Out of range

Author: peter thomson
Photography: anson smart

You know you're somewhere different when a big commercial jet sets you down at an airstrip with no ground control. The plane departs and your fellow travellers drive off into the hinterland, leaving you and an elderly aboriginal woman sitting on a bench outside a tin terminal. "Just the two of us now," she sighs. The relationship is developing nicely by the time a ride into Kununurra arrives and off you go by the limpid canals of the Ord River scheme, through verdant plantations of sandalwood.

"G'day, bloke," an indigenous cowboy smiles as he ambles by. "Mate," you reply in East Coast shorthand, making a mental note to start using his greeting when you get back to Sydney. Kununurra, gateway to the Kimberley: here your mobile phone remains connected to national networks and inserting plastic in the town's ATM still results in folding. This will not be the case on the morrow, or indeed for the next seven days along the Kimberley Coast.

Within a lush compound of palms and boabs, the Kununurra Country Club Resort puts on a top feed of barramundi and a good night's kip, before Slingair Heliwork's van arrives at sparrow's to take you back to the airport. You pile into a single-engine aeroplane and set course for the Mitchell Plateau, flying over an ancient wilderness deeply etched by stony rivers.

This wilderness is remote, some 3000km up the coast from Perth, and there's little evidence of humans until an hour and a bit later when a red cross carved from the bush drifts into view. The plane waggles and bumps in the prevailing easterlies, then touches down lightly on a dirt arm of the cross.

The terminal is a broad piece of sackcloth strung between four tree stumps. A couple of logs in the dust provide the VIP seating. Two other single-engine planes are parked by a haphazard spread of fuel drums. A chopper materialises out of the blue. People clamber out and make for the waiting planes. Fellow travellers climb into the chopper and depart, as do the single-engines. You are the odd one out and happy to spend the next however-long-it-takes relaxing on the VIP seating as a warm wind rustles the fan palms.

The Mitchell Plateau airstrip is like a link in the Colombian cocaine infrastructure. It is that remote, unattended for most of its life, suddenly coming alive with light planes and helicopters when trans-shipments are on. But the cargo that justifies all this aerial activity is not white powder; it is well-heeled tourists on the hunt for pampered adventure. More light planes buzz in, more helicopter transfers depart; the cruise vessel True North is disgorging 30 passengers at the end of its Wyndham-Hunter River run and taking on another 30 for the seven-day cruise down to Broome.

Now it's your turn in the chopper, lifting off with the Eagles crooning through the earphones, gliding raptor-like across the land. Twenty minutes later and True North is spotted at anchor in the Hunter River's duck-egg blue, overhung by giant red sandstone ridges. The Eagles are straining to the chorus of "Take It to the Limit" as you curve in over mangrove forests heading for the boat's platform. The chopper shudders closer to her stern, and it occurs that "Ride of the Valkyries" might have been a better soundtrack, for the vessel is surrounded by hungry saltwater crocodiles.

Smiling faces, handshakes all round and welcome refreshments are soon followed by a tour of the luxury adventure vessel. True North has 20 crew and a limit of 36 guests. She is 50m in length, has three decks of 18 cabins and - crucially to many on board - maintains a fine selection of rods, reels and fishing lines. To enable guests to explore the wilderness in the company of well-trained guides, her stern carries six expedition boats and a seven-seater Bell 407 helicopter. She is operated by an all-Australian crew and owned by Broome-based North Star Cruises Australia.

Cabins come in three classes, all of which are made up by the crew each morning to spotless standards. There are four stateroom cabins and six double cabins with king-size beds, large viewing windows and spacious ensuites. On the lower deck are eight twin cabins with portholes allowing natural light, each with a private ensuite. All rooms have satellite phones, personal airconditioning units, in-house entertainment and plenty of storage space.

When you're taken on a tour of the vessel, your heart goes out to Captain Hook as the ghastly grin of a big croc appears at a porthole. A pair of insolent yellow eyes stare right back at you. They say there are more "salties" in the Hunter River than anywhere else in the Kimberley, and in the days ahead you'll grow accustomed to the sight of toothy predators floating about the boat or taking a good look at you whenever fishing trips and guided treks venture into their mangrove fiefdoms. The golden rule of the Kimberley is to be ever aware that this is croc country; for the aching natural beauty of the place may turn into pain of a very different sort should you do something as utterly foolish as dabbling tootsies in the tide.

From Hunter River, True North steams out into Prince Frederick Harbour, then turns southwards for the week's cruise down to Broome. She spends the second and third days along the giant fault-line of the Prince Regent River and then carries on south for two days' exploration of the many natural delights of the waters around Doubtful Bay and Montgomery Reef. On the sixth day she takes you through the geological wonders of the Horizontal Falls and Buccaneer Archipelago, before pitching up on the seventh at Broome.

The week's adventures will take you on treks through pristine stands of boab, pandanus and livistona palms, to swimming holes at the foot of cascading water as pure as any to be found on this planet. To find these pools you will climb rocky trails to places estuarine crocodiles cannot reach. Oh, the water! Cool dipping up and down the creek, showering under crystal cascades, to leap from ledges high above the pools down into the bliss of childhood memory. In one of the creeks off Doubtful Bay, you'll find deposits of therapeutic grey mud to smear all over, à la hippopotamus, before a cleansing shower in a handy waterfall.

