Prior to European settlement the area around Derby was inhabited by the Warrwa people for at least 40,000 years. Captain John Read and his crew became the first Europeans to see the region in 1688, sailing down the coast of the Kimberley and around King Sound in the Cygnet. One of the crew was William Dampier who, when he returned to England, wrote A New Voyage Round the World.
It wasn’t until some later, from 1818-1822, that Captain Phillip Parker King became the first European to extensively survey the coasts of Western Australia and Northern Territory, including King Sound (which is named after him). George Grey and John Stokes followed in 1837, exploring the eastern coast of King Sound and naming Stokes Bay and the Fitzroy River to honour a former shipmate Captain R. Fitzroy. Grey also examined land to the north-east, naming the Glenelg River.
In the following years, pastoralists attempted without success to colonise nearby areas, with settlements at Camden Harbour and south of Roebuck Bay failing soon after being established. Only after the explorer Alexander Forrest sent back favourable reports in 1879 did pastoralists enter en masse and begin to successfully settle the region beginning with Yeeda Station in 1880.
That same year a landing port was built at Derby. With massive 11 metre (36 feet) tides, rips and scattered islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago, the port was necessary for the development of the West Kimberley. The following year The Ruby under the command of Captain Pemberton Walcott became the first ship to land cargo here.
The town was officially founded in 1883 to serve the pastoral district. By that time there was eight sheep stations in the area. The town was name for Edward Henry Stanley, 15th earl of Derby, who was then the British secretary of state for the colonies. At first the town consists of a police detachment and Government residence. By 1884 a hotel, jetty and tramway were also being constructed – all firsts for the Kimberley.
In 1885 Charlie Hall discovered gold at Halls Creek and by the next year thousands of miners and prospectors were pouring through Derby’s port on their way to the goldfields leading to a boom in the town’s development. The gold rush was short lived, however, and by the 1890s the port had reverted to exporting live cattle and sheep and pearl shells.
In 1994 renegade tracker Jandamarrra, known as Pigeon, took up arms and led a resistance group of Bunuba men against European encroachment on tribal lands. For three years until his death in 1897 the group’s guerrilla style tactics successfully slowed the expansion of the pastoral industry.
In the 1920s Derby became famous as the terminus of the first scheduled aviation service in Australia, West Australian Airways Ltd. On 5 December 1921, their service began with their first flight. At one time the Perth to Derby service was the longest passenger airline route. A base was also established in Derby in 1955 and is still today the main base for the service in the Kimberley.
The town was revitalised in 1951 when iron ore mining commenced at nearby Cockatoo Island and the Derby meat works opened to export meat along the coast from the port. A new jetty was also built to export live cattle in 1964. Although the port was then later closed between 1980 and 1997, it has since been reopened for the export of lead and zinc concentrates found in the hinterland. Today the pastoral and mining industries and administration and tourism continue to be the main impetus in the town.
The Derby Jetty
The pedestrian only jetty is a popular place to walk along and catch the stunning sunset over King Sound or see the incredible tidal variation of up to 12 metres – the highest tides in Australia! The unusual horseshoe-shaped jetty is found 2km northwest of the townsite at the eastern end of King Sound, an area of water known for its shifting mud banks and swirling tides. Year-round locals and visitors alike visit to fish, hunt for mud crab, bird-spot, and enjoy the scenery.
Old Derby Gaol
The oldest surviving building in Derby, the Gaol dates back to 1906 and is registered as a National and State Heritage site. Located in Loch Street, it was carefully placed halfway between the port and the centre of town and was part of the Police Station and depot for the Police Horse Patrol. Differing to other goals of the time, it is constructed of galvanised iron and bars only rather than stone or brick. The significance of the Goal to the Derby community, including its history and the impact of policing policy on the mainly Aboriginal inmates, is explained at the site.
Derby Pioneer Cemetery
The Derby Pioneer Cemetery dates back to the early pioneering days, the headstones revealing the hardships of those times. Notable graves include that of Constable William Richardson (one of Jandamarra’s victims) and Aboriginal tracker ‘Larry’ Kunamarra who was honoured for his services by Queen Elizabeth II.
Wharfingers House Museum
At the corner of Loch and Elder Streets is the former residence of Derby’s Wharfinger, or wharf manager, now a fascinating museum open on request. A range of displays include exhibitions on the communications, early aviation, and shipping histories of the town, along with small displays on fossil mud lobsters and termites. The building itself, constructed in 1928, is a fine example of the prefabricated wooden housing style of that time well adapted for living in a tropical climate. Wide verandas provide shade and ventilation to the three central rooms which now house the museum.
