Life is always an adventure in the East Kimberley for Josh Melville, Lake Argyle Adventures.

By Brooke Littlewood
Updated May 3 2022 - 10:17am, first published 10:00am
Josh Melville's passion for cooking started at a young age when his mum told him "the chef didn't have to do the dishes". Photos by Josh Melville and Tamsyn Reynolds.

WHEN Josh Melville was a kid, he struck a deal with his mum to get out of washing-up.

"Mum told me the chef didn't have to do the dishes," the New Zealander said.

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"That always stuck in my mind because I hated them."

At 10 years old, Mr Melville became a self-appointed "head chef" in his family home, whipping up roast dinners and finding inspiration in reality television cooking shows.

In the years gone by he has not lost his taste for hardwork and holds a similar title in Kununurra in the East Kimberley.

It is there Mr Melville and his fiancé Tamsyn Reynolds run two unique tasting tours - A Taste of The Ord Valley and the Gourmet Camp Oven Experience - through their business, Lake Argyle Adventures.

The couple sources the best of the region's ingredients and uses spun steel camp ovens to put a unique spin on an outdoor dining experience.

Mr Melville's love for food has always been second to none, but he never envisioned it would evolve into what it has.

Josh Melville and his fiancé Tamsyn Reynolds run two unique tasting tours Taste of the Ord Valley and the Gourmet Camp Oven Experience through their business, Lake Argyle Adventures.

In fact, his hopes were first pinned on using his degree in science and zoology to find employment, after graduating from university.

"I received first honours thinking I would walk straight into a job, but there were none," Mr Melville said.

"It was pretty demoralising, so I started volunteering at a wildlife reserve with African grey parrots, macaws and other amazing birds.

"While it was a fantastic experience, it wasn't paying the bills and I was constantly on the lookout for something else."

Volunteering helped Mr Melville to identify his true passion - to work in tourism and with animals.

In 2012, he found a tour guide job advertised with El Questro Wilderness Park at Durack, which would allow him to do both.

"I thought, 'Hey, why not?' and applied," Mr Melville said.

"They offered me a job, I booked a one-way ticket from New Zealand to the Kimberley and I haven't looked back."

Last year, Mr Melville and Ms Reynolds started a new chapter with Taste of the Ord Valley morning tea tour.

From deep gorges, majestic ranges to thermal springs, mud and salt-flats, rainforests and cascading waterfalls - he was fast to fall in love with all the region had to offer.

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One opportunity soon created another when the managers of Lake Argyle Resort - Gary and Leanne Griffith - attended a tour hosted at El Questro.

Mr Melville left an impression on the pair and was told if he ever needed another job, there would be one waiting for him at Lake Argyle.

From there he met Lake Argyle Resort owners Charlie and Chantal Sharpe and before long, he was running the boat tours.

The local lessons Mr Melville learned and the knowledge passed onto him at El Questro proved useful in his new role.

Four years later, inspiration struck with a genius business idea, after Mr Melville noticed an old 14-seater Toyota LandCruiser Troop Carrier collecting dust at the resort.

What if he could use the vehicle - and combine his love for food and the Kimberley region - to run his own tours?

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Mr Melville passed the idea on, hoping Lake Argyle Resort would support his creative thinking as an entrepreneurial tour guide.

His proposal: Use the LandCruiser to run a quirky 4WD tour and provide the resort with a commission based on the number of participants.

Mr Melville spent 12 months at Roy's Retreat which is located off grid in the East Kimberley mastering the camp oven cooking style.

The managing group decided to take a chance on Mr Melville's 'Durack Wilderness Safari' and it paid off.

The safari proved to be a hit among tourists with its secret spring and swim, bush tucker plant uses and afternoon tea.

But Mr Melville realised there was an opportunity to provide guests with something different and there was a sense of self satisfaction in operating something he had created himself.

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He also identified a gap in the region that could be filled.

So Mr Melville struck another deal.

He would work five months of the year running his own tours and in the off-season continue working at Lake Argyle Resort.

"I knew I had to head off in my own direction," he said.

"The managers at the resort were incredibly supportive and provided me with a huge network of contacts.

"It was also a benefit for them, as the tours were available to guests staying at the resort and it promoted the area.

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"I had the ideas and they gave me a push in the right direction and the encouragement to start running the tour from here."

Taste of the Ord Valley is instead set under the trees at the base of Argyle dam and in the picturesque Ord River gorge.

Before long, Durack Wilderness Safari snowballed into something far bigger than Mr Melville's initial plans.

And that was partially thanks to the remnants of an old stockman's camp, Roy's Retreat.

This was named after Argyle station's last real stockman, the late Roy Walker, and is off-grid in the East Kimberley.

The haven keeps the legacy of Mr Walker alive.

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While hosting the Durack Wilderness Safari tour, a number of camp oven pits at Roy's Retreat caught Mr Melville's eye and fed his appetite to branch out even further.

Mr Melville was somewhat familiar with the camp oven cooking style, having competed in a cook-off during his time at El Questro.

But he wasn't exactly confident in his abilities.

Surprisingly, camp oven cooking wasn't as simple as cooking roast dinners as a 10 year old.

