In an untouched, ancient landscape, a long journey leads to luxury
On the most pristine beach I've ever seen, I think I've reached peak Australia. Our guide, Bruce (tick), is pointing out saltwater crocodile tracks (tick) in the powdery white sand (tick). Crossing these tracks are the footprints of a wandering dingo (tick). In the ocean (tick) to our side, there are dangers of bull sharks (tick), and box jellyfish (tick). Has any paragraph ever been more Australian?
The Eastern Kimberley is how you imagine Australia must have looked 40,000 years ago when the first humans arrived on its land. Untouched sands, rolling dunes, winding rivers and rushing waterfalls; rock formations the colour of rusty metal edging their way up, up, up above the deep red earth.
There's not much here, but there's everything you'd need to survive. Plants, fish, seafood, animals – some too dangerous for human needs, but others ripe for the taking.
It would have been a hard life, roaming the land on foot, staying dry in the wet season and the search for water in the dry. But although the landscape has remained largely untouched, my survival here is nowhere near as fraught, thanks to the presence of two luxury properties nestled in the heart of this vast wilderness. Because why rough it when you can do things in style?
verything takes time in the eastern Kimberley. There's the journey to get here, for starters. If you time it right, you can get a direct flight from Perth but otherwise you'll fly first to Broome, where the airport feels like a step back in time and mining types sit around drinking icy beers that drip with condensation over their foam stubby holders. Then another hour to Kununurra and you're still not quite there.
Get in a four-wheel-drive and head towards the Gibb River Rd, a route the Guardian once named one of five best road trips in the world. This is where the earth turns red and the vast landscape becomes marked with towering rock ridges and the strange silhouettes of bulbous boab trees.
The length of the journey seems like a fitting tribute to the first European pioneers to set foot here. Alexander Forrest was the first, a Perth-born explorer contracted to the government as a surveyor, who undertook many expeditions in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1879, he made it to the region now known as the Kimberley (he named it after a former Secretary of State for the Colonies, John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley). The entire expedition took six months and his party of explorers often faced life-threatening danger.
Next came Patrick and Michael Durack, Irish brothers who first moved to New South Wales in 1853. In 1879 they set off on a trek of more than 4800km, from Coopers Creek in Queensland to the Kimberley. They took their 7250 breeding cattle and 200 horses with them. The journey took two years and four months, and half the livestock died along the way.
These tests of resilience and endurance seem only fair, when you consider how long it took to form the landscapes these explorers walked on. More than 3 billion years. So I guess I shouldn't complain about the eight hours it takes me to get there from Perth.
t's not quite the equivalent of desperately searching for a waterhole while you walk thousands of kilometres across uncharted land, but a glass of champagne on arrival at El Questro Homestead really does quench the thirst after a long day of travel.
It has all the hallmarks of a luxury lodge – impeccably attired staff waiting to greet us, chilled face cloth to wipe off the day's grime, someone whisking away our bags before we can even register where they've gone – but El Questro's outlook is like nothing I've seen before. Perched on a clifftop over the Chamberlain Gorge, there's nothing but vast, unending landscape all the way to the horizon.
It's evening, and other guests are enjoying pre-dinner cocktails and canapes as the sun goes down. The river below us glows green in the homestead's subtly placed spotlights – we strain our eyes but can't make out the silhouette of the resident freshwater crocodile who returns here every season.
El Questro Wilderness Park spans more than 405,000ha of the Eastern Kimberley, with the station and homestead taking up more than 283,000ha. A cattle station since 1958, the land was bought in 1991 by Will Burrell and Celia Shelmerdine, a young couple with a dream to create a unique tourism destination.
The Homestead was completed in 1992, and now provides nine luxurious suites and exclusive hospitality. Down the road, El Questro also has camping and cabins available, but the Homestead is really the lap of luxury – and there's even a lap pool overlooking the gorge.
