El Questro

Getting There

After a three-day canoeing trip on the Ord and two days of walking in the heat of the Bungle Bungle, our bodies had had a full workout. We left Purnululu to continue the fair Nello's relaxing trip to the Kimberley. Returning to the Great Northern Highway, we turned north and followed it all the way to its end at Wyndham, the sleepy little port town on the mangrove, mudflat and saltwater crocodile lined shores of Cambridge Gulf. This town has a feeling of a slow-baking isolated inertia and the locals love it!

We were here for a layover day to catch up with washing, the purchase of supplies and a bit of a break. Our sole activity was to dip our hands in the muddy waters of the gulf (they were not bitten off by a salty) and visit the Five Rivers Lookout at sunset for a fantastic vista of this flat estuarine landscape, where five of the big seasonal rivers of northern Australia - the Ord, Pentecost, Durack, King and Forrest all meet the ocean within sight of the hill on which we were standing. See, I can relax.

One night in Wyndham and we were heading south again for 45km to the junction of a wide dirt road. We turned - finally we were on the famous Gibb River Road, heading westward with a big plume of dust at our tail ..... but not for long.

View over the mudflats of Cambridge Gulf from The Five Rivers Lookout (photo Sara York)

Our destination was El Questro, a million acre cattle station / tourist resort, priced to suit every budget. Fly here in your private Lear jet or drive in in your rental bushcamper - all are welcome.

The centre of El Questro (which, incidentally, from the Spanish I picked up in South America means "The Questro" - check it on Babelfish) is 16km and a couple of creek crossings south of the Gibb River Road. We checked in to a pleasant shady campsite on the banks of the Pentecost River and paid the $17 Wilderness Fee, giving access to all the interesting areas of the station. This is in effect a private nature reserve and demonstrates that tourism can in fact help conservation. It was one of the best $17 that I have spent - El Questro has an incredibly diverse and spectacular natural beauty.

El Questro Gorge

Note: Despite being paranoid about saving and backing up my photos, I managed to lose all the photos on my SD card from leaving Purnulu to part-way through our time in El Questro. This left just a few water shots taken in a pool at El Questro Gorge with my little water-proof camera. To give an idea of the superb terrain, I have included some photos taken by my sister-in-law, Sara York, one from a fellow traveller and a few that I found on Flickr. Thanks to these photographers for giving this text a bit of colour.

The day was passing, so we packed our lunch and headed off down a sandy 4WD track with deep creek crossings to reach El Questro Gorge for our first walk in this region. It is a short walk and the track led us away from the carpark, along an often boggy creekbed, littered with the debris of the wet season floods. However, we were beneath the shade of tall Livistona palms and were slowly entering the red walls of the gorge. It was a promising start, but the real magic of El Questro lay around the next bend - a sharp dogleg to the right where the gorge narrowed to reveal steep, dark walls papered with bright green ferns and bracken.


Our camper crossing the Pentecost River at El Questro (photo John Hart)

Entry to El Questro Gorge (photo A. Copini)

View of the gorge walls from Halfway Pool

We followed a rocky path, criss-crossing the babbling stream, past the cliff-hugging trunks of tall figs and palms - a cool and lush haven from the hot midday sun. A little further up, we saw a large boulder blocking the stream and in front of it the clearest, most inviting waterhole that we had yet seen. We had reached Halfway Pool, home to a school of large and friendly fish and a few relaxing tourists. The rays of the sun filtered through the canopy onto the pool to make it glisten - cool, clear and incredibly refreshing. We joined the fish.

Nello and the big fish

The boulders blocking Halfway Pool

Ferns lining the creek wall (photo N. Liddle)

Smart-alec shot above and below the water

Instead of putting our boots back on after our swim, we waded across to the large boulder and hauled ourselves out at the far end. Here we rebooted to continue our exploration of the upper gorge, where few others venture. The track was but a series of red markers and ribbons on rock and tree that led us deeper up this narrow, vegetation rich corridor. On our right the dark rock walls overhung the floor and on our left the cliffs were covered in ferns, bushes and palms, giving the light of the gorge a luminous green glow.

