Kununurra

Mirima National Park
Kununurra town center
The wider Kununurra area

Kununurra is a small town built on big dreams. In a remote corner of the vast Kimberley region of Western Australia, its unaffected pastoral feel makes a comfortable base from which to explore the majestic natural attractions in the rugged surrounding landscape.

Understand

Kununurra's existence is due entirely to a grand engineering scheme to harness the Ord River, and establish an agriculture industry in the area. The town itself came into existence in the late 1950s as a support centre for the Ord Irrigation scheme. A few vanguard families slowly spread their multi-thousand acre properties across the fertile plain. In recent years, it has unceasingly shaken off its pragmatic origins to develop infrastructure for the growing number of visitors to this previously difficult-to-visit part of the Kimberley. From the initial handful of pioneering farmers, the permanent population has now grown to around 7,000. The town was officially gazetted as recently as 1961.

History

As early as 1882, fortune seeking pastoralists and farmers have been drawn to pin their hopes on the Ord River and the wide open plains around it. The Ords potential was first identified by explorer Alexander Forrest in 1879. He encouraged graziers in search of new land to the area and subsequently built his empire on leases of 51 million acres. The most well known of these pastoralists was the Durack family, who in 1882 drove 7,250 head of cattle and 200 horses overland from Queensland to establish the Lissadell, Argyle, Rosewood and Ivanhoe stations. At Ivanhoe station, north of the present Kununurra townsite, the potential of growing crops on the rich alluvial soils of the Ord Valley became apparent and after early experiments literally bore fruit, many acres of cattle country were turned over to agriculture. It was soon realised that the full potential of the Ord to grow thirsty crops could only be achieved with more water.

Begun in 1958, the Ord Irrigation Scheme was an ambitious idea to capture the huge volume of water flowing down the Ord during the monsoon for irrigation of the fertile plains along the river's lower reaches and to develop a productive agriculture industry and create a food bowl for Western Australia.

The first stage was completed in 1963 with the construction of the Diversion Dam, creating Lake Kununurra and feeding a network of canals that supported 31 farms by 1966. Spurred on by this success, the second stage saw the building of the Ord River Dam further upstream, subsequently creating Lake Argyle, Australia's second largest artificial Lake. Construction of the 335-metre-long, earth wall dam was completed in 1971 and ceremoniously opened a year later. The reservoir's initial capacity of a hefty 5,641 gigilitres (equivalent to 11 Sydney Harbours by some peoples estimate) was increased in the early 1990s, when the wall was raised by 6 metres to double its current capacity to an oceanic 10,763 giglitres. The extra capacity enabled a hydroelectric power station to keep spinning and provide the towns power.

In the early days, farmers experimented with a range of crops and had variable results. Crops such as cotton and rice were dismal failures as pests and birds ate them quicker than they could grow. But sugar cane, bananas, melons and mangos became very successful cash crops. In recent years, sandalwood plantations became more abundant. A trial of commercial hemp proved to be viable and production is tipped to be expanded once the states draconian laws can be modernised.

Culture

There are a few explanations for the etymology of the town's name, the most popular being a mangled English pronunciation of Gunanurang - "Big River" in the local Miriwoong people's language.

Many scenes from the movie Australia were filmed in the area surrounding Kununurra.

Climate

Kununurra has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons; the monsoonal ‘wet’ season and the touristy ‘dry’ season. The wet season starts around October, typified by heavy rain, 40°C days and uncomfortable humid nights, and ends in April. The rest of the year is the milder, dry season, bringing 30°C highs, blue skies and the bulk of tourists.

When to visit

Though the dry is typically the peak tourist season, the wet is arguably the best time to see Kununurra. The monsoonal weather brews up billowing thunderclouds flashing with electrical storms that make for some beautiful sunsets. The ensuing downpours create rushing cascades to usually dry waterholes and bring a flush of new green growth to the landscape. If you can endure the humidity and incessant rain, you will see a Kununurra that many miss.

Get in

Crossing the border: What not to pack

Considering the importance of agriculture to Kununurra, it's no surprise they take a Quarantine seriously. A checkpoint on the WA/NT border, around 30km from town, gives all vehicles entering WA a scrutinising eye for disease infested fruit, vegetables, honey, plants, seeds, soil and some animals. Anything on the list, regardless of its freshness, must be declared and dropped into the bins. The Government run Quarantine Direct website has a full list of what you may bring. If you're coming from the NT, it's best to eat everything beforehand and save yourself some hassles. Generally, the inspector will have a quick poke around your boot, yet there are stiff fines imposed for intentionally hiding a stash of apples. Similar inspections are done on planes arriving from interstate, but you are unlikely to ever see the sniffer dog run over your bag.

