My delightfully long deep sleep opens to a still quiet morning, with only a few birds and frogs welcoming in the day with their chirps and croaks. But not long into this reverie the growl of big machines fire up, one after the other. A big tractor roars by our idyllic campsite by the bay. A front loader grinds into gear and starts scooping up its goods, cranking down the dirt path near our campervan to deposit them in some site out of sight. Beefy 4WDs driven by foreman, engineers, and project managers drive past in an obvious attempt at keeping to the ‘walking pace’ speed limit but unable to contain the roar of their V8 engines. An 18-wheeler backs in to the front entrance to the caravan park and waits for a back hoe to fill its back end. It appears we’ve camped in the midst of a major construction zone. Perhaps the pre-season refurbishments are just getting into gear? – or reaching their crescendo: the start of the official tourist season is April 1, less than a week away.
I toy with the idea of getting irritated with all this. Storming into the park office with my tirade: “Why didn’t you tell us…?” “This is insane…!” But instead I wash clothes, hang them on the community clothes line, then watch as the passing trucks kick up a sea of red dust which the breeze carries straight towards my newly washed clothes. I unpeg them and re-peg them in a line around the other side of the building.
It’s comical really, we two sun-tanned travellers trying to have a respectable holiday in all this noise and kafuffle. We don our colorful bathing suits, shorts, sarong and thongs and enjoy a morning dip in the pool while the trucks and all their noise and mess rumble around us. We seem to be the only ones wondering about all this strange goings on at the holiday park. The other residents are 'camped' in semi-permanent looking situations and perhaps are used to and accepting of the noise and confusion.
When our clothes are dry we head into town. The entrance to Kununurra is lined with upmarket holiday accommodation and a pretty park next to the lake – all suggestive of the town’s reputation as a mecca for East Kimberley tourists, as the brochures and websites expound. We stop at the Coles shopping centre to stock up. Groups of Aboriginals are clustered around the parking lot. The air is filled with the high-pitched verbal abuse they commonly sling at each other, often peppered with a limited array of swear words. The entrance to the shopping center is marked by four large rubbish bins, scattered askew and one without a lid. The stench is unpleasant. Inside the supermarket we pass several shoppers whose body odour outranks the meagre smell of fresh food. The fruit and veg all look tired – and seriously overpriced. Shelves of cans and boxes are in disarray and the floors need a good sweep.
Driving around town it’s clear that most business are circled by chain link fences, some with barbed wire on top. This isn’t a pleasant place. How does tourism survive?
On the edge of this dark little circle of commerce is Mirima National Park, also called Hidden Valley. Our Kimberley Guide calls it the “Mini-Bungle Bungles” and since we can’t get into that park (4WD only and still closed for the season), we’re happy to have a look. We pay the $6 concession entrance fee and park in the empty carpark where the trails start. This is truly a magic place, a maze of steep red rock canyons made from 350 million year old sandstone, blown in all those millions of years ago by the distant sand plains, layer after layer and then morphed into solid rock over great expanses of time. The red rocks are striped with black, lichen that grows on the sandstone and apparently preserves it from further decay. It’s impressive, magnificent and awe-inspiring to think of the ancient history book we walk through and the beauty it now beholds.
We take the three short walks through and up into the canyons, then pull out lunch on the sole picnic table provided at the carpark. A ranger drives up in a 4WD and ask us whether we entered the park on an annual park pass. No, we purchased a day pass. He seems surprised and asks if he can see it. Sure enough, the slip of paper we pulled out of the automated entrance machine is marked with today’s date: March 26th. Half apologetic, he says it’s been a while since he’s met a paying visitor. Most people just drive past the machine and use the park for free. “We’re having to crack down,” he concedes, still with an apologetic manner. We chat about the park and the weather and before he leaves he mentions twice more how rare it is to find visitors who’ve actually paid. After bidding us farewell, he walks around the back of his car and fiddles with something in the trees, then gets in his car and drives off. Later Johan goes over to the tree and finds a camouflaged webcam. He smiles and waves and leaves it alone.
We’re not sorry to leave Kununurra behind us, despite the delightful walk through the ancient canyons. We head east, towards the Northern Territories border, but before we reach it we turn south and head toward Lake Argyle. This massive man-made lake was completed in 1972 and renovated in 1996, raising the dam wall by 16 meters. Damming the Ord River effectively inundated an area spanning 1000 square kilometres – an area eighteen times the size of Sydney harbor-- and washed away the cultural history and the livelihood of the Aboriginal tribes who’d lived in this region for thousands of years. I can understand now why Kununurra seems filled with menacing mobs of black people. Displaced and nursing a collective grudge towards their invading conquerors (more like a deep-seated rage), they’ve been forced, only relatively recently, to adopt a life that is entirely alien to their people and their cultural mindset. The interpretive signs at the Mirima Park which told of their close relationship with the land and the many dreaming stories that explained what westerners understand as geology, now seem like quaint stories which few in the current generations of Aboriginal people would practice or even understand.
At the time it was built it was the world’s largest human constructed water catchment area. It was meant to turn the arid Kimberley into prime agricultural land, supplying rice, citrus, mangoes, bananas and other crops to a world market. Great for the Australian economy. Apparently it never took off to the extent it was initially envisioned (the Kimberley is pretty remote, adding freight costs and deterrents for prospective agriculturalists and their families) and was seen as Australia’s grandest white elephant for a number of years. Rumours are afoot however that ‘Stage 2’ of the development, which started in 2010, will put new life into the project. Stay tuned.
We check into the Lake Argyle Inn and Caravan Park and book a $37/night powered site. The camp host points to the swimming pool up the hill and I grab my towel and head off soon as we’ve found a site. As you approach the pool from below, an amazing view unfolds: a silky sheet of water disappearing into the chain of red mountains across the valley where Lake Argyle sits below. The panorama extends further, the sinews of the lake disappearing into the far distance. It’s the stuff of movies and top end marketing brochures.
After an enjoyable swim in this 5-star luxury I walk back to the van and fill the backpack with contents for tonight’s sundowner. Two park benches, situated just below the pool, are positioned to take full advantage of the amazing view. The sun deepens the ochre canyons in front of us as we enjoy our nightly ritual. We both express amazement, awe, dismay and disgust at what lies before us – the incredible ingenuity of human creativity and enterprise, and the formidable expanse of the human ego, which can utterly change the face of the planet and of a civilization in hot pursuit of a single-minded ideal…