Kimberley Coast, Western Australia

 
April - July 2009

​This a rather long page. I have set it up so you can automatically scroll down to any of the headings below by clicking on the heading. Better still, read and enjoy it all!

Note also you can click on any photo to expand it and click on any text that is underlined to take you to a related link elsewhere.

The Most Awesome Place on the Planet (where Everything is out to Kill You)

 

We had no idea what to expect from a journey to Western Australia's Kimberley Coast. I mentioned to my accountant, a few years earlier, that I wanted to go there and it turned out he had already been a number of times, staying at a remote fishing camp accessible only by boat or helicopter (he went by chopper). "Hugo" he said, "You'll love it. It's so exciting. Everything there is out to kill you!!" He was of course referring to the abundant crocodiles, sharks, deadly Irukandji (a tiny almost invisible relative of the box jellyfish) and some of the most poisonous snakes on the planet all found in the Kimberley.

Signs of Medusa having been to the Kimberley turning locals into stone!

Roy Cantrell

What he hadn't appreciated (being a helicoptering accountant on an organised tour) were the other elements of excitement the area has to offer: some of the highest tides in the world (up to 12m), currents in excess of 10 kts, massive whirlpools powerful enough to spin our boat on a dime, poorly charted waters with dangerous underwater rock outcrops, massive waterfalls, endless rock pools and stunning scenery on a 500nm stretch of coast with no settlements, no roads and no communications.

I have a fair bit of the world yet to explore but, for me, the Kimberley Coast is head and shoulders ahead as the most awesome place on the planet - and it is going to take somewhere truely outstanding to displace it from that position in my book.

 

Summary of route travelled in 2009. From Laguna Quays in the Whitsunday Islands as far west as Cockatoo Island on the Kimberley Coast and return to Darwin. Total distance 2,500nm. (Click on map to enlarge.)

Cruising the Kimberley 101: Logistics and Planning

I started thinking about what would be involved with a voyage to the Kimberley some two years earlier. Friends of mine who had worked a 100' vessel named MV Seal on the coast doing 10 day cruises between Wyndham at the northern extremity, and Broome at the southern end, for a number of seasons until tragically they struck a submerged object and the boat sank, were my primary source of intel. There were a number of really valuable things that I learned from them. Firstly,  due to the extreme tides and associated strong currents, detailed passage planning was essential. Because of substantial travel distances between some destinations, there is much to be gained by making use of favourable currents, which can run up to 10kts - and avoiding adverse ones. This inevitably leads to many passages occurring, at least partially, at night which can lead to some serious navigational challenges in some of the less well charted areas.

 

Thick mud and basking crocs makes getting ashore at low tide hazardous - best avoided

It is also essential to plan any shore excursions so as to arrive and leave either side of high tide because many rivers and creeks are not navigable (even by dinghy) at low tide. Getting ashore at low tide is in any case impossible at most locations because of vast fringes of exposed impenetrable mud and the possibility of encoutering basking crocodiles. Planning to get ashore safely becomes even more significant once one realizes that swimming in the sea is simply not a good idea.

Whilst the sea is infested with large sharks, crocodiles and invisible Irukandji jellyfish, the numerous rivers, waterfalls and rock pools on the other hand, provide a safe environment once above the high water mark and beyond the first rock ledge not able to be climbed by crocs.

Swimming in the sea simply is not recommended!

Another important consideration is that a lot of the on-shore attractions are not easy to find without local knowledge (or an abundance of time if relying on vague directions and trial and error). Finding a tide friendly landing spot and choosing the correct bank of a river to follow on foot to reach a distant rock pool or waterfall can be challenging and extremely frustrating if unsuccessful.

Much safer in the freshwater pools away from all the nasties.

Roy Cantrell

Probably the most important consideration of all regarding a trip to the Kimberley is the season. The Kimberley has only two seasons - wet and dry - and the dry season is definitely to be preferred. The wet season runs from November through to the end of April, is hot and humid, with onshore winds and the likelihood of 2 or 3 cyclones each year. On the other hand the dry season, which begins in May and runs through to the end of October is characterized by warm days and cool nights with generally light offshore breezes. As the name suggests there is very little rain at this time of year - in 2009 we saw no rain at all for the 3 months we were there. The weather was so consistent that I stopped listening to weather forecasts after the first week because each forecast was identical to the one before!

