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Kununurra, WA

Eastern entrance to the Kimberley region.

There is a time each year when Kununurra, to borrow a very Sydney term, "is like Pitt Street". The ever-increasing number of "grey nomads" (babyboomers with their caravans and camping equipment) travelling around Australia means that during the winter months they descend in their thousands on Kununurra as they make their way around Australia. It is so bad that there are often rows and rows of caravans parked along Highway One simply because the caravan accommodation in the town does not match the demand. The problem is that Kununurra is a very long way from just about everywhere. In spite of its apparent isolation Kununurra the town, which came into existence in the early 1960s as a construction camp for the Ord River Scheme, is now a vital hub with access to most of the main attractions in the East Kimberley. Fly to the Bungle Bungles and Faraway Bay; go by boat to Lake Argyle; and drive along the Gibb River Road to El Questro and Home Valley Station. The town is an ideal base to explore some of the wonders of north western Australia.

Location

Kununurra is located 3,214 km from Perth (that's the short route via the Great Northern Highway) and 3,337 km via the more scenic coast road and Broome. It is 1043 km north-east from Broome and 829 km south-west from Darwin via Katherine.

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Origin of Name

It is widely accepted that 'kununurra' means 'big water' in the language of the local Miriwoong Aborigines.

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Things to See and Do

Mirima National Park and Hidden Valley
Kununurra's closest attraction is the Mirima Hidden Valley National Park which is located on Ivanhoe Road just 2 km from the town centre. It is a kind of mini Bungle Bungles. The small beehive-like formations with their horizontal and layered bedding were formed by the same processes as the Bungle Bungles although, in this case, the unusual shapes have been formed by the erosion of the quartz sandstone by the waters of nearby Lily Creek.

There are four modest walks in the park.

(1) The Gerliwany-gerring Banan Trail is a 2.2 km walk through the formations.

(2) The Derdbe-gerring Banan Gap Trail is a short, easy 800 m return walk through a narrow valley which rises through the intricate rock formations. The walker has a view of Kununurra through a gap in the range.

(3) The 2.4 km "Looking at Plants" Nature Trail is an introduction to the rich flora of the park.  The walk has excellent signage which helps to identify the plants and their use by the Miriwoong people. It includes a wheelchair-friendly boardwalk.

(4) The 500 m Demboong Banan Trail is a return walk of moderate difficulty which climbs up a steep slope to a lookout which provides views back to Kununurra and the sandstone range of Mirima and the Ord Valley.

The park is rich in wildlife with lizards and birds (notably black kites, double-barred and crimson finches, white-quilled rock pigeon) predominating. In the early morning and evening it is possible to see short-eared rock wallabies, agile wallabies and dingoes.

The park's flora includes boab trees which grow on the rock faces. The seeds are carried to these inaccessible places by rock wallabies and left in their dung. For more information check out http://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/mirima or call (08) 9168 4200.

Celebrity Tree Park
The Celebrity Tree Park is an arboretum which was opened in 1984 on the shores of Lake Kununurra just west of the town centre. Celebrities, including John Farnham, Harry Butler, Rolf Harris, Baz Luhrmann and HRH Princess Anne, who have visited the town, have planted trees in the park. The park boasts a rich variety of native species including a huge boab tree.

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Other Attractions in the Area

El Questro
It is a legendary destination. The exclusive resort in the middle of nowhere where "celebrities" go to get away from it all. The amusing fact is that there is also a caravan and cabin section (far removed from the exclusive station property) which means people on a limited budget can stay although they don't get to see inside the upmarket property.

El Questro Station is located 106 km south-west of Kununurra on the Chamberlain River. There are four levels of accommodation - the Homestead (only 9 rooms), the air conditioned El Questro bungalows, the Emma Gorge tented cabins and riverside camping. Typical of the properties on either side of the Gibb River Road, El Questro is 1 million acres (404, 685 ha) with an extraordinary range of flora and fauna. Check out http://www.elquestro.com.au/ for more information.

Home Valley Station
Home Valley Station is located 120 km due west of Kununurra. There is an argument that everyone travelling through the area should try and spend at least one night at the station because it is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation, is a wholly owned Aboriginal accommodation and is used as an on-site training academy specifically designed to introduce indigenous men and women to the mysteries of the hospitality industry. It is a very classy accommodation option with genuine social value. Register that the upmarket end of the available accommodation is five star. It is as good as it gets in outback Australia and is the equal of El Questro which is just down the road. It also offers superb guided tours (there is a downloadable brochure - see http://www.voyages.com.au/images/pdfs/HVS_Activity_Schedule2014_FINAL.pdf) which include horse riding (there is a full day option and a more modest 2 1/2 hour option), fishing (catch a barramundi, threadfin salmon or mullaway saw fish) and scenic tours including the unforgettable Cockburn Ranges Sunset Tour (see the photo at the top of this page). Check out http://www.hvstation.com.au for more details.

Lake Argyle and the Ord River Scheme
The Ord River Scheme was a simple idea to harness the vast amounts of monsoonal summer rainwater which was being wasted; utilise the rich black soils of the area; and exploit the region's proximity to south-east Asia. It was never going to be that simple.

The plan was to dam the Ord River in the Carr-Boyd Ranges south-east of Wyndham; build a diversion dam 50 km downstream so that the waters could be used to irrigate 75,000 ha of land which was previously used for cattle grazing; generate hydroelectricity for local consumption; and populate the area with farmers who could exploit the economically viable combination of resources.

By 1941 the Western Australian Government had established a small experimental farm but it was unsuccessful and was closed down in 1945. That same year a joint Commonwealth-State Research Station was established at Ivanhoe Plain and it experimented with a range of crops.

In 1958 the construction of the irrigation scheme started and by 1963 the first stage had been completed. Kununurra was established as the irrigation scheme's main construction town.