The luxurious vegetation of El Questro Gorge
(photo N. Liddle)

We passed two more crystal clear pools, before climbing up, over and around, a long corridor of large black boulders that brought us to the face of a small but pretty waterfall at a constriction in the gorge walls. The dots led us up the steep left-hand side of the falls and into the top part of El Questro. Here the track flattened, but continued its rock-hopping, stream crossing way amongst the gnarly roots of figs and fibrous basal clumps of palms. It brought us to a point where the main gorge veered right and the narrow opening to tiny Mack Micking Gorge appeared on our left.

We entered this dark and shady side-gorge by traversing a narrow ledge alongside its guardian rock pool. A short distance down, at its end, a 15m waterfall plunged into a the clear, deep water of Mack Micking Pool - its deep shade was the perfect place for a late lunch on a hot Kimberley day, a swim in the crystal clear water and an invigorating shower beneath the falls. The water was surprisingly pleasant, considering so little sunlight penetrates into this narrow cleft.

Mac Micking Pool and Waterfall
(photo N.Liddle)

On our way back, we couldn't resist another dip in Halfway Pool and the fish were still there waiting for us. It was hard to choose which of the two pools was best and in the end we didn't - neither deserved second place.

Zebedee Springs and Chamberlain Gorge

Track up to Zebedee Springs (photo Sara York)

Finally, a relaxing day was in store for the fair Nello, though it did involve an early rise. This time we headed off before breakfast and before the madding crowd to Zebedee Springs, a signature location in El Questro. A few kilometres back toward the Gibb River Road, these springs are a series of small thermal pools that cascade gently down from a spring in the base of the red sandstone cliff.

With water temperatures of 28-32°C, a soak in them beneath the silhouette of the Livistona palm canopy and beneath the 1.8 billion year old rocks of the richly red sandstone cliff was a very good way to start the day. As we left, the first tour bus arrived - so go early if you go! Also, from midday on, the pools are closed to mere rental van occupants and are for the exclusive use of the Lear jet owners staying up at El Questro homestead. It was the only sign of elitism that we saw here.

The thermal spring at Zebedee (photo Sara York)

Our early start meant that we could have a leisurely breakfast and morning in the shade of the campsite trees, watching the local birdlife, the odd goanna wandering by, and a pair of crossbred heifers who obviously relished the green green grass here and took their nap in the midst of someone's tent site (after all this is a working cattle station).

We then packed our lunch and picked up our electric outboard, battery pack and paddles (just in case) from the station store and headed off to Chamberlain Gorge, where a number of small boats were moored at the pier. This would be very different to the narrow, lush floor of El Questro Gorge, as Chamberlain is a wide 3km long waterhole, lined with red sandstone cliffs that looked as if they were built out of blocks. It was also very deep and a favoured abode of saltwater crocodiles - definitely no swimming here.

Boating is the way to explore the Chamberlain Gorge.

At last a relaxing excursion

The Chamberlain River below the Gorge

Riparian forest on the west, sandstone cliffs on the east

Entering the heart of Chamberlain Gorge

We clamped the outboard onto our tinnie, connected the leads to the battery terminal and we were away, puttering along at the sedate pace of an electric motor. It was a pleasant putter up the paperbark lined crocodile habitat on our right and the sunlit red cliffs on our left. Sadly, we didn't see a saltie, but the cliffs now appearing on the right to provide us with cool dark shade were superb. We tied up to a log in the shade for lunch before pushing on to the end of the gorge, where we disembarked. The waterhole had ended and the Chamberlain River beyond flowed through an unnavigable jumble of black rocks. The sandstone cliffs on our left , however, continued on to form a long rock overhang for several hundred metres.

Chamberlain Gorge rockscape

The pleasant shade of the western wall

Red rock walls of Chamberlain Gorge
plunging into the waterhole

The fair Nello looking for rock art
(can you spot her?)

