The Gibb River road

Kununurra – Derby 850km 2nd Sept – 22nd Sept

Finally a post! Sorry it’s taken me so long. Right now we are back down south, riding the Munda Bidi MTB trail in southwest Australia. I started writing this post when we arived in Derby but haven’t really had a good chance to finish it until now. I’ll update about our trip down from Broome to Perth soon, but for now our trip across the Gibb…

So, after almost 3 weeks of dusty, bone shaking corrugations we rolled into Derby on lovely smooth bitumen. Never have I appreciated tarmac more! We had an incredible few weeks in an incredible part of the country and although it was tough, it was well and truly worth the blood, sweat and tears! (No blood or tears actually – just lots of sweat)

With so much to write about, I’m going to break this blog down into a couple of sections:

The road:

The Gibb river road was originally a stock route, used for transporting cattle from surrounding stations to the ports of Wyndham and Derby. It is, in large, an unsealed gravel road although this is changing with almost 100km of its 660km length now sealed (the first 30 coming from Kununurra and the last 70 to the Derby junction). I’m sure it will all be sealed in the not so distant future. The road sees a lot of traffic, especially in the high season (Jun – Aug). This traffic causes corrugations which get worse the more it is driven on, although the road is given a few maintenance grades throughout the season – the last of which was August this year.

The condition of the road varied greatly. Overall it was worse on the eastern section, up to Mt Barnett, (the first 350km) where our average speed didn’t rise much above 10kmph. I very rarely used my big chain ring on this section. Here the corrugations were very bad and hard to ride on. You could however often ride on the side of the road where the corrugations are smaller or nonexistent, but sometimes the surface here was soft and sandy. There were some quite big sandy sections, the worst of which went from the Kalumburu junction down to the Hahn River. This, for us, was the hardest section, where we often had to get off the bikes and push through deep sand. After Mt Barnett the road condition improved, with some really good sections and our averages increased to 12-14 (for reference, on tarmac, fully loaded, we usually average around 20 kmph). It was still hard work though and although quicker, the softer corrugations were replaced with large rocky sections that were really hard on our bodies and the bikes.

There were quite a few river crossings on the road, the largest of which being the Pentecost River, which has lots of salt water crocs living in it. Fortunately for us when we arrived at its banks, a couple who had passed us 5 mins before were waiting in their ute and offered us a lift across. The river is tidal and was very shallow at the time but we were still very happy to throw our bikes in the back and jump on the top!

The ride:

Sound hard? Well it was. But then so is riding 150km on a long straight and boring bitumen road. The difference being that the Gibb is far from boring. The scenery from the road changes frequently and is often very lovely, in some places stunning. This is almost enhanced by the fact the road is unsealed – it makes you feel a little closer to the land you are crossing – if and when the Gibb is sealed it will become just another highway – it will be much easier to ride/drive but the adventure will be lost.

We found that as long as we gave ourselves realistic goals for the day, set off as early as possible and rested often that we were fine. On average we rode for 5 hours a day, the same as we would on bitumen, and on average covered around 50km a day. That said our shortest day was 15km and our longest was 110. We found that once you get used to the corrugations, you deal with them the same as you would a head wind or a long climb. When you get a good section of road you really appreciate it!

The heat was probably the biggest challenge of the ride, with temperatures soaring into the late 30’s in the afternoons! Generally we would try and get all our riding done before mid-day and rest up in the afternoon but on longer days this was not possible so we would siesta during the hottest part of the day. We didn’t see a single cloud the whole time we were riding in the Kimberley let alone a drop of rain. When they say dry season they’re not kidding!

I guess the only other major issue worth mentioning when riding the Gibb is the dust that vehicles kick up as they drive past. We didn’t really find this to be much of an issue though. I think this is because we were riding quite late in the season so much less traffic and also we would leave very early, usually 5 ish, and often wouldn’t see a car until around 10. Even so, if a road train came past (we saw one every few days) we found it best just to get off the road!!

Food and water:

Between Kununurra and Derby, there are only 2 places where you can buy food. The first is Mt Barnett roadhouse which has a pretty well stocked store selling all the essentials at ridiculous prices and the second Imintji roadhouse, about 100km after Mt Barnett, which is less well stocked and prices even more ridiculous (can of coke $4, £2.50). To give ourselves more time to ride the road we needed to carry a lot of food so we decided to send ourselves provisions. I called both Ellenbrae and Mt Barnett stations from Kununurra and asked if we could send a box to them that we would collect on the way through and both agreed. This worked very well as it enabled us to carry less and take our time on the road without feeling rushed.

