The Gibb River Road is one of a kind. Its 660 kilometre track traverses the wild Kimberley region of Western Australia, which is known as ‘Australia’s last frontier’, passing by some of Australia’s (and maybe the worlds’!) most spectacular waterfalls, gorges and swimming holes.
The Gibb River Road feels a little like a fairytale; where else in this day and age do you get to trundle along a sometimes very risky-feeling dirt track, stopping off to picnic among the wilderness or to hike to a seemingly forgotten waterfall or creek? The natural beauty of this region is like no other and the effort it takes to reach each destination – that’s the adventure.
Driving along the Gibb River Road is no easy feat– because the road is mainly gravel, at times very corrugated and others is just plain rock – some special equipment is definitely needed. Lonely Planet recommends ‘a high clearance 4WD with two spare tyres’. We didn’t quite listen to this advice and took my lower clearance all wheel drive car – and we only had room for one spare tyre. Brave and adventurous, or crazy and stupid? I’m not too sure. But I do know that we used the one spare tyre, but other than that, Nulla the Subaru forester made it through!
Still, there’s a lot of considerations to take when driving the Gibb River Road, especially in a lower clearance car. From my own experience, and numerous conversations with Aussie road trippers, time spent pouring over the Lonely Planet and other Gibb River Road guides, and games of 21 questions with the very helpful ladies at each Gibb River information point (they loved it), here’s the most important things to know about driving along the Gibb River Road!
Things you’ll need
You’ll want to stock your car up with important road trip essentials. If you’re planning on sleeping in your car, I’d definitely recommend getting a roof rack to put your stuff on the top – or you could do vice versa, and buy a roof tent to sleep in and keep everything else in your car.
If there are a few of you travelling, you might need an extra swag or tent. And if you want to set a bed up in your car, don’t forget a comfy mattress. And remember a good quality sleeping bag and pillow – it gets cold at night!
Don’t throw away your layers after you reach the tropics of Broome – this is essentially a desert climate, and it dips below ten degrees some nights. When you’re lying still in the outdoors, that’s cold!
Essentials for the car include
- A spare fuel tank (or two)
- A weeks’ worth of food – there’s only one shop on the Gibb River Road and it’s incredibly overpriced – they do sell coffee though!
- At least one spare tyre – it’s definitely more sensible to bring two, but it depends if you have room. At the very least, make sure that your first spare is in top condition.
- A working jack – we learnt this the hard way too. After our tyre burst between Manning Gorge and El Questro, we took out our jack and were about to boost the car up – only to find out that we had no idea how to use a jack.
Luckily, we flagged someone down to help quickly, but unluckily, they declared our jack (which had never been used) broken. All ended well, as they had one that they lent us, and very kindly took us through the actual changing of the tyre before heading on their way.
You’ll most likely meet people who will help too – everyone on the Gibb River Road looks out for each other – but just in case, try to remember a working jack!
- Coolant and engine oil
- Tow ropes
- A tyre inflator
- Probably other items if you’re more technically minded than me (basically anything you’d take on a long, off road drive where things have a huge potential for going wrong).
You’ll be camping on the Gibb River Road, so you’re going to want to make sure you’re stocked with all the best camping gear. Some items I always take on a camping trip with me are (click on the links provided for high quality suggested products):
- Good quality tent and a comfy self inflating camp mat
- A neck pillow
- You could also use a swag or roof tent
- A Sleeping bag
- A gas camping stove
- A quality cooking set including pots and pangs, knives and forks and cups, bowls and plates
- A head torch
- Water filtration methods
- Knife (for cooking, not self defence!)
- hydration bladder
And don’t forget your personal items:
- Sunscreen and insect repellant
- Toiletry bag
- First Aid Kit
A lot of people will tell you that you need the latest Landrover with a 5 meter clearance (note: this might be an exaggeration) to tackle the Gibb River Road.
Not true. After listening to the advice of the people who really know what they’re talking about, I decided my trusty Subaru Forester, good old Nulla, would be fine on the Gibb River Road. And she excelled.
I couldn’t do everything with my car (a Subaru Forester has all wheel drive capacity but a lower clearance than 4WD cars), but she was absolutely fine getting across the road – even through the wide Pentecost River. I also got her through deeper creek crossings to all the main gorges, with no problems.
I couldn’t take her on any of the crazy 4WD tracks in El Questro, or do some of the side routes. We didn’t have time to divert off the Gibb River Road too much anyway, and we luckily made a friend who had a huge Nissan Patrol who took us up some of the 4WD tracks (top Gibb River Road tip: make some friends with big cars).
I definitely couldn’t experience everything with my forester, but I’m very happy with what did experience – and if you look at any of my photos, I’m sure you’ll understand why!
Dodgy bits of road
The road is pretty much all gravel, apart from a few sweet sweet bitumen respites. You’ll never appreciate tarmac so much. The part that’s dodgiest is from Manning Gorge to El Questro – a long stretch which, if you’re just doing the Gibb River Road highlights, will take you near enough a whole day.
The road in this part takes unsealed to a new level, with jagged rocks and corrugations commonplace. It was normal for us to not be able to hear music or each others’ voices above the booming noise of Nulla’s tyres falling on each corrugation!
Speaking of dear old Nulla’s tyres – one completely gave up the ghost and burst on us during this stretch of road. It was as flat as a pancake and we knew that another burst tyre would mean being towed off the road or somehow getting a spare sent to us. Moral of the story – bring two tyres.
On the Gibb River Road is the famous Pentecost River crossing, which is long but manageable. It’s also one of the prettiest spots of the road! Just don’t get out for a swim – there are saltwater crocodiles lurking in there!
The roads to Bells Gorge, Manning Gorge and El Questro all have creek crossings. El Questro’s is deepest, but we didn’t have any problems at all. If you have anything larger than a Subaru Forester, you should be fine but the situation does change depending on what month it is (ie. how far away it is from the wet season) and how wet the previous wet has been.
If you’re a confident driver and make sure you stay alert, you shouldn’t come to any harm on the Gibb River Road. The biggest danger is bankruptcy, because of breaking down and needing to pay colossal fees to get the car towed off the Gibb River Road… make sure you get your car serviced before you go.
Gibb River Road Driving Tips
I can’t call myself a Gibb River Road expert by any means, but I managed to gather quite a lot of information by doing the road myself and meticulous research. Here’s some Gibb River Road driving tips:
Check your tyre pressure before starting out: This might sound silly (let’s be honest, this is kind of ‘the idiot’s guide to driving the Gibb River Road’ with some actually useful info thrown in) but I was told by a tyre store to not let any of the air pressure out of my tyres because they’re not off road tyres and it could do more harm than good. What I didn’t know was that my tyres were inflated to 42 psi – that’s 10 psi more than recommended for the road. We were incredibly lucky just to burst one tyre, and we let them down a little after that.
Take it slooooow: it can be tempting to go fast when there’s nothing infront of you and a long way until the next attraction, but your tyres won’t thank you. This is how ours burst – I was going a bit too fast on one of the dodgiest bits of road, and a rock slashed it’s way right through.
Watch out for wildlife: it’s an old cattle route, and as always in rural Australia, you never know quite what’s hiding in the bushes… We didn’t have as many difficulties with animals on the road here as we did on the west coast road trip, but it always pays to be careful.
Don’t expect things to go smoothly: at best, the Gibb River Road is bumpy, at worst, it’s head-banging, muscle seizingly similar to a rollercoaster. Only you’re in charge of this one. It can be an adrenaline rush/ completely nerve wracking, but it’s an adventure to say the least!
Be savvy with creek crossings we were getting out and wading through until we were told that there’s saltwater crocodiles in the Pentecost River and we got very freaked out. If you’re in a smaller car and are unsure if the creek is too deep, wait for another car to pass through and gage the depth (unless you’re in one of the really remote places, you shouldn’t be waiting too long!). We had no problems in any creek crossings which included the roads towards Bell’s Gorge, Manning Gorge and El Questro and the Pentecost, but water levels could be completely different by the time you get there.
Where to camp
Camping on the Gibb River Road is generally at designated campsites. These are paid for, but they’re not too expensive.