This was the real point of our visit, for beneath those overhangs were some superb examples of aboriginal artwork, an eclectic mix of Wandjina figures, silhouetted hands and what appear to be ancient Gwion (Bradshaw) figures daubed in ochre on the smooth rock walls. The politics of this art are complicated - apparently there are conflicting native title claims on the area and until these are resolved El Questro management is pretending that they don't exist. Still, you walk the track, you look up and there they are. For me, they are part of the heritage of humanity, to be admired, to be respected, not to be squabbled over.

Wandjina figures

Gwion (Bradshaw)figure with dingos?

Gwion art can be up to 20,000 years old

Silhouetted hands

The cliffs were baking, with the hot sun reflecting off the stone, so it was good to get back into our little electric boat and pick up the breeze blowing up the waterhole and find the afternoon shade of the cliffs. A sea-eagle soared by, followed by a low-flying helicopter, skimming the lake to give some high-end tourists a sea-eagle's eye view of the gorge. That may been spectacular, but it was we in the tinnie who could sit and watch a couple of brush-tailed rock wallabies cavorting on the ledges of the gorge walls.

Time to head back

A brush-tailed rock wallaby watches us pass ...

... before bounding off along a cliffside track

The trip up and down the Chamberlain was leisurely and pleasant, a very different landscape to El Questro Gorge. However, to see the artwork on the rocks at the southern end of it was the cream on the cake of our El Questro sejour.

In a "small world" moment, we bumped into Brian, an old mate and colleague of mine who knows more about goannas than anyone else on the planet. He was part of a survey team doing a stocktake of the local fauna before the imminent arrival of the cane toad. This toxic invader has reached Kununurra and its westward spread across northern Australia has been relentless. Over a few beers, Brian explained how it has been causing dramatic reductions in predator numbers, due to poisoning once they eat a toad, with unpredictable flow-on effects to the biodiversity and function of the invaded ecosystems. It was with a tinge of sadness, that I thought of the goanna who wandered across the campground earlier on and realised its days may be numbered.

Champagne Springs Track (9km)

The Champagne Springs Track is different from the other gorge walks in El Questro. It is longer (though still less than 10km), harder and passes through some of the harsher landscapes. That said, it also ends in a waterhole and for us, was well worth doing to complement our stroll up El Questro Gorge and our lazy boat trip up water-filled Chamberlain Gorge.

We set out from the Station Store (it was a bonus not to have to drive to a starting point) early in the morning and wandered down the grassy verge for 400m to reach the Pentecost River Crossing and official start of the track (but if you have to drive here you should definitely not be doing this walk!).

A pleasant section of the Pentocost River

Sandy riverbed (debris in the tree fork showing
wet season water levels)

The track headed south, passing through grasslands on the west bank of the Pentecost River, before heading closer to the river and its canopy of eucalypts, paperbarks and pandanus. Crossing a small outcrop of strangely eroded sandstone bank, the track led us further up the streambed to reach a long still waterhole. Sadly we spotted no crocodiles, although the waterhole looked a particularly good lurking spot.

Between the river and the escarpment

Crossing a dry creek bed, we reached the point where a rib of the escarpment butted up against the river, obliging us to skirt across its blocky red rocks and ledges. To our left, the river juddered westward in a series of cascades flowing out from beneath the paperbarks. Past this point we were well away from the main stream, but still crossing its sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy bed. The debris in the tree forks a metre above our heads testified to the size and flow of the river in the wet season.

Good crocodile lurking habitat

Admiring a 1000 year old boab

A little further on, we reached the enormous girth of a 1000-year old boab, the halfway point of the walk, and a good place for a break. Was that low hum the tree telling us the things it had seen in its life or just the hive of native bees midway up its trunk? It certainly would have been an interesting tale!

The track now headed westward, having passed the escarpment rib, and followed the dark brown rocky bed of a sidestream. We crossed the three small braids of the stream as they wandered through dense, vine covered vegetation to emerge in a scrubby grassland on the far side of the creek.

