To drive for

Beauty along the Gibb River Road


It’s the dry sea­son and the Gibb River Road in Western Aus­tralia’s re­mote Kim­ber­ley re­gion is awash with peo­ple. There’s the tribe of car­a­van­ners from Perth who wear iden­ti­cal T-shirts with the words “Gibb River Road 2017” in­scribed be­neath a pic­ture of a boab tree.

The Ger­man back­pack­ers have blown three tyres east of El­len­brae Sta­tion and are now work­ing for their keep at a lo­cal home­stead while they wait for re­place­ments to ar­rive. The woman from Mel­bourne is walk­ing the Emma Gorge track nine years af­ter her first visit, while her in­firm hus­band waits for her at the pic­nic ground. “We live in such a beau­ti­ful coun­try,” she says, “yet so few of us get to see it.”

This is ar­guably Aus­tralia’s most beau­ti­ful land­scape, a broad sweep of oxblood dirt spiked with golden scrub grass, a bedrock of an­cient lime­stone chis­elled away to re­veal gorges with walls some­times so tall they ob­scure the sun. In the wet, from Novem­ber to April, wa­ter cour­ses through, cre­at­ing im­promptu oceans upon bone-dry riverbeds, carv­ing chan­nels into the baked earth, ma­roon­ing home­steads for months at a time.

The dry, from May to Oc­to­ber, re­veals a land­scape from which al­most ev­ery last drop of wa­ter has been squeezed dry. The Gibb River Road runs like a rough pen­cil mark through it, about 660km of mostly dirt route strung out be­tween Derby in the west and Wyn­d­hamKu­nunurra junc­tion in the east.

It’s a com­par­a­tively busy road for one so re­mote from met­ro­pol­i­tan re­gions. Four-wheel drives rat­tle along its cor­ru­ga­tions, kick­ing up suf­fo­cat­ing clouds of dust. But it can be hours be­fore we en­counter an­other ve­hi­cle, and it’s then that the ut­ter vast­ness of Aus­tralia’s out­back set­tles upon us. We are but an in­con­se­quen­tial speck travers­ing a land as old as time.

The jour­ney be­gins in Broome, gate­way to the Kim­ber­ley. It’s a fron­tier town filled with peo­ple who came to visit and never left, a place char­ac­terised by in­tense heat and sat­u­rated colour. Ev­ery Broome day con­cludes with a sun­set that stripes the hori­zon scar­let and gold.

But the western edge of the Gibb River Road is still a two-hour drive east, near Derby. Here the sun­set outshines even Broome’s, gild­ing the long jetty at the Derby wharf and erupt­ing in a lav­ish swirl of colour above the salt flats on the out­skirts of town.

Next morn­ing, we set off along the old cat­tle route that is to­day the fa­bled Gibb River Road. It man­i­fests in fits and starts, tar blend­ing into dirt and crum­pling into hard ridges. The rough smooths out briefly where slabs of bi­tu­men have been laid to seal flood­ways and crests.

Yel­low plains are dot­ted with ter­mite mounds, red and spiked at first, then ochre-hued and bul­bous. Fire has swept through here; the black­ened trees have con­stricted and feathered in their fu­tile bid to es­cape the flames.

Cock­burn Range, top; finches at El­len­brae Sta­tion, above

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