Typical dry season weather. St George Basin at the mouth of the Prince Regent River.

The earlier part of the dry season (May - August) is the best time because most of the rivers can start to dry up towards the end of the season leaving waterfalls less impressive (or non existent!) and waterholes murky.

Having taken all these things into account an overall plan started to take shape. I would leave Laguna Quays at the beginning of April allowing a three week passage to Darwin. A week turnaround in Darwin to purchase and load 3 months of provisions we would have us arrive in the Kimberley at the very beginning of the dry season in early May.

 

I arranged for Bruce Blong (one of the guys who had worked on the MV Seal) and Grant Gaffney (who had worked on the conversion project) to join Karen and I for the first 10 days trip Darwin to the southern end of the Kimberly Coast. The idea was that Bruce would act as a guide and bring his electronic charts (with safe tracks recordings) and take us to the major attractions - particularly the sites most difficult to find and the most challenging navigational routes. We would then, with the benefit of our own newly recorded safe navigation tracks and local knowledge of the key attractions, spend the following 6 weeks working our way back to Darwin at a far more leisurely pace with various groups of friends. 

Prince Regent River - Seaplane transfer of guests and incoming supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Roy Cantrell

We made our guest changeovers using chartered seaplanes operating out of Broome so that we could stay in the heart of the Kimberley and not have to make the long passages to either Broome or Wyndham to drop off or collect guests. Using the same flights we were also able to bring in much appreciated supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, helpfully boxed and delivered to the airport by the local supermarket in Broome.

The pre-trip research and planning paid off with everything going pretty much as we had hoped. I think though, that without doubt the best decision was doing the 10 day familiarization trip with Bruce as guide at the beginning. It gave us a great deal of confidence and allowed us to plan the return trip knowing what to expect at places we had already been and exploring many areas we passed by on the way down. 

Ada Hardy at anchor in the Prince Regent River awaiting guests arriving by seaplane. Roy Cantrell

 

Captain's Readings: King of the Australian Coast

Some years before venturing to the Kimberley, I was introduced to a most extraordinary book, King of the Australian Coast by Marsden Horden (Melbourne University Press). The book is a biography of Philip Parker King (the son of Philip Gidley King, an early governor of New South Wales) who completed a series of grueling circumnavigations of Australia between 1817 and 1822. King followed in the wake of two much more famous navigators and cartographers, James Cook (1770) and Matthew Flinders (1802). Whilst James Cook and Matthew Flinders are deservedly recognized for their pioneering charting work of parts of the Australian coast PPK rarely rates a mention in Australian history books.

Kings Cascade in the Prince Regent River. Philip Parker King visited here on each of his circumnavigations between 1817 and 1822 to replenish is water supplies. An American tourist was taken by a crocodile whilst swimming here in 1987. Roy Cantrell

PPK is my hero and by my reckoning he should be afforded far greater stature in Australian history than he his given. This man, under instructions of the British Admiralty, completed FOUR circumnavigations of the continent in successive years and produced unbelievably accurate  charts of most of the Australian coast while at the same time leaving a detailed record of his observations of the landscape, peoples, flora and fauna that he encountered on the way.

After receiving his orders from the Admiralty, PPK purchased a coastal trading ship in India called Mermaid and sailed her to Sydney to fit her out for the tasks he had been assigned. Aside from my respect for PPK's navigational achievements, my affinity with his expeditions is enhanced by the similarity (and yet extraordinary differences) between his vessel HMC Mermaid (HMC=Her Majesty's Cutter) and my MV Ada Hardy.

Gathered under the boab tree at Careening Bay where Philip Parker King and his crew of the Mermaid had recorded their visit some 200 years earlier. Roy Cantrell

Mermaid's vital statistics are almost identical to Ada Hardy. 60' length overall, 18'beam and approximately 70tons displacement, but the similarities end there! His ships log records up to 30 men aboard, supplies intended to last up to 8 months (including a number of live goats and chickens), firearms and scientific equipment required to complete the tasks they had been assigned. He also had the minor inconvenience of not having an engine!

Marsden Horden's book provides a fascinatingly detailed account of King's voyages, observations, trials and tribulations. Much of the route that King surveyed, explored and recorded remains remarkably unchanged since he passed by. So much so that I fell into a habit of searching the book for a description of King's experiences at every headland, island, bay or river that we encountered and conducted each evening a "Captain's Reading" to share with my crew what King and his crew had experienced in that same location 200 years earlier. 

