Ed explores Western Australia
The route from Broome to Darwin is a true classic. Sparsely populated and full of stunning natural landscapes and features, there's little wonder why it's become a staple of adventurous Australian campervan itineraries. You can, however, take adventure just a little bit further in a 4WD camper. Get off the beaten track, explore the side roads, camp in the bush. This is how Ed and a couple of his friends chose to explore the classic route - nomadically, exploring at every opportunity, not letting the sealed highways dictate their direction. Here's their story and some of the local gems they discovered.
Broome to Darwin
Best Time of the Year
- Yellow Water cruise- Kakadu
- Emma Gorge at El Questro - walk and swim
- Gunlom at Waterfall creek - bush camp and plunge pools
- Home valley Station - for an oasis in the desert
Distance 223km - Driving Time 3hrs 4min
After arriving into Broome and checking into our hotel on the spectacular Cable Beach, we picked up our almost brand new Britz LandCruiser. After double checking our loose itinerary with the super helpful Peter from the Britz Broome branch and getting some useful insider tips we headed to the nearest supermarket to stock up on supplies to keep us fed and watered for the next ten days camping in the outback.
We decided to buy some extra storage boxes to help organise our food and equipment and that was the best decision we made. It makes setting up camp so much easier and keeps everything dust and insect proof. Brilliant! A nice night watching a spectacular sunset over the famous Cable Beach and solid nights sleep before a really early start in the morning.
Broome to Windjana Gorge National Park
Distance 370km - Driving Time 3hrs 4min
Up at 5am to pack our bags onto the roof rack, and hit the road to search for a decent coffee and the 1st leg of our trip. We are heading to Windjana Gorge National Park via the famous Gibb River Road, a 4WD only dirt road originally built for transporting beef from the massive stations that are located in the vast WA. The first half of this journey is along a paved highway until the dusty town of Derby where we top up the diesel and collect a couple more supplies that we missed at our big shop. We soon hit the infamously corrugated red dirt roads of the Gibb and so the adventure begins.
Arriving at a in good time, we find the camping ground and decide to visit Tunnel Creek, a short 40 min drive from the campsite. This is a spectacular natural tunnel several hundred metres long, in which you wade through waters in pitch-black conditions. A headlamp and sneakers or sandals you are happy to get wet are highly recommended, but it is well worth the trip. This is an incredible spot with quite poignant Aboriginal history. A quick trip back to set up camp with our rooftop tent, we quickly built a campfire and this attracted a bunch of fellow campers wanting to partake in a fireside chat and who we highly impressed with our meal of wood fired whole chicken and salad. Most campsites don’t allow firewood to be gathered within the camping grounds so remember to keep an eye out for firewood on the roads in. Australian hardwood is brilliant for campfires and cooking on the charcoals.
Manning Gorge to Bell Gorge
Distance 280km - Driving Time 8hrs
Another early start, breakfast, then a short stroll from our campsite to a Windjana Gorge, a wide and impressive gorge with a river still flowing lazily through it. Our first encounter with the locals as we spot quite a few Freshwater Crocs sunbathing along the riverside. We head back to pack up, and incredibly easy task with the tent basically self-folding down in minutes and we were on the road in no time. Bell Gorge was recommended to us the night before as a great walk and swimming hole and we were glad to do it, a beautiful yet hot walk in was rewarded with a spectacular waterfall, and after a bit of a clamber down a refreshing swim under the falls.
Brilliant! It was back on the road to drop in to say hello to a classic Aussie character called Neville who runs the isolated Over the Range Tyre and repairs – certainly a sight for sore eyes for anybody who has run into trouble on this challenging road. He’s a top bloke and many a story to tell, make sure you stop by for a yarn. He recommended we stay at Manning Gorge that night, and who were we to doubt his local knowledge. We headed another 100kms to the Mt Barnett station that run the campsite at Manning Gorge, refuelled the Safari, restocked the ice and pulled into camp. We impressed others and ourselves with Pork Fillets over the coals this evening as we reflected on a fantastic day.
Manning Gorge to Home Valley Station (HV8)
Distance 290km - Driving Time a few hours
Another early start allowed us to take the decent 45min walk to Manning Gorge itself – which starts with a novel self propelled boat trip across the river next to the campground and ends with the most beautiful waterfall and swimming hole which is perfect considering the heat of the morning sun and dusty couple days prior. It's hard to leave this spot but we hard things to see and kilometres to drive.. Our next destination was a massive cattle station called Home Valley, which has done a great job of catering for those travelling the Gibb River road and ready for a few comforts after a few days bush camping.
