The harsh beauty of the wild and untamed Kimberley… culture, history, nature and so much more!

We had now entered the sparsely populated, remote, and rugged area of the vast Kimberley region of Western Australia (WA).

Rugged, rocky countryside covered with lush grass and framed by ancient mountain ranges continued to follow us, as did the magestic Boab trees. 

It was mid-morning when we crossed the WA border and with Kununurra only 70- kilometres down the road, and the day still young (having now turned our clocks back 1½ hours to WA time), we decided a trip to Lake Argyle was definitely on our agenda – for the third time!

After crossing the border, Lake Argyle is the first stop of the Kimberley’s amazing attractions, and just 7-kilometres along the Victoria Highway we turned off onto Lake Argyle Road.

The Kimberley is renowned for its beauty and magnificent billion year old landscapes and this 35-kilometre drive to the village along a narrow stretch of black tar definitely demanded a certain amount of concentration by the driver.

We were travelling through the spectacular Carr Boyd Ranges, some of most majestic scenery in the region, and the temptation to gaze out the window at the increasingly craggy surroundings was very tempting. The peaks and cliffs bestowed a rugged, dry, barren, and hostile face offering a panorama not to be missed!

As we crossed the bridge over Spillway Creek we were not surprised (given that Australia’s Top End had experienced a really bad wet season with some of the worst rainfalls on record), to see the water level was quite low and there was hardly a flow of water .  

On previous trips a decent volume of water flowed in this river and the free campsites were usually packed with campers… but this trip, the water level was very low and the area void of any holidaymakers!

The cliff faces continued to follow us and as we passed one last towering roadside crag, we finally caught our first glimpse of the blue waters of Lake Argyle, a welcome sight after the arid country of the last few days.

Lake Argyle is Australia’s largest freshwater lake encompassing an area of 2000 square kilometres. By volume it is 18 times the size of Sydney Harbour and was created by damming the Ord River in 1973 to form a storage reservoir for the Ord Irrigation area. It now supplies power to the towns of Kununurra and Wyndam as well as the world’s largest diamond mine, ‘Argyle Diamond Mine’ located off the Great Northern Highway!

At 60-kilometres from top to bottom, this lake has many bays and inlets – and incredibly 70 islands, all home to an abundance of wildlife. It is also home to the world’s largest population of Johnston River Freshwater Crocodiles… approximately 35,000 to be exact!

The heart of this little village (once the camp site for the workers who built the dam), would have to be Lake Argyle Resort and Caravan Park, with one of the most scenic and most photographed pools in Australia.

The amazing ‘Infinity Pool’ is situated on the cliff top providing incredible panoramic views over the Carr Boyd Ranges and Bamboo Cove .

Having only dropped in to see the mighty lake and dam we continued along the sealed road that continues past the village before crossing the dam wall towards the day use picnic area at the base of the dam.

There are picnic tables, amenities and a great view of the Hydro Electric power station here… and watched by the crocs in the river and birds in the trees we enjoyed a cuppa and lunch before driving back over the dam wall.   

After a stroll along the dam wall to grab some more photos and a refreshing dip at the waters edge we said farewell to Lake Argyle and headed out once again along the narrow bitumen strip to the highway.

There’s plenty to do at Lake Argyle and if you’re feeling more energetic, spend a few days and hit the bushwalking or mountain bike trails and enjoy the scenery and tranquillity of this beautiful lake and its surrounds at your own pace.

The lookouts provide amazing views over the lake and surrounds, there are cruises and scenic flights…. and no drive to Lake Argyle is complete without a visit to the Durack Homestead for a short history lesson.  

The first European explorer in the area was one Alexander Forrest whose glowing reports of fertile lands after his 1879 expedition led to three families, the Duracks, Buchanans and Osmonds securing millions of acres to establish their cattle empires.

Patrick Durack and his brother Michael drove almost 8,000 head of cattle 4,800-kilometres from Coopers Creek in Queensland in 1879, through the Top End of Australia, arriving in the Kimberley in 1882 – the longest ever recorded cattle drive. 

