Time and tide a true wonder to behold
At first, on a map, it looks like an ink blot run wild, creeping out north-east from the great blob of the Australian continent.
Look on a larger scale, and the edge looks nibbled and intricate.
The Kimberley coast is widely regarded as one of the planet’s last great wildernesses — up there, perhaps oddly enough, with Antarctica. And it’s not an odd comparison, as expedition-style cruising is what takes and introduces us to both.
The Kimberley coastline is perhaps 13,000km, depending on tides — and that’s not an odd thing to mention, either, as the tides here are extraordinary and drive each day into great pulses. Parts of the Kimberley have some of the biggest tides in the world, with spring tide ranges of up to 12m, not far behind the world’s highest tides of 15m in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia.
There are more than 2600 islands in the Buccaneer and Bonaparte archipelagos alone.
As one of Australia’s listed national biodiversity hotspots, the Kimberley coast has significant biodiversity and is recognised as one of the most intact tropical marine ecosystems on the planet.
So, to visit is a privilege.
The impressive cascades at King George falls.
But Kimberley cruising is not just for the privileged. Itineraries typically range from four to 14 days, and from camping on beaches to luxury accommodation.
For as people have sought out the Kimberley coast, the industry has developed a range of options, from short, inexpensive cruises, to smaller vessels, mid-range in comfort, and high-end cruises.
As examples, prices might range from $3690 per person for four nights and days to $9180 per person twin share for eight nights on Kimberley Quest II, to $17,995 per person for 13 nights on True North’s Kimberley Ultimate luxury cruise. (Prices include excursions and meals.)
Aurora Expeditions’ Kimberley Coast cruises on Coral Princess are a classic example of itineraries, travelling between Broome and Darwin, and starting from $7590 per person twin share.
Among the boats crusing the Kimberley are Odyssey, Kimberley Quest II, True North, Diversity II, Kimberley Explorer, Coral Princess, Great Escape, Lady M, Oceanic Discoverer, Karma IV and National Geographic Orion.
Let’s pick a few out, to give an idea of the scope...
Karma IV is a 22m sailing catamaran which takes up to 10 passengers. There are two individual double-bed cabins (one with an ensuite), and the rest is bunk configuration. There are four showers and four toilets and Karma IV is air-conditioned.
This is the intimate end of Kimberley cruising, with Kimberley Explorer taking 12 guests, Lady M taking 13 and Great Escape, a luxurious 26m motorised catamaran, sleeping 14 in seven staterooms, all with private ensuites and queen-sized beds.
While Kimberley Quest II’s limit is 18 (accompanied by six crew), Odyssey is 20, and the 49m True North can take up to 36 passengers and 20 crew.
There are cruisers who will choose a bigger vessel simply for the ability to be a little more lost within a crowd — to be able to move around between the groups that form, rather than being on a smaller boat with one group.
Certainly the human dynamics are to be considered, but even for those who might class themselves as less social, it is also true that great friendships form and people sharing such a dramatic experience almost invariably become a “family of sorts”.
But, moving into the bigger vessels, Coral Princess carries up to 48 guests, and has a forward lounge, cocktail bar, sundeck, big spa pool, dining room and individual cabins.
Oceanic Discoverer takes up to 72 guests in 36 staterooms, and has modern fittings and a shallow draft.
Among the biggest of the expedition style boats is National Geographic Orion, carrying 106 passengers.
APT operates its own expedition ship, the 110-guest MS Caledonian Sky.
Most of its 14 Kimberley coast cruising itineraries, from 11-27 days in length, match up to one of six different APT small-group Kimberley Wilderness Adventures land tours that take a maximum of 20 guests.
The ship has a lido deck for alfresco dining, sundeck, library, small gym and hair salon, and each suite has ocean views, climate control, mini fridge, sitting area, flat-screen television and a telephone.
It’s a little unfair to pick out some ships like this but they serve merely as examples. And, of course, the value of the experience comes from the explanation of the place, as well as just being there.
From topography to histories old and new, and from rock art to fishing trips, there’s a wealth of experience and knowledge aboard these boats, as they explore the Kimberley from late March to early November of each year (when weather is consistently good).
Itineraries usually range from six to 14 nights — typically perhaps 10-11 — but the core of what visitors might want to see remains the same. Horizontal Falls, Hunter River, the King George twin falls, Montgomery Reef, Raft Point.
At Talbot Bay, in the Buccaneer Archipelago, cruises usually visit the Horizontal Falls, where tides push through a bottleneck, filling a massive “bowl” behind, creating a horizontal waterfall through the red sandstone gap.
Most itineraries also include Prince Frederick Harbour and the Hunter River, where the remoteness of this coastline is really felt.
Raft Point has a tabletop hill and significant rock art sites. It was named after John Lort Stokes found tribal rafts at a camp here in 1838. These traditional mangrove rafts had been clearly described by Philip Parker King in journals of his voyage here in 1821: “The catamarans consisted of five mangrove stems lashed together to a frame of smaller wood...they are buoyant enough to carry two natives, besides their spears and baskets.”
The Kimberley was later named after John Wodehouse, the 1st Earl of Kimberley, a British Liberal politician who held office in every Liberal administration from 1852 to 1895, including being Secretary of State for the Colonies.
In Prince Frederick Harbour, a boat seems suspended between turquoise salt water and cerise sky, and the Hunter River is smooth and serpentine through mangroves and oozy tributaries. There are crocodiles and azure kingfishers and a sea eagle calls overhead. The King George River winds round big sweeping bends to its twin waterfalls, which have a 50m drop.
Offshore, the 400sqkm of Montgomery Reef is revealed mid-ocean as the tide drops. It seems to rise from the water.
And this coast is now dotted with comfortable camps — another way to touch the remoteness. Many include light-plane flights in and out, accommodation and activities.
True North at Kings Cascade in the Kimberley.
By way of example; Kimberley Coastal Camp, on the shores of Admiralty Gulf, which has just six private rooms with sea views. The Berkeley River Lodge is up on the coast of the Timor Sea, and has 20 luxury villas, a swimming pool, and lots to do.
The long-established Faraway Bay has eight cabins and an authentic feel.
And then, of course, one must add in the prospect of days before and after a cruise or coastal stay, particularly in Kununurra, Derby or Broome. In Broome, Great Escape Charter Company has just opened a cruise guest lounge where guests can relax before and after their cruise, between hotel checkout and flight departures.
The lounge has a coffee machine and well-stocked fridge, free for guests. There are comfortable lounges and armchairs with a television, Kimberley reference library, free wi-fi and brochures about what to do and see in and around Broome.
Up on the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome, there is accommodation, particularly at Kooljaman at Cape Leveque and Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, which also runs a 90-minute fast-boat Giant Tides Tour out into the Buccaneer Archipelago — another way of experiencing the Kimberley coast.
And what an extraordinary coast it is — this nibbled crust on the cusp of ocean and sky.
© The West Australian
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