The Mighty, Mighty Gibb

gibb-river-rdBitumen, beautiful bitumen, all the way from Kununurra to Emma Gorge. Resort atmosphere abounds. Carved wooden doors, sophisticated building structures, manicured lawns and staff in crisp, smart uniforms reminiscent of airline stewardesses. We walked through to reception in our wrinkled clothes, dirty shoes and ragged backpacks to purchase the El Questro pass and felt right at home among the glamour.

img_7822Emma Gorge is a pretty gorge, then again all of them are. Boulder hopping is the norm for the path to the falls. That’s fine by us as we’ve already done plenty of that on this trip. The kids practically run up the boulders and jump them on the way down. We typically walk in file with one parent in front, kids in the middle and one parent behind, in case of snakes. I’m leading the way and we are almost at the falls when Xavier shouts “Snake!” So I’m not a very good snake spotter. At least he didn’t step on it because it was a small, pissed off, brownish coloured snake.  It was trying to cross the track and too many tourists were stomping their way across the rocks. After a bit of gawking, it turned around and slithered down to the rocks at the water’s edge.

The falls at the end of Emma Gorge were really pretty. We were there at just the right time of day to see sun sparkled reflections from the rippling water bounce across the rock wall. Rain like droplets, dripped through the vegetation creating a second gentle fall. There were no snakes spotted on the walk back out and we were almost at the end of the rock hopping.  I took a small jump from a boulder and went over on my ankle. Shit! Shit, shit, shit! This is the last thing I wanted to do especially on the first day of exploring the Gibb. Thankfully I’d just stretched the tendons and it wasn’t sprained. I had a slight limp and it swelled enough to give me a lovely cankle.

Tyre pressures down and its onward towards El Questro Station, which is the camp ground accommodation not the posh accommodation called The Homestead. We saw three vehicles with blown tyres on the 16km drive over. Seriously! The rocks that litter the dirt road have very sharp straight edges and it was a bit astonishing to see so many vehicles in repair mode on the side of the road over such a short distance. The Station was very nice but a step down in resort atmosphere from Emma Gorge. The perfect environment for the early morning, shaggy haired, rumpled pj, walk to the ablution block.

img_7827After a night in the tent we hit Zeebedee Springs as soon as it opened. Stripping down to swimwear at 7am was… lets just say ‘a little chilly’ but it allowed us to find a decent sized rock depression filled with warm water.  It was lovely to have a relaxing soak for over an hour and get back to The Station in time for the kids to have a horse ride.

After a small amount of nerves, Amelie seemed right at home on her horse ‘Bobcat’. Xavier scored the only Clydsdale, ‘Ben’ who had a stubborn temperament. Interesting, the stubborn leading the stubborn. Off they went with big smiles on their faces. Craig and I looked at each other with the same thought “Uh, oh! They are going to want a horse of their own!” And we were correct, both of them loved the short ride and have tried a few persuasive arguments to scope out their chances of owning a horse. So far on this trip Amelie has asked for a pet fish, pet pig and a budgie who she’s already named ‘Chubby’. Yes, Chubby the budgie. And now she wants a damn horse! Fat chance sista!

img_7844We are still seeing plenty of tour groups along here. APT is the main contender and we’ve since seen a local group called ‘Kimberley Wild’. Craig suggests the name could pass as an adult entertainers name. However, their clientele were far from the R rated stereotype.  The kids weren’t interested in going on another walk that afternoon and I was holed up icing my swollen ankle. Everyone seemed pretty happy to laze around for the rest of the day, reading, and playing in the creek at the El Questro campground.

The next day we decided to tackle a long but shady walk, El Questro Gorge. It was listed as a pretty challenging 5hr walk, so I lead with a slow pace, compensating speed for sure footedness to ensure I didn’t injure myself again. The entire walk was rock hopping and scrambling boulders until we reached the halfway pool. The only way to continue was to climb the small waterfall. There was a small rock climb on the left but it required reach and upper body strength. Either way, you had to wade across.

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Craig ported the bags over the left side, then climbed over to the falls while I swam with the kids over to the waterfall where we hoiked them up to climb over. A family arrived just in time to see me try to scramble up and over the bottom ledge of the falls. Let’s just say elegance abandoned me as I attempted to haul my bikini clad nether regions up and over the lower ledge of the waterfall! They followed suit up the waterfall and we engaged in a bit of chit chat as we put our clothes and shoes back on.  I guess I didn’t put on too much of a show as they could still make eye contact while chatting.

