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Guide to the Kimberley Outback

Guide to the Kimberley Outback

The Diversion Dam, Kununurra (photography Tourism WA).

PLACES TO GO

Kununurra

Kununurra is famous for Lake Argyle, El Questro Wilderness Park and the diamond mine, but there’s plenty more on offer. In town, there are several exquisite Argyle Diamond stores, and one of the largest ranges of Indigenous artworks in the country – the beautiful yet severe landscape has inspired countless artists, and their work is shown in the local galleries. If you’re up for swimming, try Valentine Springs, Molly Spring, and (if you’re particularly fit and agile) give Andy’s Chasm a go. A climb up Kelly’s Knob – a hill with panoramic views over town – is also a must-do (bring along wine and cheese for a sunset picnic at the top). At Lake Kununurra you’ll find The PumpHouse; a historic water station now converted into a thriving bar and restaurant. The Sunday session is particularly popular, and there’s often a happy hour. You can’t leave town without catching – or at least eating – the elusive barramundi that attract scores of fishermen to the region. Get in touch with local operators to fish at a secret spot. There’s no shortage of accommodation around town, and in the settlement are ATMs, mobile coverage, supermarkets and cafes (be sure to grab a mango smoothie!). There’s a huge range of tours that explore the Kimberley’s most famous landscapes (the Bungle Bungles, Ord River, Lake Argyle) and most will pick you up from your accommodation. TIP if you’ve got some time up your sleeve, fit in a visit to the Hoochery distillery, the magnificent Durack Homestead, and the Sandalwood Factory.

Halls Creek

The small town is the ideal place to set up camp if you intend on admiring the scenic East Kimberley landscape – it’s the closest settlement to the Purnululu National Park, but there’s also the Wolfe Creek Crater and the China Wall (a 6m-high wall of quartz rock) to discover. A great way to start your explorations is via Duncan Road (formerly Duncan Highway), a 441km track, which makes for an exciting outback adventure; it’s best travelled after the wet season, and a 4WD is strongly recommended. The drive takes in the China Wall and waterholes such as Caroline Pool, Palm Springs, and Sawpit Gorge. If you want to visit Marella Gorge you’ll need permission and directions from Flora Valley Station first, (08) 9168 8920. The road is scenic and has even been compared to the Gibb River Road, but there aren’t any service stations. Back in Halls Creek there’s a visitor centre, and a couple of accommodation options, as well as the Aquatic and Recreation Centre,  oval, rodeo grounds, library, community health centre and a hospital. Heading south, Tanami Road leads from Halls Creek to Alice Springs but it needs upgrading (there’s a group lobbying to resurface it).

Bell Gorge, Gibb River Road (photography Dan Paris).

Derby

Derby, on the mouth of the Fitzroy River, rests on the western end of the Gibb River Road and its proximity to the Buccaneer Archipelago makes it a great place for booking tours. There’s plenty to love about Derby – you can enjoy fish and chips at the jetty while watching the sunset, cast a line, set some crab pots, or grab binoculars and spot any one of more than 200 bird species that have been seen in the area. TIP Try the mangroves, mudflats of the jetty and boat ramp, and the bird hide at the end of Conway Street. The Pigeon Heritage Trail is worth a wander – it passes the old cemetery and gaol; you can pick up a booklet from the visitor centre. Surprisingly brilliant – given the arid outback location – is the local 18-hole golf course, with a fairway that’s in great nick, and greens that incorporate the boab trees; besides creating a stunning backdrop, their strategic placement more than makes up for the absence of bunkers. In town, there are a few accommodation options, a couple of art galleries and shops, and several places to grab a bite to eat. Further north, you can swim at Lennard Gorge but you’ll need reasonable fitness – it’s a challenging hike. Your efforts will be rewarded with a series of falls and dramatic views, best seen straight after the wet season. Before you leave Derby be sure to visit the Prison Tree: a giant 1500-year-old boab that was used as a staging point for prisoners being walked into Derby.

