The saviour of the Gibb River Road

For more than 20 years, one man has helped make the remote drive down the iconic Gibb River Road in Western Australia’s Kimberley region not just possible, but also highly memorable for thousands of travellers.

WORDS AND PICTURES Farrin Foster

The Gibb River Road is one of Australia’s most famous, and arguably infamous, remote journeys. Stretching for almost 660km, this former cattle route-turned-gravel-road links the Western Australian towns of Kununurra and Derby. At the eastern end lies Lake Argyle, one of Australia’s biggest lakes, and El Questro Station, lauded for its luxury accommodation and astounding gorges. Near the western end travellers encounter Horizontal Falls, a tidal phenomenon heralded by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the greatest wonders of the natural world”.

These destinations, all of which are ensconced in the Kimberley region, attract hundreds of thousands of travellers each year. But those who choose to journey between them on the Gibb River Road experience a side of the Kimberley that would otherwise remain hidden.

The drive down the Gibb shows the Kimberley at its most pristine. Enormous rocky ranges interspersed with spinifex plains form the perfect backdrop for 360-degree sunsets and sunrises, while permanent spring-fed swimming holes provide surprising havens of life and cool amid the arid landscape.

“This place is just so spiritual and it’s still untouched,”says mechanic Neville Hernon, who lives and works on the Gibb River Road.

The drive, though, is not easy. The road surface contains slate and sharpened rocks, and is notorious for shredding tyres. Its relentless corrugations cause axles on cars, campervans and caravans to snap every year, and the river crossings can flow fast and heavy.

It is only passable for inexperienced outback drivers in the cooler dry season between May and October. In the wet, even locals who are accustomed to navigating its flooded, slippery surface sometimes find themselves stranded for weeks, while thunderstorms rage and temperatures soar to nearly 40°C.

With little to no phone reception, the Gibb River Road could feel a touch inhospitable. But locals like Neville Hernon are dedicated to making sure travellers have the opportunity to get the most from this rugged and unique Australian experience.

Nev’s place, Over the Range Tyre and Mechanical Repairs, sits almost at the halfway point of the Gibb River Road. During 20 years of business, Nev has driven out to those in trouble or welcomed them into his small workshop at all times of the day and night.

Repairing or replacing tyres, re-attaching parts that have rattled off, and performing minor mechanical miracles – often using makeshift parts or Macgyver-like solutions in place of ordering in something that could take weeks to arrive – he has helped thou-sands of travellers to get safely back on the road.

“I get all kinds of things – bent chassis, cracked chassis on $100,000 caravans, blown out shockies, people hitting dips too hard and the bullbar is falling off.”
The saviour of the Gibb River Road - Journey Beyond
The saviour of the Gibb River Road - Journey Beyond
The saviour of the Gibb River Road - Journey Beyond
The saviour of the Gibb River Road - Journey Beyond

While the practical solutions Nev provides are invaluable, he brings more than mechanical skill to this out of the way pocket of Australia. In this unpopulated desert area, the appearance of his smiling face and kind demeanour can feel like a mirage – a ray of hope appearing unexpectedly on the horizon.

“I have seen grown men cry here. They’re in that much despair,” says Nev. “That’s part of what we’re doing here too. I’ve put in an emergency campground, I just see this as a duty of care thing. I have people who rock up here that I can’t send back out on the road, so we help them out.”

Nev turns many bad days good. A Belgian family in a hire car arrives looking pensive with three blown tyres strapped to the roof, and leave giggling among themselves with every tyre fully repaired. A young couple watch on as their broken roof rack bracket is magically restored with little more than some cleverly twisted wire. Before they leave, they shyly tell Nev that he’s the first to find out about their engagement, which is fresh from the night before.

Nev sees sharing a local’s hospitality and insight with travellers as an essential part of his service. Sitting at his workshop is a photo book of the Gibb River Road’s sights during the wet season, photographed by Nev and printed solely so visitors can see how the country he loves transforms each year.

This kind of passion for the land often comes with a lifetime spent living on it, but for Nev the Kimberley is an adopted home – one that called to him strongly as an adult.

“I love the bush, I love four-wheel driving, I love camping, I love fishing. It was depressing me, living in Perth – I had a yearning for the bush,” he says. “I left to travel around Australia at the age of 24. When I went north… I pulled into Mount House and got offered a job as a station mechanic and stayed for four years.

“It was time to leave there, but I didn’t want to leave this part of the Kimberley…so I started a business.” Since that serendipitous decision, Nev has met Leonie – his partner – and they have started a family, welcoming daughter Mira into the world more than four years ago. Living in this beautiful but tempestuous and remote part of Australia has its challenges for a young family, especially when life is conducted entirely off-grid.

“Mira was a December baby. Leonie gave birth during the wet season up in Broome. It was quite exciting – lots of family, lots of friends, all the rest of it,” says Nev. “I think Mira was six weeks old when we first came home…we had a lightning strike that night.

“Leonie and Mira were in the caravan at the time, so they were safe. But obviously everyone was scared and we were completely cut off – we had no phone, no internet, no TV, no solar power.”

Nev says these incidents – and things like the 300km drive to the nearest supermarket – are insignificant. Their relationship with the land grew particularly strong after Nev formed close bonds with many Ngarinyin people while working in the nearby Imintji Aboriginal Community.

“I learnt lots from them,” he says. “They really got down to their spiritual connections and I got to witness it and it was exhilarating – it was fantastic. “I think the longer you live in the bush, the more connected you get, and I feel that. I sense the spirit of the place changes in weather and situations. And I see the potential for all of us here – I see how Mira is when she’s in the city and then when she comes back here she loves it. She notices the birds, she notices wildlife, she’s in touch already at four years old. It’s really nice to see.”

Because of the weather, the Gibb River Road functions as an adventurous traveller’s dream for just three months out of every year. During this time, it offers a chance to experience the wondrous connection of which Nev speaks by exploring a desert landscape, watching comets and shooting stars whirl through an endless night sky, and swimming in crystal clear gorges. It is rare to be so completely immersed in a world of untouched natural wonder. But year-round this place is more than a travel destination – it is home to locals like Nev, Leonie and Mira. And it’s their generosity and knowledge that allows the rest of us to complete this special but challenging journey unscathed.

Over the Range Tyre and Mechanical Repairs is located 280km from Derby on the Gibb River Road and can be contacted on (08) 9191 7887 or UHF channel 40.

Travellers in the Kimberley can experience the Horizontal Falls and other world-class destinations with Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures – horizontalfallsadventures.com.au