Return to Around Australia Trip 2004—Part 1

Around Australia Trip 2004 – Part 3

Kununurra to Emma Gorge, WA (4 days)

Previous installment is here.

A map of the trip is here.

Photo albums from the trip (more photos than shown on this page): Day 18, Day 19, Days 20-21.

These notes were written by Eric and occasionally amended by Jean. Eric took some of the photos and Jean took others. All photos were selected, cropped, and inserted into this file by Jean. Factual information was taken from various sources including tourist brochures; we do not guarantee its accuracy.

Click on a photo to see a full size version. Not recommended for readers on dialup connections—some of these files are between 1 and 2 MB.

Day 18, Kununurra, Tuesday 22 June 2004

Jean had to work, writing appendices for her book about online help somewhat in advance of the publisher’s deadlines. The rest of the book is complete, but we fear too many deadlines crowding in on her at one time now that there is also the O’Reilly Writer book to complete.

Mirima National Park, WAWe picked up a packed lunch at the Coles complex, and drove to the tiny 2,068 hectare Mirima National Park, the entrance to whose Hidden Valley section was within walking distance of town, and only a kilometre from the Victoria Highway. The name Mirima was given to the area by the Miriwoong people of East Kimberley. Although less clear, some of the rocks have some of the same characteristic black and gold bands as the Bungle Bungles, and have led to some claiming the area is a miniature Bungle Bungle park.

Hidden Valley had some stunning rock and sandstone cliff views for such a small park. I actually ran my camera batteries flat taking photos. We did the 800 metre Derdbe-gerring banan lookout hike to the top of the escarpment. As well as the colourful cliffs, we also had a view over Kununurra and over part of the Ord Valley irrigation area. We returned via the short trail that showed and described many of the plants of the area. We also did the easy 500 metre Demboong banan gap valley floor walk. We didn’t spot any of the rock wallaby or wallaroo that live in the park, but did come upon an interesting looking lizard. Take plenty of film to this compact park.

Hoochery rum and zebra rockOur next stop was a return visit to the The Hoochery rum distillery where we were this time able to take their tour. It was interesting to see the modern, stainless steel approach to what is actually a very traditional craft. Rum can be a fairly high turnover product, since it matures only for two years. A working family farm, their other spirit products are Cane Royale chocolate and coffee liquor, and Aguardiente, an attractive Australian ouzo produced from their farm grown aniseed. The photo right shows our loot: a bottle of Hoochery rum and a collection of chunks of zebra rock.

We completed our visit by sampling their fine chocolate rum cake and rum flavoured cream. Very nice it was too, and a more than suitable substitute for the Devonshire tea we’d desired.

Reversing the direction we drove on Sunday, we visited Top Rockz for a better look at their collection of local semiprecious stones. As with Zebra, it was pretty neat. They didn’t however offer the chance of seeing the actual open air workshop of Zebra.

Some of the tour companies we noted in this area included Triple J Tours (Ord river cruises), East Kimberley Tours, and there are many others, not all with websites.

One of the niche businesses was the Gibb River Express, which runs a transit service three times a week in each direction (in the dry season) over the Gibb River Road from Kununurra to Derby, with the 700 km trip taking about 12 hours. The bus naturally enough is a robust four wheel drive vehicle, since anything less can’t handle the road conditions. In the wet season, nothing goes over the road!

Day 19, Kununurra, Wednesday 23 June 2004

Today was our air tour to the Argyle Diamond Mine and the Bungle Bungles. We were collected from the Hotel Kununurra around 10 by our Slingair pilot Ben. The bus also stopped at Kona Lakeside tourist park to collect another couple, who said Kona was a very nice park.

Lake KununurraKununurra Airport, with Lake Kununurra in backgroundAs we took off from Kununurra airport, our air tour in a Cessna 207 gave views of the 1963 Diversion Dam which formed Lake Kununurra, just outside the town. The Ord River construction scheme started in 1958. There was an experimental government farm in the area in 1941, and Kimberley Durack, grandson of the pioneering family, was instrumental in getting that established. In 1946, the Kimberley Research Station (renamed Frank Wise Institute in 1985, after the agricultural advisor who examined the area in 1928, and became West Australian premier in 1945) was established on Ivanhoe Plain. The 15,000 hectares of the Ord River irrigation area spread all about us. By 2010 the irrigated areas will extend to nearly 65,000 hectares.

Packsaddle Plains, Ord Irrigation areaWe saw areas like the market gardens on Packsaddle Plains clearly from the air, whereas when we drove there you could not really see how extensive they were. The area supplies about 40% of the rockmelons in Australia. We also saw sugarcane, bananas and mangoes. The Ord earlier grew rice, cotton and sorghum. Birds got the rice and and to some extent the sorghum, and insecticide resistant pests killed off cotton crops by 1974. Around 480,000 tons of sugar cane is now grown annually. Much of the vegetable and fruit is out of season in other areas when it is grown, and thus commands premium prices.