Wyndham

This gold-rush town is the oldest and most northern in the Kimberley, and from here you can hop onboard one of the major Kimberley cruise boats, 4WD the Gibb River Road (Wyndham lies to the north of its eastern end) or go fishing. There are a fair few things to do in and around town, with the most renowned being a visit to the Five Rivers Lookout, to catch the sunset at the top of the Bastion Range (you can see the Ord, Forrest, King, Durack and Pentecost rivers that merge with the Cambridge Gulf). If you’re travelling with the family, and crocodiles are up your alley, there’s a giant croc statue that’s great for a cheesy pic. Birdwatching is pretty big in these parts, and Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve is a haven for water birds – some journey there from as far away as Siberia). There isn’t a lot of lodging but there are a couple of awesome stations nearby offering activities like horseriding and mustering. 30km from town is The Grotto, a pretty oasis with a large, permanent pool enclosed by cliffs (try the rope swing into the water!).

The Bungle Bungles (photography Annabelle Sandes, Kimberley Media).

 

Fitzroy Crossing

At heart of the Kimberley, the Fitzroy River is one of the largest rivers in Australia during flood periods. Drop into the infamous Crossing Inn, where many travellers have waited for flood waters to subside over a cold drink. Barramundi fishing here is fantastic (especially in the shoulder seasons) with both shore angling along the banks of the river as well as boat access in Geikie Gorge. The river is also renowned for cherabin, a freshwater prawn that makes a delicious meal and can be caught quite easily (with some local knowhow!) along the banks of the river. Although limited, the accommodation is great, with an outback-oasis vibe. From Fitzroy Crossing you can travel around 80km east to tour the 350 million-year-old Mimbi caves, the traditional lands of the Gooniyandi people and where you’ll see some of the most significant fossil sites in the southern hemisphere. Fitzroy Crossing is the gateway to the Geikie Gorge National Park, a spectacular waterway with rugged cliffs and abundant wildlife, 18km from the town centre. The 30m-high Geikie Gorge is the highlight, and well worth a stop. Also accessible from Fitzroy Crossing are Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek in Windjana Gorge National Park, which is an area of great cultural importance to the local Bunuba people who once lived there. Tours of the national park can be booked through Bungoolee Tours.

Purnululu National Park

The Bungle Bungles (the orange and black bands winding so perfectly around their famous beehive-shaped domes) are a mind-boggling 360 million years old, but, incredibly, few people knew they existed until the 1980s. There are three main walks in the park: Cathedral Gorge is a huge, cavernous natural amphitheatre, and the acoustics are perfect; the tunnel-like Echidna Chasm is over a kilometre long, with narrow, tremendously high walls and a water-worn rocky floor; and the shady Mini Palms Gorge is studded with ancient livistona palms, thought to have been the fodder of dinosaurs. The park still has strong cultural significance to the local Kija and Jaru Aboriginal people, with many rock art and sacred burial sites remaining off-limits to visitors. The World Heritage-listed park is open from April to November annually, and with patience and a high-clearance 4WD you can drive in by sealed, then unsealed road from Halls Creek or Kununurra. There are definitely no caravans allowed – there’s a park at the Great Northern Highway that caters for caravaners. Plenty of guided 4WD tours include overnight stays, and scenic flights operate daily. Kurrajong and Walardi campgrounds offer basic camping facilities, or, if you’re after a little more luxury, stay at either of the parks’ two permanent safari-tent bush camps. For the ultimate fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience, a heli-flight is a must. Weaving through the ancient formations with the chopper doors off is hair-raising. Don’t forget your camera!

Magpie Geese at Parry’s Lagoon (photography Annabelle Sandes, Kimberley Media).

