A Melbourne based writer who is a travel junkie, dedicated foodie and emerging photographer.
Published July 13th 2022
You don't need to leave Australia to have an adventure
Australians love to travel, and the COVID-related lockdowns and restrictions left many of us with itchy feet. If you want to start travelling again, but perhaps feel reluctant to fly overseas, there are many options to consider within our own country. The Kimberley region in Western Australia (WA) is one such option. I recently completed a two-week Kimberley tour, and thought I would share my experience.
The iconic Cable Beach, near Broome, is a gathering spot for sunset. Broome is a common starting point for many Kimberley tours.
What or where is The Kimberley?
First, some basics. The Kimberley is the northern most region of WA, an area of over 400,000 square kilometres. It is bordered by coastline on the north and west sides, stretching to the Great Sandy and Tanami deserts in the south, and the Northern Territory border to the east.
The main city in The Kimberley is Broome to the south-west. Many Kimberley tours start in Broome.
Map showing the Kimberley region of WA
How and when to travel
There are a number of options to consider, however the primary considerations are the difficulty of the terrain and the seasonal influences. The most common tourist route through The Kimberley is a loop from Broome, through Derby to Kununurra, south to Purnululu (Bungle Bungles), then return to Broome via Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing (or the reverse). This means travelling along the infamous Gibb River Road - a 647km section of largely unsealed road that was formerly a cattle track. The Gibb River Road is often impassable during the wet season, so the tourist season is largely limited to the dry season (April to October).
The conditions can change from day to day, and certainly from season to season. The road is generally graded after the wet season ends but may deteriorate during the 'dry' season. Expect at the minimum corrugations, and many water crossings. If it rains (and we are not talking about light showers here!), the water crossings become challenging, and there will be 'wash outs' to avoid roadside.
Our touring set up for the Kimberley circuit. Five of us (including the driver/guide) travelled in this vehicle, transporting all we needed to camp, cook and eat along the way.
All of this means that a four wheel drive vehicle is essential. It needs to be robust; sorry, but a fancy all-wheel drive vehicle is not going to cut it here. I would not take on this trip on your own unless you have off-road experience and a reasonable level of mechanical knowledge. The roads are notoriously hard on vehicles.
If, like me, you don't satisfy these criteria, then an organised tour is the best option. There is a wide range of options available, from the most basic to more high end, from larger group travel to bespoke. We travelled with Outback Horizons, a small, family owned business, that will tailor tours to meet your needs. We (two couples who are friends) travelled in a Toyota Landcruiser, accompanied by our wonderful guide, who was also the driver and chief cook.
You have a choice between camping and 'accommodated' trips (ie staying in hotels etc) or a combination, although there are limited accommodation options along the Gibb River Road. We opted for a hybrid model, camping in all locations except for the larger hubs of Kununurra and Fitzroy Crossing.
There are limited accommodation options in some stretches of the Kimberley circuit.
Some of the larger tour operators, such as APT and Kimberley Wild, have lodges and/or semi-permanent camps (ie tents that are set up in fixed locations, in close proximity to one another, from the start of the season, meaning travellers on these tours are spared the task of setting up their own tent) in some locations. Travelling in a larger group, with a fixed itinerary, will not suit everyone, so it depends on your priorities.
Expect an early start from Broome on day 1, as it is more than 350km to Windjana Gorge, which is likely to be the first night's campground. We stopped along the way at the town of Derby while our guide refuelled and bought extra provisions. We visited the Norval Gallery where we met gallery owner, and award winning artist, Mark Norval, and found him to be a most personable and engaging man. He actively supports indigenous people with their art, and there were several artists at work when we visited. The gallery is well worth a visit.
Soon after leaving Derby, you will join the unsealed Gibb River Road. Along this stretch of road, through to Kununurra, the tour is all about the gorges, and here a word of caution. Access to most gorges involves a walk in that may be several kilometres each way, over rough, rocky terrain. We travelled in May, where the daytime temperature reached around 32 degrees C each day. If you have some physical limitations, you are likely to find it difficult to access some locations. If you are part of a large tour group with a set itinerary, you may find yourself sitting and waiting for your group to return.
Arriving at Windjana Gorge National Park campground in time for lunch on day 1, we were given a demonstration of how to set up tents and camp stretchers (easy even for a novice like me!). In the afternoon, we drove the 30 minutes or so to Tunnel Gorge. Access to the gorge involved a rocky scramble to reach a large chasm, with walls over 300m high in places. The gorge is around 3km in length, and there was very limited light inside, necessitating the use of head torches. There was thigh deep water in one place too, making this a sensory experience! But there's something beautiful and ethereal about this location.
A section of Tunnel Gorge - beautiful and ethereal
Back to our campsite, from which it was an easy walk down to Windjana Gorge to enjoy the sunset.
Day 2 started with a short drive (approximately two hours) to Silent Grove. After setting up camp and having lunch, we walked into Dalyani (Bell Gorge). The walk was a short distance - 2km return - but involved a climb up and over a rocky hill to get to the best section of water. The water was cool and refreshing, and we enjoyed a swim in the crystal clear water.
