With extensive flooding and multiple cyclones hitting different parts of the Kimberley over the wet season, Jane investigates when and if the remote region will be able to take on tourists in the upcoming dry season.

 

What a wet season it’s been in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The remnants of Cyclone Ellie caused once in 100 year flooding. Category 5 Cyclone Isla this week was just an extra fly in the ointment. There are reports about the Kimberley region being open to tourists while road trippers are asking when the roads will be open for caravans. 

The whole situation is a moving target so always check with Main Roads Western Australia which has a running map of all the closures and updates. 

For now, here’s the latest update on the state of play in the Kimberley. 

 

Kimberley flood response

Did someone say the Kimberley is open?

When you hear tourism is open in the Kimberley, this isn’t referring to the entire region. 

The Kimberley only has two roads between Broome and Kununurra – the Great Northern Highway (bitumen) and the Gibb River Road (red dirt 4WD) – both roads have closed sections but the Gibb River Road from Mt Barnett to Pentecost River is open to high clearance 4WDs and trucks under 15 tonnes.

Ideally, tourists would usually drive from Broome to Kununurra via Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungles) and then 4WD the Gibb River Road, hiking and swimming in gorgeous freshwater holes that are crocodile safe. 

In lieu of a road trip, people are encouraged to plan a visit to the major towns, Broome and Kununurra, which can be accessed by plane. To help with this, there are discounts on tours being offered, such as 50% off the Horizontal Falls tours.

 

Horizontal Falls - Zoe Vaughan

Horizontal Falls near Broome | Photo by Zoe Vaughan

What’s open in the West Kimberley?

Broome – Open

Broome is currently accessible by air or by road, but only from the south. Both Cyclone Ellie and Isla have played havoc with the Great Northern Highway. The amount of water that has flowed over the highway has resulted in potholes, while cattle are wandering around unfenced. 

If you’re planning on driving to Broome, be sure to fill up with fuel at Port Hedland, as the Pardoo Roadhouse is closed after the town took the full force of Cyclone Isla. It’s currently unknown whether it will be rebuilt at this stage or not. From Port Hedland it’s 287km to the next fuel at Sandfire Roadhouse.

 

Martuwarra Fitzroy River & Fitzroy Crossing – Open (with caution)

The Martuwarra Fitzroy River is an epic untamed river passing through Dimond Gorge and Geikie Gorge. It flows seasonally for 733km from the remote Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges to King Sound on the West Kimberley Coast. It has two bridges, one at Willare and another at Fitzroy Crossing, that have been affected by the floods. 

Willare Bridge (between Broome and Derby) was underwater for quite a while. Its current status is; 

‘ROAD OPEN Traffic management and speed restrictions in place. Allow extra travel time. WET AND SLIPPERY CONDITIONS – EXERCISE EXTREME CAUTION’.

In a normal dry season, one would drive over the single-lane Fitzroy River Bridge above a dry sandy riverbed and wonder why the bridge is so high.

The river reached a record height of 15.81 metres on the 4th of January 2023, resulting in sustained and devastating damage to the bridge. At its peak, the daily water flow across the Fitzroy floodplain was equivalent to 2,000 Optus Stadiums (Perth) full of water. Fitzroy Crossing and many other communities and stations were flooded or cut off. 

In April after floodwaters subsided, a car ferry system was established to cross the Fitzroy River for priority vehicles. There’s a long waiting list in Derby to get onto that short boat trip. 

 

Car ferry system

 

On the 3rd of April a low-level crossing was opened to 4WD traffic near the damaged Fitzroy River Bridge. Just seven hours later, it was closed because of approaching floodwaters from heavy rain upstream. Unfortunately, the low-level crossing was also damaged, so bridge reconstruction will be a long-term project.

UPDATE: The low-level crossing at Fitzroy River Bridge reopened to 4WDs on the 20th of April 2023.

 

The single lane Fitzroy Bridge

 

Which stations are open?

