At the northern extremity of Western Australia a notorious road crosses this part of the Australian Continent from east to west.
The Gibb River Road had always held a fascination for many overlanders and by reputation it is only a track that services half a dozen large cattle stations and provides a road connection between the towns of Wyndham and Derby. It is graded once a year just after the monsoon or “wet” season and from December to May it is usually impassable due to rising rivers which flow into the Timor Sea to the north.
The Gibb River Road is inherently a four wheel drive or heavy vehicle road and, as it receives very little maintenance at all, around 650km of its length is severely corrugated. Those brave and foolhardy travellers, who have attempted to drive across this unforgiving passage in ordinary cars or those who have towed caravans across it, have suffered the consequences. The attrition rate on these vehicles has been high.
The day that we turned on to the Gibb River Road in 1986 was no different to any other day in the middle of the tourist season. It was about mid afternoon and we were heading west into the sun. Although it was July, and winter in the north, the daily temperatures still reached 35C, which are summer temperatures in southern Australia. Both vehicles in our party had been fitted with air-conditioning and that saved some of our sanity as the road conditions were poor. The road was very corrugated and rutted and on most of the middle road surface the top soil had been blown away by the wind, exposing a rocky terrain.
We stopped at the Pentecost River for a breather and to take some photos of the setting sun on the majestic Cockburn Ranges. We had a short chat to some fellow travellers and the common mechanical complaint related to the vehicle suspension. They were driving two Volkswagen Variants and would join the two cars together with a rigid bar when 4×4 was needed.
That evening I found a water hole a few hundred metres off the road and out of sight. Our companions tested out their new hot water shower unit whilst we boiled the billy to fill the plastic shower bag to achieve the same result. That night the dingoes with their mournful melodies, and the braying feral donkeys, kept the light sleepers awake. Just before sunrise a flurry of parrots woke us as they came down to the water for an early morning drink.
The next stage of our journey took us along the Gibb River Road to the turn off to the Kalumburu Mission Road short of Gibb River Station. Along the way we had passed El Questro and Home Valley Station which cater for tourists in a resort style manner.
Once on the Kalumburu Road it was a short distance to the Drysdale River where we had lunch. Just north of the river crossing lies Drysdale River Station where we stocked up on fuel and some groceries from the store. This station and Kalumburu Mission are the only two fuel and provisions outlets in the Far North Kimberley so care must be taken when working out your supply needs.
Special permission is required from the Chairman of the Kalumburu Aboriginal Corporation to enter Kalumburu lands and this permission may be obtained via Radio Telephone through Derby Outpost Radio Service.
The road north from Drysdale River Station was corrugated for 119km interrupted only occasional sandstone ridges protruding from the road surface. These ridges had to be driven over with care. We turned off towards the Mitchell Plateau along a track marked by an old fuel drum. Seven kilometres along this very washed out track we came to the King Edward River and found a place to camp for the night.
The Mitchell Plateau contains many reminders of aboriginal occupation, as there are numerous art sites throughout the ranges and creeks of the plateau. The first recorded European contact of the area was made by Captain Phillip Parker King between 1821 and 1822. King named the natural harbour on Admiralty Gulf ‘Port Warrender’. In 1921 Robert Easton led a state government expedition into the North Kimberley country and was the first European to traverse the plateau. Easton named the Mitchell River after Sir James Mitchell, the then Premier of Western Australia. John Morgan surveyed the route from Gibb River Station to Kalumburu Mission in 1955. Then in 1965 extensive bauxite deposits were discovered by AMAX Exploration teams led by Ken Malcolm. He named the Mitchell Plateau after the Mitchell River and Mertens Falls after the zoologist Robert Mertens who discovered a specie of lizard.
In 1980 the bauxite deposits were acquired under lease by the Mitchell Plateau Bauxite Company, a division of Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA) and for a while they have managed the public access into the area whilst doing further exploration. CRA relinquished it’s lease in 1986 and while much of the area is still under mining lease, two large areas around Mitchell Falls and the Lawley River have been set aside for inclusion into a national park.
Soon after you leave the King Edward River camp site you rise up onto the plateau. The most striking aspect of the flora is the predominance of ‘livistonia eastonii’ Palms. There are literally millions of these palms growing in this harsh environment. Interspersed among the palms are eucalypts such as Stringybark, Woolibutt and Bloodwood. The soil formation is laterite and rocky ridges criss-cross the surface of the track protruding up 100mm above the ground surface. That is enough to make you bounce in your seat.
The 70km to the old mining camp and caretakers lodge took about two and a half hours to negotiate. We camped near to the old mining buildings but that was not a good site. We would have been better off camping closer to Mitchell Falls.
The following morning we made our way along the 18km track to the start of the walk to Mitchell falls. A sign at the car park stated that it was a six hour return walk! It transpired to be just that. It is an easy walk and most of the time you are walking in the shade under the canopy of eucalypts and palms.
Along the walking track you first pass Little Mertens Falls, then Big Mertens Falls before culminating at Mitchell Falls. There are rock pools along the way for swimming and places to cool off in as well as numerous rock overhangs where we found quite a number of rock paintings in yellow and red ochre.
Although we were visiting the area in July which is the ‘dry’ season, we were in luck, as the countryside had had a considerable amount of rain some weeks prior to our visit and the falls were flowing.
