The Gibb River Road is a rite-of-passage for any 4WD enthusiast, Explorer or first time big lappers. The 660km rugged dirt track is well-known for shredding tyres, but it’s the only real way to see the heart of the Kimberley wilderness.
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Country on which this adventure takes place who have occupied and cared for this land and water for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.
The Notorious GRR
During our Big Lap of Aus, we heard many campfire horror stories of blown tyres, flipped cars, and crazy repairs on the Gibb River Road, but there was no way we weren’t giving it a go.
Not only is the drive an adventure in itself, but it’s also a great opportunity to see some true Australian wilderness, including the best waterfalls and swimming holes the country has to offer.
We did the route over two weeks, driving west to east. While we’d only planned for one week, there were so many great places to see, even two weeks seemed quick!
Derby to Windjana Gorge
Time spent: 2 nights
We set out from Derby in the mid-afternoon, ready for anything on the infamously car-breaking track.
However, we discovered this first section was a good sealed road all the way to the Windjana Gorge Campground turn off, with the last 20 minutes down to the campground on a pretty good dirt track
While the campsite takes online bookings, we just turned up and were greeted by a friendly ranger at the entrance.
Camping costs $17 a night per adult and the campsite has warm solar showers and drop toilets. There’s both generator and non-generator camping available.
Parks Ranger Hot Tip: With most people scared by potential noise in the generator-friendly section, there’s plenty of space to camp here. Plus, generators have to be off by 7pm anyway, so it is actually peaceful.
Exploring Windjana Gorge
After a hearty camp breakfast, we packed our bags and headed out to spend the day in Bandilgan (Windjana Gorge).
This is an easy 5.5km return hike to the end of the gorge and back, with a few little swimming holes along the way, which you’ll be sharing with the timid freshwater crocodiles. While you shouldn’t get too close (Parks WA says no closer than three metres) you don’t have to worry about big salties here.
Read more: How To Stay Safe in Croc Country
The gorge itself is like a fantasy novel fortress, with towering, black-stained limestone cliffs reaching more than 100m to form impenetrable walls.
The hike, referred to as the ‘time walk’ follows the gorge, which is an ancient Denovian Reef and was under a shallow sea around 350 million years ago.
If you look closely, you’ll see some impressive fossils immortalized in the walls.
Dimalurru (Tunnel Creek)
The next morning we got up early to check Dimalurru (Tunnel Creek), which is a quick 20 minute drive south of the campsite.
As the name suggests, this hike has you wading 750m each way through cold, chest-deep water in the pitch-black darkness to get to the otherside of the tunnel. So you’ll need to wear your swimmers and bring a dry bag for your goods and gear.
Hot Tip: Once you get out at the far side, there’s a stunning piece of Aboriginal rock art tucked around to the left up a little embankment.
Dimalurru has incredible cultural significance for the local Bunuba people. The famous Aboriginal resistance leader Jandamarra (also known as Pigeon) used it as a base while fighting the European colonisers. After leading many successful campaigns, he was shot and killed here at Tunnel Creek on 1 April, 1897.
Windjana Gorge to Dalmanyi (Bell Gorge)
Time spent: 2 nights
After drying off from Tunnel Creek, we headed back to the main road and east to the next stop.
Finally we were on the rough stuff, and aired our tyres down to 18PSI once we started feeling the infamous corrugations.
Read more: How To 4WD For Beginners
The gorge is 30km off the Gibb River Road, via the Dulundi (Silent Grove) campsite. This track has two river crossings that vary in depth depending on the time of year.
Camping here costs $13 per night and the peaceful, shady site has warm solar showers and drop toilets. In the evening, a ranger comes by for fee collection, but you can also book online. We spent the late afternoon resting at camp to save the next full day for exploring.
Dalmanyi (Bell Gorge)
Dalmanyi, also known as Bell Gorge, is a poster child of the Kimberley – and for good reason.
The gorge is simply magnificent. The top section is accessible by an easy 1km return walk to the viewing point and some gentle swimming holes on top of the falls.
To get into the famous falls and swimming hole is another 500m walk across the creek and down a steep scramble to the bottom. Parks WA classifies this as a grade 4 walk.
At the bottom you’ll be rewarded with a huge, deep swimming hole with plenty of great jumping rocks and plenty of space for soaking up some sun.
Read more: Staying Safe Around Swimming Holes
You can follow the meandering river and small, fun waterholes down another few hundred metres until the section ends in dramatic cliffs and waterfalls. Be exceptionally careful in this section.
Lennard River Gorge
Heading east from Windjana, well before the Dulundi turn-off, there’s a short sidetrack to Lennard River Gorge. Unfortunately, there’s no way down into the gorge, but this trail leads to a lookout with amazing views.
Keep in mind that there’s no swimming at the falls, but if you need to cool off, there’s a nice shady bit of the creek just down from the trailhead.
Dulundi to Mornington Wilderness Camp
Time spent: 3 nights
Most people we met on the Gibb River Road hadn’t taken the long side-track to the Mornington Wilderness Camp, but I think this is a mistake, as the sanctuary ended up being the most genuine wilderness experience we had.
Mornington Wilderness Camp
The turn off to the sanctuary isn’t far up the road from Dulundi, but the track down to the sanctuary itself is 88km one way, down a rough 4WD track with multiple river crossings, which will take you around 1.5-2 hours driving time.
The Wilderness Sanctuary is just half of a 600,000 hectare conservation project run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). Here you can see more than 200 species of birds, and since visitor numbers are capped to aid the conservation efforts, most of the time you’ll feel like the only person in the world.