Upon arriving in the Kimberley, the brothers soon established Argyle Downs and Ivanhoe Station and the famous pioneering Durack family home at Argyle Downs soon became known far and wide as one of the social gathering places of the East Kimberley.

 ‘King in Grass Castles’ written by Dame Mary Durack (1913–1994) in 1959  is a great read. It protrays the life of her grandfather Patrick Durack and his pioneering family and is significant for its portrayal of the role of women and families in the pastoral industry and the collaboration and respect between the pastoralists and local Aboriginal people of the time. A TV mini-series, based on the book, was made in 1998.

Then in the 1970s, the Lake Argyle dam was built resulting in a huge area of the East Kimberley land that was dear to both the Miriuwung Gajerrong people, and the Durack empire, flooded!

These are the tradition lands of the Miriuwung Gajerrong people and it must have been devastating for these people to see so much of their land engulfed by this inland sea.

Prior to the building of the dam a decision was made to preserve the magnificent Durak Homestead and remove it from its original site to higher ground before the floodwaters completely overtook the valley… thus, the homestead was dismantled stone by stone and moved.

With every stone coded, the homestead was easily rebuilt in its original form in the current location… minus the outbuildings such as kitchen, stables, sheds and servant’s rooms. It was then transformed into a museum where now, set amongst boab and gum trees at the edge of Lake Argyle in the rugged East Kimberley, the 1895 Durack homestead is a reminder of the colonial story of the pioneering Durack family.

After the settlement of the first pioneers the relationship between the Durack family and traditional owners, both good and bad, has been well documented.

This year (2019) saw the 40th anniversary of the relocation of  ‘Argyle Homestead Museum’ and the handing back of a large parcel of land, formerly part of the Durack pastoral empire, to the Traditional owners… it also saw the Durack family recognise the relationship between their family and the Miriwoong people with Aboriginal names being acknowledgment in the Durak family tree… a significant step in reconciliation.

Having visited the Durack family museum a couple of times before, the purpose of our trip today was to check on ‘Patsy’ the local bower bird… and sure enough he was still in residence and busily attending his bower in readiness for his mate.

The incredible masterpiece of construction this bird had created (known as the bower) never ceases to amaze me. Sticks and grasses were all packed to form a curved archway then a pathway had been arranged under the arch and around the surrounds using white pebbles and bits and pieces of brightly coloured (mostly yellow) rubbish such as bottle tops, coins and pieces of glass.

Continuously strutting and chattering around the bower ‘Patsy’ constantly moves bits here and there and continues to rearrange the display to attract a mate. His housework is never done it seems… then, when the female finally arrives, he puts on a highly theatrical display, a seduction technique he is well known for… and it all depends on the quality of the bower and his dancing prowess as to how successful his courting will be.

Less than hour down the road we arrived at Kununurra, the largest town in Western Australia, north of Broome.

Kununurra is, 3,040-kilometres from Perth and 37-kilometres from the Northern Territory border and its name is derived from the word ‘Goonoonorrang’ in the language of the local Miriwoong people, meaning river.

It was first gazetted in 1961 as the centre for the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and although Kununurra is the Kimberley’s youngest town, it certainly has plenty of heritage sites surrounding it, just waiting to be explored.

Being Sunday and mid-afternoon most places were closed when we arrived so we booked into the Discovery Caravan Park, just a bit out of town, set up camp then hopped on our bikes and filled in the remainder of the day exploring the back streets. 

The Discovery Park is a lovely park situated on the banks of the picturesque Ord River. With its green grass, tropical gardens, beautiful birds, flying foxes that flock in their hundreds at dusk, magnificent sunsets, freshwater crocs lazing in the fresh clear water… and very friendly staff, it was just the spot for us to relax and refresh after a few days in the dusty outback.

When you first arrive in Kununurra you may first think it is just another small town, but the more time you spend here, the more there is to explore. This was our third trip through Kununurra and we still hadn’t seen all it had to offer.

The most striking natural features of this town are the towering rocky bluffs and surrounding hills, which can be seen from almost every point in town and a trip to Kelly’s Knob and a walk in the park was definitely on our agenda.

From the lookout at the top we could see far out across some of the township to the craggy hills and mountains beyond. 

