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A (relatively) short trip report - Gibb River Road and Dampier Peninsula
June 18, 2009
18 June 2009, Issue #018
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I just returned from my trip along the Gibb River Road, up the Dampier Peninsula and then over to the Northern Territory (research for the next guide). My inbox is overflowing with over 500 emails to dig through and there are stacks of questions and submission on all the websites. I need to get into those, so without further ado, here are some updates:
The most important thing I learned on this trip? There's no place like the Kimberley. Nothing even comes close! The Territory has some beautiful places and I love it as well, but it just isn't the same. Too civilized and way too many people over there...
What else did I find? As readers already reported, the roads were in excellent condition. I timed it just right, and virtually EVERY track we went had JUST been graded a few days before. Some places had also JUST opened. One week earlier, and it would have been a very different trip...
Peak season is about to hit us with school holidays in the Territory starting this weekend, and Queensland and Victoria the next, so I have no doubt that the roads will deteriorate fast enough.
As you may know from my website, I love the wild and unpredictable very early dry season best. This was the latest trip I've ever done and I've been able to visit some places that I've not been able to get to previously, for example Dillie Gorge on Charnley River Station, or the southern access track into Litchfield.
And STILL, even in late May/early June, there were places still closed, like Junction Gorge (also Charnley River) or Butterfly Gorge in the Territory. I guess one year I'll have to bite the bullet and venture out there with the masses ...
Ok, let's finally get to some real info:
(This is the short version, the essentials for people who are taking off in the next week or so. More details and photos will soon appear on the website, so watch the "What's New?" page.)
Home Valley Station
Now, I knew this one had changed a lot from when I last saw it, because readers had e-mailed me. (HVS underwent a major upgrade in the 2007/08 wet season and did not reopen until July, so I didn't have a chance to see it again until now.)
When I pulled in this year I didn't recognise it...
When Home Valley Station opened for tourism a few years ago it was a very rustic, down to earth place, still a real Kimberley station. Now you feel like you arrive in a major holiday resort. The campground near the homestead has manicured lawns and immaculate flower beds, a massive and bright green plastic children playground structure thingy (reminiscent of McDonalds but bigger), a big pool with banana lounges and water fountain feature...
Oh well, once I got over the initial shock I checked in and made a beeline for the Bindaloo Bushcamp on the Pentecost River bank. And that is as fabulous a place as always.
Even though HV was fairly busy already we had the whole camp and river to ourselves, because unlike me, most people love the excellent facilities near the homestead and prefer to camp up there.
There are two new chefs, but the menu has remained much the same and the food is as excellent as ever.
One real drawback is that although Home Valley Station covers some amazingly beautiful and varied country, you can not access most of it unless you join their tours. I was told the plan is to eventually put in some four wheel drive tracks for visitors, but no word yet regarding when that may happen.
At this point the only available self guided excursion is a trip to the Bindoola gorge and pools, which are located 15.5 kilometres from the homestead (along the Gibb River Road) and of course a trip to the sunset lookout (you'd pass it on the way).
This is a small and very low key place, and they can neither cope with nor do they want to attract big mobs of people, which is why I usually don't talk much about it (and won't put much info on the website).
There are no gorges or walks on Ellenbrae, and no sightseeing other than seeing the place itself, so comparatively few people stop here. But it's definitely worth a look!
Every building and every structure here is built by hand from bush materials, with ingenuity and creativity. The facilities are basic and unusual, like the boab bathroom (an outdoor bathroom attached to a massive boab tree) or the donkey water heater at the excellent campground (stick in 2 or 3 bits of the provided fire wood and voila, hot shower water in 15 minutes).
The gardens are lovely and so is the veranda with the well visited bird feeders where you enjoy your scones, cream & jam. If you can't or don't want to spend a night, Ellenbrae is in the perfect location for morning tea if coming from Home Valley Station, or afternoon tea if coming from Mt. Barnett.
Mt. Elizabeth Station
What I really like about Mt. Elizabeth is that it is 100% a working Kimberley cattle station. There is no missing that you are on a station, not a hint of a tourist resort.
Also, the tracks and gorges here are definitely for the more adventurous visitors!
People often write to me to ask if this or that toy breed car is suitable to "tour the Kimberley" or "do the Gibb River Road". Sure, you can "do" it, but there are limits to what you can access. The spectacular Wunnamurra Gorge is one of the places that only a real 4WD with low range gears and high clearance can get you to. (Actually, you could walk. It's only 10 km from the homestead, and come to think of it, driving on THAT track is not that much faster ;-).)
