In the Kimberley & Pilbara everything comes in large doses. The regions are synonymous with adventure. A grand desert is spreading far under a sky so great that it never seems to end. The landscape showcases extreme contrasts of intense colours. Turquoise water rinses on off-white sandy beaches. The sun burns the rusty red ground and the nearest settlement is hours away. Some chubby baobab trees line the gravel-roads and suddenly the ground opens, and deep ravines await. It is not surprising that places such as Kimberley for long have been a favourite among nature photographers.
The climate is harsh with two different seasons. Either it is bone-dry, or it is as wet as a drenched cat. And life in the area is hard. Nature can be merciless. Extreme droughts can lead to large forest fires. This is followed by monsoon rains and tropical storms with roads overflowing and closed for extended periods of time. A constant struggle exists between man and nature. Despite this, it is safe to travel through the area if you follow instructions and use common sense. But remember that there is no place for those seeking utmost comfort. Mobile coverage, TV and Internet are luxury and nothing to take for granted. The same applies to access to drinking water. The region is isolated and different and invites you to memorable experiences. The ancient landscape feels like the last outpost.
Kimberley is three times as big as England but sparsely populated with about 40,000 inhabitants. The area is in the northwest corner of Western Australia. The largest resorts are Broome, Kununurra and Derby. The Kimberley area was one of the places where the aboriginal peoples first settled. Today, one-third of the population has Aboriginal roots.
The Kimberley is well suited for four-wheel drive journeys. Particularly popular is the section of Gibb River Road between Derby and Kununurra. By travelling on the 660 km long road you will cover many of the region’s attractions. The road leads to majestic places where the superlatives fall short. Stop by at lush national parks, swim in ice-cold lakes and see deafening waterfalls. There are over 300 varieties of birds in all the rainbow’s colours and world-class fishing. You are guaranteed to see kangaroo, dingo and reptiles in all shapes and sizes, as well as both fresh- and saltwater crocodiles. But don’t let the animals deter you. You can travel along the National Highway 1 to make a detour to Purnululus beehive-shaped mountain tops or take a helicopter ride to see the scenery from above.
The Pilbara is one of Australia’s most hostile places. A region located in the northwest corner of the country, stretching from the coast and deep into the country. Pilbara is primarily known for one thing. Iron ore. And there is a lot of it. Since the 1950s, natural resources have been extracted and the gigantic mines in Pilbara are an important cornerstone of the Western Australian economy. Newman and Tom Price are two mining camps that pop up seemingly out of nowhere in the deserted inland. But there is also salt and natural gas being extracted in the coastal areas of Pilbara. Large towns like Karratha and Port Hedland have emerged through this thriving industry. Having travelled along solitary desert hours at a stretch, it feels surreal that large communities appear among the dunes. This is where the hard-working miners live. And there are constantly more coming. It is popular to seek a job in the mines. The reason is money. The wages are terrific. But because the jobs are sought-after, they are also hard to get. Companies often require relevant training and professional experience. If you are lucky, as an inexperienced backpacker you can at best land a job as a chef or a dishwasher here. If you visit Pilbara, you will be guaranteed to meet many trucks. In these areas the trucks can be up to 55 meters long. Sometimes they have such wide load that you kindly must turn off the road and wide-eyed admire the spectacle that swoop past in the quivering hot air.
Besides hard work and sweat, nature in Pilbara has a lot to offer. Typical of the area is its crumbly sand that colours the world red in contrast to the off-white bark of the eucalyptus trees. Amidst the Hamersley Ranges’ mountains and gorges lies Karijini National Park, one of Australia’s largest and most beautiful national parks in the heart of Pilbara. Karijini is a perfect playground for adults young at heart. The deep gorges fill up with water during rain which forms small lakes that provide a well-needed coolness after a hike in the sunshine. Northwards are Millstream-Chichester National Park which often is overshadowed by the more well-known national park of Karijini. Millstream is quiet and peaceful. With its chocolate brown soil, its wheat coloured grass and high cliffs, Millstream is at least as worthy of a visit as Karijini. Along the Pilbara’s coastline, the dramatic turquoise sea awaits with its expansive beaches and coral reefs.
Broome is the largest town in the area and a good starting point (wotif.com/discover/australia/western-australia/broome.d6130647). Broome has some nice restaurants and cafés and is close to far-stretched beaches where you can ride on camels at sunset. The town is also a springboard to other parts of Kimberley. At the end of the Dampier Peninsula is Cape Leveque. Getting here is a challenge. Almost half of the 206 km long road consists of gravel and sand. At the time of writing there are plans to pave the whole route, and it is expected to be finished by 2021, but for updates on roads take a look at Mainroads Western Australia’s website (mainroads.wa.gov.au/Pages/default.aspx). It takes up to four hours to drive from Broome at current situation. But the destination is worth the effort. Cape Leveque feels untouched and showcases a colourful nature. Scarlet red sand and rocks meet long paradise beaches. If you would you like to stay at Kooljaman (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Kooljaman.htm) and wake up overlooking the beaches’ enticing waves and with a walking distance to Cape Leveque, you have to book early.
