Talbot Bay, Kimberley, Australia

2015 Australia's Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback Field Report

Shirley Campbell|July 2, 2015|Field Report

Sunday, April 26, 2015 - Broome, Australia: Located in the far northwest of Australia, our independent journeys to this remote part of the island-continent finally ended in Broome. Staying at the beautiful Cable Beach Club Resort overlooking the Indian Ocean, we met our fellow travelers, renewed old acquaintances, and made new friends over sunset cocktails. At the welcome dinner our Expedition Leader Jeff Gneiser introduced himself and set out the plan for the following day. Dinner over, most of us retired early for some much needed horizontal time!

Monday, April 27 - Broome / Embark Oceanic Discoverer: The township of Broome is well known for its pearling history and for its location as a stopover for wader birds that migrate along the East Asia Flyway. On our first day in Australia’s Kimberley region, some of us visited the Broome Bird Observatory on the shores of Roebuck Bay and were introduced to some of the birdlife of the northwest. Others took a coach to Willie Creek Pearl Farm, where we heard some of the history of this industry and observed how cultured pearls are produced.

Lunch was enjoyed back at our hotel overlooking Cable Beach. From here the combined group boarded a bus for a town tour. Two local ladies were our guides, providing many insights into life in this small outback town. We explored China Town, Streeter’s Jetty, the Luggers exhibition, Gantheum Point, and Cable Beach; we finished dockside and boarded the Oceanic Discoverer. After finding our cabins, the remaining time was spent unpacking and exploring. Our traveling companions from the pre-extension joined us on board and we all settled into ship life with a safety drill, followed by cocktails and an introduction to the expedition staff by Jeff.

Tuesday, April 28 - Lacepede Islands: With our clocks reset, we enjoyed our first awe-inspiring Kimberley sunrise. Chris Done introduced the region with his presentation, Concentrated Kimberley, setting the scene for the adventure ahead. Later in the morning, after a helicopter briefing and a weighing-in for our upcoming Mitchell Falls flight, we heard Brent Stephenson’s lecture, An Introduction to the Birds of the Kimberley, about the birds we might see.

After lunch we had two optional excursions. One group chose to explore Crocodile Creek by Zodiac; although one might expect Crocodile Creek to be full of resident crocodiles, the name derives from a rock formation at the entrance to the creek and its strong resemblance to a crocodile. As there were no known crocodiles we were able to relax at a glorious rock pool, where we swam and took in the sounds of the northwest. We saw a juvenile sea eagle and white-quilled rock pigeons, and enjoyed watching archerfish catching dragonflies. The swimming hole was once used by miners from the nearby Cockatoo and Koolan iron ore mines; the only predator-free location to have a refreshing swim after a long day at work.

The second group set off to explore the stunning geology of Yampi Sound. We visited an archaeological site known as Koolan Caves 1 and 2, where human habitation dates back at least 30,000 years. We also explored the Koolan mine site from the Xplorer. We stopped at Nares Point for a short beach walk and got up-close views of the most photographed geology in the region. At the top of the beach we found a cave with common sheath-tail bats and a paper wasp hive.

Back on board, showered and dressed, we were treated to cocktails and the captain’s welcome dinner—though we missed the captain, who was busy discovering the best route to a new location never before visited by the ship.

Wednesday, April 29 - Dugong Bay / Talbot Bay: Following breakfast, we embarked on a morning cruise of Dugong Bay in the Xplorer. In January 2013, the Premier of Western Australia announced that Talbot and Dugong Bays would be incorporated into Kimberley Marine Park. Cruising through the calm waters of the bay we could see why—the ochre-red cliffs of 1.8-billion-year-old King Leopold sandstones, and the supporting layers of more recent Warton sandstone and Elgee siltstone, provided a stunning backdrop rising out of the azure water. The sun was still low, affording perfect lighting conditions for photographers. An osprey was startled off her nest as we approached an area showing evidence of fire and regeneration on hillsides, so typical of the Australian bush.

Returning to the ship, we repositioned to Talbot Bay where the Xplorer took us to view the unique and world-renowned Horizontal Falls during slack water. Later in the day as the tide fell, we would ‘ride the falls’, which are caused by a massive volume of water escaping a narrow passage out from the inner bays.

Over lunch, a tawny nurse shark and some black-tip reef sharks visited the stern. Brad Climpson fed the sharks while pointing out the feeding behaviors of these two very different hunters. A remora entertained us as it repeatedly tried to attach itself to the slower moving nurse shark! They hung around the ship while we went in groups via Zodiac to experience the Horizontal Falls, gushing with enormous force through two narrow gaps in the cliffs. Later we enjoyed a more leisurely cruise up Cyclone Creek for great geological sightseeing. We spotted fiddler crabs on the mudflats, waving their scarlet claws, intent on attracting mates.

