There are natural highlights galore in the Kimberley Ranges, but just getting through them on a 12-day, bus tour with Outback Spirit can be the biggest thrill of all.
Accessing the Kimberley Ranges
As we shake, rattle and roll through the Kimberley, I am ever grateful I am wearing a sports bra… and that I am not in my own car. We are on the infamously rough Gibb River Road that runs east to west through the heart of these ancient ranges. There are dips and potholes bigger than my backyard pond and boulders that wouldn’t look out of place in the landscaping. Despite my comfortable chair, I’m being tossed sideways, and my teeth rattle from corrugations, but I can’t wipe the smile off my face.
Exploring Western Australia’s Kimberley Ranges is on many bucket lists but often not ticked off. Why? Because buying the right equipment to access the heartland can cost a fortune. Inaccessible is an understatement when it comes to touring the Kimberley region. You need to know what you’re doing to get through unscathed. Replacing tyres, shock absorbers, snapped bolts, bent chassis and smashed windscreens are regular mishaps. And we even meet a traveller whose caravan has fallen apart on the inside after driving these roads.
Outback Spirit’s Kimberley Tours
I have found the perfect alternative – a bus tour with Outback Spirit. It’s not your average bus or tour – it’s a 12-day, five-star expedition through Australia’s most inaccessible country, crossing 2,967 kilometres (with detours) from Darwin to Broome in an all-terrain vehicle that’s strong enough to take on almost anything the outback can dish up, but luxurious enough to do it in style.
The jewels of the Kimberley – hotspots such as Mitchell Falls, Horizontal Falls, El Questro, Purnululu, Cathedral, Geikie, Emma and Windjana Gorges – are our destinations. But getting to them proves to be just as big a thrill.
Starting at the Top (End)
Our Kimberley tour adventure starts with a flight from Darwin to Mitchell Plateau. The Top End coastline is stunning with rivers snaking from terracotta-coloured beaches into swathes of mangroves. The bus meets us at the tin shed ‘arrivals lounge’ for a transfer to Ngauwudu, Outback Spirit’s resort on land leased from the Kandiwal Aboriginal community. Permanent glamping tents on raised decks blend in with the open eucalypt bush. Inside are sumptuous queen beds and stylish furniture, even bedside lamps and a fridge.
There is no doing it tough out here. A huge dining room and outdoor deck overlook the barbecue and firepit. Sticking to stone paths, we’re told, offers the best chance of avoiding unwanted guests like snakes – a stark reminder that we’re in the outback. (Note: I briefly met a snake while swimming in the creek. It slid in and I immediately walked on water out.)
Mitchell Falls is a bumpy 45-minute drive from the resort along dirt roads once used for bauxite strip mining, followed by a 4.5-kilometre hike to the river for a swim and views over the falls. A chopper ride – with doors removed – gives a heart-pumping bird’s-eye view on the way out.
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How to ‘do the Gibb’
When you’re told it will take two hours to drive 26 kilometres, you know you’re in for a rough ride. Think of those mechanical bucking bulls and you’re on track. Not that anyone is complaining. The bus seats are cushy, mandatory seatbelts stop us from being thrown about too much and a video screen with a camera link to the road ahead means we can see what’s coming – including wild cattle that often roam across roads.
Morning tea by King Edward River is a welcome break, while a tour of Wandjina rock art offers a glimpse into one of the oldest forms of communication in one of the world’s most ancient lands. For my 15 travelling companions, the hard yards end at Drysdale Station, from where they will fly to Kununurra. I’m staying on the bus with our intrepid guide, Justin Rechichi, however, to ‘do the Gibb’ – that’s nomad speak for the legendary Gibb River Road. It’s a 450-kilometre, potentially bone-crushing commitment made slightly easier for us by recent road grading.
Rechichi has been crossing the country for more than 20 years, learning about its people, history, geology, wildlife and vegetation, and passing that on with a running commentary. But even with this wealth of experience, it ‘only’ takes us four hours to drive the first 240 kilometres. Over rivers and dry creek beds we bounce, passing the odd rusting car wreck and a few of the Kimberley’s 99 cattle stations. Mt Elizabeth, Drysdale, Ellenbrae, Home Valley and El Questro are now familiar names. It feels like we’re in a mobile tumble drier, but hydraulic seats up front take the brunt of bumps. There’s little wildlife to see. Only a dingo braves the 35-degree heat and belting sun.
The unique landscapes of the Kimberley Ranges
The landscape constantly changes – one minute it’s a sea of spinifex and spindly gums; the next, a green valley where water gathers. A parade of comical boab trees reminds us we’re in north-west Western Australia. It’s the only place they grow. The colours are muted – pale greens and faded browns with a good coating of dust. But vivid yellow kapok trees and crimson Kimberley roses brighten the scene. Then the rich oranges and blacks of the Cockburn Ranges stand out like beacons on the horizon, leading our way to Kununurra. We’re nearly there. When I’m not giggling like a schoolgirl, I’m still beaming.
The Kimberley Ranges is rich in minerals, history and natural beauty and is marked by extremes in colour, weather, culture and geology. How lucky to experience all this ruggedness without any hardships… and in someone else’s vehicle!