By 1966 there were 31 farms on the Ord River plains but there were major problems with tropical diseases and birds. Regardless of these problems the scheme progressed and by 1972 the Lake Argyle Dam, one of the biggest artificial dams in the world, had been opened. Fortunately the farmers persisted so that flying into Kununurra today it is easy to see that the Ord River Irrigation Area is a success. Kununurra is surrounded by land where chickpeas, sorghum seed, melons, pumpkins, mangoes, bananas, citrus, irrigated pasture, tropical forests and sugar cane are all successfully grown. Sugar production now accounts for 33% of the cultivated land in the Irrigation Area. For more information check out http://www.lakeargyle.com/discover-lake-argyle/ord-river-irrigation-scheme/. It provides a very detailed history of the scheme.

Argyle Downs Homestead Museum
Located on Lake Argyle Road, this is the original home of the Durack family. It was moved to its current site when Lake Argyle, which was filling at the time, threatened to drown it. Visitors can read the remarkable story of Patrick Durack, known as "Patsy", who was born in County Clare, Ireland in March, 1834; emigrated to Australia in 1853; made a fortune on the Ovens River goldfields in the early 1860s; moved to western Queensland in 1868 and bought and sold land; and then, in 1882, hearing good reports of the land in the Kimberley, decided to move and "take up land on the Ord River and the Emanuels on the Fitzroy. From Thylungra station Durack organized the droving of 7250 head of breeding cattle and 200 horses on a 3000-mile (4828 km) trek, the longest undertaken by Australian drovers up to that time. They reached the Ord River in two years and four months with a loss of half the cattle and several men; the venture cost some £72,000. In 1886 Durack's two elder sons went by sea and set up Argyle station on the Behn River." A generation of Australians know this story because of Mary Durack's bestselling story of Patsy titled Kings in Grass Castles. The house and the graves were moved from their original location and re-erected in their present site shortly before 1968 when the Lake Argyle Dam was completed.

Bungle Bungles
If they weren't so inaccessible the Bungle Bungles would be one of Australia's premier tourist attractions. They are unique formations which were produced by the layering of deposits which were laid down in the area 350 million years ago. They have never been aggressively promoted as a tourist attraction which is why, over the past three decades, the difficult 4WD-only road to the site has never been upgraded. The perfect way to see them is to travel across the entire formation via aeroplane and then explore at least one of the gorges at ground level. For more information check out http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/bungle-bungles-wa which provides detailed information relating to how to get there and the walks available to visitors.

Argyle Diamonds
There is a tour of the Bungle Bungles which includes a visit to the Argyle Diamond Mine which is recognised as the world’s largest supplier of diamonds. Argyle Diamonds is famed for its rare pink diamonds. It is possible to inspect the diamond extraction and processing stages on a tour of the mine. It is also possible to purchase Argyle souvenirs and Argyle diamond jewellery at the mine. For more details check out http://www.eastkimberleytours.com.au/tours/15-bdm2-one-night-bungle-bungle-diamond-mine-combination-ex-kununurra.html.

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History

* Prior to European settlement the members of the Miriwoong Aboriginal language group lived and moved through the area.

* The area around Kununurra was first explored by Alexander Forrest in 1879. He travelled through the area and named the Kimberley, the Margaret and Ord Rivers and the King Leopold Ranges.

* In 1883, having become a land agent, Alexander Forrest helped to lease over 51 million acres (21 million ha) in the region.

* In 1887, with the region still sparsely populated, Forrest became the first Member for Kimberley in the Western Australian Legislative Council. This was the year when a pastoral lease at Kununurra was officially earmarked for sugar cane. It was never taken up.

* In the early 1880s the Durack family arrived and progressively established the Lissadell, Argyle, Rosewood and Ivanhoe cattle stations. At the Ivanhoe Station Kimberley Durack began experimenting with the possibility of growing cash crops on the rich black alluvial soils of the Ord River valley.

* In 1941 a small experimental farm was established on the Ord River by the Western Australian Government. It was closed in 1945.

* Between 1945-1957 a joint Commonwealth-State Research Station was established at Ivanhoe Plain north of Kununurra experimented with crops such as rice, safflower, linseed and sugar cane.

* In 1958 the construction of the irrigation scheme started and by 1963 the first stage had been completed.

* In 1959 Kununurra was established as the main construction town housing people who were working on the irrigation scheme.

* In 1961, after considerable debate, the town officially became Kununurra. There had been a suggestion it should become Cunnamulla.

* In 1963 Kununurra was visited by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip and the Ord River Irrigation Area was officially opened by Prime Minister R. G. Menzies on 20 July.

* By 1966 there were 31 farms on the Ord River plains but the results were mixed and the problems were considerable.

* In 1968 the main Ord River Dam, which formed Lake Argyle, was completed.

* In 1972 the second stage of the Ord River Irrigation Area was completed.

* Today the initial problems with agriculture in the area - the tyranny of distance and problems of tropical diseases and birds have been solved and today the area produces watermelons, mangoes, bananas, rice and cotton. Some crops have proved successful and have been sold to markets in south-east Asia.

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Visitor Information

Kununurra Visitor Centre, 75 Coolibah Drive, Kununurra, tel: (08) 9168 1177 and Western Australian Parks and Wildlife, Lot 248 Ivanhoe Road, Kununurra, tel: (08) 9168 4200.

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Useful Websites

The official local website - http://www.visitkununurra.com/ - is useful for accommodation and information about the weather.

 

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

1 suggestion so far
  • How big is Kununurra? I really need the size…

    It is a major stopping point on the drive from Broome to Katherine and, as such, has all the major services. It is essentially a tourist town for travellers so expect a supermarket, a couple of large caravan parks, motels and other essentials.

    Kelsey