Part of the joy of travelling the Kimberley is staying on stations, rock hopping up red gorges, and finding remote croc-free waterholes to swim in. The western end of the Gibb River Road is being graded and is open to high clearance 4WDs with caution, up to Mount Barnett, which is around the halfway point. 

Station stays on the Gibb River Road including West Birdwood Downs, Mount Elizabeth Station Stay, and Barnett Station are open or plan to be very shortly.

Two stations run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Mornington and Charnley, are on the Fitzroy River and its tributaries. Dimond Gorge, through which the river runs, received 357mm in 24 hours and 830mm in that week, all squeezed through a spectacular red-walled gorge. The infrastructure at Mornington and Charnley is badly damaged and neither will be open for 2023. 

 

WA Parks and Wildlife on the Gibb River Road, West

As soon as it’s deemed safe, sites run by WA Parks and Wildlife will reopen for the season, including:

  • Mount Hart Wilderness Camp (now run by DPAW),
  • Dulundi (Silent Grove) in Wunaamin Conservation Park (Bell Gorge) is taking bookings from the 1st of June
  • Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges (formerly King Leopold Ranges)
  • Dimalurru Tunnel Creek

Unfortunately, severe damage happened in both Danggu Geikie Gorge National Park and Bandilngan (Windjana Gorge) National Park, and neither park will reopen in 2023 as major work is being done. The river cruise will also not be running. 

What’s open in the East Kimberley?

Kununurra – Open (for now)

During early March, Kununurra and East Kimberley were completely isolated as the Victoria River in Northern Territory flowed 1.3 metres over the Timber Creek Bridge. A week later, the river dropped and the highway opened with caution.

The wet season is dragging its feet, with the Victoria Highway closing again on the 18th of April, briefly isolating Kununurra again before reopening the next day. NT Road Reports for the Victoria Highway are the best indication of whether East Kimberley and Kununurra are accessible from the east.

 

Eastern Stations Stays

The East Kimberley rivers, Durack, Drysdale, and Pentecost are currently pumping as well, however this was caused by a different weather system. The Gibb River Road, East, is closed to any vehicle except high clearance 4WDs and trucks. Mt Barnett to Pentecost River is only open to high clearance 4WDs and trucks under 15 tonnes.

As of Tuesday 18th April, the El Questro Station driveway is accessible by 4WD (a snorkel is still recommended). The Chamberlain Gorge Cruise and Sunset Tours are not yet operating, however access will be reassessed this week. Finally, all other scheduled tours are operating with the exception of certain hiking trails.

 

8 Things I Learnt Solo Travelling Around the Kimberley,Julia d'orazio, el questro, sundown, bush

El Questro entry on the Gibb River Road | @theroamingflamingo

 

After being closed for a couple of years due to staff shortages and protecting vulnerable communities, Home Valley is set to open on the 1st of May 2023. Fingers crossed the Pentecost River will drop in time.

Ellenbrae Station, famous for its scones, is baking again. Last year they baked 22,383 scones. The station is offering cheaper camping for May to get some tourists in.

 

Department of Parks and Wildlife East

Purnululu National Park in the East Kimberley is open as usual from the 1st of May. Access will be the issue. Coming from the west, travellers will have to wait until the Fitzroy River low-level crossing is up and running for all traffic. From the east, the Victoria Highway will have to remain open.

The road north to Kalumburu is the access road to Drysdale Station and onto Mitchell Plateau. As far as it’s possible to tell, Mitchell Falls will open when the road reopens.

 

Ensuring the Preservation of Culture on WA’s Mitchell Plateau, Matthew Birch, Mitchell Falls, waterfall, film photo, Kimberley

Mitchell Falls | @matthewbirchmedia

 

The Kimberley remains one of the truly remote areas of Australia, providing adventure for those who want to get up there and experience it. But as this wet season has shown, it’s a wild region, dominated by the power of Mother Nature.

 

Feature photo by Callum Brocket

Additional photos thanks to Main Roads Western Australia