Back on board, Shirley Campbell presented, The Land is Our History: Indigenous Relations to Country. A stunning sunset completed the daylight hours before dinner and a good night’s sleep.

Thursday, April 30 - Raft Point / Montgomery Reef: A group of keen birders headed out before sunrise to look for early rising birds. Highlights included two osprey sitting on their nests, oystercatchers, striated herons, and white-bellied cuckoo-shrikes. Higher up were flocks of little wood-swallows catching flying insects along the escarpment. Back on board for breakfast, we prepared for the morning’s options. 

Many opted to forsake the comfort of the Xplorer to clamber across a rubble beach to meet our Aboriginal Worrorra guides. We were welcomed to ‘Country’ and daubed with red ochre before making our way up the escarpment, passing tufts of needle sharp spinifex and an ancient boab tree. We saw many brown honeyeaters and, near the top, there were good views of black-faced and white-bellied cuckoo-shrikes, leaden flycatchers, a brown go shawk, and rainbow bee-eaters. Once at the top we arrived at a large rock shelter displaying beautiful images of dugong, sharks, fish, and ancestral Wandjina. Non-walkers remained on the Xplorer to land at Steep Island and inspect the beautiful natural rock sculptures in the inter-tidal transition between sea and land. We visited Bird Island, observing oystercatchers and eastern reef egrets, along with others.

Back on the Xplorer or in Zodiacs after lunch, we headed out to observe a very unusual phenomenon at Montgomery Reef: the receding tide revealed a submerged reef covering an area of approximately 154 square miles. The reef seemingly ‘rises’ from the surface of the sea, with cascading waterfalls literally spilling off the emerging reef edge. When the tide is out, vast lagoons are exposed which separate the various reefs constituting the entire system. Fish trapped by the falling tide attract many wading birds, including greater sand plovers and beach stone curlew, which were busy feasting on this stranded sea life. A large turtle was also stranded, while groups of green turtles swam in the ‘lagoons’ around us. Beautiful black-winged white terns in their full adult plumage fed happily on stunned fish which had been swept up in the currents formed by the rivers of water ‘falling’ from the reef.

We completed a memorable day with cocktails outside on the top deck, where we could take in the Kimberley colors and another spectacular sunset.

Friday, May 1 - Freshwater Cove / Langgi: This morning we met our Worrorra friends again at their ‘dry season’ camp. Donny Woolagoodja, the elder responsible for ‘keeping the Wandjina fresh’ was also there to greet us. After the women welcomed us to country, we were anointed again with ochre and Donny led the way to Cyclone Cave. Others of our group remained in camp to hear the stories of the Wandjina, enjoy a cup of tea and to purchase traditional paintings. 

The 25-minute walk to Cyclone Cave took a route through beautiful spinifex country, gradually climbing into sandstone country. We clambered over red, orange, and yellow boulders, finally dropping down into the rock shelter where beautiful ochre paintings adorned the ceiling and walls. Donny explained the meanings of these paintings as we listened intently, soaking up the rich and ancient culture on display at this magnificent and very remote site. Returning to camp for a drink, the purchase of Worrorra paintings continued until it was time to depart. Donny, Kenny, Callum, and Janine joined us on board for lunch as we relocated to Langgi, another significant Dreamtime site for these ‘saltwater Worrorra.’

Anchored off Langgi Beach, we waited for low tide. The BBC documentary, Coast Australia: The Kimberley was shown in the Lounge, featuring many of the areas we had explored since departing Broome. Finally, the tide had receded enough for us to land. The beach was now exposed and the many Wandjina ‘warriors’, now silently standing as sentinels, greeted us. Donny told the story of the great warrior Namarali, who had defended the land but was fatally wounded. He pointed to where Namarali now stands, petrified, next to his wife, Djarlanoi. We wandered through this ancient site where the Dreamtime battle had taken place, a sense of eerie stillness in the maze of stone columns still ‘defending’ the beach. Osprey soared over this timeless landscape, while masked lapwings pottered along the shoreline.

Back on board, Brad gave his lecture, Reptiles of the Kimberley.

