Splendid Isolation

1 October 2019

New Zealand Herald - Chris Reed

The helicopter’s shadow dances over a green and brown eternity. A slit in the surface of the Earth appears, a crack in infinity that widens with every turn of the rotor blades. Flecks take form, becoming pools of water sandstone shelves,enormous boulders.

Alan, the pilot, warns about wind as he takes us down. Second by second, contours are revealed. Then, a narrow ledge between a pool and a drop. Behind the first drop,a much bigger one.

Before descent the ledge was as peck. Now it’s a helipad not even wide enough for the length of the landing skids. We’re down, tail hanging over the edge.

It’s late August, 30-odd degrees, a dry, forgiving outback heat. Beside us a pool, end-of-dry-season shallow. Further on, those boulders and another pool, altogether deeper and lovelier. Behind us, those two drops away,a third pool, a pit of a thing with a resident freshwater crocodile. To our right, shade sails and afield barbecue built in the cleft of a cliff by a MasterChef winner; chilly bins jammed with ice and bottles. Ahead of us three hours of an unforgettable experience. A picnic at Eagle Falls, True North style.

I’ve never wanted to do justice to a journey more than I do now. I’ll probably never end up so far short.

I can’t describe the Kimberley, that frayed and fractured fringe of northwestern Australia considered one of the last great wildernesses. It’s the edge of nothing, the start of everything. The size of one-and-a-half New Zealands, with the permanent population of Gisborne.

The land is a giant drain; the coast a topaz tease stocked with crocs.

It’s a wildlife sanctuary, an angler’s dream, a geology lecture made real, a vast gallery of indigenous art. It’s natural attractions you’ve never heard of, adventure you’ve never dreamed of, splendid isolation that triggers a visceral response.

More than once I was near tears, overwhelmed by the power and the beauty and the sense of being nothing more than a speck myself.

It’s almost devoid of the impact of modern life. On some images I took on my phone, the location data says only “Australia”.

You can get lost here—and not necessarily in a bad way.

Inland it’s ahead-scrambling expanse of powdery earth, punctured by gum trees and scrub and sitting on buckled layers of rock twisted by tectonic plates, driven up by quakes.

The coast is an ever-changing tableau of archipelagos and islands, fed by wet-season floods forcing their way through sandstone canyons carved over unimaginable time.

Water makes the Kimberley, at least as a tourist draw card. It’s the best way to see it and crucial to the key attractions.

The region has the biggest tides in Australia and the second biggest in the world. The difference between the high and low watermarks can top 12m during a spring tide.

I was on the Kimberley Snapshot, a seven-night expedition showcasing the very best of the region operated by True North Adventure Cruises.

It’s not a cruise in the best-known sense. For a start, the ship,also named True North, is small. It can handle a maximum 36 guests in its 18 cabins. When I travelled, there were 28. There were 22 crew.

The boat was purpose-built to access wilderness areas and to reach places big ships can’t. There are no sea days and an emphasis on frequent off-boat activities.

Its advantages over other operators in the region include its helicopter and its fishing permits.

Everyone eats together, three times a day. You’re very well fed but this isn’t about gorging yourself on eternally replenished buffets.

And there’s minimal formality. You’re barefoot on board and, when the captain and cruise director tell you during the welcome speeches they want you to be part of the True North family, they mean it. Like Cheers, at the bar everyone knows your name.

Our first glimpse of the ship was on a warm Saturday evening at Gantheaume Point in Broome, the resort town that’s gateway to the region.

The coach drove on to the sand where a line of tenders, the “adventure boats” winched off and on True North daily, were waiting.

We left our luggage for the crew and ambled down the gently sloping beach, through warm knee high water and on to the highly manoeuvrable craft. We were warned not to dangle our hands over the side. Crocs. Then we whizzed across the bay.

