Our World El Questro: A Kimberley diamond celebrates 25 years

As the pioneering Kimberley station-cum-accommodation celebrates its quarter century, we take a trip back to its early years and meet the young couple who started it all. 

Some 25 years ago, The West Magazine published a cover story to mark the opening of what was then El Questro Station on the Gibb River Road in the East Kimberley, and is now El Questro Wilderness Park and Emma Gorge Resort. Writer Cyril Ayris and photographer Rod Taylor went up for the story and found English aristocrat Will Burrell and wife Celia opening up the 500,000ha cattle station for tourism. 

Delaware North Australia Parks and Resorts has been running the place since 2010 and has put out some 25th anniversary offers, including 25 per cent off an activity and 25 off one dinner with selected accommodation. (See elquestro.com.au and 1800 837 168 for full details.)

And, as our way of celebrating, read on for Cyril’s 1992 story, along with some of Rod’s pictures. 

Diamond in the Kimberley

For the umpteenth time, Celia Shelverdine's face comes alive. She leans forward on the cane chair and glances across at English aristocrat William (Will) Burrell who is lounging in a chair opposite. We are sitting on the veranda of their Kimberley homestead currently open for tourist rental for a cool $25,000 a week.

She says: "When we came here, all we saw was this massive landscape and its incomparable beauty. There were so many natural features. The station had been almost totally abandoned. It was a joke station. Everybody had raped the country and nobody had put anything back."

Burrell nods. When he speaks, it is in the refined accent one would expect of an Eton-educated businessman with an 800-year-old family tree.

"We were looking for a station with tourist potential. One which was completely derelict. In my experience it's better and more effective to mould something into your own shape rather than fitting into somebody else's shoes."

They are talking about El Questro, a 500,000-hectare cattle station which, by an extraordinary accident of nature, includes within its boundaries just about every spectacle the Kimberley has to offer.

For decades this northern Garden of Eden, 130km west of Kununurra and 16km off the Gibb River Road, languished under disinterested management, its buildings succumbing to the harsh climate, its grazing being eaten out and its stock deteriorating through in-breeding and poor control.

El Questro had become a joke - which is incredible because there is not another cattle station in the Kimberley with more spectacular scenery.

Major rivers stocked with seemingly limitless barramundi have carved deep purple gorges across its landscape - gorges that can only be penetrated by helicopter. Warm water springs bubble from the ground creating exotic spas and lush ecosystems. Soaring mountain ranges brood purple then glow red in the evening sun. There appears no end to a wilderness that is as old as time itself.

The station slumbered as one manager after another tinkered with its potential only to be beaten by the harsh environment, lack of money, lack of enthusiasm and lack of expertise.

The unveiling of El Questro has been orchestrated by Burrell and Shelverdine, who between them have stacks of money and enough enthusiasm and expertise to build a holiday camp just about anywhere. In the past 12 months, they have established a unique station tourism industry that is the talk of the Kimberley and improved the cattle, pasture and infrastructure beyond recognition.

On the face of it, it would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely couple for the job.

He epitomises Britain's landed gentry. His family has owned nearly 4000 hectares of prime Sussex farmland since the 11th century. (King John burnt the family castle down during his war with the barons in the 12th century.) His uncle is a baron, his great grandfather, Lord Denman, was Governor-General of Australia in 1911 and his father has vast business interests in Britain and America. 

Burrell joined a multi-national investor-relations company as "a junior pencil sharpener" at 22 and was appointed director at 23. His field of expertise lay in defending companies from aggressive takeovers.

Shelverdine, on the other hand, is highly-qualified in creative advertising and has family connections with the Myers of Myer Stores. 

One could be forgiven for thinking that Burrell would have been content to spend his life sitting in on board meetings and flicking at nettles on the family estate, and that Shelverdine would have been swallowed up on the corporate fast lanes of London and New York.

"His mother is Australian, " explains Shelverdine. "I used to find Englishmen rather conservative but Will is not like that. He's done some very exciting things in his life. I think it's the Australian in him."

Exciting things?

Burrell elaborates reluctantly.

"Well ... I was always very fond of riding. Used to ride at steeplechases ... that kind of thing. They were official race meetings actually ... all quite serious."

A six-foot (185cm) jockey?

"Yes ... well ... I never did much good ... a lot of fun though. Used to drive stock cars as well. Then I spent a bit of time in the northern Sahara. And I was a jackeroo in New South Wales. I loved that life. That was when I decided I would love to own a cattle station. So when we came back I had two choices ... become a jackaroo again or buy my own station. I decided on the latter."

He and Shelverdine were flown across northern Australia by one of the nation's top property dealers. They inspected stations in Queensland, Northern Territory and across much of the Kimberley before their aircraft touched down at Kununurra and they set off in a four-wheel drive for El Questro.

