Eye to eye with the crocodiles at Windjana Gorge

When we set out on our 2-week 4-wheel-drive tour of the Gibb River Road, I was a little concerned about all the things that can kill you Down Under — crocodiles, snakes, spiders, etc. I’d recently been stung by a lionfish in Indonesia, which, among other things, has lead Micha calling me “the pothole detector”. So, I had reason to be uneasy about my first visit to Australia, especially since the first stop on our agenda were the crocodiles at Windjana Gorge.

Windjana Gorge — one of the most accessible Kimberley gorges

The Kimberley is a vast savanna located in Western Australia that’s full of gorges, waterfalls and billabongs, which meant we got to see at least one of these amazing lush oases per day. Although many times we visited two or more.

Most of the gorges here are only accessible via the former livestock route and dusty dirt road called the Gibb River Road, which also serves as the northern entry point for Windjana Gorge.

However, you can also approach Windjana from the south from Western Australia’s largest freeway “Highway 1”, which involves a shorter 105 km/65 mi drive on a dirt access road called the Leopold Downs Road (versus a 140 km/87 mi dirt road trek from the turn-off near Derby, a tiny town located on the western end of the Gibb). This makes Windjana Gorge one of the easiest gorges to access in the Kimberley. Some even do it as a day trip.

That being said, nothing is easy in the Kimberley Outback, and the Leopold Downs Road can be as challenging as the Gibb, resulting in speeds as slow as 40 kph /25 mph when it’s really bad.

In this sense, I wouldn’t attempt the Gibb or even Leopold Downs Road without a proper 4-wheel-drive car and good insurance . Also make sure to check with your rental company, as many will not let you take their cars on the Gibb or on other “undeveloped” roads. Conditions can be that serious.

Leopold Downs Road off the Gibb River Road leads to Windjana Gorgen and Tunnel Creek

Four-wheel drive on the Leopold Downs Road

A gap in the rock welcomes you to the ancient lands of Windjana Gorge

After we had set up our trailer-tent at the Windjana Gorge National Park campsite, we were eager to explore, albeit with a strange mix of curiosity and a little fear. After all, we had been told there were a lot of crocodiles at Windjana Gorge.

In order to enter the gorge, we had to walk through a very narrow gap in the wall of the Napier Range. Once on the other side, we found ourselves in a magical, cool oasis that felt worlds away from the harsh dry of the Kimberley Savanna.

I could literally feel my entire mood and perspective change as I stepped in the cool shadows of a sandy riverbank sheltered by native eucalyptus trees. It was already late in the day, and my shady view was contrasted by the sheer rock walls of the gorge glowing white, orange and red and soaring as high as 100 m/330 ft.

As I stood memorized by the intense colors, I was further dazzled by the numerous fossils that had been trapped in the rock walls millions of years ago when much of the Kimberley was at the bottom of an inland sea.

And while I had yet to see any crocodiles at Windjana Gorge, I could understand why they liked to hang out here.

Entrance to Windjana Gorge and its crocodiles

Meeting the crocodiles at Windjana Gorge

Our first encounter with crocodiles at Windjana Gorge was along a short trail that follows the Lennard River (or what was left of it during the dry season) to an enormous sandy beach. What I didn’t know at the time was sandy beaches are rare occurrence on the Gibb.

I was cursing myself for not having brought a towel and a good book, when I suddenly saw Michaela getting all excited. She had spotted some crocs in the giant pool right next to the beach, which I had dismissed as floating driftwood.

And it wasn’t just two or three. There were probably three dozen of what looked like partially sunken “branches” bobbing in the water just a few meters away from us. None of them were moving; they didn’t even look like they were breathing.

I was tempted to retreat, but then remembered that the only crocodiles at Windjana Gorge are freshwater crocodiles, not saltwater crocodiles.

Crocodiles at Windjana Gorge

More than two dozen of freshwater crocodiles are observing every step Micha takes along the river bank

Getting up (too) close with the crocodiles at Windjana Gorge

Freshwater crocodiles reach a size of about 3 m/10 ft, and are the “harmless” cousins of the “deadly” salties, which can reach a length of up to 7 m/23 ft. And while freshies have much smaller mouths, looking at the razor sharp teeth of the one that was slowly approaching the beach made me pretty sure I didn’t want to be bitten (they can get aggressive when aggravated or cornered).

Needless to say I kept my distance. Micha, however, was not as intimidated and got very close to one in order to get a few pictures. I guess her gap year in Australia after high school made her a little immune to danger.

As usual, she ignored my warnings, even though the crocodile kept on slowly coming towards her, something that I interpreted as preparation for attack.

One of the freshwater crocodiles at Windjana Gorge

The freshie that got too close for comfort

Just then, an Australian bloke who was enjoying the gorge with his girlfriend mentioned to Micha that one of these crocodiles lunged at someone earlier that day. Rumor had it that some Aboriginals were fishing and a young croc went for the bait. Hearing this, Micha finally backed off (albeit only a little).

Prior to our visit we had seen pictures of dozens of crocodiles dozing on the beach at Windjana Gorge, but they were clearly not in the mood to get out of the water while we were there. Apparently, they only crawl out onto the sand when the water is cold and they want to warm up in the sun, which is later in the dry season.

These close and personal crocodile sightings, and the descending sun, were enough for us to call it a day. So, we walked back to our camp on a trail through the savanna grass while the last rays of the setting sun ignited the red and orange cliffs of the Napier Range.

Napier Range at Windjana Gorge

The setting sun set the Napier Range “on fire”

Hiking along the riverbank in Windjana Gorge

The next day, we walked the 3.5 km/2.2 mi trail that meanders along Windjana Gorge. It’s a long, but easy and wonderfully shady path that runs along the canyon floor next to the river or right over the dry river bed.

This trail in another thing that makes Windjana unique compared to the other fabulous gorges along the Gibb River Road. At most other places, the canyon walls are too steep, or the landscape too rugged, to allow for much hiking along the water’s edge.

This hike is also a great way to get away from the crowds, as most tourists don’t go farther than the first pool at Bandigan Rock, where most of the crocodiles hang out.

And even though we would have loved to take a refreshing dip in the water to cool off after the hike, we wisely decided to respect the non-swimming policy at Windjana Gorge. There are just too many crocs around.

Windjana Gorge hike

Hiking along the dry Lennard River bed through Windjana Gorge

 

I have to admit, visiting the crocodiles at Windjana Gorge was a bit alarming, especially since they just float there and stare at you. But it was really a great experience, and we later learned that it was by far the best crocodile show we had on the Gibb, as they were pretty much impossible  to spot at the other gorges.

Though I have to admit not seeing crocs at the other gorges and water holes we encountered made it easier to relax and take a dip in the water — with the heat of the equatorial sun blazing down on you these swimming breaks were almost a necessity. That being said, pretty much everyone assured us that when you have water, you most likely have at least one resident croc. I always just hoped these leathery guys got the memo that they’re supposed to be “harmless” to humans.

Have you ever been eye to eye with a crocodile? We wanna hear about it in the comments below!

Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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