Words: David McGonigal.
Beyond the Coast
Most Kimberley cruises offer you the chance to take an optional helicopter flight over Mitchell Plateau to the tiered pools and cascades of Mitchell Falls, an iconic part of the Kimberley. After travelling to the top of Australia, however, many passengers wish to explore further.
If Darwin is one of your ports, the obvious place to visit is Kakadu National Park. You could spend a week exploring Kakadu but can do it in a long day with a bus trip to the park, a cruise on crocodile-rich Yellow Waters and a visit to the Aboriginal rock-art site at Nourlangie Rock. A longer visit is more rewarding and less exhausting, plus you can explore Twin Falls or Jim Jim Falls.
Whether you are doing a one-way or a return voyage, or flying in and sailing back, you are certain to visit the boom town of Broome. Two of the best local tours are a hovercraft excursion (www.broomehovercraft.com.au) across Roebuck Bay at low tide, to see the preserved footprints of long-extinct dinosaurs, and a camel ride (www.broomecamelsafaris.com.au) along Cable Beach as the sun sets across the sea.
From Broome, the whole Kimberley beckons. You can drive up the highway through Fitzroy Crossing and Geikie Gorge, past the detour to the Bungle Bungle Ranges as far as Kununurra. Or you can travel up to Derby and take the iconic 700-kilometre 4WD journey along the Gibb River Road that runs roughly parallel to the main road but leads to the Windjana and Bell gorges.
Due north of Broome lies the Aboriginal-owned resort of Kooljaman (www.kooljaman.com.au) at Cape Leveque. Sunset here turns the blood-red ridge behind the white sandy beach to crimson. Kooljaman is special, too, whether you bring your own tent or stay in any of the five other levels of accommodation. There’s a store, a restaurant and an incomparable setting.
If you are seeking remote coastal luxury, find your way to Faraway Bay (www.farawaybay.com.au). You have to fly in because any other form of access is impractical, and there are just eight secluded cabins at this all-inclusive resort overlooking the bay. The resort takes prides in its cuisine – and the setting it’s served in.
About two hours’ drive from Kununurra, and overlooking glorious Chamberlain Gorge, El Questro Homestead (www.elquestro.com.au) is a luxury property run by the Voyages group that’s based around the station’s original home. The lodge is surrounded by gardens, a swimming pool and tennis court. This is a unique outback experience that is open only during the ‘dry’, with just six rooms.
What’s new in the Kimberley
Darwin City Waterfront
If you haven’t sailed in or out of Darwin for a couple of years, be prepared for a big surprise. The wharf area was once a wasteland and you had to reach the top of the ridge and Smith Street to feel you were in town. That has all changed, however, with the opening of the Darwin City Waterfront precinct that has turned the whole area into parklands and promenades, with hotels and restaurants, a swimming lagoon and a cruise-ship terminal. It’s happening in stages over more than a decade but the hotels, convention centre, recreation areas and tours are now operating. It’s a remarkable transformation and it ensures that Kimberley cruisers no long feel like the poor relatives to those flying in and out of Darwin.
Though Orion Expedition Cruises is based in Sydney, the ship still holds its earlier Bahamas registration. That can precipitate a whole range of maritime regulations. So it is that Orion’s Kimberley voyage heads north from Darwin to the Timor national park of Jaco Island with perfect, yet empty beaches. Orion returns to the frontier port of Wyndham for a flight to the remarkable orange and black beehive rock structures of the Bungle Bungles that’s included in the cruise cost. There’s extra sea time here but passengers have responded very favourably to the new itinerary. Whether it continues is yet to be determined.