Words by David McGonigal.

If the Kimberley were anywhere else in the world it’d be crowded, thanks to the dramatic scenery of islands, beaches, cliffs and harbours. The main challenges to development are the navigational problem of 13-metre tides, the swimming dangers posed by saltwater crocodiles and the fact it’s the fringe of an area larger than Japan or the UK with a population of less than 50,000 residents.

Indigenous Australians arrived on the Kimberley coast more than 50,000 years ago. Today’s cruise passengers can discover everything from strange rock paintings, dramatic waterfalls, swimming holes, birdlife, crocodiles and boab trees, as well as some memorable historic sites from the days of exploration and World War II.

There’s a wide range of craft cruising the Kimberley coast these days. They range from the very luxurious to, effectively, camping trips. No matter which you chose, the experience will be as wonderful as it is unique. And relatively few have passed this way before. Here are some of the coastal highlights, north to south:

• Heading inland, the navigable part of the King George River ends dramatically at the twin waterfalls of King George Falls plummeting 60m into the dark waters of the ravine. It’s a highlight of theKimberley, and those who make the steep climb to the top of the falls are rewarded by great views.

• At Vansittart Bay a short walk leads to the well-preserved wreck of a C-53 (a cargo variation of the DC-3) that crashed here in World War II with no loss of life.

• NearbyJarIslandoffers a rare chance to see the almost stick figures called Bradshaw figures in the Aboriginal art world. No-one knows who drew them.

• On Bigge Island is a rock labyrinth full of complex Aboriginal art that includes drawings of early explorers and mystical figures. Turtles and crocodiles leave tracks across the sand overnight and you might catch a glimpse of a monjon, a small rock wallaby.

• At the mouth of the Hunter River, the beach of Naturalist Island is the departure point for helicopter excursions taking cruise passengers to Mitchell Falls. The river is one of the few places in the Kimberley that has mangroves to provide a rich crocodile habitat.

• Careening Bay takes its name as the place where Phillip Parker King had to repair the hull of his vessel while charting the Kimberley coast. You can see Australia’s early history here as the crew carved “HMC Mermaid 1820” into a large boab almost 200 years ago.

• At Raft Point, spirit-like Wandjina figures fill the walls of caves and clefts of an exceptional rock art gallery in a magnificent display over two levels. Boab trees line the sheltered beach from where it’s a short steep walk to see the elemental beings who are closely tied to the dramatic storms of theKimberley.

• Tide and geology combine to create the Horizontal Waterfalls of Talbot Bay. Two parallel flooded valleys each drain through a narrow cleft, where the huge 13m tidal range creates a maelstrom of whirlpools and white water. At its peak there’s a distinct difference in the water level on each side with a “waterfall” in between.

• Montgomery Reef is one of Australia’s largest inshore reef systems: it extends over thousands of hectares. As the tide falls, the reef erupts out of the sea and water cascades off it in thousands of waterfalls. The number of large green turtles (and other creatures) in the channels between the reefs is remarkable.

• Crocodile Creek is a beautiful naturally enclosed swimming hole fed by a crystal clear waterfall. The miners from nearby Koolan Island sometimes visit and have erected a shelter that’s been decorated by visiting yachties. The convoluted rock formations of nearby Nares Point are very photogenic.

• TheLacepedeIslandsoff theKimberleycoast north of Broome are worth visiting for their rich birdlife, if the weather allows. Nesting frigatebirds and brown boobies are the stars but turtles are often seen offshore and in the lagoon. There’s an historical twist, too. In a bizarre 19th-century land grab an enterprising American who wished to mine guano here claimed the Lacepedes asUSterritory. Not surprisingly, Australia disputed this and won.

• About a day’s sail due west of Broome, Rowley Shoals are three coral atolls that are home to a wide variety of birdlife. At the edge of the continental shelf it’s an underwater wonderland that draws divers seeking coral gardens crowded with fish and invertebrates.

Kimberley vessels

• Discovery One // kimberleydiscoverycruises.com.au

• MV Great Escape & MV Kimberley Escape // greatescape.net.au

• Kimberley Explorer // onetide.com

• Kimberley Quest II // kimberleyquest.com.au

• K2O // kimberleycruise.com.au

• MV Diversity II // diversitycharters.com.au

• Oceanic Discoverer & Coral Princess // www.coralprincess.com.au 

• MV Orion // orionexpeditions.com

• True North // northstarcruises.com.au

Large cruise ships that stop off at the Kimberley

• Pacific Sun // pocruises.com.au

• Rhapsody of the Seas // royalcaribbean.com.au

• Saga Ruby // sagacruises.com

• Silver Spirit // silversea.com

• Sun Princess // princess.com 

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