Make sure you spend at least a few days here, checking out all the tranquil swimming holes. You can also hire canoes from the Mornington Wilderness Camp office (or BYO kayak) to explore the remote sections of the upper Fitzroy River – this is a truly memorable experience.
Camping is a little more expensive here at $25 a night per person, but of course, all proceeds go to the good cause. There’s also the option of fancy cabins and glamping.
The campsite has warm solar showers, drop toilets, and there’s a basic restaurant and bar run by AWC. There are plenty of experienced conservationists and ecologists manning the desk. So there’s plenty of opportunity to ask questions or simply nerd-out on the cool projects they’re running.
Bookings are recommended as numbers are strictly capped on-site. However, you can turn up at the front gate, just off Gibb River Road, where you’ll find a CB radio to call in to check for availability.
Mornington to Manning Gorge (via Galvans Gorge)
Time spent: 2 nights
The only way out of Mornington is back up the long bumpy 4WD track, to get back to the also long bumpy Gibb River Road – again heading east.
Only 20km before the next campsite is Galvans Gorge. Do not miss this. I reckon this was easily the most unique swimming hole in the Kimberley and for some strange reason we were the only people there for a good half an hour.
To get to the Galvans Gorge swimming hole is an easy 1km walk from the side of the Gibb River Road where you can pull over.
Manning Gorge Campsite at Mt Barnett Roadhouse
After a refreshing dip take a short drive to Mt Barnett Roadhouse.
This is a good spot to get a few supplies, fill up the tanks with fuel and water, use the free phone, and even get a burger and chips. The Roadhouse is also the entrance to Manning Gorge Campsite where you need to pay your camping fees.
This campsite is a few kilometres down a 4WD track from the roadhouse. There’s heaps of space and a big beautiful swimming hole framed by paper barks to relax in after your big day of adventuring. There are also hot showers and proper flushing toilets.
Manning Gorge Hike
To get to Manning Gorge is a 5.6km return hike, starting at the campsite. There’s a mandatory river crossing which you’ll most likely have to swim through, but luckily there’s a clever mini-raft system to bring your belongings across dry
This hike is hot and exposed, so it’s lucky there are plenty of swimming spots on either side. The last section down to the gorge is quite steep and rocky, so make sure you pay attention to the pink tape, as it’s easy to wander off the trail while looking at birds, lizards, and wildflowers.
Like all the other spots, this gorge is again spectcaular with an impressive waterfall and plenty of places to set up for the day.
Hot Tip: A real hidden gem of this hike is some significant Gwion Gwion rock paintings tucked away on a ledge. I won’t say any more than was said to me – when you turn the corner and first see the falls from a distance, look right.
Manning Gorge to El Questro Station
Time spent: 3 nights
This was a long, tiring drive that we took on due to a few closures. On this stretch is the turn off to Mitchell Falls, Kalamburu, and Honeymoon Bay, up a track that runs a few hundred kilometres north. This area is famous for fishing.
At the time we passed through, most of the area was closed due to COVID restrictions in remote Aboriginal communities, so we headed on.
About six hours later we arrived at El Questro, the spiritual end (or start) of the Gibb River Road.
El Questro Station
This is a huge, stunning property filled with some of the best the Kimberley has to offer.
While we were initially turned off by the touristy reputation of the station and city-life facilities in the wilderness, I’ll have to eat my proverbial hat in this case. Not only were the hikes amazing, but the bar, restaurant and live music were a real hit after the weeks and months roughing it.
In particular, I’ll admit that both the crocodile and wild buffalo burger are a delicious break from camp cooking.
Camping is a little more pricey, starting from $22 a person for an unpowered site. There’s also luxury glamping and other options on site. To visit El Questro you’re required to pay for a pass to the station at $22 per person for a week.
Until swimming at the many waterholes at El Questro, I didn’t realise I’d been using the term ‘crystal clear’ incorrectly. The spring-fed water bodies here are truly transparent all the way to the bottom and the water itself even seems to have an indescribably smooth feel to it
Highlights at the station include Amlaia Gorge, and Emma Gorge, but the El Questro Gorge hike is the real standout.
El Questro Gorge Hike
This 7km return hike will take you up and over boulders through a narrow, hidden gorge, with a sensational reward at the end – one of the more surreal waterfalls in Australia.
This hike is listed as challenging and will take you between 3-5 hours depending on fitness. So, be prepared to do some exposed scrambles and wading through deep water on the way up and back.
Gibb River Road Know Before You Go
- While the road runs around 660km in length, there are so many worthy side tracks that you’ll easily end up doing well over 1000km
- While you could quite easily get through in less than a week, I’d book at least 10 days into your schedule
- You absolutely need a sturdy 4WD to consider taking on this route, with at least one good full-size spare tyre (not one of those little yellow ones under the carpet)
- Lowering your tyre pressure is also vital to surviving unscathed. Everyone has their own methods, but I left our tyres on the Troopy at 18psi the entire way
- Make sure you know some basic vehicle maintenance and know your vehicle
- Carry other spares like tools, hoses, and belts. If you don’t know how to change them, the next person driving past probably does
- If you need it, there’s a mechanic and tyre shop half way along near Mt Barnett Station
- There are only a few stops where you can get diesel and only one that sells unleaded petrol
- There are also only a few spots to get food and other supplies, so make sure you’re well stocked before hitting the road
- There are plenty of places to stay and surprisingly most places have showers and good drop toilets
If you’re looking for a rugged adventure you might want to get in soon, with news just out that much of the track will start being sealed, quite literally paving the way for dreaded 2WD-tourists.
Drive safe and most of all, have fun!