Coast of many colours
Enjoy privileged access to the Kimberley on an expeditionary ship
LIKE, say, a Van Gogh painting, the rust-red cliffs and canyons of Western Australia’s Kimberley coast, with their strange shapes and colours, need to be seen at first hand to be truly appreciated — and, ideally, from the water.
Vibrant sea greens frame the ancient orange-ochre of the land, and the expeditionary ship Orion forms a bridge. It’s a cool way to be here. And there are turtles.
Orion Expedition Cruises’ Kimberley itinerary moves between land and sea as easily as stepping into one of the ship’s black rubber Zodiacs. It suits the timeless alliance of earth and water and gives passengers access to places difficult to reach. Sea breezes temper the heat of the sun and Orion is a cosseting base.
I am travelling with my adult daughter on her first outback adventure. Staying overnight in Broome, we stroll the seemingly endless arc of Cable Beach, with its evening camel train, and freeze beneath the stars at Broome’s vintage deckchair cinema. Next morning we set sail on our 11-day voyage to Darwin via reefs, sounds, bays, rivers, waterfalls and open ocean.
Apart from my daughter, a son travelling with his father and one or two younger couples, passengers are mostly middle-aged or older. As it is a ship designed for soft adventures, rather than a luxury liner, we are blissfully free of casinos, nightclubs and flash pools (though there’s a Jacuzzi).
Orion is 103m of quiet elegance, with polished timber and brass-fitted interiors, cosy banquettes, sleek bars, curving windows and glass walls in lounges and restaurant. The Sun Deck serves breakfast under umbrellas and dinner under the stars. There’s a small gym, massage room, beauty salon and snug little library (with fiction and reference books, DVDs and games).
But our aim is to explore. Max McGuire, expedition leader on our voyage, whose enthusiasm inspires us all, paints a picture of the ancient Kimberley land mass colliding with the continent to form the Kimberley Plateau some two billion years ago. Eons of tumult and erosion, compressing, folding and lifting the rock, alternately iron-tinged and blackened by sea, has shaped the cliffs that we encounter.
Every day is a discovery. Each Zodiac seats about eight, a crew member and one of the expedition team, who points everything out as we zip through the water or linger for a closer look.
In Yampi Sound we encounter the towering, highly coloured crags that will frame our voyage. The buckling rock of these headlands, found throughout the Kimberley, stands in vertical wave-like folds of graded colour — anticlines, folding downward from the crest, the oldest rock at their core, and their antithesis, the synclines, their folded sides sloping inward. These are words we learn from daily briefings, but to see them is something else. One cliff face looks like a millenniaweathered Venetian mosaic.
We spot our first dolphin in the sound and, on the banks, woollybutt trees (their termite-hollowed limbs are used for didgeridoos) and flame-bright Kimberley roses on bare, twisted branches.
Tiny oysters cling to the rocks. Even the termites, in tall pointy mounds, play a crucial environmental role.
Darrin Bennett, a key team member, points out an osprey’s nest high above the shore. Brought up in Darwin, Bennett knows the landscape, sea and wildlife, Aboriginal art and culture, and soon becomes our favourite guide. Ospreys mate for life and return to their nest annually, he tells us. ‘‘They’ll be up there on a treetop, watching us.’’ The nest is balanced on a rock ledge; at high tide, it will be an island, safe from goannas.
In the afternoon, we set out for a dip in limpid Crocodile Creek, confident our vigilant crew would never permit it if there really were crocodiles.
In the days that follow we track crocodiles (basking in the sun), sit beneath towering waterfalls, visit beaches and bush trails, even explore a US World War II plane with a story, the crashed Douglas DC-3 at Vansittart Bay.
Our eyes constantly peeled for eagles, ospreys, oystercatchers and honeyeaters, rock wallabies, dolphins and crocodiles, we have a ringside view from the Zodiacs without disturbing even a small green-and-blue sacred kingfisher alighted on a rock. The whitebellied sea eagle makes majestic appearances as does my favourite, the brahminy kite, its downy whiteness accessorised with wings the colour of roasted chestnuts.
At Raft Point, boab trees mark the rocky bush path we climb to visit ghostly Wandjina and giant barramundi in their secluded cave. Creator beings of the Worrorra, Wunambal and Ngarinyin peoples of the Kimberley, the Wandjina are enigmatic red- ochre figures with whitepipeclay faces, cavernous black eyes and headdresses of hair and clouds. Long lines radiating from their heads are the feathers they wear and the lightning they control, Bennett tells us. Aboriginal elders return here every year to refresh the paintings and hold ceremonies for the arrival of the monsoonal rains.
This is a memorable day, with art in the morning, turtles after lunch. In the shallow waters skirting Montgomery Reef, the water seethes over its crown, increasingly breaking and falling away like little sea-locked waterfalls, as the reef rises. A dugong and her calf cruise briefly near us, a rare sighting. Long-legged sea birds stalk the emerging reef, harvesting their prey. Centimetres below our Zodiac’s sides we spot big, splay-footed turtles floating and scuttling away.
Later, anchored in Vansittart Bay, we visit Jar Island and the dark-ochre stick figures of Gwion Gwion rock art, perhaps more than 35,000 years old, more ancient than the Wandjina.
I take a helicopter flight over the three-skirted Mitchell Falls, an optional extra. And from Wyndham there’s a complimentary small-plane flight over the striated domes of the Bungle Bungle Range. We take the independently-run Ord River cruise instead. Others are more interested than we are in the detailed history of the Ord River Dam, but the river is rich with birdlife and crocodiles.
On board, evening recaps and Brad Savior’s daily fishing reports (the fisherwomen win, of course) become fun get- togethers. Smoky-voiced jazz singer Fran and saxophonist Gus give popular nightly performances, and Gus materialises with his saxophone on sandbars and by rockpools, to much acclaim.
Fran’s late- afternoon team trivia, accompanied by cakes, becomes addictive ( especially when you are winning).
Food is always a cruise focus and Orion’s collaboration with executive chef Serge Dansereau really pays off. His dailychanging, four- course degustation menus are stunning. And our onboard chef, Bretagne-born Yannick Peltier, serves up excellent buffet and a la carte breakfasts, a gourmet evening meal, seafood banquet, and full dinner menus that can be mixed with the degustation lists.
Open-ocean sailing from Wyndham for a brief touchdown in Timor, to comply with government regulations, offers two days of quiet time, but it would be wise to pack motion-sickness wristbands and ginger tablets in case of heavy seas.
Taking the reverse trip, Darwin to Broome, is an option but, either way, Orion is a privileged passport to one of Australia’s extreme pleasures. Judith Elen was a guest of Orion Expedition Cruises.
An Orion guide offers insights into Wandjina rock art at Raft Point
Hop ashore by Zodiac