At Windjana Gorge (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/windjana-gorge) you have the chance to get really close to the freshwater crocodiles. The Windjana Gorge is over three kilometres long and the hiking trails are clearly marked. The rock walls of the gorge can be up to 100 meters high and during a walk you’ll pass stunning scenery. The freshwater crocodiles are found both in the water and on the sandbanks. They do not attack or bite if you do not disturb or try to hurt them. There is also a good campsite in the wilderness with toilets, showers and a place to make a campfire. Many people travelling through Kimberley come here in order to meet others. It costs about 12 dollars per night (parkstay.dpaw.wa.gov.au/camp-finder/viewproperty/windjana-gorge/78/en) which is paid in cash on site. First come, first served applies.
Tunnel Creek National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/tunnel-creek) has an awesome tunnel system of 750 meters that you can wander through. At least five different bats live in the tunnels and the stalactites hang down from the roof. One tip is to have sturdy sneakers on and a good flashlight. It is possible to carry out the hike on your own without a guide. In some places the water reaches up over the knees, so non-delicate shorts are recommended and do not forget to empty your pockets before you embark on this adventure.
It is said that one can experience most of Kimberley just by visiting El Questro (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/El_Questro_Wilderness_Park.htm). Here are hiking trails for the adventurous who leads to waterfalls and waterholes that lack hordes of tourists. Here you can fish for barramundi, ride on horses, ride a helicopter or relax in Zebedee Springs which is a very popular tourist attraction. A must is to visit the Emma Gorge which is easy to get to in comparison to the other sights, plus it is one of the finest places around El Questro. Bring lunch and stay all day. El Questro has an outdoor pub with live music every night and a restaurant serving grilled dishes.
Stop at Lake Argyle (lakeargyle.com.au) and relax a day or two. Here you can join in on a very popular sunset cruise on the lake or rent a canoe and paddle yourself. The landscape is magnificent and takes anyone’s breath away. A tip is to stay at the campsite located nearby and take a dip in their infinity pool.
The beehive shaped mountains of Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park can be accessed from National Highway 1 and is located almost 300 km from Kununurra. You can discover parts of the national park on your own if you have access to a car. But seeing the area from the air is also very rewarding, so consider booking a flight if the travel budget allows it (wotif.com/things-to-do/bungle-bungles-and-lake-argyle-scenic-flight.a577986.activity-details).
In Pilbara you can climb Western Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Meharry. At a height of 1,253 meters, the mountain grabs the first spot just ahead of the 13-metre lower Mount Bruce. Mount Meharry is located within Karijini National Park. Make sure to start the hike early before the sun is at its highest. There are not many shading trees along the hiking trail.
The large mining towns are more visited to replenish your food and water supplies than anything else. They lack culture and are lifeless for a visitor on vacation. However, if you want to learn more about how the mining industry works, you can tag along on a walking tour. Visit the information centres to ask them for help with booking. They are professional and helpful.
The area around Millstream-Chichester National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/millstream-chichester) has long been sacred ground for the indigenous people. The park is unique for Pilbara as there is water here all year round. It contributes to the lush surroundings. Grasslands mixed with barren rocks and deep lakes. There are lots of wild animals in the park, including the iconic blue-winged Kookaburra. Karijini National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/karijini) is a spectacular and distant national park. Known for its cool gorges and massive cliffs, it is well worth spending a few days just to discover the park. There are many hiking trails that take you to high waterfalls and deep ice-cold lakes.
Murujuga, also known as the Burrup Peninsula, is located about five kilometres northeast of the town of Dampier. It is believed that the Pilbara region has been inhabited for over 40,000 years and here is the evidence. At Murujuga you will find the largest number of rock art in the world left by the indigenous people (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/murujuga). The carvings depict humans and extinct animals such as the Tasmanian tiger. Archaeologists have not been able to determine the carvings’ exact age but think they can be as old as 30,000 years. About 180 km north of Port Hedland is Cape Keraudren Nature Reserve (eastpilbara.wa.gov.au/default.aspx? WebPageID = 83) which is a large coastal reserve. Bring enough water and firewood if you intend to stay overnight. It is a quiet place without facilities that are well suited for hiking and camping in nature. As it is on the coast and lacks trees, it can be very windy.
