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Over and Above in the Kimberley

‘Banjo’ McAuliffe and Steve Kelsall see the Kimberley from different perspectives, but share a love for the remarkable place they both call home. Grant Banks chats with the two locals about life in Australia’s final frontier. 

The Kimberley is about as remote as you can get. Some people come for a visit; others choose to make this wild frontier their home. As you soar high above Mitchell Falls you may be lucky enough to have John ‘Banjo’ McAuliffe as your pilot. And as you travel along the Gibb River Road your driver-guide could be Steve Kelsall.
As Banjo swoops and dives over the four-tiered falls, he’s always conscious of the reaction of his passengers: “They are awestruck, and you must take into account that all visitors have travelled a long way to get here. Most times they have seen other amazing places in Australia, and yet the Mitchell Falls never let us down.” And when he buzzes over the Bungle Bungle Range, Banjo likes to let the beehive domes do the talking. He points out the places of interest, but gives the star of the show the space and respect it deserves. “Sometimes you spoil the moment by speaking,” he says.
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Banjo started life in Queensland’s west, raised on a cattle property where his family owned the horizon and then some. In the early 1980s boarding school in the big smoke was home, before he returned to the bush to study at the Longreach Pastoral College. By 19 he had been given the moniker ‘Banjo’ by his college mates in Longreach and was off to the Kimberley with a handful of them for an adventure that would last a lifetime.


The first thing Banjo noticed when he arrived in the Kimberley was how different the scenery was to the drought-affected plains of Western Queensland. Arriving at the end of the wet season, just in time for mustering, the sheer volume of water in the landscape was hard to fathom. “A cyclone had come through at Easter that year. We had to ride our horses bareback because we were in constant water in the flood plains of Camballin. On the way to the West Kimberley, we had to wait at the Victoria River Crossing and then ford the West Bains River as we drove through the East Kimberley. We had never seen so much water.”

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At 21, Banjo was given the chance to take to the air, having befriended a local helicopter operator. Banjo got his wings but soon found mustering by helicopter was no easier than doing it on the back of a horse or motorbike. “We lived out of our swags, only really getting back to base for maintenance. Let’s face it – the mustering season was only eight months of the year and that was our only opportunity to earn money. We were paid by the hour.” So, the young pilot worked 10 hours or more a day.


Nowadays Banjo plays to a different tune. Rather than rounding up cattle he’s giving lucky clients a bird’s-eye view of the Kimberley as HeliSpirit’s Chief Pilot

Back on the ground Steve Kelsall is one of APT’s passionate driver-guides, so passionate he sticks around as the caretaker at APT’s exclusive Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge after the tourist season has given way to the wet season. Steve worked in IT from the late 1980s, but found himself on a Kimberley tour in 2014. It was his first visit to the region, but he knew it wouldn’t be his last. He returned in 2016 to take over responsibilities at the wheel and microphone.

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At the end of 2019 Steve took on caretaking at Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge, which involves months of isolation. Steve bunkered down at Bell Gorge and discovered that even without anyone to show around there is still plenty to fall in love with in the Kimberley. “There’s a big difference between being ‘in isolation’ in a big city or suburban area compared to being here, where being isolated is everyday life,” he says.

While Steve is kept busy making sure the Lodge is in top shape, there are plenty of opportunities for exploring and learning. Recently he has developed a passion for astrophotography, something he decided to try after seeing Broome’s famous Staircase to the Moon phenomenon. “The Kimberley is in a unique location, fortunate to not only have around 300 clear night skies a year, but we can see the southern and some of the northern hemisphere’s constellations.”



One thing both Steve and Banjo look forward to most is sharing their passion for the Kimberley with visitors, whether it be gazing down on the landscapes from the air, discovering the region’s delights from the ground, or gazing up at the stars by night. Experience Australia’s wilderness frontier in depth on our 12 Day Iconic Kimberley tour.




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Need to Know

Access the Kimberley region in Australia’s remote northwest with ease on APT's 12 Day Iconic Kimberley tour.


See – a fabled Broome sunset, marking the start of an incredible wilderness adventure. Get up close to sheer gorges and explore the spendour of Mitchell Falls from the skies.


Stay – at APT's exclusive network of wilderness lodges, including the newly upgraded Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge. Located close to the region's natural attractions with all the amenities you need to enjoy that touch of luxury in the wilderness.


Do – a section of the Gibb River Road, which leads to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek before two nights at APT’s exclusive Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge. Discover cattle country, Galvans Gorge and Manning Gorge. Move on to the Mitchell Plateau and its ancient Indigenous art, staying for two nights at our Mitchell Falls Wilderness Lodge. Enjoy a helicopter flight over the Mitchell Falls. Rejoin the Gibb River Road and visit El Questro. Then discover Purnululu National Park, Piccaninny Creek and Cathedral Gorge with two nights at Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge. Take a wildlife cruise on the Ord River, before ending your journey at Kununurra.


For the inside word on what's happening on the ground in the Kimberley learn from the experts APT host Jill Lance, Kimberley guide Steve Kelsall and Triple J Tours Director Dylan as they take you through the region's highlights here on APT Live Discover the Remote Kimberley.