Martin and Kim Peirson-Jones on the deck of a suite at Berkeley River Lodge. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

The first plane to land on the new airstrip at The Berkeley River Lodge touches down lightly, and pilot and owner of Kingfisher Tours Stephen Irvine pulls it up to a halt.

Lodge owner Martin Peirson- Jones isn't there to greet it but within a few minutes he arrives - dusty and damp with sweat.

Martin's alarm went off at 4.30am and since soon after he's been on the grader, putting the finishing touches to the edge of the strip.

Just as he will do tomorrow.

Martin might have millions of dollars invested in this remote and beautiful spot, and he might be the founder and leading light of the Kimberley Accommodation group, which also owns Bay Suites and Bayside Holiday Apartments in Broome, the Kimberley Hotel in Halls Creek and Hotel Kununurra, but he and wife Kim have led the building of the extraordinary Berkeley River Lodge with their bare hands.

In fact, Kim has just been painting 44-gallon drums white, to edge the airstrip 100m apart, as regulations require, while Martin and mate Brownie were on the grader and front-end loader.

None of this is a surprise to me.

Martin and Kim left their Broome home and, for the first five months, lived out here in a tented camp. It took two years living in extreme conditions to build The Berkeley River Lodge, a set of 20 contemporary-designed suites, set high over the landscape with decks, designer lounges and sunshades, air-conditioning and comfortable beds, wide views and each with an outdoor bathroom that has a full bath.

The lodge has a swimming pool on a deck overlooking the dunes and beach, by the lounge, bar and dining area, which is, once again, bright and modern. Head chef Paul Seymour produces a cuisine that is relevant to the location - fine quality and each dish with a nice twist. Often you can judge a kitchen by the simple dishes it produces and today's breakfast, Spanish omelette salted with crumbled goat's cheese, is a good example.

All meals are included in the tariff, as are beverages and activities.

We spend most of the second day on the Berkeley River itself, on a wide, stable, shady, quiet 24-seat boat with two crew, seeing waterfalls and lunching by one of them (and dipping ourselves under this vertical spa).

The lodge opened in 2012, 100 years after explorer Charles Price Conigrave named the Berkeley River for his brother.

Martin and Kim walked the 4500ha site for a long time after they became involved with the place; the Jiamiddie Aboriginal Corporation behind them, enthusiastic for development.

They settled on this spot by the river - remote, 150km from Wyndham, looking out over the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf - set up camp and started work. All the materials, from vehicles and machines to metal, formwork and windows, were barged in by Jim Weir on the MV de Barge from Wyndham, with virtually no damage.

In one barge load were the aluminium bore casings that took them down to the sweetest, purest water, filtered through the dunes. There were 13 tonnes of batteries, as The Berkeley River Lodge runs largely on solar power.

It was an expensive place to build and it's an expensive place to run - once again, with produce and materials having to be barged and flown in.

Up until now, access for guests has been by float plane and helicopter - but the airstrip, which has taken two months to build, is a game changer. At almost 1400m long, it opens up the place to the many light aircraft used across the Kimberley.

As we are preparing to leave The Berkeley River Lodge, and become the first aircraft to take off on the new strip, there's news that the grader is bogged.

As a young bloke, before he became a junior partner in Broome's Roebuck Hotel and moved into hotels and tourism, Martin was on cattle stations - on jobs in stock camps and with road trains. Indeed, over dinner last night, we talked about the old days, and it's not beyond Martin to get all his stock off a stranded stock train, "borrow" someone's yards, find them feed, find a new train driver and then load them all up and carry on the next day.

And in that we see Martin and Kim's ability to take vision and add to it old-fashioned hard work, like building the airstrip.

He has a go at pulling the bogged grader with the front-end loader but the 15-tonne machine has sunk down to the chassis.

He says he'll go and get some others to help, tells mate Brownie to get on the front-end loader and stick a bucketload of rocks under the blade, on which the machine can be jacked up.

"I've never driven the front-end loader," the grader driver says.

"You'll work it out," Martin says, with gravel in his voice and a sense of dry humour coming. "You start it with a key."


  • fact file *

·Until the end of April, a four-night package is $4850 per person, twin share, which includes the return scenic flight from Kununurra, all gourmet meals and beverages and all tours and activities, including the waterfall river cruise, guided bushwalks, fishing and 4WD tours.

·berkeleyriver.com.au or 9169 1330.

The West Australian

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