Monday, 27 August 2012

Why you should go to the Kimberley

"Back to nothingness, like a week in the desert…" Crowded House’s lyrics always come to mind when I head west of the Great Dividing Range to that "other" Australia. Though more of Australia is like this than the lush coastal fringe most of us inhabit, it always takes a trip to the outback to remind me.

A couple of weeks ago, I went further than I’ve ever been, and about as far away from wintry Sydney as I could get without needing my passport: to north-west Western Australia, the Kimberley.

The sublime Raft Point
It was my first time up there, but I’ve always wanted to go to the Kimberley, to see its big landscapes and all that untamed coastline stretching north of Broome. Now I'm convinced every Australian should go, at least once. Why?

Let me explain by describing my 9-day World Expeditions trip aboard a 24-metre catamaran called Odyssey, which was home-away-from-home for 16 of us for a week and a bit.

Croc-free Croc Creek
Was it really just a week (and a bit)? It felt like a month, in a good way, the days languidly long and gloriously outdoorsy. We went barefoot all day, except when we went ashore (in our tender, called Homer) to hike to waterfall-fed pools where we swam in water fresh enough to drink (and happily free of saltwater crocodiles, though we saw plenty elsewhere).

We had all our meals on the back deck – looking up from lunch to watch whales (we even saw dugongs one day, with their walrus faces and little whale tails) and pausing mid-dinner to look at the stars. Lovely though our cabins were, the only time I was in mine was to change into my togs and to sleep.

A nameless perfect beach
If all this sounds busy, it’s not meant to – because this was one of the most spacious trips I’ve ever done, geographically and psychologically. Not only were there wide horizons in every direction, there was time to just be with our surroundings.

Wandjina art at Raft Point
We ticked off must-see Kimberley sights: Horizontal Falls, Montgomery Reef and a place that will forever be synonymous with the Kimberley coast for me, Raft Point (and its alien-like Wandjina rock art).

But what really made the trip special was being able to experience the Kimberley with all our senses – because it was a small group and our skipper, Dylan, was switched on enough to make the most of the 10-metre tides, which threw curve-balls at us daily in terms of what we could and couldn’t do.

Breakfast is served
One morning we had a well-timed breakfast on a sandbar – complete with tablecloths that flapped in the sea breeze – before the tide came in. We had impromptu saltwater swims at some of the most perfect beaches I've ever seen – white sand, turquoise water, orange sandstone, turtle tracks. We clambered up riverside rocks to commune with some mysterious Bradshaw art, aka Gwion Gwion, estimated to be 70,000 years old.

Tapalinga Reef, at very low tide
Day 5, my favourite day of the trip, started with a walk on Tapalinga Reef, which is exposed only at the lowest of low tides; when it was time to leave, the tide rushed in around our ankles, then our knees, and a couple of reef sharks swam at my heels. That evening we had a beach bonfire, where we feasted on mud crabs we’d caught the day before. It felt as if we were on an expedition, not a tour.

Chopper pilot James, I mean Phil
The trip ended with a James Bond moment: two helicopters landed on a nearby beach, on a small island, and we zoomed in on Homer to meet them.

I can barely describe the thrill of rising above the beach, the Odyssey and the waving crew, to the throb of the chopper blades, suddenly able to look over the tops of the coastal cliffs we’d seen from sea level all week, at the vastness of the Kimberley.

We flew to Mitchell Falls, where we walked three paces and climbed into a waiting Cessna – for a 2-hour scenic flight back to Broome, retracing our steps over the landmarks we’d seen: Raft Point, Montgomery Reef, Horizontal Falls. I think I had my mouth open the whole way, it was so spectacular.

Porosus Creek and croc at sunrise
And I haven’t even mentioned the Kimberley light: glory-inspiring sunrises, blazing blue-sky days, headlands of King Leopold sandstone aglow at sunset.

You can look at pictures of the Kimberley and see how beautiful it is, but physical beauty is only part of it; what takes this place to another level is its remoteness, its ancientness. To experience that, well, you really have to be there. I rest my case.

(Coming soon: part 2 of this post, about the environmental challenges facing the Kimberley.)