Wyndham, Western Australia’s most northerly town, is about as isolated as any town in Australia can be. It sits on the edge of the Cambridge Gulf slowly boiling under the oppressive tropical sun, surrounded by salt lakes, desert and mudflats which stretch to the horizon. It is located 3351 km from Perth via the North West Coastal Highway and 930 km from Derby.
It is, like so many of the towns in the Kimberleys, actually two towns. There is old Wyndham (known as Wyndham Port) sweltering in the heat under that part of the Erskine Range known as ‘The Bastion’ and, a few kilometres up the Gulf on the road to Kunanurra there is Wyndham Three Mile (sometimes known as Wyndham East).
The traditional Aboriginal inhabitants of the area were the Djeidji, Dulngari and Aruagga tribes who lived on the rich harvest of seafood available in the gulf.
Wyndham Port is still operational but it exports live cattle to Asia and lead and zinc to Korea. The town¹s newest industry is an export crocodile farm (located just beyond the old Magistrates Residence). It is hoped that eventually up to 3000 crocodiles a year can be farmed.
With a population of between 1200-1500 Wyndham is now partly sustained by tourism as more and more travellers visit this strange and exotic old port.
Writers and commentators have not been terribly kind to Wyndham. Most of the travel writers have suggested that the town has a special charm but, having said that, they have proceeded to paint a picture which has more than a passing resemblance to hell.
In 1951 George Farwell in his book The Outside Track described the town as ‘a lonely pin-point of settlement upon a vast and empty landscape of tidal estuaries, mangroves, unpeopled valley floors and barren, tree-less ranges’ and two years later Leslie Rees painted a grim picture of the town as having a foreground of ’empty 44-gallon drums, beer bottles, old tins, bits of sheet iron, termite-eaten wood. A background of salt marshes and harsh, desolate hills under the torrid sun’. Neither of these descriptions is flattering to Wyndham. However they do evoke the strangeness of this town on the far edge of the continent.
Things to see
Five Rivers Lookout
A suitable starting point is Five Rivers Lookout. It is clearly signposted from Wyndham Three Mile and rises to the east of the town offering one of the most dramatic views anywhere along the Australian coastline. The view over the five rivers (the Durack, King, and Pentecost to the south, Forrest to the west and Ord to the north) and the vast mud flats which sprawl in every direction give the lookout a viewpoint which can only be bettered by actually flying over the town.
The Big Crocodile
At the entrance to Wyndham Three Mile there is a huge 20 metre long concrete crocodile in the middle of the road. It is hard to avoid it. This Œtourist attraction¹ is an interesting example of computer technology. Designed and built by sculptor Andrew Hickson the students from the Halls Creek TAFE it consists of 5.5 km of steel rod, 10 rolls of bird mesh and 6 cubic metres of concrete. It was created by photographing a crocodile and having a computer at Curtin University plot 2400 mathematical coordinates of the crocodile’s shape.
The town’s fascination with crocodiles is justified. Cambridge Gulf is teeming with them. At the port (just north of the wharf) is the Crocodile Lookout but it is more historical than a reality. This used to be the site where blood from the town¹s meatworks drained into the Gulf. The local crocodiles, eager for a little blood or leftover meat, would gather on the muddy banks of the river. Today the site is typical crocodile territory – muddy mangroves and muddy water – but a visitor would be lucky to see a crocodile.
Near the Crocodile Lookout are the old meatworks buildings and at the beginning of the road to the lookout is a small display of the trains and cranes which operated on the wharf. The original late-nineteenth landing (Anton¹s Landing) was burnt down in 1944 and the wharf which now services Wyndham Port was first built in 1919 to coincide with the opening of the meatworks. 40 metres north of the wharf is the wreck of the Koolama which sank in 1947. It is totally submerged but a hint of its location can be determined by the swirling waters.
While in Wyndham Port stop at the Old Post Office (on the western side of the road) which is now the Tourist Information Centre and Post Office Museum. It is located over the road from the low security prison, surely one of Wyndham Port¹s strangest sights. It is quite common to see prisoners knocking fruit from the trees in the prison grounds or sitting on the grass sunning themselves and watching the world go by.
Wyndham Three Mile
At Wyndham Three Mile the local Aboriginal population have constructed a set of huge statues depicting an Aboriginal family complete with a dingo and kangaroo (this is one block to the east of the main street). In the same street is a wonderful relic of Wyndham¹s steamy nights – a classic outback cinema with comfortable deck chairs, a small screen and enclosed projector booth.
The Prison Tree and The Grotto
The area around Wyndham is surrounded by places of great interest. Along the King River road is a Prison Tree, a hollowed out old baobab tree which was used as a temporary lockup by the local police, and on the road to Kunanurra The Grotto (signposted at the west of the road) is worth a visit. Staircases carved out of the rock lead to a quiet waterhole oasis in a kind of cool amphitheatre. It is one of those strange anomalies in the landscape. Access to the Grotto is along 2 km of reasonable dirt road.