OUT OF THE ORD

Ku­nunurra re­ally comes alive dur­ing its an­nual tourism muster, re­ports Mark Day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Australian Holidays -

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?

Check­list

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

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