‘The Knob’  as it is known to the locals could be seen quite clearly from the caravan park and although we didn’t get to take in a sunset viewing from the top we watched it from our campsite each night as it lit up the horizon with a blaze of colour.

If you have a 4WD and you’re not intending to drive the Gibb River Road, base yourself here in Kununurra and do a few days trips to places like El Questro, Home Valley Station and drive across the Pentecost River for a postcard photo!

Do a cultural tour of the Argyle Diamond Mine, enjoy a scenic flight over the mighty Ord River, Lake Argyle and the Bungle Bungles… and a day trip out to historical Wyndham, is well worth the trip just to visit the spectacular Five Rivers Lookout.

Enjoy the Kununurra markets that are on every Saturday morning, take a walk through Mirima National Park also known as the mini-Bungles… and the Ord Valley is home to the Sandalwood shop and the Hoochery, which is the rum distillery.

Another to add to your list is the Ivanhoe Crossing. Bring your fishing rod for a spot of fishing or tackle the crossing in you 4WD! It’s another great photo opportunity and the scenery is amazing.

After a lovley couple of days in Kununurra we stocked up on some much-needed groceries, fuelled up then hit the road again.

46-kilometres west of Kununurra we turned east at Cockburn Junction onto the Great Northern Highway. Here at Cockburn Junction the road branches with the Great Northern Highway heading north west to the Gibb River Road intersection, the Grotto, the Boab Prison Tree and further on to Wyndam… side trips we made on our last trip!

I love Wyndham having visited twice before. It is about as isolated as you can get and is the most northerly town in Western Australia. It is also one of the hottest places in Australia with an average maximum daily temperature of 36 degrees.

Wyndham is the traditional homeland of the Djeidji, Dulngari and Aruagga tribes who lived on the rich harvest of seafood available in the gulf.

It was named after Major Walter George Wyndham, the younger son, by her first marriage, of Mary Anne Broome wife of the Governor of Western Australia from 1883-1890.

It was first established in 1885 to service the Halls Creek gold fields, the outlying cattle stations and as a port and trading point and by 1886 had become a thriving hub of activity when over 5000 gold miners arrived by ships before making their way overland to Halls Creek, some 400-kilometres to the south.

In this short space of time the town boasted six pubs and land was being surveyed and sold… but sadly the gold mining boom was short lived and by 1888 it was all over.

From then on, the township continued to serve pastoralists who had settled in the area… namely the Duracks who owned the nearby cattle station where Lake Argyle is today.

In 1919 the Wyndham meatworks opened and became the mainstay of Wyndham’s economy until 1985… and since then the town has been shrinking and shrinking and is now home to only a few hundred residents, many of whom are indigenous.

There’s not a lot going on in the town now by way of industry or employment for these people although the port is still used to exports live cattle to Asia and zinc to Korea and there is a crocodile farm that breeds saltwater crocodiles for their meat and skins.

Only 100-kilometres from Kununurra, Wyndham is the perfect place to take a day trip… and there is more than meets the eye in this lovely little town that sits on the edge of the Cambridge Gulf slowly boiling under the oppressive tropical sun and surrounded by salt lakes, desert and mudflats that stretch to the horizon.

Wyndham is divided into two parts – old Wyndham (or Wyndham Port) and Wyndham Three Mile (or Wyndham East).

At the port itself, which was the landing point for thousands of gold prospectors there are still a few old meatworks buildings and a small display of the trains and cranes, which once operated on the wharf.

Visit the historic buildings and sites in the old Port Town where one of my favourite TV shows, Mystery Road, was filmed with Wyndam Hotel a notable prop.

The museum, which is located in the old courthouse building, contains some fascinating memorabilia, journal records and photographic displays of Wyndham since European settlement in the 1880s.

The Five Rivers Lookout is the highest point of the Bastion Range and probably the main attraction to the town. It gives you an incredible birds-eye view over the Cambridge Gulf including the surrounding 5 rivers – Durack, Pentecost, King, Forrest and Ord… and is probably the most unique vistas in Australia with vast mud flats sprawling in every direction.

