The Chamberlain suite at El Questro Homestead.
Wilderness lodges are theatres. All the world's a stage, and the wild things merely players on it. But what happens when the fourth wall is breached? The audience at El Questro Homestead is especially select, just 18 guests (royals, celebrities and millionaires among them) who each pay $800-$1300 a night.
The show is a panorama of classic Kimberley: red ranges brooding in the heat, olive-grey bushland dotted with fleshy boabs, and bronze rivers carving through the 1800 million-year-old landscape.
The homestead celebrates 20 years next month. It's perched on a bluff of sandstone, presenting as a civilised, elegant arrangement of bungalows, verandahs, trimmed lawns, date palms and hosts who proffer iced towels and cocktails before you even know you want one - a dramatic counterpoint to all the brutal stuff going on in the vast El Questro Wilderness Park.
When night falls, guests enjoy one of the most exquisite of outback experiences. A linen table is set on a cliff ledge. Tea lights twinkle on silver cutlery, wine bottles and the plates of delicate fare designed by chef Alan Groom.
Floodlights - great shafts of amber light spinning with insects - illuminate cliff walls and the placid waters of the Chamberlain River. Cicadas buzz, owls bark ... and guests shout in surprise at the sight of freshwater crocodiles, turtles and barramundi in the black waters.
The real trick of a wilderness lodge is to make you think you're the centre of an improbably large universe. It certainly works in the Kimberley, a region larger than Germany.
But it is a trick.
In February last year, cyclonic rains caused the river to rise 20 metres in as many hours. Twenty metres is the height of two buses stacked end on end. The homestead is not only on the river, it's over the river, with the superstar Chamberlain Suite ($2600 a night) cantilevered into thin air on tall pylons. The property escaped the torrent by just a single metre. The homestead's surrounds weren't so lucky. Where the views had once included phalanxes of century-old river gums and forests of acacia, now there was a massive crescent of silvered skeletons pointing downriver, a scythed army prostrate before the mighty Cockburn Range.
But with the flood came repair and renewal. El Questro hired Troppo Architects to add three $2400-a-night Cliffside Retreats - clever arrangements of comfort, function and plain old good taste. They bring together blond timber, chrome and stone, not to mention T2 teas, home-made chocolates and boutique beers.
Beyond the homestead, guests are invited to take a closer look, to go behind the scenes as it were, in four-wheel-drives, helicopters and on horseback. But like the river, the sights are only beatific and benign.
Larissa, an El Questro ranger, says some of the grotesquely swollen boabs are more than 800 years old. "People like to hug them," she says, before splitting an elephantine seed and sharing its delicious citrus fuzz. In the winter months, rosella flowers turn whole pockets of dun bush a luminous ruby red. And there are the livistona palms with emerald fans that dazzle in the bright air above the thermal streams of Zebedee Springs (small blue dragonflies dutifully entertain).
Before evening cocktails, guests like to retire to their suites, take to their private decks and look over the ranges and the river.
I've seen the homestead views both before and after the flood. And from where I sit - deep in a bath on the timber deck of my retreat - I have to conclude that the earlier vista was prettier. But the present one is more powerful. The great Kimberley is clearly not laid on for my benefit. It's doing what it does: uplifting, eroding, depositing, existing. No matter if I'm royal, celebrated or funded to the nines, it can wash me away in a blink of its ancient eye. In this wilderness I am an irrelevance. It's an oddly reassuring thought.
Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.
Saddle up, cast out, settle in
A clutch of new retreats has opened in the Kimberley.
Opened in May, this former pearl farm is nestled in a nook of red rock overlooking the turquoise waters and islands of Camden Sound. An odd beast of far-flung corrugated iron, Kuri Bay offers accommodation best described as "adventurer's luxe" as well as excellent food and a fair degree of bragging rights. Only six guests are hosted, invited to fish until they can fish no more, observe humpbacks in the nation's busiest breeding waters and explore deserted islands.
A three-night stay costs $4895 a person, including return seaplane transfers from Broome. See kuribay.com.au.
Home Valley Station
This 280,000-hectare station on the Pentecost River, just outside El Questro, has a range of accommodation for up to 104 guests plus two campsites. Whether you're in your own tent ($15 a night) or one of the charming Grass Castle cabins ($450 a night), you'll enjoy brilliant views of the Cockburn Ranges, the cattleman atmosphere of the Dusty Bar and Grill (entertainment and star talks nightly) and a menu of station experiences. Highlights include a mini-muster (drive a few cattle on horseback), awesome fishing on the Pentecost (big tides, big crocs, big barra) and a proper chance to mingle with Aboriginal people — these men and women run and own the property. See homevalley.com.au.
Berkeley River Lodge
Opened in April and reached by float plane (the lodge is about 200 kilometres north-west of Kununurra), this 20-suite lodge is built into a system of elevated dunes overlooking Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. In true resort style, it has a pool, restaurant and schedule of activities; when you're not on the beach looking for shells, mantas and dugongs, you can head off in a four-wheel-drive or a helicopter to explore rock art, waterholes and the pristine Berkeley River.
Four-night packages cost from $3588 a person, including floatplane transfers, boat cruises, fishing trips and guided treks. See berkeleyriver.com.au.
Qantas has a fare to Darwin from Sydney for about $580 return, including tax. From Melbourne, Virgin Australia charges $450 return, including tax. Air North charges $508 return including tax for an onward flight to Kununurra; see airnorth.com.au. Transfers from Kununurra to El Questro Homestead cost $260 return.
El Questro Homestead suites cost from $1490 a person for a two-night stay; Cliff Side Retreats from $2429 a person. Includes meals, drinks, some tours and permits. The homestead is open April-October. El Questro Wilderness Park comprises the homestead, the Station (cabins and tents) and Emma Gorge resort.