Touring the Kimberley from on high

By Victoria Laurie 10 January 2012
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An aerial highway over the Kimberley represents a winning vantage point for the world-renowned region.

THE SIGN POSTED AT the end of one of the Kimberley region’s remote airstrips has a tongue-in-cheek message. “Welcome to Mt Hart International Airport”, it reads. “Daily flights to Rome, Paris, Cairo … pass overhead at 33,000 feet.”

The “international airport” is, of course, merely a dirt airstrip at Mt Hart homestead, situated on the banks of the Barker River in the King Leopold Range, WA.

The cheeky sentiment about flying high over the Kimberley may be true for tourists jet-setting between the world’s capital cities. But more curious and intrepid tourists, with a yearning to glimpse Australia’s wild northwest, could do no better than to fly low and land often.

That’s why the Ibis Aerial Highway was launched in 1994, says tourism manager Rod Quartermain, from the WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). The aim of the airborne highway was to link 14 Kimberley hotspots using light planes and bush airstrips, encouraging visitors with limited time to view the region from the sky with reliable scenic flight operators. The DEC ensured airstrips and access roads were well-maintained, in order to assist tour operators in getting visitors to remote scenic spots.

Revival of Kimberley tourist flights

After a lapse of several years, the concept of promoting the Kimberley landscape through tourist flights is being revived. Rod says the concept has been endorsed in the Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy, a current WA government policy aimed at promoting and conserving the region’s natural assets.

A popular helicopter destination is Mitchell Falls, so remote that only one road enters it. A trio of waterfalls thunder into wide pools in the wet season; international bird-spotters travel there to sight the Kimberley’s rare black grass wrens.

Rod Quartermain says Mitchell Falls is one of his favourite flight destinations. He says an unusually long wet season last year saw many spots rendered inaccessible to land-based tourists. “But even when places like Purnululu National Park are cut off from road traffic, you can still get in there by plane.”

In a forthcoming relaunch, the Ibis Aerial Highway, as it is currently known, will be changed to Kimberley Aerial Highway, “in recognition of the fact that the region itself is now a recognisable brand name.” But Rod says the Kimberley can still be a hard place to get around. “The aim is to create an infrastructure for the tourist industry to use, with government putting in seed funding and the private sector picking up and running with the concept.”

Kimberley Highway: biggest National Heritage area

The rewards of exploring the Kimberley are immense; it’s no coincidence that the largest area ever given National Heritage status is in the Kimberley. In August 2011, 19 million hectares of the west Kimberley was listed for cultural and environmental reasons; that vast expanse takes in many Kimberley Aerial Highway sites.

Take Mt Hart, with its cheeky welcome sign. To get there, you fly northeast from Broome over the King Leopold Ranges, a rugged chain of spinifex-covered ridges that once posed a daunting barrier to explorers. Just beyond the homestead and its lush gardens is a series of water-filled Kimberley gorges, like Bell Creek Gorge.

A flight from Kununurra takes you over Lake Argyle, Australia’s biggest manmade lake where millions of waterbirds have made their home. To the southeast, the Bungle Bungle ‘beehive’ domes at Purnululu National Park might be another stop – the cone karst landscape, striped by bands of tiny black cyanobacteria, is a geological rarity that earned the park World Heritage status in 2003.

Tourism as a conservation tool in the Kimberley

Tourism WA chief executive Stephanie Buckland says the Kimberley region is one of the world’s last great wilderness areas. “It’s a truly extraordinary destination featuring spectacular gorges and waterfalls, caves, Aboriginal rock art, national parks and wildlife.”

Stephanie says Tourism WA is working closely with wholesale and aviation partners to promote the Kimberley region and the aerial highway to domestic and international visitors. “We will also support the growth of Aboriginal tourism through ground tours, accommodation and opportunities for joint ventures with mainstream operators.”

Tourism is a useful conservation tool, says Rod. “By encouraging tourists to visit the Kimberley, we get out a very important message about caring for it. If people love something, they’ll want to care for it.”