Western Australia’s Kimberley region spans thousands of square kilometres of ancient landscape – a remote frontier of unspoilt wilderness, rugged sandstone mountain ranges, waterfalls and sprawling rivers, of crocodiles and barramundi, and iconic bottle-shaped boab trees. It is, without a doubt, one of Australia’s most spectacular regions. We spent ten days in the east of this vast territory – visiting Lake Argyle, exploring the breathtaking Bungle Bungle Range, swimming at magical waterfalls at El Questro, and indulging in some remote luxury at Berkeley River Lodge. It was just enough time for a taste of the Kimberley, but I can’t wait to get back to explore the rest!
Here’s our 10-day East Kimberley itinerary – combining self-drive and luxury:
DAY 1 Lake Argyle and Kununurra
The Kimberley is remote. No direct flights from Brisbane, so we fly to Darwin, overnight there, and then head to the East Kimberley’s main town – Kunanurra. We’ve only got one night, so we drop our bags at the Kimberley Grande Hotel (not too grand but pleasant enough) and head straight out to Lake Argyle in our rented 4WD. Lake Argyle, formed by the Ord River dam, is one of the largest manmade lakes in the southern hemisphere. It’s home to thousands of freshwater crocs, but apparently the salties (the dangerous ones) can’t get up the dam wall! The lake is an easy one-hour drive from Kununurra, which gives us time for a fantastic burger for lunch at the holiday park, a swim in the infinity pool ($10 for visitors), before our afternoon cruise on the Kimberley Explorer Durack. The highlight of the 3.5 hours cruise: jumping off the top of the boat into the refreshing water, then being passed a glass of sparkling wine and a noodle float, and bobbing around in the water at sunset. An experience not to be missed!
DAY 2 Bungle Bungles
The 350 million-year-old sandstone domes of the Bungle Bungle Range lie in the Purnululu National Park – 300km south west of Kununurra. The World Heritage listed site is a surreal landscape of beehive-like outcrops, deep red gorges, slot canyons and vibrant green Livistona palms. It’s one of Australia’s most remarkable geological formations, and an absolute must if you’re in the Kimberley, but like everything else in this part of the world, it is very remote.
Many visitors choose to fly in from Kunanurra and stay at Savannah Lodge which is inside the national park, but we’ve opted to drive. We grab a few essential in Kununurra and then head 250 km down the Great Northern Highway. The road cuts through flat red landscape, dotted with boab trees, and eventually gives way to rugged ranges and the unmistakable domes of the Bunge Bungles. After stopping for petrol at the Warmun Roadhouse (don’t miss that one), we take the Purnululu turnoff. We’re staying two nights at the Bungle Bungle caravan park, just off the highway. It’s a great set-up with plenty of space for camping, as well as cabins for visitors who, like us, don’t have camping gear. The caravan park does a great BBQ and communal campfire in the evenings. There’s also a super cute caravan bar, a small shop and helpful staff. From here you can book a helicopter ride over the Bungle Bungles or a 4WD tour. You are still 53km outside the national park here, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but the road to the Bungles is more of a rough dirt track, interspersed with creek crossings. The drive can take up to 2 hours. A 4WD is a must.
It’s mid-afternoon by the time we get into the Purnululu National Park ($15 entry fee per vehicle) – not enough time to see everything, so we head north to Echidna Chasm – a spectacular slot canyon, surrounded by Livistona palms. We have the cool, eerie chasm almost to ourselves, and get to enjoy the afternoon light on the red walls of the gorge before driving back for a BBQ dinner under the full moon. The following day we head off before dawn, and are among the first to get to the more famous south section of the Bungle Bungles. In the early morning light the domes are absolutely breathtaking. No picture prepares you for the scale of the domes, that rise up to 300 metres above the sparse grassland. There are several options for walks here. Allow plenty of time for Cathedral Gorge and Piccaninny Creek and pack lots of water and snacks. It might be cool at first light, but the gorge heats up very quickly!
DAY 4 El Questro
El Questro is a massive wilderness park at the eastern end of the famous Gibb River Road. It’s a three-hour drive from the Bungle Bungle caravan park – back up the Great Northern Highway (83km west of Kununurra). We’re only staying for one night, but the area warrants a lot more time to explore the many waterfalls and rivers. If you’re on a tight schedule – don’t miss Emma Gorge. The rockpool is an hour walk from the car park area, over boulders and uneven ground, but definitely worth the hike. It’s a welcome green oasis. The water is chilly but incredibly refreshing, and who wouldn’t want to swim in a rockpool fed by a 65 metre-high waterfall!
You can stay at Emma Gorge, and get a great lunch at the bistro near the car park, but we’re spending the night further down the track at El Questro station. Lots of accommodations options to choose from here – ranging from camping, to permanent tents, or a luxury stay at the Homestead. The Station, which is the camping hub, has a lively bar and good pub-style food. It gets very busy. We shared the site with more than 400 cyclists who’d just finished the Gibb River challenge. Quite a celebration!
The other place not to miss while you’re at El Questro is Zebedee Springs. The thermal pools are open from 7am-12pm. It’s worth getting here just before gates open to secure a rockpool. Relaxing in a thermal pool on a chilly morning, surrounded by towering Livistona palms, is magical. It’s not quite the same when the crowds arrive!
DAY 5 Berkeley River Lodge
Berkeley River Lodge is a remote piece of paradise on the Kimberley coast – only accessible by air from Kununurra. No need to worry about maps, petrol stations, or flat tyres here. Everything is organised for you – including fishing trips on the Berkeley River, hikes to rockpools, boat excursions, beach drives, spectacular sundowners and beautiful meals overlooking the Timor Sea. The lodge accommodates guests in 20 chic bush villas perched on a hilltop, boasting views of the ocean one way, and the vast Kimberley interior in the other direction. Villas have a private terrace for relaxing, and an outdoor bathtub for making the most of the incredible night sky. If you have the time, and don’t mind dipping into your wallet for an extra adventure, don’t miss the helicopter safari for a swim at an incredibly beautiful waterhole, the chance to see outstanding indigenous rock art and, of course, an unforgettable sunset.
It’s not easy to drag ourselves away from the remote luxury of Berkeley River Lodge after a 5-night stay. Civilisation always seems so uncivil after a stint off the grid, especially when it involves wilderness as beautiful as the Kimberley.
Julie Fison is a Brisbane author and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults, One Punch, is a compelling contemporary drama that tells the story of two mothers facing impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Julie has also written books for children and young adults, including the Hazard River series, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series, and a play for high schools, As the Crow Flies. When not at her desk, you can find Julie hiking a bush trail with her energetic border collie, exploring the outback, or chasing the perfect sunset. She is a committed traveller and enjoys sharing tips for midlife adventure. www.juliefison.com