Kununurra – Gateway to the East Kimberley

I am are often asked if there is anything more we would recommend people see while they are in the Kimberley region and the answer is a big yes! While I appreciate everyone has their own budget and time scale, if it is at possible, a trip to Kununurra is highly recommended.

Kununurra is one of those beautifully iconic Australian landscapes, its burnt orange rock formations, forest greenery within the crags and valleys above the life-giving Ord river.

The History of Kununurra

Acting as the gateway to the Eastern Kimberly, Kununurra is a relatively new town with its name only decided on in the 1960s. The word Kununurra is the result of the English pronunciation of Goonoonoorrang, which is derived from the miriwoong language, meaning ‘meeting of big waters’ or ‘giant river’.

The naming and spelling of the area itself comes not only from the miriwoong language but from the distinctive black volcanic clay, known as ‘Cununurra’. The name itself gives visage to the thriving natural resources that are found in Kununurra, due to the conjunction of the Ord river and Lake Argyle.

The modern day town of Kununurra was created to service the water irrigation program from the Ord River. The Diversion Dam provides essential water to the farmland on Ivanhoe Plain and further outlying farmlands. The Diversions Dam project unfortunately had a negative impact on the ecosystem of the Ord river and surrounding wetlands, however despite this set back the man made lakes that can be found around Kununurra have replaced and replenished the wilted ecosystem.

“Kununurra is the painting mother nature created when her brush strokes were daubed in deep reds, oranges and dusty yellows. You can see the beautiful wild strokes of gumtrees and deep green ferns that soak up the humidity.”

This place is just one of the small pieces of the outback that can bring adventure and peace, all at the same location.

Osmand Ranges – East Kimberley

How to get to Kununurra

Kununurra is on the Great Northern Highway and therefore accessible from both Darwin and Broome. It is actually only 45km from the NT border. So it is easily reached by normal vehicle if you don’t mind long hours of driving. But most of my clients will access it either by aircraft or ship.

There are a number of smaller vessels that start or finish their Kimberley cruises at Wyndham, essentially Kununurra’s port.

Kununurra airport has regular flight services to Darwin (40 minutes) and Broome (75 minutes) with Darwin based Air North. 

The best time to visit:

Kununurra is at its best between April and September which is of course the best time to cruise the Kimberley coast. During that time there will be minimal rainfall and pleasant temperatures. So the east Kimberley can easily be combined with a Kimberley cruise.

Following September into the summer months will see an increase in high temperatures and humidity. Summer is the monsoon season, which can cause major accessibility problems between January and March. The wet season is not a time to visit Kununurra.

What to see and do in Kununurra:

I have to be honest, the town of Kununurra is really not much to look at and there isn’t a great deal to do there. There are a couple of nice art galleries and quite a famous diamond shop (Kununurra is the pink diamond capital of the world). And there is a very nice restaurant that I like to visit every time I am in town – the Kununurra Pump House.

But really Kununurra is a base to explore the more famous sights of the east Kimberley. So what are those sights?

The Ord River Cruise

This very popular tour/cruise takes you to the heart of Kununurra. Picture for yourself a landscape of greenery, thriving on the natural resources provided by the Australian land. The river itself winds its way through the lush landscape of the Kimberly and is the second largest flow volume of water in Australia. Kununurra is a part of an international wetland conservation scheme, partly due to both lake Kununurra and Lake Argyle being home to such a broad range of wetland species. 

Lake Argyle – joining the cruise along the Ord River back to Kununurra

The development of the lake’s ecosystem has brought not only wetland conservation but has also been internationally recognised by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area. This being due to the 150,000 water birds and over a dozen different species. The Lakes are now incredibly important for wildlife research and conservation, water birds share their home with over 20 species of native fish and freshwater crocodiles.

The Ord River cruise includes a stop at the historic Durack Homestead Museum before reaching the Lake Argyle Resort and viewing the enormous lake. You then board a small water craft for the 55km scenic cruise back to town (after enjoying afternoon tea at a riverside bank). 

The Bungle Bungles

A true Australian tourist icon.The stunning architecture of the Australian landscape can be beheld within the amazing naturally formed sandstone towers. Due to twenty million years of weather erosion, these formations present a mesmerizing striped beehive like structure. These are known as the Bungle Bungles and are inscribed as a World Heritage area. These formations are found in their home of the Purnululu National Park, 250km south of Kununurra.

Getting to the Bungles by road is not that easy – the final approach to Purnululu NP is pretty rugged. Most visitors take combinations of light aircraft flights and helicopters and we have access to a number of packages including overnight options.

El Questro

Yet another Australian icon! From deep gorges and majestic mountains to thermal springs, mud and salt flats, rainforest and cascading waterfalls; everything that the Kimberley has to offer is located across El Questro’s 700,000 acres. There are three types of accommodation to choose from:

  • El Questro Homestead. Perched on a cliff top with views of the Chamberlain River this is an oasis of privacy and luxury. With just 18 guests this is very much an exclusive location.
  • The Station is the central hub of El Questro offering resort style accommodation. I fell in love with the blue kookaburras here.A great place to relax and swim.
  • Emma Gorge – full access to the stunning (and strenuous) Emma Gorge walk. With 60 safari style cabins (with ensuites) this is a comfortable way to sleep under canvas.

Lake Argyle/Lake Kununurra.

To enjoy the lake and river’s full potential there are several options for lake cruises or personal kayaking adventures.  Fishing is a welcomed pastime in Kununurra, the lakes edge provides locals and visitors alike with a unique all year round supply of barramundi. Popular fishing spots include Ivanhoe Crossing, Mambi Island & Boat Ramp.

Note that unfortunately visitors are not permitted to the Argyle Diamond mine.

Kununurra, and the above sights can be included in your Kimberley cruise adventure relatively simply, occasionally with the inclusion of a short flight from either Broome or Darwin. I am a big fan of the concept that you are in the region already – so why not see more?


About Jenny

I’m an expert in small ship cruising in the Kimberley and have completed four cruises on different vessels along this spectacular coastline. With a family I now work part-time so if you would like to have a chat with me about Kimberley cruising at a time that suits you book in a call here  and I will call you then.

Cruises in the Kimberley are not ‘one size fits all’ scenario; there are different ships and itineraries each offering their own special elements.  If you would like some general information to start your research then download my free guide to Kimberley cruising here.   I have also written some really interesting blogs (if I do say so myself) click here to have read.

Here are a few of the most popular ones.