Another short drive (112 kms) on day 3, to Manning Gorge Campground. This gave us time to stop at a couple of gorges on the way - Adcock Gorge and Galvans Gorge. Manning Gorge was a popular campground and it was easy to see why. It is situated near a sandy river beach which is extensive enough to allow visitors to spread out as they relax by, or swim in, the river.
We stayed at Manning Gorge Campground for day 4 as well, to give us time to walk into the Gorge itself. The walk starts with a river crossing, and you have the option of wading and swimming across the water (tubs are available so you can float your backpack across), or jumping in a dinghy attached to a cable, so you can pull yourself across. The walk took us about an hour each way, and as always, there was beautiful scenery and flora to keep it interesting. Manning Gorge is stunning, with a large swimming hole, large rocks to dry out on, and - at least when we were there - an extensive waterfall. It was lovely to climb up onto the rocks and have a shower under a section of the waterfall!
Manning Gorge - a stunning large swimming hole.
On day 5 we travelled to Munurru (King Edward River) Campground, a distance of around 280km. This involved leaving the Gibb River Road and heading north along Kalumburu Road. Many tourists and organised tours choose not to travel to Munurru, as the road is notoriously bad (yes, even worse than Gibb River Road!). We were thankful for having an experienced driver who was confident in lowering the tyre pressure considerably to give us a better ride.
There are two indigenous art sites close to Munurru, the Wandjina and Warnmarri (Brolga) Complexes, each well worth a visit. The first we visited had perhaps the best examples of indigenous art we saw on the trip. Our guide explained that some of the art sites are still actively used for ceremonies, so the art is periodically touched up. The second art site was still used as a burial grounds. It was confronting to see human remains tucked away in a natural alcove in the rocks.
Indigenous art near the Munurru Campground
The main reason for staying at Munurru is for access to the Mitchell River Plateau. It was an early start on day 6, as we first had to tackle a 79km stretch of road, that took a bumpy 2.5 hours, to reach the Mitchell Falls trail head.The 8.6km (return) trail is graded moderate to difficult, with water crossings, rock scrambles, and - in some areas - little or no shade. If you are going to walk the circuit, you will need to allow 4-6 hours (including some time for sightseeing). Another option - which we took - was to take a helicopter flight one (or both) way(s). It's only a 6 minute flight, but it gives you spectacular views over the falls, providing an aerial perspective of the four tiers that these falls are renowned for. ($170 for a one-way flight at time of writing.) Note that it's important to book your flight in advance; we saw potential customers being turned away as the flights were fully booked on the day we were there.
Mitchell Falls, spectacular four-tiered falls
Walking back from the top of the falls, you have several opportunities to stop for a swim. We stopped at Little Mertens Falls, which stands out in my mind as one of the most beautiful pools we visited.
Little Mertens Falls - beautiful, and a welcome oasis on the walk back from Mitchell Falls
On day 7, we headed to El Questro, a distance of about 300km. We stopped on the way at Ellenbrae Station, where they serve excellent food and coffee including Devonshire teas. Where most of the campgrounds had, to this point, been quite small, with basic facilities, El Questro campgrounds are vast, popular, and well equipped. It's more like a town than a campground! There's even a steakhouse and a bar, with live music in the evenings. Oh, and laundry facilities - most welcome by this stage!
We spent days 8 and 9 at El Questro, as there is plenty to do. On day 8, we visited the beautiful Emma Gorge, accessed by a rocky scramble along the creek bed, with stunning red escarpments along the way. The gorge has a 70m waterfall.
Emma Gorge. Look closely and you can see people swimming - this gives you an idea of the scale.
On the way back to the campsite, we stopped at Zebedee Springs - natural hot springs that settle in a series of pools down a hillside. They are extensive enough that if you are prepared to climb up the hill a bit, you should be able to find a pool to yourself. Note the springs are only open between 7am and 12 noon.
Later in the day, our guide took us up to Saddleback Ridge, a popular place for a sunset view. The track up was extremely steep and rough, and not for the first time, I was glad I wasn't driving, but the outlook was stunning.
On day 9, we visited El Questro Gorge. Another rocky scramble to reach the midway pool; there is a top pool as well, which we were told was another 2km or so further on, and considerably more physically challenging to reach. The midway pool was fed by fast running water and was beautifully clear. That afternoon, we went on a Chamberlain Gorge boat cruise ($89 including transfer from the campground at time of writing). The soaring red cliffs, the bird life, and the beautiful reflected colours on the water as the sun started to drop made this a memorable and worthwhile activity.
Chamberlain Gorge cruise: stunning scenery and reflections
On day 10, it was an easy drive into Kununurra, the second largest city in the Kimberley, all on sealed roads. This was the first time we'd stayed in accommodation (ie not camping) for the tour. We stayed in the Kununurra Country Club, a large facility, offering comfortable accommodation, along with a pool, bar and restaurant. We arrived in Kununurra late morning, time to enjoy a coffee at one of the cafes in town, and to arrange lunch for the afternoon's activity - a half day boat cruise on the Ord River ($200 adult price at time of writing). We were picked up by bus from the Country Club and transported to the Lake Argyle dam wall, stopping on the way at the Durack Homestead for a lunch break (note it is a quick stop, sadly there was not really enough time to eat lunch and look around the homestead). The boat cruise took several hours, giving us the opportunity to admire beautiful scenery, and spot wildlife including fresh water crocodiles, many species of cormorants, sea eagles, an azure kingfisher and a lone rock wallaby. The boat landed along the way so we could get off for afternoon tea. This was a most impressive spread, including many types of cakes and slices, and pumpkin scones. The cruise concluded back in Kununurra just after sunset.