Also unwelcome at the border are cane toads, who are slowly hopping over the border on their own and sometimes hitch a ride in under trucks and caravans. They pose a serious threat to native fauna, and though their arrival is inevitable, it'd be a good idea to look over your vehicle for any illegal amphibians trying to make an early appearance.

By car

Kununurra is a mere 30 km from the Northern Territory border, but a long way from anywhere else. The drive over vast distances, through some very isolated country to get there should not be taken lightly, though with a bit of forward planning the getting there can be a great trip in itself.

From Broome

The easy way is on the Great Northern Highway, taking about two days to cover the 1,044 km if you push it. The good sealed road passes through a few small towns and sights. The more interesting, but harder way, is via the Gibb River Road, taking at least seven days to trundle over its 650 km length. The Gibb is an unsealed 4WD only track across the Kimberleys northern parts, passing many gorges, waterfalls and generally beautiful country. It is prone to flooding in the wet season and may be closed entirely. It's best to check with the tourist bureau before setting out.

From Darwin

The sealed Stuart Highway runs 324 km south from Darwin to Katherine. From Katherine, you can turn right and drive the final 524 km stretch on the Victoria Highway to Kununurra.

By plane

Kununurra airport (IATA: KNX), is 4 km outside of town and has flights to regional centres as well as some charter and scenic flights. The airport is small but modern and the runway has one of the most scenic approaches you are likely to find. Taxis wait for every arriving flight and cost around $10 to town. Some hostels/hotels offer a free courtesy bus if you are staying with them. There isn’t a local bus or airport bus service into town.

From Broome

From Darwin

From Perth

By bus

Get around

Even though Kununurra is small, interesting things tend to be far apart. The town doesn't have a local bus service but short hops around town can be easily done on foot. Trips further afield will require a car and getting to places on rough dirt roads needs a 4WD.

Driving around town, you will encounter few cars and not a single traffic light. On street parking and carparks are free. Most corners, even major intersections, follow the give way rule and stop signs are given the same regard by most local motorists.

Outside town, the long, straight stretches of highway give you a chance to put the foot down and eat up some miles. If you are inexperienced in country driving, watch out for oncoming road trains that can push you off the road with their draft, and kangaroos at sunset.

The major car rental outfits have offices in town and the airport:

See

Many visitors will wonder how much there is to see in a town this small. The answer is not much. Aside from two dams and a couple of lakes, there are few man made attractions of interest (unless you count the distillery). But why would you travel this far to such an isolated place to see the same straight lines that surround you at home? Kununurra's real draw is the undulating tangle of rivers, valleys, waterholes, flood plains and gorges scattered in the surrounding landscape that stretches out for many hundreds of kilometres uninterrupted by anything boxy.

A few well known areas, such as Lake Argyle, appear on well worn itineraries, but casting off in any direction will lead to less traversed but no less interesting spots. While some spots are not easily reached without a 4WD or boat, Kelly's Knob and the Mirima National Park are reachable on foot or bicycle and equal anything found at the end of a corrugated dirt road.

Sunset and sunrise are the best times to get out and look at rocky things. Not only are the temperatures cooler, but the quality of light ignites the stone with a luminous orange tone. You're also more likely to see animals that have been hiding from the mid day heat venturing out to feed.

Lake Argyle

Close to town

Surrounding areas

The outlying areas hide many interesting sights that emerge fleetingly during the wet season, when water flows and brings waterfalls, waterholes and creeks to the normally arid landscape. Only a 4WD will get you to most places and access to some may even be cut off by floods. A visit might be less of a hassle in the dry, but you won't be seeing them in their full splendour.

Do

The view from the Sleeping Buddha

The town has few specific activities to engage in, but that gives you all the more reason to do as the locals do and get outside and make your own fun.

Festivals & events

Work

Kununurra has long been a magnet for travellers seeking backbreaking work to fund a few more months of leisurely wandering. Most of the unskilled labour jobs are on the farms when short term harvesting gigs become available between June and November. Harvesting jobs are advertised in the local paper and on backpacker and supermarket notice boards. The truly lazy who want their jobs to come to them can sign up with one of the recruitment agencies.

If you are skilled and they are short-staffed, hospitality work at the hotels comes up mainly in the peak tourist season, but most places want a commitment for longer than a few weeks. Most of the time these jobs are not advertised, so the best approach is to do the rounds of the hotels and inquire directly.

