Darwin to Broome – The Kimberley Road Trip

Since fate had allotted me an extra 3 months in Australia, I was out of excuses to not do the dreaded West Coast. Rumour has it that everything West of Darwin is either barren (land), flooded (roads), on fire (bush) or in some way deadly (crocodiles, snakes, Wolf Creek serial killers). Some of those things are true, but the bigger problem was the fact that it is all but impossible to travel from Darwin to Broome and on to Perth without your own set of wheels. I didn’t have one, so I had to overcome my reluctance to rideshare… and boy was it ever worth it.

I met the charmingly ditzy Melissa and her trusty vehicle Vercy in Darwin, we instantly hit it off and hit the road.

Pros of travelling through the Kimberley with Melissa and Vercy:

  • We wanted to do and see the same things
  • We had four awesome mix CDs that we didn’t tire of
  • Vercy is the best equipped backpacker van I have ever seen (see above)
  • Meeting a perfect mix of excellent travellers and deranged locals along the way
  • We were travelling outside the main season, so we had a lot of places to ourselves and got to see a different side

Cons of travelling through the Kimberley with Melissa and Vercy:

  • No air con! I repeat: NO AIR CON in 40-degree heat and high humidity!
  • No 4WD, so we couldn’t do the Gibb River Road
  • At the tail end of the season, many tourist attractions had already closed up shop in anticipation of The Wet

Most importantly, we had an absolute blast, cabin fever and all. During a mere 10 days, we covered more than 2,000 kilometres, with most of the driving, hiking and any other activity (other than chilling by the pool) done well before sunrise. The Kimberley is where Australia looks like the film Australia. Baking hot, eerily empty and bone dry. Most of the region is still a wilderness, where you’d do well to check your fuel, oil and tires before setting off each day and where you definitely shouldn’t swim anywhere before asking a local about crocs. It’s also beautiful in a unique, forbidding way, and makes for a truly rewarding journey. We saw so much, a large portion of it plain weird, that it’s hard to pick out specific highlights, so this is more of a rough sketch of our journey than a proper travel story.

Along the way, we stopped at the following places. We’ll have to come back for the rest…
Katherine, Northern Territory

We had both already been to Kakadu National Park and Nitmiluk Gorge, so made a beeline for Katherine and the hot springs that, thankfully, were not hot at all.

Timber Creek, Northern Territory
Blink and you’ll miss it – but don’t. Timber Creek is the place where every Crocodile Dundee hicksville stereotype comes to life, but seeing the extreme conditions people have to cope with here, I’d say a little lunacy is to be expected. We came for the bush fires and stayed for the crocodile feeding…

Keep River National Park, Northern Territory
This is either better in the wet or if you have more time, or both, but it was just off the highway and a nice place to stop off for lunch.

Western Australia Border crossing
Bye bye fruit and Veg! Damn you stupid quarantine!
Western Australia

Kununurra, Western Australia
We weren’t really expecting much when we arrived in Kununurra – a whiff of civilisation, a larger supermarket, perhaps, but there’s actually a lot to do in the agricultural hub of the Kimberley. Lots of it involves hiking (Mirima National Park), climbing (Kelly’s Knob lookout) and rocks (both), but also booze (The Hoochery, Western Australia’s only licensed distillery)!

Lake Argyle, Western Australia
This gigantic artificial lake was built as part of a major irrigation scheme that, apparently, hasn’t worked out quite as well as planned. Depending on your point of view, it’s a testament to (colonial) man’s will to better himself and his surroundings, or evidence of the hubris that propelled the drive West, regardless of the fact that this land was clearly hostile to pastoralism on any grand scale. Nonetheless, the 1,000-odd square kilometres of water lapping at what were once the peaks of mountain ranges surrounding a small river that would swell up during the wet season, but subside in the dry, are a sight to be seen. It’s beautiful, the story of its construction fascinating and the new eco system that has developed in and around it worth exploring (as we did, on a lake cruise).

Several walking tracks take you from the campsite to various lookouts and down to the historic Durack Family homestead, which was moved here after the family farm was flooded by the lake. I had read a fair bit about Patsy Durack, an Irish immigrants who did well for himself by pushing the boundaries of Australia’s grazing land in search of undiscovered opportunities. As one of the first Australian cattle barons, his story was somewhat relevant to my cattle drive story and the fact that he is revered as a pioneer speaks volumes to the philosophy that most (white) Australians subscribe to, even today: we conquered the Outback and made it liveable and arable, hence it belongs to us.

Whatever your thoughts on the colonial settlement of these regions and the effects of large scale livestock farming in Australia’s North, the pure fact that Durack, his family and workers even made it out here seems like a superhuman feat. That they were able to carve out a somewhat comfortable life for themselves seems unthinkable, so it was fascinating to see the old Argyle homestead, which the lake is now named after. Like so many attractions in the Kimberley, the homestead was officially closed for the season, but we later got in thanks to our cruise tour guide.

Old Halls Creek, Western Australia
We arrived in Halls Creek on All Hallows’ Eve, and as the town itself is nothing to write home about, we headed for the suitably spooky ghost town of Old Halls Creek, complete with pioneer cemetery, car graveyard and a weird campsite where a few diehard gold diggers are still sticking it out, hoping to make their fortune years after the big gold veins dried up. We walked to nearby Sawpit Gorge, then set up camp at Palm Springs, which has got to be one of the best free campsites I stayed at during my entire time in Australia. It has zero facilities, but a natural springs, where you can swim in croc-free water, AND it came with excellent company. Two more groups of backpackers joined us for the night at Palm Springs, and we would be seeing a lot more of the one group that was headed our direction in the days to come…

Fitzroy Crossing
The last part of the journey was full of disappointments. We had heard great things about Windjana George and Tunnel Creek, but there was no way of getting there without a 4WD and poor Vercy just wasn’t up to the task. Purnululu National Park was closed due to bushfires, so we had to settle for the slightly less spectacular Geikie Gorge National Park before making our way towards Broome.

Other stories I have written about the Kimberley:
Cattle drives for tourists
Drive cattle in the Kimberley, Western Australia