Saturday, 28 January 2012

Exploring Lake Argyle and the Ord River in the Kimberley

Travelling the Kimberley

If you are planning your dream Australian vacation, then be sure to include the Kimberley region in your holiday itinerary. The Kimberley covers an immense area in the north west of Australia and encompasses a huge variety of different habitats and scenery. The Kimberley is an ancient landscape, and it is thought that the first Aboriginal peoples walked this land as long as 40,000 years ago, leaving behind them in their unique rock art, haunting and evocative images of our long-ago past. The thing that you will notice first when travelling into the Kimberley is how empty it is; it is still a region where you can easily escape any signs of other people and modern living. Then there are the stunning red-hued hills, dramatic gorges, pristine pools of crystal clear water fringed with lush green vegetation, the endless silver sand beaches and the amazing variety of wildlife. The sunrises and sunsets in the Kimberley are sensational, and it is one of life’s real privileges to watch the fruit bats fly out across the darkening sky to start their night’s foraging for food and then watch the stars come out and light up the night sky. I have never seen a night sky as big as it is in the Kimberley, or stars that are so bright.  The best time to visit the Kimberley is during the Australian winter months from April to October, as this is the dry season. During the rest of the year the Kimberley experiences the wet season, with violent rainstorms, high temperatures and humidity and with roads being frequently flooded.  However, there is one part of the Kimberley that even in the middle of the baking hot dry season has plentiful supplies of water, plenty of greenery and productive farmland. This is the area around the town of Kununurra that has been created by the Ord River Irrigation Scheme or ORIS.

Lake Argyle

Ord River Irrigation System

The vast majority of the Kimberley is uncultivated, open savannah, covered by low scrub and dotted with the iconic boab trees. Much of the region is divided into vast cattle stations, but in  1963 the Ord River Irrigation Scheme was started, and now much of this area is now fertile, productive farmland where over sixty types of crop including, perhaps surprisingly, a great deal of sugar cane. Initially, most of the farms grew cotton, but there were big problems with a pest caterpillar called Helicoverpa armigera. The farmers started to use a lot of chemical pesticides, but the caterpillars became resistant to them which caused the cotton yields to fall. This combined with a dramatic drop in world cotton prices, led to cotton farming being abandoned in the region. The Ord River Irrigation Scheme was formed by utilising the waters of the Ord River, which flows for 320 miles through the Kimberley, starting beneath Mount Wells and then skirting the Purnululu National Park, home of the famous Bungle Bungles, through Lake Argyle and past Kununurra before emptying into the Indian Ocean on the Cambridge Gulf. The creation of ORIS also led to the building of the privately owned Ord River Dam Hydro scheme, which provides some of the electricity needed in the eastern Kimberley.

Lake Argyle

Lake Argyle was also formed by the creation of the Ord River Irrigation System, and it is the second largest artificial lake in Australia. Lake Argyle covers an area of around 1000 square kilometres, and an important wetland area called the Lakes Argyle and Kununurra Ramsar site was also created under the Ramsar Convention.  Lake Argyle has rapidly become a haven for wildlife, and now contains thousands of freshwater crocodiles and many different fish species such as barramundi, bony bream, archer fish and sleepy cod. The huge saltwater crocodile is also occasionally found in Lake Argyle, although as experts disagree on how many are present it would be wise to be cautious. A less welcome addition to the native fauna is the cane toad, a destructive invasive species of amphibian that arrived in 2008, having spread from faraway Queensland.  Lake Argyle and the Ord River are also a birdwatcher’s heaven, as there are so many different species of birds that can be spotted, such as White Quilled Rock Pigeons, Gouldian Finches, Purple Crowned Fairy Wrens, and Yellow Chats.  You can also witness the amazing site of pelicans nesting in trees, as they have to protect their nests from the voracious freshwater crocodiles.

