“They call it God’s Country.” Our guide, Nicko, took a drag off his cigarette, his free hand on his hip. Tim and I loaded our packs into the trailer behind the Toyota Prado we’d be sharing with 6 other people on our 9-day road trip from Broome to Darwin.
- Days 1-2: Broome
- Day 3: Broome to Silent Grove via Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek
- Day 4: Silent Grove to Mount Elizabeth via Bell, Galvans and Manning Gorges
- Day 5: Mount Elizabeth to El Questro
- Day 6: El Questro Gorge & Zebedee hot springs
- Day 7: El Questro to Lake Argyle via Emma Gorge
- Day 8: Lake Argyle to Kununurra and Bungle Bungles Scenic Flight
- Day 9: Kununurra to Katherine via hot springs
- Day 10: Katherine to Darwin via Litchfield National Park
Dates: April 30 – May 9, 2018
“The Kimberley is just magic.” Nicko put out his unfinished cigarette and slipped it into the pocket of his tattered (well-loved?) Aussie Wanderer company shirt.
We had just spent three days relaxing in Broome after the first half of our road trip, an adventure in a bus with about 20 people, with Nicko as our guide from Perth to Broome. It was a good thing we’d caught up on our rest. This was going to be a tight squeeze in the SUV for the 1870 kilometers we were going to cover from Broome to Darwin. 660 kilometers would be on the Gibb Road, a dirt road only open during the dry season. In the wet, it’s a river.
Of course, Broome itself is a relatively popular tourist destination on Australia’s west coast. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve probably also seen the iconic photos of camel riding on Cable Beach. We didn’t ride any camels, but we did get into our fair share of what this tropical town offers. Broome proved to be a restful place to prepare for the Broome to Darwin road trip ahead of us.
We happened to be there during the first Staircase to the Moon festival of the year. During full moons and low tide, the moon reflects its light over the mud flats. This creates the illusion of a staircase. The night of the festival, food and craft stalls set up at Town Beach, which makes it a fun evening out. We met up with some of the people from our tour to check it out. It’s not something I would recommend traveling somewhere just to see, but it’s pretty cool.
Before sunrise the next morning, Tim and I were already up and heading out to Gantheaume Point to try to find dinosaur footprints. They can only be seen at low tide (which seems like the only time to see anything in Broome). Even then are very difficult to find unless you know exactly where to look. We had a map and felt confident we could figure out out… Until we got there.
It was still dark outside, with only the full moon illuminating the area. To get down to the shoreline where the prints are, you have to crawl down steep and slippery boulders. Because the tides here are so dramatic, this area is usually covered in water. Thus, the rocks are slick with wet algae. Tim and I both fell a few times.
The sun was starting to rise by the time we were near where we thought the dinosaur prints would be. I took photos of indents and water pools that looked like maybe they were dino feet, but I wasn’t certain even what to look for.
Eventually we gave up. The tide was coming back in, and we were a little beat up from falling on the rocks a few times. Back where we had parked our scooter, there is a display replica of the dinosaur footprints. I was glad we at least got to see that. I would have been even more annoyed if we couldn’t at least see the fake prints! Also, they definitely confirmed that the random things I’d photographed were absolutely not dinosaur prints!
Other than those two things, though, we mostly just relaxed at our hotel room. Now, three nights of good sleep later, we were in a crowded SUV heading north into the Kimberley region to make our way from Broome to Darwin.
Spanning through the northern portion of the Western Territory, the Kimberley is one of the last great wildernesses on earth. Less than half a million people live in this expanse of land that is three times the size of England. It’s true Aussie wilderness bridging the land from Broome to Darwin.
Our first stop was to Windjana Gorge. We ate a quick lunch and dodged giant green frogs in the toilet (seriously) before a short hike into the gorge. The trail runs along a river, which is filled with fresh water crocodiles. I was so excited to see them, because on our trip to the Everglades in Florida, I was in the bathroom when Tim saw a crocodile and I missed it!
It’s important to note here that there are two kinds of crocodiles in Australia – freshwater and salt water, or freshies and salties as locals would say. Freshies are pretty safe for humans. We aren’t on their dinner menu. Like the alligators in North America, they’ll leave you alone unless you threaten them. Salties, on the other hand, are very dangerous and will track your scent and hunt you down. They’re no joke.