About 22 kilometres off Onslow’s coast you will find Mackerel Islands (mackerelislands.com.au), some islands surrounded by coral. Come here to snorkel, dive, fish and especially to relax, you can also stay there (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Mackerel_Islands.htm). Visit the information centre in Onslow to help you book a trip to the islands. Just north of Karratha lies Dampier Archipelago. With 42 islands and a rich coral reef, also this place is great for a play in the water. More than half of the islands are classified as nature reserves and around them there are many kinds of fish. It is also not uncommon to see bottlenose dolphins and whale sharks here (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/dampier-archipelago).
Planning and preparation
Plan a visit during the dry season, between May and October to avoid excruciating heat and flooded roads. Visit the Bureau of Meteorology (bom.gov.au/wa) for the latest weather update. The rainy season normally falls between January and March. There is no point in showing up at this period. It may be good to wait at least until June so that all the roads are drivable, and the tourist attractions are open. It all depends on how much rain has fallen during the rainy season so always check out the latest information before departure (mainroads.wa.gov.au).
Between November and April, you should watch out for the deadly Box Jellyfish on the beaches. It exists all year round but is most active along Pilbara’s coast during this period.
No specific permission is required to drive in the Kimberley, but admission tickets are needed for the national parks. These can be purchased over the counter in the state’s information centres, on-site or online (shop.dbca.wa.gov.au/).
It gets very hot, protecting yourself from the sun is a must. When hiking, it is important that you have sturdy shoes, a god sun hat, high factor sunscreen and plenty of water. Plan so that you are back in good time before it gets dark. As the deadly saltwater crocodile resides in several areas, you always need to stay up to date about where it is safe to hike and swim. Clear signs are set up, but if you are unsure, it is better to refrain. Never compromise on safety. Outside the cities there is virtually no mobile coverage and help can be several hours away.
It can be a long way to the nearest house, shop, gas station or water tap. It is important to find out what is available on the distance you are driving. You must always make sure to have enough water and food to be able to survive for a few days. It is easy to get stuck somewhere because of forest fires, floods or other natural disasters. In many places in Kimberley, petrol and food can be three times as expensive as in the big cities so it is a good idea to fill up on as much as you can before driving into the wastelands. Always make sure you have enough petrol to take you to the next gas station. At each petrol station there are signs showing how far it is to the next station. Fill up your spare petrol can too. It is a good idea to have at least two extra tires with you when you are driving on gravel roads that can be very bumpy.
Working in the mines
Getting a job in the mines is not entirely easy. It is all about equal parts timing and luck. If you have previous experience and relevant vocational training, you have a greater chance of work. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to get, for example, a truck license or a certificate that says you are qualified to work at high altitudes. Keep your eyes open for job ads on the webpages of for example Seek (seek.com.au) and Jora (au.jora.com). Register with an employment service provider and work on expanding your network of contacts. Companies may be reluctant to hire you on a Working Holiday visa because you can only work at the same company for six months on an end (in general) and the mining jobs often include some type of induction training that eat up valuable time which makes you less attractive in their eyes. Keep in mind that jobs are demanding. It is hot, dusty, sweaty and flies everywhere. And the nights are icy. Some work in a way that is called FIFO – fly in, fly out. They work hard for two weeks and then fly home to be off for a week. In recent times it has also become common with housing shortages in the mining communities. However, some companies arrange housing for their employees.
There are several different options when it comes to exploring Kimberley. One way is to drive yourself. It is highly recommended to do this in a car with four-wheel drive so you can get around everywhere and above all, drive the well-known road of Gibb River Road and discover Australia for real. If you do not own a car with a four-wheel drive, you can rent them in all sorts of variants and price ranges (wotif.com/Car-Hire). Some come with tents, others have beds in the car or you can rent a camper or stay overnight at a suitable accommodation along the road (hotelscombined.com/Place/Kimberley.htm). Just be sure that the insurance is valid for the distance and the area you intend to drive through with your rental. Some rental cars are limited to be used on main roads and not off-road.
If you want to drive your own car but want to travel with some security, you can for some distances tag along on a tour. You then drive together with others who have their own cars and a guide that is guaranteed to take you to the best places. This is very popular and a nice way to travel together with new people. It gives more freedom than to travel in a tourist bus and it is safer than travelling all alone. Just focus on your experience, no need for planning or worrying. Examples of companies like this are Great Divide Tours (greatdividetours.com.au) and Spirit Safaris (spiritsafaris.com/tag_along_tours).
For those who do not want to drive at all, there are group travel for all ages and interests. This way, there is no need to worry about either driving or planning the trip. Just relax and get off where the bus stops. The buses in Kimberley have four-wheel drive so they take you pretty much anywhere you could get in a four-wheel drive car. Some examples are Outback Spirit Tours (outbackspirittours.com.au/Kimberley), Kimberley Wild (kimberleywild.com.au) and Gibb River Road Tours (gibbriverroadtours.com.au).