To me places like Mt. Elizabeth are the real heart of the Kimberley. Frank Lacey took up this lease in 1945 and the Lacey family has run this property continuously since then. Where else do you get a chance to have dinner with some true Kimberley pioneers?
Charnley River Station
Also a lot of history here. This was the first station on the Gibb to accommodate tourists. (Back then it was still called Beverly Springs.)
I had written in Destination Kimberley that bush camping might still be available here, but unfortunately those days are definitely over. After one of their guests got lost for a whole day and they discovered that it is impossible to get liability insurance cover for such a bush camping area, they now restrict camping to the homestead grounds.
That's a real shame, but hey, it's a nice campground.
Charnley River is a lovely place with some great gorges, (Grevillea Gorge, Dillie Gorge, Junction Gorge) and other swimming holes (Donkey Pools and the lovely Lilly Pool above Grevillea Gorge). And as on Mt. Elizabeth you have the opportunity to join the family for dinner at the homestead.
Mornington Wilderness Camp
I always said this is a very special place, and it still is. Three nights here turned into four. It's good not to be on a strict schedule.
Dinner here was a real surprise. Who would have expected this out here in the middle of nowhere? Top class service, five star cuisine, excellent wine, a dessert to die for ... they signed up an excellent chef for this season! So good in fact that I briefly contemplated applying for a job. The camp staff eat whatever is the set menu for the day...
Anyway, even without the food, this remains one of the top picks along the Gibb River Road and it is high time I make a detailed page on the site about it. Keep an eye on the "What's New?" page.
I had assumed that the closure of the Bell Creek bush campsites is only temporary and that they would re-open some time this season. Unfortunately not so. The sites will definitely remain closed for this season and the decision will be reviewed during the off season.
(Note: this does not affect Bell Gorge itself or the Silent Grove campground in anyway. Both are of course open.)
Mt. Hart Wilderness Lodge
This was my first visit ever to Mt. Hart, because this is the first season they have a campground. (In the past it was only open to accommodated guests.) Red tape had delayed the opening of the campground until this season.
There was still building work going on at the ablution block while I was there, but it should be finished by now. It's a lovely campground (especially our site right down in the bend of the Barker River, where you can access it for a swim).
All in all Mt. Hart turned out to be nothing like what I had expected.
The official, promotional description is in my opinion a little misleading. Maybe it's just me, but what I expected was a posh place with manicured lawns, pampering the discerning guests with focus on style and creature comforts...
It's nothing like that! Mt. Hart is a wild and natural place, full of character and history, 100% authentic Kimberley bush-style living.
Taffy Abbotts has managed Mt. Hart (as a joint management venture with the Department of Environment and Conservation) since 1990, and there wasn't much left of the place when he arrived. What you find here today is entirely the result of his dedication and love for the place.
Kim arrived at Mt. Hart to stay for one night, and five years later she is still here, giving Taffy a hand to run the show. Between them they maintain, finance, extend and preserve Mt Hart's history, homesteads and gardens, something that unfortunately the DEC has not shown much interest in.
The story of the establishment of the original homestead, in fact, the whole history of Mt. Hart, is well worth watching: Kim has skillfully put together a 12 minute DVD, hilariously narrated by the unimitable Taffy. You can watch the DVD at the bar at the homestead. It will make you laugh out loud a few times, but more importantly, it will make you look at the place with different eyes.
Accommodation at Mt. Hart is in two heritage homesteads with shared bathroom facilities. (These are not just shells that have been renovated into luxury hotels, they are still very much like they were built.)
One building is the original homestead, and lucky you if you get to stay there. The place really has something. The second homestead was built by Taffy, in the same style as the original one. It looks very similar on the surface, but it doesn't shelter the same memories and spirits of the past.
Also worth mentioning are Mt. Hart's dingoes. The dingoes you see here are wild dingoes. They are not kept as pets but come and go as they like. However, they have been hand reared and are very friendly! You will certainly meet them because they visit you in the campground and they sneak into the dining room...
What else is there to do?
