Home in the Valley
18 September 2012
Most people planning to explore the Kimberley have heard of the El Questro Wilderness Park, and if you're well-heeled you may even have stayed in one of the swanky rooms at the El Questro Homestead. The wilderness park was definitely on our must-visit list, but we knew that the homestead was out of our budget – and nothing else was available there.
"Why not try Home Valley Station?" suggested our contact at the Visitor Centre in Kununurra. "It's a bit further along the road, so you have a longer distance to drive to Zebedee Springs and Emma Gorge, but it's very popular." She handed us a brochure, and we discovered that Home Valley is a working cattle station of around 615,000 acres, about 120km west of Kununurra, right at the foot of the Cockburn Range. Its address is simply Gibb River Road, East Kimberley.
We set off from Kununurra and took the Gibb River Road section fairly slowly, but plenty of people went past at a much faster clip. It's a good idea to take two spares for your 4WD rather than one, but if you do happen to get into trouble, you'll be glad to know that Home Valley Station provides a vehicle rescue service for Gibb River Road Travellers.
They have a well-equipped workshop at the station homestead, and their mechanics can take on most repairs and maintenance. They also keep a number of spare tyres in stock. Of course, they can't do everything… but even if you have to wait it out while you send away for repairs, Home Valley is a great spot to be marooned!
And speaking of being marooned there, just down the road we had met up with Tricia and Al Carter and their daughter Holly when we were all fording the Pentecost River at the same spot. We turned off to Home Valley, but they waved goodbye and continued on down the Gibb River Road. Their trip, however, came to an abrupt halt just a few kilometres along the road from the Home Valley turnoff.
Their car, they told us, had simply stopped dead. Luckily, a passing good samaritan stopped, unhooked his trailer, and hitched up the Carters' Jayco Outback. "No, no trouble at all!" he insisted. "I can't just leave you there by the side of the road!" He left his wife guarding their trailer, with just an umbrella to protect her from the burning midday sun, while he gave the stranded family a lift to Home Valley. There they stayed (and had a great time) for a week while their 4WD was towed away to be repaired in Kununurra.
People are sometimes intimidated by the vast distances in the Kimberley, and by the challenge presented by rough dirt roads. Be assured that most people you meet are only too willing to help out a fellow traveller. Al, Trish and Holly spent months travelling Australia, home-schooling Holly along the way. They can't speak highly enough of the experience, and of the people they met. "Holly gained so much self-confidence through this experience," said Trish. "Sometimes I don't see her for hours because she's off having fun with other kids."
The entrance of Home Valley Station is a welcome sight. It has stretches of green grass and the always-attractive boabs at the gateway, a sparkling pool on the right, and the large open-air bar and grill on the left.
For RVers who have an off-road rig capable of handling the Gibb River Road, Home Valley Station has two campgrounds. The one at the homestead is close to the pool, children's playground, store, the bar and grill and amenities. The other, the Bush Camp, is 4km from the homestead on the banks of the Pentecost River. To stay at either, you need to buy a camping permit upon arrival.
There are several other accommodation options here, including luxurious freestanding Grass Castles overlooking Bindoola creek, eco-tents or motel-style rooms. As our blacktop touring van wasn't suited to the Gibb River Road, we chose one of the air-conditioned motel rooms, but would have been keen to try one of the inviting eco-tents if it had been a bit cooler.
Once we settled in, and checked out what was on offer, we were amazed to see how much was happening at Home Valley Station. When we first booked our stay, we thought we'd probably spend a few hours each day around the pool, drive around the station, and maybe take a day trip to Zebedee Springs and Emma Gorge. There are more than enough activities here to fill a week or more.
There are activities galore, depending on your age, interests and state of health. Want to do some mustering? Yes, it's on the agenda. Prefer fishing? No problem; throw in a line or join one of several fishing expeditions. Just want to mooch about and get an idea of what station life is about? Join a station tour!
We spent the first afternoon relaxing in the pool and mooching about the station, then late in the day drove up the road to the nearby lookout. There we watched the sun go down over the Cockburn Range – and found we had good enough reception to check phone messages and email!
There was so much going on at Home Valley that we started to wonder about who was behind it all – if this had grown out of a family concern, they had done an amazing job. There was staff everywhere – hospitality staff, mechanics, stockmen, fishing guides, admin staff… where had all this come from?
We asked around and found that it had all come together relatively recently. The leasehold went through three owners between 1957 and 1999, when it was bought by the Indigenous Land Council and really took off. The ILC developed the Station and, in 2008, launched it as a pastoral, tourist and indigenous training centre. The Home Valley staff, we discovered, are responsible for the business operations for Home Valley and two other stations – Karunjie and Durack River, the combined area of which is a mind-boggling 3.5 million acres.
