THE KIMBERLEY - EASTERN SECTION
Don't rush through the beautiful East Kimberley area - updated July 2017.
It’s tempting for east coasters emerging from the Tanami Desert to push through the East Kimberley region and onto the Gibb River Road, but you need more time near the WA border before going west.
The East Kimberley delights begin with a short, corrugated detour from the Tanami Road into Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater National Park.
“What, more corrugations?” we hear you cry. “After a thousand kays of them on the Tanami?”
Yes, ‘fraid so: the track into Wolfe Creek is in worse condition than most of the Tanami, but thankfully it’s a short run. When your teeth stop chattering you can park near the Crater and there’s an acceptable bush camp setup as well. A short walk takes you up to the Crater rim, for an awe-inspiring view of this significant impact hole, one of the largest in the world.
Scientists calculate that the Crater was formed 300,000 years ago, when a large meteor arrived at a speed around 15 kilometres per second, blasting itself into fragments that dot the landscape in a four-kilometre circle around the site. Rusted lumps of the meteor can easily be spotted on the Crater rim. There’s a track into the centre of the Crater and the walk makes a good leg-stretch after 4WD-bouncing along the Tanami Road.
The next significant site in the East K is Old Halls Creek. Old Halls Creek is the site of the first gold discovery in Western Australia in 1885 and much of the present day Great Northern Highway follows the original Halls Creek to Wyndham road, which was used to transport miners and supplies from and gold to that northern port.
‘New’ Halls Creek is 15 kilometres to the northwest, on the Highway.
Old Halls Creek features ruins of the old mud-built Post Office and foundations of long-gone buildings, reminding visitors that this was once a lively town with a population of over 3000. The Post Office ruins have been fenced off in a protective but most unfriendly manner – a walkway through the wire mesh might have been nice - but the restored cemetery is fascinating. The caravan park has fallen on hard times in recent years, but the facilities are OK and there are shaded and powered sites available.
Diesel history freaks will get off by rummaging through piles of scrap at the Old Halls Creek caravan park. We came across the remains of an interesting Rolls Royce diesel engine. RR is better known for its aero engines and passenger cars than it is for diesels, but the company produced diesels from early after WW II until the 1980s. This engine was a four-stroke six cylinder diesel with gear-driven supercharger - good for 180hp at 1800rpm. It was the powerplant for Vickers VR 180 crawler tractors produced at RR’s Tyneside factory from 1952.
A short side trip takes you to the ‘China Wall’; a natural white quartz wall which looks just like a miniature Great Wall of China. In the early Dry Season you can enjoy a swim in the shady stream below the wall.
It’s worth a walk across the creek, because you can see the quartz vein continuing across the red, rocky landscape for 15 kilometres.
‘New’ Halls Creek is a good refuelling spot, before you turn right to Purnululu National Park (the Bungle Bungles).
Purnululu National Park
This World Heritage listed area is justifiably famous and you’ll need a minimum two-day stay to appreciate its glory.
The drive in from the Highway is demanding in places and requires high ground clearance.
There are two National Park campsites, one privately-run campsite and four Class 3 walks that are essential.
Doing two walks each day and one helicopter scenic flight is the best arrangement and if you’re staying longer you can do an overnight hike up Piccaninny Gorge.
The characteristic ‘beehive’ formations began as ocean sediments some 360 million years ago, but erosion began when the sandstone area was pushed upwards, fracturing it into sections that have become today’s domed hills and gorges.
Millions of years of wind and water action have carved the Bungle Bungle Ranges into shapes as varied as the huge ‘amphitheatre’ at Cathedral Gorge, the narrow defile at Echidna Chasm and the broad, stony expanse of Piccaninny Creek.
The distinctive grey and red ‘banding’ on the domes is caused by different strata in the sandstone: clay-rich layers host dark-coloured cyanobacteria and drier levels contain iron that imparts a rust colour.
Our last visit was a welcome return to the Bungles, after a 20-year absence. Although the Park has more camping space than before, plus an airfield, it
was pleasing to note that the original flavour has been retained. In fact, revegetation has improved the entire area, including the campsites.
As with many Outback 4WD destinations, Purnululu is best appreciated by using your vehicle to get to parking areas, then walking to the highlights.
The absolute 'musts' are Cathedral Gorge and Echidna Chasm, both being two-kilometre return walks that can each be strolled in about two hours.
