Georgia Rickard ticks an icon off the bucket list

 

What’s the protocol if he attacks?” I ask nervously, eyeing the monstrous creature before me. “Do you guys get training on this?”

“Nah,” says Mitch, offhandedly. But I’ve spent the last few days with Mitch, and I reckon I’ve got his caper. He’s the kind of bloke who’d swear drop bears are fair-dinkum, then kindly help you smear vegemite on your face for protection. I’m not about to be fooled.

Assuming he is trying to fool me, that is. We’re 350 kilometres from the nearest medical station, and that is one big lizard. Still, Jerry Hall has been here and done this – and if it’s good enough for long-legged, world-famous rock royalty, then it’s good enough for me.

I’m sitting in a dinghy in a tiny, muddy pocket of mangroves in the very north-western reaches of Australia, somewhere along the banks of Porosus Creek. It’s been five days since I last had phone reception.

The nearest road is a 300-kilometre trek away. And, not for the first time this week, I’m surrounded by countless giant crocs – of the man-eating variety.

If you reckon that doesn’t sound like Jerry Hall’s style, then we’re thinking the same thing. It doesn’t sound like my style, either. Or so I thought.

Not surprisingly, few Australians get the opportunity to come up this way. Even fewer get to experience it the way I am: on board True North.

Fifty metres in length, she comes complete with five tenders, 17 crew and a shiny new chopper on top; so my fellow adventurers and I can go far, far into the remoteness. Well, as far as we dare, anyway. This is the Kimberley.

This part of our country is, to get technical with you, bloody huge. Larger than Victoria and Tasmania combined, in fact. It is also our last true wilderness: home to more beaches, bushes, watering holes, cliff tops, animals, and birds here than you could pack into a David Attenborough documentary (and he’s tried).

Not all of it is beautiful, mind you, with all due respect to mangroves – but much of it is jaw-droppingly so. (There are also enough natural resources out here to power the entire world for the next 2,000 years, but that’s another story entirely.)

And yep: it’s remote. Just 32,000 people live in the entire Kimberley area; with only one sealed road to service them.

As the croc finishes his meal and sinks ever-so-unsettlingly under the water’s surface, we pack up our fishing tackle and head back to the mothership.

Nobody’s caught any barramundi, despite a good deal of chest-puffery on the topic, but tomorrow is another day. In the meantime, I’ve got some sweaty palms to attend to.

 

Meet the Crew

I had muddied expectations about this voyage.

The waiting list to get on board here can be up to a year long, if the True North booking team is to be believed, and several veteran journalists have told me that this particular journey is a red-hot bucket-list item, but I had reasons for my reticence.

Namely, that I’ve cruised before. The last thing I wanted was another week spent overeating, under-exploring and following a tour guide’s umbrella around.

But the first clue that this won’t be an average eight day trip drops when I meet my fellow travelling companions, who, quite alarmingly, resemble a modern-day cast of Gilligan’s Island.

Among the 36 of us here, there’s a professional gambler and his pole-dancing wife, a mining magnate and his fabulously no-nonsense partner, a couple of sky-diving 60-year-olds and a sweet pair who won a competition to be here. Aside from the outrageous baubles that wink on various fingers and ears, they’re a wonderfully relaxed lot: as good humoured as they are well-travelled.

The second clue closely follows as we’re introduced to the crew.

It costs a small fortune to take this trip, but you won’t find a bow-tie or a snooty-nosed waiter: the boat is as casual as the crew’s name badges (Curly, Brooksy and Cookie; to name a few). Which is deliberate, according to captain Greg Lee Steer, and understandably – the ensuing sense of camaraderie is priceless.

 

Day Two

After crashing out early on my first night on board, soft pink sunlight rouses me at 6am, filtering through the windows like a very pretty annoyance.

We’ve arrived at our first destination, Hidden Island; a 20 square-kilometre patch of land off the Dampier Peninsula and that means we’ve arrived at a place I’ve been wanting to see for a while now: Silica Beach.

So named for its fine, white, pure silica sand, Silica Beach is quintessential Kimberley – all giant red rocks, stubby trees and ridiculously clear, bright aqua water.

We head ashore to be greeted with champagne and orange juice, and I promptly head to shallow water to drink as I laze about, grinning at my good fortune. High on rocks above, the crew take turns at watching over us, keeping an eye out for crocs.

Wait – what?! Crocs?

“They aren’t known to frequent this area, actually,” Curly shrugs, “but it is salt water. And you can never be too safe.”

Fair enough. It looks like paradise, but this place is no insulated resort. Then again, I’ve never swum in water like this at a Hyatt.

 

Legend Falls

Much to my delight, one of the Kimberley’s more famous attractions, The Horizontal Waterfalls is on our itinerary that afternoon, after an onboard lunch of Szechuan tempura king prawns and wakame salad. (The food here is hard to resist. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Here, two small gaps between the cliffs force the rising and falling tides to stream through at up to a million litres per minute, causing all kinds of turbulent whorls and rivulets in the otherwise still water.