We arrived at Mitchell Falls after a three hour walk and we were entranced by the physical beauty of the place. The falls cascade over a large ledge and through a sink hole in the rock and down five giant steps to a large aquamarine pool at the bottom of the gorge. At the top of the falls there is a large pool in which to cool off and relax and you can clamber around either side of the gorge to get a good photographic position. While we were cooling off the resident Mertens Water Monitor lizard came by to inspect us, totally unafraid of our presence.
Drysdale River National Park must be one of the most remote parks in Australia. We gained entry through Old Theda Station after asking for permission to enter the property from the owner, who just happened to be down at the mustering yards. He told us that there was an old mustering track entering the park from the north and that we were welcome to cross his property and to camp along the track on the Morgan or Carson Rivers which cut through his property.
The 31km from Theda Station to the Carson River Escarpment is a pleasant drive albeit slow. We stopped on a hill to admire thousands of very shiny rock crystals. We figured that they were quartz crystals and possibly zircons. At the Carson River, which is also the boundary of the national park, we turned north and soon we were on Carson River station where they were mustering cattle. The mustering crew asked if we could stay out of the area for the next two days until the muster was completed. We acceded to their request and turned back to Old Theda Station and camped by the Morgan River.
The Northern Kimberley is a very rugged area with numerous harsh mountain ranges, escarpments, gorges and creeks. The countryside is so rugged, it is said, that you could wear out a pair of boots within a week walking through these ranges. It is also cattle country and the bush flies drove us insane. The flora is tropical woodland savannah with eucalypt forests, interspersed with palm, cycads, wattles and grevilleas. The dingoes howled every night and so did the feral donkeys which roam the Kimberley in their thousands. We saw lots of kangaroos as well as wild scrub cattle. Bird life was prolific and in the rivers and streams we saw a number of fresh water crocodiles. Closer to the sea saltwater crocodiles are found in great numbers.
We spent two days on the Morgan River. We fossicked for gemstones, fished for bream and caught some too and baked fresh bush bread in the camp ovens. While scratching around in the river for agates a water snake sent us scurrying in all directions.
Our next camp was on the Carson River near the escarpment. We had found the old track mentioned by the owner of Theda Station, but after about 10km of faint track whilst pushing our way through quite dense scrub, it petered out and we could not even find it on foot. We made camp under some shady trees on the Carson and spent the next day fishing and repairing punctures. We also took a hike up into the escarpment to get a better view of our surroundings. This proved to be quite hazardous as the escarpment is made up of brittle sand stone formations and it is quite dangerous to walk on.
The following day we made for Carson River Station. Close to the homestead we came across the station manager who was driving a truck with a flat tyre and no spare. He was very friendly and after we had plied him with a few cold beers from our fridges, he invited us to camp down on the Drysdale River near Moonlight Yard. He also told us of some spectacular waterfalls on the King George River and that he had only recently bulldozed a track into that area and that only station workers had travelled down that track. We accepted his invitation but had to push on to Kalumburu Mission to refuel, buy some supplies and to take a look at Pago Pago Beach.
Kalumburu Mission is very well maintained with clean surroundings and brightly painted buildings. At the supermarket and art shop we spent some time and money and also met the chairman of the Kalumburu Aboriginal Corporation. Everyone was very friendly and helpful and pointed us in the right direction to Pago Pago ruins and beach.
Once there we spent a lazy day fishing and eating oysters off the rocks. I managed to bog the Suzuki on the sandy approach to the beach but a winch job saw us back on hard ground again. Napier Broome Bay has unsurpassed scenery. Tranquil blue waters surrounded by white beaches and green mangroves. A sailing boat glided into the bay while we were relaxing on the beach. We camped that night near the ruins but the mosquitoes attacked us in earnest and we hid in our tents until dawn.
The next day we made for Carson River Station again. We missed going to Big Jumbo which is a Commonwealth Airfield and was used by Australian and American Aircraft during World War 2.
We made an early start from our camp at Moonlight Yard on the Drysdale River to drive the 117km mustering track to the King George Falls. By 9am I had had the first puncture for the day. Progress was slow along the track and it took us close to four hours to get to the turn off to the falls. The next five kilometres took one and a half hours to traverse and we were in low range second gear for most of the way. Once we were close to the river environs we had another ten minutes walk to the falls. This eastern side of the Kimberleys had not had as much rain as the Mitchell catchment area and the river was not flowing. Nevertheless the scenery was breathtaking. When in flood the King George River flows over these falls and plummets 230 metres into the sea below.
There had been less rain over in this part of the Kimberley and the falls were not flowing this time. The narrow gorge, only a few hundred metres wide, winds its way for many kilometres towards the open sea. It is possible to travel to the base of the falls by boat. We gingerly crept to the edge of the precipice and lay on our stomachs to view the scene below. Hundreds of box jellyfish could be seen floating on the surface and we could see turtle, sharks and a few crocodiles all going about their business. We spent quite a few hours exploring this magical place and taking in the scenery. We also found that the river bed contained agates and we spent some time fossicking for the prettiest stones.
We started our return journey in the late afternoon and on the rough section of the track I staked two tyres simultaneously. Now I had three flat tyres and we were going nowhere.
Two and a half hours later, a few cold beers and an encounter with an over inquisitive emu, saw us back on the track. But by now the sun had disappeared behind the horizon and we made our way home in the dark. We arrived at our base camp just before midnight and slept the sleep of the dead!
We spent another day at the Drysdale River doing minor repairs to trailers and suspensions and started on our journey back to Darwin after calling in at Carson River Station homestead again. Our friends had school aged children and were in a hurry to get home and we parted company at the Mitchell Falls turnoff. We continued on at a leisurely pace.