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Thursday, 15 June 2017

El Questro Station – Oh, I do like a nice campfire! (and the gorges weren’t bad either…)

14  - 17 /05/2017
El Questro Station (Western Australia)
Distance Travelled:
110 km

kilometers on foot:

Our first full day at El Questro station seemed to just disappear on us. Rising early, as one does when one finds oneself lying supine on a slowly deflating air mattress, we were greeted cordially by the sounds of chirping birds, babbling waters and gentle breezes rustling the leaves overhead.

Having enjoyed a roaring campfire the night before, the boys crawled out of the tent and played quizzically with the remnants of the dying embers. But, soon the final flickers of light went out and the fire was cold once more.

Warmth, however, was not a problem; as the morning sun quickly heated our bodies, as we enjoyed our breakfast in the open air. Without the instant gratification of electricity (to power screen based devices), nor access to the internet (to allow YouTube to flood our lives), the kids moved quickly to find other things to entertain themselves. In the sandy parts of the campsite, a variety of holes were dug; the river was crossed and swum in; and dust and dirt became our boys’ playfellows throughout the day. With gleeful abandon, clothes were stripped off again and our two little wood nymphs procured sun tans in places that had rarely been touched by daylight before. With such fun and frolics to be had, there seemed little need to move on from our secluded spot on the river, or to venture out and explore the other places El Questro station had to offer… Besides, they would still be there for us to discover tomorrow!
I hope, dear reader, that at this point you will forgive me for not including photographs of these antics. Sure, we took a bunch of snaps of our wee lads cavorting around in various states of undress – and I have no doubt these snaps will come out for the kids’ 21st birthdays. But, for the sake of decency, I just can’t bring myself to publish any on the internet (one wouldn’t like to bring tasteless nudity into such a wholesome place as this fine bastion of erudite modesty that is the Word Wide Web… besides, I am led to believe there are other sites online that cater to such fancies).

Unlike our kids, Nat and I did not devolve so quickly into woodland sprites. However, we enjoyed ourselves tremendously none-the-less. While the boys played, we spent the day reading, writing and puzzling over a cryptic crossword or two in the warm breeze on the banks of our little river. And in this fashion, before we knew it, the sun started setting again. Wood was quickly gathered and the fire was urged back into life. As the stars came out, we sat around the blazing heat of our well-fed conflagration, gazing upwards to the heavens; until, in dribs and drabs, we took ourselves to bed. We all slept soundly until the morning (despite the accursed leaky air mattress that continued to plague us).

However, the next couple of days, weren’t as laid back as our first. Oh no…!

Up early on our second morning, we ate a hearty breakfast and made a pile of sandwiches to sustain us throughout the day. No sooner could you say ham, lettuce and cheese, than we were off to explore the sights that this corner of the world had to offer.

Now, one thing Nat had neglected to mention as we were first hurtling down the road to El Questro station, was that all of the ‘best places’ to visit lay on the other side of the river from the campsite… Y’know, that big foreboding waterway that we crossed only a day earlier.

Oh poo! And there was me thinking that I just had to ford the river twice (once on the way and once more on the way out).

But, no… in the end, I think we went across that infernal stretch of water upwards of six or more times! Oh well, practice makes perfect –  so they say – and by the time we finally left the station, we were flying across it without so much as a care in the world (well, perhaps not flying… but our confidence certainly went up a notch or two).

So, having forded the river once more, our first stop was Zebedee springs.

Come one, come all to Zebedee springs – but get out by noon, as that’s when we let to rich folks play in the waters on their own…

This was a lovely, relaxing and altogether serene way to start they day. Arriving at the car park, we followed a well-worn trail through groves of palm trees and thickets of water plants. We bounced across a few shallow rivers by way of superbly placed stepping stones; and eventually arrived at a palm tree sheltered grove. There, at the heart of a sheltered valley, was a cascading river meandering over smooth mossy rocks. Here, it turns out, the water bubbles directly through the rock at the base of a red sandstone mountain, heated by the earth many hundreds of meters below. The warm water then gushes out of a few stone crevices and flows down the slopes of the hillside, taking its warmth along with it.

The shady trail to Zebedee spring

So, we spent the morning lazing in the warm waters of Zebedee springs. Over and hour or so, we moved from pool to pool, until we made our way to the top of the springs – where the water was at its hottest. When I say hottest, I feel that I may be misleading you somewhat. It didn’t get much hotter than a warm swimming pool – but, despite this lack of burning heat, it was nice and relaxing in the cool morning air.

Zebedee Springs - Ahhh, bliss.

Feeling refreshed and wide awake, we all soon hankered to be let loose upon one of the fine gorges this area had to offer. So, dragging our wrinkly bodies out of the warm waters, we dried off and headed down the shady path back to the car.

“Where to next”, we all asked Nat (the font of all knowledge, and our reader of travel information). In the end, it was determined that we would head to El Questro gorge – the closest and supposedly most spectacular of the gorges.

El Questo gorge – it’s a doozie! (3.6km return trip)

We turned off the main driveway down a sandy track with a sign denoting it as leading to El Questro gorge. Battling out way over long stretches of soft undulating sand, we eventually came to a water crossing the likes of which I’d hoped to never encounter. For our little car (sure, it looks big and brutish, but it’s a big softy really…) the waters seemed a little deep and more than a tad daunting (especially after the relaxing morning spent at Zebedee springs). So, we got out of the car and stood there forlornly looking at the water. Once again, we waited in the hope that some other brave soul would come by and tackle the waters first, so that we may get a glimpse at how deep it actually was.

Despite waiting for quite some time, no fellow travellers came along this path. “Hmmm, that’s not a good sign,” I thought to myself. By now, we were all getting peckish and desperately wanted to rip open the stack of sammies we had prepared earlier. So, we tootled down the road to Jackeroo’s Waterhole, where we pulled up and sat down for lunch. We spent some time here, eating and watching the fish frolicking in the water. There were shoals of angler fish cruising along the river’s edge, hunting for bugs and other invertebrates to shoot down with their fearsome jets of waters. Alongside these small, slender fish, there were other fine specimens hanging out in the deeper parts of the water. But, with fishing off the cards whilst in the protected borders of El Questro territory, we resigned ourselves to looking, but not touching.

Soon enough, we were joined in our little shady spot by another couple; who also parked up for a bite to eat. We soon got chatting to these good folks and learned that they were going to head down to El Questro gorge after they had eaten their fill of soup and crackers. I glanced at their car and noticed it had twice the clearance of ours and whopping great hefty tyres to boot. They offered some friendly advice as to how best to tackle the river, but also plaintively agreed that perhaps out little grey beast might not have the clearance to make it through. Although, having said that, they also extended the hand of travelling friendship and offered to help us through. “Give it a go”, said the chap. “We can always try and pull you out if you get bogged”.

“No worries,” I said trying to keep a chipper tone to my voice. “If it’s ok, we’ll come and watch you cross. But, if it’s too hairy, we’ll probably just head off and try our luck elsewhere.”

“Sure thing”, came the reply. “We’ll just finish up here and can meet you there.

So, leaving our new found travelling friends to eat their lunch in peace, we returned through the boggy sand to the deep river crossing separating us from El Questro gorge. Soon enough, we heard the rumbling of the couple wrestling their car down the sandy track. They pulled up, gave us a wave, and plunged into the deep river. The water splashed up over the car’s bonnet, giving their snorkel attachment a decent workout. But, they ploughed forward over the sandy bottomed river and eventually rose from the depths on the far side.

“Bugger that,” I thought, as I gave them a friendly wave and a signal that we were turning back. This would be one of the times on this trip that we realised the terrain was a little more serious than our little car (or its driver) could handle. And with no one else prepared to take the wheel, I made the call that we would have to find something else to occupy us today. Perhaps in time to come, I’ll be confident enough to tag along with the big boys – but right now (especially with thoughts of Cahill’s crossing still fresh in my mind), this was not to be.

So, rather than chance our luck with a being winched across a sandy river (besides, who would be there to winch us back the other way – even if the car would start again once we reached the other bank…), we turned back again and decided to chill out on the banks of the Pentecost river.

Back at the station, the river was inviting and cool. Perhaps a little too cool for the more delicate members of our party, but Ben and I spent a good hour in the dammed up part of the stream (Damn Wall, chittered the kids). As the sun began to sink, all four of us headed to the bar for a drink and to charge up a few of our devices. It was a little unfortunate, however, as Nat’s pre-arrival research had indicated that the bar had pizza evenings during the peak season. Unfortunately, these weren’t to start until a few days after we were leaving… So, we settled for a hot shower and a glass of wine as the sun went down, before heading back to our campsite for a chicken curry in front of a blazing bonfire.

El Questro station - Pentecost river swimming hole 

Whilst at the bar, we spent some time chatting one of the receptionists about the troubles we had getting to El Questro gorge. Hearing how disappointed we were in not being able to cross, but also how keen we were to get there, she let us know about an old horse trail, which made its way from El Questro gorge to Zebedee springs. “Just cross the first two bridges at Zebedee springs,” she said, “and you’ll find a track heading off to the right”.

“Alright!” we thought, a secret way into the gorge – just what we need! So, the next morning, off we went back to the car park of Zebedee springs. As instructed, we crossed the first two bridges and began hunting for the horse trail. Soon, we found what looked like a trail (of sorts), so we began to follow that. The path itself was patchy at best; in fact, you might say that there were only occasional hints that we might be on some sort of track. Through the grasses and trees we plunged, being sure to keep the mountains to our left and the trickling creek following from Zebedee springs on our right.

“It’s only about 200 meters, I think”, the lady had informed us with more than a little hint of uncertainty in her voice… But 200 meters quickly came and went. “Surely,” we thought, judging from the distance we’d travelled on the road “It must be more like 2km”. But, it was a little unnerving to be wandering around in grassy forested areas without any real sense of where we were going. But, we pressed on, and half an hour later, we did indeed burst out onto the road heading towards El Questro gorge.

Bushwhacking our way to El Questro Gorge – surely this will end well…

“It’d be just our luck,” Nat and I said to one another, if we were to come out on the wrong side of the river and ended up where we were yesterday…

But thankfully, that was not the case. No, we erupted from the grassy forest no more than 200 meters from the entrance to the gorge. Taking a moment to mark our entry point with some long sticks, (positioned in the shape of an arrow – to give us at least a fighting chance of getting back to our car waiting at Zebedee springs again), off we went up the road to El Questro gorge.

El Questro - Gorge - crudely made arrow        

In truth, the gorge was magnificent and probably the one we all enjoyed the most over our time in the station. Scrambling across rocks, squeezing around corners, steeping over stones across a river; we eventually came to a lovely swimming hole half way up the gorge.

El Questo gorge – simply, wow!

This swimming hole is the turn-around point for most wanderers into this place. To continue onwards meant swimming across the water hole, climbing an arduous wet and slippery rock-face, before being able to push onwards up the crevasse floor. Surveying the scene, we quickly determined that this would not be something the entirety of our small group could do; so, we decided that this would be good enough for us!

We got our sweaty clothes off and left them drying on the rocks in the dappled heat of the sun. We donned our swimmers, with varying degrees of modesty; behind slipping towels and makeshift rocky changing rooms. Once properly clad, we spent nearly an hour in that cool, clear and refreshing water hole. Ben managed to climb the rock face (under protests from his mum and dad); but, happily, climbed back down again (unscathed) to continue swimming with the rest of the clan in the crystal waters below.

El Questro gorge – swimming hole

Picking our way back through the gorge, we eventually made it back to the car park; where we headed down the road, looking for our marker arrow. Before long, we found it, and plunged once more into the thick grassy forest. Moving in the direction, however, the path was much less obvious. Encountering dead end after dead end, we kept retracing our steps and ultimately avoided being lost in the wilderness forever…

…it was, a little, touch and go for a while. But with the solid mountain range on one side and a river on the other, there wasn’t a whole lot of room to get completely lost. Not that we let that fact slip to the boys, who were enjoying feeling slightly scared at the prospect of being lost in the wilderness and having to live like Wilderpeople!

But, we eventually made it back to the Zebedee springs car park, with 20 minutes to spare before the gates get closed at midday (they are cordoned off to day visitors at 12:00, to allow those folks who pay a lot more money, to frolic with abandon; without sweaty riff raff like us sullying the waters for them).

El Questro gorge - we made it back. Oh yeah!

Not having had enough of a beating this morning, we decided a second gorge should be on the cards for the rest of the afternoon. As such, we had a spot of lunch and made our way to Amalia gorge.

This way to Amalia gorge (3.4km return trip)

Amalia gorge was equally stunning as El Questro gorge, but very different in it composition. Being much more exposed, the trail made its way along a fast-flowing river of clear green water, across ancient sea beds and richly coloured red rocks of the Kimberley. It has been said that a picture tells a thousand words, and although I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, in this case I think I’ll let the photos tell the story:

Amalia gorge – in all her beauty!

Amalia gorge ended in a vast icy lake, with a thin waterfall cascading its watery tendrils down to the pool below. After a hot and sticky climb along the gorge, this water hole was a welcome relief.

Amalia gorge - swimming hole

Along the way, we were treated to all sorts of wild life, including birds, fish and reptiles (there was even a snake skin, but luckily no snake in habiting it!)

Wildlife of El Questro station

Our final day in El Questro started by first packing up our campsite and saying goodbye to our patch of paradise along the banks of the Pentecost river. Having crammed our belongings into the car, we tootled back down the driveway and across the river crossing for the final time. Having made good time with our ‘bug out’, we decided a last stop off at Zebedee springs was in order. Having basked once more in these warm waters, we dressed and returned to the fully laden car; before heading off in the direction of Emma gorge. This was to be our final destination, before returning to Kununurra.

Emma gorge – No paying for us, with our annual WA parks pass! (3.2km return trip)

Emma gorge was, as we had come to expect, spectacular. With large rocky plateaus and shady forest paths, this hike up the gorge was well worth keeping until last. There were a few hairy parts of the track, particularly when we had to scramble on hands and knees 20 meters in the air through a narrow choke point in the rock in order to continue our path up the gorge.

Emma gorge

But, in the end, we all made it and were greeted by a considerably sized pebbly lake, fed by a stunning waterfall. The water of this fall tumbled at least 100 meters from the cliffs above. The cliffs themselves formed a circular curtain around the circumference of the lake, with water falling like rain from the overhanging rock far above us. The water in this clear pool was near freezing, but for those intrepid enough to climb up a few chunks of rock on the righthand wall of the chasm, a hot spring was able to be reached by those who were brave of heart and sure of foot. After a dip in the cold lake, sitting in the hot spring was magic.

Emma gorge - water hole
While basking near the waterfall at the end of Emma gorge, we got chatting to a young couple who had just made their way back from our next destination: The Bungle Bungles. We spent a great deal of time picking their brains for any titbit of information about the road conditions, water crossings and best places to camp. h

Picking our way back down through Emma gorge, we made it back to the car – pumped up our tyres to road pressures again – and head off down the highway towards Kununurra once more. It was sad to say goodbye to El Questro station, as well as its magical gorges; but, I must admit, I was more than happy about the prospect of sleeping on a comfy mattress in our cosy trailer once more.

Our return to Kununurra brought with it an interesting time. But, will have to wait until our next blog post.

Bye ‘d bye


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