Cruising the Kimberley’s transfixing coastline is a long-held dream for most Australians, but few have the means (or the willpower!) to fund the exotic experience. Until now…
We’ve all stared at travel brochure spreads of the Kimberley’s mottled red cliffs blazing through the mist of billowing waterfalls as a luxury cruise boat coasts by.
Allowed ourselves to dream, just for a moment, about the raw magic of a northern escape. Giant boab trees; breathtaking rock art; time-bending geology; peace. Then we look at the price tag, and the soundtrack abruptly skids.
“We did some research and realised we’d have to sell the kids to do it,” jokes Doug Gould, who was gagging to explore the two-billion-year-old Kimberley coast after honeymooning on its mainland.
But instead of forking out for two tickets, he started Ahoy Buccaneers, the Kimberley cruise scene’s newest entrant, and one vastly different from its competitors.
“We had a look and saw there was no one doing the bottom end, for the average Joe,” he says. “We thought everyone should have the chance to see it.”
Despite having zero experience, the former truckie from Victoria and his hotel-manager (and one-time Australian champion table tennis player) wife, Shelley, decided, in a very Australian way, to give cruising a crack.
The pair of sun-baked romantics bought a 24-year-old yacht with a chequered past and began offering no-frills Kimberley cruises out of Broome and Wyndham for up to 25 guests, opening up a significant slice of northern Australia to people who never thought they’d make it.
So here I am, shaking the piggybank and seeing if Ahoy’s affordable price tag justifies the trade off in turbine power and creature comforts.
The cruise is pitched at those who enjoy camping and 4WD holidays, and don’t mind roughing it or mucking in.
“Consider yourself part of the crew,” enthuses Brian, the ship’s cook, shortly after we’ve clambered onboard the MV Oceanic. “If you could do your own dishes that would be amazing,” he adds, noting that he’d also love a hand in the tiny galley kitchen.
The cruise’s DIY nature begins at the jetty: there’s no porter service and, thankfully, no name tags. Nor is there wi-fi or TV, and it’s fair to say the 24-metre, powered sailing yacht is a touch dog-eared.
But not all five-star frivolities are eschewed: there’s an open-air spa perfect for Champagne and sunsets.
Below deck, I’m sharing a white-washed cabin with a quietly spoken maths teacher.
Our nook squeezes bunk beds and dwarf drawers and cupboard into a purely functional space measuring roughly 1.5 by 2.5-metres. But I feel spoilt. Those on the cheapest fare – swagging on the deck and beach (post croc check) – are adrift without a room for the entire journey.
It’s tempting to assume a cruise like this would be full of lithe, young backpackers eager to stretch their pennies. Not so. Our boat is mainly populated by 60-somethings, with a few hitting the age brackets on either side.
A pair of cabins with en suites provide limited relief to the two communal bathrooms equipped with hand showers and water usage limits – the monohull carries 8000-litres of fresh water and a desalinator cranks out the rest.
As we amble through Wyndham’s muddy brown waters at a leisurely six knots, lunch is served on red plastic plates.
The food rises above budget expectations: over the next 13 days, the menu ranges from pulled pork with spicy sambal to succulent roast lamb and guest-hooked fish with a garlicky salsa verde.
The air-conditioned lounge-cum-dining room is a reviving retreat from the region’s sweltering days. Come nightfall, cabin doors are propped open in the hopes of attracting chilled air down the narrow hall.
My berth slots between a bathroom and the anchor chamber. Neither acoustics are conducive to sleep, so by night four I join the swag squad on deck. With earplugs reducing the throaty chorus of snores, it’s sublime.
Glittering stars pierce the darkness and as we cruise, a saucer moon silhouettes a show reel of inky islands. Tickled by the dawn breeze, I lift my eye mask to see amber light slicing the horizon, bleeding into navy sky.
Ports of call
Whether you’ve paid $3000 or $30,000, the Kimberley’s icons exude the same wonder and beauty.
Our boat visits most items on the coastal wish-list, ticking off Kings Cascades, Montgomery Reef, Horizontal Falls and some spectacular rock art on its 1000-nautical-mile journey.
It also weaves through the Buccaneer and the Bonaparte Archipelagos, home to some 2000 islands, and fits in plenty of fishing and beach-combing.
Admittedly, our commute is much slower than the A-grade vessels. Feeling tetchy, Mother Nature hampers our journey from port, so it’s late on day three before we reach our first site, the twin cascades known as King George Falls.
The Oceanic’s tender boats wend along a waterway reflecting tumbling boulders that progressively sharpen into rusted orange cliffs some 80 metres high. Nearing the falls, droplets torpedo down onto our outstretched limbs, cold and refreshing.
