Wednesday 28 September 2016

"Sea-houses" and wild swims in the north-east Kimberley

This time about two weeks ago, give or take the east-west time difference, I was lying in bed watching the sun rise over the Timor Sea for the last time at Berkeley River Lodge in the north-east Kimberley.

Timor Sea sunrise
It was the end of a four-day media stay (I was there with four other writers and a PR) though I confess to feeling more "on holiday" than "on assignment" for most of that time. It's that kind of place. Remote, wild and intensely beautiful.

I'd never been to this part of the Kimberley. Not many people have. It's much less visited than the Kimberley coast around Broome in north-west Western Australia (spectacular as that is - see my Why you should go to the Kimberley post), mainly because it's so far away.

To get to the Berkeley River from, say, Sydney, you have to fly across Australia to Perth, north to Broome, east to Kununurra, which is only 35km from the Northern Territory border, then north again for an hour in a light plane until, finally, you land at a dusty private airstrip. Which makes you feel well off the map when you get there - in a good way.

The Berkeley River, looking west
From the air, Berkeley River Lodge's 20 villas are strung out along the ridge of a high sand dune at the mouth of the river like the skeleton of a long-dead dingo.

Up close, they're airy, architect-designed corrugated-iron cabins on stilts, "sea-houses" that rest lightly on the landscape.

The lodge opened in 2012 and though it's not eco-certified, it is sustainable in all sorts of ways.

Sky-villas on a sand dune
Each villa is oriented to catch the sea breeze and minimise the use of aircon, for instance; with all the louvres open in mine, I barely even needed the ceiling fan. They have composting toilets, solar hot water (solar panels generate 30 per cent of the lodge's power), sustainable bamboo floors (so smooth under bare feet) and recycled plastic decking.

My blue-sky bathroom
They also have open-to-the-sky bathrooms, one of my favourite features. I showered in the sun (all the lodge's water comes from an underground spring), bird-watched while brushing my teeth (and from the toilet - that's a first) and one night took a bath under the star-spangled Kimberley sky (another first).

It's a five-star lodge, with five-star rates to match (see below), but the real privilege of staying at Berkeley River is having the opportunity to experience in this incredible place, with few reminders of the outside world. (There's no tv or mobile reception, and WiFi only in the main lodge.)

There's plenty of room to roam: the lodge leases 5000 hectares (50 square kilometres) in Oombulgurri Aboriginal Reserve from the local Indigenous land council. Not that you want to wander too far without a guide. This is remotest Australia after all.

And croc country, of course. The only two "rules" at the lodge are actually survival tips: don't swim in the sea (there are tiger sharks, too) and stay at least five metres from the water's edge when walking on the beach.

A pool with a view
That doesn't mean there's no swimming (good news when it's 39 degrees, though the sea breezes kept us cool).

The lodge has one of the most beautiful hotel pools I've ever swum in: 20 metres, saltwater, with shade umbrellas at both ends and views across the river mouth to a sandstone escarpment that changes colour with the changing light.

And there are croc-free swimming holes. On our second day we cruised the coast in a small boat with guide Bruce Maycock, who has probably spent more time exploring this coastline than anyone, even camping for months at a time during the Wet season (an interview with Bruce is my next post). We landed on beaches striped with croc-tracks, rock-hopped up gorges to see ancient rock art and explored mangrove-lined inlets, but the highlight was our last stop, Atlantis Creek.

One of my comrades at Atlantis pool
Named after a seaplane that crashed off this coast in the 1930s, it's where Bruce's camp is and what he reckons is "the best waterhole on the coast". It's probably the most perfect wild swimming spot I've seen: a deep green swimming hole the size of two Olympic pools side by side surrounded by walls of Kimberley sandstone, filled with water fresh enough to drink.

All afternoon we swam, jumped off rocks and played in the water like kids at a pool party, until it was time to walk back to the boat and head home to the lodge.

We had other day-trips: beach drives to see turtle nests and stone tools used by long-gone indigenous locals, a river cruise up the Berkeley, a little fishing (not my thing, but a drawcard for a lot of guests) and an amazing (and not very no-impact, I confess) heli-sunset trip to the nearest peak, Mt Casuarina. And there was still time to do nothing in scenic splendour back at the lodge occasionally.

Yours truly, loving her work
One morning during a sunrise beach walk, the dunes pink in the early morning light and the sea a limpid grey-green, I realised there was no washed-ashore rubbish, not even a speck of microplastic, thanks to a lack of sea traffic and favourable ocean currents. You can't say that about many beaches these days.

I really didn't want to leave, but Berkeley does even that well, giving us a "rock star" departure.

Our private twin-prop (for an hour)
After a last swim and a leisurely lunch Berkeley's owner, PJ, drove us down the red-earth road to the airstrip where we found our pilot leaning against his Piper Chieftain, both ready to go whenever we were.

Before I knew it, we were buckled in and speeding down that dusty runway, rewinding the tape to the start of our trip. Was it really only four days ago? Maybe it was all just a dream.


Berkeley River Lodge is open between March and November every year and villas start at $1488 per couple per night, including all meals and most activities. Plus air transfers from Kununurra or Darwin with Kimberley Air Tours, best booked through the lodge.

Big thanks to Berkeley River Lodge and Tourism WA for an incredible experience in a must-see part of Australia and to Fairfax Traveller for the assignment (I didn't really forget I was working. Well, not often).

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