Water was much less of an issue than we had expected it to be. The fact is there is a lot of water in the Kimberley and as long as you carry a water filter then you will find small creeks, rivers and waterholes to take water from. That said, at this time of the year a lot of the creeks were dry, but we still found drinkable water every day. We carried on average 10l per day between us and topped up as we went. We had the capacity to carry 20 but rarely needed to. Also after 10 or 11am we would start seeing 4Wdrives every 10 to 15 mins so had we been stuck we could have asked for water. We were offered water on a number of occasions and always accepted gratefully!

The bikes

600 odd kilometers of very rough roads and not one mechanical – not even a puncture! Not much to say really other than they were great and front suspension helped massively! The BOB was excellent and enabled us to carry more weight without overloading the bikes. My legs felt the extra weight though and if we were to do it again then I would definitely buy Tami a trailer too!!

Camping

The best part of riding the Gibb river road was the places we stayed. The advantage of being on a bike is you can pull up pretty much anywhere you like and pitch your tent and there are an abundance of great spots to do so. We always tried to camp near water, along the side of rivers, creeks or water holes (not too close) and spent our evenings relaxing, watching the beautiful sunsets, listening to the birds and later stargazing at some of the best stars either of us had ever seen!

We also visited quite a few of the gorges along the route all of which were stunning. There are so many gorges to visit in the Kimberley it is mind boggling and the problem with being on a bike is that many of them are too far off the Gibb to reach. We went into the following – El Questro (32km return) – we spent 3 days in here as there is a lot to see, Manning gorge (14km return)– owned by Mt Barnett – you have to swim across a river to access the trail that goes to the gorge which was well worth the walk, Galvans Gorge – close to the road this is a beautiful gorge and although there are ‘no camping’ signs a great spot to camp, Bell Gorge (60km return along a very rough road) although despite the road it was a probably the most stunning gorge we visited.

People on the road

Finally I have to mention the kindness we received from the people we met along the road. Mark, Alison and family who carried some of our heavier gear from El Questro to Home Valley for us and gave us cake and homemade cookies! Steve and family who stopped and gave us water, Wayne and Natalie who took us across the Pentecost and so many others who gave us cold cokes, biscuits and sometimes even a cold beer! It was acts of kindness like this that kept our motivation and spirits high!

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6 Responses to The Gibb River road

  1. Pingback: はじめまして | Freewheelin' South 民恵編

  2. This was so interesting, and the photos really added so much to the story. You were really “out in the boonies” for a long time! (We use that expression in the U.S., but an Aussie once told me that it comes from them.)

    • Will says:

      Hi Nancy, really nice to hear from you! Yes we were out in the sticks and had an awesome time! Amazing part of the world. Hope all’s well in Nanning!love W+T

  3. Sue Turner says:

    Just been looking at your pictures again and reading the blog – probably not the best thing to do on a dank grey day in the UK when the clocks have just changed – but it is really interesting to read how you adapted so quickly to the change in landscape/temperatures and general physical demands made on your bodies, not surprising that you lost so much weight.
    We`re looking forward to seeing the Margaret river blog – and hopefully, you will have put on some of the lost 5kg by the time you write it! suenrod

  4. Mark Booth says:

    Fantastic effort Will and Tami, in such a special part of Australia. You guys are champions and it’s great that all went well mechanically and logistically. Good luck in SW WA and onwards to Tassie! Finally got the chance to checkin on your progress ( have had your note sitting next to the gear stick since Kununurra!). Since we last saw you we have travelled across northern QLD and basked in the Whitsundays headed back to central Australia and endured the heat and marvelled the beauty and we are now near Broken Hill and heading to Brisbane to travel the coast to Sydney for Xmas. Hope Munda Bidi is great and all your other adventures ahead are amazing. Mark and Tash Booth (with Charlotte and Lachie) whom you met at Lake Argyle and again in Kununurra.

    • Will says:

      Hi Mark, Tash, Charlotte and Lachie! It’s great to hear from you! Sorry for the very delayed reply but somehow managed to miss you comment.. Anyhow yes we had a great trip accross the GRR and really glad we did it. Actually you guys were one of the few folks we met who actually said doing it on a bike would be ok! So many people told us we were crazy so thanks for your positive advice! It was good advice!! Have been a bit slack on the blog recently. Will get around to writing about the Munda Biddi pretty soon – that was really awesome too. We just arrived in NZ now and are busy planning the next 6 months. A few more mountains here than the NT but a lot cooler 🙂 Sounds like you guys are really having a trip of a lifetime! I guess you’re in Sydney now. Well Happy Christmas to you all and if we make it back to OZ and ever make it to Wogga Wogga, we’ll give you a shout! Cheers for now, Will and Tami

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