In Wyndham: Australia’s loveliest shithole

‘There’s nothing there.’
‘The lookout is the only thing worth doing in Wyndham.’
‘It’s a shithole!’

When people recommend against visiting a certain place, it’s most likely worthy of a visit. After all, the fact that tourists believe they wouldn’t find anything interesting there often indicates that travelers might find just what they are looking for: authenticity. And it’s also a matter of perception, because in fact Wyndham has several attractions: there’s the Big Concrete Croc, the Dreamtime Statues, Australia’s Largest Boab Tree In Captivity, a Railway Museum, that Five River Lookout, a Crocodile Farm and it’s got – albeit out of town – The Grotto, a waterfall with a plunge pool underneath it. So excuse me, but how could you ever call Wyndham a shithole?

Let’s go have a look!

Wyndham lies on the Gulf of Cambridge and was established in the 1880’s, making it the oldest town in the Australian Kimberley region. The only way to get to Wyndham in the old days, was by ship. Road access wasn’t fully developed until the roads were upgraded in the 1960’s in order to safely transport all the equipment needed for the construction of two dams in the Ord River between Wyndham Port, Kununurra and the site of the Ord River Dam, which now holds back Lake Argyle.

Ann, from Germany, and I happened to stay in Kununurra, separated from Wyndham by 100 kilometers of nothingness. Bush. Spinifex. Low hills. But as we drove along the highway and got closer to Wyndham, the landscape changed. There’s suddenly this wide, vegetationless plain of dark soil. It looked like the bottom of a dry lake, an overflow area for the wet season.

Wyndham consisted of low buildings scattered lonely on enourmous premises in the emptiness. Some Aborigines sat in front of their houses. Here and there were a few side streets leading into some very small neighborhoods. It was instantly clear why this place was considered a ‘shithole’ by many and I felt increasingly happier for having come here for that very reason. We drove through town, then Wyndham Port (literally one ship and one crane) and stopped at the very end of the Great Northern Highway, at the Crocodile Farm. This was our first stop of the day.

Wyndham’s Crocodile Farm

There’s a lot to say against animals in captivity, especially when animals serve no other purpose but exploitation for human entertainment. Zoos and circuses may spring to mind. The Crocodile Farm, however, has three purposes: breeding crocs for leather, education about crocs and catching crocs that are in a ‘crocodile management zone’. All the big crocodiles are at the farm for the reason that they’ve had encounters with humans. There are lots of places where saltwater crocodiles and humans don’t mingle, but there are also places – like nearby El Questro – where people come for recreation and crocs for food. That doesn’t combine very well.

Doc, one of the male salties, was caught at El Questro after he knocked over canoes. Didn’t hurt the people in the canoes, but before he was going to, they caught him and brought him to the Crocodile Farm in Wyndham. They won’t kill him. He’s just there to have fun with the ladies and will live in his huge cage, which resembled a natural habitat, until he dies a natural death. They will use his offspring, however, for the production of leather.

The Crocodile Farm consists of several cages. Some are, indeed, a little bit tiny, but most of them are rather big and give the crocodiles plenty of space to live. Ann and I walked around it counter clockwise, as the owner had advised us, and went on the tour at 11am – which was an extra $6. What a great place this farm was. Contrary to many such attractions in Australia, this wasn’t a rip-off. The $18 was well worth the money. Best part of it: the owner and his staff ran the place as natural as possible, and as he said himself, ‘there are no city folks in safari shirts trying to educate the visitors.’ They actually ran it in such a natural way, that they even fought the crocodiles to get the eggs out of the nests. Now, that’s impressive. The tour took us to the end of a bridge and the owner pointed at the biggest saltwater crocodile we’d seen this morning.

‘That male over there,’ he said, ‘is River Farm. And his name is River Farm, because he was caught on a property on River Farm Road, a few kilometers outside Kununurra. You got all them bloody caravan parks telling you tourists that Lake Kununurra is a safe place to swim, because there are only freshies. Well, you ask that feller over there what he is and he will tell you.’

Thanks pal, so much for swimming in that lake!

Wyndham’s Railway Museum

Around noon, we left the Crocodile Farm. Educated and with some awesome pictures to show off on Facebook, we got in the car and drove back to Wyndham Port to see the Railway Museum. There are two tracks of rail on a small piece of land, with a train on each of them. They look like toy trains, really. They were used to transport produce from the meat works factory to the cargo ship.

But when the factory ceased its operations in the 1980’s, they put the trains on display as a relic from the days that any Wyndhammer would first try to find employment at the factory before counting his other options. The museum has one major claim to fame: it was the only railroad in the Kimberley that ever existed.

Wyndham’s Australia’s Largest Boab Tree In Captivity

After this enriching experience, we found something remarkable: Australia’s Largest Boab Tree In Captivity – it said so on the map we used. How the hell do you capture a boab tree? I mean, capturing a saltwater crocodile like that croc farmer did was quite impressive in itself and is a process we all, I presume, can comprehend, but capturing a boab tree is a game on a whole different level. That had to be something that took skill and patience (probably a lot). So we had to check it out. Australia’s Largest Boab Tree In Captivity is located at the end of the local caravan park and is about 2,000 years old. Oh, and it is indeed captured: It has no chance of escaping. You want to know how it was captured? Well, here you go. Let’s not wait any longer to reveal the secret. They’ve put a series of small poles in the ground, that rose up about thirty centimeters. Then, at the top, they’d hammered planks on the poles. Six of them.

