Blog 26: Western Australia - Fitzroy Crossing to Wyndham
Might have figured it out. The Kimberley is all about mindfulness. Paying attention to the small details. The landscape can seem dull and repetitive at first, but by focusing in on the smallest of details, you get to feel a real sense of wonder. The way the scattered yellow, brown and grey leaves make a perfect camouflage pattern. The bright, bright signal red dragonflies. The sunset orange, powder blue and twilight violet butterflies. The rich colours and textures of the young red gums. The flowers. Palest pink. Brightest white. Delicate yellows. The way the light of the sun plays against the walls of the gorges, or surface of the creeks. The orchestra of birdlife, everywhere.
The Kimberley also makes you work to find the special secret places. The beaten track must be departed to get the most out of this landscape. Now we understand the magic of this landscape. But it took a while travelling along the Gibb River Road to get there.
We wandered into the Department of Parks and Wildlife (Actually, now the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions because…. State Government can be silly) gazebo at Giekie Gorge and noticed the laminated flood level markers all the way up the structure (with 2002: 2 m above roof!). Every piece of infrastructure here is temporary and it all gets removed before the start of the wet season.
We embarked on a catamaran and began our trundle up the river. The gorge walls loomed. You get a sense of the amount of water that fills the space in the wet, a scoured line of white Denovian Sandstone shows the high water mark. Life clings to the cracks in the cliffs. There are caves here a kayaker could explore, if they are careful not to disturb the sunning freshwater crocodiles. Our guide pointed out plants and animals and described the landscape. We enjoyed the fresh morning air, the calm waters and the stunning cliffs. A pleasant way to start the day.
From Danggu Giekie Gorge we headed back into Fitzroy Crossing. Past a football field packed with indigenous kids playing Sunday morning AFL. We filled up to the brim with the cheapest diesel we were likely to see for a while and loaded up on food for our return to The Gibb.
Next stop: Tunnel Creek.
After a picnic lunch we walked in the footsteps of Aboriginal Freedom Fighter Jandamarra down into the darkness of the cave that becomes a tunnel. A little torchlight wading and we made it to the middle of the cave where a large breakout in the roof lets light in to illuminate the stalactites and shawls draped from the cave roof and walls. Twisted tree roots and haphazard boulders made small alcoves that made the place feel like some kind of secret underground temple from an Indiana Jones movie. With more distance to make on The Gibb we climbed back out and hit the road in Gary.
We traversed the King Leopold Ranges, past a rock formation dubbed ‘Queen Victoria’s Head’ and wound our way through open eucalypt woodlands. The wet turns dry quickly up here – the contrast between the lush greenery adjacent to every watercourse and the dusty arid hilltops is stark. We drove through our first two proper creek crossings of The Gibb (many more since) to make our way to Silent Grove Campground near Bell Gorge for two nights. It wasn’t quite what we expected.
Hot showers. Flushing toilets. An abundance (a preponderance?) of caravans. Arriving late in the day we found our own little slice of the campground and set up for two nights. We needed a rest day.
Interlude: So you are thinking of driving The Gibb? Here is some advice.
The Gibb River Road is mostly unsealed. When driving on unsealed (and corrugated) roads there are some things you can do to be a good travel citizen:
1. Manage your tyre pressures.
We saw many vehicles on The Gibb running tyres at highway pressures (35-45 psi). Don’t do this. Reducing your tyre pressures will have all of the following benefits:
Tyres can deform more allowing a gentler experience of the corrugations.
Tyres can absorb the shock of bumps and dips more effectively.
You increase your tyre footprint improving traction on the loose surface.
You increase your tyre footprint, lowering your ground contact pressure and imparting less compactive effort to the corrugations, meaning the corrugations will not get worse as quickly. Hard tyres make corrugations worse for everyone else.
Tyres can deform over sharp rocks making punctures less likely.
We run Gary at 25 front, 30 rear on gravel roads and a little firmer (28/32) when there are more rocks about. Haven’t had a puncture yet in thousands of kilometres on unsealed roads, often heavily corrugated. These tyres have done about 30 000 kms.
2. Drive in the wheel ruts.
Don’t make your own track. Put your two wheels in the same place as most other people heading your direction. This makes grading and repairing the road much easier and cheaper. You are also less likely to hit sharp rocks that will puncture a tyre.
3. Stay left.
Even if the road on the right looks WAY nicer to drive, someone could be overtaking you and you can’t see them in your dust cloud. Unless you are on a long straight with good visibility in both directions, play it safe.