The Ord River

Things to Do On Lake Argyle and the Ord River

This amazing part of the Kimberley has a huge amount to offer the tourist.  If you like messing around on boats, you can book great cruises on either the lake or to travel down the river.  Taking a cruise on Lake Argyle is one of the best ways of drinking in the beauty of the lake, the clear blue skies and the rugged landscape. There is a wide range of different Lake Argyle Cruises to choose from, ranging from early evening lake cruises to watch the sun setting over the magnificent Kimberley scenery, daytime cruises lasting a couple of hours and fishing charters can also be arranged. On all of the Lake Argyle cruises the skipper gives an informative commentary about what you are seeing and how the lake and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme came about, and delicious refreshments are provided. If you prefer to go cruising down the Ord River, you can jump on a cruise that takes you down the river giving you the opportunity to spot freshwater crocodiles, birds and enjoy the beautiful scenery, returning to Kununurra as the sun drops down over the horizon, bathing the land in deep red and orange light.  If you prefer to take to the air, why not splash out and take a scenic flight to enjoy the panorama of seeing Lake Argyle from high in the sky. You can also take longer scenic flights that fly over the huge Argyle Diamond Mine, the truly unique Bungle Bungle range, and the stunning Carr Boyd Ranges. This part of the Kimberley has so much spectacular scenery to offer, that you are bound to fall in love with it and return time and time again.

The Durack Homestead

As Lake Argyle is an artificial lake, when it was created it flooded a large area of land, covering any sign of the scanty human habitation in the area. However, there was one historic homestead in the region due to be flooded that in 1971 it was decided to preserve. This is the amazing Durack Homestead that was originally built on Argyle Downs Station by the Durack family in 1895. The Durack family were one of the original pioneering families who opened up the Kimberley for cattle ranching back in the late 19th century and if you want to know what life was like back in those times then Mary Durack’s famous book ‘Kings in Grass Castles’ is the book to read. The Durack homestead, a beautiful building constructed of limestone blocks, was dismantled and moved to its new position above the flood waters, and all of the original contents of the house have been placed back into the rebuilt house. Even the family graves have been saved and put into a quiet corner of the pretty garden surrounding the restored homestead.  The Durack Homestead is now open as a museum, to show how these early pioneering families lived, and a visit is included in several of the tours to Lake Argyle.

The Durack Homestead

How To Get To Lake Argyle and the Ord River

Lake Argyle and the Ord River are situated in a very remote part of Western Australia.  Many people visit when they are taking a year or so to travel around Australia in a camper and there are also many tours that include these destinations, ranging from simple backpacker camping tours through to luxurious escorted tours. The main town in the region is Kununurra, which can be reached by sealed roads, although you need to be prepared to drive a 1000 km from Broome or 500 km from Katherine in the Northern Territory. If you are travelling from the Northern Territory, please remember that there strict quarantine laws when entering Western Australia, so fruit, vegetables and other agricultural items cannot be brought over the state border. Kununurra also has a small airport, and you can get flight from Broome, Darwin, Argyle and Perth through Airnorth and Skywest Airlines.

Accommodation Around Lake Argyle and in Kununurra

If you want to stay right beside the lake, you will need to stay at the Lake Argyle Village. This great tourist facility has everything you need for your stay, including a general store, fuel, a licensed restaurant and a visitor centre.  There is an area set aside for camping and caravans or you can hire one of the comfortable Lake View cabins. And just to make it even more special there is a new infinity pool set on the hillside, where you can swim and enjoy the spectacular scenery of Lake Argyle. If you prefer to stay in Kununurra itself, then you can choose from a great selection of great accommodation, ranging from plush hotel resorts, to self-catering apartments, camping and caravan parks and basic, friendly backpackers resorts. Kununurra is a small town, but it offers you a choice of places to eat, a great coffee shop, and several art galleries featuring the work of local Aboriginal artists.

Sunset on the Ord River

So what is not to love about the magnificent landscape that is the east Kimberley? Lake Argyle and the Ord River offer you everything that a tourist could possibly want, whether it is beautiful views, swimming, fishing, boat cruises, scenic flights, hot sunshine, great food and stunning wildlife. Add Lake Argyle and the Ord River to your Australian travel itinerary and I promise that you will not regret it.

All images my own


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