The Kim­ber­ley class­room

A cruise aboard Co­ral Princess is ed­u­ca­tional and great fun

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - HE­LEN MCKEN­ZIE

THERE’s an exam at the end of the trip. This is what we joke to one an­other on Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions’ Kim­ber­ley coast cruise. It is only half a joke, how­ever, be­cause for most of our 10 days afloat, school of the Kim­ber­ley is in.

En­trance re­quire­ments are sim­ple. You could em­bark know­ing lit­tle to noth­ing about this re­mote West Aus­tralian re­gion and dis­em­bark with a head spin­ning with knowl­edge. Core sub­jects in­clude nat­u­ral his­tory, Abo­rig­i­nal art, nav­i­ga­tion, ge­ol­ogy, tides, map­ping and marine bi­ol­ogy. Add tec­tonic plate move­ments and pop­u­la­tion move­ments with elec­tives in pearling, min­ing, mis­sions and croc­o­dile lore.

The learn­ing is cheer­fully im­parted, wrapped in tall tales and true and de­liv­ered in a ‘‘class­room’’ of azure seas, an­cient orange rock, white sand, spinifex, man­groves and an end­less blue sky.

Board­ing the 35m cata­ma­ran Co­ral Princess in Broome, I feel pleased to be able to see the Kim­ber­ley with­out bounc­ing along un­sealed roads, pitch­ing tents in croc­o­dile coun­try and din­ing on lizards and the like by a camp­fire. Ush­ered into a state­room, I won­der if Aurora should have called the trip ‘‘the Kim­ber­ley for Princesses’’.

The food is fine and plen­ti­ful and the help­ful crew sparkles like the bril­liant night sky we are served up at the end of each day. Princesses should be warned, though: you may have to step out of your com­fort zone, but you will go home and boast about it.

The Kim­ber­ley is re­mote. Just how re­mote is made ap­par­ent when we take a he­li­copter ride to Mitchell Falls. We­fly in­land 80km and set down on a flat rocky area right be­side the best spot to view the pow­er­ful tor­rents of wa­ter thun­der­ing down the cliff face. The falls are three-tiered and 80m high. Af­ter de­posit­ing pas­sen­gers, the chop­per flies off; we are the only peo­ple at the site, and pos­si­bly for hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres to the east, north and south.

The un­usu­ally heavy wet sea­son that has made the falls so spec­tac­u­lar has cut off road ac­cess, so we have the place to our­selves. We have the seas to our­selves as well, only oc­ca­sion­ally spot­ting other ves­sels.

This op­tional Heli­works chop­per ride, which col­lects us from Nat­u­ral­ist Is­land in Prince Fred­er­ick Har­bour, is one of those out-of-com­fort-zone ex­pe­ri­ences. On the way to the falls with sim­ple lap seat­belt and no doors on the chop­per cabin, a white-knuck­led grip and eyes fixed on the hori­zon are the or­der of the day. On re­turn a weird eu­pho­ria over­takes me and the thrill of see­ing the sa­vanna ar­eas be­yond — where cat­tle graze and the an­cient rocky land­scape runs down to the wa­ter — seems to re­quire an op­er­atic sound­track, or at least some twang­ing coun­try gui­tar.

The itin­er­ary for the 11 days afloat is tide-de­pen­dent and, oddly enough, the daily news­let­ter gives a good sum­mary of what we have done the day be­fore rather than de­tails of what to ex­pect the fol­low­ing day. This is part of the hol­i­day ex­pe­ri­ence; de­ci­sion­mak­ing can be left to oth­ers.

The Hor­i­zon­tal Wa­ter­falls at Tal­bot Bay are one of the Kim­ber­ley’s best-known at­trac­tions. The falls come about cour­tesy of the twice-daily flood and ebb of sea­wa­ter surg­ing through a space about 20m wide. The ef­fect is that there is ei­ther a drop or an in­cline of more than 1m be­tween the two bod­ies of wa­ter.

The ap­proach to the gap is strewn with whirlpools that send Zo­diac boats into tail­spins. Amuse­ment park de­sign­ers must dream of such thrills and spills.

On board Co­ral Princess are three Kim­ber­ley-wise men. The first to give us his best is nat­u­ral­ist Dan Balint, a film­maker who has led many ex­pe­di­tions, no­tably dis­cov­er­ing Dampier’s 17th-cen­tury land­ing sites. He puts the Kim­ber­ley in per­spec­tive with salient facts. Such as: it is the size of Ger­many, or Vic­to­ria and Tas­ma­nia com­bined, made up of 2500 is­lands; at 1.8 bil­lion years old it is a ge­ol­o­gist’s dream; tides can vary by up to 12m; and it is only 430km from Timor.

Its veg­e­ta­tion var­i­ously com­prises rem­nant rain­for­est, low eu­ca­lyp­tus and sa­vanna wood­land; it is fringed by man­grove and dot­ted with the fab­u­lous boab. Balint also has one of the most amaz­ing croc sto­ries ever. It’s about his mate, a Cus­toms spot­ter pilot for the Kim­ber­ley coast. One day he no­ticed some ac­tion in the waters about 200km off­shore. A dead hump­back whale was be­ing de­mol­ished by a ring of four huge tiger sharks, some bronze whalers and al­most 100 smaller sharks.

