The Kimberley: Exploring the Last Frontier

If asked to nominate my favourite part of Australia, the answer would be the Kimberley region in the top corner of Western Australia.

The trips I've made to the Kimberley have required some ingenuity - or lots of time. The problem is size: the Kimberley is larger than New Zealand, Victoria, or the UK yet it has a population of just 25,000 and there are just two roads from Broome in the west to Kununurra near the Northern Territory border. The Great North Road was the last part of Australia's Highway One to be sealed - the bit near Halls Creek was finished in 1986. The other road is the Gibb River Road that is more a rite of passage, like the Birdsville Track, than a highway.

Many of the parts of the Kimberley that visitors wish to see are far from either of these roads. To visit them, you once needed real commitment, several weeks and a very reliable 4WD. Certainly, you could fly to some but once on the ground you were either restricted to foot - or begging for lifts.

To avoid these problems, the West Australian government has a program that combines existing air services and charter operations with local ground operators. In effect, it converts tourists into locals: you can fly into remote airstrips with the sure knowledge that you will be expected and someone will be waiting to take you where you want to go - and then return you to the strip in time for your flight out. It's a wonderful way to see the best of Australia's last frontier within a regular holiday time frame. Here's a sample of what I have managed to achieve in one, slightly extended, weekend.

I left Sydney on an Ansett flight at 7.30 on Thursday evening and arrived in Perth at later that evening. The connecting flight put me on the ground in Broome at 4 am on Friday morning. Now, there are only two options after flying all night - you retreat to bed or you throw yourself into the new day.

Standing under the stars in the warm Kimberley breeze, there really was no alternative - we proceeded straight to the banks of Lake Kununurra. Coming from wintry Sydney, the warmth and wilderness were like a tonic. As the sun rose blood red through the burn-off haze we set out to explore the lake shore.

Kununurra is the town created in the early 1960s to service the Ord River Irrigation Area that was, until recently, one of Australia's great white elephants. Economically, the Ord project is a fascinating example of how market and natural forces work. Kimberley Durack started the experiment in 1937 and the WA government came to the party five years later. The next 40 years was a matter of trial and error as cotton was grown (and eaten by caterpillars) then rice provided sustenance for millions of magpie geese but few others. The markets were weak for these harvests anyway and it seemed as if the government would always be paying out subsidies to keep the area alive. However, in 1987 the CSIRO ended its direct involvement in the Ord and subsidies ceased. Today, instead of monocultures like rice and cotton, everything from soybeans, ti-tree oil and cattle fattening fodder is being grown simultaneously. And the area has been turning a profit since 1987.

Some of the most contented residents are the huge colonies of flying foxes living in the flooded trees on the lake's edge. Chugging through the mirror-like water of the lake watching (and being watched by) thousands of inverted eyes was a perfect start to a Kimberley day.

Later, we flew across Lake Argyle and the historic Durack homestead towards the Bungle Bungle Ranges and Purnululu National Park. This flight path took us over Argyle Diamond Mine - extracting five tonnes of diamonds each year from a pipe that was only discovered in 1979. It is a strange coincidence that the two colonial outposts named after the Earl of Kimberley, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, have both proved to be some of the world's richest diamond fields. The South African Kimberley mines were long known; the Australian one is a newcomer.

The Kimberley is a land of wonders: fossil coral reefs, hidden valleys, ancient artworks, spectacular coasts and treacherous 11 metre tides. After the Great Barrier Reef, Bungle Bungle National Park is the most spectacular natural attraction in Australia. Like the reef, the Bungles fascinates from the perspective of an overflight just as it does from a few centimetres away. Its domes and canyons create a vast natural wonderland.

This is not a tiny dot on the map. Within the 210,000 hectare park the main feature is a sandstone massif 33 km long and 25 km wide that spills out onto the plains as a series of bizarre horizontally tiger-striped orange and black domes.

It isn't an easy place to overlook. So it is surprising that, in the first century of white settlement, no-one really noticed the unique rock formations on the grand scale that lay before them. Then again, in this harsh land, Bungle Bungle was just a place where cattle could get lost. In 1981 it was filmed by a Perth photographer and it subsequently appeared in a television nature program. It's now the jewel in the crown of Kimberley tourism.