Crossing a pandanus lined creek

Westward ho again, we skirted this grassland and then gradually climbed up the low sandstone wall lining the far side of the creek. This brought us into very different country; an exposed sandstone slope, covered with spinifex and a scattering of small trees and shrubs. However, amongst these were the odd pearls - the red, yellow and orange flowers of grevillea, acacia, kapok and kurrajong. Look carefully here for the bush gives up its treasures reluctantly. Our side of the creek may have been low and harsh, but on the far bank the scree slopes of this wide valley led up to sheer red cliffs, 375m from valley floor to the top of the escarpment - quite spectacular.

Looking back across the creek flats

The sun was beating down as we crossed the slope and it had already reached 30°C. Here, there was no real track - the route was off-piste across rugged eroded sandstone following a series of blue dots and ribbons. These led us over a rise to the welcome sound of rushing water and the sight of thickets of lusher green vegetation.



The dry landscape of the spinifex slopes

We had arrived at our destination; a series of long cascades flowed down a dark rocky slope into Secluded Pool a few metres below us (but 375m below the escarpment that framed them)

Following the cascades up, we passed a second pool and reached the Champagne Springs themselves; water bubbling up out of a fault line from deep in the earth, slightly warm but rich in nutrients, if the thick mat of bright green algae that colonised them was any indication. Around the pool the sticky stemmed sun-dews glistened in the sun. Photogenic but not very inviting.

The cliffs lining Champagne Creek

Creek cascading across the rocks

Secluded Pool

Green algae marks the thermal spring

The oasis at Gem Pool

Beneath the waterfall

Still, this wasn't our destination - skirting the rocks to get around the thick vegetation, we climbed a little higher to reach Gem Pool. Here, a small waterfall tumbled over the red sandstone to fill a large waterhole, its far end fringed with eucalypts, paperbarks and pandanus and adorned with a mat of water-lilies in bloom. It was a veritable oasis after the hot walk and we spent a pleasant hour soaking in the pool or beneath the waterfall.

The idyllic setting of Gem Pool

Lilypads in Gem Pool

The creek above the waterfall

The only downside to the walk was that who goes out must return. It was already midday and the temperature had reached the mid-30s as we retraced our steps across the hot rocky slope. Even soaking our shirts before we left gave limited relief as they were dry in 10 minutes. The sight of the campground was therefore very welcome indeed. Still, we would not have missed this walk - the best rewards are those you have to work for.

Amalia Gorge

After our last night at El Questro listening to the strange cacophony of blue-winged kookaburras trying to laugh, we packed and headed off - but not quite right away. On the way out we stopped at the carpark of Amalia Gorge to get one last taste of the landscapes of El Questro. The walk was only 3.5km long in and out, so it wouldn't eat too much into a day largely devoted to travel. The track led us up the rocky bed of Amalia Creek and into the gorge, whose scree slopes on our left rose up to sheer cliffs rising up to the escarpment. The cliffs were composed of 1.8 billion year-old red sandstone, which questioned our significance at every step.

Entry to Amalia Gorge

A narrow section of the walk

Rock formations in Amalia Gorge

The colours of Ochre Pool

Traversing a section of sandstone slabs, we crossed the creek to enter a narrower part of the gorge with a magnificently deep waterhole surrounded by pink and tan rocks and fed by small cascade from above - Ochre Pool was quite spectacular. It was the start of a series of waterholes in Amalia Creek that we passed by clambering over or around large rock ledges protruding from the gorge walls.

Ochre Pool


Aptly named Pleasant Pool

First Ochre Pool, then Pleasant Pool, then a series of unnamed and somewhat murkier pools until finally we arrived. A large and deep plunge pool appeared before us at the base of the red cliff. Tumbling into it in a soft spray against a backdrop of blackened rock were the 40m high Amalia Falls.

Reflections in Amalia Pool

Amalia Pool and waterfall

The blackened rock at the base of the waterfall

Another similar, yet different habitat in El Questro, and the perfect place to do a few laps back and forth between shore and waterfall, or float on our backs in the still, clear-dark, cold water looking up at the gentle rain of the falls sprinkling down from a cleft in the rocks 40m above us. These falls do not last long into the dry season - soon they will dry up and the magic of Amalia Pool will be diminished. However, for us it was a great parting memory to take from El Questro. It was hard to leave, but the trip had to go on and ahead lay the Gibb River Road.