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