The 16km station "track" that leads south off the infamous Gibb River Road proved an accurate barometer of what they would find. Boulders protruded through the twin wheel ruts, fallen trees obstructed the way and dry river beds with sheer banks and sandy bottoms almost defied navigation.

The station homestead, when they found it, was derelict and uninhabitable, the out-buildings even worse. 

But the mountain ranges and seldom-seen gorges and broad rivers were majestic beyond belief and it was these that the young couple saw. El Questro would be their Eldorado.

Burrell bought it for $1 million which, when you think of it, is amazing ... 500,000 hectares of some of the most spectacular scenery in the state, with about 3000 head of cattle thrown in. It would cost that much to buy half a dozen blocks covering half a hectare in any of Perth's fashionable suburbs.

So, at a time when most Kimberley cattle stations were struggling to remain viable, a Pommie aristocrat and his Melbourne lady friend rolled up their sleeves and set about the enormous job of bringing El Questro back to life.

Both adapted easily to the hard life and the station's stockmen soon realised that Will could ride a horse as well as they could. He could also throw a calf, fire a rifle and brand a steer.

His enthusiasm was infectious and in an amazingly short time El Questro's pulse was beating as it never had before. Brahman cattle were trucked in from Queensland. Twelve tonnes of protein-rich varana seed was aerially sown at a cost of $70,000. The station homestead was made habitable.

And all the time Shelverdine was planning and designing the tourist accommodation that would make up the financial shortfall from proceeds of the cattle.

Both she and Burrell had stayed at countless hotels throughout the world and were well aware of what tourists liked and disliked. They also knew that not everybody could afford $25,000 a week for their accommodation. After extensive market research they decided to establish different levels of accommodation, starting at $5 a night for campers and moving up to more expensive bush cabins.

It has been a remarkable process, the like of which has never before been seen in either the Kimberley or Australia.

Take this new $25,000 a week homestead, for instance, built on a cliff edge on a dramatic curve of the Chamberlain River. To Burrell and Shelverdine it is their dream home where they perch eagle-like, looking down into the river 30m below where fish and freshwater crocodiles ripple the water. Their bedroom and the six adjoining have wide verandas that catch the morning breezes playing through the gorge. You lie in bed listening to the river and the flocks of noisy cockatoos.

In the evenings, a vast, almost baronial room, as big as most people's houses, is set for dinners served by the resident chefs. Or, if the evening is warm, the meal is taken on the veranda overlooking the swimming pool and Chamberlain Gorge.

This is the Australian home of Burrell and Shelverdine, the home which, when they are not in residence, will be taken over by wealthy travellers from Britain, America, South-East Asia and Australia. Up to 12 people will be able to stay for that $25,000. Alternatively, smaller parties will be able to move in for a minimum of two nights for $400 per person per night.

Are there people around in these depressed times who can afford such rates?

The answer: yes.

Confirmed bookings have already been received including one from a Hong Kong bank director who will be spending nine days there. They will use helicopters to fly through cavernous gorges for picnics and fishing trips in which catches of barramundi are almost guaranteed.

The homestead accommodation is remarkable enough but it is the total concept at El Questro that has the Kimberley buzzing, the tourist industry agog and station owners more than a little bemused.

You can camp; you can stay at the backpackers' camp for two days and one night for $130; you can rent a bungalow for $40 a night; you can rent a bush cabin with twin beds for $70 a night ($40 single).

And the facilities, activities, scenery and comfort available at all four levels are probably unequalled in Australia.

The humble $5 a night camper is given a private riverfront position but is only five minutes away from a cold beer at the station bar. The backpackers have comfortable beds with feather pillows - as does all the accommodation.

A swimming pool is open to everybody, likewise the gorges with their deep pools and warm natural springs. And everybody is free to help with station work such as mustering and branding.

El Questro has been open for only a few months and work on the facilities is not yet finished.

But the word is out and the tourists are arriving in droves. Chartered planes fly in and out, the station's main track is starting to resemble a busy suburban street and there have been several days when the accommodation has been booked out.

The tourists are going horse riding; taking helicopter rides for picnics in cathedral gorges; catching barramundi that are almost too big to lift; helping with mustering; taking the station's quiet, battery-driven punts up remote rivers to study ancient Aboriginal paintings; going on camel safaris.

Since he bought El Questro, Burrell has spent another $4 million on tourist facilities and up-grading the station.

It has undoubtedly been a wise investment but, more significantly, he has brought the magnificent Kimberley within reach of tens of thousands of southerners who had previously been daunted by the lack of facilities. 

A 4WD vehicle is strongly recommended for a visit to the station. The roads are still rough and visitors must drive through a 100m-wide river to reach the homestead.


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