French luxury adventure line Ponant is set to launch a historic charting of the waters around the Kimberley as international interest in Australian expedition cruising grows.
Next year is also destined be one of the Western Australian region’s biggest for cruising, with almost every line represented. While Ponant is already in the Kimberley with Le Soleal, next year it is sending in Le Jacques-Cartier and Le Lapérouse.
Along with Ponant’s leading presence, Silversea, Scenic, Lindblad and Swan Hellenic will join Coral Expeditions in this stunning, rugged coastal region.
Yet, despite its maritime history, the waterways in this remote region have never been charted for shipping, meaning many areas are navigated on instruments alone.
The area is known for its famous rock formations that are billions of years old and can create hidden obstacles in depths that range from 10 metres to 40 metres below sea level.
On board a Ponant ship
Cruise Passenger was on board Ponant’s Le Soleal this week as Captain Antoine Paquet sailed the last voyage of the French-flagged line’s most successful Kimberley season yet.
Total silence was ordered on the bridge as the crew sat hunched over their instruments ensuring Le Soleal carefully navigated its way through the Razor Rock Narrows, Talbot Bay.
Towering formations on either side of the bridge appeared close. And the captain explained that usually this passage would be an even bigger navigational challenge, with whirlpools and currents everywhere.
As yet there is no Australian government body that has so-far produced charts that would allow the many international vessels expected in the Kimberley to know what dangers lurk beneath the waters.
Ponant, with a 33-year history in luxury adventure around the world, has used a private company to begin charting the Kimberley.
It started with Le Ponant, the line’s luxury sailing vessel, which needed special routes because of its slower speed. While she has already sailed in the Kimberley, she is not slated to return.
But the navigational charting idea has now spread and the captain said it was expected work would begin next season on compiling the charts.
Small ships boom
Ponant’s small ships are popular in the Kimberley, with a growing Australian fan club as well as Europeans and Americans. Half the passengers aboard our sailing were Aussies.
Among the 100 or so passengers on our journey from Broome to Darwin included 10 travel agents from mainland China.
Captain Paquet told Cruise Passenger the problem was each time a new operator arrived in the region, navigators had to create their own routes and mapping.
Ponant has now opened new legs for its ships and is already using the historic data recorded by previous sails to steer a clear path through the Kimberley.
Le Soleal has had a strong season of cruises, and is booked to capacity with many Australians and New Zealanders new to the French brand.
Local sailors also told us they enjoyed the Gallic cultural exchange of a Ponant cruise. The ship is also bilingual with the 12 expedition guides splitting guests into groups by language, so no-one was left out.
The captain, who comes from the south of France, is also a confirmed fan of the Kimberley, despite its challenges.
“It’s really a wonderful place,” he says. “Navigation is very technical, which is quite interesting for the bridge team. But the expedition side is very interesting, with geologies, wildlife sightings and Aboriginal culture.”
Our 10-day Broome to Darwin journey aboard Le Soleal featured the Kimberley’s most awe-inspiring experiences. From waterfalls and magnificent mountains, tens of thousands of years old, to crocodile hunting (cameras only) in the Hunter River.
We saw the famed green turtle breeding grounds on the Lacepede Islands and the Talbot Bay Horizontal Falls. We helicoptered across mountains and freshwater rivers to the magnificent Mitchell Falls, where we swam in a creek.
For more, see our review in November’s Cruise&Travel Magazine. Subscribe at cruisepassenger.com.au
PONANT’s 2024 Kimberley season features Le Jacques-Cartier joining Le Lapérouse in Western Australia’s north-west region for the first time. The ships have 90 staterooms and suites.
For a limited time, guests can get all-inclusive flight and transfers expedition packages available on all 2024 Kimberley itineraries, with included return economy flights available from major Australian capital cities. This includes Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington. Combined with return airport transfers in Darwin and Broome, the package guarantees a smooth fly and cruise experience.
As part of this offer, Ponant is also including business class upgrades for guests who choose to book in select suite categories.