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Thursday, 6 July 2017

Gibb River Road: 1 - Mornington Wilderness Camp

28 - 30/05/2017
Mornington [Gibb River] (Western Australia)
Distance Travelled:
340.8km (yup, I know that’s very exact, but our bodies were beaten into submission by every inch of those corrugations!)

number of 4x4 tracks we were thwarted by:

Turning off the Derby highway onto the Gibb River road, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first 70km or so was sealed bitumen. Sure, the Northern Territory government had only laid out enough cash to seal one lane for most of it – but being a long flat stretch of road, there was plenty of time to pull over if another car came barrelling along in the other direction. So, without any hesitation, we tootled off quite merrily down the road.

Heading of the highway on to the Gibb River road

Ah, but merriment does not last forever, and soon, the bitumen ran out…

In the weeks leading up to us tackling the famed Gibb River road (or “The Gibb”, as it’s affectionately known to those who pass by this way), I’d spent a bit of time reading a variety of websites with tips and tricks for wandering about in this stretch of the road. One trusted travel blogger, whom I’ve checked in with a few times, wrote this of the Gibb River road:

“The Gibb River Road is a 660 km track right through the wild heart of the Kimberley and is one of the Kimberley's main attractions. "The Gibb" takes you from Derby on the west coast to Kununurra (or Wyndham) on Western Australia's eastern border through a spectacular landscape of intensely coloured ranges, dramatic gorges and lush rock pools and waterfalls, everything the Kimberley is famous for.

The trip is still touted as one of the last serious adventures in Australia, a drive through a very remote area where all sorts of dangers loom, an undertaking that requires guts and four wheel driving experience...” (http://www.kimberleyaustralia.com/gibb-river-road.html)

“Oh well,” I thought as we pulled over to the side of the road and let out tyres down. “I guess we’re really doing this then?!?”.

With our tyres deflated to 23 PSI (coming up with that number was mostly guess work…. But it seemed to be in the range that other motorists suggested for this stretch of sharp rocky highway), I jumped back behind the wheel and gave the car a bit of a prod forward. Onwards dear car, onwards.

Being early in the season we were fortunate that the roads had seen the graders pass by within the last month. As such, they were generally in pretty good nick. Corrugations were appearing along the way (in some places pretty heavily), but overall it was not a bad run by Gibb River standards. So far so good!

Of course, there was to be a payoff for this good fortune. The flip side of being on the Gibb so early in the season, was that not all the places we wanted to visit were open yet.

Being early in the season, many of the roads were still closed...

We had heard from a variety of sources (information kiosks, fellow travellers and websites [like this one and this one) that some of these destinations might potentially be open by the end of the week. So, with our fingers tightly crossed in hopes that they were, we pressed on to our first destination “Mornington”.

Having taken a circuitous route to get to this end of the Gibb River Road, it was our plan to drive about half way up the road – see a bunch of cool stuff – then turn around and head back to Derby (where our camper trailer was waiting patiently for us). We decided to cover the vast majority of the distance up the Gibb on the first day, then spend the rest of the week meandering back down slowly. We decided that Mornington would a good spot to aim for, as it would only be a hop, step and a jump to our furthest destination up the Gibb River, Mt Barnett, a few days later.

The Gibb River road itself was spectacular. By this point in the blog, I really am starting to run out of ways for creatively saying “very, very nice”. But, in truth, the whole of the Gibb was truly a sight to behold. As I understand it, the Gibb was once just a means of joining together a bunch of incredibly vast and spread out cattle stations. But over time, it has become one of those iconic stretches of road that motorists flock to. Most countries have places like this. Be it Route 66 in the states, Stelivo Pass in Italy, or the Guoliang Tunnel Road in China. You know, those places that people who are fond of a good drive just can’t resist visiting. And, the Gibb is certainly one of those places (honourable mentions much also go the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, as well as the stunning west coast of New Zealand’s South Island… Oh, and the North Island isn’t too shabby either!).

On the Gibb, not only was the view through the car’s window magnificent, but also the stops along the way were brilliant too. Immense expanses of blue sky stretched out before us, with snowy white clouds forming in curious patterns in the firmament above. Rushing to meet the sky at the horizon, the ground changed from rolling hills, to craggy mountains and escarpments, to sandy stretches dotted with a few hardy low-lying plants. Amongst these biomes were forests of ancient trees, which huddled in clusters around fairly frequent water sources.

