Kimberley cruises, Australia: Sail through 60,000 years of history

I expect the landscapes of the Kimberley to be grand, but it's the magnificence of its history that has me thunderstruck. People were living here long before the pyramids were built or ancient Chinese emperors ordered their tombs. Age-old rocks are the only tombs here, their cracks sometimes coughing up skulls and thigh bones that seem inspiring in their human defiance of this harsh environment, and haunting in their loneliness. They might have been here 100 years or 20,000 years under the eternal hot wheeling of the sun.

Countless generations in the Kimberley have pondered the universe around them and their place in it, and left marks of their passing that survived even the coastline's changing topography. On Bigge Island, Coral Discoverer lecturer Michael Hermes points out that we have to imagine the overhangs that conceal rock art here once stood amid landscapes similar to the Blue Mountains, and some 40 kilometres inland. Now the sandstone rocks are worn-down gums just a scramble from the Wary Bay shoreline.

The mountains have gone but the human-like Wandjina figures are still there, with their distinctive big eyes, lack of mouth and halo-like ring around their heads, as if they're shooting out barbs of electricity. They seem imbued with energy and still stand out vividly against the rock faces. You'd think whoever painted them had just wandered off for the afternoon, rather than for millennia.

"They may be the embodiment of cloud and lightning spirits linked to the end of the dry season and coming of the wet," says Michael. Most things hereabouts are speculation, because they happened before almost anything else in human history.

I'm on a Coral Expeditions cruise between Broome and Darwin, during which Bigge Island is just the first of many fabulous encounters with some of Australia's best rock art. Next day on Swift Bay there are more Wandjina figures, as well as drawings of kangaroos and crocodiles and a waddling line of fat ducks. There are unusual colours here – yellow and purple – beyond the more typical ochre and white. Scattered all around are middens full of shells, darkened into an ashy matrix that Michael says is the result of unimaginable generations of cooking fires.

Gwion Gwion (often called Bradshaw) art is present here too, and again another day on Jar Island, where they're more faded. They may be 15,000 years old or more, and are a much older and utterly different artistic style from Wandjina art. They depict human figures in silhouette, often in dynamic poses that suggest hunting or dancing, and often decorated with headdresses and tassels and carrying string bags.

I find them hauntingly compelling, I-was-here scratchings on the face of an immeasurably vast landscape, but even these are not the oldest remnants of human civilisation in Australia's north-west. Depictions of animals across the region are thought to be upwards of 40,000 years old. Some show New Guinea anteaters, extinct in Australia for a long time.

"It's really hard to date this art with any precision," says Michael. "We tend to think of art as an object you might buy and stick unchanging on the wall, but here they were retouched and their stories retold."

It's hard to fathom the slow passing of time here, but a few centuries ago the seemingly unchanging Kimberley was introduced to the wider world. Some rock art depicts 16th-century Chinese vessels, then later Dutch sailing ships, and more ominously men carrying rifles. Contact art on Bigge Island shows what are likely Asian or European figures, possibly representing Abel Tasman's visit in 1644.

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The history of European exploration along the Kimberley coast is a blip on the radar of its vast history, but nevertheless an extraordinary story. The Dutch and Portuguese moseyed through, and Frenchman Nicolas Baudin scattered French place names along the coast following his expedition of 1801-3. British captain Matthew Flinders made three early exploratory voyages here too as part of this mission to circumnavigate the continent.

It's the exploits of Philip Parker King, one of Australia's most underrated explorers, that we follow most closely on this Coral Discoverer journey, however. King made four expeditions here between late 1817 and early 1822, the first three on HMS Mermaid. His remit was to find out about the region's climate, minerals, wildlife and Indigenous people, and whether any river would allow exploration of the still unknown continental interior.

We're first introduced to King's adventures through an on-board lecture, part of an excellent series of lectures that fill in the background to our shore excursions. Several days into our cruise we anchor at the mouth of the Prince Regent River, named for the future George IV. We board the expedition tender Xplorer for a trip upriver. King's crew rowed up this sweltering waterway to what's now called King Cascade in their hunt for fresh water supplies. Mike tells us about naturalist Allan Cunningham's attempts to capture mudskippers and sea snakes: he potted at them with a musket and finally a ship's cannon.

The riverbanks here, with their cubic red sandstone, look like the ruins of an ancient city of temples and ziggurats topped by eucalyptus trees and flanked by mangroves. The waterfalls appear like magic, and seem landscaped. They're tiered down to gush in pretty steps, and are flanked by vivid green ferns. Our tender inches forward, allowing us to stand on the prow for a cooling soak.

Next day we're wading ashore from Xplorer much as King and his crew would have done when they stopped here to mend a leak in their ship's hull. They used metal salvaged from a shipwreck to make repairs. It's hard not to admire the derring-do of these sailors at the edge of the known Earth, with only a few planks of wood and barrels of water between them and disaster. The coastline is dotted with anxious place names – Escape, Alarm, Wary, Foul – that betray their worries.

Careening Bay is a beautiful bay on a wide, sheltered inlet, with golden sands punctured by crab holes, and a tumble of black rocks and fringe of low red cliffs. The hillside behind is dense with purple beach morning glory, cycads and spinifex. Here the trunk of a large boab tree is carved with the words "HMS Mermaid 1820".

It's astonishing how far Australia has come since that date, though at the expense of the Indigenous population, which has a harrowing contact history in the Kimberley. The exploits of British explorers are astounding, but on-board lectures and documentaries don't flinch at recounting the lamentable treatment of the Indigenous community that had lived here for millennia.

On day nine we disembark on Anjo Peninsula and scramble up a sand dune and across salt pans to see a last piece of Kimberley history, an American C-53 Sky Trooper airplane that crash-landed here in 1942. Its six crew members, involved in the evacuation of civilians from Java as the Japanese advanced, were rescued days later by a Qantas flying boat.

The downed plane sits like a giant silver dragonfly with severed, crumpled wings. Although its engines and parts were later salvaged, almost the entire fuselage remains, surrounded by tall golden grasses. It's another haunting historical sight, puny against an immense landscape, yet strangely moving, too.

TRIP NOTES

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Coral Expeditions.

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FLY

Qantas flies direct to both Broome and Darwin from Sydney and Melbourne. Phone 13 13 13, see qantas.com

CRUISE

Coral Expeditions operates 10-day Kimberley cruises between Broome and Darwin (or the reverse) on Coral Discoverer and Coral Expeditions. In 2019 new ship Coral Adventurer joins the fleet. Fares from $8290pp twin share, including all meals, mealtime beverages and shore excursions. Phone 1800 079 545. See coralexpeditions.com

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