El Questro Wilderness Park

The protected oasis of Zebedee Springs

Located just 110 kms west of Kununurra, El Questro Wilderness Park was the first stop on our exploration of the Gibb River Road. We hoped that it would be wonderful and we weren’t disappointed. There was just so much to see and do in one place. (Admittedly a very large place: the park covers an area of over 700,000 acres in the heart of the Kimberley.)

We loved driving around flanked by the majestic Cockburn Range, exploring dramatic gorges and testing out the snorkling capabilities of our vehicle in the process.

Driving into Emma Gorge, this little creek posed no problems but El Questro Gorge was another matter. We found a deep hole in the creek crossing on our return journey from the gorge and for a moment, as the water cascaded over the bonnet, I wondered if we might get stuck. But the Prado just kept chugging away and we emerged, a bit damp, but triumphant.

We loved swimming under cascading waterfalls in beautiful rock pools, relaxing in thermal springs, picnicking besides waterholes and admiring beautiful sunsets.

El Questro has a variety of accommodation options to suit every budget. These are at three locations : Emma Gorge, The Station and the Homestead. Initially, we intended to camp over at the Station on a powered site in our tent. After all we were following in the footsteps of pioneers and were prepared to rough it a little. But after I’d booked, I noticed that El Questro was offering an opening of the season special: three nights for the price of two with buffet breakfast included for their upscale accommodation at the Station and Emma Gorge. Investigating further, the glamping safari tents complete with private ensuite at Emma Gorge really appealed.

We’d still be camping but with a few more mod cons. And surely I could put up with a little bit of luxury whilst in the middle of the East Kimberley Wilderness? Someone to make my bed, tidy my tent and fill my glass at happy hour? And who wouldn’t enjoy standing under their very own blissful rain shower while they washed away the rigours of the day while admiring the branches of a magnificent gum tree against a deep blue sky framed by towering red cliffs?

You guessed it, I cancelled the camp site at the Station and booked Emma! Part of the accommodation cost included the compulsory Wilderness Park Permit, the proceeds of which help with the maintenance of the roads etc within the park.

Emma Gorge

We reached Emma Gorge with plenty of time to walk the gorge and have a swim before we booked in. The walk involved a bit of rock hopping and scrambling as we made our way through the stunning gorge.

But it was so worth it. The final rock pool with its gentle waterfall was so perfect. The water was quite cold but very refreshing and when you swam under the waterfall on the other side of the pool, it was like being in a natural rain shower, nicely tingly. And of course floating around and gazing up at the majestic red cliffs and a perfect blue sky and knowing that you were in the middle of the Kimberley wilderness was special just by itself.

On the right hand side of the main pool is a thermal spring to warm you up. If you can, carry some reef shoes in your backpack. The rocks are very sharp and getting in and out of the pool was a little challenging. One three year old little boy gave Kenn a lesson: ” walk with your bum” he instructed as he demonstrated floating in a sitting position with his legs outstretched. Alas I didn’t get a photo of Kenn ‘bum walking’ as I was in the middle of the pool at the time but it was a sight to behold!

Back at the resort, we booked in and were thrilled with our tent. It was elevated, boasted a very comfortable queen bed, two single beds, outdoor furniture, a fan, basic tea making facilities and a very well appointed ensuite.. It was very private and had a wonderful view of the escarpment and the bush which was flood lit at night.

Next it was time to sample “happy hour” and dinner at the resort hub. There on the deck, we met fellow travelers from around Australia and the world. Most were travelling as part of tour groups but there one or two who were travelling on their own like us. Talk flowed as we sipped our drinks ensconced on super comfy sofas. And there were plenty of options to choose from on the a la carte menu for dinner. Yep, we were very happy campers!

Zebedee Springs

The following morning we up early, keen to drive over to the station and explore Zebedee Springs and El Questro Gorge. Both were fabulous.

The walk into Zebedee Springs is through a Livistonia Palm forest which is thought to be unique to this area.

