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 dirt and gravel highway running through the very centre 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 intimately and adorned rock outcrops and caves with their art. Both the Gwion (Bradshaw) and the Wandjina rock art tradition are features of the rock paintings in the region surrounding the Gibb River Road and Mitchell Plateau. Some of the tribes and clans that lived in the Kimberley included; Njikena, Warwa, Worora, Wunambul, Umede, Ngarinjin, Punamba, Walmatjerri, Ongkomi, Djaru, Kwini and Gaambera, Geidja and Mirriuwung. Many Aboriginal people today have returned to their traditional homelands. Many different Aboriginal languages are spoken along the Gibb River Road and the Communities maintain many of their traditional spiritual customs.

The Dutch, Portuguese and English visited the Kimberley coast well before the famous Captain Cook ‘discovery’. The Kimberley coast was, in fact, well known to Indonesian fishermen and even the Chinese for centuries before them. The trading routes that stretched through to China from the Kimberley involved the Sea Slug (Beche-de-mer) or Sea Cucumber which is highly prized in Chinese medicine. Also the Crocus Shellfish are highly prized for decorative jewellery and were traded widely.

After pastoralism commenced in the Kimberley, aboriginals living traditionally out bush were rounded up by the local policeman, lead by aboriginal trackers. They were chained up and walked to Wyndham (and in later years Derby) where they were usually trialed for 'cattle spearing' or 'murder'. Although some may have been guilty, many were not - in the early days payment received per aboriginal sentenced meant many aboriginals sent to serve time as prison workers, were incorrectly accused. This forced removal of the warriors and elders from the tribes, contributed dramatically to the downfall and dessimation of the tribal societies of North West Australia.

As a result many of the aborigines from the North and West Kimberley regions, were brought up in missions along the coast at Kunmunya, Munja, Wotjulum, Kalumburu and Beagle Bay. Others worked the stations as stockmen, or doing household domestic duties. In return the stations normally provided aboriginal stockmen and their families with food, clothing, tobacco and medical care as well as some protection under European laws. Being born and bred in the country, the aboriginals knew the terrain intimately, and were the back bone of the stations. They were taught trade skills and in some instances received education. In the wet season the station aborigines would normally go walk about, live off the land and perform their tribal obligations.

Over a period of time from the 1960's-70's the Australian Government awarded equal wages to Aboriginal Australians. Many of the cattle stations collapsed financially. Over the next few years there was a dramatic exodus of Aboriginal people into Derby, Broome, Wyndham and Kununurra. Due to circumstances beyond their own control the Aboriginal people from all remote regions of Australia were forced to leave the countries of their birth and ancestry and migrate to missions, town camps, fringe dwellings and some stations provided as ration stations by the government. This was a mass exodus of unprecedented proportions, not foreseen by governmental legislators, and has had an enduring effect on the social and economic status of Aboriginal people today.

The closure of many of the missions by the Government also contributed to this exodus. The 1980's - 90's saw the construction of communities along the Gibb River Road such as Imintji, Kupingarri (Mt Barnett Station), Ngallagunda (Gibb River Station), Dodonun (east of Mt Elizabeth Stn.), Prap Prap (west of Doongan Stn.) and Kandiwal Community at Mitchell Plateau to name a few, designed to encourage and facilitate the transfer of people from the large community town centres back to the bushland and their homelands. History for many aboriginals from the kimberleys has been one of working and living on pastoral properties, interspersed with enforced moves and relocation, and homelessness. The establishment of communities has allowed some aboriginals to regain a measure of control over their lives...

Please click here to see the photo album of an aboriginal stockman in the Kimberleys in the 1950's...

Please click here to continue reading about the Aboriginals of the Kimberley region...

The Books Below are recommended for those who require more indepth reading about the Aboriginal Tribes, Culture & History of The Kimberley region. Please click on the image of each book below for more detailed information;

Metamorphosis of a Race - Tribes Of Kulumburu Mission

Customs & Traditions of the Aboriginal Natives North West Australia

The Challenge & The Chance

Early Kimberley Explorers

Forrest memorial Broome

Alexander Forrest 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).Frank Hann’s expedition opened up the Kimberley plateau. Frank HannThe Gibb River Road basically follows Hann’s track through the King Leopolds as far as Mt Elizabeth.

The Brockman expedition of 1901 entered the Kimberley from the Wyndham area - Dr House was the surgeon on that expedition. They located Mt Elizabeth and went north from there. Tom Pentecost was an expedition member on the Brockman project – subsequently the pentecost river. Brockman also named the Durack River and many landmarks along the way. They travelled up to the Drysdale River area (Drysdale was a pastoral speculator who claimed land at the mouth of the river but abandoned the project before any station was set up)

Please Click Here to continue reading about the Early Explorers of the Kimberleys....

The Books Below are recommended for those who require more indepth reading about the Early Exploration and the explorers of the Kimberleys. Please click on the image of each book below for more detailed information;

Do Not Yield To Despair

Kimberley Scenes

Pastoral History of the Kimberley

Donkey Wagon Teamster There were a few early pastorlists who took up cattle leases in the rugged terrain of the Kimberley around the Gibb River Road area, including; Felix Edgar and Bill Chalmers who took up Mt Hart Station in 1914 (the first station over the range)- They battled it out for 20 years before going bankrupt and loosing everything they had worked so hard to achieve. Glenroy Pastoral Company took up a large area of country including the areas currently gazetted as "Mornington", & "Mt House" in the 1920's. In 1927 during the depression years Kidman (the Manager) was forced to abandon these properties and moved all of his lifestock and workers up to Yeeda Station. Fred Russ who was Kidman's head stockman at the time was paid in cows and went into partnership to start up Gibb River Station with 500 breeders. The Blythe family took up Mt House Station and built their homestead on the banks of Adcock Creek a tributary of the Fitzroy River.

Kimberley muster 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.

Please click here to read more on the Air Beef Scheme & Glenroy Meatworks....

The Books Below are recommended for those who require more indepth reading about the Kimberley's Pastoral History, Great cattle Stations, dedicated Pastoralists & stockworkers. Please click on the image of each book below for more detailed information;

Tales of The Overland

The Journal of Brockman's Droving Expedition 1874-75

3 Families Outback In Australia's Tropic North

Construction of the Gibb River Road

The Gibb River Road was known us 'The Mt House Road' up until 1962. It was a rough track that followed a different route to the current Gibb River Road past all of the old stations and ending at Mt House Station. In 1961 millions of dollars were commited to enable the construction of a new, improved road linking Derby and Glenroy Meatworks. 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.

In 1964 the Mt House Road was renamed '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.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...

Please click here to continue reading about the history of the Gibb River Road....

Text supplied by Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge, Sam Lovell and Chris Brown (Browney). Text Copyright: Mt Hart, Chris Brown (Kandiwal Community), Sam Lovell. 'Donkey Teamster' Photo source & copyright: The History of The North West Of Australia, 1915. Aboriginal Photos & Thiess Plane copyright: Mt Hart Wilderness Lodge - Sourced from: Mt Hart's Photo Albums