Kimberley region cruising and helicopter flights: The perfect blend of weather, wonder and waterfalls

It happens so fast I don't have time to be frightened.

I'm a passenger in a helicopter, levitating metres above the Kimberley's rusty red surface, a landscape so ancient and grand it's barely buffeted by the whirring blades. Then, without warning, the ground disappears; it's as though we've stepped off the edge of a skyscraper. Seemingly in slow motion, our chopper pin-drops, plummeting down the stark, 80-metre face of a waterfall, chasing thousands of droplets as they splinter into a cloud of flossy, white mist.

Just as my reeling brain catches up, the pilot – he's German, and oh-so-precise – scoops us safely towards the horizon line, careering through the red curtain chasm before veering towards a giant column of rock, then banking hard right and performing a cheeky fly-by of our gleaming cruise boat.

The extremes of Mother Nature and man's place as an eager spectator within it are what this eight-day trip of a lifetime is all about. Aboard a 26-metre luxury catamaran in the liquid-filled Kimberley, 14 of us are combing the Western Australian region's countless islands and raggedy coastline in pursuit of some of the country's most epic waterfalls. While most visitors opt for the easy-going temperatures of a northern winter, we're deliberately here at the tail end of summer's stormy Wet season, which peters out in March. About 1400 millimetres  of rainfall  are recorded across the region annually, and for a couple of months after the tropical rains subside, water culminating in rivers and streams drives in giant volumes towards the outer crust of Australia. It's this dramatic spill – and maybe an electric storm or two – that we're chasing. 

Admittedly, the air is heavy with humidity and while liberal amounts of SPF15+ are applied, its greasy sheen can't block out the searing heat.  A belly flop off the deck is no answer either – crocs patrol these waters – but our skipper has other, better solutions as he navigates the 1000 nautical miles of coastal crevices and island outcrops between Broome and Wyndham.

Chris "Trippy" Tucker has been exploring the region for nearly 30 years. Though waterfall-focused trips are still largely a novelty for punters, April  is his favourite time in the Kimberley, when waterworks spurt and the weather fines up. "People go to the gorges and see their first big waterfall and their faces light up with this expression of happiness – that's just great," he says.

We don't have to wait long. After a night of ploughing north up the Dampier Peninsula our aptly named vessel, The Great Escape, reaches the thousand islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago. Illuminated by the warm dawn light, some are Utah-esque in formation, and all are banded with a tie-dye of burnt orange, weathered beige and rhinoceros grey, immersed in an opaque, cornflower-blue ocean.

Dinghies whisk us to Crocodile Creek, a rock-carved oasis fed by a splattering waterfall. Only a day in and I'm happily make-up free, casually clad and a million mental miles away from the stresses of the office. I feel a long-forgotten sense of peace as I fold my body into dark folds of rock at the waterfall's base. With no one but us around, it's pure bliss. But apparently this fall is a baby compared  with the others we're yet to see.

We head off through the islands, scattered as thick as the Milky Way, tracing an edge of a flaming rocky escarpment that twists and turns like angel hair pasta. As we progress eastward, rock morphs from blocks at home in a cubist painting, to the rounded crags of an old man's pockmarked face. As we anchor for the night, a handful of guests zoom off with rods in hand. The prized barramundi eludes them – for now – so pink snapper is instead panko crumbed and served with chilli mayo by the on-board chef, who has  swapped a Margaret River winery for his floating digs.

The following afternoon we witness a waterfall of a very different kind. Each day, Montgomery Reef is revealed by the retreat of some of the largest tropical tides in the world. As metres worth of water suck away like a reverse flood, white water gushes down the sides of Australia's largest inshore reef, making it appear as though it's rising from the ocean.

Any sea life not savvy enough to vacate in time is stranded. The coral, we're told, secretes a sort of natural sunblock equivalent to SPF45, protecting it from the sun. When we first skirt the reef in aluminium runabouts, it is little more than a dark line in the ocean. But as we motor along, spotting turtles as they raise their heads to breathe, water increasingly pours off the sides, making the sea bubble. By the time we buckle in to the chopper for an aerial view, the mottled reef has emerged.

"It's like a reverse Atlantis," says our chopper pilot, Bernd Banke, renamed "Scorcher" by the Aussie crew. "I didn't even know it existed."

Before we reach what many regard as the region's highlight, the towering, 80-metre  King George Falls, we're granted a spectacular electrical storm – but only after a day of wilting through the still, oppressive humidity of "the build-up". Brooding, bloated clouds hover over a blaze of red rock at sunset, and as the sky darkens, shoots of fork lightning reach for earth. The light show spreads to a huge, marshmallow cloud, with white fingers clawing through it. Forks turn vertical, tearing across the sky like shooting stars, or crackling through clouds in myriad directions. Sitting on the protected back deck of the boat (having been evacuated from our beach bonfire dinner), we're captivated by every flash.

By Wednesday morning, we're wending our way gently through the enormous ochre walls framing the King George River. High tide allows us to follow the serpentine of what was once a great, forceful waterway that rose and fell over millennia, carving this track through the sandstone. Gravity-defying ledges that must weigh tonnes jut out from above, and only the most tenacious of plants succeed in clinging to the rockface.

Then, we turn and the twin falls emerge. Wrapped in red, the rock has been stained black beneath the slapping water, creating a backdrop that further defines the cascades. Again, Trippy nuzzles the boat into the spray, and we squeal like children as we're drenched to the skin.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitwesternaustralia.com

australiasnorthwest.com

CRUISING THERE

The Great Escape Charter Company runs an eight-night Waterfall Safari (from $9849  a person twin-share), and six or seven night Kings of the Kimberley Gorges tours (from $9322  a person twin share); see greatescape.net.au.

GETTING THERE

Virgin and Qantas/Airnorth fly from Broome to Kununurra. Qantas flies direct to Broome from Sydney and Melbourne;  see qantas.com.au and virginaustralia.com.au.

STAYING THERE

In Broome, try the Cable Beach Club Resort and Spa, studio rooms from $229; see cablebeachclub.com. In   Kununurra the Kimberley Grande is a worthy base, rooms from $165; see thekimberleygrande.com.au.

The writer was a guest of Great Escape Charter Company and Tourism Western Australia.

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