Days are spent out exploring – take a helicopter ride over the Cockburn Range, ride a horse over Saddleback Ridge, walk to Zebedee Thermal Springs, or enjoy a sunset champagne river cruise – then evenings are all about good food and wines. The bar is open throughout the day for guests to help themselves, and nothing ever feels like too much of a problem. One staff member even comes to rescue me from a huge huntsman spider – they're harmless but its legs are longer than my fingers and I can't bear the thought of it sleeping next to me on my perfectly-pressed pillowcase.
I rise early, woken by the sunrise cries of the flocks of corellas, and head out on a 4WD safari around the immense property.
As we bumpily making our way in a comfortable, open-sided, over-sized Jeep, our guide points out all the things that make this landscape unique. The boab trees endemic to the Kimberley that lose their leaves during the dry season but can photosynthesise using only their bark. The stinkwood tree that, when chopped and burned, smells like burning dog poo. The wild mango, a medicinal plant used by indigenous people to relieve pain.
Back at the lodge, a shared dinner table brings guests together to talk about the adventures of their day. The wine flows easily as the sun dips behind the distant ranges, and when the Homestead lights go out, the night sky is a light-box of stars.
ut back to that pristine beach, which is the front yard of another luxury property, the Berkeley River Lodge. It takes another adventurous journey to get here, this time an hour flight by light plane for there are no roads to this lodge; the only way in is by plane, helicopter or boat.
Things are a little more rustic here than at El Questro – if you can call infinity pools and five-course, wine-matched dinners rustic. The beachside cabins feel like the most glorious kind of glamping – stunning ocean views, spacious balconies, comfortable beds and quality linen. And the bathrooms are exceptional. Everything is outdoors – not only the shower and the bath-tub, but also the loo.
Although I'd love to lounge around on my north-facing balcony all day, there's a busy schedule ahead. Bruce is taking us first on a river cruise, then on a sunset beach drive where we'll have (of course) champagne and canapes.
Heading up the Berkeley River, we realise we've timed our visit just right. The burnt-orange rock stacks that look like child's building-block creations are teeming with waterfalls as the wet season comes to an end.
The water is the colour of crocodile skin but that's the closest we come to any of the fearsome reptiles; it's actually quite rare to see them, Bruce tells us. As long as you only swim in the waterholes approved by the guides, you have nothing to really worry about.
Our journey upstream is like Milford Sound goes Outback – towering cliffs and raging waterfalls, each bend of the river even more beautiful than the last. Trees cling to the cliffs with their roots spread along the rock like external plumbing.
The sense of peace from being in this untouched paradise is richly rewarding; better still there's only Wi-Fi capability in the main lodge building and it's limited to 250mb per day, so you have no excuse but to switch off – literally and figuratively.
Bruce first came to Kimberley in early 90s and spent five or six months a year camping, with only his dog for company and a tarp for shelter. Now he can only take a month due to his work schedule with the lodge, but still enjoys being away from it all and living off the land.
On the sand at sunset, he shows us tools and artefacts he has collected from the caves he's explored over the years. Aboriginal people still lived a nomadic life in the area up until around 1950s; now most have moved elsewhere, or into the local catholic missions.
The caves they found shelter in now sit untouched; Bruce found incredible Bradshaw rock art, spears and tools. Sometimes he's found human bones and skulls.
As we sit on the beach surrounded by sandstone rocks dating back more than a billion years, we eat cheese and crackers under the shade of pan pines. The light changes - peach, pink, orange as the sun goes down.
After dinner, I languish in the outdoor bathtub and watch while the Milky Way brightens the night sky, the sound of the ocean the only soundtrack.
I go to bed with the blinds open and awake to a deep orange light creeping over the horizon. It's only 5am; the day will be long. Good things take time in the Kimberley.
Fly direct to Perth with Air New Zealand, then connect to Broome or Darwin, and onward to Kununurra. El Questro and Berkeley River Lodge include transfers in their room rates.
A night at El Questro Homestead starts from $2120, including all meals and beverages, and selected tours. At Berkeley River Lodge , prices start from $3000 per night for 2 people, including return flights from Darwin airport to Berkeley, all meals and beverages (top-shelf alcohol excluded) and all activities (excluding helicopter tours).