Another day reveals one of the most extraordinary rock art galleries in the Kimberley. Ancient human, animal and spirit figures hide in a time-sculpted karst landscape, metres from the translucent waters of Wary Bay, on Bigge Island.
Shaded from the blinding sand and searing sun is a large painting of a Wandjina spirit. The white, haloed being has its arms raised, as if scaring those who cross its path.
Along Prince Regent River, there are views of sharp mountain peaks topped with red sandstone mesas to the north and blocky, Tetris-style rock layers to the south.
Tendering to Kings Cascades, we spot mud slides where crocodiles have entered the milky water and then, a monster turning its brick-like head sideways to gobble a skipper fish.
The terraced falls – where an American model was taken by a croc in the ’80s – resemble a can-can dancer’s layered petticoat,streaming over native grass tufts like white lace.
Perhaps the most astonishing afternoon is spent in a landscape of so-called stone warriors found on Langgi Beach, on the way to Montgomery Reef.
The sandstone formations, some up to eight metres tall, have been eroded into eerie shapes, with elliptical holes, folds, and rounded tops contrasting against jade-hued water. To the Worora people, they represent warriors killed in a Dreamtime battle; as we clamber through, the site’s sacred status is palpable.
The wild west
Dealing with some of the largest tropical tides in the world in an environment that, even today, is barely chartered makes for challenging conditions for a novice cruise operator.
The MV Oceanic needs a three-metre clearance from the waterline (about double that of its glam, custom-made catamaran competitors), which is a significant amount at low tide, when metres’ worth of water disappear, restricting travel.
The vessel motors up to 13 knots at best, but slows to as little as two knots in rough weather, rolling violently in big swell.
It takes our band of explorers a few days to fully understand just how dependent our progress is on the natural conditions. Our itinerary changes from hour to hour, responding to the forces at play, and swagging on the islands is repeatedly forfeited so we can make up lost distance overnight.
The upside is that each cruise is essentially unique. The downside is that bucket list items may be missed: for us, a low tide and big swell put the Berkeley River out of reach, and the sails go up but once. Silica Beach and the rock art found at Vansittart Bay were similar casualties.
“You just have to be a bit adaptable, go with the flow,” says guest, Aileen Strumpher. “We’re so used to living on a timetable and it’s nice to break away from that now and then.”
The wildlife is just as unpredictable: for days we see nothing, then, out of the blue, we spy an enormous manta ray performing an aquatic ballet of loop-the-loops and victory laps.
Elsewhere, a weathered turtle pops its head up to suck oxygen before vanishing; hundreds of terns scatter from a rock perch into a cloud of pterodactyl-like forms, and, on a day when the water is like pale blue silk, its motionless sheen is rippled by a flying fish, skimming vertically across the expanse.
By the end of our Ahoy Buccaneers cruise, everyone has come to the same conclusion: this is frontier travel, where part of the experience is learning to let go.
We embarked with the usual expectations of well-organised itineraries and mapped out routes, accustomed to the reliability of the professional urban world. The roll-with-the-punches-style – like what I suspect the original Kimberley cruises some 30 years ago must’ve been like – takes a bit of getting used to.
Our leader, Doug, was similarly unconventional: to say he’s a man of few words is putting it mildly. But if you can draw out his backstory, you’re in for a treat.
A highlight is the drawing together of passionate travellers who are attracted to true-blue holidays. Yes, there’s a spot of Fawlty Towers aboard the MV Oceanic and it’s a long time to be on a no-frills vessel, but given there’s access to the same prized sites as the pricier boats, many will be happy to rough it and save dollars.
Worth noting is that while there are plenty of tours to sites, in the tenders and on foot, there are no historical, cultural or geographical talks, although several books in the lounge can fill in the gaps.
In that, and many other senses, this cruise is dramatically different from luxury Kimberley cruises.
If I had the dough, I’d still go first-class (wouldn’t we all?). But for those “average Joes” who dream of remote wilderness and footprint-free beaches edged by red rock curtains, having an affordable option is, in fact, invaluable.
The Details: Cruising the Kimberley with Ahoy Buccaneers
Ahoy Buccaneers have three types of Kimberley cruises: a six-night, seven-day Buccaneer Archipelago cruise, which runs May to November, costing from $1800 per person; a 12-night, 13-day Bonaparte and Buccaneer Archipelago cruise, on offer from July to October, from $3600 in 2017; and a 12-night, 13-day Broome to Wyndham cruise (which also operates in reverse, and is the one our writer experienced), in the waterfall season from March to May. In 2017, it costs from $4000. Cruises are all-inclusive (with transfers); BYO alcohol.
Staying there: Cable Beach Club Resort and Spa: A beautiful colonial-style resort to base yourself in. Cable Beach Road, Cable Beach, Broome. Freshwater East Kimberley Apartments Modern, self-contained accommodation. 19 Victoria Highway, Kununurra.