Sunday, 5 June 2016

Planning for the Gibb River Road

Planning to drive along the Gibb River Road

Simple Map of Gibb River Road

The Gibb River Road is THE road which crosses the Kimberley. The Kimberley is in the top right hand corner of Western Australia.

Location kimberley

I tried to find a concise description of it before we left and could not find one. Wikitravel gave the nearest:

The Kimberley is one of the world's last great wilderness areas, and covers an area large enough to fit the U.K. twice, though the total population is slightly higher than 40,000 … …. with 85% of the population being tourists.

Its area is more than 421,000 square kilometres which makes it even less densely populated than the Pilbara. I suspect that the only place we have been to which is even less populated than here is Antarctica.  Comparing the Kimberley to where we live provides a set of statistics so different to each other than they become almost meaningless. The Western Half of the Kimberley has a size of 118,560 km2 and a population of 8941 or 1 person per 13 km2. The County we live in has a size of 1643 kmand a population of 1,119,800 or 682 people per km2.  Australia is not a Continent which can be compared to most others.

Why we are back again is to drive The Gibb River Road which is described thus by WikiTravel:

There are two main roads in the region, the sealed Great Northern Highway (across the south), and the unsealed Gibb River Road (across the middle). The Gibb River road is probably more spectacular, as it crosses through the heart of the Kimberley through magnificient wilderness scenery, but you will need a 4WD, and it is simply not passable in the wet. … … … It should be noted that this region is one of the most remote areas in Australia. It is not advisable to leave the main roads if you are not experienced in remote area travel or sufficiently prepared.

Spectacular, magnificent, remote …. are all words which attract us. We drove the Great Northern Highway (the brown road on the map above) the last time we were in the region. This time it is the blue road on the map.

The Government of Western Australia "River Names Database" gives this explanation for the name of the river:

"The Gibb River is located in the central Kimberley region, and is a 112km long tributary of the Drysdale River. It was named by surveyor Charles Crossland in 1901 after Andrew Gibb Maitland (1864-1951), the Government Geologist who was accompanying Crossland when the river was sighted. Maitland was Government Geologist from 1896 to 1926. He was formerly Assistant Government Geologist in Queensland."

The Gibb River Road does not actually cross the Gibb River but does get close to it. The road (opened in 1956) was built to allow cattle to be trucked out alive rather than slaughtered and then flown out. The road itself is mainly a gravel two lane road with a number of water crossings and numerous heavily corrugated sections. Each year just after it opens, its surface is repaired and the surface gets progressively worse as the season goes on. 

Gibb Route Google

It is possible (so Google says) to drive The Gibb River Road (GRR) in under 12 hours. We have allowed 14 days because there is a lot to see and we do not want to hurry. Apart from the first 80kms to the west and about 6kms at the eastern end, the rest of the road is 4WD track.

We found this more visual planning guide to be of some use when deciding which places to go to:  

Kimberley map 

A listing of the main places and distances follows (it has been borrowed from one of the best Gibb River Road websites which you can access here) and the hyperlinks below take you to the appropriate section of this website.


Comments (D: diesel available, U: unleaded)


You access the Gibb River Road in WA from the Great Northern Highway. The turn-off to the Gibb River Rd. is just a few kilometres outside Derby. We start counting from Derby.


Birdwood Downs Station. Working cattle station offering camping, accommodation, tours and trail rides.


The first part of the Gibb River Rd. is sealed, but the bitumen ends here.


Tunnel Creek Road turn-off. Turn right here to visit Windjana Gorge National Park (20 km from junction) and Tunnel Creek National Park (55 km from junction).


Lennard River Bridge and Lennard River Bridge Snack Stop. Nice veranda overlooking the Lennard River and Bridge, good wildlife viewing.


Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge turn-off. Located 50 km off the main road inside King Leopold Range Conservation Park. Accommodation with full board. Since 2008 also camping.


Lennard Gorge turn-off. No camping. Part of the King Leopold Range Conservation Park.


Bell Gorge and Silent Grove turn-off. Bell Gorge in the King Leopold Range Conservation Park is probably the best known attraction along the Gibb River Road.


Imintji Store


Mornington Wilderness Camp turn-off. Accommodation, camping, restaurant, bar and access to several gorges. The camp is 90 km from the turn-off.


Charnley River Station turn-off. Located 42 km off the main road. Working cattle station offering acommodation, camping, meals. Dogs welcome.


Adcock Gorge turn-off. No camping. Dogs allowed.


Galvans Gorge. No camping. Dogs allowed.

305D U

Mt. Barnett Roadhouse. Fuel (unleaded and diesel), drinking water, ice, toilets, showers, laundry, small store and take-aways.


Manning Gorge and campground turn-off. Manning Gorge is owned by Mt. Barnett Station. The 7 km access track starts at roadhouse. A fee is charged for entry and includes the use of the camping facilities. Dogs welcome.


Barnett River Gorges turn-off.


Mt Elizabeth Station turn-off. Located 30 km from the main road. Working cattle station offering accommodation, camping and meals. Dogs welcome.


Kalumburu Road turn-off. Turn here to get to Kalumburu or to the Mitchell Plateau. (Drysdale River Station is 60 km from the turn-off and is the next place to get diesel or unleaded.)


Ellenbrae Station turn-off. Another working cattle station that welcomes visitors, offering camping and basic bungalows.


