Love on the rocks

Last updated 14:00 28/01/2014
Sunset in Broome

PIECE OF HEAVEN: Sunset in Broome.

El Questro Wilderness Park
El Questro Wilderness Park

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The royal visitors arrived just in time for dinner.

"Charles and Camilla are here if you'd like say hello," our waitress Kate, says excitedly.

Cocktails in hand, we make our way to the edge of a cliff top and peer down into the turquoise waters. Wallowing below is Charles, a large freshwater croc who has reigned over the Chamberlain Gorge beside El Questro Homestead for years. When a female consort arrived about two years ago playful staff named her Camilla.

Underwater lights turn the gorge into an incredible theatre. The two crocs, tails anchoring them down so only their noses and eyes are above water, are joined by barramundi, archer fish and a seemingly suicidal turtle, which swims up to Charles and repeatedly butts his tummy before appearing to nibble at a claw.

Perhaps conscious of onlookers, Charles keeps his regal composure and with a few elegant wags of his tail is away into the darkness of the far side of the gorge.

Crocodiles aren't the most obvious of creatures to romanticise, but the spectacle is one of the most magical of our honeymoon.

But the holiday wasn't meant to be like this. Originally, we had been set for a trip to India; a honeymoon where romance and adventure could share a tuk tuk, from bustling cities to bucolic backwaters.

But then a visa hiccup limited our horizons. My fiancee, Sarah, and I discussed destinations: A Queensland beach? Relaxing, but hardly stimulating enough for three weeks. Eventually a plan was formed; after a soothing stay in Broome our wanderlust would be met with a road trip through the Kimberley.

BROOME

Having grown up in London, I've never been entirely comfortable on Australia's beaches. All that sand getting everywhere, the surging surf and, of course, perils of the deep.

But Broome's Cable Beach could make a convert of Richard Dawkins. It's not just the crystal waters or white sand, it's the scale. You can throw your leg over a camel and explore some of the 22 kilometres but a better option is to hire a small jeep. They come with an Esky, deck chairs and parasols. Such is the vastness of Cable Beach, you feel put upon if your nearest beach neighbour is within 800 metres.

And then comes the sunset. As the golden disk creeps ever lower the sky seeps from blue to deep red, purple, iridescent magenta. It must be the most exotically beautiful light in the country.

We stay in a courtyard suite at the Pinctada Resort, a short walk from the beach and the more famous hotel which shares the same name. With a no-children policy it's peaceful and laid back.

Broome manages a rather genteel civility; it's avoided high-rise hotels or streets of bars and clubs. There are nice restaurants; Cafe D'Amore, Azuki and Selene Brasserie, and interesting things to do; a trip to the Pearl Luggers which gives a lively history of the town, but after five nights we're ready to hit the road.

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When we pick up our Toyota Landcruiser from Britz the staff sit us down in front of a DVD which explains how all its gadgets work; a roof which pops up to make a tiny bedroom, the kitchen that emerges telescope-like from the vehicle's side and an awning that only a hard core devotee of Baden Powell could figure out.

Confused but excited, within a few minutes we're driving across the shimmering burnt red landscape occasionally punctuated with great fields of termite mounds that look like gravestones.

Our plan to take the Gibb River Road which traverses the heart of the Kimberley and is accessible only to four-wheel drives comes undone when heavy rain closes sections of the road (a regular pitfall for travellers). So our first overnight stop is at a campsite at Fitzroy Crossing.

After some cursing, the roof is up. It's lucky we're on honeymoon, the bed is only 115 centimetres wide. Thankfully, we don't put the awning up (it stays packed away the entire trip) but the struggle to pack up means we miss a tour of the local gorge. Eating our cereal from plastic bowls it's a struggle to supress memories of Pincatada's bulging breakfast buffet.

Even the bonhomie of a honeymoon can be jolted by the deep corrugations of a red dirt road. After the best part of three hours heading to Wolfe Creek there may be times when one's judgment is called into question. Just why are we going there? It's a reasonable inquiry. After all, nothing says romance like camping in an isolated spot infamous as the setting for a gruesome horror movie.

