Kimberley is an ancient outpost in north-western Australia. With a fascinating landscape that seems unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Large sandstone boulders, crackled gravel roads in a deep red tone framed in by a quivering heat and a burning hot sun. But in fact, it is the water from the Mitchell River that shaped the landscape by slowly pushing its way through the rocks, carving out gorges and creating spectacular waterfalls. The area is well known for its extreme weather. The rainy season equals monsoon rivers, heavy rain gushing down from the skies. Roads are closed off and flooding is common. The dry season between May and September is therefore the best time to visit the area. By then, the waterfalls are back in full scale and the vegetation comes to life again.
The Kimberley’s biggest adventure is called the Gibb River Road and is a 6,600 km long drive between the towns of Derby and Kununurra in north-western Australia. It is a challenging car journey where patience and endurance are put to the test, both for vehicles and drivers. After a while, you leave the road, turning left towards Mitchell Falls which is one of Kimberley’s brightest shining stars. Perhaps it is precisely the remote location that makes the waterfall so special. Getting here requires a sense of purpose, time and sweat. It is a bumpy journey of 500 km north from Broome. Once you reach the campsite it is time for the car to rest and your body to do the work.
A heart-raising hike takes you to the Mitchell Falls. There are several places that are worth stopping at along the way. Waterfalls to bathe in and a diverse nature. From mangrove swamps to swampland and lush rainforest. Some palm trees are believed to be closer to 300 years old. Stay tuned and maybe you’ll get a look at a python and the smaller wallabies that live among the rocks. Getting to and from Mitchell Falls takes up to four, six hours, so expect a whole day of hiking in a rugged terrain. When you reach the destination, you will be greeted by a magical waterfall where the green waters gush down into four levels. Climb to any of the waterholes and sit and enjoy the view and the cool waters. However, avoid bathing at the foot of the falls since the saltwater crocodile lives nearby.
You can also take a helicopter to see the Mitchell Falls. Helicopter transportation can be booked at the campsite. This way you avoid parts of the demanding hike. In addition to stunning views of the landscape, you get a real adrenaline rush of flying.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
Mitchell Falls is ranked as Australia’s most spectacular waterfall. It is absolutely worth adding a few extra days in the Kimberley to see this outstanding waterfall. The hike getting there is beautiful, and you get the chance to see other waterfalls along the way but also rock carvings and unique flora and fauna. You can also enjoy a dip in the natural pools of the waterfalls.
Mitchell Falls waters flows with great force down into four different plateaus in the middle of the Kimberley, giving you a feeling of it being the backdrop in a grand film. The sun’s burning rays will tempt you to jump down the powerful waterfall. Here you can sit and relax while feeling the strong currents pushing snugly towards your back. Make sure you are sitting firmly or hold on tight because you don’t want to end up at the bottom of the waterfall where there are crocodiles. For those who want some extra adventure, try climbing the mountain on the left-hand side to see all the way down to the bottom of the Mitchell Falls, or take the opportunity of taking pictures of the waterfall from a different angle. The best thing is that the challenging journey getting here stops the place from being crowded.
The hike from the campsite to the Mitchell Falls is six kilometres round trip, but the terrain is rugged. If you want to be able to stop and enjoy the moment, expect it to take a full day to walk back and forth. This means four to six hours of trekking during a day.
To make the whole experience even more special and to be able to see Mitchell Falls from above, you can go on a helicopter ride. You can book a single trip or a return flight depending on your budget. This can usually be booked at a short notice. With the help of a helicopter you get an unbeatable view of Mitchell Falls but also the Kimberley. It’s an experience you’ll never forget. The helicopter ride takes six minutes and costs from 160 dollars per person. The helicopter is completely open on the sides, so you have the chance to take absolutely fabulous pictures. Six minutes goes very fast, but the helicopter spins a few laps around the waterfall, so everyone gets the chance to take pictures from both sides. Then you are dropped off at the top of the waterfall or at the campsite depending on which direction you picked when booking. HeliSpirits (helispirit.com.au) office is located at the campsite.
There are no showers at Mitchell Falls Camping because water is a scarce commodity. If you want to take a refreshing dip or wash off, you can go to Mertens Creek. This scenic location is just a short walk from the campsite and is on the way to Mitchell Falls. To preserve nature, it is not allowed to wash with soap or shampoo in here.
