The road from Kununurra to Derby or vice versa, can actually be driven as a loop if you are up for the long haul and you don’t mind the rugged 4WD Gibb River Road, and depending on which way you choose to travel, and which road you head along first, this loop will take you at some stage, along the Great Northern Highway and across the Gibb.
Having already travelled the long, dry and very hot road through the Aboriginal community of Warmun (Turkey Creek), the famous Bungle Bungles, Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing on a previous trip, I felt this journey through the Kimberley’s to the Indian Ocean was well worth a blog all of it’s own!
So… you take the low road and we’ll take the high road… and we’ll meet you in Derby!
46-kilometres west of Kununurra we turned on to the Great Northern Highway and travelled through spectacular scenery passing Doon Doon Roadhouse, only slowing to avoid a flock of black cockatoos perched on the side of the road. Tucked into the ranges this roadhouse was only small with a caravan park attached… but we were heading for Warmun.
Warmun is a Gija Aboriginal Community with a population of around 400, and since native title was handed out to traditional land owners there have been some name changes to towns, with Turkey Creek one such place.
Warmun is a closed community so like many of the Aboriginal Communities you need permission to enter, you may need to ‘sign in’ on arrival, and all are dry communities… meaning no alcohol.
We knew from other travellers it was a pleasant campground to pull into on this highway and lucky for us, even though this roadhouse is run by the local community, it was set back just off the highway, so it was just a matter of turning in and setting up camp… but what we didn’t expect was a campsite right on the nature strip somewhere between the roadhouse and the main road.
We have come to accept on our travels that if you are camping in a tent, sometimes (not always), you get a bum deal. We had expected a site at the back of the roadhouse with the other vanners and close to the amenities and the swimming pool when we booked in… but no, we were allocated a spot as far away from the amenities and pool as we could be!…
A spot we shared with a flock of corellas dancing in the spray of the sprinklers, a couple of dingo’s continually circling our campsite, a bullock that wandered around all night, fifty thousand jack jumpers, rain, road trains pulling in and out, 2 hitchhikers who couldn’t get a lift so decided to camp almost right on top of us (and talked all night), and the local police doing their rounds every hour.
All in all it was quite an eventful night, so much so that we were up at 4:30am (not because we wanted to, but because we were finding it really hard to sleep), and packed up and on the road to the Purnululu National Park before the birds were awake.
Just 52-kilometres down the road we turned off the Great Northern Highway and with deflated tyres travelled a further 53-kilometres of careful negotiation, as we bumped along the corrugations, through holes, over rocks, up steep hills we couldn’t see over, through deep sandy sections of bull dust and across several creeks all with water… one quite deep. Our car was circumnavigated by a dingo with a photo opportunity (missed because we left the lens cap on our camera), and 2½ hours and 53- kilometres later we arrived at the Ranger Registration Station. This road was quite a ride but what was worse, was the thought of our return journey later in the day.
Most Australians know this National Park as ‘The Bungle Bungles‘ and it is not clear where the name ‘Bungle Bungle’ comes from but it was certainly a spectacular National Park with an intricate maze of spectacular sandstone beehive domes, narrow gorges lined with magnificent fan palms and soaring cliffs… we loved it!
Some believe it may have stemmed from the name of the ‘bundle bundle’ grass that grows in the region or the name given to a nearby station in 1930. Regardless, in 1983, when the Department of Lands And Surveys had to give the range a name so they named it after the station.
The Kija Aboriginal people have lived in the area for over 20,000 years and call the area Purnululu meaning ‘sandstone’ and 2 Aboriginal language clan groups have traditional connections with this park, the Djaru and the Kija people. Today the National Park is jointly managed by CALM and by representatives of these two Aboriginal groups.
If the road in wasn’t enough, we still had more roads to travel and after negotiating another 27-kilometres through the park, it was time to pull on our walking boots and set off to explore.
Our first stop was ‘Osmand Lookout’, a steep climb, but thankfully only 100 metres or so, where we marvelled at the magnificence of the Osmand Range and the currently dry Red Rock Creek, a stark contrast to the photos of the area we had seen at Turkey Creek Roadhouse that revealed the creeks beauty in the ‘Wet Season’, as it drained into Osmand Creek.
