Kununurra is a town in far northern Western Australia located at the eastern extremity of the Kimberley Region approximately 37 kilometres from the border with the Northern Territory.
Kununurra was initiated to service the Ord River Irrigation scheme.
Kununurra is the largest town in Western Australia north of Broome, with the closest town being Wyndham, 100 kilometres (62 mi) away. Kununurra is 3,040 kilometres (1,889 mi) from Perth via the Great Northern Highway.
The town is situated in among the scenic hills and ranges of the far north-east Kimberley Region, having an abundance of fresh water, conserved by the Ord River Diversion dam and the main Ord River Dam.
The tropical agriculture crops grown in the Ord River Irrigation Area (ORIA) have changed over the years. Tourism and mining have also become important to the local economy.
The history of the idea of agriculture on the Ord River dates from the 19th Century. On the first pastoral lease map (held by WA State Records Office) for the area dated 1887, it shows the northern bank between Wyndham and Kununurra, near House Roof Hill was held as a “Concession for Sugar Cane Planting,” although it was never taken up. The idea of tropical agriculture on the Ord was discussed much from the earliest dates, but the land remained under pastoral lease until 1960. Kununurra was built on land resumed from Ivanhoe Station pastoral lease before 1961, as the town for the Ord River Irrigation Area which started as the Ord River Project or Ord Scheme, with survey work starting in 1959.
Lake Kununurra, is the flooded section of the Ord River valley that was formerly known as Carlton Reach, which was at times a ten kilometre long waterhole held back by the natural rock barrier, known as Bandicoot Bar. At this site in 1959 drilling and blasting marked the start of construction of the Ord River Diversion Dam, which is anchored down onto the Bandicoot Bar. This dam with twenty radial flood gates was almost completed when visited by the Queen and Prince Phillip in March 1963, then later completed and officially opened by then Prime Minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies on 20 July 1963 when he said that Kununurra and the Ord River Irrigation Area (ORIA) is “..the most exciting place in Australia.”
As well as the town site some ORIA farmers live on their farms, however the initial idea of the Ord Scheme was for “closer settlement” to allow farmers the convenience of living in the town and since the start of the first Pilot Farm in 1960 most farmers in the valley had lived in the town, however many people now live on their irrigation farms. Other agricultural and residential localites exist within a 50km radius of the town, including various Aboriginal Communities, Crossing Falls, the Riverfarm Road and Packsaddle farm areas, and the Frank Wise Institute of Tropical Agriculture, formerly known as the Kimberley Research Station (KRS).
KRS started in 1945 from the original Carlton Reach Research Station, set up by Kimberley Michael Durack with help from his brother William Aiden Durack in 1941, and support from the WA Department of Agriculture and the WA Public Works Department, being the first serious attempt at tropical agriculture on the banks of the Ord River. It was also in 1941 that (later Sir) Russell Dumas inspected the Ord gorges for dam sites on behalf of the Public Works Department.
The scheme involved damming the Ord River by building the Ord River diversion dam so that the waters could be conserved and directed to irrigate about 750 square kilometres (290 sq mi) of land. By 1966, there were 31 farms on the Ord River plains. In 1968 the second stage of the scheme was started with the building of the Ord River Dam (or Ord River Main Dam), known locally as “Top Dam,” which holds back the waters of Lake Argyle.
Flooding of the Ord River continued until completion of the Main Ord River Dam situated 55 km upstream from Kununurra, which was started in 1968, and officially opened on 30 June 1972, with support from WA Premier John Tonkin, by then Prime Minister William McMahon, when he said “This marks the beginning of Ord Stage II (Two).” The Ord River Dam flooded the land of the Argyle Downs station, the home station of the pioneering Durack family, to form what has become known as Lake Argyle. Stone work from the original Argyle Downs homestead, was removed before Lake Argyle filled and was re-erected near the dam site to become the Argyle Downs Homestead Museum. The Museum had been run by Tourism WA but was taken on by the Kununurra Visitor Centre during 2010.
The second stage of the Ord Project still has not been fully developed but new work is underway. In May 2010, with major funding from the Federal Government, the extension of the main channel construction got underway under the Moonamang Joint Venture and images of this as well as historic archive images of the Ord Scheme can be seen on the Kununurra Historical Society website from the external link below.
The 2006 census population includes only people in the townsite area who called the Kununurra town site their “usual place of residence.” Kununurra has a transient population; if itinerant residents, the outlying farm areas and communities were included in these population figures, numbers would have exceeded 7,000 for 2006. An influx in the dry season (From April to September), of tourists and itinerant farm workers can push up the population to around 10,000 during the dry season.
Kununurra District High School comprises a primary school and high school teaching up to year 10, and up to year 12 via distance education. It also has a number of additional smaller schools including St Joseph’s primary school, the Barramundi School and a Technical and further education (TAFE) college. Kununurra has a local hospital, dentist and leisure centre including a 25 metre pool.
