OUT OF THE ORD
Kununurra really comes alive during its annual tourism muster, reports Mark Day
IF we allow ourselves to use the vernacular of its landscape — big, wide and sweeping — we can arrive at the proposition that Kununurra defines Australia. In a sense, it is true of the nation. It is definitely true of the movie. Location scenes for the epic outback adventure Australia are being filmed near Kununurra this month. The region was chosen by director Baz Luhrmann because it has the quintessential Australian look.
The vast red-rock formations of the Kimberley, folded by primordial forces, scoured by millions of years of withering winds and rains, baked under azure skies by a blistering sun, are perfect for a cinematic saga of pain and passion.
The scale of the Kimberley defeats description: vastness formed from a palette of reds, purples, mauves, lavenders and golds dotted with saltbush grey-green. It portrays a worldwide perception of Australia as the earth’s last, vast frontier. It is also the Australia of our modern dreamtime, as remote from the everyday realities of our city lives as it is geographically.
Kununurra — an Aboriginal word meaning ‘‘ big waters’’ — has a population of about 6000 and is roughly halfway between Broome and Darwin, in Western Australia’s northwest. It is the service centre for the east Kimberley region’s economic drivers: agriculture, mining and tourism.
It is only 45 years old, a modern town in an ancient land. It sits in the shadows of 350 million-year-old rocks where, for the past 40 million years or so, Aborigines have daubed their distinctive, alien-like figures on cave walls and roofs.
A little more than a century ago its isolation was invaded by the first of the cattle barons, Irish-born Patrick Durack, who in 1882 drove 7250 cattle 4800km from Queensland. It was the longest droving trek in history, taking almost 21/ years. Half the cattle were lost on the way, but by 1886 Durack had established Argyle station on the lush grassy plains of the Ord River Basin.
Today the Argyle homestead has been drowned under Lake Argyle, one of the world’s biggest man-made freshwater lakes. If the Kimberley region is the essence of Australia, Lake Argyle is the essence of Kununurra. It provides the water and the hydro-electric power that underpins the east Kimberley. The water is used on the rich, black-earth laser-levelled flats that fill the river valleys of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, a food bowl that annually produces tens of millions of dollars worth of agricultural produce for Asian and local markets.
The locals brag that everything grows here, from asparagus to zucchini. Sugar is the staple, but you’ll also find melons by the million and, increasingly, vast sandalwood plantations. When the available land is fully developed, the scheme will amount to a 65,000ha market garden.
Each year Kununurra stages its Ord Valley Muster and Kimberley Moon Experience, twin tourism promotions attracting thousands of visitors to three weeks of activities. There are four-wheel-drive adventures on the Gibb River road, swimming races across Lake Argyle, mountain biking amid the gorges and ravines, a film festival, art gallery displays and karaoke contests at the local pub. There are special tours arranged for the muster, as well as those available throughout the dry season. It all culminates in a night under the full moon beside the Ord where, this year, Marcia Hines would have brought the house down if there had been a roof.
Unless you stay for the duration it’s impossible to see it all. My itinerary includes guided tours into Aboriginal lands, but late changes make it impossible to participate. Nevertheless, there is much to do.
The Bungle Bungle: First, a tip: you are visiting the Kimberley, not the Kimberleys, and the Bungle Bungle range is singular, too. You can get away with ‘‘ the Bungles’’ but it’s uncool to call them the Bungle Bungles. Truly cool is to show respect and use the indigenous name, Purnululu.
A visit to the Bungle Bungle is a remarkable experience but take another tip: do it twice. Most people see the Bungles from the air. Alligator Airways and Slingair make Kununurra airport the third busiest in WA with their conga line of light aircraft flying south for a tightly controlled figure of eight over the range.
Alternatively, you can fly to a strip beside the massif and take a bubble-nosed helicopter flight over it. From the air you see endless beehives of rock formations, the eroded stumps of 350 million-year-old mountains, into which deep ravines have been cut by the swirling waters of countless monsoons. It is utterly unlike any other place on earth.
To comprehend the size and nature of the formations, you have to see it from the air. Yet it is from the ground that its beauty and the magnitude of the forces that created it can truly be appreciated.
Walk into Echidna Chasm — 50m deep and 2m wide — and break out into a cauldron of rock like the innards of a washing machine. You’ll be gobsmacked.
Ground tours involve a 350km drive from Kununurra, then a gruelling 4WD trek over rocks and creek beds, but it’s worth it. A close-up look at (but no touching) the unique stratified lichen and silica surface of the beehives illustrates the fragility of this ancient wonder. It will all be worn away in another 100 million years, the experts say.
Lake Argyle sunset cruise: After an unseasonably grey day, low clouds blot out the late afternoon sun as we motor from the mooring near the Ord River dam. On each side of a narrow passage, red rocks tower above, twisted and tortured by tectonic forces eons ago; islands, once mountain tops, punctuate the water’s mirror-like surface as waterbirds circle.
