The West

Kimberley water dreaming
Triple J Tours: Lake Argyle/Ord River Combo Tour. Picture: Flip Prior/The West Australian

The water history of WA is littered with broken pipedreams. In 1902, defeated by public criticism, C. Y. O'Connor took his own life before his 530km pipeline from Perth to Kalgoorlie was completed.

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In 2005, Colin Barnett lost an election after he proposed bringing water down a 3700km canal from the Kimberley to Perth at a cost of $2 billion. When agricultural scientist Kimberley Durack in the 1940s stood in the middle of a flood plain near Kununurra and declared it a suitable place for a massive dam to feed an irrigation scheme, it could so easily have gone the same way.

In a tragic twist, Durack died at 51 - just one year before works on the main Ord River Dam in 1969 began to create Lake Argyle and the beginning of Ord Stage II some distance from his chosen site.

But today, Kununurra's water supply which stems from his early work is regarded as a miracle of modern engineering - and Durack as a visionary.

As much of the rest of the nation suffers through drought, Kununurra gushes with mind-boggling amounts of water - and with an average rainfall around 800mm, is unlikely to ever run dry.

A toothy freshwater crocodile suns itself. Picture: Flip Prior/The West Australian

Triple J Tours' full-day Lake Arygle-Ord River combo tour is a great way to wrap one's head around the sheer quantity and scale of it, while enjoying scones and more than a few glimpses of crocodiles along the way. Guests enjoy an entertaining 70km ride from Kununurra before boarding the Kimberley Durack for a two-hour cruise around Lake Argyle packed with facts.

Here's just a few: With a surface area of about 1000sqkm, the vast inland sea has an estimated maximum capacity 84 times the volume of Sydney Harbour, but has never reached that level even after record rains.

Every second, 70,000 litres of water gush from the lake through one of two underwater tunnels into a hydro power station, generating enough power for Wyndham, Kununurra and most of the Argyle Diamond Mine 100km to the south. The rest is held back by a 334m dam with a thick clay core, constructed in 1969.

Amusingly, rock for it was blasted out of a nearby quarry with more than 450kg of ammonium nitrate lit by a brave soul touting a smouldering cigarette to create the biggest non-nuclear explosion in Australia's history,

In the unlikely and calamitous event the dam ever gave way - four spillways protect it from that happening - the equivalent of all those Sydney Harbours would rush towards Kununurra and engulf it.

Thankfully for locals, despite the fact it sits on a fault line from Darwin into the Great Sandy Desert of the same magnitude as the San Andreas Fault, it has survived.

A tour on Lake Argyle and the Ord River offers spectacular scenery, a fascinating array of facts and figures and flora and fauna in the wild all augmented by tea and crusty scones. Picture: Flip Prior/The West Australian

Bombarded with fascinating figures, it was a relief to sit back and enjoy the scenery as we putted past some of 70 islands. Rock wallabies hopped about on sheer rock faces as we passed the watery grave of the old Durack homestead, in the middle of Grass Castle Plain and watched birdlife - ospreys and hawks - hunt their prey. Some of an estimated 25,000 shy freshwater crocs calling Lake Argyle home sunned themselves in the shallows, watching our progress with toothy grins.

Lunch at the Lake Argyle Caravan Park and a visit to its impressive infinity pool was followed by a visit to the Duracks' replica homestead, Argyle Downs.

Back in the day, the Duracks' million-acre (400,000ha) station, bounded by the WA/NT border to the east and the Carr Boyd Range to the west, would have been the most impressive in the Kimberley. Complete with mock-up graves and artefacts hastily rescued when the plains flooded faster than expected, the homestead was a brief but interesting insight into the toughness of the early pastoralists' lives.

In the afternoon, having viewed the dam from a scenic lookout, we boarded a second vessel on the other side of the wall for a lazy scenic cruise down 55km of the Ord River to the Lake Kununurra diversion dam.

Completed in 1963, the dam has 20 radial gates which can be raised to let the Ord River flow through at full force.

During the wet, the gates can be closed bit by bit to control the level of Lake Kununurra to the centimetre so water can be gravity-fed through the main irrigation channel to 12,140ha of the Ivanhoe irrigation plain.

Because continual flows have been maintained all the way through to the sea, the environment between the lakes flourishes with wildlife all year round.

Leichhardt pines - used as building timber by early pastoralists - cluster the banks with fig trees and gums.

Keen-eyed spotters will revel in the diversity of birdlife en route: white-bellied sea eagles, graceful snakeneck birds and sulphur-crested cockatoos to name but a few.

Jabirus stalked the banks as comb-crested jacanas, grebes and Australian darters roosted on boabs or dived into the sparkling water for fish watched by crocs hiding among the pandanus, paperbarks and wild passionfruit vines.

As the sun turned golden in the later afternoon, the lichen-coated walls of Carlton Gorge dotted with paperwasp nests shone blood red, reflected in the water - a scene enjoyed over crusty scones and cups of tea. After cruising past the aptly named Elephant Rock the tour finished in front of the Pump House. Once used to prop up the irrigated water supply if the water level dropped, it was rendered obsolete by the Lake Argyle dam which can control the surface of Lake Kununurra to the centimetre.

• The Lake Argyle/Ord River Combo Tour operates May to September from 8am to 5.30pm including pick-up and drop-off at accommodation.

• See or phone 9168 2562 .

The West Australian

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