Mertens Falls is a half-hour walk from the campsite on the way up to Mitchell Falls. Previously the falls where called Little Mertens Falls. But don’t let the name fool you, the waterfall is not disappointing. Here you can swim, jump from a vine hanging from a tree or swim some lengths in the natural basin under the waterfall. The water is a bit chilly but nice given the high air temperature. It is possible to climb over the waterfall where there are small holes in the rock where water streams through. It is absolutely amazing to sit down here, lowering your shoulders and listen to the chirping birds, mixed with the sound of flowing water. The place isn’t called the nature’s spa for nothing. But the best thing about Mertens Falls is that it is possible to climb behind the waterfall to an open cave. There you can sit and look through the waterfall and you get a chance to take lovely photos.
Before you reach Mitchell falls you will come to Martens Gorge, who was previously named Big Mertens Falls. Here awaits a large and dramatic waterfall that unfortunately is difficult to capture on the camera since the hike goes along the top of the waterfall and the sun does not reach to the bottom of it. To get to Mitchell Falls you must cross the Mertens Gorge, so take it slow and look carefully where you put your feet, so you don’t fall. Proper footwear is recommended.
Rock art and cave paintings
Along the way to and from Mitchell Falls you get the chance to see magnificent rock carvings and paintings. The two styles of Gwion Gwion and Wandjina have very detailed paintings captured on the red sandstone. This rock art is unique for Western Australia and the Kimberley region. It is usually said that the Gwion Gwion paintings are sophisticated and they are believed to be over 25,000 years old. Some of the paintings are up to five meters big, but most of them are much smaller than this. The rock art is very important in understanding the country’s history and have helped to find out how people travelled to Australia, how they responded to climate changes and how often they moved between neighbouring countries. No one knows how many paintings there are and exactly where they are, but during a transit in the region you will likely encounter a few.
On the way up to the Mitchell Falls you will drive past King Edward River where you will find large sandstones in different formations and many colours. This is called King Edward Rock Galleries and are some of the best and most poignant stone paintings open to the public throughout Kimberley. The paintings show, among other things, characters in different ceremonies, hunting with boomerangs, spears and other weapons or people dancing. You will also find animal paintings and Windjina paintings that depict people with large round heads and large eyes that stare at you in a mysteriously way.
Good to know
Getting around by car
It is not quite easy to get to Mitchell Falls, but it is worth the effort. Follow the well-known road Gibb River Road which offers a taste of the genuine Australia. A four-wheel drive is a must and you should have at least two spare tires with you. The road is not paved, and some sections are in a bad shape. The Gibb River Road takes you through a landscape created by the power of nature. You drive past high rock walls and steep cliffs; past desolate groups of trees and you must cross fast-flowing rivers. You travel deep into the wilderness and get the chance to see Australia’s rare and unique species of fauna and flora. The telephone coverage is non-existent, and it is far to the nearest petrol station. It can go hours without the slightest sign of civilization. You must be completely independent when travelling along the Gibb River Road and have plenty of water, gasoline, food and spare parts for the car. To get to Mitchell Falls, turn off at Kalumburu Road. About 59 km into the road is Drysdale River Station (drysdaleriver.com.au) which is the last place to refuel and shop before you reach your destination. They have accommodation as well as food and drinks if you want to stay for a while. Then the road continues for about 100 km until you turn off towards the Mitchell Plateau Track. Be prepared to drive slowly and stop occasionally to allow the engine and shock absorbers to rest for a while. The journey from the Gibb River Road takes about four hours, so start in time before the sun sets.
See the area by plane
It is possible to book flights from Drysdale River Station to see several of the nearby attractions, but it costs from 480 dollars per person (drysdaleriver.com.au/scenic_flights.htm). You can also fly from Broome or Kununurra with the airlines King Leopold Air (kingleopoldair.com.au/broome-scenic-flights) and HeliSpirit (helispirit.com.au).
There are several short and long group trips through the Kimberley and to Mitchell Falls, for all ages. This is the easiest way to travel as you can sit back and see the best of the area. A professional guide will in a safe way take you to the best spots or out on cool adventures. Examples of organizers are Outback Spirit Tours (outbackspirittours.com.au) and Gibb River Tours (gibbriverroadtours.com.au).
Warnings and preparations
The Gibb River Road and Mitchell Falls are best to visit during the dry season which falls between May and October. The roads open to the public around May when the water has been absorbed by the soil, making it dry enough for cars to cross.
Before you go out on the Gibb River Road, it is important to find out the latest information, to know if some parts of the road have been closed. There is information to get online (mainroads.wa.gov.au) (exploreoz.com/wa/kimberly/roads.aspx) but you can also talk to the staff working at petrol stations in the area. They often keep a good track of the latest news.
