Australia Destinations Western Australia

El Questro, Paradise in the Outback: The Gibb River Road-Kimberley Adventure, Part III

January 19, 2016

This is the third entry covering my ten-day outback adventure around Western Australia’s Gibb River Road and the remote Kimberley region. Catch up with the beginning of our trip hiking with crocs and exploring caves here, and read about everything that went wrong in the middle of our gorge adventures here.

DAY 5: ELLENBRAE STATION & EL QUESTRO GORGE

We woke up to clouds. They were fleecy and bright, the first of our road trip, and felt like a signal of calm after our hectic misadventures the day before. It was exactly the kind of peaceful vibe we were after. That morning, instead of our usual rush to pack up camp and get on the road, we were happy to simply linger.

Larissa and Logan run Ellenbrae Station, a cozy little oasis along the Gibb River Road. As far at cattle stations go, this place is downright cute! The main house is surrounded by a grassy lawn and shady gardens, where the station’s resident wallaby was hopping around lazily. Larissa was just as lovely that morning as she’d been when we arrived late the night before. Talking to her on the porch that morning drove home, once again, just how far into the middle of the outback we had traveled. It was a beautiful place to live, she said, and exciting to meet people over the course of the dry season. When the wet rolled around, marking the end of the tourist season, life got pretty quiet.

“I feel sorry for the first tourists every season,” she laughed, “because we just run at them talking. They must think we’re crazy!”

Living in the middle of the outback isn’t without its treats, though. Ellenbrae Station is famous for its homemade scones with jam and cream. After days of porridge and tuna wraps, I don’t think anything could have tasted more delicious. Honestly, the scones alone are worth a stop here!

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With satisfied bellies, we hit the road for El Questro Wilderness Park. It was our last big stop on the Gibb River Road. We expected a long drive; by most accounts, this was the roughest part of the trip.

What we found instead was the most breathtaking stretch of the entire Gibb.

The Cockburn Ranges lent drama to the entire drive. They loomed soft and red-capped along the road, giving way to an undulating purple haze that tumbled across the horizon. The land they rose from shimmered green and gold while, in the distance, water appeared unexpectedly, seemingly an entire network of lakes and streams.

I spent most of the drive squealing and cursing for the beauty of it all. It was almost too much.

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In fact, I loved the drive so much that I was almost sorry when we arrived at El Questro.

Almost.

El Questro, we came to agree, is basically the five-star resort of the Gibb River Road. The campgrounds felt fancier than our usual digs, complete with a modern-looking reception area and stand-alone ensuite-style bathrooms. Of course, as impressed as we were with the facilities here, the campgrounds were the least of El Questro’s appeal. There’s so much to explore here that I could have happily spent a week. Since we had only that afternoon and the next morning, we got straight to the hiking. Our first stop? El Questro Gorge, which Larissa had told us was among the most exciting treks along the Gibb. She was right.

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El Questro Gorge is all outback-red and rainforest-green, a truly mindblowing clash of landscapes. The hike here took us between narrow fern-filled walls, up steep boulders and through waist-high water. At the end, we found the most beautiful sliver of a waterfall trickling into a cool swimming hole. For the first half-hour, we had it completely to ourselves. It was pure luxury.

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Eventually, we decided to head back and sort out our camping situation before sunset. It was on our way out of the gorge when, for the second time in six days, we ran into Camille and Simon — the same friends from Broome we’d explored Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek with at the beginning of our trip! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: for as huge a state as Western Australia is, it gets to be a very, very small place. As Camille and Simon continued on their hike, we left for reception to check in.

That’s when we discovered our missing license plate.

The drive into El Questro Gorge, like a lot of side roads off the Gibb, featured a fairly deep water crossing. Our beast of a Pajero handled it like a champ, mostly. When the receptionist asked for our license plate number and we looked back at the car, we realized it was gone. There was, we figured, only one place it could be.

And so we backtracked. We found another guy stranded there with his dog, his car broken down on the other side of the crossing. While he worked on his car, we waded through the pool of water with sticks, poking at the ground, feeling for metal with our feet and stopping to throw sticks for the fetch-loving pup. We were ecstatic when we finally found a license plate, only to realize that it wasn’t ours. We gave up after an hour or so, and, checking that our stranded neighbor had everything he needed for the night before we left, headed back to chase the sunset and celebrate our once-again reunion with friends.

