Jewels of the Kimberley

Kerry van der Jagt discovers Kununurra and Broome are like diamonds and pearls — very different but very alluring.

The late conservationist Malcolm Douglas called the Kimberley "the last truly pristine wilderness in the world - the heart and soul of the country". It is a wilderness so intoxicating, so ravenously beautiful, it took 2 billion years to create.

Forged by melting glaciers and rising seas, chiselled by millions of years of drifting and drying, and, finally, buffed by centuries of flood and rattling rains, it is one of the most astonishing places on earth, a theatrical place where colour and contrast are set to high, where the trees come from Africa, boulders look like beehives and diamonds spill from the ground.

The few towns that cling to its edges are the products of this wilderness. Kununurra to the east and Broome to the west are the big guns, frontier towns crouched at either end like gatekeepers guarding the treasures within. Though both were raised under the same harsh conditions, these twins are as different as diamonds and pearls; Kununurra is the rougher, rowdier one; Broome the more cultured and exotic. Both know how to have a good time.

Festival fever

Kununurra The town kicks up its heels in May when it hosts the Kimberley Moon Experience, the pinnacle event of the annual two-week Ord Valley Muster (from May 25 to June 3 this year). Held on the banks of the majestic Ord River, it is a night of home-grown entertainment where past acts have included John Farnham, Hoodoo Gurus and Marcia Hines.

Last year, as the sun surrendered to the moon and crocodiles cruised just metres behind the open-air stage, it was Jimmy Barnes's gravelly voice that screeched across the plains. Penguin-suited VIPs, women in frocks, miners and graziers all rose as one, thumping their fists to Working Class Man. ordvalleymuster.com.au.

Broome The Broome Cup might not be the race that stops a nation but it certainly brings the town to a screeching halt. Held at Gantheaume Point, within a pearl's throw of the beautiful Cable Beach, this is country racing at its best. Starting in 1894 with a handful of locals and cow cockies, the Broome Cup is now the major social event of the year.

The racing season, held from June to August each year, culminates in the Broome Cup Carnival, which includes both Broome Cup Day and Ladies Day. Whether you're in the VIP marquee or sitting on a picnic rug, it's a chance to play dress-ups and enjoy live music, fashion on the field and after-dark two-up. Locals rub shoulders with tourists and everyone rubs pindan dust out of their ears for days afterwards. broometurfclub.com.au.

The local drop

Kununurra The Hoochery in Kununurra is, of course, all about the hooch. On a farm just out of Kununurra in the heart of the Ord River Valley, Raymond Bernard Dessert III (better known as Spike Dessert) operates the oldest legal still in Western Australia.

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A flamboyant character, Spike distils sugar cane to produce a range of boutique rums: the smooth Kimberley Moon white rum, the sweet and chocolatey Cane Royale Liqueur and a throat-cutting, 70 per cent Ord River Rum, so strong it could kill a dog. Spike offers tours and tastings from his outback-style pub, knocked together out of recycled bits and pieces, while his daughter Kayleen serves up sweet treats such as Ord River rum cake, rummy mango fruit cake and cane royale cheesecake. hoochery.com.au.

Broome If it's a beer with a purpose you're after you'll have to head west to Matso's Broome Brewery for a Hit the Toad lager, where 10¢ from every middy goes to stopping the cane toad from crossing into Broome. Matso's also brews a Monsoonal Blonde, a Mad Bastard Bock, a Sow's Ear and a Smokey Bishop.

The Japanese-inspired brewery was originally built in 1910 in Sheba Lane - a notorious red-light district full of brothels and opium dens. It was later relocated to its current spot on Hamersley Street. Today, it's a Kimberley institution, serving up beer and great food on Roebuck Bay. matsos.com.au.

Remote gems

Kununurra In October 1979 a small diamond was found embedded in an ant hill in the east Kimberley. A bit more digging led to the discovery of the Argyle deposit, which is now one of the world's largest suppliers of diamonds, including the rare pink diamond. Trouble is, the pinks are running out (the mine only produces a champagne glass of pink diamonds each year) and it's believed the mine only has about a decade left.

From Kununurra, visitors can take a scenic flight (or 2½-hour road trip) to the Argyle Diamond Mine or, if you're more into bling than dirty big holes, visit Kimberley Fine Diamonds, where the proprietor, Frauke Bolten-Boshammer, has been creating hand-crafted jewellery for 20 years.

The showroom is a sparkling Aladdin's cave, where signed thank-you notes adorn the walls (including one from Nicole Kidman), where women sip champagne and try on jewellery as their husbands try to relax on the "Man Couch". kimberleydiamonds.com.au.

Broome The town is synonymous with pearls. From keshi to cultured, silver to champagne-coloured, the streets of Broome are strung with row after row of pearl shops. Paspaley and Kailis are the big players but if you're not interested in buying you can tour a pearl farm at Willie Creek or visit a pearl lugger museum. Or you can eat one.

Nyx Bar at Pinctada Cable Beach serves up a trio of pearl meat canapes with a flute of Veuve Clicquot. "I'd like this to become as famous as a Singapore Sling at Raffles or oysters and champagne at Harrods," says a member of the Paspaley pearling family, Marilynne Paspaley. paspaleypearls.com.au.

Luxury digs

Kununurra El Questro, just over an hour's drive from Kununurra, is a 421,000-square-kilometre cattle station set against the Cockburn Range. It is where four great rivers come together, carving out a fantasy land of gorges, waterfalls and steaming-hot springs. El Questro Wilderness Park has three levels of accommodation: the Homestead, with six luxurious suites overlooking the Chamberlain River; Emma Gorge Resort, with tented cabins; and the Station, with family bungalows or camping by the Pentecost River.

Whether you lash out on a room at the Homestead for $2000 a night or pay $18 for a campsite, you'll have unlimited access to astonishing landscapes. elquestro.com.au.

Broome The five-star Pinctada Cable Beach embraces pure Broome style - elegant and stylish yet relaxed and welcoming. The flagship of Marilynne Paspaley's Pinctada Hotels and Resorts, the 72-room resort was named after the region's giant pearl oyster, Pinctada maxima, and the property reflects Marilynne's strong commitment to the environment. Grey-water treatment, solar heating and clever architectural design are all key ingredients. pinctada.com.au.

The writer was a quest of Tourism Western Australia, Pinctada Hotels and Resorts and El Questro Wilderness Park.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Broome on Saturdays or via Perth daily, with prices starting from $436 one way. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au. Skywest flies from Broome to Kununurra with prices starting from $199. 1300 660 088, skywest.com.au. Or it's a 1044-kilometre drive between the two.

Staying there

El Questro Wilderness Park is open from April to October. Rooms in a garden-view bungalow (sleeps four) at The Station start from $319 a night, or a safari-style tent at Emma Gorge costs $279. 1300 863 248, elquestro.com.au.

At Pinctada Cable Beach, a Shinju garden studio costs $259 a night for two. Families can enjoy a two-bedroom Honjin family villa, which sleeps up to five guests, for $605. 1800 746 282, pinctada.com.au.

More information

westernaustralia.com.

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