Clouds, goannas and Boab tress - a very cool combination!

Mornington, like several of the places that we stayed along the Gibb, was no longer a working station. Originally run as a beef cattle station, “Old Mornington Station” (parenthetically, named after the Mornington region of Victoria) was purchased in 2001 by the not for profit organisation Australian Wildlife Conservancy. This organisation now runs the station an environmental refuge, with the aim of preserving the land and a host of threatened wildlife. Covering an area of 3,123 square kilometres (I’m not quite sure what that is in miles… but either way, it’s pretty darn big!), the station has been rebranded as Mornington Wilderness Camp and provides spacious camp sites for up to 25 tents/small trailers at a time.

Before venturing down the highway, all visitors were required to stop just after the turn off from the main road, where they have to use a radio to call ahead and there is space available. Given the length of the driveway, as well as a few hairy sections to navigate along the way, it wouldn’t be too much fun to arrive at the end of the track and find that there was ‘no room at the inn”, so to speak.

Hairy sections on the Mornington driveway.

So, Nat and Ben jumped out of the car and made their way into a small shack containing a CB radio and a set of instructions pinned to the wall. The dynamic duo followed these notes made contact with Mornington base camp. A short time later, we were given the go ahead to start down the track. And so we did, happy to be within reach of our goal for the day – and very nearly able to set up the tent and have some dinner.

Mornington station - Always radio ahead!

The driveway into the station was a little arduous – taking a little over three hours to reach the end - but, indeed, it was all part of the fun and adventure. Heading down the long windy track, the boy and Nat took turns hopping out of the car to open the many gates along the way.

Oh, so many gates!

As it turns out, these gates weren’t so much to keep cattle in… but rather to keep cattle out. Part of the conversation effort undertaken at Mornington was to restore the damage caused by hooves of cattle to the delicate plants of this area. There were, however, a few beefy stragglers wandering the landscape (much to the delight of the boys), but in time, these too would be shooed away.


As our first destination on the Gibb River Road, we weren’t disappointed! Hot solar showers (supplemented by gas boilers on those occasional cloudy days) and a bar/restaurant were both available on site.

Having pitched our tent and eaten dinner, we sat back to enjoy the stars. All along this journey, I’ve tried taking countless photos of the resplendent and breathtaking beautiful of the outback stars. But, time after time, the resulting snaps turn out only a handful of milky dots against an inky background. I would dearly love to show you what we have been privileged enough to see in the night sky throughout this trip – but, alas, it is beyond me to do so… (Still, feel free to hit up our old friend Google for an image search using the key words ‘stars’ and ‘outback Australia’… you’ll get a fair idea of what I mean!).

After a half-decent night’s sleep on air mattresses that actually stayed inflated until dawn, the following day we decided to visit a couple of the sights Mornington had to offer. We packed food and water into our bags, hopped back into the car, and headed off down the trail – deep into the heart of the conservation lands.

Out first stop was at some of the biggest and reddest termite mounds I’ve ever seen! I know I’ve already pontificated on the virtues of termites in the outback – but they really are quite special. The mounds that were visible along the track were mammoth, and their miniscule inhabitants had certainly done a good job of keeping the landscape nice and neat.

Termites in the outback: what's not to love?!

Moving on from these awesome red mounds, we made our way further down the track to Cadjeput Waterhole. This nice little spot on the banks of the Fitzroy River was a great place for a swim and to have a picnic.

The track to Cadjeput waterhole was sandy, rocky and potholed – ah yes, the holy trinity of off road action. As such, I stayed glued to the steering wheel and windscreen the whole way. With no reception on our phones, I knew that if we got stuck, bogged or blew more than one tyre, it would be a long walk back to camp. However, with a bit of revving, fancy brake work, and some quick steering-wheel action, we made it to the end of the track in one piece.

In the carpark (such that it was) at the end of the trail, we found a sandy spot to park up and drag our supplies and swimming gear out from the boot of the car. Picking our way down a steep hill, we arrived on the sandy banks of the Fitzroy River. This body of water was quite wide and just deep enough to come halfway up my chest. Although it had a slight icy chill, it was also very refreshing in the hot morning air. We dumped our stuff under a tree and settled in for a few hours of fun and frolics in the shade of an old tree. All up, we spent far longer in this patch of the river than we had intended, but as everyone was having a great time – it just didn’t seem fair to drag the boys back into the car again.