Next was the spectacular ‘Echidna Chasm’. This walk took us along a creek bed of washed river stones then through a long, narrow chasm revealing striking colours. Higher up on the ridges Livingston Palms waved at us in abundance.
Further on we followed the 5-kilometre Mini Palm walk along another pebbly, dry creek bed. Negotiating fallen blocks of cliff face from the high cliffs above we came to a short climb then the first viewing platform surrounded by an oasis of rocks and palms. Climbing further we reached the top platform for an awe-inspiring view into a high, narrow amphitheatre encompassing a mini palm gorge.
Back at the car park we were thankful that we could replenish our water bottles from the additional water we had in the car fridge. The temperature had reached around 37- degrees and was really too hot to be in the sun but we couldn’t leave without checking out the southwestern side of the range.
More kilometres… then following the ‘Piccaninny Creek’ track we wandered between striped sandstone beehives, along creek beds and around large potholes.
The looming cliffs showed evidence of waterfalls that cascaded down their steep rock faces during the ‘Wet Season’ and it was a welcome relief to walk through the narrower part of the gorge where the air was so much cooler.
At the end of the track the gorge opened into towering sandstone beehives forming the entrance to another huge amphitheatre and beneath the overhanging stonewalls an almost dry pool.
With such a huge area to explore over a vast distance it was impossible to see all this range without spending a couple of days, and we could understand why so many people take scenic flights over the area. However for us, it was well worth the drive in just to do the magnificent walks and see this unique landscape. It might have been a long rough trip in along a windy gravel road, through hilly country covered in spinifex and through river crossings and lots of driving once in, but I would definitely do it again…it really was a magic place!
After travelling a total of 160-kilometres of dirt road we finally made it back to the Great Northern Highway and as we headed towards Halls Creek we grabbed the opportunity to wind down the windows and blow some dust out of the car.
There was hardly any traffic on the highway as we continued and those we did pass would often wave the 1 finger off the steering wheel Aussie wave as we passed!
This country is cattle country and the highway we were travelling was mostly unfenced. The dried remains of many animals bore testament to the number of collisions that have occurred so we were continually on the lookout for stray cows having to slow and stop a number of times to avoid wandering cattle. Apart from this it was actually non eventful, with kilometre after kilometre of very similar country, often recently fire ravaged.
Halls Creek sits on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert between the towns of Fitzroy Crossing and Turkey Creek, it has a large Aboriginal population and is the only sizeable town for 600-kilometres on this highway.
We had been told by other nomads that Halls Creek is only seen as a stopover where most travellers fill up with fuel… then we remembered the campers we met in the caravan park in Ballarat who told us to consider other options as we travelled through this area as the town might be a little unfriendly.
With this on our mind we decided to check out a few sights and then keep moving and although I wasn’t a big fan of Halls Creek ; it appeared unkempt, everything seemed to be barred up and a supermarket didn’t exist anymore because it had just been burnt to the ground, we didn’t find the people unfriendly and it had a great Visitors Information Centre.
Like most of these towns, this town had everything. The Government had obviously provided every conceivable service, with a swimming centre, a sports centre, and entertainment centre all looking quite new… but sadly even these were covered in graffiti and had been vandalised!
Our first stop along the road was the ‘China Wall‘, a strange limestone formation that rose from a creek up over a small hill and this natural formation of white quartz really did look like a small version of the famous Great Wall of China.
Next was Caroline Springs, a nice spot, but due to the dry there was not a lot of water. Caroline’s Pool is a picnic, swimming and overnight camp spot set amongst shady trees on wide sandy creek banks and is known as Wimirri in the Jaru language. It was an important water source in the days of the early gold rush and also a place where families would go on the weekend to swim and play sport on the river sand.
It was then on to Old Halls Creek, the original site of the township when gold was first discovered in the 1880s. By 1954 the Old Halls Creek township was abandoned and turned into a ghost town and although there were some streets still visible and signs had been erected at many points detailing where buildings once stood, there really wasn’t much left, and what was there had been vandalized.
