Here you have it, straight from the horses mouth – the perfect way to get aquainted with the stunning Kimberley, says Alissa Jenkins. Photography by Lauren Bath
There’s something to be said for that quintessential outback stereotype – sitting in the saddle, between blue sky and red dust, while an unforgiving sun beats down.
However, while films like Australia and The Man from Snowy River suggest horsemanship is as natural to Aussies as barbecued lunches and backyard cricket, the reality is few of us ever master it, let alone live that dream of fearlessly galloping through rugged terrain. But if ever there was a place to learn (or rehash some rusty childhood skills, in my case), Home Valley Station is the place for it.
Spanning across three-and-a-half million acres in Australia’s far north-west corner, this east Kimberley cattle station sits at the foot of the region’s iconic Cockburn Ranges, alongside the Pentecost River – an area so scenic it’s little wonder Mr Luhrmann selected it as the film set for Australia. Being in the heart of the Kimberley’s cattle country, where hardy drovers on horseback were once crucial to the region’s survival, horse rides here are about as iconic as they come.
However there’s nothing Hugh Jackman about my look today – more Snow White, under a thick slathering of sunscreen. A horse riding tour at Home Valley couldn’t be further from a beauty contest – those around me are too preoccupied taking in the landscape to care what’s under this helmet visor. And rightly so.
After a quick lesson in Horse Riding 101, we’re assigned our noble steeds for the day when I’m introduced to Midnight. He’s suitably glossy and dark in colour but I’m assured not so in temperament. And I reckon these guys know a thing or two about riding. One of our guides, Tim Walkley, has been in the saddle since he could walk, and has worked on stations around the country from mustering camels at Kings Creek in the Red Centre to stock work in both Victoria’s High Country and at neighbour, El Questro. He’s joined by Cyril Yeeda, an Indigenous man from Halls Creek (about 350 kilometres south of Home Valley), who began at Home Valley in 2007 as a trainee and is now the station’s head stockman.
As we parade out the station gates, native nulla nulla flowers sprout purple beside the driveway, like a lavender-Paterson’s-Curse cross, while the earth sways between shades of terracotta and redwood, which in powdery flats resembles a giant blush palette.
The trail we’re riding follows the Old Bullock Road – once used by Afghan cameleers who made deliveries to remote stations like Home Valley in the late 1800s. At the time, the Kimberley was one of the country’s biggest regions for cattle production, and the town of Wyndham (about 100 kilometres north of Home Valley), was vital to the area’s growth, being the first port town and later developing a meat works. Of course there were no roads at the time and all supplies were carried by camels and other beasts of burden. It meant this network of routes had to pass regular watering holes, with ground soft enough for the animal’s feet. Which, conveniently, now make for some of the most scenic trail rides in the Kimberley.
“While the cattle moved on lower softer ground with feed and water, later routes for motor vehicles like the iconic Gibb River Road were totally different – they took advantage of high ground and sound foundations,” I’m told by Home Valley’s general manager, Ben Pratt.
“So Gibb River Road only coincides with Old Bullock Road for just 16 kilometres. This is on Home Valley’s land from the Pentecost upwards, and as you’ll see, it’s a pretty harsh landscape. It gives you a new appreciation for the early stockman who paved the way for the pastoral industry with serious blood, sweat and tears.”
We’re not quite the skilled horsemen they were. Laughter echoes across an open plain as we learn to read our horses. One of the horses, Mr T, appears to be having some kind of toreutic fit as he struggles with his bit. Then there’s Rum, who has taken a liking to trotting up every incline, no matter how slight it is, much to the confusion of his first-time rider. And Smoky, who insists on chomping on each grassy mound we pass. Midnight however, he hasn’t time for such nonsense. He’s too busy asserting himself as the herd leader at the front of the line.
Almost as varied as the horses’ personalities are the knobbly-shaped boab trees, sporadically plonked in passing paddocks.
“You know why they look like that?” asks Cyril, grinning from underneath his Akubra.
“She used to be really beautiful, the boab. But she knew it, and always talked about how good lookin’ she was,” he says, telling the local legend of how the boab came to be.
“Eventually all the other trees got sick of hearin’ her talk about how good she thought she was so they turned her upside down. That’s why it looks like her roots are pointing to the sky.”
While Cyril and the team at Home Valley operate the property, it was bought by the Indigenous Land Corporation in 1999 on behalf of the area’s traditional owners, the Balangarra people. As a result, a large focus is creating employment and training opportunities for Aboriginal people who, like Cyril, add another layer of authenticity to the experience.
The ranges erupt
As the boabs disappear, the track gradually descends into a dried riverbed when suddenly, from behind a wall of gnarled gumtree branches, the towering peaks of the Cockburn Ranges erupt out of the earth in distinct tiers of ancient rock. The glistening Pentecost River stretches out below, disguising many a crocodile underneath its opaque surface. We see one wading in the salty shallows, waiting for its foolish prey to swim too close. This is one healthy slice of outback Australiana.
We take a break on the sandy banks of Drover’s Crossing – it was here that drovers would guide their cattle across the Pentecost en route to Wyndham before trucks came onto the scene. Whether you get here on horseback or by fishing tour, it’s one of the most stunning places around the station. Overlooking the mountain range, this tidal water is a haven for barra, catfish and threadfin salmon, attracting birds of prey which, if you’re lucky, can sometimes be spotted stalking from surrounding trees.
As the outback sun rises into the afternoon, we throw back the bottles of water provided in each saddle pack before lathering on another layer of sun cream and making our way home.
There’s no galloping through rugged terrain this time, but it’s a leisurely glimpse into life as an outback drover.
More experienced riders can jump on board a mini muster – I’ll be coming back for that next time.
Getting there: By car, it is a 120-kilometre drive from Kununurra along the Gibb River Road. Numerous car rental agencies in Kununurra have vehicles for both short and long-term hire. Otherwise guests can fly directly to the station, which has a private airstrip. For a fly-in visit, contact the station.
Need to know: Home Valley Station generally closes between November and April during the wet season. During the dry, guided trail rides run for 2.5 hours and cost $120 per person. Experienced riders may find the tour a bit too leisurely, so it’s worth considering the ‘Mini Cattle Muster’ experience instead, where from $290 per person you can learn the basics in mustering. For little ones, there’s 15-minute pony rides from $15. Home Valley has just started horse-drawn wagon rides, which make for a memorable transfer to the station’s lookout for sunset canapés.
Staying there: Accommodation options at Home Valley start with the Station Campground and Pentecost River Bush Camp, where from $17 a night you can roll out a swag under the stars. There are powered and unpowered sites, as well as new bathroom facilities. At the other end of the scale are the Grass Castles, which overlook Bindoola Creek and have a private balcony, king-sized bed, air-conditioning, mini bar, flat-screen television and spacious ensuite, from $295 a night with breakfast.
Contact: 08 9161 4322; hvstation.com.au