Indian Sandalwood plantations at Kununurra
Key farm activities including the growing of melons, mangoes and until recently, sugar cane. Farmers are now turning to a more lucrative (though longer term) crop of .Indian Sandalwood. Other crops that have been grown in the Ord are cotton, safflower and rice, which is being trialled once again, having been the first crop planted on the Pilot Farm in 1960. The town has a melon picking season, which attracts migratory farm workers to the area. There is also a thriving tourism industry with most tourist operators capitalising on the scenery of the Ord River, Lake Argyle, Diversion Dam and other local locations, including the relatively nearby Bungle Bungles.
Kununurra comes from the English pronunciation of Gunanurang in the Miriwoong language with a general meaning of “Big Waters” having become the popular definition or “Big River” Other accounts of the name of Kununurra state that it was the Miriwoong name for this part of the Ord River, which makes sense in that the Ord River runs for hundreds of kilometres coming from the south near Hall’s Creek. It is likely that other parts of the Ord River were known by other Aboriginal language names, by the various tribal language group areas, over which the river traverses.
A 1943 soil classification had named the volcanic clay known locally as “blacksoil”, being the predominant soil type of the irrigation area, as “Cununurra Clay” and “Cununurra” was put forward as a possible name, among others in 1960. The General Post Office (GPO) representative from WA on the Nomenclature Committee, objected saying that Cununurra was too close in name to the town of Cunnamulla and that could cause postal confusion. A compromise was reached and “K” was used with an argument having been put forward that this would bring it into line with other East Kimberley placenames, such as Kalumburu, and Karunjie. The name was only finally decided just days before the newest town of the Kimberley Region, being gazetted on 10 February 1961.
The landscape surrounding Kununurra includes features such as Valentine Spring, Black Rock Creek and Middle Springs along with many other waterfalls and swimming holes. Popular fishing spots include Ivanhoe Crossing, The Diversion Dam, Buttons Crossing, and various locations along the Dunham and Ord Rivers.
The town is located close to the confluence of the Ord and the Dunham River. Lake Argyle, Australia’s largest artificial lake, over 100 square kilometres (39 sq mi) in size, is 72 km by road from the town, being held back by the main Ord River Dam.
The town lies within the Ord Irrigation Area Important Bird Area (IBA), so identified by BirdLife International because of its importance for wild birds, especially estrildid finches.
Like other areas in the tropics of Western Australia, Kununurra paradoxically experiences a steppe climate (Köppen climate classification BSh).
Kununurra has a Celebrity Tree Park with many trees planted by famous people including Rolf Harris, and more recently Baz Luhrmann, after the majority of the filming for his film Australia was conducted just outside of Kununurra. The town has many local attractions, including waterfalls, gorges and ranges. It was voted the second best town to live in Australia for outdoor adventure by Outdoor Australia magazine in the March/April 2007 edition.
Nicole Kidman feels that area water helped her get pregnant while filming in this town stating, “Seven babies were conceived out of this film and only one was a boy. There is something up there in the Kununurra water because we all went swimming in the waterfalls, so we can call it the fertility waters now.”
Since 1980 Kununurra has been the base of the Kimberley Echo founded by the late James O’Kenny and Brian Cole.
Things You May Not Know About Kununurra
- The post code of Kununurra is 6743.
- In 1879, Alexander Forrest , the brother of Sir John Forrest, was the first recorded white man to have explored the region and he was to give it the name, Kimberley.
- Alexander Forrest became the land agent for the region, leasing over 51 million acres (21 million hectare) in 1883.
- The first settler to the area was Irish born Patrick (Patsy) Durack in 1882.
- Patsy travelled 3,000 miles from Queensland to the Kimberley region with 7250 head of cattle and 200 horses
- to stock his Argyle and Ivanhoe stations. This little trek took about three years to complete.
- The Durack family established the Lissadell, Argyle, Rosewood and Ivanhoe Cattle Stations.
- The Durack’s Argyle Downs Homestead was original located somewhere in middle of Lake Argyle. Following
- the decision to create the lake the homestead was removed piece by piece to safer grounds. Having been rebuilt it is now a pioneer museum.
- Kununurra is 365km from Halls Creek, 825km from Darwin and 980km from Broome.
- Kelly’s Knob Lookout, at 191m, is the highest point in Kununurra.
- Man made Lake Argyle , located 70km from Kununurra, is the largest artificial lake in Australia.
- The Argyle Diamond Mine is the biggest diamond producing mine in the world and produces about one third of the world’s diamonds.
- Kununurra is believed to have the youngest average age of any town in Australia.
- Lake Kununurra has over twenty different species of freshwater fish and an abundance of freshwater crocodiles.