Duncan Road, Halls Creek to Kununurra
It’s after dark when we reach the Great Northern Highway on our way out of Purnululu. My brakes are almost non-existent so we are going to spend the night in the nearest roadside rest stop. In the morning we have a choice to travel north to Kununurra or south to Halls Creek. We are planning on spending some time in and around Kununurra and if we head north we’ll be there in 4 to 5 hours. Nope, too easy and besides we did that last year. Instead we are heading south back to Halls Creek and from there we will take the gravel Duncan Road to the Victoria Highway in the Northern Territory then head west into Kununurra. We’ll probably end up spending somewhere between 4 days and a week on the trip. An added bonus is having a shorter distance to travel before being able to get my brakes fixed in Halls Creek.
In the morning it’s an easy run of about an hour into town and although the two mechanics in town are busy we are able to get my brakes back in order by late afternoon. It’s after 5.00 by the time the repairs are done and we’re topped up with food, fuel and water. We had four nights here in Halls Creek before we visited Purnululu so we are heading to Caroline Pool 15km east of town along Duncan Road to spend the night.
Duncan Road, previously Duncan Highway and also known as the Beef Road, was specifically built and developed during the 1950’s and 60’s to serve the needs of the cattle farmers of this part of the East Kimberleys. It is a well-made and maintained road and suitable for all vehicles unless seasonal rain has caused washouts and it may then be closed to all or some vehicles. From Halls Creek it heads roughly east for about 170km and then turns north for 325km. As it travels north it runs roughly parallel to the Ord River which forms the eastern boundary of Purnululu National Park. It crosses into the Northern Territory, crosses back to Western Australia then recrosses back to the Northern Territory before ending at the Victoria Highway east of the state border. We’ve been looking at this red line (gravel road) on the maps when we’ve been in this area on previous visits so when we were told it was an interesting drive with some nice camp sites it didn’t take long for us to work out how to add it to our route.
The road to Caroline Pool winds between rocky hills and provides some interesting views in the late afternoon light. It’s a picturesque drive and, provided it’s not taken too fast, an easy road for any vehicle. That’s obvious when we arrive and find half a dozen other groups of campers including back packers packed into station wagons and tents and caravans … definitely not built for off road conditions. As well as a small area at the end of the road you can also camp on the dry and rocky bed of the river and we soon find a spot for ourselves. The full moon is just rising, huge and yellow, and soon it is illuminating our camp.
In the morning we are in no rush to move on. Paul has been up early for shots of the gorge with its small pool in front of a rocky face and we relax in the sun over our breakfast. We’re planning a short drive today which works out just perfectly for both of us. Julie is happy to start travelling reasonably early but likes to stop early as well, preferably at lunchtime while Paul likes a relaxed start to the day with tea followed by breakfast followed by cappuccino before starting to think about packing. Our drive today starts late, proceeds through interesting hills and includes a stop and wander around the remains of Old Halls Creek, then finishes at lunchtime at Palm Springs just 30km further along Duncan Road.
We have a choice of spots to camp and they are all good. Gee life’s stressful when you have to pick between all these good options. First is an area on the side of a wide river with lots of trees around and a range of hills in front. Second is Palm Springs, a roadside rest area next to a pool fed by springs with trees, palms and reeds all around and a red rocky hill directly behind it. Third is Sawpit Gorge, 3 km down a side track through a gap in the range next to Palm Springs. Here you can cross a small creek, camp beside a pool of water and watch the numerous birds. Tough choice but Palm Springs won the vote, partly because while you could swim at the others the swimming at Palm Springs is fabulous and also because it is the best place for evening photos and it is only a very short drive to the river crossing for morning photos.
Exploring the different campsites enjoying a swim and taking in the views easily fills in the afternoon. Two other couples have also stopped here for the night and in the early evening we join them around a campfire. In the middle of the night the stars and moon are so bright and beautiful that Paul spends an hour taking photographs and then is up again at early light for more. It is too nice here to rush off so we have another leisurely start and eventually head off mid-morning stopping to explore the remains of an old market garden as we leave the area.
The first section of our day’s drive continues with the road winding around hills and through gaps in the ranges. When we leave these behind it becomes obvious we are in beef country. It is very flat country and if trees used to grow here they have been long since cleared so that all we can see in every direction is miles of pale yellow grassland. What a change from the country we have been travelling in for the past weeks.
During the drive the grass land starts to get more broken and rockier and the miles of grass are replaced with scrubby bush, still OK for cattle but obviously harder going for them. We had hoped to camp at Marella Gorge in this section as it had been highly recommended but the Visitor Centre staff told us camping was no longer allowed so we have to continue on. We reach the intersection with the Buntine Highway where Duncan Road turns north. The Buntine Highway heads east from here, crosses the Buchanan Highway at Top Springs, and eventually reaches the Victoria Highway fairly close to Katherine.
By now we are starting to look for a place to camp for the night but it takes a while longer before something suitable appears. 80km north of the Buntine we cross a river bed and at the top of the bank a side track takes us west to the ruined buildings of Old Ord River Station. Two buildings have wide walls constructed from flat stones gathered from the area and joined with a rough cement. One has no roof and the fairly new tin roof on the other is missing in parts allowing creepers to grow into the empty room beneath. Vacant windows frame views of boabs set in the dry and barren country. An old stone oven stands alone and to the side a tin shed containing an old range oven shows where the kitchen used to be. The old kitchen window provides the best view of the escarpment above the river and the trees and water in its bed but even having a great view wouldn’t have been adequate compensation for the conditions the cook would have had to work in during the middle of summer.