Saturday, May 2 - Prince Regent River / Nature Reserve, Careening Bay: We woke to a cool, but very smoky morning. At the end of each wet season, it is important to carry out strategic burns to reduce the fuel load on the ground, and thereby avoid hot and destructive wildfires later in the dry season. After breakfast, we set off up the Prince Regent River to King Cascade, our eyes peeled for the elusive crocodiles. We passed colorful King Leopold sandstone walls emerging out of the river; these lay horizontal, in interlocking blocks creating a fascinating natural landscape. We saw playful snub-fin dolphins alongside and osprey overhead, while lapwings, great-billed herons, whimbrels, and striated herons fed along the banks and sand dunes.

Finally we spotted a small crocodile and then another lazing by the water’s edge. The Xplorer tried to get so close to the second one that when backing away the prop hit a submerged rock, damaging it and jamming the steering. While the support Zodiac returned to the ship to fetch the Chief Engineer, Peter Strong and others worked on fixing the fuel line. Meanwhile, Shirley gave an impromptu talk on Aboriginal endeavors to secure land rights and native title. After about 45 minutes and with the engine fixed, we continued to King Cascade. While enjoying our lunch in this beautiful setting we heard the story of poor Ginger Meadows, taken so young by a crocodile. As we listened we saw a very large crocodile watching us!

Back on board, Shirley presented her lecture, Kimberley Rock Art, while the ship relocated to Careening Bay. Here, while the hotel crew set up cocktails on the beach, we made our way to view a huge and ancient boab tree. Captain Phillip Parker King had his ship’s name, the HMC Mermaid, inscribed on the tree when he careened his ship here in 1820, during a voyage charting the coast of Australia. Cocktails were all the more splendid while watching the magnificent sunset before returning to the ship and dinner.

Sunday, May 3 - Winyalkan Island / Mitchell Falls: Today was helicopter day! In small groups we flew over the Mitchell plateau, with smoky vistas as far as the eye could see, uninterrupted by the open-door helicopters. The Mitchell River snakes its way towards its mouth at Prince Frederick Harbour, cutting through the open scrub terrain featuring generous outpourings of basalt ridges and dolerite intrusions. Several of us landed at Mitchell Falls where a short walk over water-worn sandstone led to fabulous views of the iconic three-tiered falls. For those wanting to cool off there was an opportunity to swim in a lovely water hole just below minor falls on the Mitchell River before it spilled over the edge of the bigger falls. Some preferred a scenic helicopter tour of the Mitchell Plateau and falls instead of landing. Flying over this country we had an enhanced feeling of its remoteness and the beauty of this ancient land. All had excellent views of Little Mitchell Falls on the way to the major falls, and Great Merton Falls, as well as the famed Mitchell Falls. 

While waiting for helicopter flights, the Xplorer cruised to Hathaways Hideaway; a maze of eroded sandstone caves and linking tunnels. Bats and a giant cave gecko were just some of the residents encountered. Opposite the caves is an overhang encrusted with shell; a midden indicating that this was once an indigenous occupation site. We also landed at a far beach to see the beautiful little Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) paintings by an Aboriginal group from the distant past. In the afternoon the Xplorer cruised the bay where Indo-pacific humpback dolphins, kangaroos, stingrays, and oystercatchers were observed.

To complete an exceptional day, we enjoyed a barbeque dinner on Winyalkan Beach, relaxing while exchanging stories from the day, drinking lovely wines, and eating delicious barbecued meats.

Back on board for desert, The Water Diviner was screened in the Lounge for those able to keep their eyes open after such a big day in the Kimberley.

Monday, May 4 - Bigge Island / Sterna Island: Another cool morning greeted us as we boarded the Xplorer and headed for a rarely visited site usually inaccessible because of high tides. Today, however, the spring tides enabled an exploration of the aptly named Cathedral Cave. Once ashore, we made our way under a huge slanting slab of sandstone that had fallen to create a yawning entrance to the cavern within. Together we stood in awe as Virginia Chen, an opera singer, was encouraged to test the acoustics, her beautifully trained voice amplified in the generous space that had been eroded to form a cathedral-like hall. Marilyn Davison followed with her jazzy version of Fever while we accompanied with hand percussion.

Retuning to Wary Bay via magnificent sandstone formations, naturally carved into all kinds of shapes, our imaginations conjured up all manner of creatures. Some of us chose to clamber up the escarpment, passing turtle nests dug into the sand, to a point where we could look down onto an ancient ceremonial ground, once used by the land owning Uunguu people. We all took our time looking at Wandjina rock art painted onto sandstone walls at the back of the beach, making out fading Wandjina heads, some looking out to sea.