4. Manage your speed.
Slow and alive is better than quick and killing someone else. Also, smooth changes to velocity cut up the creek crossing approaches/departures less than hard braking or acceleration and the associated wheel spinning.
Choose a sensible distance to travel each day. Be aware that just because the grader went through ahead of us, doesn’t mean the road won’t be atrocious by the time you get there.
5. Headlights on.
You should do this when you drive anywhere everywhere all the time anyway, but even more when there are dust clouds over the road.
6. If possible, do not tow.
So many caravans. Every axle that travels along the roads makes the corrugations worse. Caravans make a massive dust cloud. Caravans fall apart on the corrugations of The Gibb. Leave your caravan in Derby or Kununurra and drive with a tent. You will have a much better time, keep the road in better condition and not destroy the things inside your caravan. If you must tow, take something small like a camper trailer. Or consider travelling with an off road tour bus truck company. There are lots.
7. Toilet seat down, everywhere, always.
Not that hard people! Look after the composting toilets.
8. Be prepared for there to be lots of people, everywhere.
If you think The Kimberley is a remote, pristine, difficult to access and rewardingly isolated camping experience… visit thirty years ago. You will pass (or shadow) at least four or five off road tour bus-trucks per day. Herds of adventurers will be everywhere, at every attraction. Campsites are packed (or booked out). Hike very early or you won’t be hiking alone. Adequate infrastructure to manage the popularity of tourism here really isn’t in place.
…and back to our regular programming.
A restful day at Silent Grove resulted in some food preparation, a couple of minor running repairs to Gary (winch solenoid plug dust cover and air intake hose split) and a few board games. That night we got to enjoy friendly neighbourly EDM until 9ish. Not So Silent Grove.
We called ahead to Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary on our sat phone but they were full until the following Monday. Another reminder of the busyness of The Gibb.
Tuesday Morning we hit the road again. Another water crossing and a short hike took us to Bell Gorge. At this stage, we weren’t really feeling the magic. Bell Gorge was nice, but Karijini and the West Macdonnell Ranges are nicer. We were talking and thinking that maybe our awesome-o-meter is a bit jaded from all the incredible places we have seen over the past (almost) six months. Nevertheless, we drove eastwards on The Gibb, crested a hill outside Mount Barnett then pulled in at the side of the road to wander down to Galvans Gorge.
And there it was. That postcard perfect Kimberley magic.
Water cascades down two levels into a deep and inviting swimming hole. A gnarled and stately boab tree supervises from the top of the topmost cliff. Tangles of vines and young growth frame the gorge wall. Wow.
From Galvans Gorge we stopped at Mount Barnett Roadhouse (along with about 50 caravans) to fill up with diesel and have some lunch. We pushed on, turned north off The Gibb towards Kalumburu and stayed the night at Drysdale River Station. We enjoyed a sunset beer in the station beer garden before heading off for an early night’s sleep – again flushing toilets and hot showers. We had heard mixed reports on the quality of the road up to Mitchell Falls National Park, so wanted to get going early.
The road north of Drysdale River was in excellent condition and it only took us a couple of hours to get to Munurru, the camping spot next to the King Edward River and the start of Uunguu Country. We wandered along the river and saw the falls here. The rock we crossed had been polished to a purple or orange shine by the grit of the flooding river. The swimming hole looked inviting and we promised to have a dip on the way back down.
Turning west onto Port Warrender Road we were in great luck – a Grader was working its way up the road. The first 40 kilometres were in reasonable condition. After we passed the grader it was a whole other story. Some rock hopping and 10-kilometers-per-hour corrugations meant that the second leg of our journey, the 73 kilometres from Munurru to the Mitchell Falls Camping Area took about three hours.
We set up camp and watched the four helicopters that live here ferry passengers to the falls and back for the rest of the afternoon. Helicopter flights to Mitchell Falls, then hiking back, or doing the hike then getting a helicopter back to camp are the status quo here. We only saw two other people in our time at the camp that didn’t partake of the choppering.
A chill and very restful night saw us awake before dawn to hit the hiking trail. Seven hours later we would return to camp for lunch, weary but feeling very accomplished. This Class 5 track is the most challenging we have done on our adventure (except maybe the Bluff Knoll summit, but that was hard in a different way). And it went like this:
From our campground we began with a small creek crossing – Mertens Creek. Hopscotching along some stepping stones with the aid of some Pandanus handrail tree-friends we kept our feet dry. The morning air was perfect, the light dappled, and everywhere the sun touched us we could feel the day was going to warm up quickly. After a little dusty rock hopping we came to the top of Little Mertens Falls. A pooling by the precipice that allowed a view down the valley and a real sense of the untouched-ness of the landscape.