Suddenly the sun pierces the gap between the clouds and the horizon. In seconds, the grey dissolves into gold and light sweeps the underside of the clouds in a spectacular sunset display that lingers into the dusk. Using spotlights, we find baby crocodiles feeding in the weeds close to shore. During the muster, long-distance swimming events are held in the lake. We are assured the crocs here are the freshwater species, which don’t eat people. Yeah, sure.
Argyle diamond mine tour: Diamonds are such small things it’s hard to credit that such a huge hole in the ground is needed to find them. At 2km long, 1km wide and almost 1km deep, the open-cut mine redefines the word big. It has been worked continuously, around the clock, 365 days a year since 1983 and its ancient volcanic pipes have yielded more than 670 million carats of diamonds, including the prized Argyle pinks.
The diamond-bearing ore is blasted from the pit at the rate of 11 million tonnes a month and crushed to the size of gravel to extract the tiny gems. Soon the mine will go underground to follow their trail deeper into the earth. If a two-hour bus trip to see big holes, diggers and trucks doesn’t appeal, the diamonds on display in the mine’s showroom should set the heart aflutter, and lunch in the miners’ cafeteria is a memorable all-you-caneat experience.
Macka’s barra camp: Fishing is not an official Ord Valley Muster activity but the lure of barramundi proves too strong.
Macka’s camp is about 50km from Kununurra, amid an extraordinary boab forest where thousands of agile wallabies seem to think a road is a place especially prepared for their rest. They scatter only at the last second as our bus approaches.
The camp is built high on a cliff above the Ord. It’s hard to believe the sign marking the level of the March 2006 flood (head high, adjacent to the bar), but the pictures prove otherwise: the river rose more than 30m. It is running strongly the day of our visit and the guide predicts the best fish will be farther downstream. We take a bus past the location of Faraway Downs, the movie set for Australia , then skim in a 6m tinnie past glowering saltwater crocs (the ones that do eat you) towards the Ord’s mouth, about 60km north.
We graft out a hard day’s fishing under a hot sun. There are plenty of saw-nose sharks, catfish, stingrays and threadfin salmon, but the prized barra are few and far between. Fishing has always been an excuse for other forms of discovery, and the raw, unadulterated product of nature’s handiwork on the lower Ord displaces any disappointment about failing to catch the big one.
Carlton Hill station tour: Tourism, intensive irrigated cultivation and mining tend to distract from cattle grazing, the traditional use of the river plains in the Top End. But the industry thrives around Kununurra and on this day tour we see how it is done. To feed the man meat, you must feed the beasts leucaena, a high-protein legume that adds almost 1kg a day to the weight of steers.
Carlton Hill, part of James Packer’s Consolidated Pastoral empire, has 850ha of leucaena under irrigation, enabling it to export almost 10,000 steers a year. It’s a huge and impressive operation and if the sight of paddocks of tree legumes is a trifle underwhelming, the floppy-eared cattle with their sad brown eyes at least look cute.
Graves in the long grass: This tour surprises as the most interesting of all: a walk through the long grass to find the graves of Ord pioneers. It’s an off-the-beaten track tour and all the better for it.
Walking through the 2m-high grass, over cattle-pitted black soil, amid boab and konkerberry trees, we get a sense of the isolation and loneliness of the pioneers.
On the site of the old Ivanhoe station is the grave of Neal Durack who, in 1920, went to the races at Victoria River Downs and won the handsome sum of £500. Ever gallant, he decided to rush to Wyndham so he could give the money to his wife who was about to leave on a ship to sail south and give birth to their second child.
Rain had turned the Ord into a flooding torrent, but the dashing former Light Horse soldier tucked the money into his hat and dived in. He and his money disappeared midstream. His mates took up a collection to replace the winnings and gave it to his widow.
Nearby is the grave of Dave Suttee, a stockman who was Aeneas Gunn’s inspiration for Dan in her classic tale of outback life, We of the Never Never . Dan is said to have consumed a gallon of rum on a binge in Wyndham. He went to sleep beside a creek near Ivanhoe and was found dead there the next day.
They say his ghost may be heard on moonlit nights at Capsize Creek and if that’s not dinkum Australia, then what is?
The 2008 Ord Valley Muster and Kimberley Moon Experience will run from May 2 to 18. Kununurra is 900km west of Darwin and 1050km east of Broome on Highway 1, which is sealed all the way. Air North flies from Darwin. Hotels include the Mercure, Grande, Kununurra, Country Club and Lakeside Resort, all of which have bistros or dining rooms, as does Gullivers Tavern. There are also three backpacker hostels and two caravan parks. Best in the dry season from April to November when daytime temperatures are about 30C. It can be uncomfortably hot and humid during the summer wet. www.ordvalleymuster.com www.alligatorairways.com.au www.slingair.com.au. www.lakeargyle.com www.mackasbarra.com.au www.kununurratourism.com www.westernaustralia.com
Rocks and crocs: Keeping an eye out for crocodiles while cruising placid Lake Argyle, where drowned mountain tops pierce the surface
Deep silence: Piccaninny Creek in Western Australia’s Bungle Bungle range
Wild side: Walking Echidna Chasm
Slow boat: A sunset cruise on Lake Argyle