HAVING just driven along the Gibb River Road in the far north of Western Australia it’s easy to see why the destination is frequently voted as one of the country’s ultimate drive destinations.
The 660km former cattle route that stretches between the towns of Derby and Wyndham beat a range of other global road-trip destinations when The Guardian in Britain named it as one of the five best road trips in the world.
“It’s where people can experience what many regard as the real Australia,” says the head of Australia’s North West Tourism, Glen Chidlow.
“Australian and international visitors alike just love it.”
I certainly did.
On our first day on the Gibb with my partner and two kids we point our new five-seat Safari Landcruiser from Britz car rentals towards El Questro, a place that has been on my bucket list for years.
We have driven from Broome on the Great Northern Highway, passing through Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek and the remote Aboriginal community of Warmun, and entered the Gibb at the eastern end.
We travel with a spare tyre, a snatch strap (to pull a vehicle out of a bog), a GPS enabled tablet, a first aid kit, emergency distress beacon, a 20-litre water tank and 130 litres of fuel.
We will mostly camp along the way as our car has a rooftop tent with room for two and an annex that can sleep three down below.
“Does it have a TV?” my four-year- old asks.
“No,” I reply before she switches her attention to the sleeping arrangements.
“I’ll sleep up top with you and Tallula can sleep down the bottom with Dad.”
Oh no, I think to myself.
On my right the towering Cockburn Range looms outside the window. On the left bulging boab trees dot the suntanned landscape.
This roadside scenery, in my opinion, is better than the Great Ocean Road, which is so often named as Australia’s number one self-drive holiday destination.
Soon I spot the sign for El Questro.
Is that me squealing with excitement? A second squeal confirms it.
If I were a puppy I’d be running in circles I’m that excited to be heading towards the vast cattle station turned resort that incorporates Zebedee thermal springs and Amelia and El Questro Gorges.
And then the windscreen cracks.
Not an hour into our Gibb adventure and a road train, which was going so fast it wouldn’t be out of place on Germany’s unrestricted autobahn, has thrown up a stone.
I dive head first into the glove box looking for the hire car contract.
Eureka. Our insurance will cover the windscreen.
Smiling, we trundle on.
After a brief stop in the dizzying heat to gaffer tape up the increasing crack in the windscreen, we arrive at a river crossing.
“Are there crocodiles in there?” my six-year- old asks as I wade through the water to take some photos.
“I didn’t think of that,” I yell as I run towards the car.
It’s just after 5pm when we arrive at El Questro, with the big 4WD throwing up a plume of dust that sticks with us like a giant squirrel’s tail all the way to the car park.
Bigger than the United Kingdom, El Questro (a made-up name) is well known for its super-duper Homestead, a polished retreat set atop Chamberlain Gorge where folks go to soak up the rugged Kimberley with gourmet picnic lunches packed by the chef.
Well, I’m not staying there.
I’ll be 9km down the dirt track at the hub of El Questro, called The Station, where you can erect your own tent, plug in your caravan, try some glamping, stay in a family-friendly bungalow and either cook for yourself or dine at the up-market steakhouse or outdoor bar.
Where else in Australia can you stay for $20 a night and enjoy the same jaw-dropping Landscapes as those paying $1500?
Our itinerary for the next two days includes a trip on a large boat to explore the Chamberlain Gorge and to spot saltwater crocodiles, taking the kids on their first horse ride, a history and nature tour and watching the sun rise and set over the immense savannah.
There are plenty more tours that we could do if we had deeper pockets, such as taking a chopper to a remote location to fish for barramundi, mangrove jack or threadfin salmon.
That night at the outdoor bar we buy a bag of marshmallows and roast them on the huge open fire as our kids make friends with other little people whose parents have congregated to listen to country musician Chris Matthews.
The next day we are up early for the history and nature tour with guide Vinnie, where we bump around in a safari vehicle that wouldn’t be out of place in Africa.
We learn about the characters that lived at the original cattle station and the property’s journey to acclaimed wilderness park, as well as the uses for kapok seeds (good for stuffing pillows), scarlet gum (good for making didgeridoos) and spiral pandanus (perfect if you want to weave a basket).
But there’s no time for weaving, this is a driving holiday after all, and before we can ask Vinnie how stinkwood got its name we have packed up and set off for our next destination.
Emma Gorge Resort, some 25km away yet still part of El Questro, sits hard up against the Cockburn Ranges.
Its tented cabins deliver a glamping experience, garnished with creature comforts such as a swimming pool, restaurant and lush gardens.
The next morning before the birds have a chance to wake us up, we are up and ready for the one-hour walk to the Emma Gorge waterfall, often referred to as the best known, most spectacular gorge in the Kimberley.
Not 20 minutes into the walk and our two children stop and plonk down like baby boab trees.
“We never give up,” I tell them, channelling personal trainer Michelle Bridges.
After five minutes of carrying one of them I give up.
Back at the restaurant over delicious eggs benedict I ask the waitress what she thinks of Emma Gorge.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world,” she says.
I’ll just have to take her word for it.
After a swim in the pool we load our bags into the car and set off again, moving towards our next stop — camping at Manning Gorge on Mount Barnett Station.
A wispy cloud in the shape of a baby’s first curl drifts across the intense blue sky and the Cockburn Ranges are gleaming orange in the noon sun.
As we bump down the road, the cutlery rattling in the back like a child is playing the xylophone, I start to fall in love with this wild chunk of Western Australia.
With its gin-clear gorges and waterfalls, rugged ranges, vast cattle stations and many examples of Aboriginal rock art, I can see why travellers become infatuated with this place.
Not even its saltwater crocodiles, the Kimberley death adder, extreme humidity or kilometre after kilometre of stomach-churning road can put me off what I believe is Australia’s ultimate drive holiday.
Touring there:Britz car rentals in Broome has new Safari Landcruisers — a 5 berth 4WD campers that sleep five adults.
Staying there:El Questro has a range of accommodation including the luxurious Homestead (from $1970 includes meals, beverages, guided tours), bungalows (from $329), tents ($164) and camping ($20). Emma Gorge has tented cabins (from $298).
The writer travelled with some assistance from Britz and El Questro.
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