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Across The Kimberley on the Gibb River Road

Graham Smith's picture
Aerial view of Gibb River Road through The Kimberley, WA. Cycle Traveller.

The Kimberley in the northern pocket of Western Australia is a feast of stunning and unique geology, with weathered mountain ranges carved out of ancient reefs. Graham Smith and his bicycle hit the dusty red dirt of the Gibb River Road that cuts through The Kimberley from Kununurra near the Northern Territory border to Derby on the east coast of Western Australia. Here's how the 10-day adventure unfolded.

 

Route: The Gibb River Road, The Kimberley, northern Western Australia
Distance: 707km + side trips
Days: 10
Difficulty: Medium, but with limited services
Road surface: Rough dirt
Full-page map: Click here

Through a somewhat convoluted set of travel arrangements prior to today, John, Will and I along with our bikes, camping gear and two weeks of supplies have ended up in Kununurra with a plan to ride the Gibb River Road from east to west and so end up in Derby. Mostly unsealed, it is about 700 km with very few services or settlements along the way. It's July, smack bang in the middle of the dry season. Because there are distinct wet and dry seasons, timing is important; too early, it will be too wet and impassable; too late and it will be too dry and hot. Once we reach Derby, we'll bus or hire a car to Broome from where we can get back to Canberra on the other side of the continent.

Day 1: Kununurra to Fish Hole | 88km

The countryside here in the east Kimberley is a feast for the eyes. Mt Barnett, 400-plus kilometres away, will be our next shop and service centre and it also has a phone. The store at Mt Barnett has a reasonable stock of basic supplies, but we leave Kununurra with enough food for 14 days cycling, which should easily get us to Derby. We are not relying on the two shops between Kununurra and Derby. The question is, have I packed enough coffee?

This first day of riding, though hot and slightly hampered by our lack of fitness and very heavily laden bikes, is relatively straightforward being mostly on sealed, and generally flat road. Shade is easy to find, but temperatures feel to be in the mid 30​°C by the afternoon.

The Gibb River Road is sealed through to the El Questro turnoff, making for fast cycling on day one. The road surface from the El Questro turnoff is exceptionally rough. It is barely rideable and keeps our speed to less than 10kph at times. We camp the night at Fish Hole, which is 4km past the El Questro turnoff. This is the first of several beautiful waterside camping sites we are lucky to find on this cycle-tour along the Gibb River Road.

Day 2: Fish Hole to Home Valley Station | 31km

More impressive views of the Cockburn Range unfolded from different angles on today's ride. The road surface is testing for bikes and riders; the corrugations are jarringly rough and feel hard enough to break wheels, racks or even frames. Everything holds together though and we ride slowly to reduce the risk of falls.

We reach the Pentecost River crossing from the eastern side. Anticipating this crossing has caused some consternation with at least one of the riders. Would it be too deep? Would there be saltwater crocs nipping at our knees and Schwalbe tyres as we wade across? Thankfully, the river was low and slow flowing which is good news. It is inhabited by saltwater crocs so a deep crossing would have been testing.

We stay the night at Home Valley Station, a well serviced, pleasant place to camp; it even has a big screen TV in the beer garden complete with plastic seats.

Day 3: Home Valley Station to a roadside billabong | 60km

Graham, John and Will at Kunanurra airport. Cycle Traveller

"The good news is that there will probably be water in the creek crossings between here and Ellenbrae. The bad news is that the water will probably be salty because the super moon caused king-tides which pushed seawater well inland along the rivers," says the helpful person at Home Valley Station.

From Home Valley Station, the road surface continues to be more suitable for unloaded, full-suspension mountain bikes than our water and food burdened tour treadlies. It is rough. That is, until we come upon that most marvelous of machines, a road grader. Thereafter, we're able to pick up the pace for at least a few kilometres. The big question today is if we will find a campsite with drinkable water by sunset. As a precaution, we load up with 10-12 litres of water each. This will enable us to camp at a dry site if we have to for one night, then push on to Ellenbrae Station tomorrow. The trade-off of course is that the bikes are very heavy and even harder to handle on the loose gravel and corrugations.

