Hidden in one of Western Australia’s wilderness frontiers 110km west of Kununurra, El Questro Wilderness Park's biologically blessed wonderland encompasses some of the most ancient formations. It resides on Wilinggin country, home to the Ngarinyin people, sprawling 700,00 acres across the East Kimberley region with the Gibb River Road snaking through it. Once you enter via Emma Gorge or El Questro Station along the legendary outback concourse, you'll soon see what the fuss is all about.
WA's version of Eden boasts a shopping list of natural attractions such as numerous cascading waterfalls, million-year-old red gorges, leafy canopies, rivers, waterholes, thermal springs and wildlife galore. But from a distance, you wouldn't know all these postcard-worthy sights existed. Shielded from view, they're buried deep within the sandstone escarpment, Cockburn Range, located wholly within the park, towering more than 600 metres over the savannah.
Naturally, it's easy to see why this working cattle station is a bucket list destination for many, but it shouldn't have to be on the list for too long. Despite its remoteness, El Questro proves to be an affordable place to discover. That's only if you're keen to go all the way on all fronts — traversing rocky terrains, river crossings, and epic climbs — to become enchanted with the heart of the Kimberley. So, strap on your hiking boots…
Arriving at Eden
I travelled from Halls Creek via the Great Northern Highway to arrive at the east end of Gibb River Road. Before blitzing down the famed road, I quickly pulled over to have a photo with the outback's 'Hollywood' sign highlighting road openings and closures along 'The Gibb'. Less glamorous than its fellow west coast counterpart, it's no less an iconic road trip photo op.
My stint along the 660-kilometre famed road would be brief. I conquered the 'easy' part, driving along its sealed roads in what felt like a rollercoaster ride to arrive at the long driveway entrance into El Questro Station. You couldn't miss it with the bold 'ELQ' Australia sign at the entrance — another 'you have arrived' moment. From here, it's a 16-kilometre drive along a winding, unsealed road. Its corrugation factor depends on when the last time the road was graded, which appears to be a regular occurrence — thank goodness.
On my visit in May, there were two river crossings to pass with the deepest at knee height at Moonshine Creek just before The Station. However, river-crossing depths can change depending on what time of year you visit.
As soon as I pulled into The Station, I felt like I'd been transported to a Texan ranch. Its reception, tour desk, Swinging Arm Bar, and convenience store are all housed in a rustic stone and timber building, ornate with cow skulls and fairy lights. The adjoining large open-air outdoor seating area acts as the park's social hub — a place to soak in the revelry over a pub feed or drink, watch scenic helicopter flights take off just metres away, enjoy live entertainment under the stars, and converse around a campfire.
And as you would expect, The Station is in one scenic locale. It sits adjacent to the Pentecost River, surrounded by landscaped gardens and lawns, and dotted with the region's famous bottle-like boab trees. Natural pools are only a short stroll away, with the park's rugged beauty admired from a distance.
Never mind a long walk back — the campground is a stone's throw away from all the action. A range of camping options are available, including unpowered, powered, and private camping sites, priced between $23 to $31 per person per night, with visitor permits at $22 per person for seven days granting park access. The permit goes towards track maintenance (remember those freshly graded roads?) and other environmental concerns within the park.
Camping amenities resemble a far less flamboyant version of Victoria's iconic Brighton Beach bathing boxes and feature a toilet and shower — a camper's treat. There are also multiple ablution blocks, kitchen and laundry facilities dotted throughout the campgrounds.
Although the temptation to linger and enjoy the jovial atmosphere of civilisation at the campground is great, appreciating the ambience found in El Questro's fabled sceneries is something you cannot afford to forgo for too long.
Isn’t She Gorge-ous?
I soon found out there are plenty of reasons to pack hiking boots. There are six self-guided walking trails throughout El Questro, ranging in difficulty. Most journey through deep chasms, with the crowning achievement of making a splash in a natural pool surrounded by rugged splendour. The only problem is making time to venture to as many trails as possible. Or to see where your careful footwork or vehicle capabilities can take you.
Luckily, most of the trails are on your doorstep from The Station. The grade four Amalia Gorge hike is easily accessible, although some of its nooks and crannies are not so much. The 3.4-kilometre return trek is challenging, requiring some boulder climbs and ledge-hopping to enter the next phase of the hike. But trust me, it's worth the body contortion. The trail is dotted with numerous pools to cool off when needed and all enclosed by red-rusted Carson Volcanic, Elgee Siltstone, Warton and King Leopold Sandstone cliffs. You could be forgiven for expecting to see dinosaurs lurk about — the ancient scene is incredible.
Further afield, 28 kilometres away, is the Instagram darling Emma Gorge. After an hour of trekking along pebble rocks and giant boulders, I soon understood the hype. The 'Holy Grail' that awaits is a large amphitheatre-shaped waterhole, beautified with a waterfall and a lush fern wall climbing its 65m cliffs.