Picaninny Gorge is a much longer walk that is best split into a two-day hike for the very fit.
Cathedral Gorge is stunning at any time of the day, but Echidna Chasm is at its best in the afternoon, when the vertical walls glow magically. Note that
the small coloured specks in these two photos are people: the caverns and gorges are huge!
As with all the walks around Purnululu, the Mini Palms Gorge climb is worth all the exertion when you reach the end of the track. A nursery-like plot of small palm trees growing out of a black sand 'garden' is the last thing you'd expect to find. When you turn back, you're dazzled by a vista of rolling hills to the west and glowing red rock walls on both sides; the panorama studded with silhouetted Livistonia palms.
North of Purnululu is the town of Kununurra, which is the ideal spot for stocking up, vehicle and tyre repairs, and a side trip by road or aircraft down
to Lake Argyle, the heart of the Ord River Scheme of the 1960s.
Diamonds and irrigation water from Argyle have allowed Kununurra to prosper, but it’s a strange place, without the expected ‘touristy’ features, such as a choice of coffee shops and restaurants. It’s possible that the several resorts and camping grounds have collared the tourist catering market.
The gem at Kununurra is Mirima National Park, formerly Hidden Valley NP, on the edge of town and a walk or short drive from the shopping centre. This ‘mini-Bungle Bungles’ National Park features banded beehive rock formations, so it’s the perfect destination for those who have had to bypass Purnululu. Graded trails and metal staircases make a walking tour of this Park very easy.
Hidden Valley Tourist Park backs right up to Mirima National Park and there’s an unsigned track leading into the National Park from the Tourist Park boundary.
Wyndham used to be the prominent town in the East Kimberly when its port ferried precious metal ore and butchered meat to southern destinations, but road trains made sea transport redundant and Wyndham contracted.
Kununurra’s proximity to The Ord, Lake Argyle and the Great Northern Highway helped it displace Wyndham. However, the town is well worth a visit, for history’s sake and to drive to the spectacular Five Rivers Lookout that overlooks Cambridge Gulf.
By far the most interesting way to approach Wyndham is via the Parry Creek Road that crosses a long, concrete causeway on the northern side of Kununurra and snakes across the grasslands of Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve; a world recognised birdlife sanctuary. A late afternoon or early morning hour or two spent in the ‘hide’ at Marlgu Billabong is an unforgettable experience.
Parry Creek Farm is a great place to camp on real grass, or live it up a little in a riverside hut. This 50-hectare haven straddles the Ord River adjacent to the 3600-hectare Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve, so the birdlife is almost unbelievable.
We drove down the historic Old Halls Creek Road to The Grotto on our way to the Gibb River Road. The original stone foundations of this track are still
in place along the route, as are some of the stone causeways.
On the bitumen run into Wyndham there’s a sign to The Grotto, which hardly does this remarkable rockhole justice. From the car park it looks like a large hole in the rocky ground, but climb carefully down around 140 steps and you find yourself on the edge of a large, permanent rock pool enclosed by vertical cliffs.
The waterfall is at its best early in The Dry and stops flowing by early winter, but the deep pool remains. The shady creek is worth exploring, because there’s Aboriginal art on some of the rock faces.
Camping is blissful at Parry Creek Farm, but it’s less so at the next East Kimberley destination: El Questro.
The popularity of this magnificent property means that the campground is always packed during the dry season months. There are some isolated, private camping areas on El Questro, but the first-come-best-dressed system means you have to stand in line every morning to see if someone leaves a site. There has to be a better way!
It’s worth putting up with crowded camping for two or three nights, because there’s much to see at ELQ. There are scenic 4WD tracks to explore and all of them lead to magnificent views and waterholes. Several walking tracks are also ‘must-dos’.
Emma Gorge is famous for its huge rockhole, but the trek in is dry and stony, with several rock-hopping sections. Many people ‘chicken out’ of a swim once they feel the chilly water temperature!
Chamberlain Gorge is more civilised and the best way to appreciate it is on a boat tour.
Years ago, we were fortunate to have Buddy Tyson as our host for the splendid gorge trip. This famous ex-stockman described the aboriginal artworks in
the gorge, demonstrated how ropes and bull whips were used, and recounted droving tales.
A dip in the warm thermal water at Zebedee Springs is a compulsory morning event. It’s only a short walk from the car park and great fun. Private guests
have exclusive access in the afternoon.