Make sure you have a first-aid kit, plenty of water and sunscreen. Proper shoes and a headgear that protects against the sun is a must. Please tell someone before you go out on a hiking trail so that they know when you plan to be back. Read signs and instructions and follow them. Keep in mind that there may be crocodiles in the area so be sure to check if you can swim or not.
Staying overnight at Drysdale River Station is a true Australian experience. It is located 59 km from the Gibb River Road on the way to Mitchell Falls. Here you can stay in small rooms or apartments and here are facilities such as shower, shop, bar, gasoline, toilets and restaurant. You can also get help with car repairs. Many come here to enjoy a cold beer in the shade of the outdoor terrace or to eat their famous burgers. Accommodation costs from 150 dollars per night and person. The campsite costs around 16 dollars per night and person. You cannot book in advance (drysdaleriver.com.au).
There is a large camping area at the beginning of the walk track to Mitchell Falls. Each campsite has its own place where you can make a fire and there are several outhouses. This is a forest campsite in the middle of nature and there are neither showers nor water, however, you can go to Mertens Creek for a cool dip or to fetch water. Keep in mind, however, that the water is not drinkable. The campsite is paid on site to the hosts and costs about 8 dollars per adult per night. First come, first served applies. If you want to stay in better tents with showers and have access to a restaurant and bar, you have to book in with the Mitchell Falls Wilderness Lodge (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Mitchell_Falls_Wilderness_Lodge.htm).
King Edwards River Crossing Camping is located approximately 90 minutes’ drive before you get to the car park and the camping area at Mitchell Falls. There is no drinking water here, but you can swim in the river which is just next to the campsite. The nearby fishing and the magnificent rock carvings make many people choose this site. The fee is paid on site and it is first come, first served that applies.
A Saturday at Mitchell Falls
08:00 – Starting strong with a helicopter ride
Wake up at Mitchell Falls Camping and go and book a helicopter trip for nine o’ clock. Eat a filling breakfast, pack your backpack for the day’s adventure and go to the helicopter. When it is your turn, your stomach feels like it is full of butterflies. The helicopter takes off and you get to see the Kimberley’s stunning landscapes extend farther than the eye can reach, in all directions. The helicopter has open doors so you can take some really nice pictures of the magnificent landscape. Soon you get to see the mighty waterfall you’ve been waiting for, the Mitchell Falls. It is large, beautiful and rapid with an impressive power. The helicopter circulates a few laps so you can take pictures and enjoy the view before setting you down on the mountain.
09:30 – Swimming in a giant waterfall
Start hiking in the direction of Mitchell Falls, after fifteen minutes you can hear the water gush and you’ll see the top of the waterfall. Take off your shoes and gently cross the river on the rocks that form a small path. You end up standing there, looking out over the magnificent waterfall for a while to take in the beautiful view before you even think about taking out the camera. Jump into the water and sit safely in a depression to avoid getting dragged away by the strong currents. When your body resembles a raisin, place yourself on the edge of the mountain to dry in the sun.
12:30 – Route through the rainforest
At the top of the waterfall you eat your packed picnic. Then it is time to start the hike back towards the campsite. First you climb up the side of the waterfall to take some pictures of Mitchell Falls from the front. It’s a bit tricky to climb, but exciting. After a little while you reach Mertens Gorge, and it might prove to be a bit of challenge to get across here. Some rocks in the water are loose. Step carefully and watch where you put your feet. A misstep could lead to disaster. When you make your way to dry land on the other side of the waterfall, you dare to pick up the camera and snap some more pictures.
13:30 – Rock carvings and spa
Continue the hike towards the campsite through the rainforest and see interesting animals and plants along the way. You will arrive at some of the world-famous Gwion Gwion rock paintings where you stop for a look. The rock paintings are detailed and moving. When you get to Mertens Falls you step into the cave behind the waterfall and sit down in the shade to rest. Then jump into the water and swim a few lengths. Make your way up the waterfall and get into a small basin that almost bubbles because of the water coming gushing down. There you’ll cool down and recharge, getting ready for the last hiking distance.
16:00 – The last dip of the day
About 20 minutes later you reach Mertens Creek and it will be your last chance for the day to cool off and have a wash since the campsite lacks showers. Slowly stroll the last bit back to the campsite and sit in the shade to relax and reflect over the day’s adventures. Everyone at the campsite gathers with the host and looks at pictures and videos of how Mitchell Falls looks in the rainy season. You meet a lot of new people and later everyone gather around the fire to cook the evenings ‘dinner. The day ends with stories and something cold to drink.