More beautiful scenery on the 55km Argyle River cruise
Day 11 was a second day in Kununurra. The extra day wasn't strictly necessary in terms of the itinerary, but it was great to have some less structured time. We visited Ivanhoe Crossing, a 540m causeway across the Ord River. On arrival, we found four or five vehicles parked up, perhaps a little uncertain about the safety of the crossing. It did look a little daunting, as there is fast flowing water across the road. Our guide confidently entered the water and took us across. The road continues onto Wyndham (a 95km trip), however, we didn't venture that far.
Ivanhoe Crossing. A little daunting to the uninitiated.
Later in the day, we visited the Hoochery Distillery. As well as having the ploughman's platter for lunch, we tried a 'flight' of three rums. Very enjoyable!
On day 12, we headed to Purnululu (Bungles Bungles) national park, staying at Walardi Campgrounds (a little over 300kms). The drive from the highway to the campground is on a rough dirt road, with some significant water crossings. The facilities at the camp were basic, with no running water, just drop toilets. But the Bungle Bungles are the hero here, and one of the highlights of the holiday.
We had an early start on day 13, to take a 30 minute helicopter flight over the Bungle Bungles. It will add considerably to your travel budget ($429pp at time of writing), but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the helicopter flight (doors off) if you can manage it. It is the best way to get an appreciation of the extensiveness and uniqueness of this World Heritage listed range, with its stunning striped sandstone 'beehive' domes. It took my breath away!
The World Heritage listed Bungle Bungles - took my breath away!
Later in the day, we visited two gorges. Cathedral Gorge is vast, the soaring walls making it look like a huge amphitheatre. Echidna Chasm is in a different part of the park and a popular tourist location. However, we were fortunate enough to arrive at the final section of the walk without others around, giving us the opportunity to fully appreciate the beauty of this beautiful, narrow gorge, with its sweeping red cliffs.
Echidna Chasm. Note the person towards the middle of the shot which helps to get a sense of the scale.
As mentioned earlier in the article, the 'dry season' is the best time to visit the Kimberley, but, as we were to learn that night, that is no guarantee it won't rain! The heavens opened, and it rained for much of the night. Even with tarpaulins over our tents, they got rather sodden. But more concerning was whether we'd be able to leave the park that day, as scheduled. The rain had swollen the water crossings on the exit road to such an extent that the rangers closed the road. We drove from the campground towards the Visitor Centre, stopping at one of the water crossings until the water had dropped to the point where our guide deemed it safe to cross. Arriving at the Visitor Centre, we joined perhaps six other vehicles, all waiting hopefully to see if the road from there back to the highway would be re-opened. The rangers did allow us through around midday, and we made it back to the highway without any issue, but it was a salutary reminder that you need to be flexible in the Kimberley, things won't always go to plan.
Water crossing after the rain. Our guide decided to wait a while before crossing.
It's a big drive from Purnululu to our next destination, Fitzroy Crossing - around 460km. The late start on day 14 meant any activities that might have happened along the way had to be curtailed. We were all happy to arrive at the Fitzroy River Lodge, in time for a very good dinner in their restaurant.
On our final day, day 15, after visiting the original Fitzroy Crossing bridge over the Fitzroy River, we headed back to Broome (around 400kms). A planned cruise on Danggu (Geikie Gorge) sadly did not eventuate, as it was closed on that day for indigenous cultural reasons, but it is a standard inclusion on most itineraries. From Fitzroy Crossing, it's a straightforward drive on sealed roads to complete the loop. We rounded out the trip with a visit to Cable Beach (near Broome) for sundowners. There was also the opportunity to have a camel ride while we were there.
Sunset over the water from Cable Beach
The Kimberley is a stunning, diverse and interesting part of Australia, and one I recommend goes on everyone's travel list - provided you have a love of nature and landscapes, and a flexible attitude to travel plans! And perhaps you are prepared to leave your creature comforts behind for a few days.
I've hardly touched on the wildlife we saw, along with the beautiful native flora. Not to mention the outstanding sunrises and sunsets!
First light over our campsite.
The circuit I've described, including the side trip to the Mitchell Plateau, is just over 3200kms, including some very rough terrain and difficult water crossings, so as previously mentioned, selecting the right mode of transport and the travel format that will work for you is paramount to getting the most from your Kimberley experience.
The images in this article were taken by the writer.
I now know what the area looks like at ground level. Back in 1967 we covered most of the Kimberley area by light aircraft only landing at Halls Creek, Broome, Derby, Kalumburu Mission and Kununurra. Congrats on the gold.