Coast of many colours

En­joy priv­i­leged ac­cess to the Kim­ber­ley on an ex­pe­di­tionary ship

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JU­DITH ELEN

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

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