Lake ArgyleWe flew a short distance for views of the extensive Lake Argyle, largest artificial lake in the Southern hemisphere (8th largest worldwide), and the Carr Boyd range in which it is set. Lake Argyle was created because the storage capacity of Lake Kununurra was insufficient for the planned agricultural activity of the Ord River area. In contrast, Lake Argyle could irrigate the region for several years even if no more rain fell. The lake filled to capacity in 1973, and the spillway flowed until 1984. Since then wet season rainfall has been insufficient to bring the lake above its design capacity of ten times the volume in Sydney Harbour. The normal area of the lake is 980 square kilometres, holding 5672 million cubic metres. The flood surface area is 2072 square kilometres, holding six time the normal capacity, or 34655 million cubic metres of water.

We had a clear view of Spillway Creek, the overflow for the lake, and an excellent view of the actual dam, some 8 km away from Spillway Creek. We could see the old Durack family Argyle Downs homestead, which had been moved in 1971 from its original position in what is now lake bed. We could also see the Lake Argyle tourist village, which was originally the dam construction site village.

We landed at the excellent airfield at Rio Tinto’s Argyle diamond mine, which commenced in 1983, with the plant complete in December 1985. We were impressed by the quality of the facilities for staff. The 750 staff mostly work 12 hour shifts for two weeks, and then face one of the longest commutes in the world, 3200 km back to Perth on a Boeing 727, for their two weeks off. They are housed in individual motel style units with full facilities. They also have an impressive safety record, especially for such a large operation. We had lunch in their mess hall, and had a fine cafeteria meal, better than any similar meals we have encountered so far on this trip.

The mine tour was mostly within the bus, as security at the mine do not want people walking around looking for rough diamonds. Our Slingair driver Chris explained the process.

Argyle Diamond Mine extraction plantThe ore body is 1.6 kilometres long, 250 metres wide, and covers 80 hectares. It is presently operated as an open pit mine. They remove 80 millions tons of rock covering a year by blasting it out in 3000 ton chunks using anfo explosive. Excavators eat at the blasted rock in 45 ton bites, and they haul it 2.5 kilometres away to the main crusher plant in 200 ton dump trucks. From this they can extract ten million tons of the black lamproite diamond bearing ore. Then they crush, scrub and screen that down in size with various massive stages of crushing, until everything is between certain sizes (I think they said 3 mm to 15 mm). This does mean a certain number of larger diamonds would be crushed.

They then separate the rocks in a gravity settling tank, where the denser stuff is what needs to be checked for diamonds. Traditional methods were a drum with a layer of fat, to which the diamond was intended to stick. Argyle instead use a cone over which the ore cascades down. An X-ray source make diamonds fluoresce. Photocells detect the glow, and compressed air jets automatically blast such specimens out of the falling rock. The ore goes through this sorting process three times, to ensure maximum return. The plant can process 11 million tons a year, and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. From all this they extract 30-35 million carets (about 5-6 tonnes) of diamonds.

Control room at Argyle diamond extraction plantWe were shown the highly automated control room overlooking the plant. Lots of computer screens and closed circuit TV cameras (which are separate from the over 300 security cameras). The entire plant floor could be felt to be vibrating from the crushers.

Main pit of Argyle Diamond MineAfter takeoff we overflew the massive Argyle diamond mine main pit and workings. This open-cut site is now almost exhausted, and is expected to run out in 2007. There is an experimental shaft deep under the site, as the mine tests to see whether deeper mining is justified.

Argyle are covering the exposed and mined areas with rock, and re-vegetating the entire area.

Purnululu (Bungle Bungles)We flew off to view the 209,000 hectare Bungle Bungles (Purnululu) National Park. Partly due to the heavy tourist air traffic in the area, we don’t get as low as we might like (2500 feet), but do clearly see and overfly the characteristic beehive domes. You can drive in to the Kurrjong or Walardi camping areas 50 km from a made road, if you have the time (about 4 hours), but the 4WD track through Mabel Downs Station is reported to be very rough, and you get a good view from the air in any case. You can’t climb or drive among the beehive domes because the rock is very fragile. All walks are done in the stream beds.

The remote Bungle Bungle massif has been part of the World Heritage listed (2003) Purnululu National Park since 1987. Prior to that it had aboriginal cultural significance to the Kija people, but was largely unknown to those outside the area. The Bungle Bungle name is said to be a corruption, referring to the Aboriginal name for local bundle bundle grass.

