Cruising the Australian Kimberley Wilderness Coast

The rocks in the Australian Kimberley region are incredibly ancient

We are 400 kilometers by sea from Broome, on one of Aurora Expeditions’ many land-based adventures during their 10-night cruise between Broome and Darwin along Australia’s rugged remote Kimberley coastline.

The Kimberley was the first area in Australia settled by Aboriginals when sea crossings from the north were a mere 30 kilometers. There is compelling evidence that humans have lived here for more than 50,000 years.

Remarkable Kimberley Rock Art

Across the roof of the cave at Raft Point, enormous ocher eyes stare at us from mouth-less heads, which are framed by halos of spritzing rays. Our expedition leader, Mike Cusack, explains these Wandjina water spirits bring lightning and storms to the Kimberley.

Donny Woolagoodja, the traditional custodian of Raft Point, who created that soaring Wandjina image at the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony, has repainted some of the figures here in order to strengthen their power. Apart from that, the landscape is unchanged since explorer John Stokes named this red-rock outcrop ‘Raft Point’ in 1841 after the riderless rafts he saw laden with food and water leaving on the tide to reach boys going through initiation ceremonies on High Cliffy Island, sacred to the Worora clan.

Raft Point is an important rock art site in the KimberleyAs we explore the landscape, we discover intriguing messages from that past: early stone tools, large shell middens, mysterious rock rings used in death ceremonies, and the elongated elegant Gwion Gwion figures painted in pigments so old they have literally fused with the rock.

Yet the story of the longest continuous culture on earth is but a blip on the Kimberley timeline. Its age and size almost beggars belief.

Ancient wilderness landscape

All the rocks are more than 1700 million years old and the jagged gorges we cruise along were carved by ancient freshwater river systems flooded after the end of the last ice age. The buttressed orange cliffs soar above the aquamarine sea like cathedrals of the earth. They dwarf our four-tier, 39-metre Coral Princess catamaran.

Today, the Kimberley is one of the most geologically stable regions on earth but the forces that formed it are still visible. Sometimes square-cut sandstone chunks look like giant Jenga blocks carefully positioned so that nothing teeters and falls. Other times, the rock strata are buckled like the body of a contortionist.

Ancient red rocks in the Kimberley region of AustraliaLarger than the United Kingdom, the Kimberley has one of the world’s longest wilderness coastlines, 110 pristine river systems, 2000-plus islands, 20 national parks and nature reserves, and only 41,000 residents. It embodies the very essence of wilderness, of remoteness, a landscape with minimal human influence.

All the more reason why exploring it by expedition cruise is such a privilege. It is an eye-opening way to access the otherwise inaccessible. Better yet, there is no impact on the pristine environment.

Expedition leader  Mike Cusack spent a year in the wilderness with his wife Susan in 1987 as part of Australian Geographic’s initiative to capture the pioneering spirit of Australia. He’s like a kid in a candy store when a group of guests accompany him back to his self-built home near Kunmunya Mission.

The Explorer expedition boat

The Explorer expedition boat becomes our second home. A flat-bottomed, 46-seat aluminum craft, it is ingeniously winched up at the aft of the Coral Princess so that we walk on from the back deck before it is lowered into the water.

Philip Parker King engraved the name of The Mermaid on a boab treeWe explore places like the milky turquoise Hunter River, its canyon-like valley rimmed with grey-green mangroves, its towering cliffs dotted with vine thicket in a patchwork of gold and green. In places, the sculpted rocks resemble desert mesas so much we could be cruising through Utah. In Careening Bay, we learn that 29-year-old Kimberley explorer Philip Parker King camped here to repair his tiny barque. Instructed by the Admiralty to make British presence known, he carved HMC Mermaid 1820 in huge letters on a bulbous gouty-stemmed, bifurcated boab tree that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dr Seuss book.

Kimberley bird life

At the Lacepede Islands, we discover thousands of brown boobies, many feeding their big white fluffy chicks in the beach grasses. Soaring above us are enormous frigate birds navigating the wind currents with their split tails. In the turquoise waters, dozens of green turtles whoosh up for air and shovel-nosed sharks cavort in the shallows.

The Lacapede Islands is an important nesting site for migratory birdsBut we are not just limited to looking. The crew entices us with promises of a swim in a freshwater pool beyond the reach of saltwater crocs then encourage even the most timid to master a closely-monitored short rope climb up the ancient rocks. The reward, an entrancing paperbark-framed swimming hole littered with snowflake waterlilies.

Cascades, horizontal waterfalls and tawny nurse sharks

Some enjoy a refreshing shower on the front of the Explorer at King Cascades, where rainbows color the waters splashing over golden rock terraces topped with silver-green tussock grasses. In zodiacs the intrepid amongst us get a pummeling under the 80-meter-tall King George Falls and plough through the boiling current of the horizontal waterfalls, created by the twice-daily flood and ebb of seawater through a narrow channel in Talbot Bay’s serpentine inlet.

And the adrenalin-junkies join Mike on the Explorer’s loading dock, lowered so the water is up to our knees, to feed a dozen slithering tawny nurse sharks which rub their leathery snub noses right up against us.

Tawny nurse sharks are relatively harmless

Feasts fit for explorers

Meals aboard the Coral Princess provide delicious fuel for our adventures, even better the young staff is so enthusiastic and friendly we all want to take them home. The chefs create magic in the small ship’s galley delivering the likes of cold roast chicken and a bevy of delicious salads at lunch, roast pork and Asian-spiced barramundi (wild white fish) at dinner. One night we feast on a seafood extravaganza of oysters, prawns, bugs and two enormous king snapper. Another, we enjoy a sunset beach barbecue with kangaroo fillets, buffalo sausages and steak.

Wilderness Walk

Well-fortified, a hardy group of 16 passengers, join Mike on the 12-kilometer Kunmunya Walk to his beloved wilderness home, now just a jumble of corrugated iron after it was A hardy wilderness walk is part of the Aurora Kimberley cruisedestroyed by fire and floods. We rock hop up the creek, refresh ourselves under a waterfall, and walk through armpit-high grasses past the remains of the Kunmunya Mission. It was established by an Irish Presbyterian minister in 1915 to lure the local Aboriginals to Christianity with white sugar and flour, water and shelter.  Apparently, “Kun” means ‘full’ and “munya” translates ‘too much food’ in the local dialect.

On this trip, Mike himself has a mission: to find the three-mile donkey-cart road the missionaries used to transport supplies from the coast. I take to eating the local delicacy, green ants, which drop off nests as we brush past. They offer a citrusy tang in my mouth and the super-dosed Vitamin C doesn’t go astray either. Armed with GPS tracking and his trusty passengers, Mike finds the road and we return tired and triumphant to the Coral Princess.

For me, however, the treasures of the cruise lie in the art discoveries. In one shelter, a three-meter Wandjina ripples up an overhang alongside hand stencils and a whale painting. In another, a corroboree of slender, plum-colored Gwion Gwion figures dance exuberantly, like miniature Matisse cut-outs.

I sit here high on a cool rock shelf, limpid mangrove pools below me, crushed shells of long-ago feasts at my feet, a bower bird twittering nearby. And I feel in my bones how richly this ancient red rock landscape was lived.The Coral Princess is often dwarfed by the ancient Kimberley rocks

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Kimberley coast

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Kimberley coast -16.386026, 122.947998

 

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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