Cruising Kimberley’s Aerial Highway

The Purnululu National Park. Picture: Jon Connell

WE’RE in a helicopter with the doors wide open flying over the magnificent Bungle Bungles in the World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park of the East Kimberley.

The wind is whooshing through the cabin and my hair has turned into a bird’s nest. But what does that matter when you are swooping down over gorges dotted with trees carved into this 350 million year-old landscape?

This has to be the highlight of my week in the Kimberley, which includes seven flights over this vast land.

When I first came up this way in the late 1970s, I saw most of it by foot, horseback or from the driver’s seat of a very battered red Falcon ute.

My main view from behind my steering wheel was of kilometres of dusty, corrugated roads’ red dirt streaming through every part of my car. Insects splattering onto the windshield made it difficult to spot the potholes and sudden dips in the road.

Meanwhile, on the land … This is the Cathedral Dome. Picture: Phil Whitehouse

Taking in the view from a helicopter or a small plane gives a totally different perspective, providing a sense of how vast this land is.

The huge cattle stations and scattered Aboriginal communities have relied on this mode of transport for years. Known as the Kimberley Aerial Highway, a series of landing strips feature on the landscape, providing access to gorges, waterfalls, remote beaches and pearl farms.

It’s something to see!

But now a flight over the Horizontal Falls leaving from Broome or one to the Bungle Bungles or El Questro Wilderness Park in the East Kimberley is on many bucket lists.

And if you are here in late May, you can combine this with the activities and concerts of the Ord Valley Muster, including the Airnorth Kimberley Moon Experience, a dinner and concert on the banks of the Ord River in Kununurra.

The Horizontal Falls. Picture: Harclade

On our first breathtaking flight that took us to Cape Leveque for a swim and breakfast and then back to Broome over King Sound, the Kimbolton Ranges and the Buccaneer Archipelago, we learn the islands below are 1.8 billion to 2.4 billion years old — the tips of ancient mountains.

Cape Leveque. Picture: Cataflinders

About 15,000 years ago, the coastline was 150 kilometres further out to sea on the continental shelf; King Sound was created when the ice caps melted and the sea level rose over the shallow shelf, flooding the low-lying areas and valleys.

This coastline is known for its huge tides: when the sun and the moon are aligned on a full or a new moon every two weeks at spring tide, the ocean is pulled out towards the northwest of WA, speeding up as it hits the shallow continental shelf, then bottlenecking as it passes between Australia and Indonesia.

The Horizontal Falls are caused by this huge volume of water being forced through two narrow cliff passages.

Cape Leveque. Picture: Cataflinders

Back on the tarmac in Broome, we chat to Andrew Grace, the owner of Kimberley Aviation.

He found that as well as seeing this stunning landscape, tourists also want to engage with the people of the Kimberley, so he has devised tours including those to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek in the Napier Range in the West Kimberley where an Aboriginal guide relays the story of Jandamarra, the late-19th century Bunuba outlaw who was believed to have magical powers including being able to turn into a bird and fly.

Known as Pigeon to the European settlers, he was finally shot dead after leading a long armed rebellion.

The day of the Bungle Bungle flight we leave El Questro and fly over the Argyle diamond mine, controversial and secretive when it was first mooted in the late ‘70s but now a major part of the East Kimberley economic scene.

In Kununurra’s Kimberley Fine Diamonds store you can ogle at the pink diamonds with their prices into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and imagine how the red earth hid their presence for millions of years.

The land time forgot.

You can see indigenous depictions of the Kimberley landscape at the Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery in Kununurra, where owner Kirstie Linklater hosts artists so they can paint in natural pigments on stretched canvasses. Many of the paintings look as if the artists were in a plane when they produced them.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Qantas operates direct flights from Melbourne to Broome year-round (twice weekly in dry/peak season); and from Sydney twice weekly (starting in April) and Brisbane weekly (starting in May) in dry/peak season. www.qantas.com.au

Staying there: In Broome: The Mangrove Resort Hotel has just been refurbished; Emma Gorge Resort, El Questro Wilderness Park.

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