Unfortunatley, King of the Australian Coast is long out of print but 2nd hand copies are usually available on EBay. I highly recommend anyone planning a visit to the Kimberley to get your hands on a copy. Your visit will be greatly enriched!

 

Failed Milk Delivery in the Wessel Islands

Before starting our Kimberley adventure I had to first complete the not insignificant task of moving the boat from Laguna Quays in Queensland (where we had left her after our Louisiade Islands trip the year before) to Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory - a trip of some 1,500nm. (Interesting fact: A full circumnavigation of Australia is about 6,500nm (13,000km)!!). My crew for this trip comprised an old sailing buddy Greg (aka "Vengence") with whom I have done at least 10 Sydney to Hobart races and a work mate, Tim, who has no boating experience and is on the crazy end of the personality spectrum, but tough as nails and hugely amusing! With 1,500 miles to cover in 3 weeks it was essentially going to be a delivery with the opportunity for a few overnight stops along the way.

Our route is shown on the map at the top of this page and we enjoyed overnight stops at  Lizard Island, Cape York, the Wessel Islands and then Port Essington and finally to Darwin. It was very interesting visiting some of these most out of the way places but fairly uneventful. We enjoyed light to moderate following SE winds the entire way. 

 

Landing at Cape York, the much talked about "northernmost point in Australia", was a strange experience because there was nothing there other than a small sign on a pole crudely mounted on a small rock pedestal that looked like it would be washed away by the next half baked storm.

Tim, Greg and I at the understated 'monument' marking Cape York - the northernmost point in Australia.

Our next stop was at the Wessel Islands in the Northern Territory. The islands are culturally significant to the nearby mainland Aboriginal people but have no permanent settlements. We arrived around midday, and spent a fascinating afternoon ashore clambering around an ancient landscape of heavily eroded and collapsed panels of sedimentary rocks.

Exploring the ancient landscape of the Wessel Islands

We were anchored for the night in Two Island Bay, Marchinbar Island, the northernmost of the Wessel Islands, when at about 10 pm a helicopter appeared overhead and a massive spotlight was trained on us. Within moments we were called on VHF radio by Australian Customs wanting to know all the usual stuff - boat registration, number of people on board, next port of call, etc. I must say I was not happy being annoyed late at night whilst minding our own business in our home country - particularly after we had answered identical questions on at least 3 occasions in the previous 48 hours as we crossed the the Gulf of Carpentaria and had told them we would be anchoring at the Wessels this night. It is reassuring to know our authorities are closely monitoring our maritime borders but I felt the close attention on us was becoming an invasion of privacy. Emboldened by a few scotches, I let the hovering menace above know how I felt. 

The officer on the other end of the radio apologized for the intrusion and politely explained they were just doing their job. He then, somewhat strangely, asked if there was anything they could do for us. I cheekily replied we were out of fresh lettuce and low on milk and if they were coming back this way in the morning a grocery drop would be much appreciated. He laughed, bid us a good night and they disappeared into the darkness.

Before dawn the next morning we were woken by the same helicopter hovering overhead. The message from the Australian Customs team was: "Sorry to wake you so early, just wanted to let you know the grocery store was shut when we left!" and promptly disappeared over the horizon! Nice to see they have a sense of humour.

Abandoned stone cottages at Victoria Settlement, Port Essington

Our next stop, another 300nm west of the Wessels was at Port Essington and the ruined settlement of Victoria. Victoria Settlement was established in 1838  by the British government and the East India Company to set up a military settlement and a re-victualling point for shipping through Torres Strait. By 1849 however the British Government had come to regard the Port Essington settlement as a failure, and relocated to the site of Darwin, which was our next and final port of call on this leg of the journey.

We arrived in Darwin on Anzac Day, 25 April, on a typical wet season, hot, humid and sultry day. After a long day celebrating this most Australian of holidays we returned to the boat and awoke the next day to a cool dry morning with crystal clear skies. The dry season had literally arrived overnight!

 

Detailed map of the Kimberley Coast showing most of the places we visited. Click on map to enlarge.

 

The Blown Apart Gulf and a Tub of Olives!