Good luck rather than planning sees us arrive an hour before sunset, giving us enough time to scale the outside of the crater in the golden half light.

Fortunately, there are no murderous drifters in the basic camp adjoining the crater, just an elderly couple from Adelaide. The crater, created by a meteorite sometime in the past 300,000 years, is almost a kilometre wide and 60 metres deep . But as spectacular as the crater is, the vast shimmering night sky could have been supplied by Tiffanys.

The drive to Wolfe Creek turns out to be good practice, with the next stop Purnululu National Park. After two hours of hairpins, gear- crunching hills and nervous water crossings the road spits you out by the orange and black "beehive" domes of the Bungle Bungles. Even by the Kimberley's Olympic standards of spectacular, this is a gold medal winner.

Camp overnight next to the domes (bring plenty of water, there are no taps) so you can walk through Cathedral Gorge and Piccaninny Creek before the sun turns the dried out river beds into an oven of latent heat.

EL QUESTRO

At more than 400,000 hectares, El Questro is larger than some European countries (seven to be precise). Originally a cattle station, it was turned into a wilderness lodge in 1992, quickly becoming an iconic Australian resort.

And the Homestead is the jewel in El Questro's crown. We stay in one of three luxury retreats perched on the cliff side which were opened in April 2012. Separate from the main building and its six suites, the cabins offer privacy and an incredible view across the savannah to Branco's Lookout. It's an epic landscape.

The cabin's main room, with its floor to ceiling windows, is simple but elegant. On the verandah there's a bathtub, shower and armchairs for those who can't be parted from the view.

So well ordered is the Homestead it's easy to imagine that a prerequisite for employment is an obsessive compulsive disorder. In reality, the sense of relaxed perfection comes from manager Adam Grace always having more staff working than the maximum 18 guests.

The meals would grace any fine dining restaurant, and while produce is shipped in from as far as Scotland (kippers), the gastronomic highlight is a barramundi caught by guests on a heli-fishing trip that travels from rod to plate within two hours. Served with the lightest of dressing it's fleshy, almost sweet and the best fish we have tasted.

But no matter how perfectly prepared the meals or well-appointed the rooms, the lure of El Questro is what nature's provided.

Effort expended on walks to Emma and Amelia gorges is more than compensated when you reach waterfalls and swimming holes. Tackle one of the trails with a ranger and you'll learn about the red sandstone the region is famous for (so old there aren't any fossils as it predates life) and you'll soon be able to tell the woollybutt tree from the spectral cabbage gum. You might even find yourself licking the bum of green ant.

"This is packed with vitamin C," urges Kiwi ranger Josh as he offers Sarah an insect for tasting.

Perhaps the most stunning of the resort's wonders is Zebedee Springs, a series of pools in a pocket of lush rainforest. It's great to lie back in the naturally warm waters in what seems a little piece of heaven. If you're a Homestead guest they'll book the springs so you have an hour to yourself and also provide a bottle of champagne.

For those wanting to take in the landscape without expending too much energy there are horseback tours, 4WD safaris and any number of helicopter trips.

As we traverse the four rivers and creeks that slice across El Questro's drive in our dusty 4x4, thoughts of India are very far from our mind.

The writer was a guest of El Questro.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Flights depart Sydney and Melbourne for Kununurra via Perth or Darwin daily.

STAYING THERE A Riverview Bungalow at the Station starts from A$374 (NZ$397) a night, twin share (room only).

The Cliffside Retreat at El Questro Homestead starts at A$2728 (NZ$2896) a night, twin share and includes accommodation, dining and beverages, selected tours and an El Questro Wilderness Park permit. There is a minimum two-night stay.

WHEN The Station opens on Monday April 14 and closes for the season on October 25.

El Questro Homestead opens on April 1 and closes on October 25.

Pinctada Cable Beach Courtyard, 10 Murray Road, Broome. Suites from A$232 (NZ$246) a night.

MORE INFORMATION westernaustralia.com.au.

- FFX Aus

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