it is the gateway to the Munja Track and Walcott Inlet.

Too soon we were back on the punishing Gibb River Road, again very grateful for our Recaro seats and airbag suspension. There are a few luxuries that we appreciate more as we get older and those seats are real winners! Our next stop was Mount Barnett, however the day was young and we had visited Manning Gorge previously, so we opted to continue to Imintji, where a new campground has just opened. We arrived to find the community CEO laying turf with other community leaders, and after a chat we happily settled into camp. The backdrop for this campground is a rugged cliff face that catches both sunrise and sunset colours.

Finally, it was time to make tracks to Derby. We took our time driving through the King Leopold Range, stopping at each lookout for another stunning window to this world. This section is by far the prettiest drive on the Gibb and accessible to most vehicles from the Derby end, with care. 
Gibb done, all gear intact with just one flat tyre, we treated ourselves to a luxurious overnight trip to the Horizontal Falls. This natural phenomenon is formed at a break in the McLarty Ranges, where the seawater builds up higher on one side of the gap than the other, creating a horizontal fall of water up to 5m on a king tide. The Horizontal Falls adventure includes a scenic trip by seaplane from Derby, several fast boat rides through the falls and the option of a catered overnight stay on the floating hotel as well as an optional helicopter flight. We took all the options and loved every minute of it, finishing the experience glad that we had splurged on it.

Kimberley Horizontal Falls

No doubt some would ask what about Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek, Mitchell Falls and Bell Gorge. Admittedly these are all highlights along the Gibb, however we have been to those on a previous trip and acknowledge that travelling with our dog precluded us from repeating some of these this time. However it is obviously possible to have a great experience on the Gibb River Road without really roughing it and with a pet, as long as you have the right rig, the right tools and maintenance plan and take some time to understand the options on offer.

We are now headed to Broome, the Pilbara and the West Coast of WA and look forward to bringing you more stories that might include the odd beach.