Why the Kimberley region is an icon of the outback
Travel writer David McGonigal shares his insider tips for exploring the stunning WA Kimberley region.
Few Australian towns have developed more in recent decades than Broome. However, just 10 minutes outside town little has changed in 50,000 years.
The colours of the Kimberley are a constant. They are a brilliant pallet of red soil and blue sky, golden beaches and aquamarine sea. So are the strong characters that inhabit this harsh and largely empty landscape. I wrote after my first visit 30 years ago: “It’s a truly beautiful part of the country that in many ways epitomises the image of Australia that Australians like to present to the world.”
That hasn’t changed and is more important than ever as the rest of Australia becomes more urbanised. The Kimberley’s main travel season is April to September, when the days are warm and the skies are clear.
Kununurra began in the 1960s as the centre of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme. There’s a wide range of accommodation options and many charter flights over the Bungle Bungles and Argyle Diamond Mine. These days it is a modern town with full facilities.
Wyndham was born as the port for the Halls Creek gold rush in 1886. It is a sleepy town of 800 people on Cambridge Gulf and the view from Five Rivers Lookout is spectacular.
Halls Creek is the northern end of the Canning Stock Route and the Tanami Track and an entry point for Wolfe Creek Crater and the Bungle Bungle Range. The nearby ruins of Old Halls Creek date back to the first discovery of gold in WA in 1885 when 15,000 optimists were living here.
As its name suggests, Fitzroy Crossing came about from people waiting for the flooded Fitzroy River to drop so it was safe to travel across the causeway. Of course, the inevitable delay required a drink and that gave rise to the 1897 Crossing Inn. Geikie Gorge is close by, but this is also a good base to explore Mimbi Caves as well as Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge.
Derby, established in 1883, is the Kimberley’s oldest town and remains an important administrative centre with a population of 4,500. The famed hollow boab prison tree stands about 7km from town. Derby has the Kimberley’s main Royal Flying Doctor Service base.
Broome is one of Australia’s most important tourist towns. Originally a pearling community it now has a wide range of hotels and resorts and tourist operators. Expect to see expensive jewellery such as pearls and Argyle diamonds on display in the shops. You can still ride a camel along Cable Beach and Sun Pictures outdoor picture gardens is always packed on Saturday nights.
Travel by road
Trans-Kimberley options are either the Great Northern Highway or the Gibb River Road, or ideally both. The highway comes into Broome from the south along Eighty Mile Beach then passes through Derby, Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek, Wyndham and Kununurra before becoming the Victoria Highway to Katherine and Darwin. It’s just over 1000km from Broome to Kununurra. The renowned 700km back-country journey along the Gibb River Road begins outside Derby to the south west and ends near Wyndham. The main side trip is up to Kalumburu and/or Mitchell Falls.
The dirt road up the Dampier Peninsula from Broome passes by the Aboriginal communities of Beagle Bay (don’t miss seeing the pearl-shell altar in the church), Middle Lagoon and Lombadina before arriving at Cape Leveque and One Arm Point. Sunset at Cape Leveque turns the blood-red ridge behind the white sandy beach to crimson. The Aboriginal-owned resort of Kooljaman offers five levels of accommodation and a camp ground.
Purnululu National Park is the site of the wonderful orange-and-black banded beehive domes of the Bungle Bungle Range. It is only open between April and December and the rough 53km access road can be negotiated only by 4WD vehicles and single-axles off-road trailers. There are no shops in the park but there are scenic flight options.
The Gibb River Road heads north from Derby past Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre and the old Derby Leprosarium on the way to the turnoff to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek. Like Geikie Gorge these cut through the ancient coral reef of the Napier Range.
The whole Gibb River Road is a grand outback experience and the swimming holes, stations (some offer accommodation) and camping sites along the way provide an unforgettable experience. The road has improved a lot in recent years and opens in April or May when the rivers have dropped and Main Roads has graded it to repair the ravages of the Wet.
Around midway along the road there’s the turnoff to Kalumburu and the Mitchell Plateau. The 270km road to Kalumburu is only slightly worse than the Gibb River Road – the track out to Mitchell Falls is considerably worse.
For National Parks information go to the official website.
Since the late, renowned Sam Lowell OAM began taking tours in 1981 the Kimberley has been a great place to discover the unique perspective of the original Australians. That can be done in many ways including staying at the multi-award-winning Kooljaman.
At Geikie Gorge, the Darngku Heritage Cruises provides a special insight into Aboriginal heritage and visits places not accessible to the regular visitor. To explore the opportunities Kimberley Dreamtime Adventure Tours offers several tours out of Broome.
Of course, there are also opportunities to buy Aboriginal art in the area where it was created. There are many galleries throughout the Kimberley. Just ask the local tourist offices.
Exploration by air
The distances in the Kimberley are vast and the population sparse so air travel is a logical option. Two sights are best seen from an aerial perspective: Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater and Bungle Bungle.
The WA government set up the Kimberley Aerial Highway linking charter flights to ground operator tours.
Several cattle stations across the Kimberley welcome fly-in visitors. For remote coastal luxury there’s Faraway Bay where you have to fly in because any other access is impractical. The resort takes pride in its cuisine and the setting is superb.
The Kimberley overall offers grand settings and a sense of space that is unique. No matter how you travel, time in this special part of Australia reveals much of what makes Australia special.
For general information visit www.westernaustralia.com
Have you visited the Kimberley region? Join the conversation below.
Written by David McGonigal. Republished with permission of Wyza.com.au.