And we, the tourists, stood there to take pictures of that captivating phenomenon. The information sign said at the bottom, “Wyndham – See it to believe it”. You feel like a complete fool while you’re there, I kid you not. But then again, you leave with a smile on the face.

Wyndham’s Dreamtime Statues

We left the caravan park and Ann navigated us, using a map, to the Dreamtime Statues. Those statues resembled an Aboriginal man, woman, kid, a snake and a kangaroo. They were huge. Although there was no description of what we were seeing, the name literally indicated that these statues represented the Dreamtime, the era in which the Aborigines believe that their ancestors, in the shape of huge animals, created the land for them to live on. The fact that there were Aborigines living right next to the site, made it all come together: statues of how it once was and the situation nowadays.

Wyndham’s Five Rivers Lookout

The Five Rivers Lookout is a 3.6 kilometer ride from town, along a road that ascends to the top of a hill and climaxes with a breathtaking view. From up there, one sees how tiny Wyndham’s drowns in the vast emptiness of the landscape.

The wide Gulf of Cambridge, the five meandering rivers – the Ord, the Pentecost, the King, the Forrest and the Durack Rivers – that flowed into it, the little human settlement on the shore and the hills in the distance together shaped a view that was both diverse and grand.

Wyndham’s Big Croc

In the town centre was the Big Croc. I only knew about the quaint Australian tradition to make big statues of animals from Bill Bryson’s travel book. He had gone to the Big Lobster in Kingston (on the coast between Melbourne and Adelaide, roughly). Wyndham has the Big Croc. What you’ll find, is a huge, concrete crocodile on a lawn. Just another thing to take a picture of. And with the Big Croc, we had seen everything Wyndham had to offer.

As we drove out of town, I realized I wouldn’t necessarily call it a shithole; it’s just a very a small but cute outback town.

Wyndham’s International Airport

“Wyndham Airport,” said the sign.

I said, ‘Shall we have a look? It’s another thing to do.’

‘Sure,’ Ann responded.

Was this going to be an airstrip? A lot of little airplanes? The houses in town hadn’t looked like they belonged to airplane owners. I was curious.

In the event, there was a 1,606 meter runway with lights, the apron could easily hold several B737’s and there was an hangar that could house a small jumbo jet. But there were no airplanes at all. It was completely empty and desolated. This entire airport, with all its facilities, just sat there. There were no workers, cars, airplane owners. Ann and I were literally the only human beings there; we stood forlornly at the low fence alongside the platform. Never in my life had I been to such an empty airport. The only thing that was operational, was the Telstra pay phone.

But make no mistake. This wasn’t just Wyndham Airport – no, this was Wyndham International Airport. Really – the sign on the little shed said so. In 1929, 1931 and 1933, there were even direct flights from here to England. In those years, Charles Kingsford Smith attempted to break the world flight record between Wyndham and the UK. He finally managed in 1933, when it took him 7 days, 4 hours and 43 minutes. Perhaps a new attempt should be undertaken between Wyndham and England – just to give this airport a new purpose?

Wyndham Airport also had significance in World War II. In March 1942, the Japanese attacked Wyndham and threw fifty bombs on the airport. Fifty! They must have thought that this amount was sufficient, for they never bombed it ever again.

When you stand next to the empty platform at the airport and you take in the sights – an empty airport in an uninhabitable landscape – it’s hard to imagine that there are any airplanes landing and taking off at all. It’s too deserted. In March 2007, the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley was facing a difficult choice. The airport at Kununurra needed to be upgraded, while Wyndham Airport kept operating at a loss of $120,000 per annum. The council was advised to cut the operational expenses of Wyndham Airport by either closing one of the two runways or decommission the facility altogether.


One of the two runways?

‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are approaching Wyndham International Airport and are expecting to touch down within seventeen minutes. In a minute, I will switch on the fasten seatbelt sign and would like to ask you to return to your seats, put your tables up and put the back of your seat in an upright position. Cabin crew, please collect the last garbage.’
Fifteen minutes later…
‘Ladies and gentlemen, due to heavy air traffic at Wyndham International Airport we’ve been told by air traffic control to keep flying until it’s our turn to land on the north-south runway, as the east-west runway is closed due to a lack of funding. This will cause about thirty minutes extra flight time. I thank you for your patience and apologize for any inconvenience.’

You could have had sex on the runway and nobody would notice, and yet, the emptiness was misleading. The Royal Flying Doctor Service evacuates about four or five times a year patients out of Wyndham. As such, they were of course against the decommissioning of that airport. The only alternative would be a ride by ambulance to Kununurra, an hour’s drive – which could prove fatal.

(Wyndham’s) The Grotto

And well, since we lacked an airplane, we drove back to Kununurra, stopping on the way at The Grotto – a waterhole.

If you can accept Wyndham for what it is, and just for what it is, it makes for a great outing. Even if you do think it’s a shithole, it’s easily Australia’s loveliest shithole.

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