The path is very pretty, quite flat and in comparison with the other walks at El Questro, very easy.
The palms are so tall, protected by the red cliffs which surround the springs.
Such an ancient land. Zebedee Springs is only open to the public until 12 noon but that said, a couple of hours is more than enough time to savour the experience.
There are lots of places to stow your gear. We found a friendly rock. And the water flows from quite high up and if you’re willing to climb up, there are lots of little pools where you can soak in the beautifully warm water and you would never know anyone else was around.
Only a few people can fit in each pool, and I noticed that most people tried to find a pool to themselves.
Sometimes you can angle yourself so that you are under one of these little waterfalls. So good!
Downstream, there a are a few larger pools that you don’t have to climb up to, but these can get quite crowded. We got to Zebedee around 830 am and it was lovely but as we were leaving, lots of people were arriving and these pools became a little muddy.

El Questro Gorge

Back in the Prado, it was time to drive to El Questro Gorge. We knew that the water crossing into the gorge was quite deep. Only vehicles with a snorkle were advised to cross. Needless to say, Kenn was excited by the prospect! Low range was selected and we sailed across with no problems. A few kms further on and we were at the start point.

The walk obviously is through El Questro Gorge. What is spectacular about the walk is the variety and lushness of landscape you pass through. Initially, the walk is fairly flat and as you can see, you are shaded by palms and towering red cliffs.
The walk is not overly long but it is the nature of the path, this sharp rocky stuff and the amount of climbing you have to do at the end which make it a class 4 walk. If you have them, I would recommend wearing proper hiking boots.
Mud and slosh. Now who isn’t built like a gazelle, able to leap such obstacles with a single bound and wasn’t wearing their hiking boots which were nestled in the back of the car? You guessed right. That would be me! But who can resist a bridge or two even if toes are squelching around in socks.
And as you follow the creek more closely, you have to navigate your way around fantastic rock formations like this.
And that! Kenn’s Indiana Jones hat really looks the part doesn’t it?
The creek was fairly low. We had been told that the Kimberley had had a poor wet season but there was enough water to create beautiful rainforest vistas. And even though there were lots and lots of people staying at El Questro at the time, we never felt crowded. Most of the time, we only met one or two other walkers on a track.
We only went as far as the first major rock pool. You had to swim over to these rocks and climb up to continue to the end of the gorge. As we weren’t carrying a waterproof pack, we didn’t want to risk our phones and car keys. And we didn’t see anyone make it without a dunking and all were a lot younger than us.
So we rested and swam and had our picnic lunch. The water was so clear! Just to the right, under the big rock in the foreground, a little family of fish darted out to say ‘hello’. .

This walk isn’t a circuit so we had to retrace our steps. And as is so often the case, the walk seemed so much easier on the return journey even if the drive through the creek was a little more problematical.

Jackaroo’s Billabong

Managing to chug our way out of a deep hole, Kenn and I decided to have a look at Jackaroo’s Billabong which was on our way back to the main road. A cup of coffee and some afternoon tea was needed. I was so happy we did as this was a really beautiful spot.

Unfortunately, you can’t swim here as crocodiles might be lurking.
But there were a couple of picnic tables and some open sandy ground from which to admire the billabong.
And beyond the billabong, the land stretches forever.

The afternoon was closing in, so we headed home to Emma Gorge. We had just enough time for a quick swim in the resort pool and a rest on the sun loungers with our books before getting ready for dinner. A great way to end a perfect day. Could tomorrow be as good?

Chamberlain Gorge

Chamberlain Gorge is regarded as one of the things not to be missed at El Questro. It is a 3 km long fresh waterhole surrounded by magnificent cliffs. But you could sail to the end of it in 10 or 15 minutes. So, since we had done the 55km Ord River cruise through a similar landscape in Kununurra a couple of days before, we decided to give the cruise a miss. But it is possible to get an idea what the gorge holds by driving to the boat jetty.

But the drive to and from Chamberlain Gorge was interesting in itself as you are traveling in more open savanna country .

Having taken a look at Chamberlain Gorge and enjoyed a coffee break at the Station, we hiked through Amalia Gorge.

Amalia Gorge

The lack of wet season rain had affected this gorge the most. We were there in early June and the creek was no longer flowing but a few waterholes remained. Despite this, it was easy to see why this gorge is a favorite with so many people. The walk along the creek is shaded and very beautiful and and normally there would be lots of private swimming spots to enjoy along the way. We spotted one couple swimming in a pool but we didn’t join them as the water looked a bit stagnant.

And it looked a little shallow as well but so pretty.

Then the path started to climb and at the end you had to shimmy around and through some pretty scary rock formations to reach the upper pools at the end of the track.