DAY 6: ZEBEDEE HOT SPRINGS, EMMA GORGE & LAKE ARGYLE

Early the next morning, while the campground was still wrapped in darkness, we dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags. After an unsuccessful sunset hunt the night before, we’d psyched ourselves up for sunrise instead and decided to take the four wheel-drive track up to Saddleback Ridge. We were sleepy and the ride bumpy, but this sunrise more than made up for those small pains.

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After a quick dip back at the campground, we packed up, ready to hit the park for more exploring. Just as we were about to leave, a woman approached us. She’d happened to notice our missing license plate, which she and her partner had found on their way to the gorge the afternoon before and left propped up by a gate. We were thankful and relieved, sure as we were that returning a rental vehicle without a license plate couldn’t mean anything good. On our way to retrieve it, we checked in on our stranded neighbor. He was still stuck and asked us to arrange for help at reception. We may have gotten lucky this time, but the outback had still scored a win.

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It was the end of the tourist season along the Gibb, and El Questro was set to close down in just a couple of weeks. That morning, several of the park’s most famous attractions were closed to visitors at noon. We were bummed but grateful at least for the early start our sunrise plans had given us. Our first stop was Zebedee Springs. These thermal hot springs are absolutely stunning, a natural spa surrounded by lush Livistona palms unique to Australia’s Kimberley region. I’d never imagined seeing anything like this in the outback.

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I hated to leave, but we were were crunched for time and knew we couldn’t miss Emma Gorge, El Questro’s biggest draw. For all the amazing things we’d heard about it, I wasn’t prepared for what we found. For me, this was the single most magical place of our entire Gibb River Road experience.

Emma Gorge felt like a dream. I’ve never felt so small as I did standing there, staring up at the impossibly steep walls surrounding that kaleidoscopic swimming hole. The droplet falls are beautiful to watch from the rocks, but from the water, they’re absolutely enchanting. Floating under the droplets splashing onto my face, I felt as though the world were running in slow motion. The pool here is mostly cold, but we found under a shelf to the right a warm spring — the perfect perch for watching those hypnotizing droplets.

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Sadly, we had to be out by noon. We lingered at Emma Gorge for as long as we could before hiking back to our cars and hitting the road once again.

This time, the drive was short. All too quickly, we found ourselves at a crossroads: we’d reached the end of the Gibb River Road.

It came as both a shock and a triumph. We staged an impromptu photo shoot with the cars we’d come to love so much before turning right onto the Great Northern Highway bound for Kununurra.

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That night, we celebrated. We picked up a proper feast from the grocery store in Kununurra and checked into the campgrounds at Lake Argyle Resort, famous for the iconic view from its infinity pool. Our last two days had been paradise after paradise after paradise, more than I had ever expected to find in the outback.

The best part of all? Even with the Gibb River Road in our rearview mirrors, our trip was hardly halfway done.

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6 Comments

  • Reply Laura January 19, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    This looks like SO much fun!! I need to do this when I go to Australia. Love the pictures too!

    • Reply Katie January 19, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Thanks, Laura! It’s such an incredible trip. If it weren’t so remote, I’d be surprised more people don’t make it to this part of Australia!

  • Reply Anne January 19, 2016 at 11:37 pm

    Yipee you made ii!

    • Reply Katie January 20, 2016 at 2:22 am

      It felt pretty great 🙂

  • Reply Maddy January 20, 2016 at 3:59 am

    My goodness! The pictures from this trip are just incredible. It looks like SO much fun and it looks like such a beautiful trip overall. I hope to do this someday when I go to Australia!
    Maddy recently posted…Why You Must Visit Berlin in Your 20sMy Profile

    • Reply Katie January 20, 2016 at 4:24 am

      I would definitely make it a priority! The Kimberley’s easily one of the most magical travel destinations I’ve ever visited — it’s harder to get to, but so rewarding! I’m sure you’d love it 🙂

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