We let them go ahead and continued along the walk which now included more rock hopping along with a cliff climb until we finally reached a couple of swimming holes and the waterfall. I couldn’t help thinking of my mum. She would be freaking out if she saw the narrow ledges the kids were climbing. It was the most technically challenging walk we have done so far but it was absolutely worth it as the entire length of the gorge was spectacular. Craig is claiming it as his favourite walk of the trip to date and I’d have to agree with him. The kids were absolute champs throughout. It probably helped that we found kindred spirits in the other family we met at the halfway point. The boys were off challenging each other’s daring, the girls talked the whole way back and so did the grown-ups.

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We all hung out together for the afternoon, with the boys off catching fish and the girls paddling the river on boogie boards, playing their own games. It was nice to see Amelie have some time with another like-minded girl. Looks like we will catch up with both the family from Gunlom Falls and these guys in Broome.  Meeting up with like minded families travelling the same path, gives us another thing to look forward to along the way.

Craig had a quick check under the car as we’ve had a couple of river crossings and rocky roads. He noticed that we’ve scraped some of the plastic off the wiring to the Anderson plug! The Ranger has been an awesome car on this trip but the placement of the tow ball and bar isn’t well thought out. It’s very low and the wiring for the plug was placed underneath the bar, well and truly exposed to any scraping. Craig taped up the exposed bit and rejigged the placement of the wiring trying to avoid anymore damage. Caz, the husband from the family we met on the walk that morning, had gone out to help a tour bus that had broken down on the Gibb. When he came back and saw our wiring issue, he offered to rewire it for us, ‘no probs’. We didn’t want to put him out and figured it would be okay to still use when we got back to the van. It seems like throughout this trip Caz has been doing ‘in park’ repairs for other campers without accepting anything in return. “Good karma” he reckons. Well, I hope it comes back to him in spades.

An overnighter at Home Valley was hardly worth setting up the tent, the beds and the kitchen, so we splurged on an eco tent to save the set up and pack down. It gave us extra time to explore the local walks. These were less spectacular, very dry and rocky with little vegetation. There are not many places to swim but the campground did have a pool if you wanted to cool off. A large hollow Boab was right next to our tent, there were plenty of birds to entertain the kids and plenty of goathead prickles to remind them to wear shoes.

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Friends from Darwin advised us that the road to Kalumbaru is the road they judge all other 4wd roads by. They should know, they holiday up there a lot. Time and lack of mechanical knowledge and spare parts helped us decide to camp at Drysdale Station and opt for the 2hr plane flight over Mitchell Falls instead.

A small 7 seater Cessna bounced down the runway and bounced through the sky as we flew over the station, rivers, mountains, out to the basin and over waterfalls including the famed Mitchell Falls. Amelie looked very nervous at take off, then was having a jolly old time taking photos out the window. Xavier was the complete opposite. He had “Yee-ha’d” the take off, got real quite around the 15 minute mark and at at about the 1 hour mark discretely deposited his breakfast into a sick bag. Great! Only 1hr till we land again. He looked green and miserable, then fell asleep for quite a while. Woke up feeling and looking much better with about 15minutes of the flight left. Gotta be the most expensive daytime nap ever. He was in good company though. The guy sitting next to me promptly got out when we landed, found a spot not far from the plane and hurled his guts up too!

The flight was great as it was informative and we saw a lot more of the area than if we had driven along the Kalumbaru Road. However, all I wanted to do when we flew over Mitchell Falls was land so we could see and feel it up close. One thing we also saw from the air were the unforgiving corrugations along Kalumbaru Road!

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Miner's Pool
Miner’s Pool

A couple of things we learned from the pilot, dunny rolls soaked in diesel will burn for 45 minutes and are a good runway replacement if you’ve run out of flares and we heard the sad saga of Ginger Meadows, a 24 year old, American model who was taken by a croc at Kings Cascades in 1987.  After the flight we took a drive down the road from Drysdale Station to a small swimming hole called Miner’s Pool. It’s a pretty alternative to camping at Drysdale Station, but very low in water level.

River at Manning Gorge campground.
The river at Manning Gorge campground.

