The red rock magic of our Kimberley region remains one of the world's most striking natural landscapes. As far as flying destinations go, it's more accessible than you think.
Western Australia's Kimberley in the far north-west of the country is gorgeous all year round, but it is a particularly beautiful (and less soggy) destination in winter. There's at least a week's worth of individual spots to try up here, so we're giving you a couple of months to plan for it. You're not going to need that, but if you're anything like the rest of us, you'll procrastinate like mad before committing to the trip; then it'll take you another month to convince the two bosses (commercial and domestic) that it's an inspired idea. And don't even start me on how you reckon you won't be able to afford it. News flash - none of us can, but good times call for sacrifice; start the Kimberley budget plan today.
As a starting point, we'll base you in Kununurra and set you loose to roam around Baz Luhrmann's chosen paradise at your will. It's not massive distances we're covering in this part of Australia so you can fly it all in a day if you choose, although I think you'll want to at least put your head down in one or two of these places. Up in this part of the world, the neighbourhood boasts some celebrated addresses: El Questro Station, Emma Gorge, Home Valley Station, the Bungle Bungles, Lake Argyle; and you can look forward to some knockout landscapes like the Prince Regent Gorge, Buccaneer Archipelago and Horizontal Waterfalls.
Kununurra - gateway to the action
The big sealed strip of Kununurra Airport, gateway to the Kimberley, will greet you through your windscreen amidst a jigsaw of fertile paddocks; leaving behind the red dirt of the previous days' flying across arid Australian miles.
Here, the spoils created by the massive Ord River Irrigation System are laid out in front of you; sugar cane fields bleed into hundreds more miles of lush melon, banana and mango plantations, crops of maize, chickpeas and sorghum - all fired up by access to a body of water nine times the size of Sydney Harbour. That's about what Lake Argyle holds, since the dam was built and 75,000 hectares of land was made available for irrigation.
Kununurra is located 825km from Darwin, 358km from Halls Creek and 1044km from Broome - so it's close to nothing really. Like every other worthwhile gem in this big brown land, it's in the middle of nowhere. Having said that, it's surprisingly civilised and might I just add that the range of pearls in the town boutiques is definitely worth a morning, girls. Not only that but it's the only airport at which I've been asked to produce my ASIC card. That must mean it's a truly vital strategic outpost.
You'll find stacks of accommodation to suit various budgets in Kununurra. Rossy & I and our mates stayed years ago at the Lakeview Apartments in Kununurra. These were great self-contained apartments - pool, BBQ area, close to everything. The last two times we've stayed at the Kimberley Grande. Ticks all the above boxes as well, fab choice. There are also five caravan parks, a few other hotels, motel, guest house and various accommodation for backpackers.
Kununurra Day Trips
With the aircraft securely tucked away at the airport, you might like to choose from a list of day tours on offer from Kununurra. Visit any of the websites listed at the end of this article, and click on Kununurra Day Tours to start your research.
Here are my personal tips:
- Visit the local mango plantation and do not leave before tasting their mango smoothie. Feed the fish at the Zebra Rock Art Gallery.
- Get onboard a Triple J Tour. They operate the most sensational jet boat cruise up the Ord River from the spillway to Kununurra. (Pick up and drop-off at accommodation.) (www.triplejtours.net.au)
- Do as we did, and visit the hoochery - the only licensed distillery in Western Australia producing cane spirits and rum from local cane. Refuse a portion of their house-specialty rum cake at your peril.
- Do a self-fly tour over Lake Argyle and down to the incredible Bungle Bungles in the World Heritage listed Purnululu National Park. Do your homework the night before (ERSA Gen - Special Procedures) to get the rules for scenic flights here and you'll be right.
- If you want a ground tour of the Argyle Diamond Mine, get in touch with the Kununurra Visitor Centre, but as it's 200km from the town, we opted for an aerial view of it on our way back from the Bungle Bungles.
Silver Screen Scenery
If you choose to hire a car, a 50-minute drive out of Kununurra will place you at Macka's Barra Camp. A popular fishing operation “notorious for catching the big one-metre-plus sized fish", Macka's offers bungalow style accommodation and uses nearby Carlton Hill Station as their overnight camp. This is the location of the fabled Faraway Downs Homestead - arguably a leading star of the film “Australia". Alas, Lady Ashley and her handsome Drover have left the building, and the homestead is not currently available for public access. But a visit to Carlton Hill Station will surround you with that breathtaking scenery featured throughout the movie.