Thankfully, all the crocs in Windjana Gorge are freshies, and they are totally cute.
After the gorge, we went to Tunnel Creek, a reef system believed to be 350 million years old. Here, we ventured into a cave. There were also freshwater crocs in here, but they were only visible by the red reflections of their eyes when your headlamp hit them just right.
After exploring these two national parks, we arrived at our camping spot for the evening at Silent Grove. After our hellish swag experience at Pardoo Roadhouse, Tim and I requested a tent for this portion of the trip instead. I’m so glad we did – having our own private place to sleep, completely protected from mosquitoes, was really nice.
We spent the evening hanging out together as a small group around the campfire before getting to bed.
The next morning we were off to the most adventurous part of the road trip – the Gibb. Being an unpaved road, the Gibb requires a 4×4 vehicle. While it’s possible to travel from Broome to Darwin via a paved road, you can’t visit many of the best sites from there. To say the Gibb is a bumpy ride is an understatement. The jostling and bouncing of the 8 of us inside the cramped vehicle was worth it for the amazing things we got to see along the way.
The road is dotted with stunning gorges shooting off down more rugged paths. We visited Bell Gorge first. We were the only group there and we had the entire trail and swimming hole beneath the waterfall to ourselves. Galvans Gorge is equally beautiful, with deep green water and another spectacular waterfall.
Once again, we had it mostly to ourselves. Our last gorge of the day was Manning Gorge, which was conveniently located where we set up camp that night. It was an exciting one to get to as well – we had to take a little boat on a pulley system across a small lake. Since it was late afternoon, there were a lot of other campers hanging out on the lake drinking beers. It looked like a fun place to spend a few nights. From there, it was about an hour long hike to get to the gorge. Coming back was the same way. The natural pool at the end is huge, and since we were there early in the dry season, the waterfall was still flowing.
Even though we’d covered a lot of ground this second day of the Broome to Darwin adventure, it felt leisurely and fun because of the beautiful stops.
That evening at camp we learned all about cane toads, which were introduced to control pests. They have since become pests themselves. They are all over the place, especially at night. I felt sad for them. They were kind of cute and they didn’t know they were invasive. It’s our fault they populated the Kimberley so extensively anyway.
The next morning we were on the Gibb road again, heading for El Questro Wilderness Park – an outback resort and one of the biggest cattle stations in Australia. It’s a popular highlight for those traveling from Broome to Darwin. We would be camping there for two nights, and we were all excited to be able to settle in for a while. Once we checked in, Nicko took us to a stunning viewpoint looking out over the expansive territory. A river cuts through the rolling hills and as far as you can see, there’s nothing of civilization.
This is also where our small group took the most epic photo. Marie, a young and adorable German girl, set up her self timer on her camera to get a pic of all of us looking out over the landscape. I jokingly asked Tim if we should pull our pants down and before I knew it both him and Nicko were in their underwear, shorts around their ankles. On the other side of me, Patricia was taking her shirt off! And that’s how we ended up with an amazing photo of us looking out over the El Questro wilderness, our backs to the camera, girls in bras and guys in boxers. No, I won’t be sharing that photo here!
The next morning we were up early to visit the Zebedee hot springs. There were closer to lukewarm, but I suppose in a climate that gets as hot and humid as the Kimberley that’s not a terrible thing.
Afterwards we embarked on the most challenging hike of the tour from Broome to Darwin, to El Questro Gorge. The hike starts gently enough, meandering through the creek bed across small rocks. It was similar to the other gorge hikes we’d done.
About half way through, we arrived at a small pool of water. If it weren’t for Nicko guiding us, I would have thought the trail ended here. There was a seemingly impenetrable wall of boulders and no sign of a path. Apparently, this is where you climb. It was challenging – you had to hoist yourself up onto a big boulder, using the canyon wall and another rock to wedge yourself into a spider crawl. My shoes were too slippery and I couldn’t get a good grip- Nicko had to practically pull me over!
With that part behind us, the path carried on much like it had before, but the rocks gradually got bigger and more difficult to navigate. We even had to climb up a light waterfall, and admittedly I panicked about how I would successfully be able to climb down with my big fear of falling!