Purnululu (Bungle Bungles)The range was formed from sand and gravel deposited 360 million years ago in the Devonian period by rivers flowing from the north east. Prevailing south easterly winds helped form sand dunes, and eventually forming sandstone. Sandstone seven kilometres deep was formed over 60 million years. Uplift and mountain building raised the sandstone into a flat surface 600 metres above the present sea level. Then erosion over the past 20 million years exposed the alternating several metre wide tiger stripes we see today. The dark bands where moisture was present contain cyanobacteria (blue green algae) which help protect the sandstone from erosion. The orange bands contain iron oxide, which also forms a protective film over the soft sandstone. The orange layers apparently dried out too quickly for the cyanobacteria to grow.

The park contains a number of unique plants, including the Livistonia or Fan Palm, seen clinging to crevices within the range. I also noted many boab trees, especially along water courses.

We flew past Echidna Chasm and the north west tip, got a good view of Horseshoe Valley before going over the Eastern Bungles. We saw Piccaninny Gorge and Deep Gorge, almost 800 feet of narrow vertical cliffs, and finally the western wall as we left. We had at least 20 minutes in the air over the range. On this trip I went through about 250 photos.

During our return flight we overflew the Osmond range, Texas Downs cattle station (70,000 hectares), and the abandoned Bow River alluvial diamond mine, on part of the Lissadell pastoral lease. Bow River used to get 20% gem diamonds, against 5% at Argyle. The Lissadell cattle station covers 200,000 hectares and supports 20,000 Brahman cattle. Operations mostly move to cooler areas during the wet, when you can’t mister cattle in any case.

Other flying tours from Kununurra are run by Alligator Airways, who have operated in the area for around 20 years. It is pure chance who we took for our flight. Alligator do sponsor an environmental project at Kachana Station.

Day 20, Kununurra to El Questro, Thursday 24 June 2004

Road sign at start of Gibb River roadWe headed off on the Great Northern Highway, which leads towards Wyndham. About 60 km north of Kununurra we turned off the Great Northern Highway onto the Gibb River Road, a gravel road that leads to Derby. Most of it is considered 4WD only because of numerous river crossings and occasional boggy, sandy, or otherwise difficult spots, although the part we drove along was wide, well graded, and suitable for conventional vehicles as well. At the beginning of the road is a sign giving information about the road conditions. In the Wet season, the road is usually closed to traffic.

We were headed for El Questro, a private pastoral lease wilderness park of around a million acres owned by Will and Celia Burrell. This was established around 1991 when the Burrell’s bought 400,000 hectares of failing cattle station land along the Gibb River Road. El Questro extends some 80 kilometres, and includes parts of four river systems. It has a range of facilities from fully conducted tours and luxury rooms to camping. The Homestead on the Chamberlain River takes only 12 guests, and prices range from $800 per person up.

The 25 km section of the Gibb River Road leading to El Questro at least was well formed gravel, admittedly with some corrugations when we were there. As with any road in the tropical north not rated as all weather, road conditions can change dramatically over a remarkably short time. Tour drivers tell us that buses are getting through.

Emma Gorge Resort restaurantThe Emma Gorge resort (latitude 15.55S, longitude 128.08E) in the Cockburn ranges was only a few kilometres off the Gibb River Road, just past a dirt airstrip that terminated at the road. The road in to the resort had a minor water hazard where you cross the creek.

We booked into a shared facilities cabin (raised solid floor, short walls, and a tent roof), the last one still available (turns out there were at two tours groups staying that night). Emma Gorge is a new resort in El Questro, and it ranges from $135 to $220 a night for a room, some of which has ensuites. The resorts in El Questro are managed by Accor.

El Questro townshipOne of the camping areas at El QuestroAs soon as we had collected maps and unpacked a few things we drove off again to explore the area. About 11 km further along the Gibb River Road is the turnoff to the Station Township, with a well graded dirt road the whole way. There were a number of shallow stream crossings, with the only long water hazard the Pentecost River about 16 km along, just before to Station Township. We had lunch there, just take away sandwiches and fruit juice, which cost $17. Little here is cheap, as is common in remote areas where transport costs can be a major concern.

We noticed helicopter tours leaving from just in front of the station. There is bungalow accommodation with private facilities here at around $220. A very small store adjoins the Swinging Arm Bar, which has live entertainment on some evenings. The Steakhouse Restaurant has a fine menu. Riverside camping is available nearby, plus there are private camping sites spread out over 6 km of the Pentecost River bank.

Chamberlain Gorge, El QuestroWe continued along the dirt road past the airstrip and past private camping areas along the river to Chamberlain Gorge. A bit of a steep descent, but great views from the jetty on Chamberlain River. A boat is certainly the best way to see the gorge, and the resorts can organise one for you. There is rock art at a end of the boat trip, and you can also arrange barramundi fishing. Other activities include horse riding, and about 21 different guided tours are offered. Luckily none of the 7,000 crossbred Brahman cattle on the property are very near the tourist facilities, which doubtless helps cut down blowfly problems in tourist areas.

