Back to basics on the Gibb River Road

Published: July 28th 2019
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(Some of the photos are out of sequence, but hopefully you still get an impression... this blog just didn't want to get published, so i've given up on the proof read and am just pressing publish!!)

We arrived on what seemed like the last flight of the day at Broome Airport. Ominously there was a big queue for taxis and not many circling. After nervously checking out how far the walk to the hotel would be, and then eying up our buggy full of luggage (with a giggling Senan sitting on top of it all!) we decided to trust the Gods and after waiting about 20 mins in the gentle heat, a taxi eventually turned up and took us to Broome Time Apartments. The heat in Broome is phenomenal. Even in the late evening there's a thickness to it. We decided to venture out in the dark to find the shops. It was our first interaction with a drunk local, but also our first inkling of the beautiful stars we're going to see on this trip. Back in the hotel we opted for a simple supper: sometimes you can't beat the old reliable hang sandwich made with white bread, and it was a good way of toning back our gourmet expectations for the forthcoming leg!

Next morning after breakfast at the hotel, Philippe came good on mammy's well-intentioned-but-slightly-mad promise to Senan that he could go for a swim in the morning, as they both returned shivering from a swim that even Senan admitted was 'a bit cold'. We packed up all the bags again and left them with reception while we walked to camper rental place. After twenty minutes in the sticky morning heat with Senan plastered against my back, I was craving airconditioning - that didn't bode well for 10 days in a tent!

We picked up our next 'camper' - a V8 Toyota Landcruiser. It was noticeably much smaller than our previous comforts but it made Philippe very happy! After posing lots of Gibb River Road questions to Peter from Britz, we hit the road in our new abode. Peter advised us not to bother paying the 300quid for a satelite phone as he said that 'there are lots of people out there', especially as it is now school holiday. This was quietly comforting to me as the middle-of-nowhere-without-any-contact-with-anyone was making me nervious in terms of what if something went wrong. And it also meant an extra few dollars in our pocket!

We navigated our way around Broome, giving the jeep a 4x4 test run on the beach before finding a place on a mega big campsite. We swung by an outdoorsy shop for some last minute extras and managed a preliminary set up of the tent on the roof, before hoofing it down to Cable Beach for a sundowner watching the famous Broome sunset. Clear ocean straight out. The next bit of land would probably be Madagascar!

After first night sleeping on the roof, which went OK despite being very aware that we were on a busy campsite, we managed to get the laundry done before breakfast. We hit the road to Derby, plotting our course for the next 12 days en route. Given that we had 10 days, versus the usual 12-14 days most itineraries suggest, we decided to do a long driving day on Day 1, basically skipping the first night of the GRR suggested itinerary (being a sleep in Derby) and instead grabbed lunch in a pub (served by Irish man!) then headed to Woolworths to stock up on food and booze next door in what would be our last reasonably priced store for a while. There were lots of aboriginal local folks in town on Saturday morning so the shops were busy. We headed off to the Gibb River Road by two-ish, with a slight detour back on ourselves to send a preemptive birthday message to Philippe's brother - a stark reminder that we were heading off the grid for a week of no phone calls or Internet!

What hit me first was the change in landscape. It just starts to become more barren and a deep red/ochre is present as far as the eye can see. After 70 or so kilometres of sealed road (ie with tarmacadam) we hit the first stretch of unsealed road. My first (and lasting!) impression was of dust. Everywhere. But it was also very beautiful to be in the absolute middle of nowhere.

While Senan slept and Philippe took care of lowering our tyre pressure, I worked on perfecting my panorama shots of just a whole lot of nothingness! All lovely until you encounter traffic, and then its just a whirling cloud of dust. The next stretch is mostly unsealed, with occasional patches of sealed bits. As Philippe found his groove (also literally in the corrogated road!), I got our bearings on the map. Although we have sat nav, it was actually nice to use an old fashioned map in my hands!

We made it to our first stop, Wyndjana Gorge National Park campground, in good time. Arriving around 4.30, in time to check-in (simply filling in an envelope in duplicate and storing it on our windshield) and set up the tent. We mitigated Senan's disappointment at the lack of playground by sacrificing our Qantas-nicked blanket as his designated play mat on the red sand. Of course as soon as our backs were turned he was laying flat on his belly 'driving his car' on the soil! Our little red skinned munchkin would be needing an outback shower tonight!