‘The Big Crocodile’ at the entrance to ‘Wyndham Three Mile’ is hard to miss as you drive in. This 20-metre long croc sitting proudly in the park was designed and built by sculptor Andrew Hickson and the students from the Halls Creek TAFE using steel rods, mesh and concrete…

… and while your clicking away with your camera be sure and stop and say hello to the group of aboriginal women sitting cross legged on the lawn etching boab nuts with a kitchen knife, they are always there. Buy one or two of their beautiful carvings and have a chat to these lovely ladies, they are so welcoming and friendly!

‘Wyndham Three Mile’ is the residential and shopping district of Wyndham and is also home to the ‘Warriu Dreamtime Park’. Here the local Aboriginal people have constructed enormous statues depicting an Aboriginal family with a dingo and kangaroo in what they call ‘east street’. These massive Dreamtime figures are very impressive and well worth a look. In the same street you will also find an open-air cinema ‘Wyndham Gardens Outdoor Cinema’ with comfortable deck chairs, a small screen and a small enclosed projector booth.

Also close to the town entrance is the Afghan Cemetery, with its tombstones facing Mecca – the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’! These are the graves of the camel drivers who provided the first freight service in the Kimberley.

We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the incredible past and enjoying the present of this lonely settlement that sits on the edge of the world… and as we left town with a list of things to ensure a return visit we couldn’t help but hope this little town surrounded by mangrove swamps, mudflats and crocodiles would continue to have a future!

40-kilometres from Wyndham and situated on the King River Road near ‘The Diggers Rest’ is a tree with a history, the ‘Boab Prison Tree’.

This large hollow Boab tree is said to be over 3000 years old and has an enormous girth of nearly 12-metres in circumference.

Once known as the ‘Hillgrove Lockup’ it was used by police in the 1890s as a temporary lockup for Aboriginals awaiting transport to their place of trial and is said to have accommodated up to 30 prisoners at any one time. The words ‘Hillgrove Police Station’ are carved deeply into the soft bark of this magnificent tree… together with the names and initials of many travellers.

While you’re on this road make sure you experience a small part of the region’s Indigenous history and look at the petroglyphs near Moochalabra Dam, the town water supply.

Next down the road is the Grotto, a deep pool at the base of a natural amphitheatre fed by a waterfall. Here the descent was via a very steep flight of 140 rocky steps and not for the faint hearted.

When we visited the Grotto the waterfall wasn’t flowing at all and the green tinged water wasn’t that inviting, although it didn’t stop a group children from a local school swinging from the Tarzan rope across the water, their laughter and the splashing water reverberating around the cavern. 

I should imagine this attraction would be best explored during the wet season when it becomes a spectacular site as water cascades over the 120- metre rocky cliff face.

Kununurra sits at the edge of the infamous Gibb River Road – Australia’s most renowned 4WD track and you can’t come all this way without experiencing at least a bit of the famous ‘Gibb’.

The Gibb River Road is surrounded by the breathtaking Cockburn Ranges and even if you’re not planning to do the whole track, the drive into El Questro Station, Emma Gorge and Home Valley Station is an easy drive along a sealed road.

For those who want to come on an adventure across the Gibb River Road with us, read on from here… https://tassiesnowbirds.com/2018/10/04/come-travel-the-gibb-with-us/

… and for those who want to take the Great Northern Highway come with us as we head out along the longest most remote paved road in the world!

The Great Northern Highway is 3.195 kilometres long and links Western Australia’s capital city Perth with its northernmost port, Wyndham. It’s Western Australia’s most important road and passes through some of the most isolated areas on the Australian continent.

47-kilometres from Kununurra where the road divides we stopped for morning tea at Cockburn Junction rest area – a rather big dust bowl and free overnight camping area.

For the next part of our journey the road wound its way between the hills of the Carr-Boyd and O’Donnell Ranges where more spectacular outback scenery of multi-coloured rock formations surrounded us. Craggy, red escarpments and rocky outcrops could be seen rising above dry spinifex grass and stunted eucalypts and the odd boab still made an appearance.

Every so often we were reminded of the remoteness of this highway and the dangers ahead not knowing what we would encounter over the next hill or around the next bend!

