Mt Romance

Kununurra is the opposite of a town drowned, a place that will forever hold a morbid fascination, from the lost city of Atlantis to Jindabyne’s sunken spire. Kununurra, with its clash of consonants and stuttery alliteration – a curdled curse spat from between revolted lips – was built to service the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and is billed as the gateway to the Kimberley. And if these images are anything to go by, it’s one hell of a gate, all curlicues and shrieking valkyries…

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Rising in the red stone ranges of Australia’s rugged north west, the Ord River surges along for more than 600km before spilling into the Timor Sea. The ancestors of the Aboriginal people of the east Kimberley called the country Kununurra, or ‘big water’, and in this continent of climatic extremes the big water flows all year round.                 ABC

The scheme, built in stages during the last century, has Lake Argyle at it’s heart, this hot, dry continent’s largest artificial lake. This vast eddy of trapped water sucks at the watery remains of the famed Argyle Downs Station, once home to the pioneering Durack family.

In 1879, so the story goes, Patsy Durack, pastoral pioneer and all-round good egg, drove 7259 head of cattle and 200 horses from Queensland (over 3000 miles to the east) to stock Argyle Downs and Ivanhoe Station. The journey took three years and it is the longest ever recorded.

Both stations now lie in sodden graves on the bed of the lake, sacrificed for the scheme, though the Argyle homestead was moved, brick by brick, to higher ground:

Irrigation on this vast scale was probably Australia’s last great nation building scheme, harnessing the flow of one of the north west’s wildest rivers and creating fertile faming land out of vast grazing country.

The Ord River dams provide water for irrigation to over 117 km² of farmland and there are plans in place to extend the scheme to allow irrigation of 440 km² in the near future. More than 60 different crops are grown in the Ord catchment area, and the main dam generates power for the whole of Kununurra.

So it’s a good thing, right? Lush lawns, tropical verdancy and damp toes?

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Maybe not. While there is a distinct whiff of nature-based tourism, with crags and peaks and dams and lakes aplenty, the heart of this teenage town is drier than a drover’s dog…

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Hand-painted signs look almost comical and give the place a gentle cartoony feel, but the gates, it seems, are less ostentatious and a tad more prosaic in reality.

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And while the facades are cheerier than Wilcannia and Walgett, it’s apparent there is little window shopping in Kununurra, the eyes of the souls boarded, barred and black.

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There are a few boutique eating options, which makes the Tin Lid happy:

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As does the comms tower – he is savvy enough to know this means the phones will bleep back into service. And service means kids’ TV…

But most of the mob in town eat here, where the sign reads Please + Thank you = Welcome:

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And then there’s Valentines, a shrine to romance… and $10 spag bol with a side of GB (I can only assume this is bread of the garlic variety).

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There are promised lands of green – rich cobalt, veridian and jungle vying for supremacy on a canvas of red dirt – but they are sanctioned,cul de sacs of nature’s wealth in suburbs of paucity littered with crippled shopping trolleys. And they are generally located right outside the most expensive accommodation options. In fact, the Kununurra Country Club looks positively strangled with vegetation…

The abandoned buildings circling the central car park hold my attention for longer, straggles of life weeping from shattered orifices, a place in the shade to while away time atop a carpet of crushed cans and crinkled glass.

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We find a toy shop that is barred. Once past the security guard, the Tin Lid finds an orca he cannot live without and we leave, all to aware of the kids who stalk and skitter around the door, just out of reach of the guard. A quick trip back in secures a pod of orcas to share around…

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And while there are big sifting mobs enjoying the shade of broad-brimmed trees – still lives dappled in green – the bottlo is deserted and the streets echo with a strange emptiness. The customary rumble of life is dulled yet impatient. It’s as if we are waiting for something…

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The backpacker’s lodge is greasy with the sort of promise that comes out of the bottom of a pie wrapper. It’s swill time, and the fluoro shirts – the new colour of the outback – are sloping in, bruised men with angry egos and a hard-earned thirst. Bivouacked around rusting SPC peach cans outside dingy dorms they are the face of endeavour, albeit crumpled in defeat after a long day.

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The rooms come with little fanfare, bunks stripped of what little dignity they were born with. The Tin Lid and I, flat out like lizards lounging, are cornered while enjoying the delights of the cement pool by a woman named Mary (her shirt promised this, along with “I’m the f****ing boss, that’s why”);

“Youse stayin’ with us are yas?”

Well, yes. I reply, a steely look in my eye.

“Yeah, well, we’ve had some problems with smoking round the pool – see them? There’s bloody piles of ’em every morning there is, and I don’t bloody like it. So I’m warning youse, no bloody smoking round the pool, right?”


I snarl an appropriate response and she storms off, intent on stomping out the base corruption that exists deep within backpacker cartels.

Having sacrificed the Savoy cabbage to the fruit fly quarantine station we feast on smuggled honey, Jatz crackers and contraband beer. Talk turns to the Kimberley’s ancient mountain ranges, savannah plains and sandstone cliffs 300 million years old, of zebra rock, sandalwood plantations and sugarcane rum, of Hidden Valley, Mt Romance and Valentine Creek.

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But when the contraband runs out talk turns, as it inevitably does in Kununurra, to grog. Seeping through the locked gates out the front of the backpacker’s the chatter from the mob goes on late into the night, a barrelling fracas of noise and laughter, of hurled curses, V8 power and scuffles on bitumen. It is the noise of a town camp relocated, parked up in the bottlo carpark.

As part of the Eastern Kimberley Liquor Accord, purchasing alcohol in Kununurra is restricted to certain hours (hence the empty streets and edgy feel to the town), one transaction per day, and limitations within that transaction of:

  • 2 x slabs of beer     or
  • 6 x bottles of wine    or
  • 1 x bottle of spirits     or
  • 1 x slab + 3 x bottles of wine
  • No flagons

No flagons? I head over to the bottlo to investigate. Not one flagon breeds here, though RSA rules and restrictions are plastered across the hurricane fencing and slatted concertina doors, each with a bouncer on duty. Surly recrimination crests the counter, as Paula, harried beyond measure, metes out a well-travelled line:

“I said get out mate! Lance I mean it. This is like the fourth time today. Youse know the bloody rules I can’t serve ya. Go on, git.”

Lance stumbles off, past the supermarket with its rash of security, where matches and lighters are kept behind the counter, back out to the party in the car park in search of a sly grogger and the desperate release his money can’t buy inside. A fight duly erupts. The mags squeal and the women scream as two fellas are dragged away attached to the car. Security looks on glassy-eyed.

At eight on the dot, beneath charcoal skies, the bottlo slams shut, chains on the gate in seconds. The complex sighs and blinks out, but the carparkers rage on late into the night. Behind sturdy compound walls and a sky-high solid steel gate that wears its tags like gang tattoos, we are left to ponder how a place of such beauty can inhabit such pain.

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