6:30AM Wednesday morning we finally headed out of Derby for the Gibb River Road. Because of the heat we are planning to break camp and be on the road no later than 7:00AM so that hopefully we can have made camp before midday. Our time in Derby had been interesting as we had managed to talk to lots of people that had come down the Gibb River Road. Opinions on the road varied but so did the level of experience of outback travel of the drivers. There are still people who do not carry a second spare wheel or a tyre repair kit. We were shown an article in a caravan magazine about a couple who took their Jayco Expanda and Nissan Pathfinder down the road early on in the season when the road had just been opened and was in good condition. The article read like an add for the vehicles but what was obvious was that this couple were just not prepared. Yes they completed the trip without major issues but it took them three days to find someone to mend a puncture during which time they had no spare. So obviously they did not carry a second spare or a tyre repair kit. Foolhardy but lucky.
Anyway the first 80 kilometres is sealed. Once on the gravel we let our tyres down to 28psi all round, caravan included. The southern half of the road is apparently in better condition than the northern half but the run up to the Windjana Gorge turn off was okay, some corrugations but nothing too bad. The Windjana Gorge turn off is 124 kilometres from Derby. The gorge campground is only a short ten kilometre run from the main road on a mainly good road. There is however a large bulldust hole in one part of the road that would be a real trap for fast or complacent drivers which, luckily, we had been warned about in Derby. This is a national park and the facilities are pretty good. There is a campground for coach tours and those with generators and then a separate quiet campground. Plenty of solar showers and flushing toilets. WA National Parks have volunteer camp hosts in many of the popular parks during the peak season. Apparently these “camp hosts” manage the camping area and organise the campers. What a horrible thought, probably just another extension of the nanny state we seem to have become. I do not want to be managed or organised by some volunteer ranger. Luckily, because we travel outside the peak season we have managed to miss these “camp hosts”.
We have had some more issues with the fridge, it really isn’t coping with this heat. Won’t bore you with all the details but a full explanation is given in the dirtvan blog in the “Our Goldstream” section. Before we left Derby we had been told that the tourist season was well and truly over. Some stations along the road had closed their gates to visitors as the traffic had diminished to a few hardy souls. Apparently in the “season” the locals reckon the dust doesn’t get a chance to settle on the road as there is so much traffic. There would have been about twelve camps in the campground that night. The Windjana Gorge road loops back past Tunnel Creek and then out onto the Northern Highway near Fitzroy Crossing. People who want some experience of the Kimberly’s but don’t want to travel the full length of the Gibb River Road use this “tourist” drive.
The Kimberly is so big and vast that we have decided we can’t possibly see everything in this our first visit so we are not going to try but will mark some areas down to see next time. Left Windjana Camp Ground 7:00AM making for Silent Grove in the King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park, only about 80 further north along the Gibb River Road. King Leopold Ranges are fantastic, an incredibly majestic site that frankly I cannot describe. If you have seen the movie “Australia” with Nicole Kidman then you will have seen these ranges as some of the dramatic backdrops were filmed here. At Inglis Gap there is a rock formation named Queen Victoria’s face and there really is a certain similarity. Silent Grove is the campground for Bell Gorge which is regarded as one of the most magnificent gorges in the Kimberly’s. Bell Gorge is only 30 kilometres from the main road but it had been cut to pieces by the traffic and was badly corrugated. After a couple of kilometres we decided there were plenty of other gorges to see so turned round, went back to the main road and resumed our journey north. It was only a few kilometres to the Imintji store.
Like most aboriginal stores this was managed by Europeans. They were starting to stock up for the wet. Huge freezers and sea containers at the rear to store dry goods as once the wet begins they are totally isolated for five months. The only access then is by helicopter. They told us that the road to Bell Gorge is maintained by National Parks and is only graded at the start of the tourist season and can get pretty bad near the end. Jessica advised us not to miss Galvans Gorge, around 85 kilometres further north east as it was a great swimming hole, she even told us where to find aboriginal art. Jessica was right, this was a beaut place. Only a small swimming hole but deep and cool. Just what was needed.
We then had a run of only 20 kilometres to Manning Gorge. First we stopped at Mt Barnet Roadhouse to pay our camping fees as Manning Gorge is on their property. Not many camped here and after making camp it was into the Manning River for a swim. The temperature in the car is reaching 44C during the heat of the day so the water was absolutely delicious. Sandy banks with no mud underfoot, we stayed in the water until we developed wrinkles. There were little fish that bit you if you stayed still, probably after dead skin but a bit unnerving until you got used to it.
Whilst up on the Kimberley Plateau, we are at about 500 metres, it is safe to swim. Not so when you drop down lower and into the domain of salt water crocodiles. At least half the travellers on the road seem to be driving Britz Troopies and most are Germans. Left before 7:00AM making for the Kalumburu Road turn off. This road heads north about 280 kilometres to the coast at the aboriginal settlement at Kalumburu. It is also the access to the Mitchell Falls on the Mitchell Plateau and then Port Warrender on the coast. This road has a pretty bad reputation but we wanted to see if we could at least get to Drysdale River Station 65 kilometres up the road.
