Australia's Kimberley

2016 Australia's Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback Field Report

Shirley Campbell|June 24, 2016|Field Report

Sunday & Monday, April 24 & 25, 2016 - Broome, Australia / Embark Coral Discoverer

Broome was hot; very hot. An unseasonable high of 104ºF(!) greeted us as we arrived for the start of our Kimberley expedition. As we settled into the beautiful Cable Beach Club Resort, we acclimatized, rested, and met fellow travelers. Some of us walked down to the renowned Cable Beach to find iconic camel trains marching nose-to-tail along the beach, carrying their human cargo into mirage-like vistas reminiscent of the desert. In the evening we enjoyed welcome cocktails and dinner overlooking the Indian Ocean.

The next morning we divided into two groups. Some of us visited the Broome Bird Observatory on the shores of Roebuck Bay, while others learned about pearls at the Willie Creek Pearl Farm. Birders ticked off many iconic birds of the Kimberley, as they walked from the Observatory. Many wading birds were out on the mud flats following the incoming tide, and several birds of prey—including white-bellied sea eagles and three species of kites—soared above. Perhaps the most fun sighting of the day was not of the feathered kind; it was the pack of green tree-frogs jockeying for position on the toilets, which provided considerable entertainment for all!

At Willie Creek Pearl Farm we were shown the delicate work of extracting pearls from the Pinctada maxima oyster, and the surgical ‘planting’ of larger ‘seeds’ so as to grow bigger pearls. In their near perfect marine environment, Broome pearls are renowned for their beauty and perfection—with prices to match!

We returned to the Cable Beach Club Resort for lunch before heading out on a tour of nearly deserted Broome. We visited China Town, Streeter’s Jetty, Gantheaume Point, and the Japanese cemetery, before boarding the Coral Discoverer. Between attending the safety drill and briefing, meeting our expedition staff, and dinner, we unpacked and settled in.

Tuesday, April 26 - Lacepede Islands

With the ship relocated just off Cable Beach, our sleep was undisturbed until the early hours of the morning when we headed northbound to the Lacepede Islands. Following breakfast, Chris Done began our lecture series with an introduction to the region, Concentrated Kimberley. Brent Stephenson followed with, Birds of the Kimberley—An Introduction to our Feathered Friends.

During lunch, we arrived at the islands situated some 25 nautical miles west of Beagle Bay on the Dampier Peninsula. We boarded the Xplorer and headed towards a channel separating two low, sandy islands.

The Lacepede Islands were named by Nicolas Baudin in 1801 after the celebrated French naturalist, Count Lacepede. Baudin saw the islands from a distance but, to the annoyance of the naturalists on board, refused to go closer. Although we did explore closer, we resisted the temptation to land for fear of disturbing the breeding birds. But from the comfort of the Xplorer, and with opportunities to get up closer on Zodiacs, we saw white-faced and eastern reef egrets, oystercatchers, tiny bar-tailed godwits and whimbrels, a wide variety of terns masterfully flying on the wind’s currents, hundreds of mature and immature brown and masked boobies, and several lesser frigatebirds, circling overhead and waiting to relieve the terns of their catch. Around us, green turtles bobbed up briefly and tiny black tip sharks swam in the shallows.

Returning to the ship in the late afternoon, we had time to shower and dress for Captain Simon Estella’s welcome drinks and dinner.

Wednesday, April 27 - Talbot Bay / Cyclone Creek

Having set our clocks ahead to Darwin time, we woke exceptionally early for breakfast before setting out on the Xplorer to catch the ebb tide for our first experience of the Horizontal Waterfalls at peak flow! Returning to the ship, groups boarded Zodiacs for the opportunity to experience hair-raising rides through the falls. With the falling tide, water was rushing out of the two inner ‘lakes,’ creating the phenomenon of the falls. Those of us awaiting our Zodiac rides were entertained by a 10-foot, octopus-eating, tawny nurse shark! Content to cruise off the aft deck, it accepted bits of food from Brad Climpson while he filmed it on his GoPro. Once everyone had their fill of wild Zodiac rides, we boarded the Xplorer again to see the once raging falls now closer to slack water. If we had not just experienced the force of the water flowing through the narrow gaps, we would not have given this more than a passing nod, the beauty of the uplifted sandstone walls more than enough to draw attention. What a difference a few hours makes in this land of massive tides!

Back on board for lunch we shared experiences then joined Hunter Fraser for his first lecture, Evolution and Exploration in Australia. Later, as the temperatures moderated, we explored Cyclone Creek on the Xplorer and via Zodiacs. This gave us our first up-close look at the stunning geology with tilted and highly folded 1.8-billion-year-old Pentecost sandstones and Elgee siltstone formations. Mangroves lined the water’s edge as we scanned in vain for crocodile eyes just above the surface. Mangrove herons wadded in the shallow waters, surely a tempting meal for smaller crocodiles. A small group of white-quill doves hid among the shaded boulders while white-bellied sea eagles soared overhead. A posing Australian darter captured our attention and some of us were lucky enough to spot a short-eared rock wallaby as it scampered along the rocks to escape our gaze.