OK, time to up-camp and fly across to El Questro (YEQO). All the hype about this famous destination is backed up, big time. We promise you won't be disappointed. Their 1400m airstrip and all operational details for flying in are listed in the AOPA National Airfield Directory. You'll find it hard not to be moved by those majestic gorges, swimming holes, walking trails through lush rainforest and local wildlife.
The champagne sunset cruise along the magnificent Chamberlain Gorge (pic above), a long soak in the thermal pools of Zebedee Springs and the overall great atmosphere of El Questro seals the deal. You can stay up at the Homestead if you're happy to sell a couple of your children to pay for it, but we stayed down at the Station Township and were beautifully looked after. There was even a tiny baby croc in the little stream outside our cabin. This time I was on tour with a bunch of pilots from Sydney's Curtis Aviation and we'd all go back tomorrow if we could. One of the guys got up at dawn one morning and went heli-fishing. It was three and a half days before that stupid grin left his face.
Read more about El Questro here.
I'd easily recommend two nights here, then you may like to zip literally ten minutes over the range and land at Emma Gorge Resort (also in AOPA guide). Its safari-style tented cabins along the gorge, open-air restaurant and bar, and bush walks up to yet another sublime water-hole and falls are all unforgettable.
Just 20nm away to the north-west, (or a ten minute flight along the Pentecost River from El Questro), you'll find Home Valley, a working cattle station still largely run by the traditional owners of the land, the Balanggarra people.
After your expert touchdown on their 1300m gravel strip you may hand yourselves over to the care and hospitality of the trainees and mentors who have created a quintessential outback experience and rare glimpse into their wonderful culture. The homestead is 1.5kms off the Gibb River Road.
Read more about Home Valley Station here.
From here you have a few options. You can fly roughly west, picking up the route of the Gibb River Road, and on to land, if you choose, at the Drysdale River Station. We actually got stuck here due to some pretty serious downpours when we visited, so had an unplanned extra night here. It's a classic, this place, so very Australian, hilariously basic and you wouldn't want it any other way.
Read more about Drysdale here.
The next couple of hours will knock your socks off, as the majesty of the northern Kimberley continues to toss these incredible panoramas out in front of you. Top of my list are a low level fly up the Prince Regent Gorge, twisting and turning along pristine waterways, past cascading waterfalls, all of which eventually tip out into the St George Basin. Turn south-west to head across the impossibly beautiful Buccaneer Archipelago … and try getting a view like this from the four wheel drive.
Another option we've taken is to track directly north from Emma Gorge, up to refuel at Wyndham, then flown north, following the western shore of the Cambridge Gulf until you hit the coast.
That's the Timor Sea in front of you, so hook a left and fly coastal, past The Bush Camp, Faraway Bay, (which works out a lot cheaper if you don't hop out of the plane, but hey, you only live once and I'm told it's worth every cent.) and on to Kalumburu. This is an established aboriginal community requiring special permits to enter, so check this out if you're wanting anything more than a stretch-your-legs stop. (www.kalumburu.com)
From here, you'll pass overhead the luxury Kimberley Coastal Camp, just north of Mitchell Plateau, and then it's a cruisey scenic down through the Bonaparte Archipelago on your way to Cape Leveque. Here we stayed at Kooljaman Resort - great overnight stop, particularly if you're into green frogs.
Hug the coast going south and you'll soon pick up the chit-chat on the Broome CA/GRS guiding pilots into the often busy circuit. It's warm outside and by now you're hankering for a sunset Pina Colada. I recommend giving in to the demons and partaking.
You can easily hang up your headset for two days here in Broome. Change into shorts and thongs and take your time discovering the beaches, lookouts, markets and Paspaleys of this atmospheric tropical town. We divided into groups of three or four and all hired cars - easy.
Kununurra to Broome is easily flyable in a day and you'll be boring your mates senseless when you get home about how good it looked from the air. But you've probably come a long way to get here so why rush it? Most of that flying will have been across regions inaccessible by road, so it is remote and pristine Australia at its best.
So as that golden orb of the sun goes down, eat the fish and chips and don't stress about the cholesterol. You've earnt this holiday and you'll feel a million miles from home, a million miles from care - what a good thing.
By Shelley Ross
I'm always very happy to hear from people who share my passion for the outback - whether it's from the road or from the air. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
HEMA map of the Kimberley
AOPA National Airfield Directory
Pilots Touring Guide (by AOPA)