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The jewel of Western Australia

The jewel of Western Australia

Get up close and personal with waterfalls, gorges, mountain ranges and even crocodiles in the Kimberley

By Melinda Healy

Published: Fri 13 Sep 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 13 Sep 2019, 2:00 AM

As the cruiser comes to a halt in the middle of the largest man-made freshwater reservoir in the West, it's a case of 'if you can't beat them, join them' as the crew announces it's time for a dip ... in croc-infested waters.
Before I know it, I'm floating with nothing but a pool noodle and an inflatable food platter for company, one eye on the boat and the other on my immediate surroundings.
Yes, it's a bold move when you consider Lake Argyle is home to the world's largest population of Johnston River Freshwater crocodiles and that we've been told, in no uncertain terms, that swimming is very much at our own risk. Before you wonder if I'm crazy, it's worth noting that these creatures are quite timid and "generally not dangerous to humans".
According to our guides, the local 'freshies' are mostly found in secluded bays and inlets closer to shore where they can bask in the sun or nest. We're in a section of the lake where there's very little chance we'll encounter one, so we splash about in the balmy April water for about 30 minutes, keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of the snappy residents that may be lurking beneath.
As the sun begins to dip, it's back onto the boat, another incredible travel experience ticked off the destination hit-list.
This is my first trip to the Kimberleys, a region 1.7 times the size of the United Kingdom and has long been regarded as the jewel of Western Australia and one of the country's foremost bucket-list destinations for international travellers. Not only does it boast a brilliant landscape with plenty of steep waterfalls and gorges, ancient craggy mountain ranges and picturesque lakes and rivers, the Kimberleys are also home to the largest diamond producer in the world by volume, Argyle Diamonds, and some of the country's most prominent indigenous artists and Aboriginal rock art that dates back thousands of years.
There's a thriving fishing industry and plenty of wildlife with the local Barramundi population growing up to a humongous 200cm and weighing as much as 60 kilograms, and 300 different bird species.
 The history, too, is incredible and there's far more colour than even I expected. The natural ochre hues we're used to seeing in the brochures and tourist magazines are beautifully complemented by bright blue skies, glassy turquoise waters and vibrant orange sunsets. Since arriving a few days ago, I've spent much of my time marvelling at the diverse and unexpected colour palette and, at the same time, appreciating that I'm actually traversing an area that welcomed some of the Australia's earliest settlers, the first of which are believed to have landed here about 40,000 years ago from Indonesia.
My Kimberley adventure began in Kununurra, the small outback town 3,228 kilometres north of the state's capital, Perth, and a six-and-a-half-hour drive from the Northern Territory border. Established in 1961 as an outpost for the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, Kununurra is the gateway to the world-famous Bungle Bungle range in Purnululu National Park. One of the most striking geological landmarks in the state, drawing as many as 43,000 visitors annually, these beehive-like mounds are best seen from the sky, and fortunately, we're able to do this from our Aviair charter plane. As we make our way over the mass of sculptured rocks that stand as high as 200 metres above the flat plain below I can't help but be mesmerised by the orange and black stripes atop these 350-million-year-old sandstone beauties.
As picturesque as this mass of sculptured rocks is from the air and how overbearing it is at ground-level, it's hard to believe that the 45,000-acre ranges were kept secret until 1983. It was only then that a crew filming a documentary stumbled across them and shared their 'discovery' with the world. Four years later, the area was declared a national park and by 2003, it was inscribed on the World Heritage register.
While our aerial view provides a sense of scale, nothing beats being amongst these ancient structures on foot, especially if you're joined by an Aboriginal local like we are on our three-kilometre walk. Kolya Sampi is part of the Gija clan and has a fierce affinity to this land, a land that boasts indigenous artworks thousands of years old.
"My grandfather's, grandfather's, grandfather is from around here, so it has a lot of meaning for me," Sampi tells us quietly as we wander into Cathedral Gorge, an astonishing geological formation with wonderful acoustics. "My uncle's a ranger here too so. we're here a lot."
Sampi is clearly still as taken by this magnificent landscape as we are and as I take a few quiet moments to gaze toward the heavens surrounded by this natural amphitheatre of red rock he begins to mimic a bird cry - it's a special moment in a special place.
The handprints and boomerang works etched into the ancient rock send my mind wandering back to the Dreamtime, and I find myself immensely proud to be here, learning about this part of Australia.
As we make our way out of the park at the end of a long day of immersive hiking, it's these words from one of my fellow travellers, a Frenchman from Paris, that sum things up the best: "Australia sure is one beautiful country, you're so lucky to live here," he says. How right he is, that's why it's called the Lucky Country, and with El Questro Wilderness Park as the next stop, I'm certain the sentiment will be reaffirmed several more times in the coming days.
El Questro Wilderness Park is part of El Questro Station, a cattle station-cum-tourist park that's renowned for its vast, stunning terrain. We arrive at sunset and the sun dips quickly, I can't wait to see more of the 700,000-acre property tomorrow when we go on our full-day tour of Emma Gorge that includes a dip in the watering hole, a soak in Zebedee Springs - the 'fertile' springs thought to be responsible for helping Australian actress Nicole Kidman fall pregnant with her first child, Sunday Rose - and an afternoon cruise of Chamberlain Gorge.
After an evening of cane toad encounters and the occasional snake sighting, it's up and at 'em early for the drive to Emma Gorge Resort where our Gorge Walk will begin. It's very rocky, sometimes unsteady terrain, so may take a little longer than the hour expected depending on our fitness level. I surprise myself, but in the heat and full sun I couldn't be happier to see the waterhole when we finally make our approach after 1.6 kilometres of moderate climbing.
As we prepare ourselves for a refreshing dip at the base of the towering 65-metre chasm, we're told a croc was spotted here recently, so it is with some trepidation that I lower myself into the fresh clear waters hoping once again that it's not my time to be snapped up. It's not surprisingly I'm out and dried off before the others, not wanting to take any more chances, and I'm one of the first back to the bus.
Once the stragglers catch up, we make the short drive to the entrance to Zebedee Springs and make our way on foot through pre-historic forest of Livistonia and pandanus palms to a series of inviting thermal pools and waterfalls - the perfect way to end a two-and-a-half-hour hike through rocky terrain and we've got it all to ourselves.
A cruise of the Chamberlain Gorge rounds out our itinerary before we reminisce about another brilliant Kimberley day at dinner and head to our cabins to prepare for tomorrow's sojourn to an Aussie caravan park where our five-day Kimberley adventure will come to a close.
Lake Argyle Caravan Park and Resort covers an area of more than five hectares and lays claim to 100 shady powered caravan sites and some stunning views.
When we arrive, I can't help but feel like we're on top of the world. The landscape is incredible and my thoughts flash to the iconic film Australia, that starred Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
I'm up with the birds on our final morning, making my way into an expanse of water I know won't have a snappy local in it. There's no better way to bid farewell to this picturesque place than from the extremes of a 35-metre infinity pool and as the sun pokes its head above the mountains, I can see why it's called the sunburnt country.

Getting there:
Emirates flies direct to Perth, Western Australia, from Dubai for around Dh5,800 return.
(The writer was a guest of Tourism Australia.)

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