The Gibb River Road

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The Gibb River road snakes its way right through the middle of a region known as the Kimberley, far north in Western Australia. It stretches for almost 700kms into a rugged, harsh and hot part of Australia. It’s a popular road for those wanting to explore a remote part of this fabulous country. Caravans, 4WDs, camper trailers, cyclists, walkers, runners; it represents a challenge for many who want to get out of their comfort zone.

Cockburn Ranges

Cockburn Ranges

For me, it was on a bicycle. Despite the journey pushing my physical and mental limit, it took my breath away on numerous occasions. Since I’ve started cycle-touring, the Gibb was the toughest road so far. Long sections of corrugations and rocky surface were sometimes stretching for kilometres. Throw in the occasional sandy patches and the rednecks drivers passing by at 100km/h spreading bull dust all over and you’ll start swearing. Temperatures soared to the high 30s, one day reaching 46 degrees. The jump ups (short steep hills), despite being tarred, were sometimes as steep as 15% gradient. The road slowed me down to an average of about 10km/h throughout the 2 weeks it’s taken me to complete. It wasn’t easy, but I grew mentally stronger. On the physical side, let’s say that my bum is now as hard as concrete.

Some of the good section on the Gibb

Some of the good section on the Gibb

Leaving Kununurra from the East Kimberley region, the constant backdrop of the impressive Cockburn ranges were spectacular. These crumbling sandstone rocks are roughly 1.8 billion years old; once upon a time they’ve witnessed dinosaurs roaming this region. Some of these mountains are believed to be higher than Everest. Today, it’s a spectacular sight especially when the sun rises or sets, bringing the intense orange-red colours of the rocks.

Pentacost crossing on the Gibb

Pentecost crossing on the Gibb

Leaving the Cockburn ranges

Leaving the Cockburn ranges

The road was tarred up to the El Questro turn-off where the tough work started. Rocks and corrugations started to shake things up, a preview of the next 2 weeks. El Questro station is a good base to explore the surroundings for at least a day. There are natural swimming holes in the nearby creek running beside the campground. Close to the station is El Questro gorge. It seems to never finish with sheer cliffs from left and right, getting closer and closer giving the impression of being squeezed the further you go in the gorge. Taking the bike all the way was tough work; very sandy, water crossings up to my mid-thigh and rocky road. At the end of the day, the cruise on the Chamberlain gorge was memorable. The on-board guide has been living on the resort for many years and knows the region in and out, giving many insights about the surroundings. Topped by on-board champagne and fruit bites; perfect end of the day.

Chamberlain gorge, El Questro

Chamberlain gorge, El Questro

Next stop was Home Valley station, a cattle station overlooking the Cockburn ranges. Spectacular views, great bush-walking and the best beef eye fillet I’ve ever had in my life. The pool was an awesome way to cool off after a full-day cycling on the Gibb. The Pentecost river crossing was a breeze as it was on low tide; the high tide usually brings salties. I must admit this was one of my biggest worries on that day. There was a lot of road works before the crossing; seems like this section of the road will be tarred soon.

Going into the superb El Questro gorge

Going into the superb El Questro gorge

The next day started with a steep jump up leading onto a plateau where it’s possible to have mobile reception! From that day, the road got worst by the minute. Corrugations were more regular and going non-stop for longer periods. Then, rocks started to appear from the ground polluting the road. I bush camped just past the then Durack River roadhouse destroyed by floods in 2002.

After crossing the long but dry Durack River the day after, the road seemed even more corrugated than the previous days. Rocky sections started to be more regular. Other times it was a mix of both heavy corrugations and rocks, slowing me down to a crawl. I started hitting heavy sand patches, forcing me to push my rig to roll on a solid section on the ground. Once, while looking at my bike computer leaving my eyes off the road, I hit a deep sandy patch forcing me to a sudden stop, falling off on my left side. Luckily, I was going at about 2 km/h so no damage on the bike and I came back up without a scratch.

View over the Cockburn Ranges from outside of Home Valley station

View over the Cockburn Ranges from outside of Home Valley station

For the last 3 days now, nearly everyone I had a chat with told me to try the famous Ellenbrae scones. When I finally reached Ellenbrae station, I scoffed down a scone. I rested a day at the station, relaxing in this lovely place while having scones. I had 3 that day. The campground had a cool donkey water tank to heat up water and a regular size bath. You can guess what I’ve done the first night I got there!

