Fiona Harper has cruised much of the Australian coastline at one time or another, as well as delving deep into its interior. Of all the magical nautical miles she’s covered, it’s memories of WA’s Kimberley region that linger longest.
The Kimberley has so many enchanting bays, rivers and sounds it’s impossible to see everything in just one visit. There are enough highlights among the dramatic Buccaneer Archipelago alone to keep even the most jaded cruiser happy. In fact, some people fall so deeply in love with the region that they never leave. Local characters Phil and Marion sailed in many years ago on their own yacht and have since set up camp in Silvergull Creek (now the Squatters Arms). Visitors are welcome; some find it hard to resist the hospitality and the freshwater plunge pool here as the rum often flows freely.
But it was on a small island north of Broome and southwest of Darwin that the most impressive aspect of the region hit me like a sledgehammer: the intense spirituality of the Indigenous people, who have lived in the far-flung Kimberley region for thousands of years, and their intrinsic relationship with the land, almost knocked me over.
Exploring the granitic outcrops set back from the silica beach, I was mesmerised by rock art thousands of years old. Peering into rock crevices, crawling on hands and knees beneath delicately balanced overhangs toview the cunningly hidden art, I was shockedto come across two human, child-sized skulls gently wedged into a crevice.
Stumbling across human skeletons tends to knock me around a bit. Not that I make a habit of it, but my nerves were already as taut as a violin string, expecting man-eating crocodilesto appear at any moment. We’d been warned of Kimberley crocs with a penchant for soft grey rubber (just the sort of material our tender was made of) so I was understandably nervous each time we ventured ashore.
The skulls were placed side by side in order to keep watch over the beach we’d landed on, their unseeing eyes absorbing the sun’s setting rays across the bay each evening. Hauntingly, this vision stayed with me long after other memories from our trip dimmed. I was intrigued by the culture of the people who’d placed them here. How old were they?
How had they died?I was left with many unanswered questions that I still wonder about many months after inadvertently venturing into this sacred site.
In this largely uninhabited region we saw galleries dating back at least 17,000 years, some say up to 60,000. The ancient treasures of this inhospitable land are considered by some to be the eighth wonder of the world. Known traditionally as Gwion Gwion, the rock art is also called Bradshaw paintings, after the European explorer Joseph Bradshaw documented his discoveries in 1891. There are over 100,000 documented sites, but with a little intrepid daring and some local knowledge it’s possible to discover art sites well off the beaten track.
Visiting the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, we were inspired to search for art using hand drawn mud maps passed on to us. The Kimberley inspires this sort of gung-ho adventuring. Forging our way through spinifex, across enormous boulders, through a bat-filled crevice and scramblinghigh up a small cliff face, we found ourselves surrounded by outcrops that looked just the sort of site to house ancient middens and rock art. We were soon rewarded for our boldness: we found breathtakingly beautiful rock art, much of it well preserved, but others slowly disappearing as the shale-like rock flaked away. Some of these beautiful images were now lost forever.
Cruises like Orion Expeditions will include a visit to spectacular Raft Point (so named because the traditional people used mangrove tree rafts to tend their fishing grounds). Walking up a short but steep track behind the rocky beach, we found an astounding rock art gallery. High up in the sandstone cliffs, overlooking the sheltered waters of Doubtful Bay and the aptly named Steep Island, the walls and roof of the cave have been intricately cloaked in scores of paintings depicting the unique Gwion Gwion, as well as dugongs, turtles and other marine creatures.
The Kimberley has the ability to mesmerise like no other region I’ve visited. As Mark Twain once said: 20 years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the things you did. So throw off the bowline, sail away from the safe harbour and catch the soft gentle breeze in your sails. With its breathtaking wilderness, ancient rock art, aubergine skies with the setting of the full moon or shameless scarlet with the setting of each sun, the vast Kimberley offers an outstanding experience, so much of it only accessible by sea.
MORE: The Australian Traveller guide to The Kimberley.