Lake Argyle has quickly become a must-see tourist destination in the remote Kimberley region. Nestled amongst the rugged billion-year old landscape lies an outback paradise; a man-made lake so big it’s classified as an inland sea.
The lake’s existence is all due to the innovation and persistence of early agricultural pioneers such as the Durack family who dreamed of a more efficient way of farming and worked to create the Ord Irrigation Scheme. You see, despite having one of the fastest flowing rivers in Australia during the wet season, with a massive 2500 gigalitres flowing into the ocean each day during storms, the Argyle lands soon reverted to a series of small waterholes during the dry season, making for extremely tough conditions.
The Ord Irrigation Scheme, which was born in 1937 following one such period of drought. The idea was bold and simple; to harness the copious amounts of water from the wet season, dam it, and develop the area for intensive irrigated agriculture. With the rich black soil plains and an endless supply of fresh water, farmers could grow a variety of produce and capitalise on the ease of exportation to the likes of Southeast Asia. The implementation of this plan, however, was not quite as simple!
It took over thirty years before construction of the project commenced in 1958, with stage one the Kununurra Diversion Dam being completed in 1963. And it was another nine years until Lake Argyle was opened in 1972 with work carried out over three dry seasons.
The damming of the mighty Ord River created a vast freshwater lake, 980 square kilometres in size and with enough water to fill the Sydney Harbour 18 times over which could rise to more than 70 times if the lake ever floods to its maximum capacity. The flow of the Ord River is regulated by opening and closing of gates ensuring adequate water storage levels and diversion to irrigation channels year round.
The Ord River Dam Wall stands 335 metres wide and 98 metres high, making it the most efficient dam in Australia based on its size versus the amount of water stored. Taking a drive across the wall is a terrific way to appreciate its full scale whilst enjoying some amazing views of the lake, but remember to leave the caravan or trailer unhitched as they are prohibited on this section of road.
The sealed road winds you towards the day use picnic area at the base of the Dam, with picnic tables and amenities and passes the hydro-power station at the dam’s base. This impressive 30-megawatt hydro-station was constructed in 1996 to cope with the growing demand for electricity as the East Kimberley region grew. Today it provides clean and renewable energy to the Argyle Village, Wyndham, Kununurra and the Argyle Diamond mine.
A by-product of the scheme was the abundance of native Kimberley wildlife that flourished in and around the unique ecosystem the lake created. The 26 species of native fish originally found in the Ord River have thrived in the healthy waterway with their numbers estimated to be in the millions, making it a fisherman’s paradise.
There is also a healthy population of lizards, freshwater turtles and of course the Johnstone River Freshwater Crocodile whose numbers have swelled from 350 to be the largest population in the world at over 35,000. This is in most part thanks to the creation of a safe nesting place. The damming of the Ord River turned over 70 small mountains that stood in the Carr Boyd Ranges into islands, meaning the crocodiles can safely nest without any inland predators such as foxes or dingoes eating their eggs. But don’t worry, these prehistoric creatures are timid and generally considered not dangerous to humans.
Of the 300 species of birds found in the Kimberleys, over 270 have been recorded in the Lake Argyle area including the majestic Brolga and Jabiru, colourful rainbow lorikeets, loud and proud cockatoos and many more unique species. The lake is an important dry season refuge for water birds, who number in the tens of thousands, making for some epic bird watching.
Overall, the Ord Irrigation Scheme has been a massive success, not only turning this once dessert like land into a thriving agricultural and eco-centre, but also putting the East Kimberley region firmly on the tourism map.
These days, visitors to Lake Argyle are treated to an array of activities, a selection of accommodation options and first-class tourism operators. Lake Argyle Resort offers a variety of accommodation from unpowered camping sites, powered caravan sites, cabins and villas. Sites are available on a first in, best-dressed basis and in peak season it is common for the arrival queue to be 10 deep. The resort overlooks the lake giving spectacular views, which are best enjoyed from what would have to be one of the most scenic pools in Australia! Their infinity edge pool is equally famous for its views as it is the freezing cold pool water. However, if you visit during off-season you’ll find the pool a very comfortable temperature. Day passes are available at the resort, which includes use of the pool, restaurant and cafe.
Tours operate year-round at Lake Argyle, ranging from helicopter rides, scenic flights, adventure tours and their famous lake cruises. The sunset cruise is an amazing way to explore the lake and learn about the area. There’s no better way to enjoy a Kimberley sunset than by floating in the warm waters of the lake with a cold beer in hand.
A visit to the Historic Durack Homestead Museum is another great way to learn about the history of the Argyle area and the pioneering Durack family. The limestone block homestead was built in 1895 on Argyle Downs Station, which is now submerged by the lake. Thankfully, during the construction phase a decision was made to remove and preserve the homestead, dismantling and rebuilding the homestead stone by stone to its current location. The museum is open daily from April to September.
It’s no surprise that fishing and water sports are a major drawcard to the area. The waters of the lake are calm for the majority of the year, and with such a large body of water to explore it is perfect for water skiing, canoeing, boating and fishing.
Swimming in Lake Argyle is an absolute must. The beautiful freshwater sits at around 30 degrees year round making for very pleasant conditions. Of course, there is that small issue of the 35,000 crocs! But if you do as the locals do and avoid swimming around the sandy banks where the crocs may nest or bask, sticking to the deeper waters and avoid approaching them, then these timid creatures should leave you well alone.
There a number of walking trails throughout Lake Argyle that wind through the rugged landscape allowing walkers to experience the gorgeous scenery, spectacular views and abundance of wildlife. Timing is everything, so check with locals which walks are best at certain times to showcase the rising or setting sun and the stunning red glow where the sunlight hits the rocks.
Lake Argyle has a lot to offer. Do yourself a favour and put it in the top of your Kimberley to do list!
Where to stay on the way (Kununurra)
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