We descended the track by the falls and avoided the spur that went to the base of the falls and the swimming area – that would be our reward on the way home. The landscape changed a couple of times. Twisted Pandanus clinging to a creekline, full of water lilies and lotus (maybe?) looking flowers, then all of a sudden a wider valley with the heady scent of lemon myrtle and young green eucalypts filling the air. We wound through grassy open scrubland and ambled up and down hundreds of boulders, always looking for the next track marker.
Then we made it to Big Mertens Falls. Ho-lee mo-lee. Standing atop a proper precipice, the water plunges into a deep eroded basing below. After searching for the next trail marker (no one else had been along the trail before us) we eventually realised we had to cross the water above the waterfall. Shoes off, pants rolled up, wading across slimy rocks without stacking it. No problem. Others who came just behind us did the stepping stone thing a little too close to the edge for our comfort. Feet dried and re-shod, we pushed on.
We started to dial into the small details that make this place magical. Those signal red dragonflies. The tiniest of flowers. The textures and colours in the rocks. The cacophony of birds. Seriously there are lots and lots and lots of birds here. We saw a trio of pigeons flap then glide like harrier jets, wings akimbo. The sound of the rushing water. The shapes of the plants – root, stem and limb. Small camouflaged lizards. Slowing down and paying more attention enriches the experience of this place immeasurably. The giant leaves of the young red gums.
Some more dusty hilltops and riverside rock hopping and we came to the proper river crossing. Shoes off, pants rolled up we waded through knee deep water across to the helicopter landing pad at the top of Mitchell Falls. Ruth was super brave and stepped waaaaay out of her comfort zone to successfully make the river crossing (and back again later!). She deserves all of your high fives.
We zagged to the right and followed the path from the heliport to the proper lookouts over the star attraction – Mitchell Falls. Four tiers of waterfalls plunge from rock to pool. They are grand. They are captivating. They were worth the challenge of the hike and river crossings. The air is cool from the spray, even here on the other side of the chasm. A fun game is to try and follow a parcel of water from the crest of the first fall to the base of the fourth (a Lagrangian/Eulerian frame of reference for all you other Fluid Mechanics nerds out there). And to bask in the majesty of this place. So. Very. Worth. It.
To the Wunambal people it is a place of cultural and spiritual significance, they ask that you do not swim in the pools of the falls – I have absolutely no idea how you would actually get down there to do so, even if you wanted to... also there may be a salt water crocodile below.
We retraced our footsteps with heavier legs and tireder feet – across the river, across Big Mertens Falls and then took the side-cut down to the base of Little Mertens for a swim. What we found here was even more special than the majestic Mitchell Falls. The water was chilly but very refreshing after so much walking. We swam in the chest deep water enjoying the semicircular curtain of water cascading into our swimming pool. Then we saw some other people and realised you can actually take another track where you see some ancient rock art and walk BEHIND THE WATERFALL!!! WOW!!!
There we stood in weary wonder. A cool and dusty space behind a cascading curtain of water (photos did not do it justice). Absolutely magical.
Wearily we footslogged back across the final creek. The stone stepping hopscotch was more of a foot dunking this time. High fives, hugs and a real feeling of accomplishment. A lazy afternoon of board games and blog writing soon followed.
Friday morning we woke early again – our body clocks seem to be preparing for the border crossing and time change already. We brushed off the worst of the dew, broke camp and made our way back down from the Mitchell Plateau.
Our good friend the Grader had made even more progress along Port Warrender road. We made great time. It was still too early and cool for a swim when we got to King Edward River, but we did stop nearby to check out some awesome rock art amidst grassy fields peppered with wildflowers and full of unusual rock formations and natural rocky temples. More of those Indiana Jones feels.
We made it back to Drysdale River Station for lunch and our hike completion reward – a basket of hot chips and a beer each. Well earned. An afternoon of relaxing in the sunshine, catching up on laundry and then a ten-hour sleep. Being able to fall into the natural sleep wake rhythm of our bodies has been one of the great privileges of this adventure.
Saturday we woke early again backed up and headed back towards The Gibb, Home Valley Station, the Pentecost River crossing and El Questro Station.