Morning tea was enjoyed back on board and Chris Done gave an interesting history on the sandalwood industry in Australia, Sandalwood: Heaven Scent. While sailing to Sterna Island we watched the documentary, Land of the Wandjina.

An important breeding site, Sterna Island is part of the Montes quieu Group at the mouth of Admiralty Gulf. Zodiacs and the Xplorer went out to view the nesting terns. There were crested and lesser-crested terns, as well as the dainty roseate terns in adult plumage, their exquisite blush-breasts displaying their readiness to breed. A peregrine falcon was feeding on one of the thousands of birds on the island, while an immature white-bellied sea eagle was trying its luck at capturing dinner on the wing. Across to Gabrielle Island we saw a four-foot croc hustle down the beach to get into the safety of the water as we approached. Not big enough to cause any concern, we landed on the steep coral-rubble beach and explored before returning to the ship for sunset cocktails on the upper deck.

Tuesday, May 5 - King George River / King George Falls: Keen trekkers left the ship in the cool of the morning for a Zodiac ride up the King George River towards the falls. They clambered up the steep escarpment to the plateau where they watched the Xplorer make its way up the river with the rest of the group. Those on the Xplorer could just make out the intrepid walkers waving from high above the falls.

Prior to heading up the river, the Xplorer visited Koolama Bay where Terry Done shared the sad story of the Japanese Zeros strafing a passenger ship, the Koolama, on February 20, 1942. The site was once named Cape Ruilhieres but renamed following the attack. The Koolama was carrying 91 passengers and 89 crew members, and was the first aerial attack by the Japanese in the Kimberley.

We made a landing at Tranquil Bay where a lovely lagoon lay beyond the beach. A resident crocodile kept us well back from the waters edge! As we traveled up the breathtaking beauty of the gorge carved by the King George River, we marveled at how ancient these stone cliffs were, having been formed 1.8 billion years ago.

Back on the ship for lunch, followed by the documentary Malice or Mutiny, we sailed out of Western Australia and towards the Northern Territory in the Timor Sea. An Ice Cream Social satisfied those in need of a sweet treat before joining Terry for his presentation, Phillip Parker King: Legendary Explorer of the Australian Coast. Terry followed his interesting talk with an 18-minute video he assembled during our trip. His presentation captured all the special moments of the last nine days, accompanied by music from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Steppenwolf—and our very own Marilyn Davison, the Captain’s wife.

Wednesday, May 6 - Tiwi Islands: We sailed all night across the Joseph Bonaparte Strait. Notorious for being a bumpy ride, our journey was blessed by glass-like seas as we navigated towards the Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville. After breakfast, Brad gave an excellent presentation, Geology and Landscapes of the Kimberley. Later in the morning, Shirley prepared us for the Tiwi in her presentation, The Tiwi.

As we ate lunch, we sailed into Apsley Bay, separating the two main islands. On board the Xplorer, we made the ten-minute journey to the islands’ administrative center, Wurrumiyanga (once Nguiu) on Bathurst. On shore we either walked or took the bus to visit the old Catholic church, the museum, Tiwi Designs, and the Tiwi Art Gallery and Studio.

In 1911 Father Gsell established a mission at Nguiu; we visited the site this afternoon. We heard the story of how the mission’s radio had been used to warn Darwin of the Japanese Zero fighters heading in their direction on February 19, 1942. The little museum displays various aspects of Tiwi culture, as well as the presence of the church in people’s more recent history. We visited the two art centers and made lots of purchases. It was very special to meet many of the artists, who were there to display their work and to help wrap up our treasures. Before departing the island we had billy tea and damper while the men and women painted their faces and shared some of their dances. 

As we headed south to Darwin, we dressed for the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner. Before retiring to finish last minute packing, we gathered in the Lounge for Brent’s slideshow of our trip. Since our embarkation in Broome, we had accumulated many precious memories, all on show for us on our last evening together aboard the Oceanic Discoverer.

Thursday, May 7 - Darwin / Disembark / Brisbane: This morning our bags were whisked away to dockside, ready to load on the buses. As we left the ship the entire crew lined up to say their goodbyes as we boarded the buses for a tour of Darwin. Our first stop was a lookout over Darwin Harbour, where we heard about the Japanese bombing of Darwin. We drove out to East Point Reserve for excellent views across the bay back to Darwin’s CBD before traveling to the Darwin Museum where a sumptuous early lunch was ready. We enjoyed time browsing through the wonderful exhibits at the museum before heading to the airport and boarding our flight to Brisbane or to other Australian destinations. It was time for our Kimberley group to say goodbye and go our separate ways, some homeward bound and others to explore more of Australia.


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