Driving in Western Australia: self drive & 4WD tours

Western Australia's spectacular scenery is perfect for driving, none more so than the classic Gibb River Road. If you prefer someone else to take the wheel, why not try a four-wheel drive tour? Read more on both options below...

Hit the road in Australia's Golden Outback

Australia's Golden Outback is the ultimate road trip destination. Driving becomes an activity in itself rather than a means to an end and the legendary drives include the Eyre Highway which crosses the awesome Nullarbor Plain - a mesmerising outback landscape which crosses Western Australia and South Australia. The Golden Discovery Quest trail takes in the history and wildlife of the goldfields, from bustling Kalgoorlie to ghost towns and the eerie Lake Ballard where statues rise up from the salt lake. Wildflowers, emus and wedge-tailed eagles are common sights along the road and if you drive down to Esperance on the coast you'll even see kangaroos sunbathing on the white sands.

While many hire their own car to explore the outback, you can also join a 4WD tour so you can let someone else concentrate on the road while you take in the stunning scenery.

Four-wheel drive tours at Monkey Mia

Shark Bay is one of only 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites that has earned its status on the basis of fulfilling all four criteria for inclusion when only one is required. These are exceptional natural beauty; examples of significant stages in Earth's history; evolving ecosystems; and threatened species.

Examples of all of these can seen on a 4WD tour (max six guests) with MM Wildsights which specialises in off-road tours visiting world famous sites such as the stromatolites of Hamelin Bay and Shell Beach, a stretch of coastline fringed by turquoise waters and made entirely of tiny, bleached white, shells.

4WD tours at Monkey Mia, Shark Bay. Photo by Richard Madden In François Peron National Park, occupying the northern half of the Shark Bay, Outback Australia meets the coast and is accessible only by four-wheel drive. Venturing into the bush, down wild tracks, over rolling red sand dunes, through dense acacia shrub-lands, and along magnificent bluffs and deserted beaches, you will learn about the area's rich cultural history and see some incredible sights in the company of the area's most knowledgeable guides.

Read more about sailing and marine life at Monkey Mia.

The Gibb River Road - 4WD self drive or tour

The Gibb River Road is an old drover's track which snakes across the heart of the Kimberley passing though some of the most spectacular scenery on the Australian continent. Early pastoralists in the 1860s creaked along the Gibb in bullock and donkey wagons, driving their cattle to the newly discovered rich grazing lands.

Today the Gibb River Road connects vast isolated cattle stations, some larger than Belgium, and their livestock are shipped out to the coast in huge road trains. It is unsurfaced and although graded for most of its 750 kilometres driving the Gibb is both an adventure and a wonderful way to see the hidden gems of this remote and beautiful part of the Kimberley.

There are campsites and more luxurious accommodation on the Gibb, mostly at the cattle stations which take in guests to supplement their incomes during the dry season. The famers are friendly people who will be glad to give their visitors an insight into a resilient way of life which has not changed a great deal since the 1900s.

There are a variety of ways to travel the Gibb. Tour groups in 4WD buses regularly travel its entire length, usually staying in campsites at the cattle stations or national parks. But the best way without doubt is to hire a 4WD self drive and to travel at you own pace.
Checking the map on the Gibb River Road. Photo by Nick Haslam
The Gibb River Road connects Derby in the west to Kununarra in the east. There are two schools of thought on the best way to do the journey - travelling east west you have the advantage of ending up in Derby and Broome on the coast plus the mountain ranges towards the end of the drive this way are more spectacular.

But travelling west east the Gibb finishes close to Kununarra and the spectacular Bungle Bungle range of the Purnululu National Park.

There are plenty of places to stay on the Gibb River Road but remember it runs through private land which belongs to someone. So wild camping is not recommended but there are plenty of camp sites, and most cattle stations now offer B&B or full board options which range from the basic to top end resort style comfort - El Questro station not far from Kununarra is one of the most luxurious hotels in Western Australia.

Gibb River highlights (travelling from east to west):

  • The Pentecost river crossing - made famous by Baz Luhrman's film Australia - this is the widest ford on the Gibb and early in the dry season can be difficult. Check on water levels and don't be tempted to wade across for big saltwater crocodiles are never far away on this tidal river.