Back in Halls Creek we stopped to top up with fuel before continuing on our way. Just over 100-kilometres down the highway we pulled in to Mary Pool on the banks of the Mary River for our next free camp for the night!
Leaving the highway we drove along a short dirt track then crossed the mighty Mary via a rough concrete causeway. Just a pool at this time of year, this river would be all but impassable in the ‘Wet’. There were signs indicating crocodiles inhabited this area and no swimming was allowed but there was no need to worry about these large bities as there was not enough water to paddle in, let alone swim in!
This very popular rest area had plenty of room for caravans and campers and great facilities that included chemical toilets complete with toilet paper (a bonus, as a lot of the rest stops are just long-drops minus any loo paper), wood fired bbqs and for those in need of one, a dump point… and in the middle of nowhere the Telstra gods were kind to us and we were able to touch base with our loved ones at home.
After scouting around we found a lovely shady level spot to set up camp, far enough away from others to afford some privacy. We were told that up to 100 RVs can be parked here each night, but with the temperatures now into the low 40s each day, most of the southerners have started their return journey home.
It was the perfect place to camp with an abundance of bird life, cattle regularly seen in and around the water and a very wise old Tawny Frog Mouth Owl and a Kookaburrra resting in the tree just above our tent that very kindly allowed us the privilege of a photo.
We settled down under a starry sky for a good night’s sleep, only to be woken around midnight to the roll of thunder and flashes of lightning. The wind had picked up considerably and the trees were bending towards the ground. The constant zaps of lightning lit up the ghost gums and the rain was heavy. This kept us on edge for quite a while until we opted for a quick dash to the car to avoid the potential of being fried in the tent or a limb out of a tree landing on us…better safe than sorry. Several other campers decided to move from under the trees and were gone before we were up the next morning.
Next morning we headed on 180- kilometres to Fitzroy Crossing on the banks of the mighty Fitzroy River. This small country town has a proud Aboriginal heritage and it appeared Aboriginal ownership of most of the businesses.
It is a very small town, which has developed from its early days as a crossing point over the river of the same name.
A short distance out of town on the Geikie Gorge Road was the old Fitzroy Crossing townsite that is now no more than a few disused buildings. Nearby was the original causeway crossing of the river that is easily crossed in the ‘Dry Season’ but impassable in the ‘Wet’. Still standing in the old town is the former post office, the police station and an avenue of boab trees.
Just nearby was the stunning Geikie Gorge, best experienced by boat we were told but we opted for an energetic walk along the riverbank and then along the very sandy riverbed of the Fitzroy River following the soaring limestone cliffs where the river had cut through the fossil reef over millions of years.
Following a track at the end, which we thought was another short walk only led us back around the sandy track we had already walked and by the time we had completed the round trip again our sandshoes were full of sand and our calves had had a very good workout.
The Geikie Gorge National Park is an important Aboriginal cultural area known by the Bunaba people as Darngku.
Back at the Crossing we made a special trip to see the historic pub to relax over a cold beer… but it was not to be! We were just a bit too early, the pub didn’t open until 4:00pm and we needed to keep moving.
The legendary Crossing Inn, built in 1897 as a shanty inn and trade store for long distance travellers waiting to cross the river, was well positioned on the banks of the river and must have provided much needed sustenance to those pioneers crisscrossing the Kimberley in times of old. Chances were that in ‘The Wet’ one could have been stranded here for weeks.
The final leg of our journey for this part of our trip was Derby a further 277-kilometres on.
Derby is set between two salt flats and is a lovely, well-maintained town.
It calls itself the ‘Home of the Boab Tree’ and was the first town settled in the Kimberley with its wide streets, lined with boab trees, originally built to allow a mule or camel teams to turn easily, which I thought gave the town a special character.
We set up camp at the ‘Kimberley Entrance Caravan Park’ and as we were back in the world of internet access we grabbed the opportunity to catch up with family back home before hopping on our bikes and heading out to explore what this interesting little town had to offer!
We will visit Derby again very soon, but for now step into our time machine as we fast forward a few of years… come travel with us on a true Aussie adventure as we cross the Gibb River Road through the very heart of one of Australia’s last wilderness frontiers.
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