We debated role division over a purple Ink gin while watching yet another lovely sunset. The colours of the gorge mountains around us were phenomenal. While Philippe and Senan negotiated the camp showers I rustled up some supper on our gas camping stove. It was one pan meals all the way for us for the next few days! After a good old fashioned Dutch uitsmijter and a few more beers - in the company of a local wallaby! We all retired 'upstairs' for the evening around 8pm, encouraging Senan to sleep listening to the backdrop of singing crickets and the gentle hum of the conversations of our fellow campers.

We rose at 7am. It would seem that 7am is even 'late' amongst the Gibb River Road possie, as half the campsite had already emptied out by the time we were as far as munching on our Cheerios. With the jeep all packed up, we took the Time walk into Wyndjana Gorge. A gentle one hour bush walk, in which we got our first glimpse of some freshwater crocs. As we walked back to Jeep Senan politely enquired if 'we will sleep in hotel tonight, yes?'. We laughed it off and hit the road again. Destination: Silent Grove campground!

We again made good time on the road (I think Philippe off-road experience means we took half the time of the other travellers!) and were settled in in Silent Grove by 1pm. As we sat enjoying our lunch, we literally felt the ground move under us. Given that we are now seasoned earthquakers (!), we immediately assumed it was another one. As our tin cups rattled off each other we realised that without internet or phone coverage, we wouldn't quite know what was going on for another week or so. For all we knew half of Broome or Darwin could have been destroyed, and we were none the wiser. In fact a short while later a ranger came walking around the park. We stopped him to enquire, and he seemed grateful that we also thought it was an earthquake. They are apparently not very common around here - so much so that he had never experienced one in 10 years out here!

In a true case of 'well if you can't change it, dont spend time worrying about it' we put it to the back of our minds and continued our GRR experience, setting out for a hike over rocky terrain to the very beautiful Bell George at the foot of a lovely waterfall. Apparently it is safer to swim up high as the crocs are less likely to do the hike. Mmmm..yes, much more comforting then! After a tricky hike up there over rocks, it was nice to see that it was definitely worth the effort as it was quite idyllic. Senan was keen to swim in the cool waters and Philippe even swam over to the little water falls.

As the sun was descending in the sky we trekked back to camp and pulled out the tent. G&T in hand, we embraced the newly formed tradition of an evening sundowner. My turn to bring Senan to the bush shower, which turned out to be a cold shower, so the whole campground had the pleasure of experiencing his objections with me... Not so Silent Gorge then...

After an easy dinner of pasta and a few beers, we retired for the evening - trying to sleep while also wondering what animal was rustling in the bushes next to us. In the jet black middle of night, let me tell you your imagination can go wild! I was very glad we opted for the roof tent rather than the ground one!

The next morning, as we were packing up to head towards Manning River Grove, I must admit that my patience with dust was growing thin. Somehow I recognized that I just needed to accept it as a fact, but that was not easy when Senan repeatedly smeared it across his face and was perpeptually covered in red dust. I mean it was very cute, the first time...but after a while we just decided to leave him looking like Red Batman!

On our way to the next campground Senan made a further small, hopeful, request from the back seat: 'Where is the restaurant?'. Once we finished laughing again, we decided that rather than focus on the priviledged little monster that seems to have evolved over the past weeks, we would instead be proud that the last few weeks have improved his vocabulary and communication skills!

Manning Grove campground is a big spacious area with lots of thin trees. There was a walk to be done to get to yet another beautiful gorge, but we decided that we'd be cutting it fine time-wise to get back to base before dark.. And well... crocodiles, ye know! So we contented ourselves with a dip in the pond-like thing near the campground - all the while keeping an eye out for 'freshies'. (Apparently freshwater crocs will leave you alone as long as you leave them alone... none-the-less I couldn't shake the image of how Senan must look like fresh lamb and easy prey to them!)

Sorry little buddy, out of luck again that night, as it was an easy camp stove dinner again, before scavaging enough firewood to make a cute little campfire. All the better to admire the amazing stars by! But clear skies also brought our first very cold night.. Senan has developed a strong hatred of blankets and kepts crawling out from under them in his sleep, meaning that Philippe and I don't get a good night of sleep as you are always half aware that you need to cover him up again. That said, we all hit the hay (on the roof) so early here that we still make up plenty of sleeping hours before the campsite wakes up again around 7am.

Next stop Drysale River Station. It is slightly off the Gibb River Road but caught my eye as it gets good press for its creature comforts. We arrived around 1pm - stretching all our patience to set up camp with low sugar levels. Senan is in a massive 'Mammy, mammy, mammy' phase and 'Why?, why...' and when hungry, his most enjoyable repertoire is 'I canNOT!!'.. And cue the meltdown.