El Questro Gorge track is an easy walk through a Livistona Palm forest between red rocky walls. Most of it is sheltered and relatively cool, even in the middle of the day.
The walks into Amalia Gorge, Moonshine Gorge and Champagne Springs are 2-4-hour treks that are best attempted early in the season, rather than in the heat of the mid-Dry.
The escarpment and river drives around ELQ are brilliant, but they’re suitable only for 4WDs with low range gearing and high ground clearance. Steep climbs and descents, stony river crossings and sandy, dusty sections abound, but the views are worth it. Pigeon Hole, Explosion Gorge and Saddleback Ridge are all delightfully different.
Tier Gorge Circuit is 43km east of ELQ and is best visited on the way in from the east, but if you want to dot the ‘Is’ and cross the ‘Ts’ you should have your ELQ Wilderness Pass with you before you drive the Tier Gorge Circuit.
The Circuit runs through open woodland and crosses numerous stony creek beds on the way to Tier Gorge. This shallow Gorge was the site of the Research 2000 experiment, conducted by El Questro’s then owner, James Salerno. He and 65 other people set up camp there, with the aim of creating the perfect human society. All that remains are rusting relics of the camp kitchen area. This southern end of the Gorge houses a large swimming hole.
The Circuit runs by a stand of tightly packed boab trees and through a clump of stone outcrops, known as Remarkable Rocks. The track crosses a shallow creek near Matteo Springs and leads to a stockman’s grave, at the base of a magnificent boab. James Johnson’s mates contributed to a cast iron headstone, which was shipped to Wyndham and then donkey-packed to its resting place in the East Kimberley.
The massif known as Matteo Rock has great significance for the local Aboriginal people and features distinctive decorations. From Matteo Rock the track runs north through woodland once more, crossing some steep-banked creeks before reaching the Gibb River Road.
The Gibb River Road leads to the central and western Kimberley delights.
East Kimberley trees - Livistona Palms and Boabs
There are about 20 species of Livistona Palms in Australia. They are the most drought resistant of all Australian palms and in the East Kimberley can even be found growing in open woodland, alongside hardy eucalypts. In their early growth stages they’re protected in the woodland understorey and can survive frequent grass fires.
However, the most common place for Livistona Palms is in rocky gorges, where they grow to heights of 20 metres or more.
The East Kimberley palm population is thought to be a relic, dating back to times when the climate throughout the continent was much wetter and palms would have been much more common.
The growing tip of the palm is edible, but harvesting the tip kills the plant because if cannot sprout branches from another point.
Aboriginal people used the leaves as roof thatch and for weaving baskets. They also used the fibrous bark to make fishing lines and shallow, bag-like nets.
The Baobab – shortened to ‘boab’ by Australians - is a deciduous tree that is common in Central Africa. The boab’s trunk can reach a circumference of 40 metres, with a height of 20 metres and a foliage diameter of 20 metres. The Australian boab is restricted to the Kimberley region in Western Australia, and the east of the Northern Territory.
The name ‘baobab’ is probably derived from the Arabic ‘bu hibab’ or ‘fruit with several seeds’.
Aborigines often obtained water from the hollows in the tree, and used the white powder in the seed pods as a food source. The leaves were also used medicinally.
Another use is seen in ‘prison trees’ of the 1890s, in which the hollow trunks of trees were used as a prison cells for Aboriginal prisoners.
There are two principal theories about the origin of the Australian boab: one says the seeds floated here from Africa and spread from the coast; and the other suggests our boabs might have survived from the time when Africa and Australia were both still part of Gondwana, 65 million years ago.
Boabs are often confused with the Queensland Bottle Tree, but this tree is an entirely different species and is confined to Central Queensland through to northern New South Wales.
East Kimberley Driving
The bitumen way into the East Kimberley is via the Great Northern Highway or the Victoria Highway. The more difficult routes are via the corrugated Tanami Road or through Gregory National Park.
The Tanami requires a strong 4WD, fitted with light truck (LT) tyres. Fuel is available at Tilmouth Well and Billiluna. The former roadhouse at Rabbit Flat is no longer operating.
Gregory NP is a scenic but dusty, rocky approach to the East K, with several river crossings.Carry spare fuel, food and water at all times in the East Kimberley.
Hema’s ‘The Kimberley’ is an excellent map, with all the necessary tourist office, National Parks and road information contacts you’ll need.
The best time to visit the East Kimberley is during the southern autumn, winter and early spring.
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