Annie Creek Gorge is a great little wilderness walk, easily extended into a great longer wilderness walk, if you are so inclined (decent shoes and long pants strongly recommended for longer hikes). From the car park just follow the creek upstream for as far as you like. The further you go the more difficult the walk gets. You can also climb up to the top of the range for great views. Swimming is not possible, but there are a couple of places near the start where the creek is deep enough to sit in it and cool down.
Mt. Matthew Gorge also has a delightful creek, meandering through the black rocks and cliffs of the gorge, with dozens of shady, small pools, rapids and waterfalls. Again, you can follow it as far upstream as you like, though this time the emphasis is on dipping and soaking in the pools and relaxing, not so much on bushwalking.
Both gorges are on the same track and you can easily see them in one day.
If you want to go for a real swim the best place is Barker Pool, a long and deep section of the Barker River, a short drive south of the homestead.
And for sunset there is the Sunset Hill, just across from the homestead. (You'll need low range gears to climb up here, or walk.)
Ok, enough for now. This last section was taken more or less straight from the updated version of Destination Kimberley, but I will add some more details and photos to the website over the next week or two.
Let's leave the Gibb River Road and have a look at the Dampier Peninsula.
The Gambanan bush campground used to be my favourite alternative to the crammed campground at Kooljaman, but it has lost some of its appeal and is showing some signs of neglect. The family who runs it does not seem too interested in it these days. I hope their distraction is only temporary. It's a great little spot.
The other problem is that it really is little and there are too many signs out on the road and too many people find it these days...
(Some of you may say this is because I told everyone about it. It would be nice if that was the case, but really, compared to the number of people travelling, the number of people who buy my book is a drop in the ocean...)
Anyway, here are two other options for campers, places I really like and that are close enough to Kooljaman so you can still visit it as a day visitor:
This tiny, neat community offers basic camping in a spacious campground away from the community buildings (big bathrooms with solar hot showers, camp kitchen, fire places, great bird life) and some bush style shelters (within the community, have lights and power points).
The beach is snow white, endless, and firm enough to drive on for many kilometres. Absolutely amazing. You reach it via a very narrow and very soft track (you will need low range gears and reasonably soft tyres). There could be crocodiles in the creek mouth to the north, so for swimming better head in the opposite direction. Yes, it's ok to swim. Everyone in the community does and we did, too.
We had both the campground and the beach entirely to ourselves while we were here. I easily could have stayed longer...
Bully's Camp at Djoodoon
The HEMA map I recommend does a good job of pointing out all the communities and campgrounds on the peninsula, but they don't mention this one. Neither does anyone else. And I thought long and hard about it, too.
At this stage this is still a real insider tip. The camp has been here since 1993, but it's one of those “I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you” locations that everyone has kept quiet about.
Bully is gone and the place is now managed by caretaker Jeff. Jeff would love to have a few more visitors, so I am comfortable adding it to Destination Kimberley (even though the long term regulars will likely not be too happy about having to share their hideaway).
What do you find here? A huge, spacious, grassy campground ($15 pp) behind the dune, and on top of it three beach shelters to rent ($20 pp) and one big communal bush style shelter, overlooking an amazing beach of beautiful Signet Bay.
Everything is lovingly maintained and looked after. The large ablution block does not look too inviting (it's an old transportable), but it's clean and the water pressure is good. (As you will find out, the latter can be a problem in the campgrounds of the Aboriginal communities...)
The fishing is absolutely fantabulous and there are oysters and crabs. If you are not into fishing you can swim, walk or laze on the beaches, or chat to Jeff about the unique bird and other wildlife in the area, about life on the peninsula, or about anything else. It's a very, very pretty and laid back place, a bit like Middle Lagoon maybe, just better.
Oh, how to get there? Turn right just north of the Lombadina t/o. The HEMA map shows Djoodoon, they just don't mention the camp. It's about 9 km off the main road, and the track has some sandy patches.
Don't tell everyone about it, ok?
Ok, that will have to do for today. I have to start catching up on the five weeks worth of work that have built up while I was away. As mentioned a few times, keep an eye on the "What's New?" page as I will finally be writing a lot of pages that I've been wanting to make for a long time!
(An extended trip never fails to renew my motivation for my work. How could you possibly not be inspired by this country?)
Happy travels and more from the Kimberley soon!
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(c) 2005-2009, Birgit Bradtke. All rights reserved. The Kimberley Guide is published by Birgit Bradtke in Kununurra, WA 6743, Australia. Reproduction of any material from this newsletter without written permission is prohibited.
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