El Questro homesteadFrom one spot on this road you can see the Homestead, situated in an isolated spot on the Chamberlain River (see photo at right).

We got back to our tented cabin, found our Hoochery Ord River rum, and settled down for a quiet drink and to read our books in the rapidly waning, tree filtered sunlight. Lots of bird life appeared around us in this bush setting. Luckily there were not many insects at this time of year. The electric light in the tent is yellow anti-insect, but doesn’t give all that much light for reading inside.

Emma Gorge cabins areaWhen we checked at the restaurant, we found that we were the only guests not in a tour group. They didn’t really want to cope with an al la carte dinner for us (their chef was assisting at one of the other restaurants), so they asked if we would consider the buffet dinner they were doing for the tour groups. That actually suited us better, so we were happy to agree. They also gave us a quite reasonable price, considering the buffet included dessert.

In the parking lot we noted an Outback Spirit high chassis bus. They were on a 12 or 13 day Darwin to Broome trip, with the bus driving in to places like the Bungle Bungles (4 hours for the 60 kilometres of dirt road once they left the highway). We noticed that all these adventure tours (which we thought would contain youthful backpackers) seemed packed with people our own age, many of them obviously bringing along a surviving parent of even greater age! They seemed to be in high spirits.

We celebrated with pre-dinner glasses of a Conti cabernet sauvignon and a Leaping Lizard shiraz, both from Margaret River, and both very tasty. The buffet was splendid, including barramundi with a lemon and something sauce, a nice little exceedingly tender Kimberley beef steak, tasty sausages, lots of vegetables, plentiful salads, cheese platter, fresh fruit, desserts, chocolate cake, fresh baked bread, the food just kept appearing. We overate.

Day 21, Emma Gorge, Friday 25 June 2004

We had a great buffet breakfast. The quality of the food was astonishing. Sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs, fried tomato, and baked beans. Many varieties of cereals. Several breads. Delicious fresh tasting fruits. Grapes the size of plums. Hot chocolate drinks. Fruit juice. The staff were all exceedingly helpful.

Zebedee Springs, El QuestroWe then drove about 20 km to Zebedee Springs, which was named by Will Burrell after a character in The Magic Roundabout, a children’s TV show. After a fairly easy walk (one of the few easy walks in the area) through tropical vegetation, we came to a thermal spring set among towering cliffs, with livinstonia palms around. Jean sat in the warm water while Eric climbed around the rocks taking photographs. The springs are only open to casual visitors from 6 a.m. until midday, after which small tour groups and people staying at the exclusive Homestead have a chance.

Pentacost River CrossingWe headed a further 25 km along the Gibb River Road to the Pentecost River crossing. Eric waded across the clear water above the shallow causeway, naturally keeping a very careful eye out for crocodiles (no swimming in this river), so he could photograph Jean driving the Subaru across the river against the backdrop of the Kimberleys. Splendid views of the walls in the sunlight as we returned, so we stopped often for photographs.

A quote from the brochure: “Walking trails in El Questro vary from rugged to challenging and difficult.” Many of the trails are rated blue, and are difficult for older people. For example, Emma Gorge has large boulders, and the guide warns you will need to use both your arms and your legs to negotiate many sections of the walk. Other sections have steep and slippery boulders. It is suitable only for fit and able walkers, and not after 2 p.m. El Questro Gorge longer walk is rated as very difficult and challenging, including climbing large boulders. It must not be attempted after 1 p.m. and only by physically fit and capable walkers.

Eric went off around 4 p.m. to do their easy green trail nature walk, with 31 plants or trees marked. This took only about 20 minutes, and apart from a creek crossing, is all level.

We then visited Boab Gully seeking sunset views, however the walk is very rocky along the shaded creek bed, and although there are numerous boabs, we didn’t see a suitable spot from which to view the sunset. Also, it takes long enough that returning at dusk would be dangerous. This is marked as a yellow trail.

We had a glass each of Leaping Lizard cabernet sauvignon and shiraz that evening. Jean had kangaroo for her evening meal. The chef at the Homestead, Marcus van Clute, formerly of the Como Hotel in Melbourne, appears to supervise what is available at the other restaurants. We asked the chef how they managed to prepare tender kangaroo (it normally isn’t a meat we think of as tender), and was told they marinated it in milk for 24 hours before cooking.

All the El Questro restaurant food we tried was of excellent quality. For example, the sausages were almost fat free, lightly spiced, and very tasty. The barbecue steak was the best we’ve had on this trip. The fresh fruit at breakfast was superb, not something that is easy to manage in remote areas. This sort of quality doesn’t happen by accident, especially when it appears in buffet style meals.

Continued in part 4…