A region of red dust, endless skies, stunning sunsets, big rivers and huge gorges, the Kimberley is often romantically described as Australia’s last frontier. It’s a wilderness dotted with barely viable cattle stations, isolated Aboriginal communities and, increasingly, vast tracts of Aboriginal land, all edged with a ragged, tide-swept coastline inhabited chiefly by crocodiles, secluded pearling operations and a couple of exclusive, fly-in getaways. The land is king here, with devoted locals making annual pilgrimages to their favourite spots armed with only a swag and an esky in the Dry, before retreating in the Wet. When the dry season sets in around April, tourism in the Kimberley gradually comes back to life, with tours running mainly between thriving Broome and Kununurra along the iconic Gibb River Road, or down to the mysterious Bungle Bungles, south of Highway 1 near Halls Creek. Adventurous travellers are increasingly heading for the stirring scenery around Cape Leveque and Mitchell River National Park: the many warnings that accompany journeys to these parts can be daunting, but armed with a good 4WD and a dash of Outback knowledge you should be fine.
The harsh realities of indigenous life are displayed at every turn in the Kimberley, particularly in towns along the highway such as Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. One of the less confronting manifestations of this is the region’s array of Aboriginal art; Broome’s narrow streets are crammed with gorgeous small galleries, while rural rocks hold many examples of enigmatic Wandjina paintings and the slender Bradshaw figures, some thought to be around 17,000 years old.
The best time to visit is from June to September, the coolest months; by late September the heat is already building up and even Highway 1 closes periodically from January to March following storms or cyclones. Night comes early and fast in the Kimberley – most visitors adapt to a routine of rising with the sun (often the best time to get some driving done) and retiring soon after sunset. Temperatures can stay stifling into the early hours, so a 4WD and a mozzie dome can be preferable to a campervan in these parts – make sure you erect tents and insect domes well away from waterholes in crocodile country.Read More
“Slip into Broometime” is a well-worn local aphorism that still captures the tropical charm of BROOME, which clings to a peninsula overhanging Roebuck Bay. The accommodation market in Broome has expanded a great deal over the last few years, particularly at the pricey end, and to some extent the town is struggling to catch up, with a bit of a “wild west” air still pervading – this is not the west-coast Byron Bay many expect but it’s the classiest town in the northwest by quite a stretch.
Easily collected pearl shell heaped along nearby Eighty Mile Beach led to the northwestern “pearl rush” of the 1880s, initially enabled by the enslaved Aborigines. Later, indentured workers from Asia sought the shell in ever-greater depths below the waves, and Broome originated as a camp on sheltered Roebuck Bay where the pearl luggers laid up during the cyclone season.
After a violent and raucous beginning, the port finally achieved prosperity thanks to the nacre-lined oyster shells, or mother-of-pearl (not the pearls themselves). By 1910, eighty percent of the world’s pearl shell came from Broome, by which time a rich ethnic mix and a rigidly racially stratified society had developed. Each season one in five divers died, several more became paralyzed and, as Broome’s cemeteries steadily filled, only one shell in five thousand produced a perfect example of the silvery pearls unique to this area.
Stagnation then rebuilding followed both world wars, after the second of which the Japanese – masters in the secret art of pearl culturing – warily returned and invested in the pearl-farming ventures around Broome’s well-suited coastal habitat. Things improved with the sealing of the coastal highway from Perth in the early 1980s and the philanthropic interest of English businessman Alistair McAlpine, who was seduced by Broome’s diamond-in-the-rough charms and subsequently kicked off its latter-day reinvention. He led the old town’s tasteful development and refurbishment, using its oriental mystique and pearling history as inspiration. This rich history is enhanced by the sweeping expanse of Cable Beach, the paprika-red outcrops at Gantheaume Point and the Indian Ocean’s breathtaking shade of turquoise.
The Dampier Peninsula
The Dampier Peninsula
The Broome—Cape Leveque road leads north to the Aboriginal lands of the Dampier Peninsula. This beautiful region, with its pristine, deserted beaches, dusty red cliffs and mind-altering sunsets, is slowly opening up to low-key tourism, with indigenous cultural experiences now tending to be as much a highlight as the stunning scenery for many visitors.
The first stop on the road is the Aboriginal community of Beagle Bay, 125km from Broome. The highlight here is the Sacred Heart Church built by German missionaries in 1917, a beautiful building with an unusual altar decorated with mother-of-pearl. After Beagle Bay the track to Cape Leveque gets narrower and sandier and after a further 20km you’ll reach the turn-off leading after 33km to Middle Lagoon, a lovely white-sand cove with good swimming and snorkelling.
A stay at Kooljaman Resort at spectacular Cape Leveque (www.kooljaman.com.au), 220km from Broome at the very tip of the peninsula, is the reason why you’ve put your vehicle through such heartache. This is the original Dampier Peninsula resort, with accommodation ranging from camping and beach shelters to luxury stilted tents overlooking the ocean.
