Warning: This is a Claytons* trip report.
I have been to this amazing region only twice, so I’m no expert, but, if it’s jaw dropping scenery you’re after, you will be awed – well okay, I was.
Our forays were both in May, three years apart. In 2007 we hired a Mitsubishi 4WD from Hertz in Darwin driving to Derby, then back to Darwin on the Gibb River Road. Then, in 2010 – we hired a Britz campervan and drove from Broome to Darwin on the Great Northern Highway. So no specifics on accommodation or restaurants are provided here, my info may be old. Google is your friend for current info.
The Kimberley covers a huge area in the very north of Western Australia, about 424,000 square kilometres stretching from the Indian Ocean to near the Northern Territory border. The population is roughly 50,000, a very low density, so you won’t find any crowds. Yes, this is the outback. It’s roughly 900 or 1000 kms driving distance between Broome in the west, and Kununurra in the east, depending on which of the two routes you choose. The region has a tropical climate, dry season is May to October, and is the best (read only) time to visit. The wet season is likely to see a few roads washed out and impassable. Some locals use light planes or helicopters during the wet. Oh, and they might get a cyclone or two.
The WA tourism website is amazing, here’s the link:
http://www.westernaustralia.com › Home › Destinations › Australia’s North West
Broome is 2200 kms north of Perth, and has a permanent population of about 15,000. It’s an attractive port town set on a spit of land running south, with sheltered Roebuck Bay to the east forming a large, safe (ish) harbour. The Indian Ocean is across the spit to the west at Cable Beach, about 7 kms from Broome. There are easy frequent transport links by bus from Broome to CB. The sun sinks into the ocean here at wide, white sand Cable Beach, and those sunsets are stunning.
You can ride a camel on the beach, it’s touristy but fun and you will learn a bit about dromedaries. Cable Beach has some luxury resort options, and dining overlooking the ocean, sweet.
The town of Broome is compact, and has an interesting history dating back to the 1880’s when the pearling industry was established. This town grew on that molluscs back (shell ?) with the help of many Asian immigrants. There is still a small Chinatown in modern day Broome, and we did enjoy some “standard Aussie type Chinese food” at a restaurant nearby.
A book I enjoyed – The White Divers of Broome by John Bailey – explains the early history in an informative if unsettling way.
Roebuck Bay is a working port, has a long jetty, many mangroves, and still many pearling boats working in the harbour.
There are some fine examples of well preserved houses with colonial style tropical architecture in town, and an amazing natural phenomenon – if you happen to be there during a full moon, on a clear night, with a low tide, in the dry season. Whew.
The “Staircase to the Moon” is created by moonlight reflecting off endless mud flats, have a look here – we really lucked in. The best vantage point happens to be a pub. Bonus !
You can take a hovercraft to see dinosaur footprints at local beaches across the bay, and also see them by driving to Gantheaume Point, they’re only 130 million years old ! The dinosaurs were heavy, and the rock is soft, so the impressions are there for all to see. Sadly, my souvenir rock of soft red sandstone has deconstructed itself after 4 years in Queensland.
Broome has a very convenient in-town airport. The flight path seems to skim one of the towns main streets, duck !
There’s World War II history here as well. Broome Harbour was attacked in 1942 by Japanese aircraft – the infamous Zero fighters. At the time, Broome was a refuelling and rest point for Catalinas (flying boats) many of them ferrying Dutch nationals escaping the invasion in Java. Broome is closer to Indonesia than Perth, and a natural halfway stop.
The aircraft were sitting ducks in the harbour on a Tuesday morning at 9.20 am.
22 aircraft and 88 lives were lost on that day – March 3 1942. During this era, there were four air raids made on Broome, many more on Darwin.
So, not a safe harbour that day, or on many other days since then. Tropical cyclones have smashed pearling boats and their crews to smithereens more than once over the years.
There are extremes in this part of the world, extreme weather over many thousands of years makes for extreme landscapes. It’s chilling and awesome.
There is plenty to do around Broome, including great walks along the coast, or perhaps sitting in a pretty garden cafe enjoying sea views with freshly shucked oysters and a glass of chilled white wine.
There’s a modern visitor information centre, see here:
There are two roads connecting Broome in the east to Kununurra in the west.
You can take the Gibb River Road or the Great Northern Highway.
Many rental vehicle options are available, campervans, 4WDs (some are even fitted for camping with RV type slide outs), and normal cars. For the GRR you must have a 4WD. Be aware that some hire car companies expressly forbid driving on the GRR even in a 4WD, others will expect it, so check the fine print.
For those with deeper pockets, there’s a couple of luxury boats that take the coastal route in the dry season. I haven’t done this – but those who have rave about the natural beauty of the coastline.
By road, the shorter route is The Gibb River Rd. It is further north, is mostly dirt, and a 4WD vehicle is mandatory. There are few accommodation places along the way, and there are very limited services, you want to be prepared to camp under the stars. I hope anyone who does want to drive the Gibb River Road would understand the need for thorough and up to date research.
I also have to emphasise, sleeping in a swag* under a gazillion stars is awesome.
What’s a swag ? – the following from Wikipedia:
A modern swag is a waterproof canvas sleeping compartment that is sometimes insect-proof. All swags come with a foam mattress, and can comfortably be slept in with the addition of a pillow and sleeping bag. When rolled up the swag is relatively lightweight and compact, making it ideal for storage and transport. It is typically easy to erect and roll up can be done quickly. Swags are still heavily used, particularly in Australia, by overlanders. There are still a large number of manufacturers actively making both standard and custom-design swags. The modern swag is designed for robustness and is marketed towards those travelling by vehicle – they are too heavy and bulky to be transported long distances on foot. Bushwalkers and hikers would use conventional lightweight tents and sleeping bags. More recently, several camping supply firms have produced readymade bedrolls along the pattern of the original swag, and refer to these as “swags”.