The campsites have a range of facilities; from just toilets, to toilets and showers, to a bar with live music, restaurant and shop at El Questro! If you’re driving the Gibb River Road from Derby to Kununurra, you’ll be greatful for a cold beer and a restaurant dinner by the time you get to El Questro, so I’d definitely recommend staying there.
We stayed at these campsites:
- Windjana Gorge Campsite
- Silent Grove (Bell Gorge)
- Manning Gorge Campsite
- El Questro Wilderness Park
Remember, it gets cold at night on the Gibb River Road; don’t throw away all of your layers in Broome!
Shopping opportunities on the Gibb River Road consist of a small, overpriced store at Mount Barnett Roadhouse and a tiny shop in El Questro. Do a big shop at Woolworths in Derby or Kununurra before and chow down on some delicious road trip meals in the evenings. Here’s some ideas:
- Chilli made with tinned lentils, tinned kidney beans, tinned tomatoes, cumin, chilli powder, garlic powder, onion and a tin of carrots and peas, served with rice
- Curry made from curry paste, coconut milk, vegetables and chickpeas, served with rice
- Pasta with a tomato sauce (chopped tomatoes, vegetables, chickpeas, cumin, chilli and garlic)
- Potato, carrot and lentil stew (brewed with stock)
- Veggie burgers served with mash and vegetables
- Tinned lentils, chopped tomatoes, stock and vegetables served with mash potato to make a non-baked shepherds pie.
(Note: these are all vegan. Even if you’re a meat lover, I’d recommend avoiding it while roadtripping the Gibb River Road unless you have a fridge – it will go bad very quickly. The same goes with dairy products, and eggs smash! Plus, a lot of these dishes are so delicious I’m convinced even the biggest carnivore will love them!)
Staying Safe on the Gibb River Road
The Gibb River Road isn’t dangerous at all – in fact, I felt a lot safer here than when I was driving across the Nullarbor or up the West Coast. You’re driving at a relatively low speed, there’s less wildlife on the road, and there’s a lot of friendly people willing to help you out. Here’s just a few pointers:
Watch out for crocodiles: they’re around! Most are freshwater and aren’t aggressive – although they will deliver a nasty bite in defence if they feel attacked. But that’s not to say saltwater crocodiles aren’t there – any swimming hole in the top end could have a saltie in, even if it’s declared safe. It’s easy to be over paranoid about saltwater crocodiles, I know I was, but I’d rather miss out on a couple of swims than be eaten by a lurking five meter modern dinosaur (obviously).
Be careful of heat exhaustion: this is probably the biggest danger of the Gibb River Road. It gets hot in the day (and chilly at night!) and it’s easy to imagine how people get heat exhaustion. Make sure you have your water tank topped up at all times. We had room for 40 liters between three of us, and while we never ran out, there were a few times when we were close to empty. Stay hydrated, use suncream and a hat (we learnt that the hard way) and stay out of the midday sun if possible.
I really didn’t think driving on the Gibb River Road was dangerous: like mentioned before, speeds are a lot slower than on the highway and for me at least, there wasn’t so much wildlife. If you break down, don’t panic – someone will stop and help you out. A breakdown might bankrupt you, but it won’t leave you stranded in the outback.
If you’re driving down the Gibb River Road close to the wet season, be careful and know the procedure for if rain starts. It’s best to consult with tourist information before you go – and to see if all of the road is even open before making your final decision on where to go. Here’s some good information on the different seasons in the Kimberley.
You’re not going to want to drive at night, so be sure to get up early to experience all of these highlights.
My best parts of the Gibb River Road were:
- Watching out for freshwater crocodiles at Windjana Gorge
- Exploring an underground cavern at Tunnel Creek
- Conquering the almighty Bell Gorge and wowing at its stunning waterfall
- Taking a dip in Manning Gorge after a hot two hour hike
- Crossing the almighty Pentecost and not meeting any Saltwater Crocodiles on the way
- Driving the 4WD tracks at El Questro Wilderness Resort
- Happy hour at El Questro’s bar (after the day’s driving we had, it was much needed!)
- Taking a dip in Zebedee Springs
- Feeling four degree water at Emma’s Gorge
For a full itinerary, including things to do either side of the Gibb River Road, check out my Broome to Darwin drive itinerary.
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