North by northwest
A voyage into the timeless Kimberley
It begins with crocodiles and ends with whales. In between there are coral-strewn beaches, exotic birds and countless sea turtles. On one memorable morning an otherwise nondescript mudflat provides up-close sightings of two mangrove snakes, a pair of fighting mudskippers, an osprey, a brahminy kite taking flight clasping a fish, and a saltwater crocodile languorously devouring a reptile.
Nature is stunningly abundant on an 11-day voyage along the Kimberley coast, a slow and varied journey that takes in some of the most spectacular and otherwise inaccessible sights on a meandering route between Darwin and Broome. I am aboard the 90m-long all-suite MS Caledonian Sky, and seasonal cruises along the northernmost coastline of Western Australia include all meals, most beverages, and daily expeditions with a specialist team of guides courtesy of a fleet of inflatable Zodiacs.
This is luxury cruising, but not quite as it is always known. There is Wi-Fi but, given the remoteness of the itinerary, no mobile phone reception; a talented jazz duo but no casino; and a nightly turn-down service but no folded towel art. The genial captain is not too fussed whether passengers refer to this temporary home, which has just 57 suites, as a ship or a boat. But please, he adds during a welcoming cocktail reception shortly after embarking in Darwin, do not call it a cruise line.
This is an expedition voyage. And although there are multiple luxury touches — from spacious suites with Molton Brown toiletries to cool towels and welcome drinks each time we return aboard — the focus is firmly on what happens outside, as we pass through one of Australia’s most spectacular wilderness areas and a landscape dating back 1.8 billion years.
For a week and a half, civilisation is mostly absent as 101 passengers, assisted by a friendly and industrious crew of 79, explore isolated coves and historic markers, with regular sightings of wildlife. Because of the vessel’s comparatively small size, we venture in and out of the smallest of bays, as well as larger waterways. One day we take a three-hour Zodiac cruise along the King George River surrounded by soaring, almost geometric-looking sandstone cliffs, and spot a rare dugong moving through the water. The next day we anchor offshore, motor across to a turtle-nesting beach, scale a sand dune, wander over a salt flat, and inspect the remarkably non-rusty remains of a plane that crash-landed in 1942.
Each day the landscape changes and a new experience awaits. We wander through spinifex to inspect ancient
Zodiacs take passengers on a Kimberley excursion, main; Bradshaw/ Gwion Gwion rock art, above