Kimberley uncharted

Beyond the Buccaneer Archipelago, Katrina Lobley pulls ashore at a former pearl farm recast as a high-end lodge.

Squeal, squeal, squeal. Within a minute of plopping our lures into the water, we have "hooked up", in the Kimberley sense. The three of us weave around each other like maypole dancers to keep fishing lines from tangling. The high-decibel excitement doesn't faze John Cooper one bit; the skipper on our eight-metre runabout calmly advises how best to reel in whatever's hanging off our rods.

Fisherwoman No.1, who landed a mean-looking barracuda minutes earlier, comes up empty - her lure is gone. Ditto for fisherwoman No.2, who's only just recovered from a protracted but successful battle with a six-kilogram giant trevally.

I keep dipping the rod, reeling my quarry closer. There's a pale flash in the water below before it disappears under the boat, almost doubling the rod over. Cooper tells me to dip and reel, dip and reel, and hovers with a net.

Finally, he scoops up a five-kilogram giant trevally, throws me a protective glove so I can pose with my catch, and releases the fish into the pristine waters near Camden Sound, recently designated a marine park and the largest calving ground for humpback whales in the southern hemisphere.

It's our first day at Kuri Bay, a former Paspaley pearl farm that joined the Wild Bush Luxury portfolio of remote and exclusive lodges recently. It's the beginning of the dry season, and we're among the first guests to stay.

It's impossible to reach the place by road, for there are none. Kuri Bay has even escaped the reach of Google Maps. Getting here requires a seaplane or helicopter - we're taking a 90-minute seaplane flight from Broome, tracking north-east over the Buccaneer Archipelago, home to the Horizontal Waterfalls. Kuri Bay faces Augustus Island, said to be Australia's largest uninhabited island. It's firmly within Western Australia but, in a nod to Paspaley's headquarters in Darwin, this outpost operates on Northern Territory time.

The seaplane circles over buildings clustered at the end of a long, mangrove-fringed bay, buzzing them as it comes in to land between dramatic cliffs of rust-red Kimberley sandstone.

We return the lifejacket bags dangling from our waists to the pilot, clamber carefully into a tender - these waters are not only subject to extreme tides of up to 12 metres that can leave the floating jetty stranded in mud but are full of sharks and at least one saltwater croc - and venture forth into the unknown.

Until recently, Kuri Bay hosted only Paspaley VIPs and farm staff. Considering that only the day before, in Broome, I was fondling a $215,000 strand of "the most beautiful pearls in the world", it's with extra interest that I'm seeing these warm, pristine waters in which the pearls have their genesis, and the decommissioned farm huddled below cliffs that have protected it from north-west Australia's notoriously wild monsoon weather.

Kuri Bay was established in 1956 as Australia's first South Sea pearl farm - the name pays tribute to Tokuichi Kuribayashi, of Nippo Pearls, who provided technical expertise to the early joint venture. As farming of the silver-lip pearl oyster was refined over the years, Kuri Bay became, according to Paspaley, one of the world's most successful pearl farms. But it wound up late last year as Paspaley consolidated pearling operations into super-farms at other remote Kimberley locations.

Before departure, the chief executive of Wild Bush Luxury, Charlie Carlow, calls to explain that the accommodation isn't Kuri Bay's star attraction. "It's there to support the experience," he says. Photographs on the company's website don't give a great deal away, so much is left to my imagination.

In several ways, the place is not as I'd imagined. For a start, it's bigger than expected, with 26 separate buildings that housed up to 60 pearling staff in its heyday.

One morning I wander past the mostly empty lodgings, known as Veranda 1, Veranda 2 and so on, a basketball ring and what looks like an abandoned gym. I shouldn't, because we're only supposed to explore up the back if accompanied by one of the co-managers: John Cooper of Wild Bush Luxury, or Ben Hawkins of Paspaley Pearls. Such precautions are necessary because there's the odd snake around (it's also why we need to walk carefully at night using a torch).

Our lodgings are also simpler than expected. Guests stay in a five-bedroom, three-bathroom, traditional Broome-style building that's a steep, short walk up a concrete path from the canteen and outdoor dining balcony. The plan is for guests to occupy no more than three rooms at a time so there's no sharing of the separate bathrooms. No room keys are handed out (but are available if you prefer).

