Cruising Australia’s Kimberley Coast

This week we’re excited to hear about Kimberley Australia from Chris Harter, operations manager at AdventureSmith Explorations, who has the hard job of giving his company’s trips a test-drive. He has been a North Lake Tahoe resident for the past 7 years.

WHO: Chris and Alanna Harter, along with the few dozen other like-minded travelers/passengers and an outstanding crew

WHAT: An 11-day active expedition cruise with hikes, zodiac rides, snorkeling and explorations from the incredible M/S Orion

WHERE: The remote Kimberley coast of northwest Australia between Broome and Cairns

WHEN: April 2010

GEAR: Platypus Big Zip SL 3.0L, Osprey Manta 20 Hydration Pack, Chaco Z2 Sandals, Kuhl Eiger Shorts, Smith Proof Sunglasses

The Kimberley region in Northwest Australia is to Australia what Alaska is to the United States. Both are vast territories considered the “last frontier” of their respective countries. Both are incredibly remote with little infrastructure due to their location, climate and topography. Both hold few year-round modern settlements while still managing to have rich cultures and histories with their ancient indigenous populations. Both environments have prolific and varied marine and terrestrial wildlife populations. And because of the lack of roads and incredible coastlines, both are ideally suited for travel by vessel. Aside from all of these similarities, Australia’s Kimberley and the United State’s 49th state are about as different as two places can be. Earlier this year I was privileged enough to see the rugged and awesome wilderness landscape of the Kimberley on an 11-day expedition voyage all from the luxurious appointments of our company’s newest partner ship, the M/S Orion.

Our first night in Australia found us in the remote mining and pearling outpost of Broome, where we were able to enjoy fantastic seafood, a jog on famous 10-mile Cable Beach and an afternoon wandering through the charming downtown for a look at the aboriginal and frontier influences that made the town what it is today. Upon boarding the vessel in Broome we immediately got underway heading north for Cape Leveque, the last road-accessible location we would see for the next week. After getting settled, and with drinks in hand we all made our way to one of the upper decks to witness the first of many breathtaking at sea sunsets before heading down for an incredible five course dinner, an evening theme that carried on throughout the trip.

After a gorgeous al fresco breakfast start to our first morning aboard, we boarded the small fleet of inflatable zodiac vessels for a shuttle to the endless beach waiting for us at Cape Leveque. Greeting us as we arrived, a small group of playful and inquisitive bottlenose dolphins circled our zodiac at the request of our naturalist guide with a whistle and gentle pat on the side of the zodiac. Once ashore we were left to simply relax on one of the whitest stretches of beach I have ever seen. Some passengers went for a jog, some swam in the calm azure waters, some listened to naturalist guide discourse, some snorkeled along a disappearing rocky outcrop just off shore, while others simply slept in the sun. Due to the extensive range of the area’s large and abundant salt-water crocodiles this was to be our last swim in the ocean on the trip. After our morning of fun in the sun, a brief sail brought us to one of the most prolific bird breeding habitats in the world, the Lacepedes Island group. There was incredible stormy sunset light and welcomed cloud cover. We witnessed the largest resident brown booby population on the planet measured in the hundreds of thousands with abundant sightings of Australian pelicans, lesser frigate birds, sooty oyster catchers and roseate terns all in the mix as well. It was an incredible first day for a trip that continued to surprise and surpass all expectations.

The second morning of our voyage brought us into truly incredible scenery between the red sandstone mesa formations of Raft Point and Montgomery Reef just offshore. The vistas here were both new and somehow familiar. Having spent my college years in the desert southwest, this region of Australia looked as if the ocean flooded into the mesas, canyons and buttes of southern Utah and northern Arizona. The coast of the Kimberley offers the stark beauty of these iconic American regions, but fringed with productive mangrove, reef and tidal river ecosystems. The contrast of these two habitats directly next to each other was surreal. Again, we boarded our zodiacs to motor out 10 miles offshore amongst a natural spectacle, Montgomery Reef. The tides here are so severe that they can rise and fall as much as 33 feet, causing virtual waterfalls of ocean water cascading off this reef system at low tide. With so much water and life moving around the area becomes a vibrant food chain with birds and predator fish all waiting for food to present itself. As we drifted in the fast tidal rivers amongst the reef system we simply couldn’t keep track of all the green turtle sightings. After lunch and some time out of the sun we made landing at Raft Point for a hike to a saddle between two rock outcrops for our first look at one of the Aboriginal rock art galleries that the Kimberley is famous for. Our hiking group was left speechless as our knowledgeable Aboriginal art expert Darren discussed the significance of this particular gallery with it’s depictions of the creation story and wildlife reverence. Another staggering day filled with stunning scenery, abundant wildlife and cultural and historical perspective that a lucky few are fortunate enough to see.

The days spent aboard the Orion progressed much like this for another week with incredible sights and experiences. We witnessed 200-foot waterfalls, eagles catching fruit bats in mid-flight, hikes to crashed World War II era cargo planes and 40,000-year-old Bradshaw rock art galleries, galloping rock wallabies, the area’s famous saltwater crocs, bumpy zodiac rides in the geologic tidal oddity known as the “Horizontal Waterfalls,” expert lectures on geology, Australian ornithology, Aboriginal art and culture, and much, much more. It truly was an “expedition” voyage into one of the most remote and unique places I have ever seen. I always love visiting new cities, but trips like this that get you out into the remote wilderness of a new country are always the ones that stick with me.

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