Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Gibb

A recapitulation of part of my trip which started August 1, 2012, see previous posts

(August 2012) Riding into Derby from Broome in Australia's north west, the huge signpost for the Gibb River Road to Mt Barnett takes some missing. At that point turn right and you're on it. The surrounding countryside is green considering the time of year and littered with Boab trees swollen at their base conserving water until the wet season. There are only two seasons in the Kimberley, the dry May to October, and the wet November to April. During the wet season this road is virtually impassible as the river crossings are too deep and most of the road is under water, but during the dry season it would seem that every man and his dog wants to drive it.

I had read about the road. I asked a close 'desert roaming' friend of mine about the chances of me traversing the road safely. I even went to the visitors centre in Derby to find out more about it, but nothing prepared me for what lay ahead. I'd imagined this to be an adventure in the Kimberley and that it was.


The Gibb River Road plays an important role in the history of the Kimberley. The road was originally a rough bullock and donkey wagon team track. In under a century it has become a formed 2 lane dirt and gravel road running 660kms through the heart of Australia's great north west. It starts at Derby on the west coast and runs through almost to Wyndham/Kununurra on Western Australia's eastern border. It passes through spectacular landscape of intensely coloured ranges, dramatic gorges, lush rock pools and waterfalls, everything that the Kimberley has become famous for.

The first 80kms or so is a single vehicle width tarmac strip with gravel shoulders above deep sandy gullies cutting straight through the Kimberley bush. It's probably due to the fact that the people coming from the opposite direction have just spent the past 600kms on a dirt road that they are reluctant to give up this piece of tarmac. As a result, the mini bus heading straight towards me just 20kms in refused to budge. I headed onto the gravel shoulder but found it impossible to stay on the sloping surface and careered into the sandy gully and up the other side towards the trees. Luckily the sand slowed my progress and I stopped short of any obstacle. What a wanker, I thought to myself, but there were plenty more of those heading my way.

The Beemer squirmed back through the sandy gully and up onto the tarmac. As I approached the dirt I paused for a while to let some air out of the tyres as I'd been warned of the eagerness of rocks to puncture them. The first thing I noticed about the road surface were the corrugations, if anything was going to loosen my crowns these things were. I'd read that the Gibb River Road is graded three or four times a year in an effort to keep it smooth. Apparently this is not true, even though it only takes a matter of days for the corrugations to start reforming, reports from locals indicate that the road is only smooth once a year, that's at the beginning of the dry season just for a few minutes after the grader been through.

Gibb River Road, a set on Flickr.

My original plan was to spend the first night camping at Mount Hart Wilderness Lodge which is 189kms from the start, and a further 50kms up a side road. The problem with most attractions and places to stay is the distance you need to travel off the Gibb on an equally hostile surface to get there. So I continued along the Gibb in hope that sooner rather than later I would come across a place to camp that's closer to the road. The scenery in parts is absolutely stunning, but very difficult to absorb unless stationary. The changing road conditions were ridiculously hard to predict and master. One minute you're wallowing through bull dust, the next you're bouncing from one rock to another, and it changes endlessly, sand, gravel, stones, rocks and the occasional river crossing. Vehicles coming in the opposite direction seem to believe that speed is the answer to the corrugated surface, and nothing but a broken driveshaft is going to slow them. As a result, whenever an oncoming vehicle passes, you're immediately blinded with dust be it red, white, grey or brown. That dust ends up everywhere, most of it up your nose, down your throat and in your eyes. Did I mention the amount of fun I was having?

There were many times when I believed I was going to part company with the Beemer, but managed to slow just enough to maintain control before it happened. This takes its toll on your arms and legs, and by the time I reached Mt Barnett Roadhouse I was absolutely knackered. I was now 305kms in, almost half way. In the roadhouse I paid my $17 for a campsite and was told by the gentleman that it was just 7kms out the back. I did mention that I'd fill the bike up the following morning, thinking that those 14kms worth of petrol may be needed at a later stage, but he failed to inform me what time they opened. I ploughed my furrow down the sandy track to Manning Gorge camp ground. I admit to feeling a little miserable. It seemed like I was in the middle of nowhere, I was filthy, could hardly swallow because of all the dust I'd eaten and what's more, I'd got it all to do again tomorrow. While I was setting up camp a lovely couple named Angela and Ian came over for a chat and invited me to dine with them that evening. I was pleased that I didn't have to get out my little stove and cook myself. We had drinks with a group of 4WDrivers, needless to say the main topic of conversation was the Gibb. They had all come in from the Wyndham end and gave a good account of what lay ahead of me. I slept terribly and before dawn I was breaking camp in the hope of hitting the road before the dust creators.

While packing the panniers I chatted with Errol from Queensland about the Gibb scene, news from the bush telegraph. By all accounts there were 3 guys on KTMs a couple of days ahead of us, one of which finished the final 100kms or so in the back of an ambulance. There were tales of a couple of mad mountain bikers out there somewhere and news just in... a couple of backpackers had recently snapped a Budget camper van just behind the cab, it was taken from the scene on the back of a low loader. Feeling uneasy I headed back up to the roadhouse to fill up the Beemer only to find that it doesn't open until 8.00am, I was an hour too early! While I waited, I chatted with a guy who spent the night in one of the roadhouse's chalets. He was headed the same way as me and confirmed the previous nights accounts of what lay ahead, 25kms of large rocks left there by the grader and too big to be pounded into the road by 4WDs. He had cut the side wall of a tyre trying to pick his way through the previous day, fitted the spare and headed back to the roadhouse. It had all gotten too much for him and he was heading back the way he'd come.

A long way back I'd wondered whether I should have been riding on knobbly tyres, now it was clear they'd be the better option. Nothing I could do now but get on with it, but would my tyres hold out until the end?