"Obviously I really, really enjoyed cooking," he said.

The outback morning tea menu includes: Kununurra lime cheesecake, wild passionfruit muffins, chia seed Anzac biscuits, croissants served with wild hibiscus jam and Kimberley honey, seasonal Ord River Valley fruit, freshly squeezed juice, lemon myrtle bush tea and wattle seed infused coffee.

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"But I think the closest thing we have to a camp oven in New Zealand is a hangi, which is where the food is buried in the soil and hot stones are used for cooking.

"I had never seen anything like a camp oven before - I would say they are more traditional Australian style."

Mr Melville went on to fail the El Questro cook-off miserably.

His meal of choice?

Chicken stirfry.

"I still remember it like it was yesterday," Mr Melville laughed.

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"I tried to use the oven like a wok and let's just say it didn't work out too well.

"One guy made a camp oven pizza and it was delicious.

"I think I have now mastered the pizza recipe, but that came with time."

The experience did not deter Mr Melville and he decided Roy's Retreat was the perfect training ground as an outdoor kitchen.

Over 12 months, he practiced camp oven cooking and the gradual passion and drive to do something purely for himself grew more-and-more.

It is not just people's reactions that Mr Melville loves most about what he does, but also having the opportunity to work with his fiancé Tamsyn Reynolds.

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As the saying goes - if you fail, try and try again.

And Mr Melville's story is truly a reflection of that.

He reached a point where he was certain of his abilities, backed himself and created a new tour, the Gourmet Camp Oven Experience.

At the same time, Durack Wilderness Safari Tour was revamped to become Beyond Argyle - a morning tea adventure.

Similar to the safari, Beyond Argyle provided insight into true outback living through cooking in the sun oven to the timeless bush poetry once written on Argyle station.

The tour featured Aboriginal art, sampled bush tucker and explored the region's flora and fauna.

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Guests were also treated to morning tea with Kununurra lime cheesecakes, wild passionfruit muffins and Ord Valley fruit.

They soaked up every minute and flavour of the experience, which left a lasting memory.

Mr Melville's day of adventure did not stop there, as he went on to host the Gourmet Camp Oven Experience in the evenings.

The Gourmet Camp Oven Experience features a three-course menu, which uses locally sourced ingredients and showcases the best the Kimberley region has to offer.

What started as a "two night a week, see if the demand is there" kind of thing, soon became six nights a week with bookings made months-and-months in advance.

It comes as no surprise given the quality of food on offer and the experience as a whole.

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Overlooking the vast Lake Argyle from a private lookout, diners are treated to the ambience of the Kimberley sunset, as it transforms into a star-lit sky.

This provides the perfect backdrop for the three-course gourmet camp oven dinner to come.

To set the mood Mr Melville, who is also a musician, sings and plays guitar, while guests eat.

So what exactly is camp oven cooking?

According to Mr Melville it is - "something that takes a lot of practice, has a lot of failures but is also a lot of fun".

"Anyone who has a passion for the outdoors and fires can easily get into it," he said.

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Mr Melville sources the best of the region's ingredients and use spun steel camp ovens to put a unique spin on an outdoor dining experience.

"Essentially, it is all about finding the right type of wood - every type of wood has different consistencies.

"There are hardwoods, there's softwoods and there are woods that you can't use because they're actually poisonous."

The wood plays a key role not only in the cooking element, but also in the flavours.

Mr Melville said it was important to know what wood was being used in terms of how long the coals would last for once they had rendered down, how much needed to be used, what worked best with the cooking and what exactly he was trying to achieve.

For example - if he was cooking damper, he would use far less coals then if he was cooking something like pork belly.

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"We cook our pork belly once in the camp oven, nice and slow so it gets tender," Mr Melville said.

"The pork is flipped over Indian sandalwood coals to crisp up the crackling and so it also gets that nice, smoky flavour infused in there."

Overlooking the vast Lake Argyle from a private lookout, diners are treated to the ambience of the Kimberley sunset, as it transforms into a star-lit sky.

The Gourmet Camp Oven Experience's three-course menu includes:

Entree - a potato rosti and local-caught barramundi stack cooked over the coals.

Seasoned with native pepperberry and saltbush and served with Ord Valley tomatoes, a balsamic glaze, a lemon and Kimberley honey drizzle, freshly blended herbs and Ord River lime.

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Main - crispy skinned pork belly slowly cooked in the camp oven and smoked over Indian sandalwood embers.

Served with an apple and cinnamon sauce, basil infused damper and Kimberley salad (kapok, chia, melon, mint and rocket, all sourced from the Ord River Valley, with a Kununurra lime dressing).

Dessert - a warm Ord River rum and chocolate brownie served with vanilla bean ice cream, salted caramel sauce, wild rosella and dusted with powdered boab.

There are also vegetarian options available with halloumi to replace the pork belly for a camp oven cooked brie, cranberry, onion, basil, mozzarella and sunflower seed mini pizza.

All the ingredients used in the meals are locally sourced or "as locally sourced" as Mr Melville can get with the help of The Hoochery, ORIA Orchards, the Chia Company, Kimberley Beez Honey, Kimberley Marketing, Ocean to River Seafood, the Bushtucker Shop, Ord River Limes, Ceres Farms and Tenderspot Meat Company Kununurra.

