Age-old aboriginal art and pristine coral reefs form the backdrop for a back-to-nature journey along Western Australia’s wild, dramatic coastline.
In the stillness of the air, I can almost hear the 1.8 billion-year-old sandstone cliffs of the Kimberley Coast sizzle where they meet the celadon glaze of the Timor Sea. Admiral Phillip Parker King surveyed Western Australia’s north back in the early 1800s aboard HMS Mermaid, but a threatening combination of saltwater crocodiles lurking in sinuous mangroves, bull sharks pacing the depths and poisonous jellyfish makes mermaiding in these waters less enticing than it looks. Nevertheless, True North – a pioneer of tourism in the region with 30 years’ experience – has plenty up its sleeve to stop me yearning for a dip on this seven-night cruise from Broome to Wyndham.
Despite its hostile beauty, the Kimberley Coast claims a mighty stream of accolades: the highest twin waterfalls in Australia; arguably the oldest figurative rock art in the world; the most dramatic tides in the Southern Hemisphere. And yet it was born from a geological accident, when continental collisions and volcanic activity formed a complicated shoreline littered with castaway islands. It isn’t just Kimberley’s landscape that makes it unique: it’s here that three aboriginal tribes were bonded by their belief in Wandjina, sky-bound spirits said to control the rains, their haunting faces branded in ochre and iron clay on cave walls.
The ship itself sits somewhere between a yacht and an expedition vessel with a helicopter accompanying nearly every trip. With just 18 cabins, bonds soon form among the passengers who gather on the breezy bow to eat elbow-to-elbow in the communal dining room. The bar on the upper deck becomes the favoured spot for toasting strawberry sunsets, and off the stern I catch my first glimpse of a crocodile lingering alongside a school of nurse sharks, drawn to the scent of blood as the chef nonchalantly carves up a guest’s freshly caught mackerel under the relentless sun.
The experience would pale without the all-Australian crew. Together we trace cliffs laced with wild passion fruit vines, fish for barramundi and hike over boulders dotted with flowering Kimberley roses and century-old boab trees. We prise oysters from rocks with screwdrivers and wash them down with a squeeze of lemon, then pile into tenders to ride Talbot Bay’s renowned Horizontal Falls, a turquoise rollercoaster that elicits screams all around.
When it comes to places that can’t be reached on foot, helicopter pilot Al Carstens steps in, with flights over Montgomery Reef (Sir David Attenborough declared it one of world’s greatest natural wonders) as waterfalls carve channels down the rising coral and egrets pluck thrashing fish from the froth. An undisputed highlight is the heli-picnic at Eagle Falls, where guests lounge on tawny sand in a red-rock amphitheatre and the smell of charred lamb and rosemary wafts from the barbecue. It’s here that one of our passengers confesses she’s never truly felt the soul of Australia until now. Perhaps it’s the spiritual undercurrent that we’ve learnt runs deep but there feels far more to this trip than novelty.
The Kimberley Snapshot has been included in Conde Nast’s Ultimate Cruise Guide for 2020.
Conde Nast – Annie Biziou