Manning Gorge was a great spot and we wished we had stayed longer than the one night. Lots of shady campsites close to a cool, crystal clear creek and sandy beach. People were sun baking like lizards on a large flat slab of rock in the middle of the creek. A few guys were ripping it up on a tree swing having the best time. Xavier was desperate to have a go but of course he made Craig go first. Craig swings, floats in the air at that moment when you lose outward momentum, lets go and splashes fantastically into the water. Xavier is next with similar yet slightly less graceful form. Amelie didn’t want to try it and I reminisced about the rope swing my sister and I swung on when we went on holidays along the MacIntyre River as kids.

Rope Swing fail
Rope Swing fail

In the end I couldn’t resist so I clambered up the tree trunk, grabbed the rope, not real happy with the placement of the knots and swung out over the water. I quickly lost my hold, let out a high pitched squeak and swallowed a generous amount of river water on entry. I could hear Craig laughing his arse off as I bobbed to the surface coughing and spluttering. I think he asked if I was alright between bouts of laughter. I was okay though.  The only thing that got hurt was my pride.

Other campers had told us the walk to Manning Gorge was a hot, hour long walk, so we decided to hold off until the morning. To start the walk you jump into a little boat and use a rope pulley to get to the other side. Fun! Half an hour later we are at the waterfall. Hot? Difficult? Long walk? Pfft! Not for our mob. Admittedly Amelie and Craig ran part of the trail. Xav was happy to keep his hobbling mum company and we were only 5mins behind ‘the athletes’. We found a comfortable spot on the rocks and jumped in. It was a little cold for Xav so he hopped straight back out again. Craig and Amelie were already on their way back from the waterfall by the time I dived in. It was worth braving the cold water as you could swim right under the waterfall to a small rock ledge. You also get a completely different perspective of the falls up close. I noticed many smaller falls that I didn’t see from the opposite bank. The walk back was a study in nature we noticed different flowers, native bees, and a cool lizard.

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At Galvan Gorge there is a rope swing and a cliff with multiple heights to jump from.  An older boy and his sister were already jumping from the cliff and then showing us how it was done on the rope swing.  So of course Xavier wanted to try the swing out but the cliff was just a little high for him that day.  Craig was already up there with him, so he figured he may as well take advantage and jump in.  He executed a pretty good bomb dive and the other boy immediately pestered his dad to do the same.  Poor guy.  He really, really didn’t want to jump but was shamed into it after Craig’s effort.  It was pretty funny to watch.  He spent quite a few minutes dithering at the top mentioning things like, “it’s pretty high”, “there are a lot of spiders”, and “yeah, yeah, I’m going to jump!”  To his credit he eventually did launch himself off, with a fair amount of arm flapping and a nervous whimper on the way down.

Mornington Wilderness Camp was previously a cattle station that is now owned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. They are one of the best conservation groups, you’ve never heard of! Their mission statement is “to protect all Australian wildlife”. That’s a big call! However through funds raised by donors and visitors to their open properties, they are achieving great things. The logo they use features an image of the Lesser Bilby which hasn’t been seen since the 1930’s and is probably extinct. It’s a constant reminder of what’s been lost and drives them to continue with their work. Some of the good things they’ve achieve have been increasing the population numbers of threatened species and providing protected habitat to 86% of all native bird species and 71% of all native mammal species.

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Cheat puncture!
Cheat puncture!

Sir John Gorge is within the camp area and we decided to go along the rocky road with a few small water crossings to explore it. Craig has taken to inspecting the tyres pretty regularly as the Gibb River Road can be quite unforgiving. As we arrived at the gorge, Craig discovered our first puncture. After all the corrugations, all the razor sharp rocks and all the water crossings along the eastern part of the Kimberleys, we expected that somewhere along the line, we’d get a puncture. What wasn’t expected was the cause of the puncture. A bloody tech screw! Seriously? We can’t even claim it as a ‘real’ casualty of the Gibb. It’s a cheat puncture! Craig removed screw and plugged the hole while the kids and I checked out the gorge. I’ve gotta say his man brand is increasing all the time!

Cadjaput is a place along the Fitzroy River and also within the Mornington Camp area. The kids were fighting so they got to sit together under a lonely tree while Craig and I relaxed by the waters edge. We jumped in the river, relaxed on the soft grass of the bank and saw quite a few rainbow bee eaters flitting about. The kids played with rocks. Eventually they were released from ‘lonely tree’ boundaries and learned how to skim stones.

Bell Gorge was another quick stop on the way to our next campsite.  It was a pretty walk with a super slippery entry and exit into the water.  It was actually pretty hilarious watching everyone’s strategy for getting in and out of the water.