To get from Darwin to Koolama Bay where the King George River flows into the sea and the Kimberley coast begins, one needs to cross the open mouth of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf - an open sea passage of about 230nm. We left Darwin on the 1st of May with a nice forecast of south easterly winds to a maximum of 15 kts for most of the trip. We were none the less a little bit wary because the locals refer to the gulf as the "Blown Apart Gulf" - due to the frequency of unexpected strong winds from the south, usually at night, blowing out of the hot interior of mainland Australia.

The Blown Apart Gulf lived up its name on our first night out! The weather for the first 12hrs out of Darwin was pretty much as forecast with light SE winds and a slight following sea. However around midnight the wind suddenly flicked round to the south, putting it bang on the beam, and within minutes increased to 30+ knots. By 3am the sea had built to about 3m and we were rolling most uncomfortably when, after a particularly violent roll I heard an almighty crash. I leapt out of my bunk to discover that the door to the fridge (we have a conventional domestic electric fridge on board) had not been properly secured and the entire contents had emptied onto the galley floor.

The Joseph Bonaparte Gulf on the return trip to Darwin. It was nothing like this on the trip out two months earlier!

Being the start of the trip, and faced with not being able to re-provision for the next two months, the fridge was absolutely jam packed and expertly arranged by Karen to make things accessible in the order they would likely be required in the weeks to come. To get this all back into the fridge was going to be like solving a Rubiks Cube! To make matters infinitely worse, amongst the contents was a 4kg tub of olives, marinated in olive oil, which had broken open and coated everything as it slid across the galley floor whilst we rolled our way along. I don't have any photo's, but just try and picture Karen and I sliding around the galley floor at 3am covered, just like the fridge contents, in a sheen of olive oil as we tried to wipe things down and re-stack the fridge in the correct order. It was not funny at the time but it has certainly given us many laughs since and fridge door has never again been left unsecured!

 

Take Me to the River

Without its majestic rivers, waterfalls and rock pools the Kimberley would be a most inhospitable place. Whilst ancient landscapes, massive tides and amazing wildlife make the Kimberley a fascinating place to visit, the added dimension of luxurious oases of amazing scenery, wild thundering waterfalls, deep crystal clear pools and cool shady groves make it unforgettable. Once above high tide level and the first barrier to crocodiles (the theory is they're not good at climbing over rocks) the rivers and rock pools provide a safe environment totally in contrast to the dangers of the saltwater environment nearby.

A small waterfall in Surveyors Creek, a tributary off the Mitchell River. Roy Cantrell

There are dozens of rivers that flow down from the Kimberley Plateau, an area of 162,000 sq miles (more than three times the size of England), into the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west.  The rivers flow strongest during the wet season between November and April and then progressively reduce during the dry season from May until October. Many will dry completely towards the end of the season causing waterfalls to disappear and rock pools to stagnate. The best time to visit and be able to see the waterfalls at their most majestic is early in the dry season.

King George Falls where the King George River empties into the sea. Grant Gaffney

The major rivers we visited on our trip to the Kimberley included  (from north to south) the King George, Drysdale, Mitchell, Hunter, Prince Regent and Sale rivers. They each differ dramatically with their own unique characteristics and there are many tributaries feeding into them with much to explore.

King George Falls on the King George River. Large deep draft vessels can anchor and stay here in deep water after having crossed the shallow bar at the mouth of the river in Koolama Bay at high tide. Grant Gaffney

Most shore excursions present the logistic challenge of arriving approximately 2 hours before high tide so as to be sure there is enough depth of water in the rivers and creeks to avoid submerged rocks and mud bars as well as secure a convenient landing point that does not involve trudging through mud to get to firm ground. On the return trip it is equally important to time your departure at roughly the same time after high tide to ensure a similar depth of water as when you arrived. This leaves typically 4 - 5 hrs for shore excursions, however the start (and finish) times are of course dependent on the time of high tide on any particular day.

Donkin Falls on the Hunter River is a strenuous 1.5 hr hike each way from the nearest dinghy landing spot; the reward is one of the least visited and majestic falls in the Kimberley.

We found the two most challenging waterfalls to visit to be Donkin Falls on the Hunter River and Cascade Falls on the Prince Regent River. Both waterfalls would be almost impossible to find without local knowledge or accurate GPS co-ordinates.

