Heart of the Kimberley

Wild waters: freshwater rock pools.
Wild waters: freshwater rock pools. 

Mal Chenu finds plenty to see, do and taste on a five-star cruise into one of the most secluded regions on the planet.

The laconic way that the crew of the Kimberley Quest II talk about the local wildlife - including the specimens that could kill you in seconds - is indicative of their attitude to life, the Kimberley and everything. "Snotters", for example, is the pet name Captain Ben Bonnett gives to the beach ball-size jellyfish that sometimes get stuck in the boat's intakes and have to be extracted manually, a less-than-pleasant chore. And don't get them started on the barramundi.

On this trip, the KQII is off to the Berkeley River. This part of the Kimberley is one of the most secluded places on the planet: the only way in or out is by air or sea. The mouth of the river is also hard to see from the ocean, which is probably why it was missed by the early white explorers of the coastline, Baudin and Flinders. In fact, it wasn't "discovered" until 1834 and wasn't named until 1911.

Fresh seafood on the KQII.
Fresh seafood on the KQII. 

We cruise overnight from Wyndham with the KQII's three 4.5-metre tenders trailing like compliant yellow ducklings. When we wake, we are in the mouth of the river. We stand around the coffee machine and watch the tide wash past carrying various flotsam. The flotsam with eyes are saltwater crocodiles and the huge bags of transparent blubber are the aforementioned snotters. It's not a typical morning coffee machine conversation. Traffic travails are not mentioned.

After breakfast Captain Ben takes his ship up the river. Eventually striking burnt orange gorges dominate the vista, generally about 30-50 metres high, rising to a maximum of 75 metres. Fissures in the rock are regular and mostly perpendicular, giving it an ordered, blocky appearance. We gather on the sundeck and memory cards take a beating as we try to capture the geological artistry, knowing that not even our finest pics will do it justice. A single dazzling white pelican floats along the top of the gorge scoping the river for breakfast.

The Berkeley River flows for 135 kilometres into the Timor Sea near Reveley Island in Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, but in the dry season only about 23 kilometres are navigable. The solitude is palpable. In two days on the river, we see just two other vessels. It's not always so peaceful, though, says local charter operator Jeff Hayley, who is along for the ride: "Last Easter there were 15 boats on the river. It was like a bloody marina."

The rugged river cliff walls.
The rugged river cliff walls. Photo: Getty Images

The Kimberley Quest II is an airconditioned 25-metre vessel with three deck levels and a range of berth accommodation for up to 18 guests. All cabins are serviced daily and most are best suited to couples. Children are excluded except by private charter of the whole vessel. Drinks are available at bottle-shop prices plus about 10 per cent, which seems reasonable considering it's an hour's flight to the nearest bottlo.

You can hang in the wheelhouse and chat to the skipper (pour a large drink and ask him about the local indigenous Wandjina art form), learn more about what you have just seen by browsing the library or just laze on the lounges and catch some of the plentiful tropical rays up on deck.

The family-operated vessel cruises these waters adding humour, comfort and great food to the 1800-million-year-old wilderness. And their encyclopaedic knowledge is multiplied if you invite horticulturist, award-winning author and 30-year resident of the Kimberley Tim Willing along for the ride. Willing's knowledge of the area is unsurpassed and he even had a wattle named after him, the Acacia willingii, in 2009.

The Berkeley River.
The Berkeley River. 

Much of the up-close sightseeing is conducted via excursions on tenders into the estuarine creeks and inlets that open up from breaks in the gorge walls, often revealing twinkling waterfalls. At this time of year the waterfalls are just shiny slivers, but the darker staining of the surrounding rock face reveals that a far greater volume of water is forced over these walls in the wet season. Indeed, you can see detritus from the big wet deposited high in the trees , many metres above.

On one expedition we come ashore and scramble up a scree incline and then a steep, bushy, single-file path. We city slickers make the climb decked out in climbing boots, hats, sunscreen, insect repellent and back packs. The crew sweep up the hill in bare feet. It doesn't take much - or long - to feel small in the Kimberley, and the crew's Bear Grylls attitude isn't helping. The climb is tough in places, but the prize of a swim in the rock pools of Amphitheatre Falls is worth the effort, as is the view back down to the KQII. The lily-covered water is cool, refreshing and croc-free, or so they tell us. We do a couple of other short climbs and the rewards are just as fabulous. Near Casuarina Falls we see ancient rock art - possibly a thylacine - that has survived the elements beneath an overhang.

We glide along the upper reaches aboard the tenders and the enthusiastic crew set our lures for a spot of barramundi fishing, but today the barra' are seen but not caught. To cool off, we nudge the bow of the tender under a small waterfall and enjoy a bracing, natural shower. We are dry again in seconds.

Evening ushers in the cocktail hour. The primo spot for an evening tipple is in the spa bath on the bow. The scarlet sunset soon envelops us, its tint darkening with each passing minute.

A short time later we tuck into another delicious dinner prepared by chef Rhys Badcock, who recently won MasterChef: The Professionals and is expected back on the boat this season. His sashimi Spanish mackerel and Asian omelets are to die for and he might show you some of his culinary secrets. The bonhomie and drinks flow as we chat about a day spent in one the world's great wildernesses.

Mal Chenu travelled courtesy of Australia's North West Tourism and Kimberley Quest II.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Where you join the Kimberley Quest II depends on the cruise. The vessel is based in Broome and Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney to Broome on Tuesdays and Saturdays for about $487 one way, including tax for the flight (5hr 10min). Melbourne passengers pay about the same for the non-stop flight on Wednesdays, Thursday and Sundays (4hr 35min). Other connections and transfers may be required. Phone 1300 156 035, see kimberleyquest.com.au for full details.

Cruising there Kimberley Quest II runs eight-, 10- and 14-day cruises throughout the region between March and October. Accommodation levels and prices vary, as do the cruise themes and routes. This year's prices range from $9180 for twin accommodation on eight-day trips to $19,828 for the deluxe Flybridge suite on the 14-day Ultimate Quest.

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