 

THINGS TO DO

Camping

Silent Grove campsite in King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park is open from around May to around October, weather permitting. A 4WD is recommended for the corrugated dirt road. There are toilets and showers, and camping area for generators, but the sites are unpowered. Be sure to check out nearby Bells Gorge. The campground in Windjana Gorge National Park, about two hours from Silent Grove, is a lovely spot. (The park’s scenic gorges are worth the trip.) This, too, is open from May until around October and the site features barbecues with water, flushing toilets and showers. Punamii-unpuu (Mitchell Falls campground) in Mitchell River National Park is open May to October (weather permitting) and has drop toilets, but no showers. The remote location means there’s generally room, even when busy at the end of June/beginning of July. The nearby King Edward River Crossing campsite, Munurru, is also popular (especially for those wanting a dip in the river, and a chance to appreciate the nearby rock art). Many trips to the East Kimberley region include a visit to Purnululu National Park and the Bungle Bungles. If you’re planning to stay, there are two campsites, Walardi and Kurrajong, both accessible by 4WD and high-clearance, single-axle, towable units. Walardi, on the southern site, has generator and non-generator areas, while Kurrajong is a larger, no-generator site. Bookings are required between April and October. (July is peak season, because it’s WA school holidays, and sites can hit full capacity). Bookings can be made online at www.dpaw.wa.gov.au. tip Park fees and camp fees apply at the above locations. If you’re doing a lot of travelling, and visiting a number of national parks, consider a four-week holiday pass, or even an annual all-parks pass. (This doesn’t include camping fees.) Concession rates are available for seniors.

Birdwatching

For many enthusiasts, Kununurra is their favourite birding location. There is an abundance of species, and locations unique to the tropics. Hidden Valley, right in town, has white-quilled rock pigeons around the car park, sandstone shrike-thrushes and northern rosellas. With more than 140 bird species in the area, plus crocodiles and water monitors, a boat tour down the Ord River is not only about spectacular scenery. Also check around the arboretum and Lake Kununurra in town for white-browed crakes, jacanas, babblers and many more.

Wolfe Creek Crater

Forget the serial-killer movie, this is an amazing site well worth the journey. At over 880m wide it is the second-largest crater in the world. A meteorite crashed to Earth around 300,000 years ago, travelling at 15km per second, a speed which would have taken it across Australia in five minutes. The crater is 145km from Halls Creek, via the Tanami Road and gravel access road (during dry season only); allow two to three hours each way. What you’ll see is essentially a huge hole in the ground (but an epic one at that!), make sure you bring good walking shoes and plenty of water – there’s a little track that leads down to the crater floor. The best time to walk the crater is either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, which offer the best opportunities to spot the local wildlife. There’s a camp area with a couple of shaded sites, but aside from drop toilets there are no facilities.

Bush camping along the Gibb River Road (photography Simon McBeth).

 

THE LIST

  • Take your time driving the Gibb River Road
  • Walk up to the thundering Mitchell Falls
  • Watch the sunset from the Five Rivers Lookout
  • Sail across or fly over Lake Argyle
  • Hike through or fly over Purnululu National Park
  • Book a tour to see the sights
  • Take in the enormity of the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater
  • Take a cruise from Derby along the coast
  • Photograph the Cockburn Range at sunset
  • Go fishing for barramundi in the Fitzroy River
  • Drive from Halls Creek along Duncan Road

Find all these and more at www.scoop.com.au/thingstodo

Helitours can take you to the best out-of-the-way fishing spots. (photography Lone Eagle).