Donkin Falls is a strenuous 1.5hr hike up the river bed from the nearest dinghy landing spot. With only a 4 - 5 hr window to return to your dinghy (or face being stranded for 12 hrs until the next high tide) there is not much time

for dallying around. The falls and the seemingly bottomless pool at the bottom are stunning, but equally rewarding is the hike up and back along the river bed through deep gorges cut through the sandstone plateau and clambering across round weathered rocks that grow from football sized in the lower reaches to boulders the size of houses as you approach the falls.

Cathedral Falls is on a small tributary which flows into the Prince Regent River. Getting there is challenging because it is not accessible on foot and only by dinghy approximately 1hr either side of high tide. The entrance to the creek that leads to the falls is through an almost indiscernible gap in the mangroves that line the banks of the Prince Regent River for most of its length. Like Donkin Falls, Cathedral Falls receive few visitors because of the detailed planning required to make a successful visit.

Cathedral Falls, located on a tributary which feeds into the Prince Regent River is only accessibly by dinghy for an hour or so either side of high tide.

Just one of the myriad small falls and rock pools on the plateau above Kings Cascade. Roy Cantrell 

It is hard to stop wanting to describe the countless beautiful places in the Kimberley but there are two more that, for us, deserve special mention. The first are the small falls and rock pools on the plateau above Kings Cascade which are easily accessed after a short climb from the (nearly) all tide landing point below. This area looks to me like where God decided to show off his landscaping skills!

The other location that sits at the top of our favourites list is the Drysdale River. The Drysdale is different from the other major rivers in that the landscape is low and flat and there are are no remarkable waterfalls or rock pools. The river is however navigable by dinghy at most tide levels. The scenery looks as if it was painstakingly assembled at the Walt Disney studios for a Flintstones movie set! The power of the massive floods that flow through the river in the wet season is evident from the brilliantly polished finish on the sandstone rock that lines the riverbank which are complemented by a staggering array of prehistoric palms and ferns clinging to nooks and crevices in between. As if it needs another rap, its a pretty cool place to cast a fishing line as well!

Polished sandstone on the banks of the Drysdale River is evidence of the massive flows through here in the wet season.

The Drysdale River is navigable by dinghy at most heights of tide. There is good fishing to be had .. especially Mangrove Jack. Roy Cantrell

To finish off this section .... here's a photo of yet another glorious waterfall and rock pool. On most trips this scene would be unforgettable. In the Kimberley it is just another day!

There are so many beautiful waterfalls and rock pools in the Kimberley that I have no idea where this is!!

 

Murderous Beasts

My accountant said to me many years ago: "Everything in the Kimberley is out to kill you!" I usually struggle to see eye to eye with my accountant but, having now been there, on this point I tend to agree! Maybe not everything is out to kill you, but between the crocodiles, sharks and invisible irukandji jellyfish there is certainly plenty to be concerned about.

 

The most fearsome and visible of predators are the saltwater crocodiles. They are everywhere, they can be huge (the largest we saw was probably about 4m (12') in length (they have been recorded at well over 6m (18')) and they definitely show an interest is us humans!

Crocodiles are often seen basking on flat rocks and mud flats during the day after the tide has dropped from its high. Being cold blooded they make use of the warmth of the day.

A close up study of a particularly large specimen. Roy Cantrell

Crocodiles can frequently be seen basking along the riverbanks, on rocks or on the mud flats, soaking up the sun after the tide had dropped from its high point. At these times it is possible to get very close by approaching quietly. When startled, they will immediately scurry back into the murky waters and disappear, so it is important to ensure they have an unobstructed escape path to the water to avoid becoming an obstacle that needs to be taken care of! They can move surprisingly quickly over short distances.

This fellow, who we nicknamed Wally, drifted behind our boat while at anchor in the Hunter River, for the better part of a day. He was obviously familiar with boats and the possibility of scavenging food scraps but had clearly developed a discerning taste. Karen, tossed him a muffin from a dud batch she had baked that day which he immediately snapped up but then promptly spat back out again!

Crocs also often turned up when we were fishing and  would appear alongside the dinghy waiting patiently for any scraps. Crocs have been known to attempt to launch themselves onto small boats to get at caught fish on board so we always carried a long stout stick to give any getting a little too close and curious a sharp jab on the snout. We were certainly emboldened by our dinghy being of stout aluminium construction and not the inflatable type, know locally as "croc biscuits"!