  • The Aboriginal settlement of Kalumburu is 250 kms from Kununarra. A permit will be necessary to visit the community and plenty of time to make the detour - at least two days is recommended. Note that this is isolated country and the road can be very demanding - the last section is rarely graded - so many hire car companies will not provide insurance cover here. It takes six hours minimum to drive to either the Mitchell Plateau and Falls or Kalumbuuru from the Gibb but is well the effort. These are some of the most beautiful areas of the Kimberley and the least visited. The coast at Kalumburu is popular with fishermen and there are some excellent beaches and camp sites.
    Cattle muster, Home Valley Station on the Gibb River Road. Photo by Nick Haslam
  • Barnett River Gorges. On a 4 kilometre bumpy track from the Gibb, with good swimming holes and trails around the gorge.

  • Manning Gorge. There is a campground here accessible from Mt Barnett Roadhouse (fuel and food are available here) where you have to pay an entrance fee to the gorge. The campsite is 7 kilometres from the roadhouse, and has basic facilities. The gorge is two kilometres on foot further on and there are plenty of pools which will have water throughout the dry season.

  • Galvans Gorge. Close enough to the Gibb so that you can walk in. The falls are flowing for the early part of the dry season and the swimming holes have plenty of water most of the year.

  • Adcock Gorge. A lovely small gorge about 6 km off the Gibb on a rough track.

  • Imintji Store. Food and fuel are available here in the community store run by the Imintji Indigenous people. Next door the Over the Range Tyre and Mechanical Repairs garage will fix punctures, supply new tyres and fix the motor - spares permitting.

  • Bell Gorge. A beautiful and very popular gorge 30 km off the Gibb with a big water fall and good swimming in a variety of pools with plenty of flat ledges for sunbathing. There are two campsites - one 20 km from the turn off and the other which has limited spaces close to the gorge.

  • Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek National Parks are 50 kms south of the Gibb. Well worth taking the detour to visit these extraordinary formations carved from ancient sea beds over the millennia by the raging torrents of the wet season. No swimming is allowed in the Windjana gorge - which is crowded with large fresh water crocodiles.

    Read about outback adventures & accommodation on the Gibb River Road and a suggested itinerary.

    Mick Tippo
    Mick Tippo, Aboriginal musician at Home Valley Station
    "We're trying to keep it so everyone can sit back and relax and enjoy the country just like we've been doing for the past thirty thousand years"

    Dawn at Mt Elizabeth Station on the Gibb River Road. Photo by Nick Haslam Be prepared and above all do not to rush along the Gibb River Road - spending less than a week driving through means that there will just not be enough time to wander through and swim in some of the most beautiful gorges and waterfalls that the Kimberley has to offer.

    If you have the time take it easy and really get a feel for this wonderful last great wilderness area - there are few left in the world today.

    Read more about activities in Western Australia
  • Responsible Travel would like to thank the Western Australia tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
    Western Australia self drive holiday

    Western Australia self drive holiday

    Tailor-made itinerary to Australia's Coral Coast

    From 3830 16 Days inc UK flights
    Perth to Adelaide tour, Australia

    Perth to Adelaide tour, Australia

    The ultimate swag camping adventure across the Nullarbor

    From AU $1595 9 Days ex flights
    Southwest Australia tour, coast, forests & wineries

    Southwest Australia tour, coast, forests & wineries

    An sustainable travel itinerary to Southwest Australia

    From 3295 14 Days inc UK flights
    Adelaide to Perth tour, Australia

    Adelaide to Perth tour, Australia

    Australia's ultimate road trip with incredible wildlife

    From AU $1695 10 Days ex flights
    Western Australia tour, 6 days

    Western Australia tour, 6 days

    Explore the beauty of Esperance and the South West of W.A.

    From AU $940 6 Days ex flights
    Western Australia wildlife holiday

    Western Australia wildlife holiday

    Explore Western Australia's deserts, forests and coral reefs

    From 6995 20 Days ex flights
    Cape to Cape self guided walking holiday in Western Australia

    Cape to Cape self guided walking holiday in Western Australia

    Spectacular coastline with rocky coves & idyllic bays in W A

    From AU $2875 9 Days ex flights
    Bibbulmun Track guided group walk, Australia

    Bibbulmun Track guided group walk, Australia

    Most scenic sections between Walpole & Albany

    From AU $3985 9 Days ex flights
    Photo credits: [Page banner: Janelle Lugge]
    Convert currencies