We have another short drive the next day, just 70km to Negri River. There is no water at the crossing itself but a very short distance downstream there is a good amount of water. Birds frequent the area around the water and the trees along the banks in search of food. There is a flat camp site with good shade and a great view, unfortunately it is occupied by a couple from the Northern Territory or we would very likely end up there for a few days as they have been. We find another spot, not quite as perfect but still very nice and enjoy the shade and views through the warm afternoon. There’s plenty of firewood around so we cook a marinated butterfly lamb on a campfire and spend the evening watching the flames.
Behn River is another 70 km along Duncan Road. We’re happy with our late starts and short drives and have it in mind for our next night. We’re there in time for lunch and while it could be adequate neither of us is terribly interested in stopping so we continue up the road. Zebra Rock Mines run a campsite and conduct tours of their mine and fishing trips on Lake Argyle. They are just a few kilometres off the road so we drive in to see if we have a chance of sunset views over the lake. No luck with the views and the camping ground is pretty busy so as we aren’t interested in a tour we drive back to Duncan Road and continue north. Only a few kilometres up the road we reach the end of Duncan Road and suddenly we are back on bitumen. Rest areas along the Victoria Highway will be crowded but at the intersection behind the Beef Road monument a short track leads to a clearing with just one caravan pulled in so we’ve found our spot for the night.
From here it is less than 70km to Kununurra but we decide to visit Keep River National Park on our way rather than leaving it until we are heading east toward Darwin. Cockatoo Lagoon is our first stop in the park. Black cockatoos fly from a tree as we approach the lagoon and stately Brolgas stride away from us but plenty of other bird life stays so we can watch them and take photographs. When we return to the carpark we find the black cockatoos in the trees there, love the flash of red as they fly.
There are two campgrounds in the park and we plan to spend a night at each. The first, Gurrandalng, is quite small and is about half full when we arrive but we find a nice shady spot to set up our camp. There is a short (2 km, 1 hour) walk from the campground but we relax in the shade until later in the afternoon before setting out. Noisy bower birds are plentiful but they aren’t in their courtship phase so we don’t see them in their purple plumage displaying their bowers as they try to woo a mate. Willy wagtails are a common sight all around Australia but they still delight as they hop around, tail flashing, catching flies and other insects.
By 4.00pm the temperature is more pleasant for walking and the light will soon be changing as the sun begins to set. There is a lot of variety in the vegetation and views for such a short walk. At the beginning of the walk the country shows the impact of a controlled burn in the area. Park-rangers burn sections of the land around here on a three year cycle and although there are a few flashes of new green growth it looks like it was burnt after the end of the last wet season. Stark black trunks, branches and spinifex roots contrast strongly with white trunks and limbs above the burn line. Look deeper and more colours come to view when you add in the creams, oranges and reds in the rocks and soil, the brilliant blue in the sky, the deep green of old leaves and the russet of scorched leaves, the pinks and purples of flowering shrubs and the pale yellow-green of sunburnt spinifex.
With all these colours and with a walk which takes us up a ridge and between twisted rock formations it is not surprising that the sun is dropping when we are only part way around the walk. This brings even more colours into view and while Julie opts to be on level ground and on the way back to camp before the light fades too far it is quite dark before Paul finishes his photos for the evening.
Next morning we drive further into the park to the Jarnem campground. This is a bigger and bushier campground. The sites are larger and wider spaced and there are far more trees around. It’s a place we could both imagine spending a number of days relaxing, especially as there is good drinking water available and firewood can be collected within the park to use in the fireplaces provided. We’re only here for a night though as we want to head into town tomorrow. In the meantime we spend our time being entertained by more birds, still plenty of bower birds but they are joined by loads of honeyeaters, rosellas and parrots.
The walk here can be done as an 8km loop walk or as two shorter one-way walks. We end up tackling the loop walk leaving at 5.30 next morning to catch the sunrise from the lookout and to avoid the heat of the day. Once again there is a lot of variety along the walk. It begins crossing a flat grassy plain at the base of a range then the path rises through a gap to a saddle and lookout. A thick cloud cover allows a short period of vivid colour as the sun rises above the horizon before it disappears behind the cloud. There are views across the plains to ranges many kilometres to the east and west and to the south is the range we will be walking to next. Its banded domes are similar to those found in the Bungle Bungle Range. It’s a place to sit and enjoy and having missed breakfast we share some fruit and other snacks before we continue our walk.
We descend from the lookout and cross the plain enjoying the changing vegetation. Soil and rocks types differ and they allow different types of vegetation to grow. Helpful signs explain some of what we are seeing, just as well as we are both somewhat horticulturally challenged. The path reaches the range at a small Aboriginal art site then continues at the base of the range for about a kilometre. The range and palm trees tower over us as we walk with frequent stops to enjoy the views and take photos.
It is well after 9.00 by the time we reach the camp, well past coffee time so first priority is for Paul to have his cappuccino and Julie her black coffee. Then it’s time to pack, return to the highway, pass through the quarantine station into Western Australia and then into a caravan park in Kununurra and enjoy a long hot shower.