Not a Salty in Sight – Kununurra and Lake Argyle

Words and music by John Williamson and Ray Dennett

John Williamson is an Australian country music singer known for his support for enviromental issues. For all you New Zealanders he is also that annoying voice who sings Waltzing Matilda before Bledisloe Cup matches. He is a bit of an Aussie icon. Doing the Crocodile Roll is one of his less serious songs!

The Bungle Bungles were a small slice of geological history. Having grown up in New Zealand we were more used to rain, crystal clear lakes and alpine areas. A temperate climate in other words. All this sandstone and red dust and craggy ranges was a new experience for us to enjoy. Kununurra in the East Kimberley about 45 kms from the Northern Territory border is different again. As we drove north east the vista changed to tree covered hills and grasslands. Sparse grasslands but definately with a greenish tinge. We were entering a landscape about face. And all because of the Ord River. Kununurra is an oasis in a dusty part of the continent and our campsite on the shore of Lake Kununurra a welcome relief. Kimberleyland Waterfront Campground is a most attractive park with large shade trees including Boabs and abundant birdlife – pelicans, storks, herons, cormorants, ibis, very noisy pukekos and an early evening visit by a Jabiru. The resident freshwater crocodile sunning itself on the lake bank attracted plenty of attention. These reptiles are not interested in larger animals instead feeding on a diet of plankton and small fish. We didn’t test the theory but I noticed one young boy who thought he would investigate closer was quickly grabbed by the scruff of the neck by Mum.

Kimberly Land Camp at Kununurra

Kununurra had become a little bit of a Covid bubble. There are five caravan parks in and around the town. Ours was half full and we were told that usually at this time of the year Kimberleyland Waterfront would be turning away 20 caravans a day. A sad reality of these times and of course the town and region suffers for it. Much money has been invested in this town of around 5,500 people that was set up to administer the Ord River Irrigation Scheme. There is also a thriving Aboriginal Arts industry and Community Trust money sees excellent school and sports facilities and parks. We found this to be true of many northern W.A. towns where Aboriginal money was concentrated. Regrettably school attendance does not seemed to have followed but many AFL teams have benefitted from a supply of extraordinarily talented footballers from the region. Most activity in Kununurra centres on the Ord River which passes through the town on its way to the Timor Sea. Boating, fishing, kayaking, and, yes swimming. Although there are numerous freshies in and around the river no one seemed bothered with the occasional salty sighting up river around the dam. If you do come across a saltwater crocodile make sure it has recently been for a long walk or just attacked someone else. Apparently they have just one adrenal gland and exercise tires them out. One attack does them for a while and they need to recover for a period before starting up again.

Kununurra – early morning paddling on the Ord

Scout got an invitation to go Dragon Boating with the local club and she set off at 6am Saturday morning for a 2 hour paddle along the river. An opportunity not to be turned down and enhanced by a post paddle breakfast, the menu including mango cheesecake, chickpea croquettes and chia granola at the Ivanhoe Crossing Farm Cafe. All local produce and this is where the Ord River Irrigation Scheme comes in. The Ord River is one of the fastest flowing rivers in Australia during the November to February wet season. But it fades away to a series of waterholes in the dry months. Kimberley Durack of the famous Durack cattle family had a vision of turning the semi desert cattle country into an oasis of cropping and cattle raising. In 1959 the Kununurra Diversionary dam was built supported by the Federal Government and in 1973 the Lake Argyle Dam was completed daming the river at Argyle and flooding the old Durack Argyle Station. In fact flooding the valley so much that it created a lake up to 20 times the volume of Sydney harbour when it is at its peak. The irrigation scheme is responsible for the fertile plains around Kununurra that has allowed a rich diversity of cropping including cotton, pumpkins, sunflowers, mangoes, chia, chickpeas and sandalwood. The sandalwood industry in Kununurra has not been an undiluted success. It covers around 60% of the growing area in the region and is the world’s largest commercial Indian Sandalwood operation. However it takes up to 16 years for the trees to be at optimal maturity for production. Growers initially cropped trees at 3-5 years to recoup cost only to produce an inferior product and set the industry back a year or two. Criticism of the sandalwood plantations is that they have taken large tracts of land that was used for cropping reducing jobs and the influx of backpackers for picking and income. Nevertheless the area is a green swathe in an otherwise arid region.

Lake Argyle – At a low ebb during the dry

We left for Lake Argyle after a visit to Ivanhoe Crossing on the Ord. This is a concrete causeway across the river usually under water and at one time the only route out of Kununarra other than tracks until the Victoria Highway developed in conjunction with the Ord River Irrigation Scheme in the 1960s. It is a favourite spot for barramundi fishing and a favourite spot for saltwater crocs to grab the occasional fisherman. Warning signs abound.

Infinity Pool Lake Argyle

Lake Argyle Campground or Resort as it likes to call itself sprang from the old damsite workers accommodation. It is a lovely spot overlooking the lake, nicely grassed and shaded. It would be in our top 10. And it has a spectacular infinity pool on the camp edge overlooking the lake with very few people swimming. Has to be perfect. Except it is quickly apparent why there are no swimmers. It’s bloody freezing. The night temperature gets down to 15C or below and the uncovered and unheated pool never gets a chance to warm up even though the winter days get to 30C. Great for a wake up though. I asked one of the staff when the pool got warm. “Gets like a bath in summer. Unpleasant. And freezing in winter. Maybe it is ok briefly in April. I never swim” she said. Nevertheless we enjoyed it. And that view. Wow. We had a very pleasant sunset tour and a swim in the lake (apparantly there are 20,000 freshwater crocs in the lake) then, sadly, after three days there we left Western Australia. It had been our home since March and we had enjoyed every minute of it including meeting some beautiful people on the way who will remain friends. But Northern Territory here we come.

Lake Argyle dam

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