Friday, 10 August 2012

AUSTRALIA: Kunanurra. (Unexpected) beauty and sophistication in the Australian outback.

First up a confession: I was not looking forward to going to Kunanurra.  My vague impressions of it involved mining, a slightly controversial dam and some reports of issues within the local indigenous communities.  The only other bell rung by the name involved the gorgeous rare pink diamonds mined at the nearby Argyle site, but like most women, my interest lay far more with the finished product than the open cut mine they originate from.

Lake Argyle from the air. 
I was wrong.  Kunanurra is absolutely, undeniably beautiful, and my big city sensibilities were soothed by the excellent coffee, sophisticated wine and great food I was served during my stay. Flying in, the views are nothing short of breathtaking, the ancient red rock of the Kimberley punctuated by ribbons of silvery green eucalyptus marking the rivers, and perfect verdant circles betraying the presence of giant centre pivot irrigators. The massive Argyle Dam, more than twenty times the volume of Sydney Harbour, is a huge silver sheet, and even the open cut Argyle mine possesses a raw beauty of its own from this perspective, each layer revealing subtle variations in the palate of umber, yellow and dark red that paint the land.  

Once on the ground, the pleasant surprises continue.  My accommodation, at the Kunanurra Country Club, is great - large, clean comfortable rooms, a sparkling pool, and plenty of guest facilities including a laundry room, free wi-fi and a knowledgeable guest services desk doing a great trade in day tours, scenic flights and even doling out mechanical advice to 4WD enthusiasts.  I settle on a trip on the Ord River with Triple J tours, which turns out to be an excellent choice.  Jeff, who has been running the business for over 25 years, is a font of knowledge about the area, and his drawling, dry wit goes down a treat with the guests on board the powerboat we are using to blast our way up the river towards the dam wall.  We stop for a picnic lunch at a gorgeous spot on the bank, and face a spread and service most city cafes would do well to match.  The fact the meal was seriously undersold to us by the laconic Jeff as a "vegemite sandwich and maybe a cuppa", only adds to the appeal. 

Freshwater crocodile - harmless
 to people, despite appearances!
Back on the river, freshwater crocodiles (some of the largest I have seen at up to 7 feet long) lounge on the banks, drape themselves precariously on semi-submerged logs or bob motionless on the surface of the river.  Even the wash of our powerful boat doesn't seem to perturb them, each one riding the wave nonchalantly without so much as a blink of a protruding yellow eye.   Jeff tells us they retrieve a few of the aggressive saltwater crocodiles from the river each year - most of them after suffering "high speed lead poisoning" as he puts it!  Culling out the "salties" is mainly in aid of the tourists we spot in canoes and kayaks, who are enjoying the sunshine and lazy current sweeping them gently downstream. Luckily for the intrepid paddlers, freshwater crocs are generally timid and non-threatening to humans, their narrow, delicate jaws making them a danger only to small fish and amphibians.

The scenery competes successfully with the wildlife for our attention.  As we move further upstream, the river widens into wide flat expenses of ancient rock, folded like a descriptive plate from a geology textbook and painted in vivid shades of ochre.  Studded with burnt trees and ancient cycads bursting into life, the landscape is nothing short of jaw dropping.  Further upstream, the banks move in, and we speed through towering gorges; later still overhanging trees and reed beds crowd the banks.  Finally, we arrive at the dam wall, a towering pile of rock and clay holding back the huge expanse of Lake Argyle above.  

Ord River bank. 
Since being dammed 40 years ago, the swollen section of the Ord River downstream from the wall has become a year round haven for wildlife, its natural cycle of flood and drought tamed.  A huge irrigation scheme planned to transform the desert into productive farmland has not quite lived up to the original grand vision, but plantations of sandalwood are the latest high yield investment by local farmers, and with the first of these reaching maturity next year, the long awaited return may be close. 

Four turbines harness the flow of the water and generate the electricity required by the Argyle mine and also supply the township.  Looking out across the lake as we stand on the wall, all that is visible however is an enormous expanse of sparkling water, with madly paddling grebes enjoying the whirlpool ride provided by the overflow race the only evidence of the generators beneath our feet.  

Once we've had our fill of the view, the group is taken back to Kunanurra by bus, another opportunity for Jeff to share his almost inexhaustible supply of facts and figures about the area.  His knowledge of local history and agriculture are particularly impressive, and some of the group leap at his offer of a guided tour of the irrigation area after the official day is over.  

Back at the motel, I spot a brochure for three-day canoe trips on the Ord River, complete with all necessary equipment and semi permanent campsites.  I'm keen to come back and make the trip down the river at a more leisurely pace at some time, and this sounds perfect...  

Rush Expeditions runs custom trips through Australia, which can include  activities like canoeing the Ord River if you wish.

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