Nefarious rumours of working without a valid work visa are often whispered in the dark corners of pubs and, true as it might be, the right way is to have a proper Australian work visa. The main Australia page can tell you what you need to legally work in Australia.

Recruitment agencies

Buy

Though not a great shopping destination, there are a few small shops where you can pick up an interesting Kimberly style item. Prices for everyday things like food and fuel tend to be higher here due to the cost of transporting it in from far away. Local arts and crafts pop up for sale in all kinds of places and, while quality is wildly variable, there is a lot of great work by Aboriginal artists from communities around the area. The high season is also the peak of commerce in town and the time when normally empty supermarkets checkouts jam with long lines of grey nomads taking too long to pay for their baked beans.

Supermarkets

The two supermarkets in town are your only option for stocking up on groceries and your last chance for many hundreds of kilometres if you're travelling onwards. Between them, they have most staples and a limited range of gourmet products.

Eat

The Boab's nut and tuber are edible

Kununurra's isolation and distance from the capital cities haven't stopped it from having some pretty decent dining options. Most of the better eating is found at hotel restaurants where menus feature modern Australian cuisine, usually with a Kimberley style twist. Dishes made with crocodile, kangaroo and barramundi are prominent menu items and the odd bush tucker ingredient, such as boab chutney, might also make it onto the plate.

Kununurra is surrounded by agriculture, so there's a steady supply of fresh, sometimes organic, vegetables and fruit throughout the year. The popular Kensington Pride mangos come into season between September and December and are prized for their unique flavour.

There was a time when farms sold their produce from rickety wooden tables in front of their properties. Sadly, this doesn't seem to happen much nowadays. If you still like the idea of buying your food directly from the farmer, it might be worth driving around the farmlands on the towns outskirts and keeping an eye out for a hand painted sign propped up against a fence.

Those with a more adventurous palate should try a Boab Nut. Boab trees start to fruit in October and reach maturity around mid-January when the mature nut drops to the ground. The nuts are generally too high up to pick from a branch, so you will need to search for an intact one among the litter of smashed shells left by birds. The flaky dry white flesh inside the thin shelled nut has been described by some as tasting like citrus flavoured powdered milk, but others maintain it's closer to sour Styrofoam. The tuber of baby boabs are also edible and taste similar to a water chestnut. Bottles of boab chutney flavoured with various spices can sometimes be bought at the Saturday markets.

Budget

Good budget food is hard to find. If the fast food chains don't appeal, you may be better off heading to a supermarket and eating DIY.

Mid-range

There is also a cheap eat restaurant associated with IGA. Ivanhoe Cafe is a good moderate eat, located on Ivanhoe Rd at the top of the Town Centre Map near the “r” of “Crossing”

Splurge

Drink

If there is one thing that Kununurra residents do well, it's drink. As with food, the better drinking holes are in hotel restaurant bars, most of which are licensed to allow you to drink without purchasing a meal. Any establishment with the word bar in the name is a safe bet. Though the usual street drinking laws are still enforced, you are unlikely to be hassled by the local constabulary if you are having a quiet one while lounging on a rock with a good view.

Occasionally, bottle shops are prohibited to sell full strength beer, wine and spirits till after 7PM, whenever the local police deem that a community event will be marred by availability of booze during the day. Though it might feel like a ridiculous inconvenience, there's no point complaining to the bottle shop staff. Just come back after 7PM like everyone else.

The rest of the time there are plenty of ways to get something cold and numbing to slake your thirst.

Bars

Coffee

Sleep

For such a small town, Kununurra has a surprisingly wide range of sleeping options. Rates rise in the peak/dry season (1 Apr–31 Oct) and drop in the low/wet season (1 Nov–31 Mar). Most have a range of accommodations at every price point, but it would be worth checking around if you are looking for a private room as a more comfortable bed may be found at one of the bigger hotels for a price comparable to the donga style cabins that some caravan parks offer, especially during the low season.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Connect

Information and news

Phone

Payphones are scattered throughout town, but some on the street side suffer from vandalism and may be inoperable. It might be best to try the one at your hostel or at the tourist centre. Phones are coin-operated or use prepaid Phonecards, available from most supermarkets or newsagents. International calling cards are also available at these outlets.

Mobile phone coverage can be sketchy. The Telstra, Optus and Vodafone networks have a good signal within town, becoming variable to non-existent the further away you get. Other networks are hit and miss, but those with 3G/NextG phones might have more luck.

If you intend to spend any amount of time off the beaten track, it is advisable to rent a satellite phone to call for emergency services should anything happen.

Internet

Most hotels and hostels will have wireless or terminals for you to get your Internet fix. There are a few other options in town though.

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, January 12, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.