Purnululu National Park
Purnululu National Park
The spectacular Bungle Bungle massif, seldom referred to by its official name, the Purnululu National Park, is one of Australia’s greatest natural wonders and in 2003 earned prestigious UNESCO World Heritage listing. The nickname is believed to be a misspelling of the common Kimberley grass, Bundle Bundle, while “Purnululu” means “sandstone” in the local Kija tongue. A couple of days spent exploring the park’s famous striped beehive domes, chasms and gorges is well worth the effort (or expense if you’re taking a tour).
Scenic flights are available over the Bungles if you don’t want to drive into the park; choose between fixed-wing aircraft departing from Kununurra or an exhilarating helicopter flight from the park’s Bellburn Airstrip just south of Walardi campsite. The helicopters are permitted to fly much lower – if you’ve ever wanted to fly in a chopper you won’t be disappointed. The tours available from Broome and Kununurra, which often involve flying to the airstrip and then being driven around in a 4WD, offer the best of both worlds.
Because of the need to protect the fragile rock formations from mass tourism, and the very rough access road from the Great Northern Highway, 52km south of Warmun/Turkey Creek, entry is strictly limited to 4WDs, with all tow vehicles prohibited. It gets stiflingly hot in the Bungles, with temperatures soaring well over 40 °C from September onwards, so make sure you carry water, use sunblock and wear a hat on all walks.
From the highway it’s a fun, if nerve-wracking, 53km drive through pastoral station land to the visitor centre and entry station (April to mid-Oct daily 8am–noon & 1–4.30pm; t08/9168 7300), where you should register your arrival – self-registration must be completed here from mid-October. The centre has cold drinks, park information and souvenirs only; bring all the food, fuel and water you need unless you’re coming with a tour group – it’s a good idea to freeze as much water as you can before entering the park if you don’t have a fridge. Take it easy on the road in as the track is narrow and corrugated, with oncoming traffic in the morning – expect the journey to take from two to three hours. There are usually at least three creek crossings and frequent heavily rutted sections, meaning that low range and high clearance are a must. This is not something to attempt if you are in any way unsure.
The walk into Echidna Chasm (2km; 1hr return; easy) takes you deep into the soaring, maze-like incision, which opens into a small amphitheatre at the end. Do the walk at midday when the sun enters the chasm and you can see the colours in the rock to their best advantage. On the way out, make sure you check out the view over the Osmond Ranges and Osmond Creek from Echidna Chasm Lookout; the creek is the only permanent source of water in the park, and was historically used by Aboriginal groups as a travel pathway. The Mini Palms walk (5km; 2–3hr return; moderate) runs along a creek bed then squeezes through tiny gaps between boulders, before ascending to a viewing platform and finally a palm-filled amphitheatre. Along the walk you can see tufts of palms clinging to the rock walls hundreds of metres above you; the scale of the clefts is emphasized when you realize the palms can be up to 20m high.
The short Domes Walk leads you among some bungles on the way to the walk into Cathedral Gorge (3km; 1–2hr return; moderate), an awe-inspiring overhanging amphitheatre with stunning acoustics and a seasonal pool whose rippled reflections flicker across the roof above. The nearby Piccaninny Creek Lookout provides more great views. Piccaninny Gorge is a tough, 30km overnight walk for which you need to register at the visitor centre and carry vast quantities of water – between five and eight litres per person per day. Most people are understandably put off; if this is the case it’s possible to do a shorter version to the gorge entry at the Elbow (14km; 8hr return; easy). Just north of the visitor centre, Kungkalahayi Lookout is a great place for sunset drinks, and sweeping views over this monumental land that you don’t really get otherwise as a “ground visitor”. The rest of the park is currently inaccessible, the northeast being the ancestral burial grounds of the Djaru and Gidja people.
- The Gibb River Road
The boab – symbol of the Kimberley
The boab – symbol of the Kimberley
East of Derby you’ll start to notice the region’s distinctive boab trees, their bulbous trunks and spindly branches creating startling silhouettes. As much a symbol of the Kimberley as cattle stations and deep red sunsets, it’s widely believed that seeds from the African baobab – the common name of the genus Adansonia and of which the Australian name is a contraction – arrived in the Kimberley by sea from Africa thousands of years ago, gradually evolving into this distinct species.
The trees’ huge size enabled their most dubious function as temporary prisons for local Aboriginal people. The most notorious example of a prison tree, located 5km south of Derby, held indigenous people kidnapped in the mid- to late nineteenth century from the Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek areas.
Today you’ll see carved boab nuts sold as homewares across the Kimberley, the intricate patterns worked into the flesh by Aboriginal artists. At the beginning of the rainy season the tree produces flowers and fruit, foretelling the beginning of the Wet. Aboriginal people also chew the bark for water – the huge trunks can hold up to 120,000 litres.