Outback Adventures,The Kimberley, North West Australia. Bubbles & Barramundi.

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

Packing up to leave Home Valley Station. Choccy writes the day’s activities on the bus window. A herd of horses cross our path as if in an oil painting.

The adventure continues.

Day 5: El Questro Station, Zebedee Hot Springs, Chamberlain Gorge,  the Pentecost River and oh, and let’s not forget some rather delicious Wild Hibiscus Crumble.

If you would like to read days one to four of  the ‘Adventure Wild‘ 12 day ‘glamping’ trip in The Kimberley, please follow the links below.

Day 1: Why you should escape to the Kimberley

Day 2: Three Awesome Gorges

Day 3: Wild Hibiscus and Bobtails

Day 4: 13 Reasons to visit Outback Australia

Outback Adventures, highlights of the trip: Crocodile Dundee eat your heart out

A curious case of Bubbles and Barramundi.

I can’t believe I’m getting up this early on holiday!

It’s 5.15am. The sun is rising and I’m awake ready for yoga. I can hear the gentle exotic hum of Indian music on our yoga master’s iPad and as I pull on my tracksuit pants and peer out of the tent, I see a collection of half awake bodies already assembled with their swags rolled out on the grass.

We stretch and groan. We know the routine now and secretly, I think, the girls are falling just a little in love with our wonderful yoga master, Peter, who like a knight in shining armour has taken on the dubious and unpaid task of coaching us yoga newbies into strange contorted positions each morning. Who’d have thought it! On a camping trip in the Outback in the remote Kimberley!

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

Stretched and relaxed, we’re then plumetted full steam into the less glamorous tasks of packing up our swags, sweeping out our tents, shaking out the red dust from our clothes, and joining in the brekky routine before leaving Home Valley Station at 7am.

Greg takes a little detour and drives us down to the Pentecost River where there are heaps of resident Saltwater Crocs and plenty of gruesome croc stories ensue which become ever more explicit as Greg and Choccy get fully into their crocodile oratory. I peer into the murky depths of the river and scan the riverbank, careful not to get too close to the water’s edge as the river is tidal, and we are probably being watched by an unknown amount of close-by beady eyes.

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

Looking for crocs in the Pentecost River. Road trains trundle down to and across the river while we watch and take photos.

Someone starts piping up with some particularly corny puns about crocs and wildlife that make us laugh, so by the time we are on the Gibb River Road again we have had a good giggle and the mood is set for the day.

It’s a dusty drive down to the Pentecost River crossing itself where there are some road trucks and maintenance road workers.  We see three huge road trains rumble into view in the distance on the opposite side of the river, their dust visible in front of the soaring, moody Cockburn Ranges long before the trucks themselves are spotted.

It’s one of those sights that is at once significant and memorable; a Kimberley portrait that will forever be etched in my mind, painted in a moment in time as I stand with a slight breeze in my hair on the banks of this mighty North West river.

When we cross the river, Choccy doesn’t walk ahead of the bus as normal to test the depth of the water, but instead she hangs out of the open passenger door to check how high the water is rising against the wheels.

“OK. Not too high,” she instructs. “Keep going Greg.”

Under these Reptillean circumstances, I can’t say I blame her staying in the truck!

The crossing is rocky and rough but we get across without problem thanks to Greg’s expert driving and then stop on the opposite side to take photos of the monster road trains as they slowly plough through the water in the opposite direction.

Impressive.

The Gibb River Road is now windy and quite rough. We seem to have left behind the long straight ribbons of road, and in a way I feel as if we have crossed the border into another country, sheltered by ancient ranges that circumference us, nestling us in a cocoon of burnt sienna.

The soil at the side of the road has changed colour too. It’s now more of a browny grey, rather than boot polish red, as if it’s been defeated by the sun, worn out and bleached of colour.

As we trundle along I let my mind wander. I’m always happiest when I’m moving, and today I’m feeling content and at one with the trip, the people I’m with and where we’re going. For today we’re heading to the famous El Questro, and I’m excited about the new sights we’ll soon be experiencing.

I’m also learning hour by hour how to let go. How not to be in control. I’m aware that my day to day lists from back home don’t matter, and that the focus is here, now and on this strange other country with the lovely new friends I’m making, and the wonderful sights I’m seeing.

Simple really.

The only thing I need to remember is self evident, and that is to do my part of what’s needed to get the Adventure Wild tour on the road each day, which includes helping out with the chores, and also attempt not to do too much time wasting (ahem) personal fossicking for things I can’t seem to find in my bags that I’ve misplaced in odd spots.

I wonder if Dave cares that I’ve completely given up on how I look. Apart from the unkempt, unruly locks and grubby clothes I’ve probably got hairs growing on my chin and to tell you the truth I couldn’t give a damn. Gosh, how very Pink of me, I think, as I consider the pop star’s notorious “F…k you attitude.

