Our World Helicopter cowboys & inland seas: visiting WA's Kimberley

Lake Argyle.
Picture: Max Campbell-Clause

We recently took our high-school-aged Young Travel Writer winners "on assignment" to Western Australia's far north. Here, one of them shares his experience.

Once in a blue moon or, in this case, an iridescent golden one, you hit a travel jackpot. You encounter a place so magically beautiful you understand why you crammed yourself into a plane seat for hours. When you arrive home and look through your photos, you can hardly believe you’ve actually been there. Thank God for selfies to prove it — not least of all, to yourself. 

The Kimberley is such a place. The wonder of this region is its diversity and contrast. Within its more than 400,000sqm there are peaceful oases, dramatic ranges, desolate plains and beautiful, wide beaches.

Nestled between the sheer red walls of Emma Gorge in El Questro Wilderness Park in the East Kimberley is a small pool of perfect, clear water. It’s difficult to distinguish what is real and what is reflection. The rocks are softened by lush green. An oasis in a vast, rugged land. But relics of times past scattered throughout the gorge tell of a very different landscape. There are contours of an early seabed imprinted on the rocks, revealing the fact that the sea once engulfed this area.

Looming to the north-west of Emma Gorge is the majestic Cockburn Range.

Further south, a small plane, courtesy of Kingfisher Tours, flies us low over Lake Argyle. It is so colossal from the air that my mind registers it as an ocean; it doesn’t surprise me to discover it’s classified as an inland sea. This artificial reservoir is the second biggest in Australia and contains almost 10.7 million megalitres of fresh water. The plane continues over an assortment of ranges that look like giant sandcastles: from wave-like ridges stretching into the distance to those that have been worn and sculpted by wind and water over millions of years to form alien landscapes, such as the Bungle Bungle Range.

In contrast to this timeless landscape, human life here is a flash in the pan. It’s a tough life and not for the faint-hearted. A cemetery on the quiet side of Kununurra is a reminder of its fragility. Gravestones bear inscriptions such as: “In loving memory of Jack Mudd. Died, aged 32, in a helicopter accident.”

“They pilot helicopters like they ride horses,” Travel Editor Stephen Scourfield explains. Helicopter cowboys, I think. He shares the story of his friend’s death while driving a bull out of scrub from the air. 

There are about 198 Aboriginal communities and about 34 distinct indigenous languages in the Kimberley region today. Survival of local Aboriginal people in this harsh land historically was ensured by a complex social structure to avoid interbreeding — “an indigenous matrix”. It comprised family groups, skin groups and animal totems, to which individuals were assigned or belonged. To disobey this complex social network was a serious offence, for which an offender would be punished.

The Kimberley’s uniqueness lies in its contrasts. Being here, you barely have to leave your doorstep to witness awe-inspiring national parks and dramatic ranges as varied as the animals which inhabit them, beaches that are some of the most spectacular in the world and gorges whose postcard-worthy colours could be captured even on a monochrome camera.

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