It’s said to be so powerful that the WA government was considering the construction of a hydroelectricity plant here, although they ultimately decided against it.

As we approach the massive cliffs, it’s fair to say I’m feeling a fair amount of awe. They’re very pretty, these falls; with the typical ochre colouring and vividly green shrubbery of the area. But it’s also the end of the dry season, so the waters aren’t anywhere close to swallowing dinghies as they’ve been known to – much to my disappointment. And relief.

Still, we drive through them in our little tender; the boat dipping and turning with the powerful turbulence; and it’s a wonderfully enjoyable way to spend a relaxed afternoon, not in the least because our guide Mitch, is full of terrible jokes. (“I might have hit a dolphin,” he deadpans when we slow down seemingly for no reason. A beat later, he adds “but I didn’t do it on porpoise.”)

By the end of the day, I’m sunkissed and shattered.

 

Sucker for Sunrise

But I’m back out on a tender by 5:30 the following morning, waiting for the sun to rise as Mitch points out various landmarks in the sleepy air. Up here, even in winter, temperatures hover around the mid to late 20s, and it’s warm even before the sun’s up.

“That’s Montgomery Reef over down that direction – about 10 kilometres that way – where we’ll be going this afternoon,” says Mitch, gesturing to nowhere in particular that I can see. “And that’s the Highcliffe islands,” he adds, pointing to a tiny group of specks.

“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to a large, particularly pretty landscape that looms silently next us. “Is that an island too?”

“Sure is,” he drawls dryly. “We call it Australia.”

Moments later, we come across Steep Island – a giant, tree-covered mass looming 90 metres out of the water.

This is where the boys of the Worrorra tribe were sent, unaccompanied for three days, as part of their initiation into Aboriginal adulthood, and it looks as forbidding as I imagine it would have back then.

Indeed, without mobile phones, distant traffic, or planes overhead, there is an overwhelming sense of space and life here; a sense that this land, unchanged for so many thousands of years, will exist forever.

You cannot help but allow the peacefulness to settle in your stomach and seep into your bones; to start relaxing back into the environment. It’s amazing how quickly it feels natural.

An hour later, we hike up a reasonably-sized hill at Raft Point, to look at an Aboriginal cave full of art work.

The paintings here are estimated to be 3,000 years old, and although that doesn’t classify as ‘old’ in the context of Aboriginal history – some of the area’s art is estimated at 50,000 years old – this tangible reminder of the past only underscores the sense of remoteness out here.

No two ways about it: I’m not in Kansas anymore.

 

Good Greef

“The most turtles I’ve ever counted here is 163,” Mitch shouts to our tender, as we pull away from the mothership. “See if you can top that!”

Three hours later, we’re out at Montgomery Reef. It’s difficult to describe the enormity of this place; some 300-square kilometers in area.

Like its cousin off the coast of Queensland, Montgomery can be seen from outer space, and it rises like a huge, flat platform out of the water; a giant petri-dish of marine life. Rushing tides cover it with water and then bare it to the sun twice a day, every day, and it’s all so soothing, and the water so ridiculously clear and shallow, that I’m tempted to jump in.

But that’s a no-go, unless I’m keen on becoming fish fodder: dugongs, crocs, stingrays, sharks and humpback whales are all regularly spotted here, along with sea snakes – the most venomous in the world. Of course. (Well, this is Australia.)

And then there are the turtles. Within our first two minutes on the boat, we spot our first one poking its little head out of the water.

Which is quickly followed by another. And then another… It’s a turtle bonanza! After shouting “there’s one!” the first 40 or so times, I stop counting and just enjoy the feeling of insignificance.

That nature can so calmly coordinate life and colour like this, on such a grand scale, puts the rest of life in perspective.

It’s not even lunchtime on day two, and I can officially say it: this trip rocks.

 

Spot the Salty

By the following morning, I’ve watched two pods of humpback whales play no more than 50 metres away; inspected an empty turtle nest that’d been raided by hungry dingoes (“Those bloody bastards,” growls Greg, after making the discovery, “I bet they’ve got lovely shiny coats after eating canapés like those”) and celebrated sunset on a beach with a bonfire. But still no crocs – until now.

I’m standing on the yacht at the base of the King’s Cascade waterfall, looking at the spot where Ginger Meadows was taken by a saltwater croc in 1987.

A stewardess on board the local boat Lady M, she and a couple of other crew members had decided to take a well-earned break from work by coming here, to admire the fall’s beauty (and believe me – it is beautiful).

Foolishly, she and another crew member, Jane Burchett, decided to swim from their little tender to stand in waist-deep water on a ledge under the waterfall, when a croc was spotted coming towards them. Jane took off her shoes and threw them at it – but Ginger panicked.

Jumping into the water, she tried to swim back to the tender, but never made it. The croc grabbed her at the hips and dragged her under. Though she did surface again, momentarily, it was without words (“she looked at me as though to say ‘What’s happening?’” Jane reportedly said) – and then she was gone.

