The Kimberley Western Australia is trending as one of Australia’s most popular tourism destinations. Have you ever wondered how this remote & pristine area at the far North Western Tip of our Continent came to be on the tourist map?
Well, look no further. This article summarises the beginnings of tourism in the Kimberley Western Australia. We all know the famous resort/ beach town of Broome, so I will focus here on the East Kimberley and the Gibb River Road, the areas of the Kimberley suited for the more adventurous.
The attraction of the Kimberley Western Australia as a tourism destination was fueled by a number of events. The Ord River Irrigation Area scheme (ORIA) first drew tourists to the East Kimberley in the early 1970s. The irrigation project was set in the area around where Kununurra now lies, and was aimed at fostering agriculture in the region. A first attempt to grow cotton failed and, surprisingly, attracted tourists. A niche market of mainly middle aged Australians visited primarily to witness the failed cotton irrigation areas, but also the damn infrastructure of the ORIA. The building of Kununurra and associated infrastructure as part of the ORIA in the early 1980’s further facilitated tourism activities. Moreover, as more viable crops were found and produced, backpackers started to include Kununurra into their fruit picking working holiday. The Argyle Diamond Mine also became a tourist attraction.
The “discovery” of the Bungle Bungles was one of the main triggers for tourism in the Kimberley
In 1983, the Bungle Bungle sandstone formations were captured by a film crew and shown on a popular Australian TV show, initiating further exposure and growth to tourism in the Kimberley Western Australia. The now famous formations were, until then, only known by locals. Purnululu National Park was established in 1987 and heritage listed in 2003. The park still is one of the main tourist attractions in the Kimberley Region. It invites visitors to hike, explore and photograph an amazing display of what nature has formed over time, and also provides a perfect backdrop for some of the best sunsets (and sunrises, for those who are up early enough) in the Kimberley. After the “discovery” of the Bungle Bungles by the public, tourism marketing efforts shifted to focus on the natural environment of the region, which led to substantial growth of tourist numbers in the area.
The Gibb River Road- From stock route to world renowned off- road destination
As tourism around Kununurra and in the East Kimberley grew, it didn’t take long for tour operators and adventurous, independent travellers to discover the now widely known Gibb River Road and its attractions. Established as a stock route in the 1950’s and 1960’s to transport cattle from the stations to the ports in Broome, Wyndham and Derby, the unsealed road was realigned in the 1970’s and soon became one of Australia’s most renowned 4WD destinations. Up until the early 1980’s, the road was still very rough, limiting access and maintaining remoteness to the area. Upgrades to the road since have allowed more mobility for residents, but also increased access for travelers to the area in the dry season. The Gibb River Road extends for some 650 km between Derby in the West and the Kununurra/ Wyndham turn off in the East. It is the access route to some of the most well-known natural attractions of the Kimberley Region. Since the 1990’s , the increasing number of Australian households acquiring 4WD vehicles has further contributed to the growth of off road destinations like the Gibb River Road. The large majority of visitors to the Kimberley Western Australia are still represented by independent 4WD tourists. Even though the Gibb River Road has seen a number of upgrades and is now maintained by main roads Western Australia, maintenance funds are limited and the road does get very rough at times. It is essential that visitors are well prepared, carry recovery gear, at least two spare wheels, sufficient fuel and water and be supported by mechanical knowledge. You should also drive to your ability and never drive too fast, even if the road appears to be in good condition. The road is dusty and gets quite skatey, with many narrow bends and blind corners. We have seen many roll overs and I think we all agree, that’s not the best way to end a holiday. Speeding also presents a danger to other road users. Always stay left, as you might not see vehicles behind you due to the dusty conditions of the road. A more relaxed option that requires less preparation is of course to join a guided 4WD tour through the Kimberley. If you choose the right tour, this will give you the comfort of knowing that an experienced guide/driver will ensure your safety and will lead you through the region’s best attractions.
For more info on how to choose the right guided tour, read our blog Choosing a guided tour-5 critical aspects. For more info on what makes a good tour guide, read our blog Tour Guides & their importance for a quality Holiday Experience.
Kimberley landholders, including station owners and managers, are the main suppliers of tourism products along the Gibb River Road. Their participation in tourism was originally due to the increasing numbers of visitors coming to the region and expecting certain services. Many of the natural attractions along the Gibb River Road lie on pastoral stations, and, especially in the 1990’s, when the pastoral industry was weak, many station owners profited from the economic benefits of tourism activities. Today, station experiences and station stays are still one of the core experiences when visiting the Kimberley Western Australia. From camping to luxury accommodation, from hiking and exploring on foot to horse riding and helicopter flights, the Kimberley’s cattle stations have developed increasingly enticing and exciting tourism product that should not be missed.
The Kimberley Region has received considerable market exposure for its remoteness and wilderness character. The region is sometimes even referred to as Australia’s “last frontier”. The Kimberley’s natural attractions are what motivates most tourists to visit the area. The regional development between the 1970’s and 1990’s led to rapidly increasing visitation numbers, official figures suggesting that tourist numbers doubled between the start of the 1980’s and 1995, reaching over 100,000 arrivals in 1997 .
The increasing visitation of the Kimberley comes with responsibilities. We need to protect the destination from negative impacts through visitation.
In order to safeguard the natural attractions of the Kimberley, we all need to comply to some “leave no trace” guidelines. As a visitor, you should be self- sufficient and make sure you take all of your rubbish with you when you go camping or exploring. There are several rubbish cages available along the Gibb River Road, however the best practice is “take out what you take in”. Also make sure you minimise your impact on the local environment and wildlife by staying on marked walking trails and roads and not interacting with wildlife. A good way to prepare is by browsing through the website of Leave no Trace Australia. They have also developed a handy Green Guide to Four Wheel Driving available for download here.
If we all make an effort to protect the Kimberley from negative impacts, we can make sure it stays the outstanding, beautiful nature/ outback destination that it is, now and in the future.