It isn't just the bicycles finding the road tough today – we come across a Darwin family whose camper-trailer axle has succumbed to the rough road and snapped. They decide to abandon the trailer and carry on with just their vehicle. Later in the day we are offered water by a friendly couple passing by in their 4WD camper. We accept a couple of litres as insurance in case the streams ahead are really salty.

This ride along the Gibb River Road is taking us through and near the ancestral lands of the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal speaking peoples. The Ngarinyin lands extend in a north-easterly direction from the ruggedly beautiful King Leopold Ranges which we will cycle across toward the end of the ride.

By sunset, we've reached the site of the Durack Homestead, which was destroyed by floods several years ago. We explore the lagoon area and Jacks Waterhole on foot. Nearby, adjacent to the road is a small waterhole with a sandy bank and enough space for the three tents. Although a little difficult to wheel the bikes to, and slightly ash covered from bushfire, it is a reasonable campsite and a welcome stopping point. During the night there is a shower of rain which causes us to scamper about in the dark covering the tents and gear. The lesson of course, learned and forgotten numerous times over the years, is that even the finest looking night can produce a drenching.

Day 4: Billabong camp to to Ellenbrae Station | 54km

Cycle Touring along the Cockburn Range on the Gibb River Road. Cycle Traveller

The eye-catching scenery continues after a sand-clogged start. The grassy woodland scenery stretches along the Gibb River Road and changes subtly. We stop for a break near a creek crossing and another at the Durack River crossing. In the afternoon we come across what could easily be construed as a practical joke. There could be few things more out of context then a handwritten sign on a star picket on the Gibb River Road saying "Fresh Scones Jam and Cream". That is, however, what we gleefully spot as we approach the turnoff to the delightful Ellenbrae Station toward the end of today's ride.

Thankfully this is not a practical joke and nothing is going to stop this expedition from reaching those scones and cream. Flooded river, deep sand, corrugations and a 12% hill, the road into Ellenbrae Station is not paved and smooth, but the craving for scones is strong. It is about a 5km side-trip to stay at Ellenbrae and worth every kilometre. It is a very pleasant stopping place and well worth a visit. Acknowledging that this is a rugged, expedition-genre cycle-tour, I limit myself to only one serve of scones. It's tough out here in the wilderness.

Day 5: Ellenbrae Station to Gibb River campsite | 78km

We have heard a rumour that the road surface has been tweaked by a grader west of the Ellenbrae Homestead turnoff and it turns out to be true. So we've been able to go further and faster on the less testing long, red road and the fifth day passes at a good clip. The increases in speed and distance are also because we are getting used to the warm conditions and becoming marginally fitter. Food load kilos are also being whittled away.

The fine views continue throughout the day. There are a few short, sharp hills and we gradually climb to about 500m above sea level. Short sections of sealed road on the jump-ups help a lot, but the teeth-rattling corrugations are still encountered frequently. We reach the Gibb River in time for a cleansing dip in the luke warm waters.
To get to the Gibb River campsite, it is necessary to cycle a few kilometres along the Kalumburu Road. As usual, being conscious that crocs are a possibility, these swims are short and in a location with clear, shallow water.

Day 6: Gibb River camp to Hann River camp | 56km

Cycling in The Kimberley. Crossing the Pentecost River. Cycle Traveller

The scenery starts with a delightful sunrise. We pass more of that distinctive Kimberley woodland and its twittering bird life; the white tree trunks look like a landscape painting.

Today is a pleasant roll from one excellent riverside campsite to another excellent riverside campsite. A roadside map at the junction of the Gibb River Road and the Kalumburu Road confirms we are plunk in the middle of the Kimberley. I like maps with "You Are Here" arrows!

The day is most memorable for a close encounter with a dingo. I'd seen many footprints in the roadside sand in the previous days, and we'd heard howling at night, but this is the first sighting. The water at Hann River is clear and swimmable.