Such a gruesome story leaves us all a little bit jittery at the thought of being here, especially when we learn that crocs like to store their carcasses for a few days, in order to feed slowly as their preys break down – which is why, when Ginger’s remains were recovered a few days later, no less than two three-metre crocodiles tried to jump onboard the boat, to snatch back their meal. Cripes.

So even though we’ve been briefed time and time again on how to behave in croc country (don’t put your arms over the edge of the boat, stay away from river banks and beach shorelines, and never, ever get in the water unless you’re told it’s safe), I still get a little shiver when we spot our first one.

He sits in the brackish water without moving, watching us silently as we stare back at him. I’ve seen crocs before, but this is different.

Deadlines and designer clothes have never seemed so insignificant.

 

Picnic and Hanging Rocks

Still, I haven’t totally turned my back on modern humanity.

For all the thrills of roughing it, I’m happy to return to the boat each day, which is more like a tiny, luxe hotel than a motor yacht.

The toiletries are L’Occitane; the showers long and hot, the food expertly gourmet; ensuite cabins are roomy and meticulously serviced. And then, of course, there is The Picnic.

I reckon Jerry would agree that this is a definite highlight. Via chopper, we’re ferried in groups to Melalueca Falls, a picturesque group of watering holes and waterfalls.

Thankfully, there are no crocs here – we’re far enough inland, and high enough upstream, to ensure that they can’t interrupt our swimming – and swim, we do.

We also eat, drink, and float around in the blissfully clear freshwater in blown-up rubber tyres; and it’s all as wonderfully relaxing and perfectly decadent as you’d imagine it to be.

With a giant (temporary) shade overhead, the chef on barbecue duty, and a shameful number of eskys, it feels more like a veritable oasis than the middle of absolute nowhere.

After a long, long lunch, I spend the afternoon climbing up waterfalls and jumping into the dramatically black water; and drinking beer after beer… after beer.

I also suffer a mysterious case of the hiccups back at the dinner table that night, and a sore head the following morning. But it’s worth it.

 

Gorge-ous

From there, the days just keep getting better.

We fish, we see crocs; we head ashore to Winyalkan Island and swim at an unnamed, postcard-perfect beach.

One day, we take a tender out sightseeing to an unnamed island in the Timor Sea, which even the crew has never visited before, and spend the afternoon wandering a beach filled with perfect shells; collecting treasures in every colour, shape and size. We see more Aboriginal art, we develop nicknames for each other, we spot whales and dolphins and giant stingrays and more turtles.

And then, on the final full day, I am surprised to find myself awoken at 5:45 by a knock at the door.

“Are you awake?” comes the tentative voice of a new friend, Sam. “You’ll want to see this,” she says apologetically. “It’s pretty special out here.”

Amid jeers and cheers about my early-morning cameo – everyone’s now aware that I don’t mind a sleep-in – I scramble to the deck in my pajamas. Where I’m confronted with the most superb view of the trip.

Conservationist Malcolm Douglas once called the Kimberley “the heart and soul of the country”. He was right.

This is not an area many of us know much about, but come here, and you’ll find respect and reverence for our land. Especially at The King George Falls.

We stand at the bow, looking up at the sharp, imposing cliffs above us, at the alien beauty of it all, and simultaneously lapse into humble silence.

Ninety-metre rock walls flank the boat on either side of the gorge, which ends with twin, towering waterfalls flowing into the river.

There are colours here that I have never seen before; blackened greens in the river, yellowy-pink highlights in the sides of the cliffs; violently bright trees smattering the sidelines.

Forty million years of wet seasons have carved out this ridiculously huge chasm, and the whole area has a distinct Jurassic-Park feel about it.

It is, in a word, breathtaking.

It’s also a wonderful note on which to leave the trip.

The following morning, as I hug my new mates goodbye and resign myself to having mobile reception again, I’m more than a tad teary. It has been a remarkably special journey.

Back in the 1930s, Australian travel journalist Ernestine Hill predicted that one day the Kimberley would be a world-famous tourist attraction, and she wasn’t wrong.

But this is not a destination for spoon-fed tourists. It’s a place where travellers come to pay their respects. And perhaps, to wipe the proverbial Vegemite off, too.

 

The Details

Getting there
Qantas flies to both Broome and Wyndham.

Accommodation
True North has itineraries of seven and 14 nights departing from Wyndham and Broome between March and September. Prices begin at $9,995 per person. northstarcruises.com.au
Pinctada Resort, Broome. pinctadacablebeach.com.au

Need to know
• Seasickness can be an issue on True North, although the water is mostly flat. Tablets are provided on board.
• Alcohol is not included in the True North tariff. However, the drinks list is reasonably priced – about the same as a semi-posh pub. There are plenty of decent wine selections available under $50; an imported bottle of beer will set you back $8.
• Helicopter flights are also not included in the tariff, but you won’t feel like you’re missing out if you don’t take any. (The picnic however, is worth considering.) Prices start from $95 per person.

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