Marvelling at the ancient cliffs and bays of Western Australia’s Kimberley region on board luxury vessel True North.
As you cast your eyes on the golden hues of the savagely weathered stone edifices along the Hunter and Prince Regent Rivers, laid down by the same ancient waterways almost two billion years ago, you are seeing a snapshot of our planet so old, it predates the earliest forms of multicellular life by hundreds of millions of years.
That’s the thing about the Kimberley, like old great grandmother nature herself, every tick of the clock here is measured in hundreds of years. Whether you’re a captain of industry, celebrity superstar or humble streetsweeper, the Kimberley doesn’t care. You’ll be gone and long forgotten before she’s taken her next breath.
The exquisite and mysterious Aboriginal rock art from the modern Wandjina and ancient Gwion Gwion periods give us some indication of the impact of humans in the vast 425,000 square kilometres of the Kimberley.
“The Kimberley is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world,” says Professor Lyn Beazley AO from the University of WA, “its biodiversity and marine ecosystem are among the world’s most pristine. The tropical savannah of the region are the only near-untouched such landscapes left on the planet.”
Even though we may be brief and transient visitors to her realm, that doesn’t stop us marvelling at the grandeur of her creations. The majesty of King George Falls in full flight ranks along with Victoria Falls and Niagara in terms of sheer beauty, if not water volume. Expert and experienced adventure cruise operators like True North, will bring their tenders so close that your whole body will shudder as the cascade plummets 80 metres into the river, enveloping you in a dense, misty spray.
Cruising along the Kimberley Coast has only come of age relatively recently, drawing guests initially from all over Australia, but increasingly from the far corners of the world as the global phenomenon of small ship and expedition cruising grips the imagination of the modern, experiential traveller.
The much-celebrated True North affords her 36 pampered guests the opportunity to investigate the spectacular landscapes and natural wonders up close. Take the bucking, turbulent ride through the incredible horizontal waterfalls in Talbot Bay fed by the raging 10 metre tides; cruise among the eddies and whirlpools around Montgomery Reef as it appears to rise from the depths like a returning Atlantis, or hike to the eye-popping Wandjina rock art gallery at Raft Point for a glimpse of life long before the first Europeans and you’ll just start, mind you, to get a feel for this prehistoric wonderland.
And there is no more astonishing sight of this land than from a helicopter. True North is one of only a couple of ships operating in the region with its own onboard chopper. The advantage of this machine is apparent when visiting remote rock art sites and distant freshwater pools. During helicopter flights it’s common to see whales, crocs and even dugongs in the rivers and bays below.
Beyond the Prince Regent River and into the northern region, you’ll be able to see the enigmatic Gwion Gwion
(aka Bradshaw) rock art that some experts believe could be the oldest known murals and portraits known to man. Debate among anthropologists and ethnographers as to their origin and meaning has been simmering for decades.
But a visit to the Kimberley need not be all heady, intellectual stuff. Simple pleasures abound in the secret backwaters and mangrove forests that border the many rivers. Expert fishing guides aboard True North offer some of the most exciting fishing to be had among the muddy rivulets where mangrove jack, snapper and the mighty barramundi taunt fisherfolk.
Both the fearsome saltwater crocodiles and serene dugong inhabit these waters, while birds of a myriad feather squawk and wheel overhead or flutter among the dense foliage.
The late dry season, from August onwards, is best for fishing and wildlife spotting before the wet sets in again.
True North’s expedition leaders with incomparable local knowledge will know of secret freshwater billabongs, fed by crystal clear springs, a short climb up from the water’s edge where you can dip in the superbly refreshing waters just as the first inhabitants of the Kimberley did tens of thousands of years ago. Relax in the shade under the paperbark and rivergums as a gourmet picnic is laid out for you.
When you arrive in Broome, the nominal capital of the Kimberley, your first sight of the landscape is from your aircraft as it prepares to land in the historic port town. Vivid greens, golds and ochres wash the entire landscape beneath you from horizon to horizon, while rivers and scrubby trees form the great pastel vistas which so inspired our artists and poets like Dorothea Mackellar. ‘Far horizons’, ‘wide brown lands’, ‘jewel sea’ and ‘droughts and flooding rains’ perfectly epitomises the Kimberley.
For anyone venturing to the Kimberley for a cruise, it is the common wisdom to spend a few days in the intriguing remote township of Broome. A mixture of preserved frontier village and modern go-ahead business, Broome never forgets its roots, carved out of the dust and mud by graziers, pearlers, fishers and miners from numerous ethnic backgrounds over more than a century.
You can take either land or air tours from Broome to such significant landmarks as Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek or even the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu National Park). The Dampier Peninsula to Cape Leveque, for example, can be explored in a day taking in the fascinating Beagle Bay and its unique church as well as the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm where you can learn some of the fascinating history of pearl cultivation in this remote wilderness as well as take home a lasting and beautiful souvenir.
Exploring all of Australia’s Kimberley, a region twice the size of Victoria, cannot be completed in a single visit. One trip, however, will be enough to sow the seed of wonderment that will bring you back to gradually reveal the many layers of this magical and mystical land.
Opening image: Heli-exploring in the Kimberley.From below to top right: Stargazing aboard True North; Rock art viewing; Heading ashore for a climb.