We were scrambling along a ledge about half way up where the tree is. It was reasonably wide but then
we had to step around this tree and shimmy yourself between two rock ledges.

But again the effort was worth it. There is a little cascade of waterfalls and rock pools falling down into one larger pool which acted as the most marvelous mirror. And we had the place entirely to ourselves!

The end of the gorge is surrounded by these high cliffs which change colour depending whether they’re in shade or sunlight.
The water trickles down from one pool to the next,
until it reaches this main pool, There was only the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves and the occasional bird call. And despite all the rocks and the warm weather, we didn’t see so much as a geeko let alone a snake.
We especially loved the gum tree reflections.
It’s a perfect combo: water, rock and Australian flora.

As we retraced our steps we were extra careful navigating the rock ledge. It was a lot harder going down than it was climbing up. But we did it! Feeling very chuffed with ourselves we drove back to Emma Gorge. It was our last night at El Questro and we had loved every minute. As we sipped our pre dinner drinks, there was a beautiful sunset.

This photo doesn’t capture how spectacular it was. Phone cameras have some limitations.

Final Thoughts.

El Questro does give the visitor a wonderful wilderness experience. And while every place in the Kimberley has its own unique beauty, what sets El Questro apart is that it is a microcosm of everything that the Kimberley has to offer

We had had three action packed days here but there was still so much that we could have done. More gorges to explore, more 4WD tracks to conquer, more lookouts to reach and perhaps even a helicopter flight or two.

In hindsight, much as I loved staying at Emma Gorge, a stay at the Station would have been more central to most attractions. As we had our own 4WD vehicle and we had filled up in Kununurra, we found that we didn’t spend much money at El Questro except on dinner and accommodation and these I felt were reasonably priced.

You could spend a great deal of money here if you wanted to complete all the tours and experiences on offer. Like everywhere in the Kimberley, the organised tours offered by El Questro are not cheap. But for many, they are the stuff memories are made of. If you are lucky enough to have unlimited funds, check them out on the El Questro website.

Now the real test was about to begin. The Pentecost River crossing awaited us in the morning the the challenge of the Gibb River Road beckoned. Join us as we bump and shake our way to Broome.

Eastern Kimberley Wonders: Part 1

Elephant Rock, Ord River

The Western Kimberley exceeded our expectations. It is so majestic, so wild and it has to be said, so red!. On this part of our Kimberley Road Trip we drove from Katherine in the Northern Territory along the picturesque Victoria Highway to Kununurra, in Western Australia. There we explored the town and the beautiful Ord River, which will be the subject of this post and reveled in the natural wonders of El Questro Wilderness Park which will be the subject of Part 2.

Someone once said, ” Aim for the sky, but move slowly, enjoying every step along the way. It is all those little steps that make the journey complete” and this certainly applied to the 600 kilometre drive from Katherine to Kununurra.

While the first 100 or so kilometres was through fairly flat and dry country with only a few stunted trees breaking up the landscape, we soon reached the vast Gregory National Park. We had entered the country of the mighty Victoria River where the savannah rises to sandstone escarpments on either side of the highway, a precursor of what was in store for us in the Kimberley. We took the opportunity to stretch our legs at a well sign-posted Escarpment Walk which is conveniently next to the highway. As we meandered up the hill, we followed the Nungali-Ngaliwurru and Wardaman stories through the interpretive signs about the creation of the landscape. And what a landscape it was!

A panoramic view of the Victoria River Valley with its soaring red escarpments.

A little further on, we came to the settlement of Victoria River and a closer encounter with Kimberley rocks and the Victoria River itself.

These were so much bigger in reality. My phone couldn’t do the landforms justice. Just a little further on, we passed some roadworks. We found roadworks to be one of the few places where we could get excellent Telstra reception while travelling between towns.

We passed the little settlement of Timber Creek and soon after, crossed the WA border and found ourselves at the Quarantine station. We thought we had disposed of everything that was banned back in Katherine, but ended up surrendering our unopened jar of Byron Bay honey. No morning sweetness for us on this trip! They take bio-security really, really seriously here.

