The Buccaneer Archipelago off WA’s Kimberley coast was named after a long-dead pirate. With the maze of islands perfect for cruising, fishing and fun, there’s still plenty to yo-ho-ho about.
William Dampier was, for his day and any other, quite the lad. When he wasn’t sacking cities or searching for treasure, he managed to make himself famous and notable for his remarkable adventures on board a stolen ship named the Cygnet.
Among the many places he and other mutineers ticked off on their 17th Century list of tourist must-sees was a puzzle of about 1000 islands off the northwest coast of Australia – or, as wild Bill knew it back in 1688, New Holland.
So it’s only fitting that Dampier can lay a ghostly claim to the Buccaneer Archipelago, named in his dubious honour by a mapmaker in 1821. These days, there may be cold beers, outboard motors and other advantages of modern living found in the archipelago, but the pirate spirit still remains, alive and kicking within the islands’ inhabitants and visitors to this distinctive place.
The Buccaneer Archipelago is one of those jaw-dropping locations off Western Australia’s Kimberley coast which demands potted attempts to describe its vivid and varying colours.
It serves the easiest purpose to admit the pristine region is simply stunning, from watching the sea turn the colour of pistachios as mud rivulets of the Tarraji River delta drain into the shimmering green ocean, to the vivid turquoise of distant waters, the deep red of the ore-rich “Iron Islands”, and such floral marvels as lime-green pandanus and emerald rainforest trees.
The archipelago is served by the nearest main town of Derby, Broome’s boab-lined northern neighbour. While it remains mostly a tourist secret, it has risen to sheltered stardom as a first-rate cruising and fishing destination. It also features one of the more unique natural attractions: a “horizontal waterfall” in Talbot Bay caused by tidal waters rushing through narrow gaps in the cliffs.
With its giant tidal range of 11 metres – one of the biggest in the world – the water can’t equalise on either side of the gaps quickly enough during tidal transition, resulting in a spectacular mid-ocean cascade.
The growing popularity of the archipelago has led to a boom in cruising tours available for travellers. These include the super-luxury and the slightly less glamorous. My choice was further down the price scale, but surely no less the fun: a three-night cruise aboard The Specialist, operated by Jim and Catherine Keogh of Unreel Adventure Safaris, with the support of Scott, a casual worker taken on for the season.
The cost is $1100 per person for the cruise, with meals, but not alcohol, included. Good quality fishing kit is also made available to everyone on board.
The Specialist is a 12-metre cruiser which usually sleeps eight guests. It works the Buccaneer Archipelago during the dry season from May to October. To join the boat, I have to fly 140 kms from Derby by sea-plane to Talbot Bay, a regular starting point for visits to the archipelago.
The flight provides a panoramic introduction to the Buccaneers, passing over the mangroves of Cyclone Creek, then King Sound and Dugong Bay before landing on a calm stretch of water. Jim is there to meet me and explains why we didn’t do the whole trip from Derby by boat: “That would mean more time for drinking and fishing but less time at the horizontal waterfalls – so it was a difficult choice.”
There are seven other passengers on board, including a honeymooning couple from Perth. Not that The Specialist gives much space for honeymoon-style intimacy. With facing bunks down each side of the boat, there is about as much privacy here as at the MCG on Boxing Day.
What is surprising is how we all manage in these cramped conditions to maintain mutual space with a good deal of grace and dignity. Except, that is, during the daily ritual of emptying the onboard toilet, a procedure accompanied by a pong that would cause corpses to gag. Each time it’s done Jim urges us to seek nasal shelter in the captain’s cabin, which we gratefully (and hurriedly) do.
Given the company’s name of Unreel, fishing is an expected and prominent part of proceedings. Even the novice becomes a Rex Hunt in these waters. During the tour, our group pulls in giant redfish, bream and Spanish mackerel.
Jim continually exhorts us to keep catching fish to feed ourselves, but the meals produced each night assure us there’s plenty of spare supplies packed in the galley. Swimming and snorkelling, however, are not on the recreation roster. Too many sharks around to risk it, I’m told.
The first full day of the tour is given up mostly to the strange setting of the horizontal waterfalls. The two yawning gaps in the McLardie Range appear in front of us.
It’s explained we are seeing the falls during the neap of the month (new moon), when the sight is a little less spectacular than at full moon. But the tidal difference, in this instance two to four metres, still makes for a very impressive effect. The second gap is more dynamic, with a thundering torrent gushing through the squeeze of the cliffs.
“Some people only get to spend ten minutes here on a scenic flight over the horizontal waterfalls.” says Jim, as cocky as a boat tour operator can be. “They might just as well stay at home and watch the spectacle on DVD.”
That evening and the next day, we cruise to other sights around the many islands. We leave Talbot Bay and head to Koolan, Iron and Cockatoo Islands. These islands are composed of some of the world’s richest reserves of iron ore, giving them their distinctive red colour.
For centuries, Indonesian trochus fishermen would visit Cockatoo Island, negotiating fishing rights with the indigenous Mowanjum and Umida communities. In exchange for water, firewood and fish, the Indonesians left iron axes, spearheads and dugout canoes. Many Indonesian words were integrated into the Mowanjum language.
