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. We fly 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; decision-making 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 Moby Dick 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 knee-deep 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 persuade 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. View the article here.