You may encounter the odd “road train” looming in the distance – they are huge trucks, a prime mover with 3 or 4 trailers, up to 55 meters long and probably loaded with cattle. Encountering one is a true outback experience (just pull over to your side of the road, close your eyes, and wait for the dust to settle, it may take 10 minutes). Cattle bred for meat production is the main industry here, and there are no fences as the cattle stations are just so large.
If you don’t want to drive, there are some 4WD small group tours that do the GRR – I reckon they would be fun.
The longer route, is the Great Northern Highway, it’s sealed, has easy signage, and a bit more infrastructure, comprising basically two small towns to overnight at along the way. The towns are rather conveniently placed about 300 kms apart (give or take).
The highway is clearly marked, has two wide lanes, one each way, and we drive on the left, please remember that. It traverses a very open landscape, you can see for miles. We found it easy to sit on the maximum speed limit of 100kph – not only the government imposed legal limit, but also the physical limit of most campervans. You will see many stunning views and places to pull over for a rest and some camera activity, but few amenities. Pack snacks, or beer, or preferably both.
Seeing I mentioned beer, a word now on alcohol in the top end. There is an ongoing problem with alcohol abuse in Northern Australia. Various levels of government attempt to assuage the effects by restricting the sale of alcohol. The rules change often, and also change by region/local council area. It might be difficult to buy beer before 4.00pm in some places, you may need to show ID in others (even if you’re 53) or you might be refused service if you actually just walk into a drive in bottle shop. I kid you not, go get the car, and you’ll be fine. Stockpile when you can I say.
Back to the road:
These conveniently placed towns mean around 4 hours of driving (depending on photo stops along the way), with the balance of the day to explore where you are, as you choose.
Fitzroy Crossing is about 400 kms east of Broome. It’s a very small town (pop 1500) on the banks of the Fitzroy River with a very green and leafy camping ground. The Geike Gorge NP is nearby, you can take a cruise on the river to see soaring cliffs and freshwater crocodiles. It’s similar, but perhaps less spectacular than Katherine Gorge in the Nitmulik National Park, but more remote and less visited. There’s a trade off there, see both to decide your preference.
Indigenous art galleries in the area may be worth a visit, we had the opportunity to talk with working artists in 2010.
Halls Creek is 295 kms further east on the highway. An old gold mining town with a population of about 1200 people, this is a very outback type of town. There are some picnic spots along the river, and of course, a pub. The Canning Stock Route which heads south from here also leads to the Wolfe Creek meteorite site 150 kms away. Don’t, whatever you do, watch the movie Wolf Creek. I believe a sequel is being made, don’t watch that either. I can’t stress this enough.
Halls Creek tourist info here:
Purnululu National Park lies between Halls Creek and Kununurra, and is where you will find the famous black and orange striped beehive type limestone rock structures formed millions of years ago. This area is remote, and was only discovered in the 1980’s. Listed for World Heritage status in 2003, it’s a bit tricky getting to this park by road, 53 kms takes about 3 hours. A scenic flight from Kununurra is an easy (if pricey) way to see these unusual formations.
Kununurra is 350 kms further along the Great Northern Highway from Halls Creek, and is about 100 kms from the Northern Territory border. It has the Ord River and Lake Kununurra close by, and Lake Argyle about 70 kms down the road. Oh, and the Argyle Diamond mine, the largest producer of pink diamonds in the world. You can tour this working mine, but don’t leave it too long, it’s closing in 2018 I believe.
Fishing is a popular hobby here, with barramundi the preferred catch. These are sweet, white fleshed fish, and are truly delicious.
More info below:
Barramundi is considered by many to be the premier freshwater/estuarine angling species in Northern Australia.
Lake Argyle is the largest man made lake in the Southern Hemisphere and was created by constructing a massive dam on the Ord River. This huge river was dumping 50 million litres per second into the sea during the wet season. The Durack family pioneered the cattle industry in this area, and spent years lobbying the state government to create this lake for water storage. The lake now provides a sustainable and reliable water source for food crop production on over 72,000 hectares of land.
In the process of building the dam, the original Durack homestead was moved brick by brick to avoid being inundated, and is now a museum. It’s an interesting look back at how life was then. There’s a pleasant camping ground at Lake Argyle, and boat tours on the lake. You might see fresh water crocs, you can swim here too. Note that it’s the saltwater crocs that will kill you, freshies are less dangerous.
From Lake Argyle it’s a short drive to the Northern Territory border where there is a quarantine station. It’s illegal to bring fruit and vegetables into Western Australia from the NT, but no problem going the other way. You then have about 5 hours drive time to Katherine. Darwin is 3 hours drive north of Katherine.
The reference to this being a Claytons report ? Here’s the details from Wikipedia:
Claytons is the brand name of a non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverage coloured and packaged to resemble bottled whisky. It was the subject of a major marketing campaign in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s, promoting it as “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink” at a time when alcohol was being targeted as a major factor in the road toll. The jingle was written by Australian social satirist, John McKellar.
Although the product is no longer being actively marketed, the name has entered into Australian and New Zealand vernacular where it represents a “poor substitute” or “an ineffective solution to a problem”. It can also be used to describe something that is effectively in existence but does not take the appropriate name, e.g. a common-law couple might be described as having a “Claytons marriage”.
So this is the trip report you have, when you’re not having a trip report.