The driving between each of these destinations is always interesting and we were continually stopping for photos of the massive vistas and ever-changing landscapes. Arriving at Home Valley we set up camp quickly and headed to the impressive open sided restaurant and bar and compared notes with fellow campers, whilst allowing the kitchen to make us a great steak and avoiding dishes for a night. It’s a perfect oasis in the middle of nowhere and best of all totally unexpected. There is a lovely river a short drive away, but keep an eye out for the resident Salty..
Home Valley Station
Distance 350km - Driving Time n/a hours
Another reasonable, but not difficult drive saw the end of the Gibb River Road and back onto a paved highway (a welcome respite) for a few hundred kilometres to World Heritage listed Purnululu National Park, also known as the Bungle Bungles. Once you arrive at the entrance of the park be prepared for a more rugged 4WD track than you have been used to. Nothing overly challenging but you need to take it easy. There is a well stocked roadhouse on the Great Northern HWY – be sure to stock up there as the camping facilities at the u campsites are very basic – long drop toilet only. We stopped at the friendly Visitor centre to pay our camping fees and get the tips about what to see and help plan out two nights here. This is well worth doing as these folks know every trick in the book.
We drove another 50kms into the park and immediately did one of the many walks – this one the Mini Palms Gorge - before setting up camp for the night. Purnululu National Park is hard to describe, if you can imagine a massive Dr Seuss book in real life, that’s about as close as I can get. You just have to commit to coming here, it's isolated but well worth the effort. The unique geography, colours and sheer scale are stunning. No campfires permitted here so its on the camper cookers for a couple nights. Pro tip – don’t camp too near the composting toilets, the occasional erm..’waft’ isn’t conducive to star gazing..
Purnululu National Park
Distance 100km - Driving Time n/a
As mentioned, there is a multitude of worthwhile walks of varying distances to do all over the park, which is roughly divided into two sections - the Northern and the Southern walks. If you choose your times carefully you can avoid the blazing sun and walk in shadowed trails, and still catch the incredible interplay of sunlight on the brilliant red rock features. This morning we headed out to Homestead Valley to fill in the time before heading to the big show – Echidna Chasm for the incredible light effect that naturally occurs at around 11.00am everyday. The chasm itself is mind-blowing, a 200 metre high chasm with varying hues and as little as one metre wide in parts – but when the sunlight catches it and reflects these hues it’s a photographers paradise. Be prepared share nicely kids – it can be popular.
The afternoon was spent exploring the real ‘Bungle e’ the Southern walks with the famous beehive like rock formations with their striped geometry caused by the presence of bacteria in certain layers of rock. Cathedral Gorge and Piccaninny Creek Lookout both well worth the walks – but as always take water and stay hydrated. Finished with a Gin & Tonic back at the campsite at a lookout watching the beautiful sunset over the Bungle Bungle range. A big day of walking but we hit the sack exhausted but satisfied.
Purnululu National Park to El Questro The Station
Distance 330km - Driving Time 5 hrs
A super early start to catch the sunrise then breakfast before packing up and looking forward to a swim and shower at the second of our Station stays, this time at El Questro Station, back at the start of the Gibb River Road. A reasonable 4WD drive down the EQ private road with several creek crossings saw us arrive at the slick and slightly touristy campsite complete with steak restaurant, bar and live music most nights. This charming station has lots of both powered and unpowered sites along the river, and is very busy compared to everywhere else we have stayed, its also a lot more expensive.
There are a ton of paid and free activities to do here, with helicopter flights, horse riding and fishing trips on offer. We explored the many 4WD trails and found a view of the Pentecost river complete with huge marauding salty that we couldn’t resist breaking out the cheese and crackers to with a cool beer. Luxury. Back to the campground to celebrate Vic’s birthday in style at the Steakhouse followed by some dubious Bluegrass music played live at the bar. Some absolute cracker characters swapped tales around the large fire pit and we were introduced to the delicacies of grilled cheese on a stick by a bloke who became known to us as Cheese-stick Tommy…of course.
El Questro to Emma Gorge
Distance 330km - Driving Time 5hrs
We had planned to stay two nights in EQ as there are quite a few places to explore, and quite frankly we could do with a day without too much driving. First stop was Zeedebee Springs, located on EQ station. It’s a short drive – a charming natural hot spring in a beautiful forest setting which is perfect to rest wary bones and relax. Its closed for private use (tour groups in massive buses) from about 12pm so get in early, and be prepared for company. Lots of it. We then headed to Emma Gorge, also part of EQ station and a slightly longer drive away, perhaps 20 kms. EQ have a smaller and very nice lodge with café and restaurant here, along with glamping style tent accommodation already set up in a beautiful setting.
