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It's 39 degrees when our light plane takes off from Kununurra in the remote north-east Kimberley, but my friends and I are distracted from the searing late dry season heat by the in-flight entertainment: widescreen views of Ord-irrigated farms, the massive Carlton Hill cattle station (it takes us 15 minutes to fly over it) and the olive green Cambridge Gulf, just west of the Northern Territory border.
There are no roads where we're going, so our one-hour scenic flight is also a shuttle service to our home-away-from-home for the next four days.
From the air Berkeley River Lodge looks like the sun-bleached skeleton of a long-dead dingo, its 20 vertebral villas strung along the top of high sand dunes (the highest between Broome and Darwin), culminating in the main lodge where outback-orange sun loungers fringe a 20-metre sky-blue pool.
A relatively new presence on this stretch of coast, it was built in 2012 by the Broome-based Peirson-Jones family in partnership with the Indigenous French family (that's their name not their nationality) and is open for eight months of the year. We arrive just before it closes for the wet season.
Martin "PJ" Peirson-Jones picks us up from the dirt airstrip in a safari-style Land Cruiser. As we drive past the beach, I can't help saying how inviting the shimmering Timor Sea looks.
That is PJ's cue to tell us of the lodge's two rules, which double as survival tips. "Now it is croc country, so swimming is a no-no," he says. "And if you're walking on the beach, make sure you stay at least five metres from the waterline."
So we're all a bit nervous when, during an exploratory coastal drive later that morning, resident guide Bruce Maycock points to a good fishing spot – on the other side of a thigh-deep creek he wants us to wade across.
He assures us it's safe – being low tide, you would see any saltwater crocs before they saw you, he says – and he probably knows this stretch of Kimberley coast better than anyone alive, having spent much of the past 15 years camping beside a creek not far from the lodge, mostly alone, for up to six months at a time.
So we leave the safety of the vehicle, wade and survive, then catch-and-release a few estuary cod and mangrove jacks upstream.
Fishing is a bit of an afterthought for our group, but that doesn't faze Maycock or PJ; they're happy to plan activities around guests' interests. In any case, factors such as the wind and tides always have the last say.
"Ninety-nine per cent of our guests don't arrive here [knowing] on day one you're going to be doing a river cruise, on day two you'll be going for a fish then a beach drive in the afternoon," PJ says. "And you don't have to spend six hours fishing with your husband just because he wants to. We can take you on a bush drive, for example, or do an in-house lunch for you and look after you by the pool."
Also good to know: tours don't follow a schedule. You set off with an idea and see where the day takes you.
So our coastal drive morphs into a birdwatching-wildlife-tracking-picnicking tour. When we stop to inspect some tracks made by a flatback turtle, for instance, we follow them to her nest and find the soft sand around it littered with torn-up turtle eggs – and fresh dingo tracks.
"This would have happened last night," Maycock says. "The dingo probably smelled the nest. He wouldn't have tracked the turtle. No other animal tracks another animal, only humans."
Speaking of humans, a little further on Maycock shows us a collection of a dozen stone tools he has found nearby over the years. Flat hand-axes, razor-sharp blades, grinding stones, probably used as recently as the 1940s, he says. That's when the last Indigenous people moved off this land and into communities such as the troubled Forrest River Mission (which closed in 2011, its residents shifting to Wyndham), never to return.
It's a reminder that the lodge lies within Oombulgurri Aboriginal Reserve, leasing 5000 hectares from the local land council, and makes standing on this beach feel like landing on a long-abandoned planet.
On the way back to the lodge, we stop for lunch at a teak table and chairs set up in the shade of a pandanus tree. Eskies materialise from the back of the vehicle and Maycock hands around ice-cold drinks and bento boxes prepared by Berkeley's chef, just one of the ways the lodge is quietly sustainable.
That afternoon, I get a chance to check out my villa. In true remote-lodge style, there are no room keys or "do not disturb" signs (housekeeping staff visit only when you're out during the day). Not quite a tree house, there being no big trees around, it's more of a "sea house": from the deck you can watch the sun rising out of the Timor Sea, louvre windows let in cool ocean breezes and you can listen to the waves from your king-sized bed.
The bathroom is a highlight: an open-air space surrounded by brush fencing with faraway views inland, where you can shower in the sun, bird-watch while brushing your teeth (or from the composting toilet, a first for me) and take moon-baths under the Kimberley night sky.
As private as the villas are, guests gather at the main lodge each night for sunset drinks and canapes such as barramundi paperbark parcels and salt-and-pepper crocodile, and dine at a communal table overlooking the mouth of the Berkeley River. Local produce features as much as possible, but fish isn't on the menu as often as you'd think, to limit the "take" from local rivers and coastal waters.