I slowly immersed myself in the pool's icy waters, giving my body time to acclimatise. But its coolness wasn't the only thing I needed to get accustomed to — so was the spectacular view. It was beyond striking. As I floated on my back, I couldn't believe my fortune at having this grandiose setting all to myself. I was spoilt. Every head turn, looking up to the clifftops, looking at the greenlit valley, looking at the waterfall, was a picturesque scene. No wonder many make the pilgrimage along the grade four track to have this exact moment — it's the ultimate reward. The only hardship faced is deciding when to leave.
Rest assured, and I mean it in every sense, you can have your moment again to relax by going on another walk. Embark on a mostly flat 600 metre trail through prehistoric vegetation — distinctively changing from tropical savanna woodlands to a Livistona and pandanus palm forest — to arrive at Zebedee Springs.
It's the truest definition of a pleasure garden. It not only appears paradisal with its series of tiered thermal pools and minute waterfalls wedged in a valley basin, but it's also the Kimberley's premier natural spa sanctuary. Water temperatures sit between 28 to 32 degrees, making it a highly sought oasis to unwind. And could you blame anyone for making a beeline here?
The atmosphere in the springs felt intimate, otherworldly, almost utopian-like. I joined the few bathing in the springs' soothing waters under the shade of lofty palms, lush jungle with bursts of sunlight beaming between the foliage. I couldn't believe our luck that such a place could exist.
Going the distance
Besides Zebedee Springs, there are other ways to experience El Questro to its full potential if the legs have had enough.
Travelling by horseback is an excellent way to see the less trodden paths of El Questro. Departing from The Station's stables, the two-hour horseback rides go 'offroad' along rocky terrains, tackling up and downhill climbs and river crossings to arrive at the park's secreted areas. The afternoon rides include a short pitstop for nibbles and drinks to bask in the scene of your horse-led hideaway.
Hopping on board a Chamberlain River cruise is a budget-friendly way to experience the magnitude of the Kimberley's lofty gorges. The 1.5-hour cruise voyages a small portion of the 150-kilometre-long river, allowing you to feel dwarfed by some of the oldest landscapes on the planet. Up close, sediments of the rock resembled stacked sheets of lasagna, each representing the earth’s processes over time — a humbling yet mind-blowing sight.
However, I would stop short of saying it's a tranquil boat ride. Cheeky rangers had invited passengers to feed the Archerfish that lurked around. We soon understood the origins of their name, with the real-life water pistons spitting into the boat. Squeals sounded as the unexpected thrill of an impromptu shower excited us on board — and of course, humoured the rangers.
Another unforgettable moment in El Questro is seeing a spectacular sunset. As you would imagine, the park has plenty of vantage points. Pigeon Hole Lookout is one of the more accessible spots, but if wanting to enjoy panoramic views from higher ground, head to Branko's 4WD Lookout — El Questro's highest lookout point — or Saddleback Ridge for 360-degree views of the park. The latter two are only recommended for experienced drivers. If you’re not feeling confident driving steep and narrow roads, El Questro offers an offroad ‘Uber service’ to both lookouts with its sunset tours. I gladly took up the offer to avoid a hairy drive.
As we made our way along Saddleback Ridge, jostling around over rock-strewn roads in a vehicle suited to a safari, I was just grateful I wasn't at the wheel. The lookout's name reflects the ridge's shape resembling a horse saddle, with intense vertical climbs and drops to reach the scenic spot.
It's a favourite happy hour haunt, with holidaymakers making the nerve-wracking journey to cheer El Questro from above. There's a lot to take in — the countless lumps of earth, observing trees standing like arm hairs along the range's edge, sloping woodlands below. And, of course, the showstopping sky show — the Kimberley sunset.
As the sun soon made its way behind the ranges, the park shone with new hues, and the sky soon swirled with pastel blues, pinks, and purples. It felt very profound to witness such a magical moment, and it's clear that El Questro has plenty of those.
A very brief history of El Questro
What's in a name?
Mystery has surrounded the name given to the pastoral lease by Torrance McMicking in 1958. However, its origins are still to be solved. But maybe McMicking had an inkling of seeing the site becoming something far greater with its off-kilter name. Perhaps all part of its allure?
After changing hands a few times, in 1991, new owners Will and Celia Burrell saw the tourism potential for El Questro. They soon offered camping and luxury accommodations to relish in Kimberley's unique landforms, no matter the budget.
In 2021, El Questro was taken over by the G'Day Group, Australia's largest owner and operator of holiday parks, adding the park's luxury Homestead accommodation, tented cabins at Emma's Gorge and range of camping options at The Station to its diverse portfolio.