BY SMALL CRUISE SHIP
Picture standing at the rail, sipping champagne, and looking out a sunset lighting up the burnished ochre cliffs of one of the most ancient landscapes on earth, and admiring its reflection in the still water. Glorious? You betcha. Cruising the Kimberley is fast becoming one of the most popular ways to see what many think of as our final frontier – and it's luxurious, leisurely and enormously laid-back. It's not cheap, but it's expensive to transport all that champagne, fine food, gear, staff and even fuel to such a remote region. Its isolation, though, is what helps make it so special as you cruise the coast between Broome and Darwin, admiring the towering escarpments, the waterfalls, the turtles, crocs, dolphins, birds, butterflies ... and the absolute peace. See aptouring.com.au.
Want to get closer to the incredible sights along the way? All the ships these days have fleets of zodiacs, or rubber motorised dinghies, to get up close and personal with the myriad features of the landscape. Helmed by enthusiastic naturalists, they drift through the channels, plough right up to – and often under – the waterfalls, over to the Montgomery Reef that rears up and disappears again with the tide, bob along the rocks to watch the sunbaking crocs, and over to land on sandy islands with their spectacular Aboriginal rock art hidden away in caves. With only about six passengers to a zodiac, it's a wonderful way to see the Kimberley while actually feeling a tiny part of it too. See aptouring.com.au.
BY A LAND TOUR
There's a huge range of land tours now available, mostly in 4WD cars or coaches along the old Gibb River Road, and staying in safari camps, lodges, luxury tents or motels along the way. These tend to visit places such as the kooky town Fitzroy Crossing, the stunning Windjana Gorge, the Mitchell Plateau, the amazing Bungle Bungles and fascinating Kununurra, and often give you a huge sense of the history of the region. Travelling by land also allows you to meet many of the colourful larger-than-life characters who live there too; and don't miss having a chat with Kununurra's Frauke Bolten-Boshammer, the feisty woman with a mind-boggling story who started sales of the area's famed pink diamonds with her Kimberley Fine Diamonds. outbackspirittours.com.au.
Driving on the Gibb River Road. Photo: Sean Scott Photography
The first time I attempted to drive the Gibb River Road, I had to turn back in my campervan after just one night as all the vehicles ahead were getting bogged after heavy rains, and the heat and humidity – it was Christmas time – was too much to bear. So good timing and sensible preparation (neither of which I had) is key. Bush-camping is a fun way to experience the serenity under the thousands of stars in the black nights, but the motels and hotels do have the advantage of air-con. A mix of both can be ideal. The advantage of travelling under your own steam is that you can stay a while at any spot that takes your fancy, or where the fish are biting. There are also now companies that help you prepare your itinerary or book accommodation, as well as helping organise tag-along tours if you'd prefer the company and security of numbers. blueytravel.com.au.
Hiking is a fabulous way to become totally immersed in these majestic landscapes, well away from, well, nearly everyone. This region of Australia is among the most sparsely populated on earth with only one person for every 11 square kilometres, so why not break away and explore the wonders of nature, with some of the rock formations up to 1.82 billion years old? There are also plenty of fully-supported guided treks from 13 days with 4WD transport between walks, such as with onlyluxe.com.au, all the way to a five-day walk with a helicopter dropping you at the mouth of the Piccaninny Gorge, and picking you up afterwards – lifesanadventure.com.au.
Mitchell Falls in the Kimberley.
At some point in the Kimberley, you're going to want to splash out on a helicopter trip. And do – it's so worth it. The terrain is so vast and so scenic and some of the best spots so remote, it can only be fully appreciated from the air. It's all the better too if the helicopter doesn't have doors to offer unobstructed viewing and photography, and remember you're firmly strapped in so you can't fall out ... but don't lean out too far with the camera or iPad as you may be at risk of having them whipped from your hands by the airflow. A helicopter ride over the Bungle Bungles is a must, up to the spectacular Mitchell Falls a dream, over the horizontal falls a wonder and to Lake Argyle a real treat. If you can land and stay awhile, all the better. helispirit.com.au.
The distances are so immense in the Kimberley, getting around by plane is a fabulous luxury. Seeing a place from the air, then landing to explore is absolutely magical. The planes visit many of the same places as the helicopters, but there are also seaplanes for some great landings on water, such as on Lake Argyle, which is then great for cruising and fishing. kimberleyairtours.com.au.
Cyclists on the road to Drysdale River Station, Gibb River Road, Western Australia. Photo: Alamy
Ramp up the Kimberley thrill factor with a trail bike or motorbike tour, feeling the fresh breeze on your face as you ride on rugged roads through some of those gorges, admiring the scenery and stopping for a swim at waterholes. The great thing about bikes is that you're on the same level as the locals, and some of the tours drop in at remote Aboriginal communities to say g'day, as well as to refuel at local townships. Riders of all abilities are welcomed. kimberleytrailbiketours.com.au.
Veer completely off the beaten track with day-long horse rides or overnight excursions on offer, usually from El Quero Wilderness Park and Home Valley Station. Horse treks run throughout winter each year around the Cockburn Range, Zebedee Hot Springs and both stations with hiddentrails.com.au. There are also longer five-night rides available, through undiscovered valleys and sandy river beds through lush Kimberley flora with secluded billabongs, and nights spent in swags. These start between El Questro and Doon Doon stations but need to be booked well in advance as they're so popular. Globetrotting.com.au.
Camels at sunset on Cable Beach, Broome. Photo: Lauren Bath
It's one of the most famous images of the Kimberley: a camel train across Broome's famed Cable Beach. So a one-hour sunset camel ride across the sand, occasionally splashing into the water, is a must. The view from the camel across the white sands and over the azure of the Indian Ocean as the sun slowly slips below the horizon and the sky lights up in a crimson fury is a sight never to be forgotten, broomecamelsafaris.com.au. Or for an inland camel trek, try a 2½-hour ride across ancient Nyikina Mangala land, about 90 minutes out of Derby, with elder Harry Watson talking about the area's history, its bush tucker and its other locals – eagles, goannas and python. kdatjarlmadangah.wordpress.com.
Sue WIlliams was a guest of various operators in the Kimberley region.