Judy Bailey, NZ Herald Travel Section, November 8 2016.
Judy Bailey discovers the beauty of one of the world’s great wildernesses on an action-packed cruise aboard the mighty TRUE NORTH.
There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I would prefer to be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea.” Tim Winton.
For those who haven’t read him, Tim Winton is an Australian writer through and through. Most especially he is a West Australian. He gets the wild majesty of the place. The quote appeared at the top of the first day’s list of activities aboard True North, my home for the next six days . . . it was, I thought, a good omen, the perfect way to begin our journey up the coast to one of the world’s last great wildernesses. I am to discover the beauty of this vast, pristine coastline of North Western Australia on board one of the area’s most well-known boats. When I mention I’m to journey along the Kimberley coast on True North people roll their eyes in envy. I will find its reputation for excellence is well deserved.
The Kimberley covers an area of almost 425,000sq km. It is an area of ancient sandstone canyons, winding rivers, hidden reefs and thousands of tiny islands. We’re there in June, the winter season which runs from May to October. The wet season runs from November to April, that’s when 90 per cent of the annual rainfall happens. Spectacular for viewing the region’s many waterfalls but hot as hell and humid with it.
If you board True North expecting a quiet few days, lying down with a book and a G&T you’d better think again . . . this cruise is packed with activity. They call this six-day, seven-night cruise the Kimberley Snapshot. It will take us to the Kimberley’s greatest hits. It will also take me out of my comfort zone in the nicest possible way. They don’t laughingly call it True North boot camp for nothing. There are 36 guests on board — guests, not passengers — and 20 crew. The crew are young, Australian, and many are just back from working the super yacht circuit in Europe. And though they’re well-versed in tending to the needs of their guests they are also actively encouraged to interact with them. They bait the hooks when we’re fishing and gut the fish afterwards, but they’re also a mine of information about the region, great to chat to and join us for meals when they can. This all adds immeasurably to the relaxed sense of conviviality on board.
True North sets sail through the night, north past Cape Leveque, through the Buccaneer Archipelago to the Whirlpool Passage, aptly named for the many swirling pools in this stretch of water. We jump into the six tenders to explore the passage. The smaller boats slip and slide over the pools, spinning in circles. It’s a thrilling ride, as if the sea is boiling. The tidal change on this part of Australia’s west coast is huge, there’s about 10 to 12m difference between high and low tide . . . it’s a mariner’s nightmare but a holidaymaker’s delight. Our first and only saltwater swim takes place on our first day on board and what a swim it is. As we approach Silica Beach in the tenders it is deserted but for a couple of lines of brightly coloured deckchairs and sun umbrellas that have miraculously appeared on the sand. The trusty crew have been here before us. It is the beach of my dreams, white, squeaky sand, golden sandstone outcrops and crystal-clear, turquoise, warm water. One of the crew is perched on the rocks above, watching, it turns out, for crocs. Saltwater crocodiles are found right up this stretch of coastline in the Kimberley and they are not to be messed with. Needless to say, we keep to the shallows, only a couple of blokes game to explore the rock shelves.
To grasp the sheer scale of this region you need to see it from the air. One of the truly magnificent things about True North is that it has its own helicopter and we take to the skies . . . often. From the air the archipelago looks like a maze. The giant sandstone cliffs date back 1.8 billion years. We peer down through the azure waters searching for crocs and spot one sunning itself in the shallows. We circle back for a closer look but it’s gone. Riding the Kimberley’s Horizontal Falls reminds me of Skippers in Queenstown. There are two narrow gaps in the sandstone and the water rushes out at low tide and rushes back in as it rises again. Timing is everything in the Kimberley. The tides rule our lives. It’s a wild ride, the second narrower passage considered too dangerous for us to navigate. It is an extraordinary phenomenon in an otherwise flat piece of ocean.
The Kimberley is full of surprises. Not the least of them the wildly beautiful Montgomery Reef, about 20km off the central Kimberley coast. Here again it’s the changing tide that creates magic. The reef seems to rise from the deep before our eyes and water rushes off in myriad mini waterfalls. We see turtles and giant rays wallowing in the lagoon, sharks and wading birds. The view from the chopper reveals how truly grand this reef is, stretching over nearly 400km. This pristine wilderness is the ideal place to indulge in a spot of birdwatching. Watching birds, of course, entails getting up with them. The tenders leave as dawn breaks, the dark waters of the Prince Regent River an oily calm. It’s not long before we spot our first sea eagle, chestnut feathers gleaming in the first golden rays of the sun. Bright red fiddler crabs scuttle across the mud and kingfishers swoop and dive among the mangroves. True North’s resident naturalist keeps us entertained with glimpses into the private lives of our feathered friends, all the while, his eyes peeled for robins, honeyeaters, ibis and herons.