Opposite Koolan Island, we stop at Crocodile Creek. The name is a misnomer: we’re told there isn’t a single croc in the creek, which serves as a cool and refreshing swimming hole. In a nearby shelter, dozens of visiting boats and cruising yachts have left improvised plaques, insignia and graffiti, including a Wandjina figure by Danny Woolagoodjah, the designer of the Wandjina used in the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
At Cockatoo Island is the entrance to Silvergull Creek, the reclusive home for the past 10 years of Phil Ray and Marion Smart. After 18 years together, Marion and Phil were recently married in a service conducted by the local funeral director. Marion says he was delighted at the opportunity to serve as celebrant: “He doesn’t usually get a chance to have a good laugh,” she says. Her daughter, Jarla, also lives with them.
Phil and Marion have turned their property, which has sensational views over Yampi Sound, into a lush garden. The two settlers are renowned for their hospitality, although it’s possible to see a little “visitor fatigue” in their faces. It’s understandable: there’s a constant stream of guests dropping in during the dry season.
Phil’s home-brew beer is famous in the region – and he’s rarely without a glass in hand, with 120 litres of brew on tap at any one time. Their property has accordingly been named “The Squatter’s Arms” in honour of his ale. “But if we sold any of the stuff, we’d end up in jail,” laughs Phil. He’s happy to proffer a glass or two, but visitors should really bring their own drinks to avoid pushing hospitality to breaking point.
After a leisurely afternoon at the property, including a dip in the spring-fed swimming pool, a speedboat returns us to The Specialist. We stop to re-fuel in Dogleg Creek, where Shane Kemp’s servo offers the only petrol and diesel available in the Buccaneers. Shane is engaged to Jarla, adding a nice touch of romantic symmetry to the location.
Shane’s petrol prices would make even the boldest buccaneer blush, but he assures me the cost is very reasonable given the region’s remoteness and the cost of transport. “In any case,” he retorts, “who needs to get rich when you’re marrying into all that home-brew?”
We cruise out of Yampi Sound, passing between Gibbing Island and the mainland’s Koomi Point, then later Hidden and Shirley Islands, before reaching calm waters. A tawny nurse shark that we encounter turns out to be so tame that Jim is soon playing footsies with it over the side of the boat. The shark stays alongside our craft all night, and the next morning is still there, presumably waiting for breakfast.
One obstacle, Hell’s Gates, remains to be negotiated. This is a treacherous whirlpool between Gerald Peninsula and the Muddle Islands. We get through the whirlpool unscathed, and the reward is a stopover at one of the Buccaneers’ real gems, Waterfall Beach, where a rock-walled cataract spills onto the pristine sands fringing Cascade Bay.
On the final night there’s a downpour of drenching rain. I discover I’m sleeping on a bunk which cops the full strength of the storm. The plastic screen covering my bed becomes unfastened, leaving me mostly to the elements. Everyone else manages to survive the night relatively unscathed while I get totally drenched. It’s as if a water tank had burst over my bed.
I suggest in the morning that maybe the good ship could do with some running repairs. No worries, says Jim. “In any case, we’re going to buy a new boat next season,” he adds. Later, it’s explained to me that I was unlucky – copping such a drenching is a very rare occurrence. It hardly makes me feel any drier.
From Cascade Bay, it’s an uneventful cruise at a leisurely pace through the sparkling waters of King Sound back to Derby, giving me plenty of time to dry out. At a guess, I’d say we got close to about 40 of the many islands, with many others dotting the horizon during our journey. Having a skipper who knows where he’s going seems a great advantage.
While it’s possible to cruise the Buccaneer Archipelago in far grander style, something of the sheer spirit of adventure – a little of the old Will Dampier verve – would likely be missing by doing so.
Maybe a fellow passenger puts it best: “I’d go again with The Specialist any time,” he says, “instead of with one of those buccaneers who charge a thousand dollars a day.” I know just where he’s coming from.
Details: Buccaneer Archipelago
Best months to go: May-September.
Most under-rated aspect: The scenic splendour of the region.
Most over-rated aspect: Flights over the horizontal waterfalls.
Be prepared for: Huge tidal variations that can really rock the boat.
Watch out for: Aquatic wildlife including sharks, whales, dolphins, etc.
Best value encountered: Unreel Adventure Safaris.
Getting There: Qantas flies regularly from Alice Springs, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to Broome. Virgin Blue flies from Adelaide. Air North connects Darwin and Kununurra.
Unreel Adventure Safaris: Regular trips to the Buccaneer Archipelago out of Derby (about two hours’ drive from Broome) are scheduled throughout the dry season. The trip price is $1100 per person for a four-day, three-night cruise. This price includes a complimentary pickup in Broome and the scenic flight from Derby to Talbot Bay. For bookings, see www.unreeladventures.com or phone (08) 9193 1999.
Other cruises: Other boats cruise the Buccaneer Archipelago and the entire Kimberley Coast range from luxurious to expedition. Check out our guide to Kimberley Cruising for more.
Cruising yachts and boats: A further option is to bring your own yacht or boat. However, the extreme tidal range and changeable weather in the Buccaneer Archipelago makes this feasible for only the most experienced navigators. Good maps and tidal charts, long-range fuel tanks and satellite phones are essential. Western Australian Cruising Guide (edited by Steve Laws and Mike Jolly, Fremantle Sailing Club, 2001, ISBN 0-957984-0-7) is an indispensable guide. Buy it through The Chart and Map Shop, 14 Collie Street, Fremantle, phone (08) 9335 8665.