Natasha Dragun shares a taste of the real Kimberley in the rugged frontier town of Kununurra and its spectacular surrounds.
Nothing quite prepares you for the drama of Kununurra, a place where the wilderness seems wilder, the colours deeper and the characters larger than the rest of the country. There are enormous crocodiles and fire-starting birds, ancient rock formations and swathes of desert, snaking waterways and deep gorges.
This distinctive patina is like the Australia you see in a Fred Williams painting, with layer upon layer of colour – earthy browns, taupes, tawny reds, and slivers of orange and yellow – all smudged into one another, the horizon spiked with the green tufts of boabs piercing the brilliant blue sky. This frontier is the gateway to the East Kimberley, where vast, undeveloped landscapes act as a backdrop for spectacular adventure expeditions. But truth be told, Kununurra is so beguiling you’ll want to linger.
The youngest town in this pocket of Western Australia, Kununurra sprang up in 1961 as a base for workers on the Ord River Irrigation Scheme. This project to aid irrigation now sees the area – unlike much of the rest of the country – with more water than it knows what to do with. Which means that visitors will come across endless fields of sunflowers, fragrant sandalwood plantations and even rice paddies – and also glimpse sugar cane (which local distillers turn into excellent rum) and orbs of cotton, drifting along on the breeze. With so much water around, it makes sense to take in some of the region’s natural assets by boat.
The Ord River flows 650 kilometres from Purnululu National Park into the Cambridge Gulf. As part of the Irrigation Scheme, it was dammed in two places, creating Lake Argyle and Lake Kununurra. Cruises along the river today offer insights into the fascinating fauna this waterway supports, from white-bellied sea eagles and egrets to freshwater crocs, flying foxes and rare black-necked cranes. The experience also spotlights some of the trendsetters that brought the immense irrigation project to life, not least the Durack family.
Back in the 1880s there wasn’t much in this part of the world. Living here would have been lonely at best, harsh at worst. But pastoral pioneers that they were, the Duracks saw potential. They moved from Ireland and took out leases on large stations, driving their vast mob of cattle overland in a 2.5-year undertaking that clocked up almost 5,000 kilometres. It wasn’t their only mammoth feat – from their homestead, the Duracks launched enterprises that proved instrumental to the opening up of northern WA. The land their original 1895 property sat on was flooded by the Ord’s dams, but before the water came, the homestead was dismantled brick by brick and re-created at the Durack Homestead Museum.
The Ord River enters Lake Argyle at its southern shore, passing straight through Australia’s second-largest freshwater reservoir. This manmade waterway is so huge – around 18 times the size of Sydney Harbour – that it is officially classified as an inland sea, replete with nearly 70 islands. And then there are the resident freshwater crocodiles, estimated to number about 30,000. Hardy locals think nothing of swimming with them; the “freshies”, as they’re affectionately known, are more interested in the lake’s fish and bats, the latter of which hang low in trees along the banks.
To the north, the Kununurra Diversion Dam is the only thing between Lake Argyle and Lake Kununurra, a snaking 55-kilometre waterway that is a magnet for wildlife. The deep blue expanse of creeks and lagoons is laced with rushes and grasslands, together attracting a cornucopia of birds, including the sandstone shrike- thrush, osprey, yellow chat and migratory waders. It’s such a significant habitat that BirdLife International has declared it an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).
The best time to be on the water is at sunset, cruising past jaw-dropping rock formations, cycads (the oldest plants known to humans), pandanus and paperbark, all cast aglow by the last rays of the day. Float under the power lines that supply energy to the Argyle Diamond Mine, less than 100 kilometres away, where 95 per cent of the world’s most precious pink diamonds are sourced. The mine will chip its last gem at the end of this year; to procure a precious souvenir, head to Kimberley Fine Diamonds on Kununurra’s main street. Literally one in a million diamonds is pink, making a purchase here as rare and ravishing as Kununurra itself.
Kununurra is a highlight of our 24 Day Kimberley Complete with Grand Kimberley Coast tour. Start in Broome with a night at the renowned Cable Beach Club Resort and Spa. Next day, it’s time to hit the road – the Gibb River Road – en route to such destinations as Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek, Geikie Gorge and Purnululu National Park, where the sunset over the Bungle Bungle Ranges is unmissable. Continue on to Kununurra to explore the Ord River and Lake Argyle, before heading to El Questro, Home Valley, Mitchell Falls and Bell Gorge. Then it’s back on to the Gibb River Road to return to Broome, the starting point for a nine-night cruise up the Kimberley Coast. Discover highlights including Horizontal Falls, Montgomery Reef, Vansittart Bay and King George River. Disembark in Darwin for the end of this Kimberley adventure.