 

BARRAMUNDI FISHING

After a huge Wet, locals expect a cracking barra season – with more water, the floodplains run for longer, giving juvenile fish a better chance to survive predators. Early April – after floodwaters have settled – is the best time to try your luck, and good fishing remains until the middle of June. Then, in June and July, the water temperature drops down and colder water means fish become scarce. Days warm up again in late August so barra get livelier and fishing improves up until the end of October. Although great fishing continues throughout summer, extreme weather conditions and river flooding sees the fishing camps close for a few months over the peak of the Wet. Fishing camps, day charters and tackle stores are plentiful. Book ahead for fishing camps. If you intend on keeping your catch, barramundi must be between 55cm minimum and 80cm, and there is a daily limit of two per person. By the time they reach 80cm, juvenile males will have transformed into females and are an important part of the species’ lifecycle. For many fishermen, it’s all about the sport, as barramundi are known to engage in a great game of tug-of-war. It’s important to note that barramundi don’t take to being held up by the jaw, and will rarely survive if they are held in such a way. Hold your barra under the belly for photos before you kiss it goodbye, Rex Hunt-style. Soft lures are fast becoming the tackle of choice for barramundi fishing, but minnow lures are also popular for their proven success. Before you hit the road, duck into a bait and tackle shop to make sure your fishing gear is up to scratch; incorrect equipment can exhaust barramundi and can lead to their death.

Top Barramundi Fishing Spots
• Fitzroy River
• Ivanhoe Crossing
• Buttons Crossing
• Dunham River mouth
• Penecost Crossing
• Kalumburu
• Mambi Island
*These locations are starting points; you’ll need to check with visitor centres on how to access them. It’s best to buddy up with a local, or the easiest option is to book a tour where you’ll be taken to the best spots.

The Gibb River Challenge.

 

GIBB RIVER ROAD

This bumpy, dirt track is considered to be one of Australia’s last true adventure drives, taking you to the heart of the Kimberley. Go through river crossings; enjoy dramatic scenery and camp under the stars. The 660km journey, recommended for 4WDs, starts in Derby and winds its way to Wyndham. It’s best travelled from May to October (once the rains start, some sections can’t be crossed); check conditions with Main Roads WA or a visitor centre, and be careful with the Pentecost River crossing. The beautiful gorges and falls along the journey are a major drawcard – keep in mind, if you’re planning on getting out of the car, going for a swim, exploring the site and so on, all those hours add up. If you do decide to swim, some of the underwater rocks can be quite sharp, so take care. Just over a couple of hundred kilometres out from Derby is The Imintji Roadhouse that sells diesel fuel only (the unleaded is just for emergencies), food and snacks. This is a great stop to make sure you’re all set for the journey, so have a chat with the owners. Next to it is Over The Range Mechanical Repairs, in case you need a tyre change/repairs, or help with some engine issues. The Mount Barnett Roadhouse, about 300km out from Derby, has diesel and unleaded fuel, tyre repairs, and snacks, and marks the entrance to Manning Gorge. The scones at Ellenbrae Station are the stuff of legend – well worth the pit stop. There’s some beautiful Aboriginal art to be found along the way (more if you’re willing to detour a little). A number of the stations can point you in the right direction, or offer tours. Most travellers include Mitchell Plateau in their Gibb River Road run, if not a visit to Kalumburu as well, and consider a stay at El Questro Wilderness Park. Once you take the turn-off onto Kalumburu Road, you’ll come across the Drysdale River Station, offering hot showers and a beer garden. They’ve also got fuel (diesel and unleaded), tyre repairs, accommodation, two camp areas (no advance bookings), dining, and a general store. Their website is great, and the owners are full of helpful information!

Bell Gorge, one of the only accessible waterfalls all-year-round (www.philipschubertphotography.com)

 

TOP GORGES

Emma Gorge

The 1.6km trail to the gorge ends with a gushing 67m-high waterfall. Do as the
locals do and swim directly to the right of the bank, where there is a natural
warm spring under the rocky wall.
Tip | You can fill up your water bottle in flying (fast-moving) water.
Access | El Questro Wilderness Park via Great Northern Highway towards Wyndham, with the last stretch on the Gibb River Road (the last 2km are still unsealed but fine for 2WD).
Bring | Bathers, hiking boots, water bottle.

