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El Questro: Western Australia

By Robert Norman, 08 Sep 2015 WA

El Questro: Western Australia

No trip to WA's north-west would be complete without a visit to El Questro and Purnululu, two jewels in the otherwise dry East Kimberley.

If you’re ‘doing the Gibb’ east from Broome, then you’ll have covered a dusty and corrugated 900km by the time you get to El Questro near the eastern end of that famous road.

If you detoured up the torturous Kalumburu Road to Mitchell Falls and back, then make that 1400km. By now your 4x4, tent, clothes, pretty much everything, will be covered in fine, red dust and after the privations of a couple of weeks camping, the wife and kids have gone to the ‘dark side’.

About now, a few nights in a real bed at El Questro becomes a highly attractive option.

El Questro Station has fuel supplies, a shop, a campground and a range of accommodation – from $300 per night all the way up to $2800 per night. It’s a very, very popular destination. So popular that in peak holiday times, with hundreds of visitors constantly pounding up and down the station’s dirt roads, a dust pall over the station can be visible from several kilometres away.

El questro wa -6Another option is El Questro’s sister resort, Emma Gorge, just 10km further east along the GRR. Without camping facilities and with only a short access road from the bitumen, there’s no dust and little noise.

Admittedly, the resort’s tented structures are not exactly soundproof and it can be less than pleasant if you are unlucky enough to end up next to the couple who thought it would be a good idea to bring their three children aged under five into the great outdoors. Neighbours aside, the tented structures, each with one double bed, two single beds and a luxury bathroom, provide ideal family accommodation.

Emma Gorge Resort stands at the mouth of the gorge it is named after and features a bar, a bistro and a quality restaurant that all look out onto lush-green tropical gardens. The walk to the head of the gorge takes about 45 minutes, initially along a well-made path and then on a rocky riverbed. About 200 metres from the end of the walk is a beautiful aquamarine pool fed by water trickling in between two giant boulders that stand like sentinels over this inviting oasis.

El questro wa 3The major attraction, however, is just around the corner – a waterfall that plunges 60 metres from the escarpment above has gouged a huge cavern and waterhole. While the waterfall is barely a trickle in the dry season, the cool waters of the pool (shaded from the hot tropical sun) are a magnet for tourists.

Sitting on one of the boulders that lie scattered around the edge of the waterhole, you can look up to see many similar boulders seemingly defying gravity in the cavern roof – a not-entirely comforting view.

Most of El Questro’s attractions require basic 4x4 skills. For example, Explosion Gorge (named after the local method of fishing in years gone by) is an easy drive, apart from a couple of washaways in the rough gravel track and a 300-metre crossing over the Pentecost River. Formed from large, heavy rocks to withstand the wet-season floods, the ford is a punishing test of suspension that will perfect your technique of ‘driving through the brakes’.

El questro wa 7The scenery is superb, especially when the late afternoon sun lights up the red sandstone ridges dotted with spinifex and snappy gums. This drive also encompasses Branco’s Lookout, with its spectacular views back over El Questro and a wide sweep of the Pentecost River – where the wake of an occasional saltwater crocodile can be seen in the otherwise still water. 

Reaching El Questro Gorge involves a 100-metre water crossing and, while it’s little more than hub-depth, there is often a queue of quite capable 4x4s with their owners nervously surveying the crossing before turning around and driving away. The gorge itself presents a pleasant shady walk through stands of Livistona palms, which have survived from prehistoric times thanks to springs that keep the gorge damp even in the driest times.

The delightful walk down this narrow gorge is eventually blocked by a huge boulder and, while it is possible to clamber over this obstacle, most visitors don’t bother as the track becomes more difficult past this point.

El questro wa 8At nearby Zebedee Springs, a 750-metre walk winds through another lush stand of palms to several small pools constantly kept between 28°C and 32°C thanks to a thermal spring. The other constant is the queue of tourists in their swimmers impatiently waiting for a dip in the soothing waters. In an attempt to prevent the area being degraded by overuse, the springs are only open to the public from 7am to 12pm each day.

