Kununurra in the East Kimberley: Adventure in a Wild and Ancient Alternate Universe. (Part 1 of 3)
When I told a friend that my travels would be taking me to Kununurra and the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia, he snapped to attention, eyes wide, brows raised, and exclaimed, “Wow! You’re going to the outback of the outback!” My well-traveled friend is right. Over and over I’ve been told here that most Australians don’t ever get to this beautifully remote, wild, and rugged region, let alone Americans. And I was spending a month!
As luck would have it, I would be house sitting for the month of June(during the “dry” season May -September) for friend Gayl’s daughter Victoria, a nurse in Kununurra for the past five years. Best of all, Gayl would be meeting me here from Perth to help me settle in. That would mean three things: five star hospitality, a whirl-wind of activities, and fantastic eating planned for the week. How many people do you know fly with their travel baggage packed with farm fresh eggs, specialty goat cheese, and an organic shoulder of lamb (just to name a few)?
I’ve known Gayl since she was an exchange student at my high school back in 1971 when we were seniors. She’s had a love affair with Maine ever since and continues to visit every couple of years. After leaving my teaching career and leaping into the unknown, well-traveled Gayl and her daughter Victoria, on a recent visit to Maine, mentioned travel and posed the question: “What are you waiting for?” They have been both instrumental and a great support system in making this odyssey a positive and life-changing event.
Gayl is a force to be reckoned with. Strikingly elegant, youthful, and charged with electricity and charisma, I elect her our Boomer poster girl for “Sixty is the new Forty.” Before I knew it, we had exchanged our excited hellos, and she began rattling off all the adventures planned for the week including a camping trip to the Bungle Bungles! But not before she and daughter Victoria (her mother’s daughter and very much her own person) acquainted me with my new home and surroundings.
Kununurra is a young town established in 1961 and now has a population of about 7,000. During the dry season, the number doubles with tourists, many of them known throughout Australia as “Grey Nomads”–retirees traveling in a wide array of campers and caravans(RVs). On any given day, the local Coles supermarket is jammed with campers and backpackers, and the parking lot is filled with a multitude of vehicles resembling a tamer version of Mad Max engineering! Eggs are always the first item to sell out.
The CBD (central business district) isn’t overly impressive, but located on the outskirts are interesting cafes and businesses.
One of Kununurra’s chief industries is agriculture (cattle, mining, and tourism too) thanks to its most famous landmark the Ord River Conversion Dam constructed in 1963. Water is released from Lake Argyle( created in 1967 as a major storage reservoir) into the Ord River, into Lake Kununurra, which then is irrigated to thousands of acres of farmland. Some local crops include mangos, watermelons, melons, citrus, and seed crops such as chic peas and sunflower and chia seeds. Australian sandalwood is also grown here, and the pure sandalwood oil is used by many of the world’s luxury perfume houses.
After familiarizing myself with the town(a friend of Gayl and Victoria lent me a car for the month–hospitality), we were off on our second day to El Questro (just over 700,000 acres in size) and a hot soak in Zebedee Springs. This is truly a tropical paradise with palm trees, hot shallow pools, sheltered by rugged, orange rock looming from above. We enjoyed ourselves until a small snake slithered by my left shoulder, and we suddenly burst from the pool like waterfowl hearing gunshot!
On day three, Victoria’s boyfriend Joel, a helicopter pilot who mustered cattle up here for ten years, joined us for a visit, and we headed to Wyndham, the Kimberley’s oldest town and once a thriving port when Wyndham Meat Works was operating. The abattoir closed in 1985, and the only thing happening now is the occasional export of live cattle to Indonesia. Most “live export”(pretty controversial) is shipped from Darwin or Broome, and it’s common to see the mammoth, three-vehicle-long “road trains” coming from various cattle stations on the roads.
A popular tourist attraction in Wyndham is the Five Rivers Lookout on top of the Erskine Range, where you can see all of Wyndham and the whole Gulf Coast where the Forrest, King, Durak, Pentecost, and Ord rivers flow into. We also made our way past the salt flats to the Prison Boab tree, but not before a stop at the popular Rusty Shed Cafe.
Barely taking a breath and barely containing our excitement, we were off day four and five camping in the Bungle Bungles at Purnululu National Park, a World Heritage area. If you are going to spend any time in the Kimberley, a four-wheel vehicle is a must. There are a variety of trucks and SUVs on the road up here, many of them with “snorkels” attached for stream and river crossings.
An iconic, Australian vehicle in these parts is the “Ute.” The popular story goes that in 1933, a Gippsland farmer’s wife wrote a letter to Ford Australia asking, “Can you build me a vehicle that we can use to go to church in on Sunday, without getting wet, and that my husband can use to take the pigs to market on Monday?” A young designer modified a 1933 coupe with just a tray on the back and strengthened the chassis so it could carry a load, and the rest is history.
Fortunately Victoria had a Toyota SUV for the four of us and all our gear because the drive in to the Bungle Bungles involves about two hours of off-road driving on narrow, deeply rutted, dirt roads over numerous creek crossings of various depths. (I later met a very large, cane-toting 74-year-old woman who told me she was visiting Kununurra for two days and driving to the Bungle Bungles. After I talked with her, she thought she might fly over them instead.)
The landscape in this part of the world is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Not only is it visually stunning with its changing light and colors, but it also touches you on some deep, cellular level that you can’t quite understand. The land vibrates with the mysteries of the human condition, its traumas and its joys… OK…. it’s just feels *~x#1+$%) OLD!
Having not done a lot of camping, I experienced the pleasures of sleeping under the stars in my “mozzie dome,” comfortably curled up in my “swag.” (Does LL Bean have these?) The Milky Way is visible in these parts. Another wonder to behold.
Back home on day six, Gayl and Victoria made sure I got my library card, visited Birdland Functional Pottery and the Artopia Gallery where I signed up for life-drawing classes, enjoyed “cuppas” at their favorite cafes, connected with the Waringarri Art Center, where I would be volunteering with the Aboriginal artists, learned Banjo the dog’s routine, and, finally, (whew!) met some of the locals I could call on. I have never felt so cared for.
Then, Gayl left, followed by Victoria and Joel the next day. I would be meeting up with Gayl again in her hometown of Perth in three months and seeing Victoria and Joel after their holiday abroad.
They left in their wake, a colorless vacuum: The house quiet…a sense of loss. But I relish being in one place for four weeks, in one of the remotest parts of the world.
Every day I wake to sunshine* The laundry dries in 15 minutes*