The day off at Ellenbrae station did me good physically. I was ready for more corrugated and rocky roads. The destination for that day was the Gibb River itself where I was told of an excellent bush camp right by the river. I was the lone camper until this familiar 4WD pulling a huge caravan came to join me. They were a young couple with 4 daughters I’ve met at Home Valley Station a couple a days before. They told me about their 4WD back axle braking in half at Durack River the morning. Their holiday now ruined and waiting for a tow truck, the kids sat down by the road looking at the cars passing by. That day, a variety bash raising money for charity started to pass by. Out of the 90 odd cars, one stopped inquiring about what there were waiting for. After calling the bash mechanics so they can investigate the issue, they told them to call off the tow truck off; they ended up spending 3 hours in the mid-day heat welding and hammering to repair their car! Holidays back on track, they’ve reached Gibb River that night. That same variety bash offered me lunch in the middle of nowhere on the Gibb River; a quarter of a hot chicken on a bun, salad, prawns and mayonnaise. WOW!

Variety bash

Variety bash

The following days towards Mount Barnett Roadhouse were the worst of the Gibb. Road conditions seriously deteriorated. It had become impossible to find a flat line amongst the corrugations and the damn rocks. Since I started, numerous people have told me about that stretch being the worst section on the Gibb. I knew that Peter, the Norwegian I cycled with into Kununurra, was waiting at Mount Barnett Roadhouse so I wanted to make it there that day before his departure the next day. The day was punctuated by many drivers stopping to tell me he was waiting for me there and to tell me what sort of road laid ahead. Reduced to a crawl of about 4km/h an hour, it wasn’t hard to stop and unmount my bike. Just before the turnoff to Barnett River gorge, I see this bright yellow spot on the horizon. Rod, the walker many have told me about, finally materialized in front of me. Living in Perth and wanting to do something special during his holidays, he had decided to walk the Gibb from Derby to Kununurra, right through the Kimberley. We chatted for about 20 minutes, taking pictures of each other and exchanging tales of the road before going our separate ways.

View over the King Leopold Ranges

View over the King Leopold Ranges

I reached the turnoff to Barnett River gorge late that afternoon with the idea of possibly\possibly stay at the campground there. The 3kms road leading to the campground was narrow, scenic but some sections were pretty rough. On arrival, the campground didn’t inspire me; there wasn’t any running water and the thought of meeting Peter was too inviting. So I made the decision of trying to get to Mount Barnett roadhouse. After almost running the 500 meters walk to the gorge and taking a quick snap, I hurried towards the roadhouse. I had 29kms to cover before the sun light disappeared. That section happened to be one of the worst sections of the whole Gibb. Pushing hard, the sun slowly disappeared in front of my eyes. Constantly hitting rocks, I put my trust not only into my wheels but particularly my tires. My bike computer suddenly shut off, the day riding used the battery to its maximum. I was now riding with my head torch on, and slowed down to a more manageable pace. It was becoming impossible to continue and not really knowing how much ground I still had to cover, I decided to pitch my tent right by the side of the road and wake up at first light and try to catch up with Peter before he leaves. Sleep was great that night, I felt into a heap. I had a quick bite the next morning, packed up in no time and got back on the road. Within 5 meters, my back tire was flat. I had to kiss goodbye the highly anticipated reunion with Peter. The puncture fixed and my bike computer now fully recharged, I took off. I was at the roadhouse in 10 minutes, a short 4kms down the road. Gutted, I learned that Peter left about 30 mins after I rolled in. All I had to do now was to wait for this roadhouse to open, get a coffee and eat a bacon and egg sandwich for breakfast and mourn.

Early morning puncture fixing

Early morning puncture fixing

The rocks have finally left they marks

The rocks have finally left they marks

I spent the day fixing and maintaining my bike, relaxing in the comfy cough in front of the road house, eating food and talking with many people stopping by. I went to pitch my tent at the Manning gorge campground located 7 kms down the road. The swimming about 100 meters from the campground was absolute magic. Early the next morning, dodging the midday heat, I was the first one walking towards the gorge. After reaching the gorge in about 45 minutes, I stripped down naked and jumped in the superb Manning gorge; one of the highlight of the Gibb. During the wet, this gorge is thundering with water but in the dry it comes down to a trickle, the cool water of the plunge pool provides for perfect refreshment.

