After a day spent hiking through gorges and plunging into water holes, some people like to wind down grilling sausages over a campfire. Not me. I have a limit as to how much ruggedness I am prepared to demonstrate on any given day. I'm more than happy to get a bit rough and ready, as long as there is some gourmet food waiting at the end of the adventure. Is a grilled duck breast served with caramel plum chipotle sauce, and foie gras pommes puree too much to expect?
Not at The Homestead at El Questro, it's not. Taking its inspiration from Africa's most luxurious safari lodges, The Homestead aims to prove you can enjoy one of Australia's wildest landscapes without skimping on the little luxuries. Catering to a maximum of 18 guests at any one time, The Homestead offers gourmet meals, fine wine and five-star accommodations. The top-of-the-range rooms, the Cliffside Retreats, have polished wood interiors, sprawling bathrooms, and a deck overlooking the river with a bathtub perfectly positioned for watching the sun set.
As always in the Kimberley, however, the main game is getting out and getting active. El Questro, which is celebrating its 25th birthday this year, covers 283,000 hectares of wilderness. Much of it is simply spectacular, with soaring cliffs and salt flats, palm-fringed water holes and cascading waterfalls. It's the sort of place that inspires you to get out and get active.
The magnificent gorge hikes are recommended; if you prefer not get too hot and sweaty, however, there are more leisurely options to choose from, including soaking in thermal springs or taking a boat trip down the Chamberlain River. We sign up for the boat trip one afternoon, and drift gently down the river. To city-slicker eyes, the cliffs on either side of the river appear to be entirely devoid of life; however, our guide points out the swallows' nests tucked under an overhang, and the delicate silhouettes of short-eared rock wallabies perched precariously on a rock ledge. Standing just 40 centimetres high, they are utterly adorable.
It turns out that there is yet another quirky life form lurking in the gorge; this one, however, is swimming in the waters beneath us. Along with catfish and barramundi, the river is home to a clever species of fish known as the archer fish, which has developed a unique way of catching its prey. When they spot insects dangling from branches, they spit at them. Seriously. This knocks the insects into the water, where the fish can eat them. Thoughtfully, our guide has brought along pellets of fish food, so we can provide some target practice for the fish. We spend a delightful half an hour with the archer fish, who turn out to have an impressive aim. Who would have thought that being drenched in fish spit could be so much fun?
Simple pleasures are all well and good, of course, but most guests at The Homestead are expecting something a bit more memorable. Among the most thrilling activities is a selection of air-based explorations, ranging from picnics beside remote waterfalls, accessible only by helicopter, to a day trip to the World Heritage-listed Bungle Bungles, a series of striped, beehive-shaped rock domes that is one of the outback's most unforgettable sights.
We are thrilled by our time spent exploring the Bungles on foot, but the flight there is almost as entrancing as the destination. As the landscape unfolds beneath us, all sinuous lines and washes of colour like a John Olsen painting, we discover that the outback holds plenty of secrets. We fly over sandalwood plantations, diamond mines and Lake Argyle, a man-made dam larger than Singapore that has developed its own eco-system and is now home to freshwater crocodiles, turtles, water monitors and 26 species of freshwater fish.
On the last day of our stay, we treat ourselves to one more airborne experience. Late in the afternoon, our chopper flies low over the Cockburn Ranges, a series of mountains that wash like waves over the landscape. After cruising along the ridge line so that we can drink in the extraordinary views, our pilot delicately lands on a spar. We step out gingerly, aware that we are just a steps away from a sheer drop that plunges hundreds of metres.
For a few long moments, we are mesmerised by the drop beneath us. By the time we tear our eyes away, our pilot has set out a couple of deckchairs, and is in the process of opening a bottle of champagne. Suddenly we feel a lot more relaxed. A cheese platter appears and we tuck in as we enjoy what must be one of the best views in the Kimberley. This, we decide, is the perfect way to end the day.
It also gives us a great tale to share at dinner. One of The Homestead's charming customs is that guests dine together at a long table, swapping tales of the day's highlights. Meals at The Homestead are a highlight, with a typical three-course dinner starting with a salad of swimmer crab, avocado, dill, green onion, crumbled chevre and apple, and finishing with a sweet coda of mocha chocolate torte with raspberry sorbet, or perhaps a passionfruit tart with guava sorbet and mango sauce.
If you want more of a flourish to end the evening, that's easy, too: just wander down to the river and watch the crocodiles feeding. The Homestead may nail the five-star luxury thing, but this adventure remains wild at heart.
El Questro The Homestead is open between April and October. Rates start from $1969 a room twin share and include all meals and beverages, and selected activities. See www.elquestro.com.au/stay/the-homestead
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of Delaware North.