Lake Argyle Adventures operates in the dry season between April and September when the weather is "perfect".

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He takes advantage of what is available in his own backyard, using the best flavours of the region in different flowers, berries, nuts and produce from native trees.

During his time at El Questro, Mr Melville was fortunate enough to have been told stories passed through generations about Indigenous Australian bush tucker.

"Their connection to land is incredibly interesting," he said.

"And to be able to use a fraction of that to create something - it is completely unique.

"The camp oven experience is very intimate and laidback, showcasing those flavours in the best way possible."

Humbly, Mr Melville wouldn't label himself as a master camp oven cook and instead puts his success down to a high quality menu.

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Take the barramundi for example - it is cooked on a hot plate over the embers to give it a smoky flavour, which runs right through the fish.

Through Taste of the Ord Valley, Mr Melville provides participants with bush tucker samples, shares the history of Argyle and explores the region's wildlife.

It is then drizzled with lemon and Kununnura honey, as well as native pepperberry and saltbush.

"The pepperberry and saltbush have both an earthy and rustic taste," Mr Melville said.

"Off season is fun because we can create new recipes and fine-tune our gourmet camp oven experience."

Last year, Lake Argyle Adventures did as Lake Argyle Adventures does and evolved yet again.

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Mr Melville and Ms Reynolds started a new chapter with Taste of the Ord Valley morning tea tour replacing Beyond Argyle.

Unlike Beyond Argyle, Taste of the Ord Valley does not stop at Roy's Retreat and is instead set under the trees at the base of Argyle dam and in the picturesque Ord River gorge.

Mr Melville said it was a complete change to what was previously on offer with a strong focus on bush tucker, plant uses and a gourmet morning tea.

"We have seen how everyone responded to the food at the camp oven tour," he said.

"So we wanted to create something more hands on, where people could touch, taste and smell all of these different elements and then try it in the food.

"It is something most people would have never tasted before."

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An old 14-seater Toyota Landcruiser troopy collecting dust at Lake Argyle Resort presented Mr Melville with the idea of running his own tour.

Guests are spoilt for choice with the outback morning tea menu, which includes: Kununurra lime cheesecake, wild passionfruit muffins, chia seed Anzac biscuits, croissants served with wild hibiscus jam and Kimberley honey, seasonal Ord River Valley fruit, freshly squeezed juice, lemon myrtle bush tea and wattle seed-infused coffee.

On top of that Mr Melville provides participants with bush tucker samples, shares the history of Argyle and explores the region's wildlife.

"It is very much a hands-on tour and it answers many questions people may have about the region," he said.

"You can see their eyes starting to boggle when you tell them the uses of a certain plant or tree and then show them how they can eat it.

"There is honestly so much to learn out here, particularly for those who are camping."

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Mr Melville used the Kimberley Heath tree as an example.

Oil - similar to citronella - can be extracted from the tree and used to protect the skin from mosquitoes.

"Your rub it together, put it on your skin or put a bunch of it on the fire, so it protects you from mosquitoes at night," he said.

"There's also a native flower called the native kapok, which is beautiful and yellow in colour.

"It was a calendar plant for indigenous Australians because it showed them when it was the ideal time to harvest crocodile eggs.

The local lessons Mr Melville learned and the knowledge passed onto him at El Questro proved useful in running his own tours at Lake Argyle.

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"Petals of the kapok could also be eaten and on our morning tea tour guests do exactly that."

Mr Melville also uses the petals in the camp oven tour, as part of his Kimberley salad.

He said incorporating local ingredients and information between two tours had been helpful in passing on his teachings to others.

"I learned a lot from locals and also through my own research.

"100 per cent there is a minefield of information out there, you just have to be willing to give it time, to listen, learn and teach others.

"I learned a lot through shared interest and wanting to offer something different to people that they would not have experienced before."

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It is not just people's reactions that Mr Melville loves most about what he does, but also having the opportunity to work with Ms Reynolds.

"These have been all of my dreams and she has been so supportive in helping me create it," he said.

"To offer something so unique and to be able to share it together - that is probably the most special part."

So given Lake Argyle Adventures has jumped ahead in so many leaps and bounds already, what does Mr Melville have planned for the future?

At this stage, he said he would continue "winging it" each day, labelling the Gourmet Camp Oven Experience the Taste of the Ord Valley as a "winning combination".

And judging by the tour's reviews, it would be a point very difficult to argue.

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"For the foreseeable future, dare I say we keep up with what we have here," Mr Melville said.

"You never know what could change.

"But I know I feel very blessed to be doing what we are doing and to be doing it for ourselves.

"I never wake up and think 'here we go off to work', I'm like 'sweet, I am off to show some people some bush tucker' and that is pretty cool."

Lake Argyle Adventures operates in the dry season between April and September when the Kununurra and Lake Argyle weather is "perfect".

Tours depart from the Lake Argyle Caravan Park and Resort and only cater for 12 guests.

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This means bookings are recommended well in advance.

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