K brings to mind such a list of wonderful places: Kakadu, Katherine, Kings Canyon, Kata Tjuta, Kimberley, Kangaroo Island, Kununurra. It is hard to choose just one. I will settle on Kununurra. Strictly speaking, it is part of the Kimberley but so are some of the other places I am going to write about further down the track. Like most Australians, I knew Kununurra was somewhere near Lake Argyle, a massive dam constructed to capture the tropical summer rains and irrigate the crops in the dry winters. I also knew that various crops had been tried and failed. Sugar cane, cotton and tropical fruits and vegetables succumbed to pests or could not survive the huge distances required to reach a market.
On our trip around Australia, Kununurra was a totally new experience for us. Firstly, we had never taken the caravan to Western Australia. Secondly, I was eager to find out whether the Ord River Scheme had been a success. Imagine my surprise when I found the most successful crop to date was – Indian Sandalwood!
There are two sandalwood plantations in Kununurra. My knowledge of sandalwood is limited to a glory box made for my grandmother by her father. It must have been an old tree to make such a large box because they take many years to grow and are now quite rare. I didn’t realise the parasitic trees are prized for their aromatic wood and essential oil used in perfumes, cosmetics and medicines.
A kilogram of Indian sandalwood oil now sells for about $3,000, or about five times as much as silver, and prices are rising by at least 20 to 25 per cent a year. The greatest demand is in China and the traditional source of India is unable to keep up with demand. The trees take 12 to 15 years to mature and in Kununurra have now reached the stage where they can be harvested.
Before reaching Kununurra we stayed at Lake Argyle Caravan Park. It was there that we cruised the lake which is 1,000 square kilometres in size and holds up to 10,000 gigalitres. I made a list of the “big five” in the lake. Fish (catfish and cobbler), freshies (freshwater crocodiles), the agile wallaby, the orb-weaving spider and the jabiru (a bird). We landed on an island covered in spiders and I assure you we beat a hasty retreat to eat lunch on the boat. Our guide told us amusing stories of being bitten by a freshie. They don’t normally bite but she was swinging it by its tail. The wound got infected and it took a while to recover. She didn’t recommend that we follow her example.
Back to Kununurra. The Hidden Valley Caravan Park is surrounded by red cliffs. At sunset they were glowing as of they were on fire. We climbed Knobby’s Lookout and looked out over the town. A memorial to three young women, none older than 20, stopped us in our tracks. They and the pilot had died on a helicopter flight to the Bungle Bungles. That was where we were going but in an aeroplane, not a helicopter.
However, before we risked life and limb flying to the Bungles, we drove the 105 kilometres to Wyndham. Established in 1886 it was a port on the way to a short-lived Gold Rush. Then it serviced the beef industry and from 1919 the meat works exported beef to Britain. That closed in 1985. It was also part of the Overland Telegraph and played a part in WW1. In the 1930s it was the Australian landing point for aviators seeking to establish new solo flying records between England and Australia. In 1935 the Royal Flying Doctor Service (remember John Flynn?) was established in Wyndham.
Today, Wyndham has a population of just 900 people and operates as a working port, servicing the cattle export industry, the mining and tourism industries and the Ord River Project.
Which brings us to mining. Pink diamonds! Before the discovery of the Argyle diamond, pink diamonds were a scarce resource, emerging only occasionally from a few mines in the world. The subsequent discovery of a volcanic pipe near Lake Argyle has since changed the world of coloured diamonds. Today, this mine is the source of about 90% of the pink diamonds sold worldwide. However, the rarest of all diamonds is set to become even rarer still as this treasured source is limited! It is estimated that by the year 2020 the mine will yield no more.
The day we flew over the Bungle Bungles we saw the diamond mine below us. The massive Lake Argyle stretched in all directions.
The beehive-shaped towers of the Bungles finally appeared. They are made up of sandstone and conglomerate rock deposited 375 to 350 million years ago. The weathering effects of wind and rain have resulted in an awe-inspiring landscape covering 450 square kilometres.
The unusual orange and dark grey banding on the conical rock formations is caused by differences in the layers of sandstone. The darker bands are on the layers of rock which hold more moisture and are a dark algal growth. The orange coloured layers are stained with iron and manganese mineral deposits contained within the sandstone.
Back at the camp, we explored our own Mini Bungles. Known as Mirimar National Park the rock formations are similar to the Bungles but on a much smaller scale.
After an exciting week in Kununurra, we left our caravan at the Hidden Valley and drove onto the Gibb River Road with a tent and sleeping bags ready to explore the Kimberley. More of that later in Z for Zebedee.