Swimming at Manning gorge campground at sunset

Swimming at Manning gorge campground at sunset

 

Sknny dipping in Manning gorge

Skinny dipping in Manning gorge

Chatting the afternoon away with friendly travellers, I headed back to the roadhouse and got ready for an early start towards Imintji, the last place I could stock up before heading towards the highlight of this trip. Silent Grove campground is 19kms from the Gibb and is the place to camp in order to get to Bell gorge. The road was atrocious. Many times I thought of turning around and leave this hell. I was tired. My bum was sore. I’ve already done about 600kms of that Gibb road and wanted out.  Just before the campground, I came across a caravan stopped on the side of the road. I saw them a few minutes ago at Imintji, buying a spare tire. Just 20kms later, they had to use it. They also were gutted by this dreadful road. While reading the information boards close by the campground, I met Gemma and her mum who kindly offered me to drive me to Bell gorge so I could save that last 10kms of infernal road.

Bell gorge

Bell gorge

Bell gorge is absolutely spectacular. We spent about an hour there swimming, relaxing and soaking up this quiet and peaceful oasis. The waterfall was still weakly running, cascading its way through the gorge. High sandstone rocks surrounding us, the swim was amazing. It’s hard to believe there are such things in the middle of nowhere. Standing by the truck having an apple, I heard Gemma saying: “Well, we can drive you to the main road junction. Your things will fit at the back of the ute.” The idea of cycling back wasn’t inviting at all, so I decided to take to offer. I thought about it for about 0.143 seconds before saying yes to that offer!

Getting a ride back on the Gibb!!

Getting a ride back on the Gibb!!

Gemma, me and her mum. THANKS SO MUCH!!!

Back on the main road, I wanted to cover as much ground as possible so I could potentially reach Derby the day after. The road had improved considerably since Mount Barnett roadhouse and had become smooth a few kilometres outside of Imintji. Corrugations and rocks gradually disappeared then past the hilly and picturesque King Leopold Ranges, it had become compacted mud and felt like going on the highway. For the first time since El Questro turnoff almost 2 weeks ago, I was flying and making good ground. I bush camped at Donkey creek, just before the Napier range.

Donkey creek bush camping, outside of the Napier ranges

I woke up at 5h00am and by 5h45 I was on the road. I had about 80kms to cover before hitting the bitumen and another 80kms before Derby. That gave me the motivation I needed to get this thing done. I was hysteric when I hit the bitumen. I screamed my lungs out in a sign of relief from the suffering my body and mind have been through during the last 2 weeks. That was a great feeling. I pressed on towards Derby with a strong tailwind; I was averaging 23km/h. By 3h30pm, I rolled in Derby with sore legs and in need of a good feed. Pitching my tent up at the caravan park, I hear from a distance “Howsitgoing?” in a familiar tone. It was Peter! Then there was Alex, another cyclist getting ready to tackle the Gibb. The three of us went out for dinner that night, me and Peter giving Alex hints about was lays ahead and what to expect.

Napier Ranges

Napier Ranges

 

 

A few things kept me motivated on this road. There is obviously the scenery with its unique magnificent landscape, the remoteness challenging people to tackle this dreadful road and the refreshing swimming holes. But people’s incredible generosity and hospitability is something I remember the most. Nearly everyone offered me water, snacks or lunch. Even lifts. Every traveller has it tough on this road. Shredded tires, broken suspensions, caravan doors falling apart, snapped axle; this road is purposely made to break things. Few get out of it unaffected. It’s probably for that reason everyone helps each other. Those working at cattle stations are extremely welcoming and generous. To those that helped me with water, food or a lift, I sincerely thank you. I would like to name all of you, but unfortunately I can’t remember all of your names. I will always remember you and I wish I could make it up to you one day.

 

Author: Pascal Lachance

I'm Pascal, cyclist, travel lover, software developer by trade and an enthusiastic photographer. I'm now cycling around the world, take the time to visit as many places as I can!

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