In this Australian Traveller Hotel Review of El Questro Wilderness Lodge in WA’s Kimberley region, Emma Siossian takes refuge in that most rare of outback experiences: true luxury in Australia’s rugged wilderness.
We arrived hot and dusty after a bumpy drive along the Gibb River Road, in WA’s ruggedly beautiful Kimberley region. In contrast with the harsh landscape, we were about to spend five nights in what we hoped would be soft and luxurious comfort.
My husband and I had booked a stay at El Questro Wilderness Lodge, a million-acre beef cattle property that has become famous for offering a rare commodity – luxury in the outback.
El Questro is most well known for its decadent Homestead rooms where the weighty tariff (around a $1000 per person per night for the absolute luxury Chamberlain Room) covers everything except optional chopper flights. The Homestead is aimed at “discerning” travellers. Discerning is right; Princess Mary and Prince Fred have stayed here, and Nicole Kidman tried to stay here during the filming of Australia but found it fully booked.
If, however, you haven’t yet made the big time and have no plans to rob a bank in the near future, you’re more likely to stay at one of El Questro’s other accommodation options. The property’s main hub, the Station Township, offers private campsites, permanent tents and bungalows. A little further afield there are tented cabins at Emma Gorge Resort.
Neither rich nor famous, we chose to stay in one of the Station bungalows, hoping for a nice break from the tiny caravan in which we were living while travelling around Australia. There are 12 bungalows, eight of them located amid paperbarks and pandanus palms on banks of the gently flowing Pentecost River, each with a private balcony. The remaining four stone bungalows are set on a grassed area just back from the river.
After shaking off the dirt and dust (the Gibb River Road may be rough, but the access road into El Questro’s Station Township is worse), we went to check in to our room, hoping for a prime riverside position. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and our stone bungalow, while outwardly attractive, was in a not-so-private location right next to the station restaurant.
Not wanting to settle for what we considered second best, I trundled back to reception to see if we could switch. Luckily, someone had cancelled and we were able to move from the Dingo bungalow into Echidna, which was not only in a better, more tranquil, location right on the river, but also much nicer inside, with polished floorboards and a few extra decorative items. If we ever visit again, we’d definitely request a riverside bungalow.
There are no kitchen facilities in the bungalows (beyond a mini-fridge and tea/coffee making facilities), but, unwilling to stretch our tight travel budget any further, we made use of the food and camp cooking gear we were carrying with us anyway, and self-catered.
If, however, you don’t feel like cooking and can afford to eat out for every meal, the Station’s restaurant, The Steakhouse, offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, all served on a covered verandah overlooking the river. We treated ourselves to a meal one night and the food and service were superb. We savoured every mouthful of the fresh barramundi, flavoured with wild bush spices, a macadamia crust and wattle cream sauce, and still found room for a delightfully rich sticky date pudding and vanilla-bean ice-cream.
Like many things at El Questro, our meals were fairly expensive, but a Ranger explained to us during our stay that the prices reflect the fact that the property only operates just over half the year, having to close down during the wet season. Floods during the off-season can also result in costly infrastructure repair bills.
El Questro, meanwhile, offers plenty of things to do and our bungalow provided a convenient and cosy base from which to explore the sprawling property – which arguably encompasses some of the best the Kimberley has to offer. We walked through spectacular gorges and swam under waterfalls in crystal clear pools, before soaking our muscles in palm-lined thermal springs. We climbed to breathtaking lookouts and watched the last rays of sun turn the stunning Cockburn Ranges a brilliant orange. Other days we tested our 4WD skills and explored some of the station’s more remote corners without seeing another soul.
All too soon it was time to go and we were once again ensconced in our humble 26-year-old 12ft caravan as we continued our Aussie trek. The simple comforts of our El Questro bungalow, and the rugged and diverse beauty of the property itself, sparkled brightly in our minds, the overall experience a true highlight of our journey.
DETAILS // El Questro Wilderness Lodge
Where // El Questro Wilderness Lodge off the Gibb River Road, west of Kununurra, in WA’s East Kimberley region.
Best time to go // May-Sept. The upmarket Homestead underwent a $1.9million refurb during the ’07-’08 wet season, and reopened April 1, 2008.
Cost // $298 a night per bungalow. $15 riverside campsites are also available.
Contact // Voyages El Questro Wilderness Park, (08) 9169 1777, www.elquestro.com.au