With large, remote unfenced pastoral stations out this way it was not uncommon to encounter wandering livestock…

… and experience had taught us that road trains can appear out of nowhere at frightening speed.

We also passed a steady stream of caravans, motorhomes and Wicked vans. This part of the world seemed to be swarming with grey nomads and backpackers, probably because they had not pre-booked at Broome and similar hot spots and found themselves back on the road again.

Doon Doon Roadhouse was our first stop. Doon Doon is a pretty little spot and a convenient place to stop when heading east or west but as we didn’t need to top up with diesel we had a quick look around and then continued on.

As we left Doon Doon Roadhouse, we crossed another single lane bridge and another dry river crossing typical of the watercourses in this part of the country of late.

The countryside that surrounded us was dry and parched but it was enlightening to see that even with the lack of water there was still evidence of nature’s determination to keep on fighting as burnt out trees showed signs of  re-generating new growth.

Occasionally we passed a defunct windmill, cattle yards or crossed a single lane bridge – some with no ‘give way’ signs on either approach, others with a sign saying ‘no overtaking or passing’.

Further on down the road we passed the Argyle Diamond Mine turnoff.

The Argyle Diamond Mine is one of the world’s largest producers of diamonds and is the largest supplier of natural coloured diamonds – including white, champagne, cognac, blue, violet and the rare and the highly-coveted Argyle pink and red diamonds.   

Soon after we neared the small indigenous township of Turkey Creek, or Warmun as it is called today.

Warmun lies alongside the large ‘Purnululu National Park’, the home of the Bungle Bungles, and is advertised as a tourist booking point for tours and flights over the incredible ranges.

We had camped here once before but today we only stopped to make coffee and a sandwich before continuing.

From Warmun our journey wound through the increasingly mountainous country of the vast cattle stations of the East Kimberley evident only by the constant reminders of white metal signs, the last indicating we were passing through Mabel Downs with Spring Creek our next stop.

With the entrance into the famous ‘Purnululu National Park’ only a few hundred metres from Spring Creek Rest Area we decided to pull up for the night… and it didn’t take long for this popular free camp to be fully occupied.

Spring Creek is a great stopover if you’re travelling this highway, especially if you want a break before making the dusty, corrugated trip into the national park. It is also a great place to unhook your van and drive to the ‘Purnululu National Park’. With lots of vanners doing the same thing they all seemed to feel quite safe leaving their vans here.

It has two distinct areas – an upper sealed section where the amenities are located and a lower section, which is accessed via a dirt track.  

When we arrived the lower section was filled with vans and campers, many obviously anchored for a long stay and by the end of the day we were quite pleased we hadn’t tried to squeeze in along the river bank as the constant stream of late arrivals circumnavigating the dirt roadway in search of a site resulted in a dust haze lasting for some time.

For us it was to be the bitumen surface of the very large but bare upper level where, although lacking in shade, we were lucky enough to set up in the far corner next to the only tree and a covered table… and by late afternoon we had quite a few neighbours! Welcome to our blog Giulia and Markus, our Italian and German backpacker friends!

Next morning, with tyres deflated we set off.

Like everything else in the Kimberley, the ‘Purnululu National Park’ is remote and 4WD drive is essential… and the road in, renowned for being rough and rugged, certainly lived up to its reputation.

We had been to this National Park before but only for a day trip. This time we were planning on spending a couple days to enjoy the sights in detail.

Sometimes visiting places is made special by the people you share them with and so with our new backpacker friends camped next to us at ‘Kurrojong Campground’ we spent a lovely couple of days and nights experiencing the surprises and delights in ‘Purnululu National Park’.

This untamed Kimberley region is Australia’s wildest and while the roads might be rugged and tough and the distances far, this vast, untouched land of the colour, remoteness and incredible landscapes is well worth the trip in…

… so come with us as we explore the iconic orange striped beehives of Bungle Bungle Range in ‘Purnululu National Park’.  

Immerse yourself in the spirit of this ancient landscape and experience the natural beauty of the red escarpments, the hidden caves and the fascinating rock domes up close.

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