In Pilbara, having your own transport is the key. The buses seldom go and you save neither time nor money on the uncomfortable trips, although it is possible to get here from Perth or Broome with Greyhounds (greyhound.com.au). If you are running out of time, you can choose to fly directly to Pilbara and start from here. Due to the growing industry, the airport of Karratha (karrathaairport.com.au) has become one of Western Australia’s largest as thousands of workers fly home and back every week. There are flights between Karratha and Perth, and between Karratha and Broome. There are also smaller airports in Port Hedland and Newman (wotif.com/Flights).
To get the most out of a trip to Kimberley, you should drive the Gibb River Road. It is 660 km between Derby and Kununurra on a road that takes you through the heart of Kimberley. Along the way, you can expect dramatic gorges, lush national parks and a lot of desert. Four-wheel drive is a must, but the road is most of the time easy to navigate. However, caravans are not recommended. Map and information about the road can be downloaded from the Internet (gibbriverroad.net/map-of-the-kimberley.html) or purchased for a small cost on the tourist information in Derby located at 30 Loch Street (derbytourism.com.au). When the car is filled with food, water, petrol and other necessities, it is time to take off. Always drive with low beam on and slow down when meeting a truck. The dust cloud that is formed when meeting a heavy vehicle makes it impossible to see what is hidden behind it. Campsites do not need to be booked but if you prefer to stay in a cottage or a room you may want to book this in advance (hotelscombined.com/Place/Kimberley.htm). Allocate at least one week for the trip.
Leave Derby and drive to Tunnel Creek where you wander through the tunnels and then to the exciting Windjana Gorges. Tent for the evening at Windjana Gorge. The next coming days are spent exploring even more gorges, so bring your swimwear. Visit Lennard Gorge and Bell Gorge where you sleep for the night. The next day you visit Galvans Gorge and then camp for free at the Barnett River. Day four means doing some driving. Get up in time to drive all the way up to Mitchell Falls Camping. Stop for a filling burger at Drysdale River Station (drysdaleriver.com.au). Camp at Mitchell Falls Campground (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/mitchell-falls-campground) which costs from 7.50 per night. Pay in cash on site.
On day five you book a helicopter ride (helispirit.com.au/all-tours) to Mitchell Falls and Mitchell Plateau. Then hike back to the campsite via Little Mertens Falls. Or do the opposite, walk to Mitchell Falls to get picked up by helicopter at the end of the day. Spend another night at the campsite. On the sixth day of your journey, head to Home Valley station (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Home_Valley_Station.htm). Five hiking trails start from the ranch. Follow the signs and discover the area on your own, but don’t forget to register before you head out. Home Valley Station has spotless accommodation options as well as a nice restaurant and a bar. If the travel budget is getting spent too fast, maybe a campsite fits better.
Day seven takes you to El Questro (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/El_Questro_Wilderness_Park.htm). Book a stay at their campsite for a couple of nights. Explore the nearby area along with local guides (elquestro.com.au/explore/activities-and-experiences/half-day-tours) or do it yourself. Don’t miss to visit Zebedee Springs, Champagne Springs, El Questro Gorge and Emma Gorge. Horse riding and fishing can also be enjoyed here. Then eat grilled food for dinner at the restaurant. On the last day of the trip, drive the last distance towards Kununurra.
Start your journey through the Pilbara region in the mining town of Karratha. Rent a four-wheel drive car. Fill up with as much supplies you can and buy a massive volume of water. If you want to take a closer look at the mines, you can book a guided tour through the town’s information centre (karrathavisitorcentre.com.au). Also take the opportunity to ask about Dampier Archipelago, which is your next stop. Then, drive towards the nearby coastal town of Dampier. From there you go over to the archipelago’s islands. Once in place, you can snorkel on your own by the reefs located just outside the islands, or why not fish in the waters that are full of different fish species. Once you’ve had enough of the peaceful island life, head back to the mainland. Head south towards Millstream-Chichester National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/millstream-chichester). Drive into the park via Millstream Link Road and head toward the Python Pool. The deep freshwater lake is located near high red cliffs and was previously a resting place for camel transports. Don’t forget your swimsuit to cool off in the water. Spend the night at the park’s campsite.
The next day you drive to Pilbara’s other large national park, the grand Karijini National Park. Spend a day exploring the beautiful Dales Gorge. A wide mountain gorge opens and there, far down, you can see Fortescue Falls looking only like a small trickle. A winding path with an unbeatable view of the gorge leads steeply downwards. You can take a dip in the water below the Fortescue Falls. Then follow the hidden path through the forest that leads out to the lake of Fern Pool. If you have time and energy, you can also drive towards the Hancock Gorge for a tougher challenge. The journey ends by climbing a mountain. Choose between Western Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Meharry, or the 13-meter lower option of Mount Bruce which is easier to reach. Start your hike in the early morning to not get cooked by the hot sun.