On the Prince Regent River we come face to face with one of the Kimberley’s most beautiful attractions, the King’s Cascade Waterfall. It is broad and magnificent and brings to mind the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, lush growth clinging to the rock face as the water tumbles past, leaving tiny glistening beads on the grasses. Because of its shallow draft, 1.2m, True North can nudge right up to the falls: we can almost shower on the bow. We do shower at the next falls, our shrieks of delight bouncing off the rocks as the water crashes down on us, huddling on the bows of the tenders. You’d never know the Amphitheatre Falls were there, hidden down a narrow, winding channel. They reveal themselves as we turn a corner, tumbling down a perfect semicircle of red sandstone, magical.
The Kimberley is paradise for fishermen. Even a complete novice like me is pretty much guaranteed to catch something. What we catch is served up for lunch. To my great delight I haul in a decent sized salmon . . . only to have my bubble burst when I discover its different to our New Zealand salmon and only considered good for bait. We use it later to lure the hammerheads in for photo opportunities off True North’s transom. I’m keen to try that most Australian of pastimes, mud crabbing. This, I discover can be a risky business. We head off up one of the many mangrove-covered creeks of the Prince Regent River to look for some likely spots. Crabs like a nice sandy bank — but so do the river’s other inhabitants, the crocs. We tie our crab nets to the branches of the trees at intervals up the creek and wait, and listen to the sounds of peace, water lapping and the call of the birds. As we turn the boat to collect the nets, I spot a croc but he turns out to be a “logodile”, one of many. Because of the huge tidal change, where we tied our nets is now at water level. There’s a frisson of fear as I remember the warnings not to put our hands near the water but the net is retrieved with a trusty broom and yes, there are crabs, which is good because we’re providing the pre-dinner nibbles tonight. Once in the boat, however, watch out, because they can take off a toe with those sturdy pincers. Mud crabs are tricky little critters to eat, hiding their sweet flesh under a tough and convoluted outer shell. Fortunately the crew have dealt to them and we watch the sun go down happily licking our fingers.
We’re off exploring the land every day. The hikes are challenging but end with a huge sense of achievement and generally a swim in one of the many rock pools. We haul ourselves up over huge boulders and scramble down almost vertical drops. Dr Seuss-like giant boab trees jostle for space with the gums, and often we are rewarded with rock art. The Kimberley is home to some of the world’s oldest rock art sites. There are thousands, hidden under rocky overhangs, in spots that would have provided shelter, or places close to food, near the beaches and rivers. The earliest inhabitants came here about 50,000 years ago. Some of the art sites have been carbon-dated to be at least 17,000 years old. But in the north there are sites where animals that have been extinct for more than 40,000 years feature in the drawings. The works are truly awe-inspiring, not just for their age but also for their detail. Many tell of hunting expeditions, others show elaborate headdresses and other adornments and some are just simple hand prints which tell a family story.
Discoveries are still being made in this part of Australia and True North is a big part of that. Her captain is still charting parts of the coast, He’s an 18-year veteran of True North and can’t imagine working anywhere else. “It’s the peace and quiet,” he tells me. “You can sit outside on deck and it’s just you and the wind and the birds.” And Will, our chopper pilot, is constantly coming across new gems to show us. Eagle Falls is one of them. He just happened to stumble on them one day while out flying with his boss. They named them Eagle Falls in honour of the two eagles circling overhead at the time. We picnic here, flown in on the chopper, acutely aware that this will be our last flight before heading home. We land, perched on the edge of the second of four cascading waterfalls. The crew have once again outdone themselves, rigging up a canopy for shade under the cliff face and setting out deckchairs ready for a sumptuous picnic. Kangaroo steaks, lamb and Moroccan chicken from the barbie, salads, beer and wine. What more could you want? Oh yes . . . and Tim Tams. And this is where I push my boundaries. Not one to swim where I can’t see the bottom, I’ve avoided rock pools at home because of the creatures that lurk there, namely eels. But here, I can’t help but follow the others into the top pool. There’s a croc called Lambchop who lives in the bottom pool, he’s a big boy, probably because he’s hoovered up so many lamb chops from the True North picnics. Hopefully, his mates haven’t made their way up to the fourth pool.
It’s a mystical spot, ringed again by the familiar sandstone, fringed in reeds and grasses. The water is dark and deep and still. I pluck up the courage to plunge in. It’s heaven. So this is what I’ve been missing all these years.