Day 7: Hann River campsite to Manning Gorge, Mt Barnett | 61km

Riding conditions are reasonably good today, although the last few kilometres on the side-road from Mt Barnett into Manning Gorge are very sandy. The road approaching Mt Barnett is quite stony, but OK compared with the corrugations of previous days. One of my co-riders Will has a fairly solid fall on this section of road, which results in symptoms of cracked ribs. He manages to continue riding at pace despite the injured ribs and says it only hurts if he laughs, coughs or breathes. Naturally we are merciless with the jokes.

Today we reach the first store since leaving Kununurra. Mt Barnett community has a roadhouse and shop about 400km from Kununurra and it is reasonably well stocked. It also sells passable hamburgers and has a functioning public phone, which we use to call home. At Mt Barnett, near the roadhouse, there is a signed turnoff that leads to a short ride into Manning Gorge, which is where we camp for the night. The campground itself is pitifully basic and crowded for the excessively high $20 fee, but Manning Gorge is well worth the visit. The swimming hole is exceptionally good here.

Day 8: Manning Gorge to Imintji | 88km

Water hole along Gibb River Road, The Kimberley, Western Australia. Cycle Traveller

Better road surfaces, lighter loads and improving fitness shows in our increased ride distance today. We set out for the small community called Imintji knowing there is no official camping there, but armed with advice we would be directed to a reasonable creek-side space near the village. En-route today is an interesting side-trip to Galvans Gorge and a climb over Phillips Range. Imintji has a store with a small but adequate range of basic supplies. It also has wifi, and a phone.

We find the creek and camping area about 2km from town. It needs a bit of litter removal, which we do ourselves, but otherwise it is a pleasant spot. The night is surprisingly cold. Partly because of our gain in elevation as well as the clear sky and a change in the weather, the night temperate drops well below 10​°C and possibly as low as 3-4​°C, which is something we haven't prepared for. The morning air is cold enough to produce foggy breath.

Day 9: Imintji to the Lennard River | 106km

Within a few kilometres of Imintji we can see we have a climb ahead of us – the King Leopold Ranges. I'd expected this. What I didn't expect was how beautiful and unusual they are. It is an absolute treat cycling through them. An added bonus is that the section of road through here is sealed. Despite it being a climb, the road is easy to handle compared with the previous eight days.

Beyond the range, it is a fairly flat ride. We aren't sure where we are going to find a camping spot with water, but on the map Lennard River looks to be a possibility.
When we arrive, it is evident that it is a major river with a good, unofficial camping area. Unfortunately, the west bank with the easily accessed spots are fully occupied by 4WD-based campers so we push around a flood damaged fence and then across a wide sandy bank to find a place to set up the tents on the east bank.

Interestingly, we find tracks of a freshwater croc in the mud and later after sunset, we find the eye-shine of the crocs using a bright lamp. Eventually we spot one swimming in the clear river water.

Day 10: Lennard River to Derby | 131km

Bicycle touring near the King Leopold Ranges. Cycle Traveller

I wake up to my first and only puncture of the tour this morning; a slow leak from causes unknown had caused the rear tyre to deflate overnight. A quick tube change and it is remedied. Once we depart the excellent Lennard River camping site, there is little in the way of potential camping until Derby, so we push on at pace and arrived in town easily by about 4:00 pm. Remembering the last time I rode 130km in a day on a loaded touring bike is a struggle. It would be at least 23 years ago and it would not have included 40km of dirt road and been done at an average of 20kph. Rightly or wrongly, I attribute the long, speedy ride to eating a few pieces of crystal ginger. Keeping pace with Will and John helps as did the flat road, slight tailwind and a hearty lunch of noodle soup made on the Trangia.

En-route, not far from the end of the unsealed section of road, we come across a motor vehicle accident a few minutes after it has happened. A caravan has blown a tyre then jack-knifed and turned over forcing the tow vehicle with a family inside off the road and into the scrub. Fortunately, no one is hurt, but the caravan is totalled. A local with a satellite phone calls for a tow-truck from Derby. Shortly after, we meet another loaded cycle-tourist, Sebastien from Derby, coming in the opposite direction. We chat for a while before he heads east and we continue to Derby. Not far from Derby we call into the Mowanjum Aboriginal Community, the art centre of this community. We stay overnight in Derby, then with the aid of a hired ute, move on to Broome further down the coast. From Broome, we'll finish up the trip and head back to Canberra.