True North was on the far side, the setting sun casting giant shadows off the port side and glinting off the EuroCopter on the top deck. It  was every bit as impressive as the marketing material portrayed. A Bond villain’s plaything that would be home for a week.

Onboard, there was a welcome cocktail in the bar. We met the crew. Then we had dinner. We went to sleep knowing just how good it was going to be.

We travelled a long way that night, past the Dampier Peninsula and into the Buccaneer Archipelago, more than 1000 islands formed from 1.8 billion-year-old sandstone.

We woke in Talbot Bay, where a high-speed sortie into Cyclone Creek on the tenders showcased the geological and tidal forces that shaped our surroundings.

It was a taster, nothing more. We were soon back on True North and split into groups for 45-minute scenic flights.

Alan went low to show us turtles in the shallows. Then he went high to show us the scale of the archipelago.

We flew as far as Cockatoo Island, home to a resort and an iron ore mine that’s below sea level. Canute would have loved it.

The resort was opened by the subsequently disgraced tycoon Alan Bond as an exclusive getaway during the mining-fuelled excesses of the 1980s. But there were problems and it was reclaimed by the banks before being sold off and later closed as a tourist destination. Now it’s back in business.

We flew to the phenomenon known as the Horizontal Falls, where tidal flows surge through gaps in two separate headlands.

From the air it was picturesque but with little sense of the power of the sea. Then we landed on True North and transferred to a tender to hit the gaps at sea level.

The channel nearest us was the bigger of the two, about 20m wide and 45m deep. The water level on the ocean-side was 3-4 metres higher than on the inland side. The disparity created holes,whirlpools and white water. Even in a powerful, top-spec boat,
there was no complacency from the guides. The smaller gap was too treacherous to traverse. We went through the big one several times. It never got boring.

Lunch was goat. After that we had an introductory talk about the region from Chris,one of two onboard naturalists, as we cruised to the Kingfisher Islands. Then we went fishing, trolling with a lure back and forth along the edge of a shelf in the late afternoon sun, the on board esky, as ever,full of ice-cold soft drinks. Mineral water never tasted so good. It was my first time holding a rod. I insisted on holding it the entire time. We caught nothing. It was the best hour I’ve ever wasted.

Justin, the guide, decided to try another spot. As we were heading for open water he spotted a whale spout. Humpbacks. A mother,with her calf, was attracting the attention of multiple males. In another place,that would have been the pinnacle of a trip devoted to whale-watching. We weren’t even supposed to be doing it. Things like that just happen in the Kimberley.

The next day we woke up beside Montgomery Reef. After breakfast, we powered away from True North, the water riffling in an insistent wind.

The 400sq km reef is a sandstone mesa topped with limestone —living coral. From the air it looks like a giant stingray. From the boat you can see the real thing, turtles, sharks. The tidal range can reach 10m. When it drops, it falls so fast it looks like the land is rising from sea. Water races down the rock all the way to low tide and back again. At high tide decent sized boats, cross the reef with metres to spare.

We were about 20km from the mainland. But sitting in a tender in a tapering channel below the top of the exposed reef we could have been any where in the ocean. It felt cut-off, otherworldly. I liked that.

After lunch, most people returned to the tenders for a cruise up Red Cone Creek to Ruby Falls. You climb on to a shelf before clambering up rocks to a swimming hole.The first tender had to wait until the croc sunning itself on the shelf slid into the water.

In the wet season, the path to the swimming hole would be the bed of a fast-flowing watercourse. A large tree trunk was wedged in the rocks, nothing more than driftwood.

The water hole was dark, diving in counter intuitive after the croc encounter. They can’t climb, we were told.

By day three we were in the groove. Breakfast, chopper excursions,morning sightseeing in the tenders, lunch. The afternoon trip was to another swimming hole,and a reminder that when it comes to man v wild, Bear Grylls is very much the exception to the rule.

The tenders took us to a cove off Camp Creek at the foot of Kings Cascade.

