Huge rolling ridges of rock, lots of red and sunsets over endless beaches entrance Megan Levy in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
The croc surfaced in the middle of the waterhole where, just minutes earlier, we'd been floating on our backs staring up at the yawning blue sky in this remote corner of Western Australia. I could tell you that the croc was a five-metre beast that circled as we swam furiously towards the rocky bank and clambered to safety. Now that would be a tall tale to tell over a few drinks at the pub.
Truth be told, our croc measured 30 centimetres in length. That's 30 centimetres of pure terror incarnate. At first we mistook the baby freshwater crocodile for a shadow, until the outline of its tiny snout emerged from the murky water's surface.
"Don't worry, freshies don't eat people," says our guide from Home Valley Station who, conveniently, and somewhat suspiciously, had opted against a dip on that blistering afternoon. What I wanted to know was: where were this kid's parents? I wasn't hanging around to find out.
A croc in an outback water hole is perhaps a stereotypical image of Australia, but up here, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, many of those stereotypes ring true.
From the air, the earth appears rippled ochre red, cracked, beautiful. Towering gorge walls drop into dark, glassy rivers, and the enormous sky seems to stretch on forever. Red dirt gets in your boots and on your clothes and, by the time you leave, this place will be under your skin. I realised this as I stood under a hot shower one night, scanning the immense sky for the Southern Cross, and a frog jumped on my foot.
An outdoor shower may not be a practical addition to a city bathroom, but at the Berkeley River Lodge, an isolated slice of luxury on the Kimberley coast, it works.
There are no roads here: the only way in and out is via boat or plane. At first it doesn't seem to make sense to build a five-star lodge at a location you can't drive to, and with no mobile reception, until you realise this isolation is the point. The brain slows a notch to take in the simple pleasures of the sun setting over the Timor Sea, or a shooting star as you shower on your personal deck. Who could blame the tiny frog for poking its head through the drain and jumping up for a better view? It was magnificent.
The beaches here are deserted for a reason: they are home to saltwater crocodiles.
On arrival we're immediately told not to go swimming in the ocean or river and that, if we go for a walk along the beach, to tell someone where we're going. "So we know where to look for body parts," says the general manager, Leith. The next day, on a boat trip up the Berkeley River, it appears his warning wasn't entirely a joke.
Our group spots two crocs, camouflaged on the muddy bank. No doubt there's countless more watching us from among the mangroves. We float through soaring gorges, where the rocks are rust red and remarkable in their squareness.
"These are the original Lego blocks," says Bruce, our guide, who is sinewy and sun-browned. He knows the river's secret spots, like the rock pool above the waterfall where it's safe to go for a dip because the crocs can't climb up there. We dive in, and later leap off a spectacular jump rock. We're the only ones within coo-ee.
This is Australia, quite literally in that the Kimberley formed the backdrop of Baz Luhrmann's epic 2008 film of the same name, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. When US talk show host Ellen De Generes interviewed Kidman about her favourite place in Australia, Kidman raved about Kununurra, 40 kilometres from the Northern Territory border.
Our introduction to the town was at the local pub, The Hotel Kununurra, which was certainly nothing flash to look at, and was charging a $5 entry fee when we arrived.This wasn't just any night at the Hotel Kunanurra, it turned out. The local karaoke contestants, some of them of very questionable vocal talent, were battling it out for $1000 and their chance to perform at the showcase event of a 10-day tourism festival known as the Ord Valley Muster, which draws thousands from all over Australia.
At this year's muster in May, My Kitchen Rules host Manu Feildel hosted an exclusive dinner under the stars, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke flew in to entertain guests, there were swimming competitions across Lake Argyle, art exhibitions, a rodeo, all culminating in a concert on the banks of the Ord River known as the Kimberley Moon Experience. West Australian rockers The Waifs, Eskimo Joe and Mr Australiana himself, John Williamson, were due to perform at the concert the next night. But it was a local, AJ, who brought down the house with a Jimmy Barnes karaoke classic, and who performed the following night beside rock royalty. Some locals had lugged Eskies down to the riverbanks for the concert as the sun went down in a blaze of pink and red, while others frocked up for a five-star dinner and evening under the stars.
Many who make the considerable trek to The Kimberley are grey nomads. It makes sense. You need time and money to reach some of these exceedingly remote areas, and often the best way to take in the view is by air, which can be out of reach for a thrifty backpacker.
But zooming low over the Bungle Bungle Range in an open-door helicopter can sometimes prove a little too much for the grey nomads, our chopper pilot says over his headset, recalling some white-knuckled flyers begging to be let out. On the ground.
The Bungle Bungles consists of a series of distinctive beehive-shaped domes, striped in orange and grey and scoured out of the sandstone over 20 million years. Remarkably, the range came to prominence in tourism circles only in 1983 when a Perth film crew spotted their unusual shape from the air.
Of course, it was known by the local Kitja Aboriginal people well before this.
In 2003, the range was declared a World Heritage Site, with UNESCO describing the domes as being "unrivalled in their scale, extent, grandeur and diversity of form anywhere in the world". Swooping low over those towers, another description springs to mind: "Wow". This truly feels like a vast wilderness frontier.
Another short flight from Kununurra is Home Valley Station, a working cattle station that also operates as a training centre for indigenous youth, and a tourist resort where road-weary travellers can put their feet up.
We arrive in the middle of the wedding celebration for a couple from Orange in NSW. The bride is wearing a white strapless gown and cowboy boots. The groom sports shorts and thongs. At the last moment they moved their midday ceremony to 9am, because they thought it would be too hot otherwise. They were right.
After congratulating the newlyweds, we take off on a two-hour horse ride to the base of the Cockburn Range.
This landscape also featured in Australia, but times have changed. Our guides tell us they herded cattle the day before using a helicopter. Life can be harsh and unforgiving here and present unusual problems. Some cattle stations here factor in losing one cow a day to crocodiles in the river.
Further west, the pearling town of Broome beckons after the inland's sometimes stifling conditions. Broome, and its stunning 22-kilometre Cable Beach, has cemented itself firmly on the tourist trail. When we turn up we see a couple of backpackers perched on the roof of their beat-up van, playing cards in the beach car park. They have front row seats to the spectacular, and free, nightly show that is the blood-red sunset over the ocean.
You can take in the vista from the back of a camel on the beach, which is fun, but many people had simply driven their four-wheel-drives onto the sand, pulled out a folding chair, maybe a bottle of wine, and settled in for the show on a warm Kimberley night. You can swim at Cable Beach, we're told, and I can see a bunch of people splashing among the breakers. But I'm scarred by my close encounter with a 30-centimetre killer. I can't help but think this advice may be a load of croc.
This writer travelled as a guest of Tourism WA.
Qantas flies direct to Broome from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Phone 131313 or see qantas.com. From Broome, you can can fly to Kununurra, or organise flights along the so-called "aerial highway", a network of remote airstrips at major attractions throughout the region. If driving, the 660-kilometre Gibb River Road stretches from Broome to Kununurra (pack a spare tyre and seek advice on driving in outback conditions).
The Berkeley River Lodge offers isolated luxury accommodation and gourmet dining. A standard three-night package costs $3990 a person twin share, including air transfers, meals and activities. See berkeleyriver.com.au.
The Kununurra Country Club Resort offers accommodation right in the centre of town, with rooms starting from about $250 a night. See kununurracountryclub.com.au Home Valley Station offers everything from unpowered camping sites, to premium accommodation. See hvstation.com.au.
Cable Beach Club Resort and Spa is right on Cable Beach. A variety of room options are available. See cablebeachclub.com