The next day, Maycock has another excursion planned for us: a coastal cruise to one of the best swimming holes on the entire coast. But first, there is rock art to see. At Osprey Bay, he noses the boat ashore and we step onto a beach striped with croc tracks, lazy S-shapes flanked by footprints as large as a man's hand, and hurry away from the water's edge (while he anchors the boat in deeper water and wades ashore).
We rock hop upstream to a shady cave, its walls and ceiling adorned with spotted dugong, stick-figure Bradshaws, emu footprints and a life-sized outline of a man. "No one knows how old this art is," says Maycock, who first found it in 2001 and brings only a handful of people to see it every year.
Our next stop is Atlantis Creek, named after a German seaplane that crash-landed offshore in the 1930s, where we hike for half an hour to Maycock's camp (all packed up and ready for his next visit) and, just beyond it, the promised pool: deep green, croc-free, as big as two Olympic pools side by side and filled with water fresh enough to drink.
Like kids at a pool party, we all strip to our swimmers and jump in, playing in the water until our fingertips wrinkle and Maycock says it's time to head "home", to the lodge.
This is what a real holiday looks like: spending whole days outdoors, eating well, falling asleep to the shush of waves and ignoring the outside world. (There is Wi-Fi in the main lodge, but no mobile reception and no televisions in the villas.)
One morning I wake at first light, walk down the dune and along the beach and lose sight of the lodge. Just like that. It's alarming at first, this sudden aloneness in nature, the stillness. There's not a soul in sight. Nothing stirs in the glassy, grey-green sea. Nor is there any washed-up debris, not even coloured specks of microplastic, just shells, leaves and sticks brought ashore by the last high tide.
On our last evening, our sunset drinks are served atop the nearby Mount Casuarina, four thrilling minutes away by helicopter. Perth zoologist Charles Price Conigrave named the flat-topped 262-metre peak after a ship made of she-oak during his expedition to these parts in 1911. He also named the river, after his brother Berkeley, and left his expedition journal under a stone cairn we visit, an as-yet unearthed time capsule.
There is time for one last swim, one last lounge by the saltwater pool and a leisurely lunch on our last day before PJ drives us back to the airstrip and hugs us all goodbye. It's like farewelling friends, not checking out of a luxury lodge.
Our pilot is in no rush either, leaning against the Piper Chieftain that will take us back to Kununurra, the first leg of our long journey home. It's one last indulgence: leaving only when we're ready and, as seems fitting in the rugged north-east Kimberley, like rock stars.
Kimberley Air Tours flies to Berkeley River Lodge from Kununurra ($900 return a person) and Darwin ($2300 return). These are chartered one-hour scenic flights by fixed wing aircraft, seaplane or helicopter and arrive about 8am so you can make the most of your first day. Book through Berkeley River Lodge at berkeleyriver.com.au
Berkeley River Lodge is open for eight months of the year, between March 6 and October 31, 2017. Rates start at $1950 a couple and include all meals, some drinks and activities such as coastal and river cruises, fishing and four-wheel-drive trips and guided treks, but not air transfers. See berkeleyriver.com.au or call 08 9169 1330.
Louise Southerden was a guest of Berkeley River Lodge and Tourism WA.
FIVE MORE KIMBERLEY LODGES
The original Kimberley lodge, El Questro opened in 1992 and has accommodation options ranging from luxury suites in the Homestead (from $1969 a room a night) to campsites, 110 kilometres west of Kununurra. Reopens April 1, 2017. See elquestro.com.au
This wilderness camp near King George Falls, about 10 minutes by air past Berkeley River Lodge, opened in 1996 and has eight outback-luxury cabins. All-inclusive rates start at $1000 a night a person. Reopens March 1, 2017. See farawaybay.com.au
HOME VALLEY STATION
Owned and run by the Indigenous Land Corporation since 2008, this working cattle station 120 kilometres west of Kununurra has a range of lodgings, like El Questro, including new "Grass Castle" cabins from $330 a night. Reopens April 23, 2017. See hvstation.com.au
KIMBERLEY COASTAL CAMP
On Admiralty Gulf in the north-west Kimberley, this coastal wilderness retreat opened in 1994 and can take up to 12 guests. Now open in the wet season (for $500 a night a person) as well as the dry ($625 a night). See kimberleycoastalcamp.com.au
NGAUWUDU SAFARI CAMP
Built by Outback Spirit for guests on its 15 and 18-day Kimberley tours (May-September), this camp opened in 2011 and has 14 luxury safari tents, from $695 a night ar person. See ngauwudu.com.au
See also: The 10 ultimate hotel destinations
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