We’re about to let you in on a little secret: you don’t have to be wealthy to stay on this superb Kimberley cattle station. Words by Elisabeth Knowles.
You’ve probably heard of El Questro, the million-acre cattle station with a made-up, Spanish-sounding name that offers one of the most expensive laid-back luxury experiences in The Outback. At about $1800 per room per night, El Questro’s Homestead is certainly the most covetable getaway in the Kimberley. But it’s not the only wonderful experience you can have on this property. Just 8km away by dirt road, and still well within El Questro Wilderness Park, you’ll find one of the most inexpensive Outback experiences in Australia. Camping at The Station will set you back from just $17 a night. Funnily enough, the guests at both these places think they’re the luckiest adventurers in the world, because both have unlimited access to seriously astonishing landscapes. Yet neither would even guess the other was there.
Let’s start, though, with the fantasy face of El Questro. For those of us with shallow pockets, it’s hard to believe anything could possibly be worth that kind of money. But when you consider that a short stay here is all you need to provide you with an awe-inspiring life experience that would rival any big-landscape overseas holiday adventure (minus the jet lag), it begins to look quite reasonable.
For Homestead guests, once you set foot on the property almost every move you make is already covered in the cost. The lodge-style accommodation includes a breezy communal lounge pavilion with a serve-yourself drinks fridge. Even the top-shelf stuff is at your fingertips. You don’t have to wait to be waited on here; but if you do it’s worth it. Apart from a multi-course cooked breakfast with entree-style fruit salad and natural yoghurt, there are pre-dinner canapes and cocktails, and post-dinner clifftop cocktails during which you can watch the feeding of the freshwater crocodiles that live in the Homestead’s billabong. (Yes, it’s best to stick to swimming in the Homestead’s pool.)
In terms of hidden escapes, you can’t get much more private either. There’s a maximum of 12 guests at any one time because there are only six rooms onsite. All rooms have king-size beds and a private verandah, but the ultimate option is the Chamberlain suite, which has a cliff-hung balcony that juts out over Chamberlain Gorge. A deluxe double bath allows restful romantics uninterrupted panoramic views across the ranges, with not another building in sight.
If you wanted to, you could spend all day at the Homestead by the pool, pausing only to indulge in a gourmet lunch, or take the resort’s tinnie out on the billabong to ruminate with your partner whether that thing floating over there is a log or a croc. But you’d be nuts not to take advantage of the other complimentary activities on offer.
There are various tinnies left around El Questro’s many waterholes for guests to use at whim, but you can also take advantage of free guided tours, where Wilderness Park rangers share everything from the history, geology, flora and fauna of the region to engaging and often hilarious personal anecdotes about their life on this unique cattle station.
There are free gorge walks, horse treks, bird-watching and bush-culture tours, boat trips up Chamberlain Gorge, freshwater fishing at Branco’s Waterhole and a drive out to Zebedee thermal springs, where you can soak in naturally warm water in a tranquil pocket of lush rainforest. Extra charges only come into play for the big stuff: scenic helicopter flights around the property or full-day 4WD tours of the Cockburn Range, the spectacular sandstone hills that take up one-third of the property’s million acres. For an additional fee you can even take scenic flights out toLakeArgyll, the Bungle Bungles andMitchellFalls.
But you know what? You can do all of that even if you bring your own 4WD, food and tent, and shack up on the banks of the Pentecost River. There’s no us-and-them attitude at El Questro. Guests at The Station’s campground and resort are equally able to pick and choose from the same activities on offer toHomesteadguests (though obviously they’re not included in the $17 a night tariff!).
What you do get when you’re staying at The Station, which is not on offer when you’re at The Homestead, is full immersion into the eclectic, energetic, casual, characterful and social side of El Questro. Saturday Night At The Station sees a barbecue and outdoor buffet with entertainment provided by local country musicians and tall-tale spinners. When we came for the Australian Traveller cover shoot, we had ranger Brendan Phillips take us on an informative 4WD tour during the day, then slip on a guitar that same night to become “Brendo”, singing along with bush poet and outback entertainer “Chilli” (another El Questro ranger). It was a lot of fun, and a much more informal experience than you’ll find at The Homestead.
You can swap your own implausible stories with the locals one-on-one every night of the week at the Swinging Arm Bar or Steakhouse Restaurant. Both offer a chance to find out what it’s like to live and work in the Outback.
But don’t worry, if you’re booked into the five-starHomesteadand feel like you’re missing out, I’m sure that if you ask nicely, your hosts will drive you over to The Station for a casual, fun night out.
El Questro Wilderness Park operates from April 1 to October 31 each year, and closes for the wet season. Park permits are $17.50 per person, valid seven days.
• The Homestead: Rooms cost from $1890 per night, twin share, or from $1512 per night for three-night stays. All meals, beverages and park permits are included in the cost.
ON A BUDGET:
• Camping: General sites cost from $17 per person, per night. 25 private sites from $17 per person, per night on the Pentecost riverbank. Kids camp for free.
• The Station: Garden View Bungalows at The Station cost from $299 per night.
• Emma Gorge: Situated on the other side of the range; cabins cost from $270 per night.
• Self-guided hikes: There are over 200km of well-signposted tracks. Most walks are about an hour long, with longer and shorter walks for different abilities. Ask for maps at reception.
• Self-guided 4WD tours: Easy to advanced tracks available, including a circuit of the majestic Cockburn Ranges. Grab a trail map from reception.
• 4WD guided ranger tours: Explore the far reaches of the property and some of its most special secret spots with a knowledgeable local guide. Full-day tours from $165 per adult ($80 per child); half-day tours from $115 ($55 per child).
• Gorge tours by boat: Hire a boat and explore the Chamberlain and Explosion Gorges. Fish for barramundi. Full-day boat hire, $155; half-day, $95. Full-day or half-day fishing gear hire, $30.
• Scenic helicopter flights: 20 mins from $190 per person. Minimum three people.