It was here the American Ginger Meadows was killed by a crocodile in 1987. The 24-year-old, in Australia for the America’s Cup,went swimming in what one report at the time described as “a remote river infested with the huge reptiles”.

Two years ago further details emerged. Meadows went swimming with a friend. A croc backed the women against a rock wall. They were still in waist deep water. Meadows’ friend threw a shoe at the croc, which submerged. Meadows tried to swim for the boat. She didn’t make it.

We climbed to the top of the falls for a swim in another pristine hole, about the sizeof an Olympic swimming pool. On the other side, tiers of rock, another seasonal riverbed pounded and rounded by floods but largely dry when we visited. I looked around thinking, “I can’t believe I’ll almost certainly never come back here.”

Back at the bottom,the tenders took us the base of the falls. On a shelf, there was a crocodile.

Our fourth night was party night. From tables piled with fancy dress options, I initially plumped for a Batman outfit. Plumped is right; I looked like a piping bag. Take two yielded a more forgiving ensemble, fortunately so, because dinner was a Middle Eastern feast in the covered outdoor bar.

At some point we were told the following morning would offer the best sunrise of the trip, but we had to be up before 6am. I scuttled off to bed.

And what a sunrise. We were in a creek off the Hunter River. The sun rose over a range off the starboard side, the cliffs back from the opposite bank slowly suffused with life and warmth.

We fished that morning and I caught a barramundi —the prize catch in these parts. After lunch there was a chopper trip up and over where the sun had risen to the Mitchell Falls.

We twisted through one canyon like it was Airwolf. Then we were above the Mitchell Plateau, Alan telling tales of people being lost for days.

The falls were dry. Late August is almost the only time of year that happens, with the last of the previous wet finally gone and the next around the corner. Even so, the large holes in the dry watercourse where we touched down illustrated the force of nature. Rocks carried downstream get jammed in a crack then whizzed round until a hole forms. More rocks drop in and the effect accelerates.

After lunch we went mud crabbing on the tenders. The mangrove network was extensive. More channels than a pay-TV convention. Raff, our guide, set pots baited with fish heads in five locations as the tide turned to rise. Then we whizzed from one to the next several times.

We didn’t take females or male crabs with one claw (there are a lot of fights over females). Pot retrieval was a three-person operation —one used a brush to pull the rope towards the tender, a second pulled the rope hard and fast until the trap broke the surface and the third held a net under the pot in case the crabs had any ideas about escaping. We got 12 in fairly short order before Raff decided the water level was too high and the crabs had returned to their holes. It felt like there were crocs everywhere.

On the fifth full day, I was a bit wobbly. I had my sea legs but when Iwas on solid ground it felt like my body was still trying to compensate for the movement of the boat. I seemed to come right after a quarter of a motion sickness pill.

We started the day with rock art at Rocky Cove in Vansittart Bay.

Wandjina art is newer,with a strong Aboriginal mythology.The oldest scientifically dated example is 1700 years old. Most is less than 500 years old — still much older than European Australia.

Bradshaw/Gwion Gwion art has no cultural significance to local Aboriginal tribes, who dismissed it to early Western explorers as rubbish
paintings by early man. It’s at least 3700 years old. Some examples have been dated to five times that. Yet the pieces we saw remain distinct and strong, despite millennia of exposure. Once more, I felt like nothing.

From rock art to rock’n’ roll lifestyle .It was Eagle Falls day. That deeper and lovelier pool I mentioned is my new happy place.

You enter at the lip, from where the water would flow to the ledge where the chopper landed. It’s almost U-shaped, with high cliffs on three sides,not unlike a waterlogged quarry.

The water was cool but not overly so. Outcrops at various heights offered an array of diving platforms. At water level there were lizards, a blue butterfly, a red dragonfly. An inquisitive fruit bat flew directly over me, about 20m up. The wingspan must have been at least 1m, its frame so clear it looked like a special effect from a vampire film.