We grabbed an espresso and morning tea before taking the reasonable walk up the gorge to the ‘best yet’ waterfall and swimming hole. Simply spectacular, with water streaming down around 100 metres like rain into a beautiful swimming hole, with large undercuts that water trickles through. We spent a couple hours there just trying to soak it all up. Just Wow. By the time we got back to the parking spot it was lunchtime and we had worked up an appetite so decided to have lunch there, which is highly recommended. Stunning food. The afternoon was spent relaxing by the river, having swims and chatting to folks about their vehicles and set ups, comparing notes and swapping tips about where to go, what to see. The best Intel is always on the ground.
Emma Gorge to Waterfall Creek, Kakadu
Distance 765km - Driving Time 8hrs
Today had always been planned as our biggest day driving-wise. Hence the two day stay over at El Questro prior. With a limited timeframe of only 11 days we knew we couldn’t stop everywhere so better to do a few places well instead of stressing ourselves by trying to see everything quickly and without experiencing it. So we set off knowing we had over 700kms to cover today to reach our destination – Gunlom. We only stopped briefly in Katherine for diesel and some camping supplies at the local supermarket.
Today was all about the drive and some well selected tunes that we pumped through our Bluetooth speakers – one of the best things we bought along – as the vehicle speakers are a little tinny for epic road trip mix tapes! The final hour of our trip arriving into Gunlom was magical; with the setting sun intensifying the beautiful landscape colours it was a spectacular arrival into the well-equipped bush camp. We were welcomed by the friendly park ranger, paid our camping fees and set up camp. The facilities here are impressive with nice toilets, hot showers and wood fire BBQ. We cooked a great meal over the fire, under the stars and relaxed after a huge day of driving, satisfied to have got this day out of the way. A visit from a curious Dingo topped the night off by reminding us that we were in the Outback.
Gunlom Falls to Cooinda Lodge
Distance 124km - Driving Time 2hrs
This morning we rose to explore the reason why we visited here - Gunlom. Located on Waterfall Creek in World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, Gunlom is the magical combination of waterfall and serene plunge pool, with shady gums cooling the picnic areas. A steep climb to the top of the waterfall provides sweeping views of the southern-most parts of Kakadu National Park while we enjoyed a relaxing dip in the crystal clear pools. Again – its hard to do this place justice – you just have to visit and soak it all up. A definite highlight for us – the combination of a great camping site, friendly people and nature at its finest.
A quick lunch then pack up to drive to our final outback destination – the flood plains of Yellow Water Billabong. Along the way we detour to Nourlangie Rock to check out some breathtaking Aboriginal history - Dated to be around 50,000 years old! We check into the nearby Cooinda Lodge, a bit of a base for Kakadu NP with fuel, a shop and variety of accommodation options. We find an unpowered site and set up and book a sunrise cruise of the Yellow Water wetlands. Tonight provided our first real encounter with the abundant Mosquito life (being so close to the wetlands) and other insects attracted by our camp lights, which in turn attracted the abundant toad life.. not the most comfortable evening in this regard with lots of mozzie spray being employed.
Cooinda Lodge to Darwin
Distance 300km - Driving Time 3hrs
5.30am start to catch the sunrise cruise along the remarkable billabong of Yellow Water. About one third of Australia’s bird species are represented in Kakadu National Park, many of which are found in these wetlands! Whistling ducks, Magpie Geese are abundant along with several species of Eagle. We also saw Jabirus and Brolgas. This is a stunning cruise and highly recommended, Colin - our guide was a indigenous member of the local community the Bininj and possessed both a great sense of humour and incredible wealth of knowledge of the flora and fauna and the remarkable lifecycle of the most famous wildlife such as the Estuarine crocodile and the eagles. We got up close and personal with tree snakes, the local salt-water crocodile population and countless birds.
It was a great way to finish our outback adventure and also support one of the most successful collaborations between the Aboriginal traditional owners and the tourism industry. An easy trip from here along the Arnhem Highway back to Darwin – top up the tank and hand our trusty stead back to the friendly crew at the Britz branch which is nice and close to both the city and airport. We had become quite attached to the LandCruiser – so capable off-road and a breeze to set up/pack up – I think our record time was seven minutes from parking to sitting down with a cool drink – much to the admiration of our fellow campers! This was truly a memorable and epic trip that touched our souls in a way we will never forget. The sweeping vista’s, stunning swimming holes and waterfalls, spectacular sunsets and sunrise everyday and ever-changing landscapes are an experience that you must add to your travel bucket list.