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travelogue
 PAST ISSUES

INT. TRAVEL ARCHIVE:
677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   
ISSUES 299-

Go west, young man

Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.

"It takes skill to track a killer out here." I hardly hear Billy's words as he wrestles our dust-caked Toyota Hilux down a thin red line of potholes and into the rippling afternoon heat. This is the Gibb River Road and the only sounds most 4WD travelers usually hear as they labor through the heart of Western Australia's East Kimberley region are the ricochet of stones beneath their vehicles or the thunk of some departing car part.

This is also escarpment country-35 million years in the making-and when the sun sets across the towering rock faces, turning them a deep burnt red, it is simply magic. Outside my window I glimpse the Cockburn Ranges doing just that, though I'm not here to savor the Jurassic period vistas. Billy, Buddy and Jack are employees of El Questro Wilderness Park-the "million-acre" former working cattle property-and today I'm joining them on a hunt for a shorthorn Brahman, known in outback lexicon as a "killer." It is a chore undertaken once a month, explains Billy, to stock the larder for El Questro's staff of horse handlers, mechanics, ranger guides, a helicopter pilot and a steady stream of outback travelers like myself.

Indigenous to the Kimberley region, boab trees are used for shelter, food, fiber and medicine while the waters of Chamberlain Gorge supply the game fish barramundi

 

Rough riders
Like four peas in a pod we rattle down the Gibb, passing boab trees shaped like fat Cuban cigars and the odd flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos screeching over a dry riverbed. At a water hole, Billy brings the ute to a grinding halt where a dozen telltale cattle tracks lead west in the direction of the crocodile-inhabited lower Pentecost River.

Five kilometers on, Buddy spots the slow-moving mob through the chest-high spear grass. Instantly, Jack is sighting a large male bull through the scope of his Ruger .222 caliber rifle from the passenger's window. A gentle squeeze of the trigger and the first bullet zings off to the right, deflected by the grass. The second fares no better, disappearing into the afternoon heat with a curse from the shooter. The third ends our suspense, finding its mark and sending the huge beast into the dust.

An oasis or an outpost? I'm unable to decide as we head back to El Questro's Station Township, once the nerve center for one of Australia's largest cattle properties, at 4,400 square kilometers, and now the hub of a well-organized wilderness park operation. Many holidaymakers who drive two hours from Kununurra, 106km east, still expect to find a rawhide lifestyle of cracking bull whips, roving mobs of cattle and bowlegged stockmen who chew saddle leather for breakfast.

Even in such timeless surrounds as the East Kimberley, more than a few are disappointed. These days, fewer than 5,000 head of cattle, mainly the bush-hardy shorthorned Brahman, range across the station in ragtag herds. What mustering remains begins each year in May when stockmen take to their horses and helicopters and pluck the best bullocks for "trucking out" to the coastal town of Wyndham. From here the value-adding process doesn't end until Australia's best filet steaks reach the discerning fingertips of Japanese housewives, 8,000km away.

 

Natural wonders
In 1991, El Questro upgraded its rugged charm with bush bungalows, safari-style tented cabins, a bar, steakhouse restaurant and shop, and introduced a host of ranger-guided activities geared toward giving visitors access to the East Kimberley's natural wonders by horseback, 4WD and helicopter. For high-rolling city slickers, the fully inclusive Homestead with its escarpment-top swimming pool is on offer for A$750 per person, per night. Judging by the safari-suited couples with thick Italian accents that came and went during my stay, there is no shortage of well-heeled globetrotters to fill the beds.

Riveting yarns, on the other hand, are not lacking among the riverside campsites where you can join other dusty faces trading their tales of woe and fortune on the Gibb, and the air hanging over the upper Pentecost River is wonderfully cooler. Conversation moves up to the open-air Swinging Arm Bar in the evenings and it is here that I find Buddy demonstrating to a crowd of wide-eyed day-trippers the lethal precision of a kangaroo hide stock whip. "When I speak to strangers, I don't tell tall tales. I've lived this life for 50 years!" he growls at them, whisking the flies from his face, his hands as fat as mulga roots and legs so bowed you could drive a road train between them.

The next morning I set out with Jack, who is also the station's resident helicopter pilot, and head for El Questro Gorge. It is the height of the dry season, which lasts from May to August, and even with the windows sealed the savannah dust turns my throat to sand paper. Relief comes in October when the northwest Monsoon arrives-though just when the Big Wet arrives is impossible to say, but when it rains, says Jack, it "bloody pours."

Within the cool depths of El Questro Gorge, the seasons seem not to exist at all; a freshwater stream winds down through the escarpments, passing through groves of fan palms and swarms of butterflies, making its way to deep rock pools. To these oases, and to others like the 127km-long Chamberlain Gorge, come anglers from around the world bent on hooking "the big one."

The East Kimberley's waterways are well stocked with barramundi-Australia's most delectable game fish-and those who brave the vertebrae-jiggling drive from the Station Township to cast their lines across the Chamberlain Gorge and its tributaries, don't often come home empty-handed. Three months before my arrival, an American landed a 15kg "barra" in the upper reaches of the nearby Ord River. Bird life is also prolific here and it's in the cool dawn hours, before the sun has topped the gorge walls, that this huge natural aviary is at its most frenzied and raucous.

Nightly entertainment around the Station Township can be just as noisy. Like some bizarre Mad Max-style roadshow, convoys of stripped-down jeeps, customized trail bikes, and old-model Land Rovers pass steadily through El Questro's gates. The average life of a vehicle on the East Kimberley roads, locals testify, is two years-if you drive slowly. But nobody drives slowly and tire blowouts, shattered windscreens and fractured shock absorbers are the price many tourists and locals pay for driving fast. Referring to the conditions on the Gibb River Road, one haggard-looking 4WD traveler summed up the Kimberley experience: "She's as rough as guts, mate."

 


Getting there
Qantas operates three flights a week from Narita to Perth. Kununurra is serviced by regular domestic flights (see www.airnorth.com.au) from Perth, Darwin or Broome. El Questro (ELQ) is located 100km west of Kununurra, in the East Kimberley. Flights to ELQ take 90 minutes, A$60 pp each way. Hiring a 4WD vehicle in Kununurra is recommended; ELQ staff can arrange bookings if you call toll-free at 1-800-013-314.

Where to stay
El Questro Homestead includes a swimming pool, spa, tennis court, open bar, gourmet meals and all activities within the El Questro valley. Prices start at A$750 pp/pn for a two-night stay. ELQ's Emma Gorge Resort safari-style tented cabins start from $133 pp, located 2km from the Gibb River Road at the base of the Cockburn Ranges. Riverside Camping (Apr 1-Oct 31) at Station Township costs $12.50 pp. Facilities include a swimming hole, store, steakhouse restaurant and tour desk.

More information
An ELQ Wilderness Park Permit (valid 7 days) costs $12.50 and can be purchased at Station Township on arrival. For general information info, call 61-8-9169-1777, fax 61-8-9169-1383, email sales@elquestro.com.au, or visit www.elquestro.com.au

Photo credit: Simon Rowe

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