I swam across the pool to a ledge and nodded out. It was the only time in the week I got sun burnt.

Lunch was barbecued beef fillet, lamb chops, sausages, lemon chicken and fish cooked by Rhys Badcock, winner of MasterChef Australia: The Professionals in 2013. We ate, looking at perfection.

True North was already moving when the chopper touched down. It was a rocky, rolling night as we rounded Cape Londonderry, the northernmost point of Western Australia.

We dropped anchor in Koolama Bay, where the King George River meets the ocean. When conditions are right, True North can go right to the King George Falls, 6km away. When they’re not it’s because those big tides change the size and shape of the sandbars.

We went to the falls in tenders, through gorges with vertical faces up to 90m high. While the Mitchell Falls in the dry were a tad disappointing, even without flow the King George Falls were incredible.

The cliffs at the end of the canyon are 80m high, the pool at the base of the falls another 55m. The water was the colour of squid ink, the rock ranging from creamy white and pale pink to burnt-orange.

It felt like a cathedral. During the wet there would be the pummelling fizz of the falls. For us there was
silence, broken only by hushed chat and the burst of the engine amplified by space.

We were coming to the end. After lunch there was more fishing. With my final cast I caught a good one. True North says it’s a luxury operator but luxury has evolved from silver service and gold-plated bathrooms.

It pitches itself at people who want “the new luxury” — experiences that are “authentic and uncontrived”; people who want to be enlightened, who want their holiday to “change how they feel”.

Late in the afternoon we had a group photo on the bow as a pod of snout-fin dolphins played in the bay.

Then we ferried to a beach in Koolama Bay, where a bar was set up in the middle of a line of chairs facing the ocean. The sand was warm and the air still. We ate sashimi from tuna caught by the crew and our mud crabs, cooked plain and with chilli sauce. We threw our shells into the water, drank good, cold beer and talked to the crew. We remembered the best bits of the trip and we laughed about our shared experiences as a sinking feeling of finality chased a perfect sunset over the mountain range on the other side of the bay.

FINDING YOUR WAY TO THE TRUE NORTH...

True North has been sailing the Kimberley for 30 years. As well as the seven-night Snapshot, there’s a 13-night Ultimate Kimberley trip; a 13-night Coral and Coast adventure that includes the Rowley Shoals a group of reefs 260 km offshore; and a 10-night trip at the end of the wet season when the waterfalls are in full flow.

There are three classes of cabins,all ensuite with on-demand movies and air-con. Thetop class
(Explorer) is on the same deck as the bar lounge. That level also has an open-air observation dock on the bow and a covered, outside bar at the stern.

One level up are the bridge, heli deck and crew cabins.One level down, the middle class of cabins (River), dining room, galley and cruise director’s office.

On the bottom deck is the lower level of cabins (Ocean), which is where I stayed. Mine had two single beds and was really comfortable. The motion of the ocean is easier to handle the lower you are.

The reality is, you spend little time in the cabins beyond sleeping.

There’s reliable Wi-Fi throughout the boat and complimentary same-day laundry service. Pack light but include sturdy waterproof shoes or sandals.

Breakfast and lunchtimes are tweaked depending on the day’s activities, which are planned around the tides.

The former is a continental buffet and a hot option that changes daily—anything from eggs benedict to nasi goreng. Lunch is one course, dinner two, preceded by bar snacks. I’ve no doubt they’d rustle something up outside those times but I never needed to ask. I thought the food was excellent, particularly given one dish had to satisfy a variety of palates.You could call it modern bistro—always tasty, with lots of protein.

All non-alcoholic drinks are included. Alcohol is extra but reasonably priced given the isolation. It’s not like there’s any competition.

All helicopter trips are additional. Most people bought a package incorporating five key excursions. If I had one quibble, it would be that the picnic at Eagle Falls felt more like an event than an excursion, an integral part of the week. I wonder if that could be included, even if it meant raising the cruise price a little.