On closer in­spec­tion, the pilot re­alised an­other species was in for his chop — a very large Crocody­lus poro­sus — and the sharks were ‘‘giv­ing him room’’. On the pilot’s re­turn trip he spot­ted the croc nos­ing a very large piece of MobyDick to­wards the shore.

Balint is also on hand dur­ing our cruise for many guided walks to ex­plain flora, fauna, bush cul­ture and tucker, and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to dig up ghost crabs. Co­ral Princess has a get-about boat called the Ex­plorer.

This flat-bot­tom ves­sel seats the full com­ple­ment of 46 pas­sen­gers and keeps go­ing even in kneedeep wa­ter.

The re­ally clever as­pect of the Ex­plorer is that it is hy­drauli­cally raised to deck level, so there is no scram­bling up or down lad­ders and peo­ple do not have to be supremely fit to get on board. But a cou­ple of our ex­cur­sions prove best suited for the fit. A walk up Camp Creek in­volves a de­gree of dif­fi­culty, with sandstone cliff hug­ging and grip­ping by fin­ger­tips on nar­row ledges. Walk­ers are re­warded with a rock­pool swim.

Con­jec­ture over the pos­si­bil­ity that a log-shaped ob­ject in the pool be­low is a freshie ( fresh­wa­ter croc­o­dile) is not con­firmed un­til we are back aboard the Ex­plorer. An­other walk at Raft Point, to have our first look at Abo­rig­i­nal cave paint­ing, also tests some walk­ers. These two ex­cur­sions are prepa­ra­tion for a 12km hike to what re­mains of Kun­munya Mis­sion. Es­tab­lished in 1915 by Rev­erend J. R. B. Love, the Pres­by­te­rian mis­sion at­tracted all the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple sim­ply by of­fer­ing food, wa­ter and shel­ter.

As a con­se­quence to­day there are no in­dige­nous peo­ple liv­ing tra­di­tion­ally in the Kim­ber­ley. This area is also where Aurora’s ex­pe­di­tion leader Michael Cu­sack and his wife Su­san lived in 1987, as Aus­tralian Geo­graphic’s ‘‘wilder­ness cou­ple’’.

The story of the Cu­sacks’ year in the Kim­ber­ley could be the most ro­man­tic of tales if it were pos­si­ble to re­move the flies, heat, lack of wa­ter, feral don­keys, croc­o­diles, snakes, wee­vils and iso­la­tion.

It would have taken ex­tra­or­di­nary de­ter­mi­na­tion to per- suade your­selves to live for a year in that en­vi­ron­ment.

To­day, Michael uses this de­ter­mi­na­tion to en­cour­age trav­ellers to walk for eight hours through armpit-high grass, scram­ble up river beds, climb over loose stones in the heat, then fi­nally, while wait­ing for pick up be­side the man­groves, pause and lis­ten to the barking of a croc­o­dile less than 5m away. Com­fort zone, where­fore art thou? I could have stayed with the non-walk­ers and in­spected the 1864 failed sheep farm­ing en­ter­prise on Cam­den Penin­sula (very in­ter­est­ing, ap­par­ently). But I would have missed the cham­pagne toast on the Ex­plorer. I have never ex­pe­ri­enced such a sip of re­lief, achieve­ment and sur­vival — it could have been pond swill.

Back aboard Co­ral Princess, Michael gives talks about mi­gra­tion to Aus­tralia (also deal­ing with nav­i­ga­tors and ex­plor­ers),

about his year at Kun­munya and on the con­cept of wilder­ness. Michael’s the dean of our Kim­ber­ley school afloat and his lec­tures are light-hearted but they are packed with in­for­ma­tion. The quiz on the last night sorts out who has been pay­ing at­ten­tion.

The third Kim­ber­ley-wise man is Garry Darby, in charge of our Abo­rig­i­nal art ed­u­ca­tion. All on board would have passed an exam ques­tion that in­volved iden­ti­fy­ing a Wand­jina or a Gwion Gwion (Brad­shaw art), thanks to first-hand ob­ser­va­tion of these works in caves and sandstone over­hangs. It is hard to com­pre­hend that we are look­ing at 400-year-old art in the case of the Wand­jina works, and the Gwion Gwion art is be­lieved to be at least 17,500 years old, per­haps even dat­ing from the Ice Age.

The con­tact art, de­pict­ing white men smok­ing pipes and row­ing boats, and pos­si­bly rep­re­sent­ing Abel Tas­man’s voy­age around the coast in 1644, ren­ders us speech­less, then des­per­ate for more in­for­ma­tion.

Princesses feel par­tic­u­larly priv­i­leged at such times. He­len McKen­zie was a guest of Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions.

Co­ral Princess pas­sen­gers are taken for a Zo­diac ride through the Hor­i­zon­tal Wa­ter­falls at Tal­bot Bay, one of the Kim­ber­ley’s best-known at­trac­tions


Ex­pe­di­tion leader Michael Cu­sack with rock art at Raft Point


The three-tiered, 80m high Mitchell Falls are 80km in­land


Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions’ Co­ral Princess, a school with a view

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.