Lost in Space: Australia's Kimberley

El Questro

Aug 9, 2001
Outside Magazine

Running west of Kununurra, away from the Bungles, the 440-mile Gibb River Road is the dusty Fifth Avenue of the Kimberley, a former cattle-driving track around which all human life in the area revolves. Most of the land here is taken up by immense ranches, few of them measuring less than a million acres—not a profligate size when you realize that the barren soil only sustains one head per 100 acres. (Herding is usually done by helicopter.) The attractions of this region are much like those of the most remote areas of, say, Idaho: This is where cowboy culture survives, where cattle are both income and recreation, and where the landscape is a great, dusty, lonesome, poetic place.
The closest ranch to Kununurra, and one of the most idiosyncratic, is El Questro, only 90 minutes west of town. Larger than Monaco, El Questro sprawls across the leather-brown mesas of the Pentecost Ranges. In 1990 the entire spread was leased by Will Burrell, a 23-year-old English aristocrat who happily sank into the Outback way of life: He's been known to waterski the Chamberlain River behind a helicopter and to keep a wicker chair on the knife point of a bluff reachable only by air, the better to read poetry and contemplate the silence.

Under Burrell, El Questro has opened itself to the public as a "wilderness camp." It offers an entire social strata of accommodations, from a proletarian $7 campground to the Homestead, a luxurious, chaps-in-black-tie-quaffing-gin-style lodge where rooms are $460 a night. My preference is for the most atmospheric option of all, the private campsites ($7), individual swaths of riverside bushland far from the nearest tent. (Call 011-61-8-91-691-777 for reservations.)
For company, drive back up to El Questro's open-air bar, the Swinging Arm, for a steak—s cattle country, after all, and vegetarians are viewed askance—chilled Emu Bitter beer. If you're lucky, you'll get to chat for a bit with Buddy Tyson, the Aboriginal jackaroo, or stockman. Ask him about the time he was arrested for rowdiness in Broome and brought his dog into court as a witness.
Next morning, rent a motorboat and chug slowly up the Chamberlain, casting a line for barramundi, Australia's most succulent white-fleshed fish. The boat costs $95 for a half day. Canoes used to be available as well, until a crocodile tore one in two. In mid-afternoon, when the sun often glares penitentially over the earth, rock-hop down the river to the dribbling waterfall at the end of Emma Gorge. The vine-fringed sinkhole here, locals claim, is "the most beautiful swimming spot in all of Oz."

Filed To: Australia

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