What I’m finding though is that instead of my suburban narcissism, I’m being taken over by the countryside; this expansive ancient scenery with its huge open spaces that seems to be seeping deep into a place within my soul, blanking out all worldly concerns.

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

But I digress … After crossing the Pentecost River, theoretically we are already on land belonging to El Questro station, a bit of a Mecca for those travelling through the Kimberley, and now we are in sight of its entrance.

There are lots of stories about El Questro with its Spanish sounding name, and some of them merge and conflict to give a kaleidoscopic history that you’re never quite sure about.

“The water holes were named by the owner’s children,” Rhia one of the El Questro guides told us. “Zebedee was named after one of the boys’ dogs. Emma Gorge was named after a friend. Will Burrell was from a rich family in England and at the age of 21 he came and bought 1 million acres here for 1 million dollars. He met a young Aborigine called Buddy and they set up a cattle station in the 1980’s and then began setting it up as a tourist concern. Other cattle station owners were skeptical about getting tourists to come to the Kimberley, but he did, and soon tourists were flocking to this place.”

What is fact is that El Questro was established in its current form in 1991 by Will and Celia Burrell. There are five rivers flowing through the million acre former cattle ranch, along with hot thermal springs, deep gorges, waterfalls and rock art from the Wandjina period.

Someone else had another story. “Mr Salermo, the previous owner loved his rum and he was at Kununurra Races and bet on a horse called El Questro, but it lost. The next day he had to sign papers to name the place, and so he called it El Questro.”

But first, we pull into Zebedee Hot Springs and the harsh scenery changes as if by magic, right on cue, from arid to tropical.

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

Scenes from the very beautiful Zebedee Hot Springs

Here we are in the hot, vast outback… in the tropics …amazing! What’s more amazing is that we are at a place called Zebedee  Hot Springs, curiously named after a character from The Magic Roundabout TV show in England.

What  contradictions!

The air is cooler here and the tall Livistonia palms keep everything nice and shady while huge aquatic plants complete the feeling of being in a secret grotto. Warm water gurgles out from the earth and fills numerous shallow, rocky pools that sit under a gloriously green canopy of palm fronds.

“This is my idea of heaven,” someone says. And I have to agree, as I lie back under the coolness of palm shade in the silky warm water, looking at the verdant growth above which is dusted with a gentle suffused light. I can only think – gardens of paradise.

The waters are mineral rich and thermal. “Over thousands of years, rainfall has been absorbed by the surrounding sandstone formations and has percolated down through these natural filters to subterranean zones. Here the water is then heated under pressure and forced back to the surface to eventually cascade out into the springs. Rainforest has established, and groves of Livistonia Palms tower above these rejuvenating waters.” From Icons of the Kimberley by Russel Gueho, 2003.

When we all resemble prunes and look 20 years older, we decide it’s time to get out and head back to the bus where Choccy miraculously produces walnut, carrot and banana cakes with morning coffee which in normal Adventure Wild style is whipped up and out in minutes with a little man-help from us crowd.

Then it’s off to El Questro listening to a song called, “Old Farts and Caravan Parks,” which Greg, always the entertainer, puts on to make us laugh.

“Gee, I just have to get a copy of that CD,” someone laughs. “It’s so true. I love the bit about terry toweling dressing gowns – hers in pink and his in blue!”

We cross Moonshine Creek with its story-like connotations and then go over the very pretty Crocodile Creek before we are popped out into what’s known as the El Questro township, which consists of among other things, a shop selling basic supplies and souvenirs, a bar, and a booking office for trips and tours.

There’s an open sided restaurant with a wooden verandah, but our lunch is being set up and prepared over by the bus, where we soon sit at the long trestle table, with its chequered table cloth and feel as rich as any pop star who might be languishing at the nearby, very exclusive homestead.

Stories of the day abound and we reconnect memories which come so quickly after each other that there is a danger of forgetting them. We all agree that the  wow factors on this trip are being dished up fast and furious, and that there’s no time for not paying attention. In fact, despite the huge distances we are not only fed very well but we manage at least 2 excursions or activities per day.

Afternoon languor.

It’s a lovely shady camping round with good grass and situated on the banks of a river where there’s an icy cold rock pool (without crocs) that is apparently safe for swimming because it’s dammed with rocks – although it must be said, I was wary about being in it, all the same.

We’ve been relaxing, lazing in the rock pool, doing washing, wandering around and gearing up for the afternoon activity when Greg announces in a reasonably non-plussed way that there’s a bit of a problem.

“We only  have 7 litres of fuel left,” he says quite calmly. “So remember back to the first day on the road when I told you all to always, ‘Expect the unexpected,’ well, this is one of those times.”