As it turned out the road was good all the way to the station. Here we were told that the rest of the road was “okay” and we should be able to get through, although there were not many on the road this late in the year. Camping is available next to the homestead or at Miners Pool about 2 kilometres from the homestead on the banks of the Drysdale River. Vicki carefully questioned the staff about the possibility of meeting a crocodile in the Miner’s Pool and when satisfied that no such possibility existed we headed off there to camp. On the way the car overheated, again! This was very worrying as if it got worse we could be in for a very expensive truck retrieval. This was supposed to have been fixed in Derby.
Great swim in the Miner’s Pool. The surface water was luke warm, if you wanted to cool off you had to dive down into cooler water. No fish here to bite you. The camping area here is huge and could accommodate over 50 camps however tonight there is only ourselves and a young couple with a camper trailer. We had evening drinks with Nicole and Dale and exchanged travel experiences. I got up around midnight for a drink and it was still 35C. Next morning it was back to the homestead to fill up with fuel. We had decided that it would be very unwise to proceed further up this road with the car like it was and instead we would get to Kununurra as quickly as possible. This was a real disappointment, even the station owner said we could have reached the Mitchell Plateau with the van with the road as it is and he should know as he graded the road.
Drysdale River Station runs 7,000 head of cattle on a million acres. The owner was really interesting to talk to. He now doesn’t do much around the station as he has contracted out the cattle business and APT Wilderness Adventures manage the accommodation, restaurant and bar. He and his staff now just run the camp grounds, shop and fuel and mechanical repair business which he said during the season keeps them all very busy. During the wet, like most stations in the Kimberley Drysdale River is completely shut off and except for a caretaker everyone leaves. He stays open until the road is closed as travellers rely on him for fuel. But as soon as the road is closed he and his wife head up to Port Warrender (it is a port in name only as nothing is there) where he has moored a 100 tonne, 75 foot steel power catamaran. On this they spend the wet, cruising the offshore islands between Wyndham and Derby. Offshore there are hundreds of islands with magnificent sandy beaches completely safe to swim. He carries 5,000 litres of diesel and when he needs more fuel or supplies he contacts and then meets up with the supply barge that services the remote communities. Doesn’t need to take on fresh water as he makes 200 litres a day on board. He has his safe refuges all plotted and at the first warning of a cyclone heads for the nearest although as yet he has avoided cyclones altogether. We just sat on the lawn in some shade and yarned, it was great. We talked about the Wessel Islands as we had both been there. Vicki meanwhile had been talking to a lady in the shop who said she was glad the season was almost over as early in the season they seem to get a lot of rude yobbos travelling and she was sick of them.
This is one of the advantages of travelling out of season as despite the intense heat if it had been in peak times staff, managers and owners would just not have time to sit around and talk.
The next camp was supposed to be Ellenbrae Station which was only 130 kilometres back down the Kalumburu Road and NE on the Gibb River Road. That was supposed to be open until the tenth but at the entrance was a “camp ground closed” sign so it was another 100 or so kilometres to Home Valley Station. Just after Ellenbrae the grass was burning and for about 10 kilometres we had very thick smoke with the burn right beside the road.
Had to stop three times to let the car cool down before we got to Home Valley. The overheating was getting worse. Home Valley is a resort and we camped on green manicured lawn. Not my preferred camp as they have a bush camp on the Pentecost River which is home to salt water crocodiles and barramundi. But with the car now overheating badly we couldn’t risk the trip to this bush camp. Another great disappointment!
Very hot night, not a breadth of wind. I think the fridge has just given up. I’ve heard it said time and time again that these 3 way fridges simply can’t cope in temperatures over 35C and with the way this fridge operates I would agree. The staff at the resort gave Vicki some ice so at least we have managed a cool drink. The resort mechanic has had a look at the car and he thinks it may be a head gasket on the way out. He suggests we try to get to Kununurra where there is a Nissan dealer. I was amazed when he said that during the peak season he and his staff can have anything up to 15 vehicles in the workshop and they repair 15 to 20 tyres a day.
Left Home Valley around 6:00AM for Kununurra. We didn’t call into El Questro as we just wanted to get safely to Kununurru. El Questro also has the reputation of being very expensive. Just to get on to the place you have to buy a “Wilderness Park Permit” at $18 per person for seven days. Then of course there are camping fees on top of that.
We are now in a very nice shady caravan park in Kununurra which is right opposite the Nissan dealer and within walking distance of the town centre. The air conditioner is going and it is cool inside the van. Thank god something still works because if you want a hot drink you can probably get it out of the fridge! So tomorrow morning (Monday) I will see what the mechanics at the Nissan dealer have to say.
Town Caravan Park, Kununurra – Sunday 9/10/2011