The road along this section of The Gibb was pretty corrugated until we hit the very nice road improvement works east of Ellenbrae Station. We crested the final range climb before Home Valley to the pinging of emails and text messages. It is kind of funny that even with some of the most remote places we have been, this is the longest time we have spent digitally disconnected.
The Cockburn Range rides the horizon majestically. Somewhere down there is the Pentecost River. We descend to visit the station for an early lunch.
Wait. Are we still on The Gibb? Sun lounges and swimming pools. Semi-permanent glamping tents. Perfectly organised Boab trees and a faux-weathered bar-shed with careful design elements (vintage saddles over the scatter-brick wall, a carefully rusted laser-cut silhouette of a man strumming a guitar in a vaguely pop art style that may or may not be Slim Dusty in a non-copyright infringing way). The Dusty Bar delicately rides the razor edge between kitsch stereotypical ‘outback station’ parody and the authentic heritage of the place. Each visitor should probably make their own mind up about which side of the divide it sits on. Such a stark contrast to Drysdale River which felt like the real deal.
With full bellies we turned towards the Pentecost River. An iconic four wheel driving bucket-list item. “Yes, I have forded the Pentecost River in the Kimberley. Bow before my four wheelering might you sissy asphalt nancys!” We got there, the water barely touched the bull bar and when across went – “Is that it?” Perhaps another lesson of the Kimberley is not to have too many expectations.
HEMA lies. The road beyond the Pentecost River to the El Questro turnoff is not, in fact, sealed. Doesn’t matter, we drove it.
Iconic. Trend Setting. Famous. El Questro is all these things. Despite our nervousness that the place would be a super busy (check), meat barbecue omnivore-filled (check), caravan dense (check), overly touristy (nope), expensive (check - but worth it) kind of place, it has actually been a nice stop.
We drove in, got checked in by the could-be-an-airline-stewardess be-uniformed receptionist then set out to conquer a four-wheel drive track dubbed ‘Saddleback.’ A river crossing, some rock hopping followed by a super steep narrow switch-backing ascent with some rock and gouged out obstacles was good fun for Gary. The view from the top was awesome. The valley of El Questro Station stretched before us. Pentecost and Chamberlain rivers wind though the landscape. The homestead and camping areas seem small and insignificant from up here. A real sense of space.
Then things started to go wrong.
That rattling noise was the left rear disc brake shield. Two of the three bolts that hold it on were non functional due to the metal shearing off (thanks corrugation vibrations!). Oh and the right one is gone completely, vibrated off somewhere on The Gibb. Then Adam nudged a tree and broke a tail light while turning around. And his favourite Land Rover hat is gone somewhere on the track too, lost when he played mechanic.
None of these things is a big show stopper, but if anyone knows a wrecker in Kununurra with a Discovery 2…
With the comedy of errors intensifying, we decided to abandon our plans to drive up to a second lookout and make camp for the night. A swim in the waterhole near the restaurant set things right. Dappled sunlight washing the Pandanus with liquid light. River sand toe exfoliation. Coolness in the heat of the afternoon.
An early dinner and we wandered over to the bar. We had a great chat with one of the riders who had just completed the Gibb River Postie Bike Challenge - raising money for the Bright Blue Charity for kids with cancer. A crazy bunch, but it looks like they had a great time (and a few injuries) on their eastward adventure. We only stayed for a couple of drinks then hit the hay, keen to extract the most value possible out of our 24 hour El Questro visitor pass.
An early breakfast and pack up saw us head for the Station’s namesake – El Questro Gorge. There is a quite long and deep water crossing to get there (and back). Not quite water over the bonnet, but pretty deep. Got the carpet at foot level a little damp. Perhaps Gary could do with some new door seals…
We were the first to arrive and begin our hike. We rock hop scotched back and forth over the creek line with the terrain becoming increasingly more rain-foresty as we moved along the gorge floor. The sheer red walls of the gorge climbed above us. We eventually got to a corner and the main gorge unveiled itself before us. The left cliff face carpeted with ferns, the right wall seemingly held at bay by the large trunk of a fig tree. We continued our stepping stone adventure along the gorge as far as halfway pool. Beyond this point you have to swim then climb a big slippery boulder. We weren’t feeling that adventurous.
We relaxed in the cool, damp, dappled light of the gorge, red cliffs high above us blazing with midmorning heat and light that couldn’t touch us. We ambled back the way we came and eventually made it Gary after three hours hiking the gorge.