Travel: Kimberley, Western Australia

The Kimberley's' Bungle Bungles. Picture: Lisa Young

The Kimberley's' Bungle Bungles. Picture: Lisa Young

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ESPECIALLY from the air, Western Australia’s Kimberley region is a never-ending source of fascination, writes Lisa Young

My journey started straddled across the back of a camel, striding along a short section of Broome’s 22 kilometres of white sand beaches. Broome is in the far north of Western Australia, in the heart of the Kimberley region. This covers approximately 423,000 square kilometres and, with a population of just 30,000, it has fewer people per square kilometre than almost any other place on Earth.

There’s a relaxed atmosphere here, almost hippie-like, and plenty to see. Among the interesting places to visit are Matso’s Broome Brewery, Chinatown, the Japanese Cemetery and Gantheaume Point. Broome also has the oldest outdoor deckchair cinema in the world.

I took to the skies with Kimberley Aviation Air Safari for a spectacular scenic flight over the King Sound, the ancient Kimbolton Ranges and the Horizontal Waterfalls. We landed in remote Cape Leveque for breakfast and a swim in the refreshing, cool Indian Ocean, with rich red rock walls standing tall against the white sand and turquoise water.

Leaving Broome’s Cable Beach Resort, our next stop was Kununurra: a one-hour flight southeast. We passed over the heart of the Kimberley, where dirt tracks connect outback towns and national parks.

The town of Kununurra sits on the Ord River. It’s the ideal base to explore the Bungle Bungle Range, the Ord River, Lake Argyle, the Mitchell Plateau and other spectacular regional sites — including a top fishing spot for catching delicious barramundi fish. I was in Kununurra for the Argyle Diamond Ord Valley Muster. From a humble one-night affair in 2001, the Muster has expanded into a national festival. It highlights the extraordinary diversity of the east Kimberley culture and landscape over 10 days and in different locations, featuring a line-up of local musical acts, celebrity cooking events and activities. Attractions include a tour of the Argyle Diamond Mine (famous for its pink diamonds), rodeos, wild walks, tours of the cattle stations, kids’ events and a gruelling mountain bike race.

The highlight was the Kimberley Moon Experience: a dining and concert affair that was staged on the banks of the Ord River. It attracts city and countryfolk alike, from farmers and stockmen to celebrities and politicians. Top Australian acts included Dan Sultan, Megan Washington and The Whitlams.

The PumpHouse Restaurant is certainly a unique place to dine during the day or evening. It sits high on the banks of the Ord River, and from the terrace you can throw bread to the awaiting fresh water crocodiles that gather below in the river in the hope of receiving a few leftovers.

In the morning, we left the Kimberley Grande Hotel and headed to the airport to take to the skies in a six-seater plane with Aviair for an aerial tour of the nearby Purnululu National Park and the famous Bungle Bungle Range. The stunning World Heritage-listed range is one of Australia’s great natural wonders and only very recently became known as a travel destination to non-Aboriginal Australians. Our small plane landed smoothly on the red dirt runway, known as Bellburn Airstrip, just as the sun cast an intense deep red glow over the massive, beehive-shaped sandstone karsts of the range.

We exchanged our plane for a HeliSpirit helicopter tour of inspiring aerial views offering the best of the Bungle Bungles, a memorable 30-minute flight that takes passengers close to the spectacular Deep and Piccaninny Gorges.

We later took to our feet for an even closer look at the gorges. Walking into Cathedral Gorge, I was overwhelmed by its towering red rock walls. The three-kilometre return walk passes through looming rock cliffs which lead to a natural amphitheatre and large pool of water. A small sign on the track describes the area as “a place of interaction between water, wind, sandstone and time” – a perfect description. It’s so quiet out there, the air is dry and clean and everything smells fresh.

Daytime temperatures can get up to 40C, very hot indeed, and it’s advisable to always carry water with you and protect yourself from the strong sunshine by using plenty of sunblock and wearing a hat.

Our return flight to Kununurra gave us spectacular aerial views of the Ord River, Bow River cattle station, Lake Argyle and the diamond mine.

The following morning, we left Kununurra for the exclusive one million-acre El Questro Wilderness Park, located on a section of the “unsealed” Gibb River Road. Due to heavy, wet, seasonal weather, El Questro and the Gibb only open during the dry season between April and October.

On the road the dramatic Pentecost Range rears up, dark and rugged, with the broad, tidal Pentecost River flowing below. In the distance, I spotted a menacing-looking reminder that we were in cattle country: a road train ploughing its way towards us. Each of these vast juggernauts can carry hundreds of cows. We hastily rolled up the windows as the intimidating monster thundered past, making our vehicle wobble and causing everything to vanish in a billowing red dust cloud.

Until a few years ago, El Questro was a working cattle station, but today it is an exclusive one million-acre private wilderness park offering an authentic flavour of Outback life.

At El Questro you can spend your nights camping under the stars; stay in a small yet very comfortable bungalow close to the station township; chill out in a tented cabin at the pretty Emma Gorge Resort; or splash out big time and stay at one of Australia’s most exclusive addresses: the recently refurbished El Questro Homestead – a favourite bolthole for the likes of Nicole Kidman and Kylie Minogue.

We didn’t stay long, but could quite easily have remained there a whole week with everything that’s on offer: 4WD vehicles, off-road tracks, hiking trails, horse riding, swimming holes and the helicopter tours.

Climbing into a helicopter one bright, fresh morning, a different world started to unfold before me. My heart was in my mouth as we swooped into massive rust red canyons, taking in close-up views of cascading waterfalls, and then hovering above saltwater crocodiles, waiting for unsuspecting prey.

With such spectacles as this, no wonder Western Australians “staycation” with pride.

FACT FILE

• Austravel (0800 988 4834, http://www.austravel.com/) offers an eight-day tour of Perth and the Kimberley region from £1,549 per person. Prices include return flights from Glasgow with Emirates; two nights’ accommodation in Perth, four nights in Kimberley, one night in Broome, and five days’ car hire. Based on travel in September 2015. For further information on Western Australia, visit www.westernaustralia.com

• Where to stay: Cable Beach Club (http://www.cablebeachclub.com/); Mangrove Resort Hotel (http://www.mangrovehotel.com.au/); The Kimberley Grande Hotel, Kununurra (http://www.kimberleygrande.com.au/); El Questro Wilderness Park (http://www.elquestro.com.au/).

• Activities: Red Sun Camel Rides (http://www.redsuncamels.com.au/); Pearl Farm (http://www.cygnetbaypearls.com.au/); Kimberley Aviation ({www.kimberleyaviation.com.au|http://kimberleyaviation.com.au/|Link to article}; The Bungle Bungles Scenic Helicopter Tour (http://www.helispirit.com.au/); East Kimberley Tours (http://www.eastkimberleytours.com.au/); Lake Argyle tours with Triple J Tours (http://triplejtours.com.au/)

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