After sugar levels resumed and the boys had a dip, Senan got his wish from yesterday and we ate dinner in style in an outback restaurant, complete with beer garden! As long as you tell yourself not to look too carefully at the prices (think Scandinavian beer prices!) in general it was just a nice escape from the campstove and the dust for a while. When we got back to the jeep we stoked up a cosy campfire and I set about mending my poor dust-dried out feet. I tell you, the simple pleasure of bathing them in a bucket of hot water rivalled many of the top notch massages I've paid for in my life!!

It was beside the same campfire that Senan had a relatively unprovoked bout of inconsolable homesickness. One minute I was explaining to him that his grandad is also my daddy, and the next minute he was wailing uncontrollably, arguing that he IS NOT, with the 'conversation' quickly descending into his point blank refusal to be soothed in any way. I guess we all have our moments, and this was an important pressure cooker release for Senan, as afterwards he slept like a log!!

After our usual morning breakfast of cereal and coffee and a quick wash, we quickly fell back into the packing-up routine of me washing dishes and redistributing clothes from the clean to dirty pile while Philippe packed up the roof tent and then the pair of us fill up the jeep with boxes of dishes/utensils, chairs, the table, the high chair - all the while keeping an eye out for whatever innocent way Senan is going to find to sabotage our efforts with his 'playing'.

After learning that the trek from Drysdale to Mitchell Falls was just too far to still fit in with our schedule, we replanned and took ourselves off to the Ellenbrae Station for a further very welcome break in civilisation with some scones with cream and jam on a terrace with a patch of actual green grass! Not only that but Senan nearly burst with excitement when he saw a childrens sandpit with lots of toys in it. We lost him in there for a good half hour!

En route to Ellenbrae, while Philippe was out of the jeep scavaging firewood, Senan upped the stakes in his outlandish entitled requests for luxury.. 'When is it bye-bye Jeep? The plane must land in Fiji'. There are times when he is definitely more me than Philippe 😊 although he was clever enough not to utter it with his daddy around!

Ellenbrae has a wonderful little sandy gorge, where after 500m trek in the sun, you get rewarded with a dip in a shallow little waterhole. You do find yourself wondering how they find these things, but when they do they sure do know how to turn it into a tourist attraction, all the while retaining its outdoorsy back to nature appeal. Senan was getting braver and braver at the swimming, now walking in up to his neck, happily talking about swimming with crocodiles (which, to our knowledge, we haven't yet done!). Back at the campsite, with an exhausted Senan napping in the jeep, Philippe and I enjoyed the simple pleasure of a sundowner in relative silence. In those quieter moments you realise what a big part Senan is in the soundtrack of this trip. I love him dearly, but the kid never shuts up! 😊

Dinner was a feast of burgers in white bread, with an onion cooked in the coals of the campfire (nice tip Sjors!). I bathed my recovering feet again, but by 8pm Senan had had it, and he and I retired to the roof for some torchlit Woezel en Pip stories. Having reflected positively on the simple pleasure of the scones and sandpit, we repeated the experience, spending a chilled out morning deciding our next steps. With a day to spare we decided to insert a next stop at the Home Valley Station. I do wonder if we were swayed by the descriptions of a luxury campsite, but in any case, distance-wise it was also the next stop that made sense.

Keen to stake my claim to own one of those 'I survived the Gibb River Road' car stickers, I took the wheel as we drove off from Ellenbrae. It's quite the experience driving on different surfaces, all with their own levels of slippery-ness. At times it felt like the jeep was dancing on the corrogated shale, other times it felt like iceskating with a jeep. With Philippe in full co-pilot mode though ('lift here/watch your speed/take the inside track/mind the rock!) I knew I'd be alright, but it does take 100% of your attention, so I appreciated Senan obliging me by falling asleep in the back. I handed back the wheel when we stopped 60km later to gather firewood, but I certainly now have a better feel for the skill off road driving requires!

We encountered some roadworks on the way laying more sealed road, and it does beg the question of how much longer the GRR will be unpaved. It's probably inevitable, and likely essential to keep the road open, but it does mean it loses part of the charm. That said, the view from the roadworks probably made it one of the better gigs around (if you consider searing heat to be a given!)

They say everything happens for a reason and upon seeing Senan's reaction to seeing his first playground in a week, I realised that it was a more beautiful sight than any waterfalls. Sheer unadulterated joy in a 2 year old is a sight to behold. Especially when he's yelling 'O my God mammy, it's a playground, look, look, a PLAYGROUND!'.