Prison Boab Tree
Seven kilometres south of Derby on the Broome Highway is the Boab Prison Tree believed to be 1,500 years old. With a girth of 14.7 metres, a hollow centre, and entrance which is about one metre wide and two metres high, it was used as the last stopover point for prisoners being walked into the gaol at Derby in the early days. Today it is a registered Aboriginal site, culturally significant for the local Nyikina people.
Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre
Mowanjum Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre is a creative hub for the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal tribes, who make up the Mowanjum community outside Derby, Western Australia. These three language groups are united by their belief in the Wandjina as a sacred spiritual force and the creators of the land. They are the custodians of Wandjina law and iconography. In the gallery space, visitors can view exhibitions and purchase artworks from the artists of these tribes. Workshops and community projects also take place at the centre, as well as the annual Mowanjum Festival, one of Australia’s longest running Indigenous cultural festivals.
Pigeon Heritage Trail
The self-guided Pigeon Heritage Trail explores the places connected to the intriguing story of the legendary Jandamarra (Pigeon). It comprises two drives, each with opportunities for walking. The first passes included places around Derby and the other explores the area between Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, two hours’ drive from Derby. A full day is needed to explore both drives on this trail.
One of the most intriguing natural phenomena in the Kimberley is the Horizontal Falls, a fast-moving gush of tides through two narrow gorges of the McLary range in the Buccaneer Archipelago, north of Derby. At the turn of tides, which often vary up to 11 m, water rushes between the two gaps at an astonishing 30 knots resulting in ‘waterfalls’ turned on their side. With the direction of the tide flow reversible, the water flows two different ways each day. Tour operators can advise on the best time to view the falls and get the full impact of the rushing water. Although not accessible by vehicle, you can view the Horizontal falls from the air with a scenic seaplane flight from Derby all year round.
Formed by the Lennard River winding its way through the Napier Range is Windjana Gorge, 3.5 km long with 300-metre-high walls. At the base of the gorge, isolated pools in the dry season support an abundance of wildlife including freshwater crocodiles, water birds, corellas, and a colony of fruit bats. Primeval life forms, meanwhile, are fossilised within the gorge walls. Holding special significance to the local Bunuba Aboriginal people, signs at the site indicate that they have been in the area for up to 60,000 years, from a time where megafauna roamed through the gorge.
Tunnel Creek, in Western Australia’s oldest cave system, flows through a water torn tunnel beneath the limestone of the Napier Range. It is part of the 350–375-million-year-old Devonian Reef, formed when most of the Kimberley was covered by the sea and gradually exposed as the sea level fell to its present level. Here you can walk 750 metres into the tunnel, wading through freshwater pools, into a subterranean world of baths and freshwater crocodiles. The caves are also famous for being the hide-out of Jandamarra (Pigeon).
Tour of Derby
Odyssey Traveller visits Derby as part of our Tour of Australia’s Kimberley. Odyssey Traveller’s outback small group package tours are designed especially for mature and senior travellers who want an authentic experience of the fascinating Kimberley region with a tour guide.
Our Tour of Australia’s Kimberley begins and ends in the city of Broome, home to iconic Cable Beach, dinosaur remains at Gantheaume Point, a world-famous bird sanctuary at Roebuck Bay, and a fascinating history as a centre of pearling. From Broome, we head along the pristine Indian Ocean Kimberley coast to Derby and then turn along the Gibb River Road, making side trips to Windjana Gorge National Park and Tunnel Creek National Park, beautiful Bell Gorge (particularly verdant in the wet), and the easily accessible Galvans Gorge. We head onto the Mitchell Plateau – for many the last frontier of the Australian outback – to admire ancient Aboriginal rock art and the vast Mitchell Falls.
Back on the Gibb River trail, we spend the night at El Questro, near the Northern Territory border, a wilderness park based around Emma Gorge, Chamberlain Gorge, and the Pentecost River. El Questro offers a range of accommodation, from tented cabins to luxury suites in the old El Questro station. Leaving the North Kimberley, we pass Kununurra and Lake Argyle by and make a day tour to Purnululu National Park, where we see the Bungle Bungle range, Piccanniny Creek lookout, Echidna Chasm and Cathedral Gorge. Finally we return to Broome and the West Kimberley, passing through the historic towns of Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.
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External articles to assist you on your visit to the Kimberley: