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A wealth of delights at Emma Gorge
A wealth of delights at Emma Gorge

The eastern end of the Gibb River Road begins at the Great Northern Highway but I never feel the old cattle route has started until I've swashed through the King River, seen the rusty stockyard gates and the iridescent crown of the Cockburn Range.

At the foot of the range is Emma Gorge Resort, part of El Questro Wilderness Park, where tented cabins are tucked into the pandanus and boab bush near gurgling Emma Creek. They still look brand new and are clean and comfortable, but there are no mod-cons. No phone, no air-conditioning, no alarm clock, no television, no fridge.

Stilted on breezeblocks, the cabins are deceptively spacious inside and have separate ensuites. But were it not for the canvas "walls" I'd feel I was swagging it under a tree. In lieu of electronic distraction, the sound is of birds, the creek and, for the moment, a chorus of crickets.

Necessities like good grub have been not been forsaken - there is the Emma Gorge Restaurant and other places to dine (and stay) at the station township and at the homestead. But during my visit to Emma Gorge, I use my cabin solely for sleeping and writing. On this remote one million hectare pastoral lease there is much to explore.

I am wakened by an avian alarm clock and get ready for an early-morning visit to the thermal Zebedee Springs. We drive towards El Questro Station past flowering melaleuca and silvery grevillea, splashing through overflows, avoiding slow-moving monitors still lukewarm in the low sun. We reach the oasis of pandanus that marks the 800m climb to Zebedee and follow a route through the savannah which takes us past towering livistona palms.

Ranger Caitlin Depiazzi leads the way. In her second dry season at El Questro she is an all-rounder - tour guide, track clearer, weed eradicator, cane toad stomper.

I feel a noticeable warmth in the air as we reach the springs, two tiers of small waist-high pools where water issues from the 1.8 billion-year-old King Leopold sandstone, spewing from a fault line that runs all the way to Papua New Guinea.

An island of palms cuts the spring in two before it merges again and continues down the slope. Wisely, visitor numbers are limited and Zebedee closes at noon. It is a small primordial setting that needs protecting. Visitors are asked not to wear suncream or make-up, for they can taint the soft, calming waters which I feel smoothing over my muscles. I could sit here all day and it seems I'm not alone in that.

"It's really difficult coming here at noon each day and telling people they have to leave," Caitlin says.

But there is more serious relaxing to be done on a Chamberlain Gorge cruise and we head off through the station township and down to the river. By the bank, mighty boabs lie rotting. They were uprooted and dumped there by the great Wet of 2011 when the river rose some 21m, lapping at the homestead which sits on a chocolate cliff near the Chamberlain-Pentecost tributary. Just metres from the dead wood, a clump of eight boab trunks form the Durack Tree where, in 1882, the pastoral family camped for the night on their way to the promised land of the Ord River. Their calling card, a carved D, is etched into one of the trunks.

We push off from the Chamberlain in the Wandjina, drifting up the river between a chunky red wall, older than life itself, and a more gradual slope already cloaked in green where new growth has taken root after the flood.

A tubby grey wallaby watches our slow progress from the safety of a niche in the rusty rock face.

The captain plots a safe course following white foam buoys, each bearing sinister teeth marks.

I'm studying the layers, a show-and-tell lesson of the Earth's history, when we reach rocky rapids which prevent further progress up the Chamberlain. The pop of champagne corks has drawn the adults, the spitting archer fish which are circling the boat have the children busy, but I'm transfixed by the palette of colour on the sheer wall. Natural rock art, glossy black, scorched orange, waves, whorls, print patterns. Ancient and entrancing, it's yet another face of the Kimberley.

·Niall McIlroy visited Emma Gorge courtesy of Australia's North West Tourism and El Questro Wilderness Park.

  • fact file *

·Where to stay: The tented ensuite cabins at Emma Gorge Resort have one queen and two single beds and are from $279 per night. The resort has a restaurant, bar, tour booking desk, a pool area and outdoor decking on which to dine and a laundry. Emma Gorge Resort is open during the dry from mid-April to the end of September.

·There are bungalows and campsites at The Station Township. Bungalows are from $319 per night while campsites are from $20 per night. Rooms at The Homestead are between $1500 and $2500, inclusive of food, drinks and most tours.

·What to do: The Zebedee Springs half-day tour includes a visit to the thermal springs, a Chamberlain Gorge cruise and lunch and costs $165 for adults and $85 for children.

·Other tours include the Saddleback Sunset Tour on which travellers can watch the sunset from one of the highest points in the range. There are great views over the sprawling property and of many of the gorges and the Cockburn Ranges. The tour costs $80 for adults and $40 for children. There are many other tours, from guided gorge walks to helicopter flights.

·Go to elquestro.com.au and for more on the Kimberley region, see australiasnorthwest.com.