Leaving the comforts of Emma Gorge behind, it’s a 200km drive south on the Great Northern Highway to Purnululu. This sealed road follows fabulously rugged and steep-sided ranges, which generally run north-south through much drier country than the western sections of the Kimberley.

El questro wa 12If you think the Kimberley isn’t like anything else in Australia, in a way you are right – it wasn’t originally part of the Australian continent, but collided with it 1.8 billion years ago. This event and subsequent geological activity formed the Halls Creek Fault system, which roughly parallels the Great Northern Highway and is responsible for much of the rugged terrain (and the nearby Argyle Diamond Mine).

The 50km gravel road into the park is an easy run, albeit restricted to 4x4s without vans, because of blind corners, crests and creek crossings with sharp entry and exit angles. Despite numerous signs saying ‘4x4 only’, there always seems to be tourists who think the warnings don’t apply to them and who end up with their 2WD ‘Campers’, or similar vehicles, parked up at a rocky water crossing, wondering what to do next.

Driving into the park, the western side of the Bungle Bungle Ranges that first greets visitors is unremarkable. It’s only when you drive around the southern end of the range to Piccaninny that the famous beehive dome formations reveal themselves.

El questro wa 4The banding of the domes is due to a difference in the clay content and porosity of the various sedimentary layers of sandstone. The dark-grey bands are caused by cyanobacteria (single-celled organisms that are one of the oldest life forms on Earth) growing on layers where moisture accumulates. The orange bands are due to oxidised iron compounds in layers of sediment that retain less water and dry out too quickly for the cyanobacteria to exist.

Looking at these striking structures, it’s hard to believe they were largely unknown until an ABC camera crew filming a documentary accidentally stumbled across them only 30 years ago.

From the car park at Piccaninny, there is a choice of both short walks and longer day and overnight treks. An easy three kilometre walk along dry creek beds, plus a short uphill section, leads to Piccaninny Creek Lookout that sits between two domes and provides superb views over the eastern-facing beehives.

El questro wa 10Here, a side track to Cathedral Gorge enters a narrow cleft in the orange sandstone cliffs, providing entry to an immense amphitheatre that initially leaves visitors amazed and in awe. A testimony to the power of water, this natural wonder was carved out of the rock by a waterfall that, after rain, pours in through the cavern roof.

The north end of the park also has several short walks. The 4.5km Mini Palms Track follows a dry creek bed before climbing into a narrow gorge dotted with picturesque Livistona palms. Some walkers might wish they hadn’t had that second helping of lunch when they find they are required to squeeze through narrow gaps between huge conglomerate boulders.

The track concludes at two viewing platforms, one that looks back down the palm-filled gorge and a second that provides a view into a large amphitheatre, which narrows down to little more than a crack in the far wall.

El questro wa 2Nearby is the two kilometre Echidna Gorge walk, where the sheer gorge walls gradually close in on each other. The gorge becomes narrower and narrower before appearing to end in small amphitheatre aglow with sunlight being reflected off the red rock of the gorge walls high above. However, off to one side is a small opening into a short continuation of the gorge – so narrow in places you can touch both walls.

At certain times of the day, sunlight shines all the way to the gorge floor, making Echidna Gorge one of the most stunning natural light shows to be seen anywhere. The narrow gorge appears as if lit by a blast furnace, and tourists walking from the gloom into this cauldron of orange life often conjure up visions of the recently departed descending into the fires of Hades. 

El questro wa 5An early-morning 20-minute helicopter flight over the park, while an expensive exercise for a family, provides a view of Purnululu not otherwise available. The little choppers don’t have any doors, much to the horror of some passengers, but they provide an unsurpassed aerial view of the beehives and the flat, trackless land that sweeps away towards the yellow sand of the Tanami Desert clearly visible in the distant south-east.

The East Kimberley has a very different appearance to the wetter, tropical west. Whether visitors choose four-star luxury accommodation at El Questro or a more intimate camping experience under the stars at Purnululu, both destinations provide a treasure trove of experiences to remember for years to come.