Finally, after about three hours of hiking, we arrived at a small swimming hole and a thin, but beautiful, waterfall. Nicko laid out snacks for us to enjoy while we relaxed for a bit. Before we started the hike back out, I let him know my fear of the climbing down the steep, wet wall. Without any alarm whatsoever, he simply said, “OK, no worries. I’ll help you when we get to that part.” I was impressed and appreciative at how calm his response was. In my head, I was starting to think my only way out of the gorge was to be airlifted, but seeing that he wasn’t worried at all reassured me.
We started the hike back, and before long we were at the dreaded waterfall wall. With Nicko guiding me on where to place my feet at each step, I made it down swiftly and confidently, without slipping at all. I was shocked that after all the fear I had built up in my mind about this decent, it seemed ridiculously easy in reality. I think there’s a lesson to be learned about fear there. In the words of Tom Petty, “Most things I worry ‘bout, never happen anyway.”
After conquering my fear, I felt elated. With a restored energy and levity that can only come from adrenaline, I handled each rocky step with ease. I immersed myself in the wonder of my natural surroundings. There I was, in the middle of a gorge, in the middle of a massive cattle station, in the middle of the Kimberley, one of the most remote regions in earth, spanning almost completely from Broome to Darwin.
There was more excitement yet to come. Shortly after this part of the hike, we came upon a long skinny snake draped across some twigs inside a small alcove of the rock wall. He slithered deeper into the cracks of the rocks as I watched him, his nimble body flashing lines of blue and yellow.
Nicko said it was a whip snake.
“Is it poisonous?” I asked.
“He’s only mildly venomous,” he replied.
“What constitutes mild?”
“Oh, just that if you get bit you have about 8 hours to get to a hospital before it kills you.”
So there you have it. “Mildly” venomous in Western Australia on the road from Broome to Darwin means you still die, it just takes 8 hours.
We eventually saw another snake of the same species sunning himself on a rock in the middle of the creek. I’ll admit, I was pretty nervous walking by him! But we all made it out of the gorge just fine and with plenty of time for happy hour back at the El Questro resort.
That night was a fun one. Our group had a few drinks at the bar, and Nicko even performed a few songs on stage (he’s a bit of a renaissance man).
The next morning we were back on the road. We were at about the halfway point from Broome to Darwin, but already at the end of the Gibb. We stopped by one last gorge (Emma Gorge) on our way out of the wilderness park. Compared to the day prior, this hike was much easier. It was also much more crowded both on the trail and at the swimming hole.
From El Questro our next stop was to Lake Argyle, which is Australia’s largest man-made lake. When I heard it was man-made, I discredited it in my mind. The fact that it wasn’t natural made it less interesting to me at first. When we arrived, though, I saw what the fuss is about.
First of all, this lake is massive. Its surface area is 1000 square kilometers. It’s a brilliant shade of deep blue that contrasts beautifully against the red and orange hues of the canyon the lake occupies. The holiday park we were staying at even had an infinity pool looking out over its majesty.
To make it all even better, one of the girls in our group had purchased an upgrade to private rooms for the duration of the trip, but didn’t want to use them. Since she preferred camping, she let us use her private room since it had been paid for anyway!
To say thank you, Tim and I paid for her ticket for the sunset cruise we were all taking on the lake. I would normally think a sunset cruise is cheesy and not worth the money, but we got a nice size discount as a group. Moreover, the cruise was a great way to see the lake and the wildlife that call it home, including rock wallabies and fresh water crocodiles. We also cruised past the dam that made this lake happen, and stopped for a few short swims and jumps off the tall rocks.
The free champagne and snacks certainly didn’t hurt either.
The next day was a big one. We were only driving a short distance of less than an hour to Kununurra, but from there we were taking an exciting day trip to Purnululu National Park, which is most famous for its stout sandstone towers known as the Bungle Bungles. For those traveling from Broome to Darwin, visiting this unique and weird geological wonder is incredible.
To get there, we’d be taking a scenic flight over Lake Argyle, the Carr Boyd and Osmond Ranges in a small 12-seat prop plane, eventually flying over the Bungle Bungles themselves. These crazy striped mounds developed 360 million years ago as layer after layer of sand built up into dunes. Over time, gravel from mountain ranges deposited in the area, compacting with the sand, creating the weird beehive-like structures we see today.
