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There’s no sugar-coating it: Kununurra’s no easy place to get to. Ten hours’ drive south-west of Darwin and serviced by only a handful of regional flights each week, the town of 6000 near the WA-NT border is no chance of attracting city slickers from the southern states for a quick weekend away. But for the intrepid adventurer determined to tread every sunburnt corner of this wide brown land, the rugged wilderness of the East Kimberley is worth every last second of that long journey . . . and these are the five experiences that keep a stream of travellers making the pilgrimage north.
Despite both falling under the umbrella of the Kimberley, Kununurra and Broome are more than 1000km apart – a couple of hundred kays more than Sydney to Melbourne, and a tick less than London to Munich. Six hundred and sixty kilometres of that distance is covered by the Gibb River Road, a scenic route that can only be tackled in a four-wheel drive. Kununurra is the popular starting point for this epic road trip through some of Australia’s most remote terrain, where you’ll stumble upon plenty of idyllic gorges and swimming holes and wild freshwater crocodiles . . . just hopefully not at the same time. The vast Mitchell Plateau – home of the towering Mitchell Falls – is a slight detour off the Gibb, but it’s a compulsory pit stop along the way.
Only four hours from Kununurra down the Great Northern Highway – and yes, in country as remote as this, four hours does qualify as ‘only’ – lies the Bungle Bungle Range, an otherworldly collection of beehive-like domes dating back 350 million years. Indigenous people have lived in the area for 40,000 years – the ancient art and numerous burial sites are evidence of that – but the Bungle Bungles were a secret to the rest of the world until 1983, when a documentary team exposed these giant sandstone towers layered in orange, black and red stripes of rock. You can 4WD or hike through the World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park to appreciate the Bungle Bungles, or enjoy a bird’s-eye view – five tour operators arrange flights departing Kununurra by plane or helicopter.
The soupy humidity of the WA tropics will make your mouth water for an icy cold beer or a chilled glass of wine, and there’s no better place for a drink than the deck of the PumpHouse restaurant and bar, watching the sun set on a sweltering day over Lake Kununurra. Both the township and the restaurant owe their existence to the Ord River Irrigation Project in the 1960s – the old pump station was decommissioned in 1971 and re-opened as the PumpHouse in 2008, serving up innovative cuisine that incorporates the freshest Kimberley produce with the pump station’s original equipment and the sweeping waterway providing a memorable backdrop. And if that doesn’t quench your thirst, visit Australia’s oldest legal and continuously operating rum distillery – the wonderfully named ‘Hoochery’ – on a sugar cane farm 15 minutes out of town.
Originally a cattle station, El Questro’s 6000 cows now play second fiddle to the visitors who flock here to explore the property’s sandstone ranges, waterfalls, thermal springs, gorges, and pockets of rainforests . . . you’ll get a month’s worth of Instagram fodder from just one solid day’s exploration! Only a fraction smaller than the entire city of Adelaide, El Questro’s 700,000 acres of diverse terrain can be discovered by helicopter, horseback, hike or 4WD, 110km east of Kununurra and one of the first stops on the Gibb. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the name that sounds like it’d be more at home in Texas or New Mexico than the Australian outback, your guess is as good as anyone’s – that’s just what it was called when the claim on the land was pegged in 1958.
If you’re sick of jumping behind the wheel and driving for hours to explore the ancient landscapes of the East Kimberley, you’ll love Mirima, a national park that hugs the eastern edge of the Kununurra township. Hidden Valley National Park – or Mirima to the Indigenous Miriwoong people – is nicknamed the mini Bungle Bungles for its own 300-million-year-old sedimentary formations, which produce spectacular photos when the sunlight reflects off the steep walls of colourful layered rock. Mirima is best discovered by foot – there are three short signposted trails, but the most spectacular vistas and hidden springs are found by wandering off the beaten track. While you’re exploring the outdoors around town, check out Molly Springs (below) about 30km away, and head to Lily Creek Lagoon to check out the striking ‘Sleeping Buddha’ rock formation, so called because it looks like a big fella with a beer gut lying on his back, baking in the East Kimberley sunshine.
April to August is the best time of year to make the long journey to Kununurra. High season is May to September, but you miss all the waterfalls flowing in April, and by September it’s getting too hot for southerners as the mercury soars past 36 degrees on average. October to December is thunderstorm season then the summer monsoon between January and March causes many road closures, which is a nightmare for visitors.
The award-winning Kimberley Croc Backpackers is a leafy, resort-style hostel in the heart of the Kununurra township. Oh, and don’t worry – every room is air-conditioned.
Phone: +61 8 9168 2702