El Questro Wilderness Park is a massive property, located in the north-eastern corner of The Kimberleys. It only takes up a million acres of land, so really this is just a small pocket of Western Australia. The park sits on part of the infamous Gibb River Road, and is still an active cattle station (so mind the bulls as you drive in). There are cabins and a high-end resort on the property, but we just made use of the campsites along the river.
Upon our arrival, it was mid-afternoon and hot. With no activities planned for the day, we set up camp and went for a swim. With a beer in hand. This was another potential crocodile-infested swim, but our tour guide once again assured us we were safe.
The beer helped.
With a big day of hiking ahead of us, it was early to bed for the group. We fell asleep listening to a herd of cattle chew the grass next to El Questro’s steakhouse.
Due to the heat, and the cattle, we were up early. It was a bit unsettling to wake up to huge cows tiptoeing around your camp. Especially when you’re only laying on top of a swag and not inside a tent.
We drove to Zebedee Springs, and make the quick walk up to the pools. Usually, the walk is beautiful and full of lush plants, however, earlier in the year there had been a wildfire that destroyed and blackened most of the trees. No matter, as Australian plant life is incredibly resilient and hundreds of baby palms were breaking through the ash. In a few short years, you’ll never know there was a fire at all.
The springs close to the public after 12pm. This is so those staying at the luxury resort can have them to themselves, an to limit the amount of sunscreen going into the pools each day. We didn’t mind though, the pools sit betweeen 28 and 32 degrees Celcius, fed from a fault line deep below the surface. I can’t imagine sitting in the springs when the sun is at it’s peak – have at it, luxury-goers!
After a quick swim, we drove over to the beginning of the Emma Gorge hike. I’m still not sure if this was a trick or not, but before starting the hike, we filled our water bottles from the trunk of a boab tree. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but I think it tasted a bit sawdust-y. We also sampled some fruit from the tree. I fell in love with boabs in Broome; to learn how life-giving they can be as a food and water source made me love them even more. They’re like the cactus of The Kimberleys.
Hiking up to Emma Gorge was a mild challenge, one that any person of average fitness could complete. We were tempted to stop at the halfway point – a stunning blue pool that was just asking to be swam in. Our tour guide insisted that the end got better.
He did not let us down.
Emma Gorge has got to the one of the greatest places to swim on Earth. Surrounded on 3 sides by King Leopold Sandstone and lush plants climbing up the cliffs. There is little more to do than just float on your back and stare at it all. Unless you look below you and marvel at how clear the water is, count the rocks metres under your feet.
The cliffs extend over the width of the pool, at the end of the dry season, as the water level recedes, you can actually swim under the great red walls. I lost myself in the moment, floating, with thousands of tonnes of stone just a few feet from my face. I came across a spot where water was pouring out of the rock like a tap. I don’t often advocate drinking wild freshwater, but this was filtered through hundreds of metres of sandstone. It was hot, warmed by the sun hitting the cliffs. It will probably remain the purest and best tasting water I will ever drink. Our tour guide basically had to drag me out of there.
El Questro Gorge
After lunch, a smaller group of us were who were feeling adventurous left to hike up El Questro Gorge. I didn’t take too many photos (unheard of!) because I was too busy wobbling over rolling rocks and sliding along wet, mossy logs. Our tour guide set a pretty intense pace, and I would have liked to slow a bit more to take it all in. Instead, I kept my eyes on my feet as I scrambled up the gorge and tried to not get left behind.
Of course, I did get left behind (more on that shortly).
Halfway up El Questro Gorge is the aptly named “halfway pool”. This is where a lot of people stop and think they’re at the end. It is a lovely pool, backed by two huge boulders that require at least two people to help each other up. I got lucky and had four tall men to basically toss me up the rock.
A bit later on, we filled our water bottles straight from the stream and stopped to catch our breath. Fearing dysentery must have loaded us with adrenaline, and we kept going, excited to be reaching the end. We hit another stack of large boulders. These were easy to get up, but you had to jump about a metre between them. Tour Guide the Brave showed us how easy it was. One of the guys crossed easily, but dropped his water bottle into the pool just across from us. I was at the back of the group (shock) and closest to it, so I took off my shoes and socks and scrambled across the rocks to grab the bottle and toss it back up.
By the time I put my shoes and got up the rock, everyone had gone ahead. I know only one metre or so isn’t a lot to ask. It’s barely over a step. However, when you’re suddenly alone in the wilderness with nobody to catch you or save you from a 3-metre drop on either side, it felt like there was a canyon between me and the other side.
Clearly our tour guide was not a fan of head counts.
Fortunately, one of the other hikers came back for me (not our responsible tour guide). I jumped so hard he actually had to catch me from going off the other side. Cheers, Matt! It wasn’t too long after that when we came to the end of El Questro Gorge. Smaller than Emma Gorge, but so much more secluded, we were the only ones there. If at all possible, the water is even clearer. You could open your eyes underwater and barely notice.
The walk back was much easier,we could bypass the leap between boulders and used the big rocks as a slide to get into the halfway pool. We sang our national anthems to each other, our legs turned to jelly. Once on the bus it was high fives all around and we rode back to camp on a high.
That night we dried our shoes around the fire and played games with everyone. We roasted marshmallows and had a few drinks. I saw my first cane toad and it hopped itself straight into the fire, to the cheers of the Australians in the group. El Questro Wilderness Park feels like a place where magic things can happen.
We fell asleep once more to the sounds of cows and the sight of shooting stars.