Durack River crossing


Home Valley Station. Accommodation, camping and tours. Very recent largish tourism development, beautiful location, excellent chef.


Pentecost River Crossing. Very scenic location. Like the Durack River this is one of the rivers that can be rather exciting to cross early in the season. Beware, this is serious crocodile country.

626D U

El Questro Station turn-off. Huge tourism operation. Main township is located 16 km from the turn-off. Aimed at the high end market but offers facilities for all budgets and has some great tours, cruises, hikes and gorges. General store, diesel, unleaded, accommodation, steakhouse, bar, camping.


Emma Gorge turn-off. Belongs to El Questro. Accommodation, no camping. Entry fee applies.


End of Gibb River Rd. From the intersection it's 48 km to Wyndham (north) or 53 km to Kununurra (south).


In theory we can drive the whole 705 kms of the road without having to refuel because we carry about 1000 kms of fuel across the main tank and the two reserves. However this does not take into account the numerous diversions up and down various side turnings (such as Tunnel Creek or Drysdale Station etc) nor does it make allowance for the fact that the majority of the road is 4WD track and hence fuel consumption may be higher than normal. 

Fuel is of course much more expensive along the road, partly because of the difficulty in getting fuel to the few places which sell it and partly because it is a sellers market. Currently we are paying an average of around $1.35 per litre for diesel and we have heard tales of it being anything up to twice that on the GRR. Never-the-less, we will refuel whenever we are able to simply because the one fuel rule which you never break in the wilds of Australia is to drive past a petrol station when there is space for some fuel in your tank. It is not uncommon to hear “We have run out of fuel today and the next tanker is due in a couple of days time. You will have to hang around unless you have got enough to get to …. where I hear they may have some”. The better garages start to ration fuel when it is getting low and will sell you just enough to get to the next garage (but you cannot rely on this).

The nearest petrol station to the western start of the GRR is in Derby and therefore we will call in there to ensure we are full to the brim and also that we are restocked with as much food and water as we can carry and keep fresh.

Distances between fuel stations

Diesel is said to be available at three places, Unleaded is harder to find and LPG for cars is unknown and for camping gas bottles it is said to be available only at El Questro which is at the far end of the road for us. I shall report more on this in due course.

Tyre Pressures on the GRR

As a general rule, you should reduce your tyre pressures when driving on a 4WD track because there is a greater chance of damaging your tyres if they are left at normal pressure. So the question is "to what pressure do we reduce our tyres?" The best answer I have come across in on a website / blog written by “Outback Joe”and in summary the best pressures seem to be around 25 psi on the front and around 30 psi on the back (because the back has more of the van’s weight) but you cannot drive as fast as you would on a normal road - and who in their right mind would do so anyway on a 4WD track.

We intend to stick to around 70 or 80 kph as a maximum. There is also a minimum for comfort, one of the unusual things about 4WD tracks is that the slower you go, the more bumpier they become. It is also the case that it is often smoother if you drive on the wrong side of the road - I have heard that it is something to do with how the corrugations in the road get formed by traffic.

The Weather

A description of the weather in the northern parts of Australia can be covered with two words - "Wet” or “Dry”. During the Wet season, the GRR is impassible because the rivers flood and the track gets washed out, hence one has to wait for the Dry season in order to drive it. The Dry season starts sometime after the end of March and lasts until around November, the dates are however quite variable.

GRR Report

The overall state of the GRR is reported on regularly on the Main Roads Western Australia website and they have a subscription service which tells you when the site is updated - most useful for finding out when the GRR opens (or closes). The report above is dated about the end of March when it could be expected to be closed and geographically, it runs west to east. It also tells you when repair work is being done, the road is regraded a couple of times during the open season.

Gibb River Road 7th April 

A later report published on April 7th shows that the road is effectively open although a couple of rivers are probably more in flood than I would like to experience crossing.

!!! However !!!

On May 13th 2016, after heavy rain, a number of sections of the GRR were closed again for repair work, in particular the Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek National Parks and the Mount Hart Road. So from a planning perspective, the rule is assume nothing and just before you get there, see what is open. We got an email a couple of weeks ago saying it had opened again and that the Grader (road smoother) had gone through again.

Mobile Phone and Internet on the GRR

Simply, for most of the GRR neither are available unless you have a satellite phone. The current TELSTRA roaming map shows a large blank over the whole of the Kimberley.

GRR Telstra

Therefore none of our research websites will be of any use when we are on the GRR because there is no mobile phone coverage and generally no internet access at any the places we are going to. Some places say that they have a TELSTRA phone box and there are rumours that a one or two stations will let you use their satellite internet for a fee, but generally there is no coverage.

Researching the GRR

There are some good websites about the GRR but as with all websites (including this one) keeping them accurately updated is difficult and as with everything on the internet, you have to cross check the information given and even then not believe it to be totally accurate. We have also used a number of blogs and reports in TripAdvisor and we found that most people who have written anything are quite willing to respond to specific questions we might have which are not covered in their writing.

The key issues therefore are:

  • the weather;
  • it is mostly a dusty, bumpy 4WD road in a variable condition;
  • punctures and breakdowns;
  • lots of rivers to cross;
  • crocodiles;
  • only a few refuelling and limited food restocking available;
  • limited access to guaranteed potable water;
  • very very few powered campsites which means a lot of rough camping and van battery management issues;
  • red dust dust dust ……...

Great fun !

No comments:

Post a Comment