Review

This tour was very different to all tours I have done in recent years because of how far it was from home, and it being along a route with no services for hundreds of kilometres of rough, unsealed road with unpredictable water supply. Despite this, it is not an overly risky, difficult or adventurous ride. It is certainly not an epic, and it is well within the capability of moderately fit and reasonably experienced cycle-tourers.

Overall I think our planning, preparation and equipment was close to ideal for the conditions. The bikes were especially good as they sustained and handled an absolute hammering. Our bikes were a Thorn Sherpa, Surly LHT and Shogun MTB. I am still incredulous that between the three bikes, the only mechanical glitches were two flat tyres and a lost rack bolt. All were easily repaired.

Bike and river crossing near Mt Barnett, Western Australia. Cycle TravellerThe only surprise was how cold the nights were mid-tour. We hadn't expected temperatures lower than 15°C, but they dropped to as low as 5°C or lower on a couple of occasions. The other slight surprise was the long daily distances we managed to cover on the second half of the ride. It would have been easy to spend and extra two or three days staying over in an area such as the Leopold Range, or doing side-trips.

I carried a tarp which was unnecessary as there was plenty of shade. We estimated food needs pretty close to the mark, although because we finished a few days earlier than planned, we still had a few days rations remaining at the end. The two stores en-route, Mt Barnett and Imintje, had better supplies than we'd been told to expect. Mt Barnett particularly had a good selection of basic staples. We could have also saved carrying a bit of food by planning to eat an evening meal and breakfast at Home Valley Station, and lunches at Mt Barnett and Imintje.

Overall, the region is outstanding for its scenery, bird life and remarkable billabongs, rivers and gorges. Being able to see it slowly, hear the wildlife and soak up the environment at the pace of cycling is an ideal way to travel the Gibb River Road. With a modicum of planning and preparation it is a safe, straightforward cycle-tour. The essentials are a robust, good quality bike, plenty of water containers and food carrying capacity.

Editor's notes:

When to ride

The best time to cycle through The Kimberley is during the middle of the Dry Season, around late June, July, August or early September when the days are sunny and the evenings are cool. The Dry Season itself lasts from May to October, but rivers may still be high and dangerous to cross at the start of the Dry Season and temperatures can be heating up towards its end. The Wet Season, which lasts from November to April, should be avoided as this is when the monsoonal region receives 90% of its rain. Cyclones are common at this time of year, causing rivers to flood. Apart from the rain, the region is extremely hot during November to January with temperatures regularly reaching 40°C. Even in the “cooler” months of The Dry Season, riders should prepare for temperatures reaching 30​°C.

Crocodile warnings

The rivers along the Gibb River Road are inhabited by both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles. While both can be dangerous, it is the salties you must be particularly wary of as they are large, strong, territorial, aggressive and as such, deadly. Despite the name, saltwater crocodiles live in freshwater, and this is true of the rivers in The Kimberley. Familiarise yourself with crocodile safety before entering this region. Take particular care at river crossings, especially if the water is deep and murky. In such instances, it's safest to wait for a vehicle to drive past and ferry you across.

More information about Graham's ride on the Gibb River Road, including a full gear list and bike specifications, can be found on his CGOAB blog.

Images from top: 1. Aerial view of the Gibb River Road. 2. Graham, John and Will prepare for the ride at Kununurra airport. 3. Cycling along the Cockburn Range. 4. The Pentecost River crossing. 5. A water hole along the Gibb River Road. 6. The King Leopold Range. 7. Will crossing a river near Mt Barnett community. (All images Copyright Graham Smith.)

 

Comments

Ellie's picture

Thanks for posting Graham. I've always assumed this part of the country was too remote to ride in, but it looks amazing. You've opened my eyes!!!

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