It's tempting to extend the analogy between Bungle Bungle and Australia's fragile ecology in general. The distinctive coloured skin of the domes is less than a centimetre thick and it is easy broken by a misplaced footstep or tyre tread. So bulk tourism has long been discouraged and there must be supervision of all visitor traffic.

When I first visited the area in 1986 there were two access tracks. One was bad, the other was awful. Then the terrible Osmond Valley track was closed and there was just one way in. Many preferred to fly over the massif rather than suffer the drive required to explore its glorious nooks and crannies on foot.

Today, there is an airstrip so you can fly in and be picked up by a ground operator. This saves visitors from a gruelling drive and the park is better protected because you are shown around by experts who'll minimise the impact you may have on the environment. They also take you places and show you details you'll certainly miss on your own. We spent the night at Graham Macarthur's Halls Creek and Bungle Bungle Tours' camp with its permanent tents, staff cooks, and the hitherto unheard-of luxury of showers with unlimited hot water.

If there is a single reason to visit the Kimberley, Bungle Bungle is it. As I wrote some years ago "it has been suggested that this park has the potential to attract as many visitors as Australia's most famous symbol of the outback, Uluru. Although the Bungle Bungle Range doesn't have the same solitary grandeur, it does provide an area of endless fascination: narrow gorges lined with tall Livistonia palms. occasional isolated pools of water glowing golden in the sunlight reflected from rock walls, and everywhere the characteristic black-and-orange domes."

If Bungle Bungle was anywhere else in the world, it would be universally known. That's true of many places in the Kimberley. The flight from Derby north over the Buccaneer Archipelago and the coastal tidal races is scenically splendid, too - yet I suspect only a few thousand people have ever done it.

On a recent Kimberley trip I was reminded that there may well be other unknown wonders yet to come. We visited Mimbi caves near Fitzroy Crossing. These are not yet accessible to the public but it's hoped that they will be in future. This is a complete maze of gorges and natural tunnels so that one minute you are in total darkness, the next you are bathed in sunlight in a tiny verdant grove. Even the corrugated texture of the rocks suggests the hand of Disney engineers and fantasies constructed of papier mache.

Personally, one of the best things about my work in the Kimberley has been the contact I have had with the Aboriginal people who make up a large proportion of its population. Broome was the place that gave the world "Bran Nu Dae" - the world's first Aboriginal country/rock comedy musical. That, and the growing international acceptance of traditional Aboriginal art as a vibrant creative outflow, seem to have changed the mood of the Kimberley communities to one of cautious optimism.

The most recent manifestation of this increasing Aboriginal self-confidence is a Darngku heritage cruise through Geikie Gorge being operated by three young Aboriginal guys. The tour is fascinating because it reveals the features through the eyes of a different culture. For many tourists it offers a rare chance to talk to future Aboriginal leaders about their views and attitudes.

I asked Joe Ross what sort of questions they were asked. "Well, for the first hour most of our clients are pretty quiet. I think they are nervous of us and worried about saying something to offend," he replied. "Then they relax when they realise they can say whatever they like. Inevitably, one of the last questions is always about Aboriginal land claims."

The tour has been developed with the assistance of Sam Lovell, an Aboriginal legend of Kimberley tourism who, with his wife Rosita, operated a tour company from Derby for many years. But while Sam has a no-nonsense outdoors man approach to his clients, Joe, Bruce Williams and Clive Atkin are much smoother. Let's say, when I was taking their photo, the stock "cheese" was replaced by the very New York greeting "Yo". I wasn't surprised to learn that they have all taken substantial income cuts to move into tourism. They are doing this from conviction: it's a product they are keen to promote.

About 30,000 people per year visit Geikie Gorge and the perfect reflections, two-toned rock walls, and tales of floods leave few disappointed. Invariably, there are crocodiles basking on the banks and sea eagles in the trees above. In a ecological anomaly, the waters of the gorge are also home to sawfish and stingrays that have adjusted to life in freshwater.

For us, it was time to reboard the aircraft and fly on to Windjana Gorge, another cleft through another fossil reef. Most visitors stay at the comfortable CALM camping area here but we just flew into the brand new airstrip for a quick look before heading onwards. We didn't even have time to travel down to Tunnel Creek, another National Park where you can follow the watercourse for almost a kilometre underground.