We also nearly always encountered crocodiles whilst crabbing. Mud crabs are prolific throughout the Kimberley (probably because there is no shortage of mud!) and they are obviously as tasty to crocs as they are for us. We learned that we could not set crab traps and leave them unattended because crocodiles would quickly be attracted, if not by any captured crabs then by the bait in the trap, and drag the traps deep into the mangroves where they could never be found. We developed a technique of setting our traps within sight of each other and patrolling around them in our dinghy, armed with our long stout pole to chase away any lurking pilferers, and frequently lifting the traps to remove any caught crabs.

The other over sized predators common in Kimberley waters which should be treated with a great deal of respect are sharks. They tend to give visitors a little less cause for concern than crocodiles but this is probably just a case of 'out of sight out of mind'. While it might be tempting, when away from the murky waters of the river estuaries and distant from typical crocodile habitats, to take a dip on a hot day in the crystal clear waters to be found among the offshore islands, this could well lead to an unexpected encounter with a shark. 

"Playing" with a Lemon Shark that had been lurking behind our tender while cleaning fish. The shark has latched onto a fish carcass tied to a rope (no hook). It wasn't letting go and I'm pretty sure it would have allowed itself to be lifted into the boat had I tried!

There are many species of sharks reported to be found in the Kimberley, the most dangerous being Tiger and Bull sharks. I can't say we saw either of them but we did see many Lemon and Hammerhead sharks, both of which are said to be harmless, but at 2-3m in length we were not keen to test this! Lemon sharks were far and away the most common, it was not unusual to have up to a dozen swimming around under the boat while at anchor and they were always present when fishing, where they can be a real pest as they frequently will take the back half of any fish caught on a line leaving only a head attached to the hook for the cheated angler.

I had a very close encounter with a large hammerhead shark on a subsequent trip to the Kimberley where I acted as a guide for a friend. We were anchored well up the Prince Regent River, and I was on the duck board cleaning a pair of nice sized barramundi we had caught earlier. I was holding the fish by the gills and had its tail dangling over the water while scraping off its scales, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shape flash out from under the duck board, and before I could even register what was happening a distinctive hammerhead shape emerged from the water and the back two thirds of the fish was gone. I was left holding the fish's head, still by the gills, with luckily my fingers still attached!

 

Rise and Fall

There are few places on earth where the words of Scottish poet Robert Burns "Nae man can tether time or tide" are more apparent than in the Kimberley. Only the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada records higher tides (up to 15m) than the 12m rise and fall which occurs in parts of the Kimberley during king tides. This enormous movement of water, which goes through its cycle twice every day, sets the rhythm of life for everything in or near the sea. There is no escaping the tethers that the tide imposes on boating visitors to the region; it effects where you can safely anchor, at what time of the day waters are deep enough to navigate, whether you are stationary for hours pushing against an 8kt current or travelling twice your normal speed being carried along with favourable current.

Water cascading off the top of Montgomery Reef as the tide falls.

As captain of my boat, I greatly enjoyed the challenge of working the tides to best advantage, as navigators have done for millennia, but the subtleties of this complex and intricate work are generally not appreciated by all. There are however two places in the Kimberley where the effects of the tides create a truly memorable experience for everyone - Montgomery Reef and Horizontal Falls.

Ada Hardy anchored in the gulley at Montgomery Reef. At high tide springs the entire reef is underwater. The closest mainland can be seen in far distance.

Montgomery Reef is located in the mouth of Collier Bay towards the southern end of the Kimberley coast. The mouth of the bay is approximately 40nm wide and the reef is located roughly in the middle. At high tide the reef is completely submerged and the nearest land is 10 - 15nm distant and barely visible. Armed with the correct GPS co-ordinates it is possible to navigate into a deep gully that cuts in towards the center of the reef and anchor. As the tide falls, the reef appears to rise out of the water around you and where moments earlier the nearest land was miles away you suddenly become landlocked and surrounded by water cascading off the crest of the reef and into the gully. It is a surreal feeling which is greatly enlivened by the sight of large numbers of fish, dugongs, manta ray and turtles tumbling down the waterfalls as they are drawn off the crest.