Just when you're getting blasé about plumes of water plunging to idyllic pools, you're choppered inland from the Prince Regent River to a picnic spot on the upper reaches of Camp Creek. Even for the most seasoned adventure traveller, this is breathtaking stuff. Into a Colosseum-sized amphitheatrea perfectly proportioned waterfall fans onto a deep, dark pool, 100m across and brimming with water as pristine as any ever bottled at a famous spa. You swim through its silken caress to the foot of the falls, where a series of rock ledges lead you up and under the aqua-cavern of the water's descent. With an obliging waterweed underfoot as slip-proof as velcro, the torrent thunders by your head, dispensing a neck massage worth crossing a continent for. Perfection in the Kimberley.

For an extra fee, True North's helicopter will take you on private adventures, fishing for barramundi on remote riverbanks, visiting rarely viewed galleries of cave art, or just going for a gawp at some of the most awe-inspiring aerial scenery you'll ever see. The Montgomery Reef is a fine example of gawp-inducement - a giant sandstone shelf out in the Indian Ocean, exposed at low tide, its channels teeming with turtles and dugongs feeding on an immense salad bar of seaweed.

The chopper and the expedition boats vie for the best view in the house when you negotiate the Horizontal Waterfalls of Talbot Bay. Here the rise and fall of 10m tides through two narrow gaps in high ridges of red sandstone create a spectacular hydro extravaganza. The thrill of riding the whirlpools and waves of these pinch-points is akin to whitewater rafting a wild river gorge.

At Raft Point near Doubtful Bay, half an hour's ascent of a red sandstone bluff will take you to a ledge whereunder you'll come face to face with Namarali, the very same Wandjina god whose effigy was raised at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. This Raft Point ledge is an art gallery to savour, with its walls and ceiling adorned by an exceptional collection of Wandjina figures, dugong and rock cod, the latter the totem of the clan that created the paintings long ago.

Bird-watchers tot up a list that grows with each day's outings: from the mighty white-bellied sea eagle, osprey and brahminy kite, to the sacred kingfisher and the cute little crimson-headed honeyeater, you delight at them all. Meanwhile, the ship's avid anglers catch great silver barramundi, fingermark bream, mangrove jack and mud crabs for our dinner table. The chefs keep a close eye on the daily catch. If a yellowfin tuna is hauled aboard, we will have an entrée of sashimi that evening. When sufficient saltwater barramundi has hit the deck, there will be a sens-ational main course of grilled barra against which you will judge all future city encounters with the fish.

The daily chart-plotting of True North's course throws up names most of us have never heard of; the Buccaneer and Bonaparte archipelagos, for example, each encompassing hundreds of Australian islands, many still to be named. Early European rivalries mark the coastline, the Baudin expedition of 1803 leaving Australia with such Napoleonic placenames as Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, Cape Voltaire and Cape Leveque. Phillip Parker King of the Royal Navy did a more thorough job of exploring the Kimberley Coast in 1820, as a result of which the Hanoverians live on in George Water, Prince Frederick Harbour, Prince Regent River, King George River and Hanover Bay. In a piece of geographical one-upmanship, King also named the two dominant peaks of the region Waterloo and Trafalgar.

All too soon the week's cruise is into the denouement hours with a swim at Hidden Island off the marine wonderland of Silica Beach, on one of the numberless islands of the Buccaneer archipelago. One day there'll be a resort there, as inevitably as the time when great white fleets of cruise ships will ply up and down the Kimberley's magical coast. And in the swirl of economic cycles and political and business enthusiasms, the day may come when oil and gas or bauxite extractions will scar the landscape. But for the near future, this stretch of Australian waterfront remains a complete wilderness area of grand proportion, and, like explorers of old, present-day travellers are granted the privilege of seeing the coast in all its unsullied beauty.

The time comes for fond farewells to the trusty vessel and her willing crew. As any who've sailed on True North can attest, this professional cadre of young Australians do our travel industry proud. Their pampering attention has never been intrusive, but at all times service standards have been impeccable.

We've dined on cuisine as fine as in many a celebrated restaurant ashore, on fresh, three-course dinners, elegantly served at the table, with careful provision for any dietary requirements. Immersed in the ancient grandeur that is the Kimberley Coast, the captain, the vessel's naturalist and the posse of adventure guides have answered our every question about that two-billion-year-old land.

As if returning from the tranquillity of the desert, there is a sense of regret in giving up the stillness of the Kimberley's remote environment for the bustle of the metropolitan world. It is as if you are losing something that was yours long ago, something you mislaid along the way and are about to forfeit once more.

True North pulls the pearly metropolis of Broome from horizon's hold and your mobile phone bleeps back into action.


Between mid-March and late September, True North operates about 18 Kimberley Wilderness Cruises - some of them the 13-night cruises between Broome and Wyndham (from $14,495), and some the six- or seven-night runs between Wyndham and the Hunter River or between the Hunter River and Broome (from $9495). (08) 9192 1829.

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