Cadjeput: A lovely place to unwind after an exceptionally bumpy drive!

We did eventually drag ourselves out of Cadjeput waterhole in the early afternoon. We subsequently turned our wheels in the opposite direction from our campsite and headed onwards down the track towards Sir John Gorge. Unfortunately, we’d left it a little too late to make it the whole way – particularly as the going was slow and the road got a lot hairier. Ultimately, I made the decision to call off the pursuit of our goal, even though we had already covered most the track and had battled across rough craggy roads and deep muddy rivers.

What really put the kybosh on the journey was a final stretch of road. Turning the corner we saw a steep incline that was replete with large boulders and properly deep holes. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of this ‘road too far’, as I was preoccupied by looking back and forth between the road and my ‘oh so popable’ factory fitted tyres. In the end, I decided that it just wasn’t worth the risk – especially with the sun about to set in an hour or so, as well as the thought of the aforementioned long hike back to camp if we buggered it up. As such, we turned on our heals (much to the boys’ and Nat’s dismay) and made our way back towards Mornington Wilderness Camp, where we had dinner at our campsite and later a drink at the bar. After a quick night cap (and a cheeky fizzy drink for the boys for being good spots about turning back so close to the end of the track) we returned to our tent to play a few hands of cards in the moonlight before bed. Exhausted from our time at the Fitzroy river, we all slept soundly throughout the night.

Cards after dark!

The next day, we headed back down the track and turned our wheels in the direction of Dimond Gorge (yup, that’ not a spelling mistake, there is now ‘a’ in Dimond Gorge). Fortunately, the road was a little less taxing than our trip to Sir John Gorge and we made it without any major mishaps.

Road into Dimond gorge

Reaching the end of the track, we were treated to a high cliff top walk overlooking a wide expanse of river. Getting to best swimming spots was going to be a little tricky, as they were really only accessible by kayak (renting the paddles for which would have cost us well over a hundred dollars…). So we contented ourselves with exploring the cliffs, rocks and pebbly beaches for a while, before finding a place to plonk ourselves and take a dip.

Dimond gorge: Exploring around the cliffs

The boys had a great time. We had landed ourselves near the mouth of a smaller tributary that fed into the Fitzroy river. The banks were sandy and it was easy to swim directly off from a beachy area. However, the sandy bottom of the tributary also had other surprises for the boys. As the water table was so high as a result of the recent rains in this area, the sand was water logged and had created patches that were very fluid. Running towards the river mouth, the boys took a step onto what they thought would be solid ground, but which turned out to be something akin to quicksand.

Sploosh! Ben sunk up to his thighs and Daniel to his hips in the stud. But (thankfully) hitting a solid bottom, they were able to quickly make a hasty exit back out the way they came. After the initial surprise, they spent hours investigating this phenomena. First, they tried walking slowly towards the sinky sand, to see where it began to get boggy (result: pretty quickly, as if there was a sharp step down). Then, they ran swiftly along the edges, to see if they could run on top of the sand (result: nope… the sand was like liquid). Could they float in the water over it (result: yup, you don’t get sucked down like a magnet). By the end of the afternoon, they had churned up the sand so much with their playful investigations that the particles of sand must have given up trying to stay fluid and had coalesced together into a solid mass once more. After a while, they were able to run over it  without any sinking at all… Curiouser and curiouser!  

For the sake of posterity, it is also probably worth noting that (with no one else around on this stretch of the river) the boys had stripped off their swimming kit and had conducted their investigation completely butt naked! (don’t worry, I’ve pixilated the photos to avoid shock to anyone of a nervous disposition.

Dimond gorge: river mouth

And so, out final day at Mornington soon came to a close. Returning to the campsite we cooked some diner and then wandered up to the restaurant/bar area to attend a presentation by a biologist who gave a talk on the reasons that this wilderness camp was set up. She also spoke about the flora and fauna of the area, as well as some of the conservation projects being conducting at present. It was an interesting talk; but in the end, the boys just wanted to have a game of cards and head to bed. It probably not a bad idea, as we have a few long days coming up!

So, for now, we’ll bid farewell to Mornington – and will pick up again in the next post, as we’re heading to Mt Barnet.

Bye ‘d bye


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