There’s plenty to explore at the western end of the Gibb River Road.
GORGES AND SWIMMING HOLES
Heading west from Mt Barnett Roadhouse, it is a quick jaunt to Galvans Gorge.
The closest watering hole to the Gibb River Road, I’ve passed it by in the past, assuming it would be crowded or less spectacular than the other western gorges like Bell and Windjana. But Galvans is now one of my favourite places along this whole dusty way.
Sure, it may not have the grand scale of those limestone reefs further west, but the emerald light here suffuses everything, while the waterfall falling into the deep well of lime-tinted water is so perfect it looks painted. Galvans is the archetypical hidden lagoon, a place of innocence and play.
There is a tree hanging over the water, branches extending horizontally, begging to be climbed. A rope swing hangs from the tallest branch, belying a redneck heritage.
Above the falls is a flat sandstone platform wide enough for a few bodies to sprawl, catching the rays of sun that have warmed the rock, like lazy lizards. When it gets too hot, they simply roll into the water.
Imintji Store sells diesel to travellers, and has more candy and sugary sodas than I’ve ever seen this far from civilisation. The attached automotive repair facility hosts at least a dozen 40, 60 and 70 Series LandCruisers, most of them on blocks.
This is the place you dream about if you’re touring in a 60 Series — a land of replacement springs and other parts you simply can’t find anywhere else. An upturned bonnet marks the spot, and vehicular detritus hangs from the fences, trophies from expeditions past.
One of the few protected areas in the Kimberley, the King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park seems strangely transplanted to this dry, alluvial plain. A true mountain range, rather than the Devonian reefs that make up the Napier and Oscar ranges further west, these old hills hide Bell Gorge and Lennard River Gorge, both spectacular examples of the power of water.
Silent Grove at Bell Gorge is your typical national park campground. A happy ranger wanders around collecting fees. There are flushing toilets and communal fire pits. I like the separate area for campers with generators, as it allows those living a simpler life to enjoy a bit more peace and quiet.
It is definitely worth planning your travel to get here early, though, as the place fills up quickly every day.
The trip to the gorge requires a 10km winding drive across a grassy plateau, and there is a decent parking area at the trail head. From here there is a fairly easy hike, about one kilometre or so, which brings you to the top of the falls.
Bell Creek, as it runs between the worn down ochre domes that are left of this once massive mountain range, would be enough itself to draw travellers. But a few metres downstream from where the trail pops out of the woods, the creek falls over a staircase of red rock into a cool, deep pool. The rock is hollowed out here, and there is a weird dead echo off the moist walls.
Frogs line the water’s edge in the shade, and there is always shade in this deep canyon. It is much cooler than on the tops of the cliffs, though the steep hike in definitely involves some knee-to-the-chest manoeuvres.
You can wade across the creek to get to the track that runs to the bottom of the waterfall, or you can hike upstream a bit and do some rock hopping.
The air is chilly in the shade, and the sun and warm rocks dry you without a towel. Families sit in the shade with picnics, and children wade in the shallow water watching the water fall, watching the sun bend shadows around the canyon walls.
Back out on the Gibb River Road and a little further west is Lennard River Gorge. Without camping nearby or an easy to access swimming hole, this place doesn’t get a lot of traffic. But for the dedicated explorer, there is a swimming hole at the top of the falls to rival anything else in the Kimberley.
The waterfall here plunges 30m down into a dark chasm of frothing water and the walls extend another 50m up on either side from the top of the waterfall. An eagle has made its nest in the towering eastern cliff face and the cries of downy eaglets carom off the walls.
Not another soul visits while we swim in this swiftly flowing and crystal clear water. This kind of solitude is getting rare in this part of the world, especially if you’re travelling in late June or July.
ON THE ROAD
The hills and jumpups west of the King Leopold Range soon give way to a vast plain neatly bisected by the Napier and Oscar ranges. This is where the eerie visage of Queen Victoria overlooks Napier Downs, a strange coincidence of history and geology. Where the Gibb cuts through this pass in the Napier, it looks like a giant tomahawk has pierced the range.
Everything east of these ancient reefs, broken down yearly by rain which cuts the tops of the cliffs into razor-sharp crenulations, is utterly flat. It is a long flood plain interspersed with stands of boab trees clinging to rocky hills, or watching over the creeks that trickle across the road.
For those who do not want to go all the way into Derby to camp, there is a great free camping area around the May River, just north of the Gibb.
This is crocodile country, but there are small freshwater tributaries you can camp along, or you can pull up on the river stones that pile up after the wet and throw in a barra line. I’ve caught a few babies here but never anything big enough for the frying pan.
Derby is a great spot to stop and lick your wounds after crossing the Gibb. It’s a small town with a couple of proper grocery stores, BP roadhouse and just about every mechanical want or need catered for. An agricultural shop just out of town has more trailer parts than I’ve seen in most major town centres.
There is even a French bakery in town. This sleepy hamlet is also home to weekly mud crab races. It’s strange to salivate while gambling, but you get to eat the crabs at the end of the race, so it’s worth visiting for the feast.
You can get takeaway seafood at the pier, but it is expensive, and there is so much in the water for free up here. For the keen fisherman, there are plenty of charter boats in Derby too.
And every Derby visitor has to see the Prison Boab Tree; nothing else so elegantly sums up the degree of human treachery and degradation that white fellas doled out to the innocent aboriginals. It stands as a symbol of the unadulterated violation of nature herself. I only hope the secret it keeps will last beyond the wood itself.
Derby is the end of the Gibb River Road, but for most travellers, it marks the beginning of their Kimberley adventure.