Room furnishings comprise a comfortable king bed with new 500-thread-count linen, side drawers, a dresser bearing a torch, water jug and tropical-strength repellent (not that I see a single mozzie for two nights), a chair and a wardrobe, none of them fancy. There are ceiling fans for cooling and louvres between the rooms and verandah. A small sitting room with stocked bar and fridge links the bedrooms to the bathrooms and laundry. From the showers and toilets, there are views over the bay and of a magnificent boab tree in the bush outside.

Halfway between the lodgings and canteen is an open-air bar that's been spruced up to transform it from a staff cash bar to a more open arrangement where guests help themselves to spirits, beers or Bunnamagoo Estate wines from vineyards near Mudgee (another Paspaley business). As is the Kimberley way, red wine is stored in the fridge.

An above-ground pool is behind the bar but there isn't much in the way of comfortable seating to encourage poolside lounging. But it's early days and lounging options are on the lodge's to-do list. Next morning we take a boat to sheltered Sampson Inlet, where Cooper and Hawkins have anchored a shaded raft they're planning to transform into a pavilion pontoon and tow back to Kuri Bay to give guests another place to relax. As we head into the inlet, tuna start jumping - as do we at the thought of fresh sashimi (no bites today).

Next stop is Sheep Island, home to 19th-century settler graves and an anxious sea eagle circling above its nest in a boab tree. We spot a small expedition ship in the distance and cruise past black buoys that mark former pearl lines, and tie up at a double-storey pontoon that gives some insight into the reality of a pearler's life. Perhaps it's the colonial graves or the eeriness of peering into dormitories still containing mattresses, but I jump when I think I see a door handle move, as if the ghost of a sunburnt pearler is rattling it from the other side.

A crackle of the radio cuts short our day trip: a staff member of Wild Bush Luxury's Northern Territory property, Bamurru Plains, conducting training at Kuri Bay, has hurt her wrist driving the six-wheel utility vehicle.

The managers must return immediately. It's a reminder of the peculiar difficulties of extreme remoteness; if she needs urgent medical attention, a seaplane can land on water only during daylight. The staffer's wrist is firmly strapped to a serving spoon and the following day she returns with us to Broome, where a broken bone is confirmed.

Our unexpected time back at the lodge is spent testing the pool, napping and forgetting that the rest of the world exists, as staff shuttle canapes, wine, steaks, salads, a table and chairs by boat to an island beach.

On our way out of the bay, we throw scraps to tawny nurse sharks, blacktip reef sharks and whaler sharks while brahminy kites swoop from above to claim their own titbits. At our exclusive beach barbecue, we name the beach Champagne Cove and duly christen it with a glass.

For all the glamorous moments such as this, it's never far from your mind that just months ago this was a working pearl farm buzzing with staff who spent their days chipping barnacles from shells and pulling weed from the pearl lines.

Hawkins started with Paspaley as a deckhand in 2003, and memories of Kuri Bay pearl farm are close to his heart. "It was fun," he says. "It was all young people. You'd go visiting at night to see what someone was up to. It was awesome back then."

Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of Wild Bush Luxury and Tourism Western Australia.


Getting there

Virgin Australia has a one-way fare to Broome via Perth from Sydney ($427) and from Melbourne ($438). Qantas has a fare from Sydney and Melbourne for about $320, also via Perth. Qantas has a weekly non-stop flight from Melbourne.

Staying there

A three-night stay at Kuri Bay, including accommodation, meals, drinks, guided activities and return Broome-Kuri Bay seaplane flights, costs from $4895 a person, twin share, with a minimum of six seaplane passengers. Each additional night costs $800 a person. Seaplane packages are also available from Kununurra and Darwin; helicopter packages are available from Broome, Derby, Kununurra or Mitchell Plateau. Guided activities include fishing, sunset cruises, sunrise hikes, seasonal whale watching and visits to Sheep Island. Stays of four nights or more include day trips to see indigenous rock art and Montgomery Reef.

More information