August 4, 2020 • Glenn Marshall
5 min read
Have you ever seen a track on a map and said to yourself, “I can’t wait to tackle that one”? The remote Old Karunjie Track in the Kimberley was one such track and tackling it solo can be quite a challenge.
The Kimberley is an amazing region in the far north of Western Australia, and to this day there are still rarely explored sections that travellers seldom see, but with the help of a 4WD and some remote travel experience, it opens right up. The Karunjie Track is one of those old stock routes heavily used in days gone by, now a line on a map explored only by those with a true sense of adventure.
JUST LOOK AT THE CONTRASTS
Having spent the past few days enjoying a full Home Valley Station experience, it was time to hit the road again, with Wyndham my next destination. The first highlight of this adventure was crossing the iconic Pentecost River, a tidal river that hungry barramundi and enormous estuarine crocodiles call home. As it was so late in the dry season, the water barely reached my rims, not that it mattered, this is a water crossing on many people’s bucket lists.
Once on the eastern side of the Pentecost, I took a hard left onto a sandy track that followed the river north. The sand was very soft in places but deflating my Kumho’s a little more eased the driving. This was the beginning of the Karunjie Track and already I was having fun.
THE ICON OF THE KIMBERLEY, THE BOAB
A gate soon stopped me in my tracks, but after a quick call on the satellite phone to the phone number on the sign, I was permitted to proceed. It's not a requirement to call Diggers Rest Station but more a courtesy to let them know you’re driving the old track. It’s also a good safety back up because if you don’t get in touch with the station at the end of the track, they’ll be able to raise the alarm.
The Old Karunjie Road is not a gazetted road and isn't maintained so you need to be fully prepared. Unfortunately, a solo motorcyclist perished on this track at the end of 2018, highlighting how remote and treacherous the track can be.
THE TRACK IS UNMAINTAINED SO CARE NEEDS TO BE TAKEN
Crawling along the old road, nothing more than a station track, the views of the Cockburn Ranges are breathtaking. The open plains with trees scattered about are broken occasionally by severely eroded watercourses. Care needs to be taken as the ground is unstable in places, taking the wrong line could end in tears. This is definitely a 4WD-only track.
Once down onto the Pentecost flood plains, driving is easier but some creek crossings can catch you out. Even though they look dry and solid, in places if you break the crust, you’ll find deep, sticky black mud, so momentum is the key. You’ll encounter the occasional gate too, please leave it as you find it.
IN THE DRY THE PANS OPEN UP, BUT IT’S STILL WET BELOW
The track follows the Cockburn Ranges and on the northern side, you can enjoy breathtaking views that few people ever see. It really is a fantastic adventure to enjoy. A surprising aspect of this old stock route is that the Old Karunjie Road is part of the 700,000 acre El Questro Station and several scenes in the film “Australia” were filmed in this location.
FEW GET TO SEE THE COCKBURN RANGES FROM THIS ANGLE
Camping is not permitted along the track; however, you can camp beside the Pentecost River between the Gibb River Road and the first gate, and Diggers Rest Station offers accommodation and camping options between Easter and September, water supply permitting.
Once through the final gate (or first if you're coming from the other direction), you'll be on the King River Road. Not far along this track, and just before the ford across the King River, is a boab prison tree, once known as the “Hillgrove Lockup”. In the 1890s, police noticed holes in the upper branches, indicating the tree was hollow and after cutting a hole in the trunk, used it as a cell where Aboriginal prisoners were held on their way to Wyndham for trial. It was used up until the 1920s with the cell measuring more than nine square metres and the tree has a girth of more than 12 metres.
“HILLGROVE LOCKUP” HAS A SAD HISTORY
On the approach to Moochalabra Dam there is a great example of Aboriginal Art, not far up a sidetrack that leads to the dam wall. The art is unique and an important part of cultural heritage for the Balanggara people. The depictions of Wandjina Spirit ancestors and animals are painted using natural ochres and are extremely fragile. Please leave only footprints, take only photos and don’t touch the ancient cave art.
THE CAVE ART IS EXCELLENT
From here, King River Road continues past salt pans and plains of cane grass dotted with boab trees, just beautiful in the golden light, before reaching the Great Northern Highway. A right turn leads to Kununurra, 95km away and left leads a short distance to Wyndham, once a legendary wild west town... but that’s a story for next time.