Windjana Gorge

The striking black and orange gorge is carved out of the same ancient reef system as Geikie Gorge and Tunnel Creek. It’s one of the best places to spot freshwater crocodiles. A lovely campsite overlooks the gorge with toilets and showers.
Access | Via the corrugated, unsealed Leopold Downs Road, which can be accessed by the Great Northern Highway or the Gibb River Road (April to November).
Bring | Hiking boots, water and supplies.

Geikie Gorge

Walk along the west wall taking in views of the gorge and Fitzroy River. Look for fossils in the limestone rocks. Cruise though the inside of the gorge between May and October and spot freshwater crocodiles. Go early in the dry season to see the gorge brimming with water.
Access | Off the Great Northern Highway, 20km from Fitzroy Crossing.
Bring | Cash for the boat cruise (there are no credit-card facilities), drinking water and supplies.

Bell Gorge

This is considered the best and busiest gorge. Climb down large boulders and
rocks to a series of beautiful waterfalls. There’s a camping area with toilets and showers at nearby Silent Grove.
Access | 30km off the Gibb River Road (April to November).
Bring | Bathers, hiking boots, drinking water and supplies.

Manning Gorge

Wade or use the rowboat to cross the Manning River, making for an interesting start to this hike. It can be a long, hot walk but it’s worth it when you arrive at
the huge gorge. There’s a large campsite with basic facilities. 
Access | Via the Mount Barnett Roadhouse off the Gibb River Road (April to November).
Bring | Bathers, hiking boots, water and supplies.

Ord River leading into Argyle (photography Annabelle Sandes, Kimberley Media).

 

EVENTS

Broke or Barra Fishing Competition
Flex your fishing muscles and sign up to compete in one of the Kimberley’s most celebrated barramundi fishing tournaments. Various locations, Sep.
The Gibb Challenge
This team relay takes place over 700km of breathtaking Kimberley landscape from Derby to the renowned El Questro Wilderness Park. Oct.
Kimberley Ord Valley Muster
The most exceptional event in the Kimberley. Along with activities and concerts, the Muster includes the outstanding Durack Homestead Dinner, which each year is prepared by a celebrity chef. The highlight is the Airnorth Kimberely Moon Experience, a concert featuring iconic Australian artists with the Ord River as the stunning backdrop. May.
Mud Crab Racing
Derby’s Mary Island Fishing Club runs this substantially more amusing version of horse racing. To adhere to the dress code, make sure you’re wearing your very best thongs. Jul.
Wyndham Races
Grab your frocks, suits and fascinators for remote horseracing. There’s a family day followed by the Wyndham Cup, a great excuse for a day of banter and betting. Aug.

Purnululu, Kimberley (photography Dan Paris).

 

TRAVEL TIPS

Getting there
Perth is 3150km from Kununurra on sealed roads and 2380km from Derby. Take note that, during the wet season, road closures are often in place if you head out of the main towns – be sure to take a 4WD. To avoid closures, it’s best to travel in the dry season from May to October. If you’re planning on flying, you can take a direct flight to Derby, Broome and Kununurra. From there, it’s all about private charters or driving.

Internet
There is a paid wi-fi service at the Community Resource Centre in Kununurra. If you don’t have a laptop, the Derby Public Library charges for the use of internet-connected computers. If you have a laptop, head to Derby’s Spinifex Hotel for free wi-fi. The Derby visitor centre also has wi-fi, as does the Visitor Centre in Fitzroy Crossing (you can grab a cup of coffee here too!).

Coverage
Telstra is as good as it gets for mobile phone coverage. Regardless of your network, always tell friends or family where you are headed, and don’t forget to call them when you get there.

Cash
Larger towns have bank ATMs so be sure to take out cash if you’re passing through. Many of the remote businesses won’t accept credit cards.

Alcohol
Bear in mind there are a number of communities in the Kimberley where alcohol isn’t permitted. For information on restrictions contact the local visitor centre.

 

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