Travelling 'upstream' through the outer of the two gorges at Horizontal Falls on an incoming tide. The direction of flow reverses during the ebb tide. The second gorge can just be seen in the distance. Grant Gaffney

Horizontal Falls, located at the Head of Talbot Bay is another fascinating phenomenon created by the huge tides. As it rises and falls the tide flows through two narrow gorges at speeds of up to 15kts creating tumbling torrents resembling river rapids. At peak flows the difference in water level between one end of the gorge and the other is over 1m and easily discernible by eye. A powerful outboard motor and a substantial and stable tender are essential if planning to "play" in the rapids.

 

Hunter Gatherers

Another of the great joys to be had in the Kimberley is the 'hunting and gathering' of the wildlife, just waiting to be caught - if you know where to look and how to go about it! The prize catches to be had are mud crabs and untold species of fish but particularly barramundi and mangrove jack. 

My first barramundi after many, many hours of effort!

I don't know whether we were just not very good at, didn't know where to look, fished at the wrong time of day or the wrong height of tide, used the wrong lures or whether the endless stories of the Kimberley being thick with barramundi just waiting to leap onto your hook are just stories - but we found it extraordinarily difficult to catch any! I don't claim to have anything other than rudimentary fishing skills (nor it would seem do my friends!) and suspect this was the major cause of our poor results, but I nevertheless take some solace from the equally poor results achieved by Bruce (our guide on the earlier part of the trip) who claimed to have caught "hundreds of barra" on his previous trips. Maybe it was just a bad season, but it didn't matter because we had so much fun trying and it made the occasional catch we did make so much more rewarding.

Casting for mangrove jack in the Drysdale River. Roy Cantrell

The theory goes that the best time to fish for barramundi is 2 or 3 hours either side of low tide because at high tide the fish tend to swim up into the mangroves where you can't get to them. As the tide drops the fish have to come out into the channels and look for shelter under structures such as rock ledges and fallen trees. You need to cruise the channels looking for likely barra hiding places and then accurately cast your lure repeatedly to tempt the fish you imagine to be lurking there. It is wonderfully satisfying to have your hunch of a hiding fish confirmed by signs of interest in your lure and there are few things in life that can compare to the joy and adrenaline rush when you actually get one hooked and landed after a solid fight!

A nice sized mud crab caught in amongst the mangroves

We equally enjoyed, and were a little bit more successful at casting for mangrove jack in the faster flowing reaches of some of the rivers, with some particularly good results in the Drysdale River. Mangrove jack are much smaller than barramundi but put up a terrific fight and are every bit as tasty as their bigger cousins. It was also nice not have to keep a watchful eye on crocodiles which seemed to always appear whenever fishing for barramundi.

Mud crabs were however our most successful catch and we rarely came back from a crabbing expedition empty handed. The two main challenges to successful crabbing we found were firstly keeping scavenging crocs from dragging our traps off into the mangroves, never to be seen again, and tying the buggers up once caught. The claws on large crabs are immensely strong and reportedly can easily remove a stray finger or toe. It is a good idea to secure them so they can be safely handled but also to stop them pulling each other to pieces when stored awaiting their date with the pot!

Tying a mudcrab. Scary at first but easy enough once you get the knack.

I taught myself by watching videos on Youtube like the one shown here and became quite practiced after a while. It is tempting to wear shoes while doing this but I found it is almost impossible to hold a slippery crab down with anything other than bare feet and a great deal of care! Once I had learned I had great fun showing friends how do it, just once, and then insisting they do the next one!

Nothing like a feast of mudcrabs!

 

A Boat with no Beer

About six weeks into our trip I became concerned we were starting to run low on a few essential supplies - in particular beer and tonic water! Knowing supplies would be impossible to come by once in the Kimberley, Karen and I had asked our guests beforehand what their preferred beverages were and give an estimate of how much they would drink during their stay so that we could stock up with adequate supplies in Darwin at the start of the trip.

Two things went wrong with this well intended plan. Firstly, the one person I forgot to ask was Grant, who was with us for the first 10 days of the trip. It turns out Grant grew up in a pub and was weaned from breast milk on to beer! It was only a week or so after he had left the boat and I did a stock take that I calculated he had consumed on average 16 beers a day and gone through nearly a third of my total beer supply. It was not long before we had to start rationing.

