Western Australia, the Kimberley: El Questro's gorges, escarpments and thermal pools

The concept of adventure is open to question – one person's shark dive is another person's unopened mussel; both could end badly and the degree of danger is purely subjective.

For instance, I thought our group was being quite adventurous when we hiked to the pool and waterfall at the very end of El Questro Gorge, deep in Western Australia's East Kimberley region. OK, it's not hand-feeding great whites or leaping off mountains in a webbed onesie but it is just over seven kilometres of rugged, rocky riverbed there and back that takes anything from three to five hours, depending on your level of fitness.

At one point in this deep and narrow gorge there's a wade through waist-high water to reach and climb up a large spherical boulder that blocks the way, and in the final section you must navigate an almost vertical wall down which bubbles a sparkling stream of water. It's enough to stop one of our group in their tracks: "Nah, I'll wait here."

On the way back, after a refreshing dip in that idyllic waterhole (deep waters, converging gorge walls, glancing sunlight) we meet another visitor coming the other way. To negotiate this punishing terrain, I am wearing all the right schmutter: cargo pants with more pockets than a snooker table, wide-brimmed hat, backpack with water bottle, a moisture-wicking shirt made of some material more expensive than gold and walking boots. He is wearing swimmers, a threadbare T-shirt and … thongs. Now there, I think, is a bloke just gagging for adventure.

First established as a cattle station in 1903, El Questro was bought and turned into a tourist destination in 1991.

There are three resorts here: Emma Gorge (with cabins), the Station (with bungalows and simple camping) and the luxurious rooms and suites of the Homestead, which perches on the edge of the Chamberlain River.

In February this year, the G'day Group announced it had bought El Questro (as well as the Kings Canyon Resort in the Northern Territory, and the Lane Cove Holiday Park) from the Delaware North company, which has owned the Kimberley resort for the past 10 years. No major changes are expected but G'Day says it plans to spend about $22 million to upgrade the three properties.

The park now covers 283,000 hectares and is a spectacular, mostly unexplored, landscape which includes soaring sandstone ranges and escarpments, broad tidal flats, rainforest, thermal springs, gorges and waterfalls.

Emma Gorge resort, where we stay in simple but well-appointed A-frame glamping cabins, is 110 kilometres west of Kununurra, in that vast, scorched red landscape which sometimes seems like a fevered dream. It helps that the place is punctuated by boabs, those fat-trunked upside-down trees that look like they've dripped out of a Salvador Dali painting.

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At the back of Emma Gorge resort there is a shorter, one-hour walk to, you guessed it, Emma Gorge. Unlike El Questro Gorge, Emma ends in a lofty 65-metre cathedral of rock surrounding a freshwater swimming hole with the obligatory waterfall.

A couple of us swim in the cool waters, as do a few of the other hikers who arrive after us. We later learn that the waterhole contains a "couple of freshies" who live in the depths. This is something that's good to know after you swim, most certainly. Freshwater crocodiles, it seems, are shy and will avoid contact with humans whereas their larger cousins, the salties, are territorial and aggressive.

One of the easier sites to get to is the Zebedee thermal spring, where hot water bubbles up from the earth and drops down through a series of natural rock pools in a shady rainforest gully. It's quite something to laze here for a while, shoulders deep, eyes closed, feeling the sun dappling your face, and the meditative babble of water all around.

There are, as you might imagine, several events involving sunsets – drinks at amazing lookouts, drives, dinners and the like. This is because the Kimberley is to sunsets what Van Gogh is to starry, starry nights.

There can be few better ways to experience such perfection than from a helicopter. And thus it proves when a couple of us take advantage of the resort's own helipad to take a sunset trip over the nearby Cockburn Range which involves landing on one of the sheer escarpments for cheese, drinks and a bird's-eye view of this astonishing terrain.

One of several extras offered is fishing for barramundi. Personally, I can think of nothing worse, given that previous fishing experiences consist of landing sweet nothing from the banks of a London canal as a kid. But … barra. Right? There's nothing more Australian than fishing for barra in the outback's outback. This is the Kimberley – it's about as out-the-back as you can get, and our guide is certain we'll get a bite or two.

He's wrong. So wrong. We don't get a single nibble. Not that it's his fault. He's in a small boat with four blokes, three of whom don't fish, can't fish and probably shouldn't fish. To me, the adventure comes from the fact that we're sitting in said boat on a river seemingly awash with grumpy salties. Not that I'm complaining. We trawl up and down the Pentecost River for a couple of hours as the sun makes its slow arc up the sky, catching nothing, but experiencing everything. I start to think that maybe there is something to this lark after all; it's like the fish are beside the point.

The thing is, it's shockingly relaxing out here. The wildlife – the bank-hugging crocs and the myriad birds especially – is entrancing and the landscape somehow engenders a respite from hectic, modern life that makes you feel that, maybe, all is or will be well with the world.

It's not a total cure for the COVID blues, but it's a good start.

THE DETAILS

Keith Austin was a guest of El Questro and Tourism Western Australia.

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FLY

Virgin Australia operates daily direct services between Perth and Kununurra with connections to other major cities across Australia. Economy tickets start from $249 one way. To book, and for more details, visit virginaustralia.com

STAY

After 18 months of closure, El Questro has opened to visitors after a wet season that is bringing an abundance of wildlife and incredible waterfalls. During the closure the station's Swinging Arm Bar has been extended to create The Cantina, a larger outdoor eating area with shade sails, ducted water misting and newly landscaped gardens. The Cantina's updated menu includes a range of gourmet burgers made from Angus beef and, for the bold, crocodile and camel meat.

Prices at Emma Gorge from $350 a person per night, and $226 at the Station. See elquestro.com.au

 

 

 

 

 

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