Flying over the Bungle Bungles we were able to see just how expansive the area is, as well as the unique way they formations appear to swirl together. Even though Tim and I fly a lot, we both thought it was a lot of fun to fly over a scenic place. It was definitely more exciting than the weekly Madison to Atlanta commute we made through 2016 and 2017!
Once we landed in the park on a tiny landing strip, our guides for the day met up with us. Nicko had stayed behind to have a day off from “babysitting” all of us (my phrase, not his)!
Our guides served us morning tea, which we’ve realized means tea or coffee and various pastries. These are worth mentioning. I can’t remember what they are called now and I’m kicking myself for it, but they are basically super fudge brownies with cookie chunks mixed in. Absolutely divine.
We got into a large safari bus with a few other people and the guides drove us to the trail head for where we’d be hiking. Along the way we saw Bungles in the shape of elephants and even Barney Flintstone. It’s so funny the things humans ascribe to nature.
Once at the trail head we were surrounded by huge Bungles. I imagine it’s what honey bees must feel like in relation to their hive. The hike itself was easy despite the heat, and it ended in a cave called Cathedral Gorge. This is where we had lunch, which was really disappointing compared to the pastries we had at morning tea.
Like many other spots in the Kimberley, we saw a lot of toads here too. But these were the dead kind. They looked like they had turned into stone, their positions so lifelike and stiff. One of the guides explained that crows capture the frogs and carry them out of the heat into the gorge. The crows eat out the toad’s intestines, leaving the rest to bake in the dry Australia air.
After the hike, we had afternoon tea with our group. Sabrina, from Switzerland, had the idea that we should play a trick on Nicko that night. We all agreed that a few of us would pretend to get sick after dinner, making him think his food gave us vomiting / diarrhea, and see how he reacts. Our plan was hatched!
Soon, it was time to fly back. The return took us over a diamond mine, which is something I’ve never seen before. It looked like a strange alien fortress surrounded by the surreal desert landscape.
When we got to our campsite for the night, Nicko already had dinner ready for us. It was actually really good, but we stuck to our plan. Some of us pretended to run to the toilet to vomit, others put their heads down on the table. Sabrina asked Nicko what was in the dinner. He was so flustered. “It’s all fresh!” he said. We kept it going for another minute or two, until Nicko was visibly concerned. Then we told him we were playing a trick on him. He looked shocked, the laughed big with us all. “I haven’t been gotten in a long time, and you guys got me good!”
The next day we left Western Australia behind and officially crossed into the Northern Territory. We were nearing the end of our Broome to Darwin journey. We stopped near Victoria Roadhouse to hike up the escarpment for views of the dramatic landscape around us. It was really hot and a bit of a climb. The views at the top were great though. I would recommend the hike to others, especially if you want to break up the driving.
That evening we arrived in Katherine, an actual city and the first we’d been in since leaving Broome a week earlier. We bought beers and took them down to the natural hot springs. Free for the public to enjoy, the hot springs park is a fun and popular spot to enjoy a beer while floating down the stream. I was impressed that the city had made such a nice community area here.
The next day was our last one together. We were finishing the drive up to Darwin by way of Litchfield National Park. We visited cathedral termite mounds (which are giant), and the fascinating magnetic termite mounds. Somehow the compass within the termite colony knew to orient their mounds with the sun in such a way to stay the exact right temperature. Lastly, we visited Florence Falls and Buley Rockhole for a swim. Then, it was on to the last leg of the great Broome to Darwin journey.
We had one last group dinner together that night in Darwin at a bar called Monsoons, but Tim and I didn’t stay out too late since we had a flight at 6am the next morning to make our way to Malaysia, our next destination on our 20-month honeymoon around the world.
After exploring the Kimberley, Tim and I have pretty thoroughly traversed the Australian continent. From our east coast road trip in 2014, to Uluru/Ayers Rock and the Red Center, Melbourne, Tasmania (twice!), Perth to Broome and now Broome to Darwin, we’ve covered everything we ever wanted to see here, and more. While there are many brilliant experiences to have all over the country, we both feel that the Kimberley/Broome to Darwin area is, hands down, the most beautiful adventure you can have on the mainland. Since we don’t currently plan on returning, it was a magical way to leave Australia behind.