History of the Kimberley
The Gibb River Road plays an important role in the History of the Kimberley. This road has come a long way since it's origins as a rough bullock & donkey wagon team track - In under a century it has become a formed 2 lane gravel highway running through the very center of Australia's great north west.
Aboriginal History of the Kimberley
The country surrounding the current Gibb River Road was an area rich in food sources and abundant fresh water. This enabled the original inhabitants and their descendants to develop a rich cultural life. They knew the country of their tribe and horde intimately and adorned rock outcrops and caves with their art. Both the Bradshaw and the Wandjina rock art tradition are features of the rock paintings in the region surrounding the Gibb River Road and Mitchell Plateua. Some of the tribes that lived in the country surrounding the present Gibb River Road included; Warwa, Worora, Wunambul, Umede, Ngarinjin & Ongkomi. Many Aboriginal people today have returned to their traditional homelands. Six different Aboriginal languages are spoken along the Gibb River Road and the Communities maintain many of their traditional spiritual customs. Coastal contact with Aboriginal people occurred from the 1830’s onwards.
After the first cattle stations were opened many of the aborigines from the Gibb River area were brought up in missions along the coast at Pantegean. Others worked on the stations as stockmen, or doing house chores. During the early pastoral history of the Kimberley, aboriginal stockmen and their families received food, & clothing, tabacco and medical care as well as protection under European laws for themselves and their families. Being born and bred in the country, they knew the terrain intimately, and were the back bone of the stations.
They were taught trade skills and hygiene and to varying degrees received an education - they were a happy lot, with no alcohol. In the wet season the station aborigines would go walk about, live off the land and perform their numerous tribal obligations. Over a period of time from the 1960's-70's the Australian Government awarded 'equal wages' to aboriginal Australians.
Unfortunately, over the next few years there was a gradual exodus of aborigines into Derby, Broome, Wyndham and Kununnurra as many of the stations collapsed financially - they could not afford to pay the higher wages plus cater for the welfare of the worker's dependents (there was often up to 10 members in a family that needed to be fed,and clothed for one stockmen).
The closure of many of the missions also contributed to this exodus. The 1980's - 90's saw the construction of communities along the Gibb River Road such as Imintji, Gibb River and Mowanjum designed to encourage and facilitate the transfer of people from the large community town centres back to the bushland and their homelands
Early Kimberley Explorers
According to the history of the Kimberley, the first explorers to traverse the Gibb River Road region were Alexander and Matthew Forrest. In 1879 they commenced on an epic journey through the Kimberleys during the wet season, and reported on the vegetation and prospects of mineral wealth in the region. They named the King Leopold Ranges after King Leopold of Belgium who was a patron of exploration, as well as "Mt Matthew", located at Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge. In the history of the Kimberley Frank Hann, gold prospector and explorer, was the first to describe the southern area of the Kimberley plateau. Many of the features of the area bear the names he gave them in 1898. These include Mt Elizabeth, (named after his mother), Bell Creek (after Dr Bell of Derby) and Adcock Creek (after a Derby storekeeper). The Blythe family were early pastoralists who took up Mt House Station and built their homestead on the banks of Adcock Creek a tributary of the Fitzroy River.
Click here for: Detailed History of The Kimberley - The Early Explorers
Pastoral History of the Kimberley
Before the launch of the Beef Roads Scheme in the 1960's the Gibb River Road was a rough track that only extended between Derby and Mt House station. AS a result Mt House, Mt Hart, Glenroy and Gibb River Stations were required to drove their cattle long distances through rugged and extreme terrain. Up until the 1950's mustering was done on the back of mules, the stations provisions were collected from Derby either by bullock or donkey teams & wagons - a trip from Mt Hart to Derby which now takes 3 hours, used to take 3 weeks. After the Second World War the pastoralists,in an effort to overcome these challenges, investigated the slaughter of cattle at the Glenroy Meat Works (located about 100km to the east of Imintji aboriginal community near Derby). This prompted pastoralists to commence chilling their station beef, and flying the frozen carcasses to market, and became a famous event in the history of the Kimberley, known as the "Air Beef Scheme". This scheme eventually proved to be too expensive, increasing the need for a better means of overland transportion.
Thus, in 1961 millions of dollars were commited to enable the construction of a new, improved road linking Derby and Glenroy Station. As a result in 1963 the first load of frozen beef carcasses travelled to Derby by road. Within a short time, the road was extended to Gibb River, putting an end to the Air Beef Scheme. Thus, this road became know as 'The Gibb River Road', so named as it was constructed from Gibb River Station to Derby. According to the History of the Kimberley, Gibb River itself, was named by Charles Crossland (member of Frederick Brockman's North-West Kimberley exploring Expedition) who first came across the river in 1901. He named "Gibb River" after Gibb Maitland (a government geologist) who was a member of the expedition.
History of the Gibb River Road
The northern section of the Gibb River road remained in the hands of the local authority of Wyndham- East Kimberley. The lack of major pastoral leases and funding meant that the northern section was not as well constructed and maintained as the southern section. The Gibb River Road was eventually completed in 1967 - the hardest parts to complete were through the King Leopold Ranges especially 'Inglis Gap' and 'The Bench'.
The roads linking the Gibb River Road to Wyndham and to Kulumburu were completed in 1977. In 1996 Main Roads W.A. took over responsibility for the whole length of the Gibb River road. This has lead to an upgrade in road conditions in the northern section of the Gibb River Road to equal the southern section, as well as progressive upgrading of the access roads linking stations along it's length.