MAnnInG GorGE, wA
An oasis on the Gibb
The Gibb River Road is one of Australia’s most popular tourist routes providing access to the magnificent Kimberley region and its wilderness landscape of lush river gorges and vast savannah plains. It was originally constructed for road trains transporting cattle from the surrounding stations to the ports of Derby and Wyndham, with scant regard for the comfort and amusement of recreational travellers. While it’s not the 4WD challenge that it once was, the Gibb is still a rough and dusty track for most of its 650km length and is only accessible in the dry season (May-November). Manning Gorge, 309km east of Derby (406km west of Kununurra), is an oasis along this route that is not just a perfect place to break the journey but is a magical destination in its own right.
The gorge is on the Mt Barnett Station, a 283,280ha pastoral lease held by the Kupungarri Aboriginal Corporation (KAC), and is accessible via Mt Barnett Roadhouse.
The roadhouse is open seven days a week from 7am-5pm during tourist season and
restricted hours during the off-season. An entrance fee to Manning Gorge is payable at the roadhouse and this includes access to the camping area and a mud map of the walk to the gorge.
The spacious campground is located at the end of a 7km track on the banks of the Manning River. There are no allocated sites but there is ample room for rigs of all sizes among the open woodland dotted with huge boab trees. The river’s crystal waters provide fantastic swimming, among the best in the Kimberley and very popular in the dry season. Not surprisingly, campers tend to cluster near the riverbank but more private sites are only a short walk away. Facilities include flushing toilets, showers, a big central water tank (not for drinking) and fireplaces (bring your own firewood). Unfortunately, there is no separate generator area, so you may have to put up with some noise. Additional accommodation is available at the roadhouse.
The walk to Manning Gorge starts from the campground, or more precisely, from a beach on the far bank accessed by a swim or boat ride across the river. A small metal dingy has been set up on a pulley so you can ferry yourself (and your gear) across the water or you can float all your stuff across in styrofoam boxes provided for that purpose. It’s also possible to walk a long detour upstream and wade across by way of slippery rocks, treacherous logs and mud – or you can be entertained watching others try it this way.
Once across the river, the trail winds for about 2km through open savannah littered with sandstone boulders and spinifex and is
well marked with hundreds of rock cairns, white-painted arrows and beer cans strung from the trees. The walking is relatively easy, though it can be rocky, uneven and hilly in places. The open landscape is beautiful and, depending on the time of year, aglow with wildflowers and trees festooned with masses of gaudy blossoms. There is little shade along the track, however, and it’s wise to wear a hat and take plenty of water.
The gorge itself is huge and frames a waterfall that cascades over broad terraces of orange sandstone worn smooth by millennia of wet season torrents. Early in the season, the river surges powerfully and full width into the gorge, but dwindles rapidly as the dry takes hold. You can easily spend a couple of hours exploring this fascinating terrain and swim year round in the deep plunge pool beneath the falls or in the pristine channels that meander through the gorge. You may be lucky enough to have the whole place to yourself but, if not, there are many spots to spread out your towel or picnic hamper in relative seclusion.
There are several Bradshaw figures and other Aboriginal motifs tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the upper gorge and an important Wandjina painting among the rocks downstream near the camp.
Many travellers on the Gibb call at the roadhouse to refuel and restock before moving on to other destinations in the Kimberley. But with magical Manning Gorge and idyllic riverside camping only a short distance away, it makes perfect sense to stay here a while and enjoy the Kimberley in all its natural splendour.
CloCkwise from above: The Manning River cascades into the upper gorge; Spacious campsites among the savannah woodland; Manning Gorge below the waterfall.
above: Waders can ferry their day packs in styrofoam boxes on the pulley system shown. RIGHT: Giant boabs stand proudly among the campsites.