Home Valley is an extravagent slice of luxury in the middle of nowhere. It has a bar/restaurant, a swimming pool (sans crocs), the biggest playground in the world, hot showers and decent laundry facilities , which is extremely welcome after a few nights of Bush camping. We got ourselves a few beers and a slap up meal, complete with crocodile bites and kangaroo tail starters! As we sat in the restaurant that evening we came to the funny conclusion that we knew more people by sight in the restaurant than we do in our village back home! There were the German blokes, that actually got their Jeep at the same time as we got our rental car back in Perth. The Aussie family who are traveling for 6 months. The french father and son pair who we met in the outdoor shop in Broome. The German girls we met when we were picking up the jeep... Everyone is essentially doing the same trip here that we all keep pace with each other. It turns into a nice camradarie after a while. As Peter from Britz said 'Everyone is equal on the Gibb'. And there is a real sense of helping each other out that is nice to see.

It is amazing what a difference a hot shower and clean laundry can make! After finally extricating Philippe from a nice chat with a 76year old Aussie with a big passion for offroading, and Senan from a playground which became infinitely more interesting once I told him we were going, we were all that bit happier as we hit the road for El Questro on the dot of the 10am check out. I still had one thing left to get done on the Gibb River Road, and had high hopes that ELQ would deliver: a helicopter view of the Kimberley plains!

El Questro is a high end resort which is quite accessible, albeit with 4x4, from the Northern Highway (thus avoiding the need to do the whole GRR). We had prebooked our night based on advice that we were still in the tail end of the school holidays. We arrived at lunchtime and managed to cram lots into our short stay here, with both activities taking Philippe and I alternately out of our comfort zones!

After a quick lunch, we booked our helicopter trip for 4pm and took off on in the jeep on one of the 4x4 trails. While we lurched our way across rocky River roads, Senan once again proved his amazing napping skills, not waking from his slumber (despite the great display of headbanging going on in my seat!). Philippe's inner 12 year old was eager to get going at exploring El Questro's Real off road tracks. About 20kms away from the Central camp area, we encountered a rocky passage across the Pentecost River. It looks a very short distance, but in reality takes 5 minutes of lunging forwards to cross over. Not for the last time that trip was my heart in my mouth. My brain preventatively working overtime on solutions to avoid the saltwater crocs if anything were to cause us to need to stop half way. Fortunately Philippe was calmer, and his skills got us safely to the other side. We continued the wobble up to Brancos Point - the spot, we later learned, where the 125km of mountain range concludes. Thereafter Philippe's inner cub scout took us off down a steep, rocky route to Pigeons Billabong, where his response to my request (-read plea!) to turn around, was met with a 'but it's just getting fun now..!.'. We jerked onwards, often with my eyes closed. Thank God for the helicopter appointment as otherwise I suspect he'd still have us out there a week later (in fairness, we have all the stuff with us in the jeep, so it could happen!)

After 'bumpy, bumpy'-ing (Senan woke up and shouted it with glee) our way back to the ranch, we saddled up for another adrenaline filled activity: the helicopter ride! (Only a little bit of me was taking pleasure out of the payback this meant for Philippe given his fear of heights...!)

Senan insisted that we must all get our 'helicopter suits' on. No idea where thats coming from, but he was quite insistent and it was very cute. We informed the pilot that he was competing with Mrs. Rabbit (a la Peppa Pig) for flying skills-meaning Senan was expecting us to rescue a car somewhere - and he told us that kids usually start crying and then go to sleep. Senan did neither. As the helicopter took off Philippe had him clenched tightly (in addition to the seat belt) on his lap and for 20minutes we saw the vast terrain of the El Questro territory. The sun was approaching sunset and the colours were simply magnificent. As the helicopter gracefully dipped into the gorges between the magestic Cockburn mountain range, my lasting memory is of just feeling very small. Like a fly must feel in a big room in a house. El Questro territory is so big that we couldn't even see it all in our 20 minute jolly!

And as icing on the cake, we landed just in time for happy hour! Over pizzas and live music, with Senan making friends with Ollie the two year old at the next table, we reflected on our week away from Internet connection. We concluded that you'd be hard pushed to find somewhere in Europe that would force a week off the grid, but that it was actually quite healthy and refreshing to completely disconnect every so often.

Tomorrow we'll check in with home, refuel and restock in Kununurra, before we drive onwards to the Northern Territory, having spent 3.5 delightful weeks in Western Australia.


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28th July 2019

I felt it in my stomach when I was reading about the helikopter flight!!! And I also could feel the red dust everywhere! But I am sure this trip will be onforgatebel for you and a very special memory as you are going to look back! So nice to read about this adventure! So cute what Senan said about the hotel and the restaurant!!!!Charles regret so much that he couldnt be with you during this trip!!! Enjoy the coming travel weeks!!

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