At home in my grass castle

Western wonders ... Home Valley Station's pool surrounds.
Western wonders ... Home Valley Station's pool surrounds. 

Lee Atkinson is no horseman but this cattle station goes easy on the guests.

It's a blistering hot day in the Kimberley and there's not a skerrick of shade for miles. We've been riding our horses beside the mauve ramparts of the Cockburn Ranges for the past hour or two and, as breathtaking as the scenery is, I don't feel well.

My head is spinning, my mouth furry and dry, my vision all spotty and it's all I can do to stay upright on my horse.

But what can you expect if you saddle up just before lunchtime when the mercury is already nudging 40 degrees? I don't know how the real cowboys, drovers and stockmen do it.

Opened to visitors in July last year, Home Valley Station is a new resort on a 1.4 million-hectare working cattle farm.

It's a welcome addition to a rapidly growing range of accommodation available to travellers on the remote and rugged four-wheel-drive-only Gibb River Road and the only one that remains open during the wet season. But it's fly-in-and-out only once the Pentecost River - which forms a border between Home Valley and neighbouring El Questro - and other rivers are in full flood.

But while El Questro, which opened in 1991 and pioneered tourist accommodation in the east Kimberley, is looking a bit tired and in need of a makeover, HV8 (Home Valley's cattle brand has become the station's nickname - be warned, roadside signs will point you to HV8, not Home Valley) is shiny and luxe and, so far, without the tourist bus crush that you'll find at El Questro's Emma Gorge.

A range of accommodation options is available, from the sleek and stylish grass castle bungalows (named after Mary Durack's classic tale of Kimberley pioneers, Kings In Grass Castles) overlooking the boab-lined Bindoola Creek, complete with cow-skin rugs, air-conditioning, fully stocked mini bar, flat-screen cable television, huge walk-in rain shower and resident tree frogs.

For those on a tighter budget, there are the motel-style guesthouse rooms in the old stockman's quarters and Sand Castle eco-tents with raised wooden floors and queen-sized beds. But $190 a night is a lot to pay when you have to run across the park to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Or you could set up your own camp at one of the powered sites.

For those who prefer a bit more of a wilderness experience and don't want to mix it with other guests at the homestead's Dusty Bar and Grill, you can roll out your swag beside the Pentecost River, four kilometres from the homestead, where crocodiles sun themselves on the banks and sharks cruise the water.

Owned and operated through the Indigenous Land Corporation by the traditional owners of the land, the Balanggarra people, HV8 is also a TAFE training academy for local Aboriginals. They study certificate courses in everything from animal husbandry, stock handling, welding and landscaping to hospitality skills, many of which are put to use in the range of tours on offer.

Besides the three-hour horse-riding trails, which are usually run early in the morning or late in the afternoon when temperatures are gentler, there are guided fishing tours of the billabongs and rivers, canoeing and bird watching, hunting tours chasing feral scrub bulls, cattle mustering trips, self-guided electric boat cruises and even an Australia movie tour, where you can visit the sites that inspired Baz Luhrmann to film his epic.

After our punishing midday horse ride, we opt instead for the refreshing Bindoola Bogey Run (bogey is an Aboriginal word for swim, we are told), cooling off in the Bindoola Pools while tiny fish nibble at our toes.

We hope our guides really mean it when they say they have never seen a croc in this section of the gorge.

Refreshed, we head up to a lookout and watch the dying sun paint the Cockburn Ranges astonishing reds, pinks and purples before fading to black as we toast the day with champagne over a cheese platter.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Virgin Blue has daily flights from Sydney to Broome and Darwin. See virginblue.com.au. There are flights to Kununurra with Airnorth from Broome and Darwin. See airnorth.com.au.

Home Valley Station, via Gibb River Road, East Kimberley, is about a 90-minute drive from Kununurra. Transfers can be arranged.

Staying there

Rates are $420 a night (including breakfast) in the Grass Castle bungalow; $230 a guesthouse room (motel style); $190 a night in a Sand Castle eco-tent (no air-conditioning or ensuite); $15 an adult ($5 per child) camping.

Phone (08) 9161 4322, see homevalley.com.au.

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