Our first beer purchase from the commercial vessel Coral Princess. Roy Cantrell

The second thing that went wrong was that no one nominated tonic water as a mixer or beverage they drank. Karen and I both enjoy a vodka & tonic every now and then so we allowed for a bottle of tonic each, every second day, rounded off to the nearest case. Of course, vodka and tonic became everyone's preferred drink and despite severe rationing we were totally out of tonic two thirds of the way into the trip.

We resorted to trying to buy beer and tonic water from commercial charter boats we came across but were mostly turned down. On one occasion the Coral Princess condescended to selling us one warm case of VB cans (close to being Australia's worst beer) at their bar price of about $6.00 a can! With six beer drinkers on board at the time this lasted less than 2 days.

MV True North anchored in the Mitchell River rescued us from our beer drought.

Late one afternoon a few days later, with still 2 weeks of our trip to go and our beer and tonic supplies now totally exhausted, we anchored in the Mitchell River in company with the MV True North - probably the most luxurious cruise boat working the Kimberley. Our plan was to visit the rock pools and water falls of Surveyors Creek the next day but seeing as it had been nearly six weeks since we had been there I decided to do a trip in our tender to re-familiarise myself with the landing spot and evaluate the tide heights to plan our visit around. 

This big guy (at least 4m long) played a significant role in breaking our beer drought! Roy Cantrell

As we rounded the last bend in the river before the landing spot, we came across what turned out to be a most serendipitous scene. Grouped together on one bank of the river was the MV True North's shore party comprising 20 or so guests and a few crew; on the opposite bank basked one of the largest crocodiles we had seen so far, and anchored in the middle of the river, at least 50m from the shore lay the True North's two tenders! Something had clearly gone wrong with their planning and they had returned to the landing with the tide much higher than expected. Their only options, until we happened by, was to wait six hours for the tide to rise to its peak and then fall again so they could safely reach their tenders or take the risk with the croc and send out a swimmer to bring in one of the tenders. It appears they had decided on the latter course of action as one of the crew was stripped down and waist deep in the water when we unexpectedly turned up. It was to the nominated swimmer's great relief that we were able to ferry crew out to each of the tenders and for them to then be able to collect their guests.

There was much happiness aboard Ada Hardy following a much needed beer delivery in the Mitchell River.

Shortly after returning to Ada Hardy a call came through on the VHF radio from the captain of the True North thanking us for rescuing their crew from their embarrassing mistake and finished up by asking if there was anything he could help us out with. It was as if the True North had transformed into the magical Japanese treasure ship Takarabune with the Seven Lucky Gods aboard! Ten minutes later True North's tender appeared alongside with 8 cases of icy cold premium imported beers (4 varieties), three cases of tonic water and a dozen fresh limes; sold to us at wholesale cost price!

 

Ancient Artists

No trip to the Kimberley would be complete without visiting some of the stunning Aboriginal rock paintings that are prolific throughout the area. Many sites remain to this day extremely culturally significant to the local indigenous peoples and their locations kept secret but the locations of others are well known and frequently visited. We visited sites at Raft Point, Bigge Island and Jar Island. Aboriginal art dates back as much as 50,000 years and is some of the oldest to be found anywhere in the world, with the Kimberley region being known as one of the most prolific areas.

Gwion (formerly known as Bradshaw) style paintings thought to be up to 17,000 years old

Wanjina is the other dominant art form and is thought to be in the order of 4,000 yrs old and is still identified with by Aboriginal people in the area. The drawings depict 'Creator Beings' and are characterised  by mouthless faces with large round eyes and halo like headdresses. The actual Wanjina is believed to either reside in the rock where it is painted or to have left its body there.

The two main categories of art commonly found are known as Gwion (formerly called 'Bradshaw' after the English pastoralist who first recorded the paintings in the 1890's) and Wanjina.

Gwion paintings typically show finely painted human figures in elaborate dress with a range of artefacts including spears, boomerangs and ornaments. Colours vary from red to mulberry to almost black. They are believed to date back up at least 17,000 years.

Examples of Wanjina paintings found on Bigge Island and Raft Point

In the caves on Bigge Island can be found some art in the Wanjina style but likely of quite recent origin because it depicts what clearly seems to be characters in ships wearing headdresses and smoking pipes. It is believed that these drawings are recordings of some of the earliest Portuguese and Dutch explorers who are know to have visited this area in the 1600's.

Paintings in the caves on Bigge Island seem to depict early Dutch or Portuguese explorers with hats and smoking pipes.