Derby and the Start of the Gibb

imageThe morning we left Broome I went to Woolies and bought dehydrated peas, dried apricots, canned fruit salad, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cashews, kilos of pasta, rice, smoked salmon, smoked trout, 32 eggs, 15 litres of long-life milk, dried milk, bags of apples and mandarins, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, baked beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, two tins of salmon, tinned beetroot, a kilo of sultanas, a kilo of dried apricots, a large block of butter, a larger block of cheese, a bottle of olives, four packs of crackers, seven bars of chocolate and more, totalling $403.

It would be three weeks before I went to another grocery store.  In some ways, our entire trip has been a preparation for this: the Gibb River Road. But first, to Derby.

We said goodbye to the Indian Ocean and drove northeast to the next town, 220 kilometres and a world away from Broome.

Derby was 36° C and dusty in the middle of “winter”.  The caravan park was packed and there was no pool and no swimming in the sea because of salt-water crocs.  In the evening, Outback Paddy played for the Gray Nomads in the camp kitchen, which cheered things, but only slightly.

In the centre of town a playground stood empty, surrounded by unlikely grass and a few boab trees where a couple dozen Aboriginals sat in circles in the shade, drinking the last dregs of warm beer and waiting for the liquor store to reopen at noon.  As we drove by I saw a woman stand and with slow determination swing her backpack, squarely hitting a man in the back of his head.  He didn’t respond.

I’m reading Grog War, by Alexis Wright, an unsentimental look at alcohol and racism in Tenant Creek, and the fight elders had to go through to get a dry community.  She points out that most Aboriginals don’t drink, an important observation, especially for us travellers only see the drunks in town.

Wright describes the racist “2 kilometre law”, which forbids consumption of alcohol within two kilometres of a liquor store.  I noticed a sign in the liquor store in Derby, which read, Will not sell alcohol to anyone without transport.  Must show car keys to be served!

I also saw a cop in the parking lot of the liquor store, waiting for it to open so he could buy a bottle.

There was a swimming pool in town, thankfully.  But even the swim coach was harsh, yelling insults at the little swimmers who paddled up and down the pool as fast as they could. K, R, Lee and I jumped in, relieved to cool down.  Then, we were suddenly famished.  Luckily, there was a kebab shop across the street, where I went to buy hot chips.  The take away shop, run by Egyptians, was filled with souvenirs for sale: pyramid paperweights and miniature pharaohs.  It felt a long way from anywhere.

R examines part of a seed from a Boab tree in Derby

In Derby I was reminded of a line I’d heard on Radio National recently, something to the effect of: every program the [majority white] government of Australia has tried to improve life for Aboriginals has failed.

And I was grateful for the positive images that my kids had seen of Aboriginal life in Cape Leveque, where our Baardi tour guide has blended his traditional culture with modern-day living in a way that attempts to educate the (mostly) white travellers and tourists.  I imagine this kind of blending of old and new exists elsewhere on communities I haven’t yet seen.  And I’m fairly sure not every Aboriginal wants to be a tour guide.

The more I learn about indigenous culture in Australia, the more I realise how little I know.

I’ve thought about visiting an Aboriginal community and though I’d like to, I’m reluctant.  I’m reminded of the numerous visitors who come to the deaf pre-school that both my kids attended in order to stare at the “cute little deaf kids signing”.  The director of the pre-school once said, “We start to feel like animals in a cage.”

The only thing more depressing than modern-day Derby is Derby’s darker history.

Prison Tree, Derby

The prison tree is both a remarkable and heart-breaking site.  This boab, estimated to be over 1,000 years old (it’s hard to tell with boabs because they’re hollow and you can’t count the rings) was used as a temporary prison, transporting people to the goal in Derby.  Many of the prisoners were young Aboriginal men who were kidnapped, chained, and taken to Broome to dive for pearls, a form of slavery.

We were glad to see Derby in our rear-view mirror as we headed down the start of the Gibb River Road.

Road shot–On the Gibb

The Start of the Gibb—Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek

The Gibb River Road is known as Australia’s “last frontier”.  Originally built to transport cattle, there are still road trains howling past in the night—mostly they don’t drive in the day because the Gibb is so full of four-wheel drives pulling caravans or camper trailers, like ourselves.

The Gibb is 660 kilometres of mostly unsealed road, with the attractions—mainly gorges—lying off the Gibb on rougher roads.  Some people take three days to drive the Gibb; others take three weeks.  We were grateful to belong to the latter category.  There are so many gorges to scramble downand swimming holes to jump into.  The birdlife is remarkable; the boabs majestic.

The start of the Gibb was lined with bulbous boabs of all shapes and sizes.  The spinifex grass was reminiscent of the landscape of the Pilbara.

Kaitlyn wrote of our first day on the Gibb:

Today we boarded the Gibb River Road.  It was sealed at first, then it got real bumpy.  Halfway down the road I needed to pee, so we stopped.  The ground was all cracked because it was so dry.  When we finally got to Windjana Gorge, the place we were to sleep, we were all sweaty and grouchy.  I brought out my water gun and started spraying everyone.  It was good fun.

Windjana Gorge rose up before us as we drove down a heavily corrugated road off the Gibb. As we come closer, a wall of ancient reef towered above the ground.  This was part of the Devonian reef from 360 million years ago.  It’s hundreds of metres high and two and a half kilometres long and really one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  When we stood next to the ancient reef and looked up, we were standing on what used to be the seabed.  Inside the reef were fossils of pre-historic fish and squid that look quite different from fish and squid today.

Termite mound–made from termite poo!  And the ancient Devonian reef in the background.
Spot the crocs in the water at Windjana Gorge

The campsite at Windjana was crowded—it was school holidays in WA, the NT, Victoria, NSW, France and seemingly everywhere in the world and we were far from the only family camping.  We set up the tent in the heat and then, as K said, got out the water pistols. 

The next day we drove further down that heavily corrugated road to Tunnel Creek, where we brought our torches and water shoes and waded through water in a pitch black cave. We got to a place where the ceiling had collapsed, revealing daylight, and then went further, all the way through the darkness to the other end, where a couple freshwater crocs lay, their eyes just above the water.



Lee, who was carrying a nervous R on his shoulders, walked straight past a croc, shining his torch, looking for those orange eyes.  “Dad, look, it’s there!” K said, and he got a shock.

Glowing eye of a croc in a cave at Tunnel Creek

The campsite at Windjana was dusty.  Every time a car drove past we got a mouthful of dust.  There was dust on the table and dust in our food, dust in the trailer and dust in our lungs and after two nights, even though this was such a spectacular site, we were happy to head further down the mighty Gibb.

Instalments two and three to come . . .

Author: sarahklenbort

I'm a Brisbane-based writer and mother of two children--one deaf and one hearing. I'm also a sessional academic at the University of Queensland, where I teach literature and creative writing. In 2016, my husband and I took the kids out of school and travelled around Australia with a camper trailer, visiting deaf schools along the way. When we found Toowong State School, it was so good, we decided to move to Queensland! We still have the trailer and take off for the bush whenever we can.

One thought on “Derby and the Start of the Gibb”

  1. What a post, this first saga of the Gibb River Road! We’ve been waiting for it, knowing you were Gibbing along, without reception. Very glad to see a photo of the Devonian Reef. Pop and I saw a documentary about that whole section of Northern Australia that was underwater. All greetings from Klosters, Switzerland, where we it’s 6 degrees centigrade at night and gloriously cool for mountain walks during the day. Thanks for the writing, Sarah and Kaitlyn!


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