All this is perfect for tourists like us who want to see the beautiful gorges and rivers in the Kimberley, and to experience outback life. However, we have to admit that our favourite part of the Station's history was finding out that at one time, both Home Valley Station and nearby up-market El Questro were renowned 'poddy dodger's corners' – that is, havens for thieves who stole unbranded calves!
A popular attraction of Home Valley is the Bindoola Gorge walk. Early morning is the best time for this walk, as once the sun comes up, it becomes far too hot. The Bindaloo Gorge walk begins at the station and is a relatively easy 1.5km hike along a track. It's a little more challenging if you opt for clambering over the rocks beside the creek instead. We set out at dawn and rock-hopped the first half, ate breakfast by the water, then walked back – sweating even at 7.30am!
Later that morning we drove out to check out the bush camp. This is a popular camping/fishing spot, with fireplaces and good basic facilities, and generators can be used until 9pm. If you like bush camping, this place will suit you down to the ground. Those Kimberley shorthorn cattle watching you drive past are the breed used by Baz Luhrmann in his epic 'Australia' – scenes from the movie were shot at Home Valley.
Rob is not renowned for his fishing aptitude, but he decided to sign up for a fishing trip anyway. He was somewhat cheered by the sight of a group of crocodiles waiting a few hundred metres up the river for the change of tide. "It gave me the impression that the Pentecost River could actually hold the fish I'd been seeking through our trip," he told me later.
Armed with an abundant amount of bait and some hand lines as well as fishing poles, he thought it was going to be a snack. Not so. "The tide came in... the tide went out... Not a fish was to be had," he said with a sigh. "Not on my lines, anyway."
However, all was not lost. Between them the group caught some good sized barramundi, which soon ended up sizzling on hot coals. "Very tasty indeed," attested Rob, "and all washed down with a cold ale… not such a bad second prize I reckon!"
Home Valley station is a great base for day trips in the area. We took the opportunity to visit Zebedee Springs and Emma Gorge on the third day, hitting Zebedee Springs first thing in the morning, because it's closed to all but coach traffic after midday. Besides, we had a 3km round-trip to the rock pool at Emma Gorge coming up, and we knew that the last part of this was going to present some challenges… we wanted to leave plenty of time!
You can easily see why Zebedee Springs has to be careful about rationing the number of people to visit at any one time. The path is well-maintained, but it's quite difficult to get into and out of the water. It's very rocky and slippery, and there's not a lot of room. It's a pleasant place to visit – but we were glad we went early, when not many people were around.
You'll need to register your intention to do the Emma Gorge walk at the Resort reception, and put aside a couple of hours to do it. Be prepared for some fairly challenging climbing up and over rocks in the last one-third of the walk. Well, challenging for the older generation, anyway – we encountered a young couple negotiating rocks with thongs, and she was carrying a toddler on her back! It's worth the haul to the top when you get to swim in the deep pool with the permanent droplet waterfall shimmering in the sunlight. The pool is refreshingly cool, but there's also a nice warm current spilling into the pool behind the rocks.
Our three days R&R at Home Valley seemed to be over in the blink of an eye, and we didn't even get to do a quarter of the activities available. We loved the gorges, and the riverside location, and the sight of the Shorthorn cattle wandering around. Talk about a taste of Australia. You can, if you wish, kayak along the creek, picnic by the waterfalls and billabongs, or get an authentic taste of outback life on a cattle station with knowledgeable guides. You can fish in one of their renowned fishing spots… or you can just do nothing and enjoy relaxing by the pool. Whatever you choose to do, you can be sure that you'll be telling all your friends about the time you stayed at Home Valley Station.
Follow the Great Northern Highway from Kununurra then Gibb River Road to Home Valley Station turnoff
• Lunch or morning tea at Emma Gorge Resort, (you need a pass for El Questro Wilderness Park).
• Enjoy a drink or meal with friends in the Dusty Bar and Grill.
THE KIMBERLEY, WA
HOME VALLEY STATION WEBSITE
EL QUESTRO/EMMA GORGE RESORT INFORMATION
PLACES TO STAY
HOME VALLEY STATION
Offers powered and un-powered campsites at two locations, Home Valley Homestead Campground and the Pentecost River Bush Camp, both of which have bathroom facilities available. Adults $16, children $5.
Other motel and luxury accommodation options are available, head to www.hvstation.com.au for more information.
• Bindoola Gorge Walk
• Swimming in one of the Station pools
• Fishing – use your own line
• Watch sun go down over Cockburn Range
WORDS BY MARG MCALISTER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARG AND ROB MCALISTER