Our final remote stop was Mt Hart Station, a veritable oasis in the wilderness. An earlier owner had shipped a lot of fully grown trees and shrubs here and invested months of time on the household garden. Standing on the lush green lawn overlooking the homestead billabong, the typical Kimberley aridity seemed far way. In common with many Kimberley properties, the Mt Hart airstrip was closer than the garage - and neither was more than 100 metres from the living room.

From here, we took two helicopter trips. The first lead us to Bell Gorge where the creek spilled through the cutting in a series of inviting cascades and rock pools. On the way back to the homestead we stopped at the largest boab tree I've ever seen. It took me a full 20 paces to closely circumnavigate its base. A whole rugby team could have posed for photographs in front of it without spilling over the edges.

That afternoon we fulfilled a long ambition of mine and flew over Secure Bay to the Funnel. The Kimberley coast is subjected to tides of over 11 metres and the Funnel is where the whole bay rapidly empties and fills through a very narrow gap. The bay is well named "secure" - you'd have to be crazy to try taking a vessel through these vicious eddies, rips and whirlpools.

However, as we flew over the tranquil turquoise waters within the bay, our pilot pointed out an inlet that he assured me offered "the best barramundi fishing in the whole Kimberley". Apparently, it is possible to get a runabout onto the bay and that gives you exclusive access to a whole population of large suicidal fish.

And so we flew back to Broome which, like the sawfish, is a Kimberley anomaly. Broome has Cable Beach, the only readily accessible beach in the Kimberley and the site of the region's only beach resort. It is also a modern town with an inordinate number of jewellery shops selling the local produce: the pearls that gave rise to the town (and the coloured diamonds from Argyle mine) set in Western Australian gold.

To hear local pastoralists talk, you'd think that Broome was a cross between the Gold Coast, Miami and Gomorrah. In fact, it's a sleepy town that is a good starting point for exploring the Kimberley.

It certainly is a most unusual town. At the southern end of the Kimberley it's about the most remote coastal community in Australia. Yet besides its basic pubs you'll find jewellery shops selling pearls, diamonds and gold for tens of thousands of dollars. There may be a frontier atmosphere in the dusty surrounds but visitors return to sophisticated resorts in the evening.

There's a cultural richness evident in sleepy Chinatown and the rambling Streeters and Male store from BroomeÕs first days. Sun Pictures harks back to the early days of entertainment in the Australian bush: it's an open-air picture theatre that has operated since 1916. It's still packed every Saturday night.

Surprisingly, after Broome was gazetted on 27 November 1883 the Governor of WA, Sir Frederick Broome, complained: "I believe the town named after me . . . is likely to remain a mere ÔdummyÕ townsite inhabited by the tenants of three graves . . . My present idea is to have the name cancelled." He didnÕt get his way and few have any idea after whom the famous town was named.

For much of BroomeÕs existence, it has been known as "the Port of Pearls". When plastic buttons replaced pearl shell after World War II, the pearling industry went into decline. Even so, in 1954 Broome was still being described as a "rip-roaring shanty town". Today Broome has a population of about 7000 people and hasnÕt lost any of its rowdiness.

As one of the most urbanised nations on earth, it's surprising that Australians have preserved the self image that we remain an outback pioneering people. The rewarding part of this delusion is that most of us retain a remarkable affinity for our land, even if we only head bush occasionally. The Kimberley is the undiluted essence of a wild Australia. Seeing its marvels is well worth the effort of getting there.

Travel Fact File

Getting There

Travel to the Kimberley from New Zealand is time consuming. The only practical option is to fly and the Kimberley's airline has long been Ansett Australia. Qantas now has services to Broome and Kununurra, too.

Climate

The main tourist season in the Kimberley is during the Dry from May to September. During the November-December build up to the Wet, humidity is uncomfortably high and few want to be here - even local residents.

Traditionally, the first few months of the year have not been good for Kimberley travel because the roads are impassible after the rains. However, this is also when the Kimberley looks its lush best and the waterfalls and rivers are overflowing. The Ibis concept allows you to get around in the Wet and seeing it during the green season would certainly be an exceptional experience.

Further Information

For information about the Kimberley, contact the Western Australian Tourism Commission at 16 St Georges Terrace, Perth, WA 6000, Australia, Tel (61-9) 483 1111.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd