The Kimberley, Australia

The KimberleyThe Kimberley

There are few roads in Australia as stunning as the stretch between Katherine and the Kimbereley. Katherine is 330 kilometres South of Darvin: Kununurra is about
500 kilometres south-west of Katherine. Driving along the Bicotria Highway is like stepping into an Albert Namatjira painting. Deep gorges, bulging escarpment ranges and
ancient boab trees loom outside every window. It may not be the Great Ocean Road but this roadside scenery is among the best in the country.

It was our initial plan to drive the iconic gibb River road-voted one of the five best road trips in the world by the Guardian in Britain. But the 600-kilometre stretch between Darwin and Broome is more track than road and only accessible by four-wheel drive.

So when car hire and insurance became a headache we decided on taking the sealed inland road as far as Kununurra instead. We thought it was a second-best option but we were wrong.

We set out from Katherine looking forward to the open speed limit. But we found ourselves barely taking advantage of it. The scenery was just too beautiful and we made frequent photo stops.

Crocodile in the River at KatherineCrocodile in the River at Katherine

My viewfinder could barely take in the enormity of it all. The hills seemed to have been painted in orange and pink, then blue where the terrain folds into itself.
There were splashes of yellow from the flowering kapok tree and, on rocky outcrops, boad trees perched like beer-bellied men.

Western Australia's Kimberley region is the only place in the world this particular species of boab tree is found. Some are up to 1500 years old and attract researchers from around the
world.

Given more time we would have explored the steep little hiking trails and accompanying lookouts along the way.

Like most of Australia's road system, the Victoria Highway was originally a series of dirt tracks linking station holdings. The road became gravel in the 1950's and part of the National Highway in the early 1970's. The construction of the Ord River irrigation scheme in the 1960's hurried up improvements. But it was the early 1990's before the road was sealed.

These day's it's smooth sailing all the way from Katherine. But as we approached the Western Australian border we baulked, not because of the speed limit but because of the quarantine signs. We had stocked up on groceries in Katherine and had not expected the inspection checkpoint. Before long we found ourselves chopping vegetables into salads on a picnic table guarded by bower birds. Their nest was spectacularly adorned with blue bottle tops and glass.

A few minutes later we were joined by a Dutch couple carrying an enormous bunch of bananas. It was not long after Cyclone Larry and I commented that it must have cost a samll fortune.

Soon enough we arrived in Jununurra. After about 500 Kilometres of red dirt, its neat grasslined streets surprised us.

It was clearly time to learn more about the irrigation system. The excellent tourist information centre obliged. The scheme was constructed on the Ord River in the 1960's. It created Lake Argyle, which is Australia's largest artificial lake and covers an ara of 741 square kilometres.

The dam irrigates more than 100 kilometres of farmland and generates power. It has been great for tourism, particularly river cruises and fishing expeditions, but terrible for the
environment. It seems the Ord River is suffering the same fate as the Murray-salinity and erosion.

There is no doubt though that the river is beautiful. We camped on its pebbly shore in one of the dozen camp sites around.

The information centre also helped us decide how to explore the dam, the river and the kimberley region. There were cruises, flights and excursions galore.

One of our party did a flight over the nearby Bungle Bungles. Expensive but worth it.

We also hired a dinghy and made our own fun on the river. We spent a day puttering between Kununurra and the dam wall about 55 kilometres in all. We found a sandy bank for our picnic lunch and explored the rock art, bat colony and fishing spots marked on the map provided. We cast a hand line, but no luck. It was snags for dinner again. The return trip from Kununurra does not have to be boring. There are plenty of places to stop along the way, including Timber Creek and the Victoria River Roadhouse, if only to say you've been.

Aboriginal PaintingsAboriginal PaintingsFor us though the highlight was the little-known Gregory National Park. We enjoyed historic Bullita homestead and scenic Limestone Gorge with its ancient geology and secluded billabong. And Aboriginal paintings.

We did the return trip to Katherine at dusk hardly safe driving practice but perfect for watching the sun set over the ranges. And a perfect road trip moment by anyone's standard.

To find out accommodation and more information on Katherine and Kununurra go to www.kununurratourism.com