One man's visionary dam in the Kimberley has led to an upsurge in new growth, writes Judy Bailey.

It's grey nomad season in the Kimberley. I'm stunned by the constant procession of four-wheel-drives and campervans barrelling along the red dirt of the legendary Gibb River Road. They've come for adventure, driving the Outback, soaking up the raw beauty of this vast, isolated, pristine corner of Australia's north-west.

Most travellers will stop in Kununurra.

You get the feeling this is a young town on the brink of change. Kununurra serves the cattle stations of the Kimberley plains and it was one of those cattle farmers, Kimberley Durack, whose vision is growing the town.

It was Durack who first thought about damming the Ord River and using the vast amount of water that flows out to the sea during the wet season (apparently enough to supply a city the size of Perth for 10 years) for irrigation.


He first raised the idea back in 1939. Twenty years later work began on the Diversion Dam at Kununurra. Sadly Durack died a year before the dam opened.

The change in the town has been enormous. The dam opened up huge tracts of fertile land to the north, making way for new crops such as sandalwood, chickpeas, chia seeds, rock melon and paw paw.

The Sandalwood Cafe is a great place to stop for lunch and makes the best mango smoothies ever. It's right next to the Mount Romance Sandalwood Factory, which is right next to the sandalwood plantations that feed the factory. As it's a relatively new crop here, growers are still experimenting with products but it seems to have remarkable cosmetic properties. Certainly my hair has never felt better than after I washed it with the factory's sandalwood shampoo. I scooped up some of its body cream too. The company is in the process of getting the medical go-ahead to sell its new eczema cream, which it says is achieving great results.

A stop at the Hoochery Distillery has me drinking rum, despite it being early afternoon. Like so many of the Outback enterprises, it's a family business. The Dessert family from Czechoslovakia have been producing rum here for 18 years with the corn from their property. Its good and they have an impressive array of international awards to prove it. The distillery's founder, the grandly named, Raymond Bernard Dessert III, commonly known as Spike, is quite a character. He's often to be found at the Hoochery, in his uniform of braces, jeans and a red shirt, his blue heeler by his side. He's had a few of these dogs by all accounts and they're all named after US Presidents. Would he draw the line at Trump? I wonder.

I stop to watch the endless procession of four-wheel-drives navigate the river crossing before heading back into town for dinner at The Pumphouse, a celebrated local eatery set in the industrial chic of the old corrugated iron pumphouse for the dam.

To the south-east of Kununurra lie the extraordinary rock formations of the Bungle Bungle Range. They're a short flight away with Aviair and the effort won't disappoint. It's like some crazy Dr Seuss wonderland out there. The Bungles are actually strange beehive-shaped, orange and black striped domes. They've been known to locals for many years but arrived on the national radar only when a film crew arrived to make a documentary about them in 1983. Bungle Bungle was the name of the local cattle station, so when Lands and Survey came to name the area they chose that name too. The national park, Purnululu, was established in 1987 and now the whole area is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

It's magnificent. In between the Bungles run a network of narrow bush-clad gorges. It's a hikers paradise, with abundant rock pools in the early part of the season from April to June, before it dries out to become perishing hot later in the year.

The plane is definitely the best way to get an idea of the scale of the park and our Kiwi pilot, Alex King, keeps up a fascinating commentary. The stripes are formed because the darker areas have more clay in them, which hold water and black bacteria grows on it. The lighter orange sections have less clay and therefore less water. The oxidisation of iron in the sandstone leaves the orange residue. The flight back to town takes us over the Argyle diamond mine. Alex's stories of the mine are the stuff of swashbuckling novels.

If you do nothing else in Kununurra make sure you hop on a tour with Jeff Hayley and his company, Triple J, down the Ord River. He'll give you an insight into the history of the place and its amazing biodiversity. The riverbanks are a suprising oasis of green. Cumbungi grass, favoured by the crocs as the perfect nesting place, jostles for space with pandanus and raupo. Rock wallabies nestle on the cliff faces, flying foxes hang in the paper barks, and cormorants nest in the melaleucas. Jeff explains how each part of the ecosystem has its role to play - for instance, the bats seek out nectar and are one of the main pollinators of the boab trees. They are also an important food source for the olive pythons and white-bellied sea eagles. Three species of turtles live in the river and 26 species of fish. Its lush here and the current is fast moving. We stop on the riverbank for homemade scones and jam and a cup of blokey tea ("None of that perfumed muck," Jeff cautions - good old gumboot!)

As we head down through the sandstone cliffs, they glow golden in the fading sun. Sunset on the Ord is exquisite. The sky turning lilac, then orange, then blood red just before the sun sinks below the horizon.

Getting there
Air New Zealand offers almost daily direct flights between Auckland and Perth. One-way Economy Class fares starting from $523.