I wonder if that means that we’re stuck at El Questro for the indeterminable future (and secretly hope so)

Looks are exchanged, and Choccy to her credit remains calm. I’m not sure what the implications are, but as long as the El Questro bar is stocked with beer, the punters aren’t going to worry too much, I guess!

“We can’t buy fuel for another couple of hours because there’s apparently a problem with the fuel truck, so we don’t have enough fuel to get to El Questro gorge – we need at least 20 litres to drive there, so this will affect those of you who wanted to climb the gorge this afternoon.”

A plan is made. Instead, most of us opt to do the sunset champagne cruise down the Chamberlain River, which although costing $67, was not the tourist trap that I thought it might be.

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

Cruising up the Chamberlain River. Ahh, champagne, fresh fruit and the curious Archer fish.

The cliff faces are up to 100 metres high at their highest point and the sandstone is 1.8 billion years old, the second oldest exposed rockface in the world (Canada claims the oldest).

Dave tells me that the red in the rock is iron oxide, and Rachel adds that you see this throughout the Kimberley while the black colour that we see in the vertical formation is a form of Lichen.

We have a fun-filled, relaxing time in this beautiful gorge soaking up the ancient atmosphere of this extraordinary area and on the cruise we are shown pictures of how the gorge looked last year before the March 2011 floods.

 “A huge wall of water took most of the vegetation with it, altering the whole course of the river,” explains our guide, Rachel. “In fact a hug boab tree came down the river and wedged itself under the homestead. This actually saved the homestead from being washed away,” she tells us.

I feel tiny and insignificant in the face of the force of mother nature as I see massive uprooted trunks, and sandy beaches where once trees and shrubs grew.

The enormous gorge glows red, around us, it’s walls soaring into a picture perfect chocolate box pretty blue sky. We see crocodiles and a rock wallaby before we reach a point where the boat has to turn around, and we dock against a rock outcrop. Our guides bring out platters of tropical fruit, and champagne. Life is indeed looking good!

We feed the seven spotted Archer fish with bits of bread and melon, and under the influence of some bubbles we laugh uproariously and feed our childish delight as the fish spit at us. They eat airborne insects that they bring down by spraying water at them.

Charming hey!

They are attracted to the glitter of  our gold or silver rings, as well as glasses and camera cases that they mistake for insects. Much fun is had, waving fingers in the air and taking photographs, as bets abound as to whether they are ‘spitters’ or not.

It isn’t long before we spot bream and catfish, then we snatch a glance of a large barramundi flashing underneath the school of Archer fish, and it leaps to the surface in a flash of silver and grey.

Then to my delight a tiny turtle surfaces.

Our return trip is gentle except for champagne giggling and crocodile tales, of which there have been a couple of close calls in this gorge.

 “One couple were out in a canoe,” our guide Rachel tells us, “when Doc, the resident saltwater crocodile followed them. The man swatted Doc on the head with a paddle and in doing so managed to overturn the canoe, and they both ended up in the river. They swam furiously for the bank, almost managing to walk on water, thinking that they were about to be eaten alive, but amazingly the thing that saved them was their lunch which was tossed from the canoe in an orange rucksack right into the jaws of Doc the croc.”

We ponder this for a second or two, before Rachel continues.

“That’s why we give you all orange life jackets. So if we see a croc – you jump one way and we jump the other!”

On the way back we ride on the open sided safari vehicle. It reminds me of Africa, just a bit, as we whizz along the gravel road, red dust spinning up in clouds behind us throwing a haze into the air across the setting sun.

African safari perhaps, but the game at El Questro is entirely different, for now we are wild game spotting of a different kind. Celebrity wild game.

Due to an unexpected errand that our guides are asked to run, our ride home takes us past the exclusive homestead. It sleeps 12 people and is the sort of ‘out of prying eyes’ kind of place that movie stars rent out with their families.

“You get whatever you want if you stay at the homestead,” our boatman tells us. “For instance, one lot of guests wanted a fourth tennis player for a game of doubles, so one of the El Questro rangers was paid to go and play.”

“This is the closest most ordinary people get to the homestead,” Rhia tells us. “Ben Elton stayed here with his family some time ago, Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman have stayed here too. I’m not sure who they are asking us to pick up here today. Please all be quiet and don’t make too much noise!”

Quiet! After a couple of glasses of champagne! She has to be joking! The punters are jovial!

“If it’s Johnny Depp,” I blurt out in a stage whisper, “Bags he sits by me!”

“I don’t care who it is as long as he’s handsome,” someone else shrieks.

“Be quiet,” says Rhia. “You’re on hallowed territory. Not even the noise of the wheels of the truck on the gravel are meant to disturb the peace here.”