We Arrived at Windjana Gorge just in time for Census night! A fellow camper approached us with census forms to fill out and return to him in the morning.  It was a bit of an eye opener as the choice for dwellings included caravans, units, homes but only an ‘other’ box for those in a tent or perhaps sleeping in their car or out on the streets. Made me wonder what percentage of the population are missed in the census data who are sleeping rough.

Now we read about this place and how you can spot many freshwater crocs. They were right, the freshies were everywhere and they were a good size too!

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What we didn’t read on wikicamps or TripAdvisor was that the best thing to do out here is to go to the gorge in time for sunset.  As the sun goes down, the sky fills with bats who then dip down to the river for a drink. See where I’m going here? Yep, all those snappy crocodiles are leaping out of the water ready to catch themselves a feed.

I think almost everyone from the campground was there and it was reminiscent of a football crowd. A lot of collective ‘Oooo’s’ as a croc jumps and makes that loud, hollow, snapping sound, while the bat narrowly avoids being dinner. This happened quite a lot until one croc was quick enough to partially get hold of a bat. The crowd went wild, ‘Whoa!” There was a momentary struggle as the bat flapped desperately at the surface of the water but the croc wasn’t letting it go. Other crocs were moving in on the centre of action hoping to perhaps steal the spoils of victory. Another quick snap and the bat was further lodged in the crocs jaws. The crowd cheered and clapped the victorious croc as if it’d just scored the winning goal in a footy match. It was kind of weird to cheer on crocs but I’m so glad I saw these predators in action in their natural environment.

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We also caught up with another family we’d met at the start of our trip across the Kimberley which was awesome. We and another family headed over to their camp after dinner for a get together. The six adults were clustered together and the eight kids formed their own circle of chairs to swap stories and play ‘truth, dare, double dare, kiss, love or torture’, seems the game has advanced since we were kids when it was just the basic old ‘truth or dare’. Anyhow, the kids are laughing and having fun and we are chatting away.

We must have been loud as a posh lady and a young, tattoo’d lady came over separately to ask us to keep it down.  It was only 8.30pm and we were just about to wrap it up but the young lady apparently had “a very early start in the morning”. Fair enough because yes, we were noisy. Well the kids were. Noisy with laughter, not swearing, offensive or drunken behaviour. Just to clarify, our pub loving kids don’t drink alcohol, but you get where I’m going here. It was happy noise. Most campgrounds do have a ‘Quit it with the noise’ curfew of anywhere between 9 or 10pm and we respect that. Chill people, chill! The party is over as we also had an early departure planned to allow enough time for us to make the long trip back to Kuunurra in a single day.

At 5.30am Craig and I were crawling around packing up clothing bags and airbeds. We rolled the kids off their beds onto the hard ground while still in their sleeping bags and they didn’t even notice! Ahhh, one of the many benefits of having children who are good sleepers. Sleeping bags done, quick breakfast and the tent is down and everything in the car including us, just before 7am. As we rolled through the camp and said goodbye to our friends, we noticed ‘tattoo lady’ had just got up to enjoy a hot cup of ‘whatever’ in her pajamas. Hmmm. I guess everyone varies in their definition of ‘early’.

We stopped at Tunnel Creek for a sticky beak. This is the site of Jandamarra’s last stand in 1897.  Jandamarra belonged to the Bunuba people and taunted settlers and police who tried to settle on Bunuba land.  The settlers could not find stockmen or aboriginal guides as they believed Jandamarra had magical powers.  Police recruited aboriginal trooper Micki from the Pilbara who was also believed to possess spiritual powers.

Micki tracked Jandamarra’s footprints near Tunnel Creek and they exchanged gunfire where Jandamarra was wounded and hid at Tunnel Creek while his wounds healed.  Later Jandamarra appeared on the top of a limestone pillar before the opening of Tunnel Creek and exchanged gun fire with Micki who was shielded by a large boab tree.  Jandamarra fell 30m to his death and this marked the end of the Bunuba resistance.

Grabbing our torches we headed to the entrance and walked through the first bit of icy cold creek water, then it got dark. Really dark. We had two torches between the four of us. After a big splash in the dark and seeing a large freshie swim away, we learned to have one torch trained on where we were heading and one on the water’s edge. It was a little spooky and kind of thrilling as we did see and get close to quite a few fresh water crocodiles in the dark.

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Seven hundred and fifty or so kilometres later, we arrived back in Kununurra to get ready for the next stage in our adventure, the Bungle Bungle, Wolf Creek and Broome.