A plethora of waterways carve their way across the wondrously ethereal landscape of the Kimberley, like vivid life-providing ribbons, but the glorious might of the Ord River is the grandest of them all. Once the fastest flowing river in Australia, it was harnessed by the construction of two dams over 40 years ago to develop the agricultural industry in the verdant Ord Valley. The damming of the Ord created two spectacular storage reservoirs- Lake Kununurra and Lake Argyle. The latter is the southern hemisphere’s largest man-made lake, with mind-blowing dimensions.
Its average water volume is the equivalent of 21 Sydney Harbours, while its maximum capacity equates to over 40 Sydney Harbours. The lakes and the entire river scheme boast a bewildering array of wildlife. Lake Argyle alone is home to over 25,000 freshwater crocodiles and 26 native fish species. This “inner sea” is so humungous, it sports bays, inlets and a multitude of islands, including Crocodile Island – which is freakily shaped in the spirit of its name.
Our AAT Kings guided journey called into the Lake Argyle Resort for lunch, a stupendous holiday playground, complete with camping facilities, boutique studios and excellent dining options. Formerly it was the camp site for the dam construction workers, but in its reincarnation as a holiday resort, the star turn is the hillside infinity pool, high above Lake Argyle. Ingeniously designed, it’s showered with accolades as being Australia’s best infinity pool. One glimpse of it – and you won’t disagree.
We also stopped by a vestige of legendary Australian heritage at the Argyle Downs Homestead Museum. Originally located in the Ord Valley, the historic 1890s homestead, was the family home of the pioneering Durack family. Following reports about Kimberley’s Ord Valley being favourable for pastoral land use, Patrick Durack organised the droving of 7250 head of breeding cattle and 200 horses on a 3000-mile trek from Queensland to the East Kimberley.
It was the longest such cattle trek undertaken in Australia at that time. It took them nearly two and half years to reach the Ord River, with the loss of half of their cattle. The beautifully graceful homestead, with its wide verandas and handcrafted limestone blocks, was relocated from its original site prior to the dam project, to safeguard it from being flooded and to serve as a monument to the guts and glory of those early pioneering cattle farmers.
Patrick’s grandson, Kimberley Durack, was highly instrumental in bringing about the hugely ambitious irrigation scheme, transforming the Ord River region into a highly productive agriculture and horticulture area. To the north and south of Kununurra, the fertile alluvial plains are heavily planted in sandalwood, chia and seed crops, alongside a profusion of fruit and vegetables, notably melons and mangoes.
It is hailed as being Australia’s most isolated distillery and given its location in wrap-around wilderness, it’s not hard to see why. Hoochery Distillery is proudly home to Ord River Rum. We enjoyed a flavourful factory tour before trying a few tastings and feasting on their decadently delicious Ord River Rum Cake.
Another runaway highlight of our time in East Kimberley was to drink in the river views, aboard an epic cruise traversing 55km on the water, from the Ord’s Top Dam to Lake Kununurra. Flush with flora and wildlife, the scenic medley serves up more vividly coloured rock formations in red earthy hues, torched by sunlight. Maybe it’s too much sunshine, the heat or the spiritual pull of this watery world, but there’s a slew of spookily shaped rock formations that have been accorded self-explanatory names. One cliff face has been nicknamed Queen Victoria – it’s a dead ringer.
Another rocky crag uncannily mimics the map of New Zealand. But the best in show is Elephant Rock, a monumental rocky mound, sculpted in such way that it’s a spitting image of a massive elephant head and tusks. Alongside ogling even more snoozing crocodiles, we lapped up bounding wallabies, sea eagles, kingfishers and a huge colony of fruit bats. But as we glided into Lake Kununurra, the sinking sun kissed the lake like a starburst.
The following morning, I was up with the jabirus to join a sunrise flight with Aviar across the East Kimberley from Kununurra. My scenic flight was piloted by a young and chirpy Kiwi, Sam from Tauranga, who expertly guided us on a gob-smacking aerial spectacle. Being aloft graphically illustrated the immensity of the Ord River and its man-make lakes, the ever-increasing swath of sandalwood plantations bracketing the Packsaddle Plains, and the multi-hued majesty of the landscape.
The irresistible show-stopper was the flying foray with the fabled Bungle Bungle Range. This spectacular landform of beehive-dome shaped sandstone towers is nature at its theatrical best. The tiger-stripes of the domes change colour with the seasons from the Big Wet to the Big Dry. They are whimsical, wondrous and utterly unforgettable. www.aviaiaircom.au
It’s the extra touches that make the AAT Kings Wonders of the Kimberley Tour such a superlative experience. As we arrived at our hotel in Kununurra, little did we know that the coach driver had already “magically” unloaded all of our luggage and arranged it in our guestrooms, while we lapped the up the riparian glories of the Ord River.
You’ll be royally treated by AAT Kings. My coach was a rolling chariot of comfort, generously appointed with unbeatable air-con, on-board power points, in-seat USB points, on-board toilet, complimentary on-board WiFi, reclining leather seats, navigation screens and super-sized windows. AAT Kings’ Wonders of the Kimberley guided holiday is a 10 day wilderness journey, between Broome and Darwin. Operating between May and October, it’s the journey of a lifetime. www.aatkings.com
Operating over 250 services between New Zealand and Australia each week, Qantas has just launched a refreshed on board dining experience for customers travelling in Business. On Tasman flights, Qantas now updates its Rockpool-inspired menus in Business cabins every week, with Neil Perry-designed dishes like the prawn, lemon aioli and fine herb brioche roll, and the Chinese red braised beef with blistered beans and fragrant rice, swooned over at Neil’s Spice Temple restaurants. I also sampled the Turkish-style spiced lamb pizza, which was sensational.
The extensive range of beverages is equally impressive, with premium Australasian wines and champagne if you’re feeling effervescent. In addition to the sublime new dining offering, Qantas has rolled out mobile check-in and digital boarding passes for Trans-Tasman travellers. The new technology allows eligible customers to finalise check-in and passport checks online and head straight to the lounge or boarding gate after passing through immigration and security – all with the digital boarding pass on your mobile device.
Express Path services for qualifying customers will be embedded into digital boarding passes. If you have checked baggage, use the dedicated online check-in bag drop to expedite the airport experience. Qantas operates daily B737-800 services between Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with onward services across Australia. For best available fares and routes to suit, head to www.qantas.com
For more information on Western Australia, head to the official website. www.westernaustralia.com
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.