Dominion Post – Kimberley Dreaming – Brett Atkinson
“In the Kimberley, the tides rule what we do,’’says Chris Mirbach, adventure cruise company True North’s onboard naturalist. And on an early morning departure on one of the 50-metre-long luxury vessel’s six purpose built ‘‘adventure boats’’, we’re experiencing one of the planet’s most amazing natural phenomena.
As we explore the narrow channel bisecting Montgomery Reef, sprawling spectacularly for 400km2 along Australia’s remote northwest coast, and dubbed by Sir David Attenborough as ‘‘one of the greatest natural wonders of the world’’, the reef is being transformed by the southern hemisphere’s biggest tidal movement.
For the previous six hours, the ocean has risen by an incredible 11 metres, causing a foamy maelstrom to surge across the reef’s expanse of coral, and sending ribbons of rapids into a scape inhabited by sea turtles and manta rays. Later in the morning, flying in Truth North’s onboard helicopter, the Kimberley’s impetuous energy is trumped by sublime beauty.
From the air, Montgomery Reef’s arcing serpentine profile is framed by a score of river-like cascades, and precise flying from pilot Rob Colbert reveals the telltale profiles of sharks and dugongs in the shallow waters below us. A day earlier, a rollicking adventure boat ride through the capricious waters of Horizontal Falls has also demonstrated the massive tidal shifts caused by the shallow continental shelf extending into the Indian Ocean.
Thousands of litres of water surge through narrow chasms linking otherwise flat and benign sections of water, and multiple passes through the Kimberley’s greatest natural thrill ride are all equally exciting.Just two days into a week-long adventure exploring a remote region twice the size of Victoria – almost 425,000km2 – the Kimberley’s reputation as Australia’s greatest wilderness area is spectacularly reinforced.
Travelling from the historic pearling town of Broome to the sleepy riverine hamlet of Wyndham, the sleek True North covers an impressive distance on its Kimberley Snapshot journey, venturing out to the surprisingly calm waters of the northern Indian Ocean and Timor Sea to occasionally steam overnight, but spending most of its time in sheltered anchorages and expansive bays framed by rocky escarpments and sandstone cliffs up to 1.8 billion years old. A versatile crew of 20 is equally skilled at helming a tender, baiting guests’ fishing lines or seeking out the best mangrove inlets to catch mud crabs. They have a youthful and authentic Aussie charm, and the galley consistently turns out restaurant-quality meals, often harnessing seasonal and local ingredients, such as freshly caught barramundi, for a select 36 guests rejoining the boat after a morning or afternoon packed with active adventures.
Before another convivial dinner around the True North’s shared tables, cocktails of the day always team with bar snacks and brilliant sunsets. Beyond fishing or hands-on checking of baited mud crab pots – some occasionally stripped of their barramundi skin bait by saltwater crocodiles cruising the mangrove labyrinth of the Hunter River–Kimberley wildlife viewing True North style includes rock wallabies ascending the-near vertical cliff faces of Koolama Bay.
In an Australian twist on snakes and ladders, they traverse laterally like mountain goats before zig-zagging in morning sunshine along narrow fissures in the Kimberley’s ancient rocks. Avian locals include brahminy kite sea eagles patrolling high above as powerful birds of prey, and spindly-legged jabiru storks, tentatively exploring the shallows like a picky eater considering their options at a hotel buffet.
A humpback whale and her calf are sighted in warmer northern waters, the youthful cetacean a recent birth in the Kimberley, after its mother’s annual migration north from Antarctica. Inevitably, there are plenty of sightings of the common ‘‘logodile’’, but a few genuine crocs are also spotted warming themselves in Kimberley sunshine or cruising nearby in olive-coloured waters. With a top speed of about 25kph, we prudently keep at a safe distance in the boat’s tenders.
Patience is key when looking for dugongs, and a couple of Koolama Bay’s seven resident sirenians eventually make themselves known, surfacing just metres away to reveal whiskers glistening in afternoon sunlight. Beyond wildlife and sightseeing excursions in the True North’s adventure boats, we venture inland from the Kimberley’s coastal expanses. Helicopter pilot Colbert steers us on a thrilling 20-minute flight up the Sale River, crisscrossing above the river’s gorge for excellent views for all six of the luxury chopper’s passengers, before flying thrillingly down a terracotta canyon to set us down right above a waterfall, just metres from a remote swimming hole.
Another secluded spot only reached by helicopter is Eagle Falls, named by the True North team on an earlier visit, and now the location for a gourmet barbecue and an afternoon of swimming and relaxation. Indigenous rock art features on a beach walk at Vansittart Bay, an area traditionally owned by the local Wunambal Gaambera people, and featuring millennia-old artworks protected by caves and overhangs, and emanating with creativity and spirituality.
Purpose-built to explore the rivers, canyons and thrilling land-meets-sea geography of the Kimberley, the True North is uniquely able to access remote parts of the region. With a shallow draft of just 1.2 metres, skipper ‘‘Gav’’ Graham steers the boat through a narrow gap in Prince Regent River, and edges the bow right up to the multi-tiered Kings Cascade. In the Kimberley’s wet season, from October to March, when rain and humidity peak, Kings’ rocky terrace is awash with waterfalls. An August dry season visit is more subdued but still spectacular.
After lining up for an al fresco shower on the bow, we embark on a 30-minute bush walk to the source of Kings Cascade, scrambling up and over boulders, then easing down a rope to another sublime swimming hole. Beyond the initial pool, further exploration inland reveals several more swimming holes concealed in Kings Cascade’s one-billion-year-old granite and sandstone landscape.
Our final full day on the True North is spent exploring King George River, journeying by tender for 20km up a waterway framed by towering sandstone cliffs stacked haphazardly like a giant celestial game of Jenga. River canyons are daubed with the telltale smudges of wet season waterfalls but, under the pristine cobalt skies of late August, there are still a few delicate trickles hinting at the natural power to emerge in a couple of months’ time.
Transferring back on the True North to board another tender, it is a short journey to an isolated beach where freshly steamed mud crabs, and gin and ginger beer cocktails, combine for a final and consistently sublime Kimberley sunset.
The writer travelled as a guest of True North.