We all peer out of the truck, gawking like rubber necks. What sort of person pays $25,000 a night to get this sort of privacy?

It’s a lovely spot, but it’s not that lovely. Well I don’t think so. Not from what we’re able to see from the truck.

Rhia waits instructions on the walkie talkie radio.

Meanwhile we are deposited a safe distance away from the homestead and  get out of the truck as the sun is setting across the river and we stand under a huge Boab tree which is where the famous pioneering Durack family set up their 9th camp many years ago.

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

The big boab tree under which the pioneering Durack’s camped many years ago.

“In 1882 Patrick Durack and his drovers mustered over 7,000  cattle and about 200 horses across Australia from Queensland to the Kimberley in a trip that took 2.5 years,” says Rhia.

We’re told that by the time they reached the Kimberley they’d lost half the cattle and several men. The Duracks were a colourful family and were the first of the great Australian cattle barons, and I’m spurred on now to read  Dame Mary Durack’s book,  Kings in Grass Castles a book about the history of this colourful  family that’s so much a part of the Kimberley.

Back at the camp ground we are emptied out in time for Happy Hour at the bar – sadly without Johnny Depp.

It’s cooler tonight, but the champagne at sundown and now cold beers as night draws in are enough to keep our spirits warm and happy.

When we retreat to the big campfire that Chris, Greg and Peter have been stoking in our absence, we’re glad of the warmth as we eat porterhouse steak with sweet potato mashed with cream and cumin.

Delicious.

After that it’s a new taste sensation for most of us; wild hyacinth crumble which Sylvie has helped Greg and Choccy produce from the wild flowers we picked yesterday. They’ve added muesli to the crumble mixture and then steamed it in a big earthenware pot in the fire.

Outback Australia, The Kimberley by Jo Castro

Wild Hibiscus crumble and a warm camp fire.

Lovely jubbly!

One more glass of wine and I’m in bed, listening to the dulcet snores coming from the other tents.

Finally I drift off, thinking about turtles, bubbles and barramundi.

What, I wonder in my happy dreams, will tomorrow bring?                                                                                                                            Jo’s trip was sponsored by Adventure Wild

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Comments

  1. Simone Kapiteyn says:

    Hi Jo,

    Another fantastic blog, bringing to life the sights, sounds, smells, senses and amazing adventures of the Kimberley – well done!!

    Take care

    Simone, Karl & Cody

  2. Thanks Simone! I had such fun writing about Day 5 and re-living all the experiences, so I’m really glad that it resonated with you too :)

  3. jan
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Johanna, I have been through the area and read Kings in Grass Castles about the Durack family, but we did not have a 4WD back then so did not go off road in our campervan. Thanks for taking us along with you on this trip.
    jan recently posted..Travel Pinspiration: WildlifeMy Profile

  4. I’m glad you’re enjoying coming along on this trip with me, Jan! It makes it all worthwhile :) I’m sure you had a wonderful trip in your own campervan though, sounds like you went in the times when it was a very remote and pioneering thing to do :)

  5. jan
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Johanna, When we did the trip the main highway between Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing was red bull dust. As our van did not have A/C the dust infiltrated the whole van. When we sold the van years later, there was still red dust finding it’s way out of the internals. When we got to the end of the dirt stretch, my hair was standing on end literally. We do look forward to the day when we can go back with out boat and 4WD though.
    jan recently posted..Travel Pinspiration – CitiesMy Profile

  6. Ha, that’s so funny Jan. I can imagine you’re hair all stuck together standing on end! It’s a dusty area even now, but wow, that’s a long stretch of highway to be red bull dust. Now, a boat AND a 4WD that’s definitely the way to go :)

  7. Love the Pink attitude!! We loved driving and exploring along the Gibb River Road we didn’t make it all the way though. Your trip and photos sound amazing! Must go back
    Caz Makepeace recently posted..Daily Photo: San Diego SunsetMy Profile

  8. Ha! Thanks Caz! I’m Getting more bolshy by the day! Glad you enjoyed the post and yes definitely a trip that would be good for you guys with kidlet’s.

  9. Rob & Lee Wallis says:

    Thanks Jo, you have managed to bring day 5 back so clearly. What a day it was; the mighty Pentacost River, the huge water crossing, beautiful Zebedee Springs ( a true oasis, we were like a bunch of kids luxuriating and giggling in the warm water) and the piece de resistance: el Questro Station. There was a real camaraderie between us all by day 5, we were a real team and were enjoying each other’s company as well as the amazing sights of the beautiful Kimberley.
    X Lee Wallis

  10. Thanks for popping by and reading Lee. I agree, Day 5 was a real treasure and team spirits were high. Just makes me want to do it all over again – don’t know about you?

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