Sooner than we expected, we were driving into Kununurra where we were spending a couple of days. I had booked an Airbnb for our stay. Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, it turned out that we knew our host, Donna. We shared a Condobolin connection: Donna had gone to Primary School with our girls and we had taught alongside her mum. It really is a small world. Needless to say, Donna and her partner Brad made us very welcome in their beautiful Kimberley home and suggested that as soon as we had settled in, we explore the Mirima National Park which is on the outskirts of the town. The locals call the rock formations of the park, their mini Bungle Bungles and it’s easy to see why.

There are a number of walks that unlike many others in the Kimberley are very accessible. We tackled the lookout trail which meandered through and over the domes.
As you can see the path is very well constructed. It led to a lookout where you could see some of the irrigation blocks of the Ord River scheme in the distance. An expanse of green in the savannah.
Looking up, we watched as the colour of the rock changed with the light. There had been a bushfire quite recently and many of the trees were still recovering. There is a much longer walk that follows the line of the rock formations that would be great to complete another time.

We found Kununurra itself to be a delightful town in a lovely setting alongside Lake Kununurra. It has an excellent supermarket and some interesting shops for those who like to browse.

Alongside the foreshore of Lake Kununurra, there is a delightful park and walking paths.
The lily pads of the Lily Creek Lagoon make this part of the lake very scenic
This Celebrity tree park has some wonderful trees including this one which had an amazing canopy. Many celebs have planted a tree including John Farnham, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne and Baz Luhrmann. I would happily volunteer my services but … need to get famous somehow. Might have left my run a trifle late.
And of course there was a Boab tree. But what a great Boab! This one actually had leaves, probably due its proximity to water.

Admittedly we were there at the best time of year: beautiful warm days and cool evenings. A perfect time to see more of Lake Argyle and the Ord River on a day triple j tour. An unforgettable experience. We were picked up near our accommodation and taken 70 kms by coach through Durack country to Lake Argyle.

We stopped at the reconstructed Durack Homestead museum. A fascinating glimpse into the pioneering past
Can you imagine calling your 21 and 22 year old sons into your study and telling them that you think it;s time they did something useful … like droving 7250 head of cattle from Queensland to the Kimberley over country which didn’t have any roads or stock routes! It was only 3000 miles (4828kms) Mind boggling.

We then drove to Lake Argyle Resort, where we caught a glimpse of the vast Lake Arglye.

The infinity pool is a wonderful way to enjoy Lake Argyle.

Crossing the Ord Top Dam wall, we caught a glimpse of the Ord Hydro-Power Station before boarding the Triple J Tour boat for a scenic 55km cruise back to Kununurra. This has to be the best boat ride I’ve been on and I’ve been on a lot in quite a few countries.

Just below the dam wall, the water is so clear that it takes on the colour of the vegetation surrounding it. And as we traveled down the river, the water in some light reflected the perfect blue sky. Apparently, the water of the Ord River is some of the purest in Australia.
It was fun to see how excited everyone was to spot a freshwater crocodile. They are a friendlier version of their big bad saltwater relations , but I still wouldn’t want to get up close and personal to one.
I loved the look of the reeds which lined the banks in the upper reaches. As we got closer to Lake Kununurra, the reeds were replaced by native trees and vines where wildlife flourished.
The tour also takes you up some of the creeks which feed into the Ord River. So peaceful and the reflections on the water, just beautiful.
As we got closer to Kununurra, the river flows between fabulous sandstone cliffs.
And the water was so still as we came into Lake Kununurra. Perfect reflections
The tour reaches Kununurra as the sun sets. We finished our fabulous day with dinner at the Pumphouse. Restaurant. We were amazed to find such an excellent menu so far away from the big smoke.

Our stay in Kununurra had come to an end but we would be back. Like many travelers to the Kimberley, we planned to complete a circuit. We would drive to Broome and explore the Western Kimberley via the Gibb River Road and return home via the Great Northern Highway.

This meant that following our amazing Ord River cruise we would be heading for one of the jewels in the Kimberley Crown: El Questro which is conveniently situated at the beginning of the Gibb. We would save that other treasure of the Eastern Kimberley, the incredible Bungles Bungles for our return trip along the Great Northern Highway.

As we packed the car and checked our camping provisions, we were very excited. Images of Emma Gorge and Zebedee Springs had fueled our Kimberley dream . But we wondered what we would think of the wilderness park as we had friends who hadn’t been that enthusiastic about it. Please join me next time to find out.