Thursday, April 28 - Montgomery Reef / Raft Point

Boarding the Xplorer just before sunrise, we made our way into the glassy waters of Camden Sound. The dim light of dawn revealed the smokey red glow of the rising sun, gradually illuminating the sky as we sipped mimosas and indulged in quiches and muffins. All around us another phenomenon was emerging as the tide fell—154 square miles of reef seemed to rise out of the once quiet waters of the sound! The tidal conditions of the Kimberley coast make Montgomery Reef one of the most unique experiences in the world. Maximum tides of 33 feet hauntingly give way to seemingly rising reefs, leaving vast lagoons, sandstone islets, and mangrove islands to stand where water once concealed them. Water literally ‘falls’ from the emerging reef as cascades, shimmering in the morning sun. Green turtles, fish, and other sea creatures frantically escape with the rushing water into deeper channels. The hundreds of cascading falls attracted migratory wading birds, feeding turtles, manta rays, and black-tipped sharks. Back on board we had a late breakfast followed by Shirley Campbell speaking on, Kimberley Rock Art.

In the afternoon, representatives of the Worrorra people ‘welcomed us to country’ as we came ashore at Raft Point. After our faces were marked with red ochre as a sign of respect for their ancestors, we scrambled from the beach up to the escarpment, passing needle sharp spinifex and an ancient boab tree. Our destination was a magnificent rock shelter painted with fish and Wandjina ancestors. Here, our Worrorra guides told us stories about this site and of the people who lived here. Those feeling less inclined to climb the escarpment stayed on board the Xplorer with Terry Done and visited the nearby, and aptly named, Steep Island.

After dinner there was a night-time Croc Spotting Expedition hoping to spotlight the eyes of these ancient reptiles. Alas, we saw half a crocodile, the unfortunate animal hunted rather than the hunter!

Friday, April 29 - Langgi / Fresh Water Cove

We woke to a cloud-covered morning, promising a cooler exploration of Langgi. Being low tide, we could see the petrified shapes of Wandjina warriors exposed on the beach as we disembarked the Xplorer. Our Worrorra guides, Robyn, Jackie, Cherylyn, Wayne, and Craig, met us and told the story of Namarali, their Wandjina ancestor who, together with his warriors, fought a fierce battle at Langgi. The evidence of that battle was all around us as we wandered through the limestone pillars and soaked up the eeriness of the beach.

Hunter gave his second lecture, What Darwin Didn’t Know, as we repositioned to Freshwater Cove. After lunch, we disembarked onto a rocky shore to again meet our Worrorra guides. Robyn showed us the permanent fresh water stream bubbling out of the rocky beach, making this an important Worrorra camping site. Once we were formally painted and ‘welcomed to country,’ we headed a short distance inland to Cyclone Cave, traversing open sandstone country, gradually climbing and clambering over red, orange, and yellow sandstone until we finally dropped down into the rock shelter. Beautiful ochre paintings told the stories of a woman and her son, both eventually being caught in a whirlpool on Montgomery Reef and drowning. Returning to the camp for damper and billy tea, we heard more stories about the Worrorra ancestors and had an opportunity to buy works of art depicting many of these stories.

This evening after dinner, Michael Noyce, brother of film director, Phillip Noyce, gave a fascinating insight to the filming of Rabbit Proof Fence before we sat back to relive the harrowing real-life experience of three little girls taken from their mothers in 1928, in what is now known as the time of the Stolen Generation.

Saturday, April 30 - Careening Bay / Prince Regent River

The tides were right for a quick visit to the historically renowned Careening Bay. It was here, in 1820, that explorer Captain Phillip Parker King beached his ship, the HMC Mermaid. To dissuade foreign interests from claiming parts of this British colony, he inscribed a large boab tree at the back of the dunes with his ship’s name and the date of visit. We spent time marveling at the survival of this large boab, before noting dingo tracks, mango pods, beach beans, and in the bush, massive ancient cycads adorned the rising sandstone hills.

After Terry’s presentation on Kimberley Coast: Behind the Scenery, we boarded the Xplorer for a long ride up the Prince Regent River. Steep sandstone cliffs, heavily eroded to look like jumbled and precariously balanced Lego blocks, rose from the calm water of the river. The scenery lulled us into moments of sheer wonder, the colors striking, and in our reverie, we relaxed and sped to King Cascade.

At the entrance to the falls we spotted a crocodile in the water! It moved aside as we gently made our way towards the falls, creating a veil of water spilling down the layered cake-like sandstone. A reef egret hunted off a ledge while we heard the story of poor Ginger Meadow, taken by a crocodile in 1987 at this very spot. We nosed into the falls, allowing those wanting to cool off a moment under cascades of water. The exposed mud bank teeming with mudskippers on our arrival was now underwater, as we left the crocodile to its thoughts and turned back down the river towards St. George Basin and Hanover Bay. We spotted a pod of Indo-Pacific dolphins hunting along the river’s edge before making a small detour up a tributary to Camp Creek. On landing, the landscape changed from dark mangroves to a magical expanse of freshwater pools reflecting the paperbarks, pandanus trees, yellow flowering shrubs, and a variety of wild grasses, all surrounded by an amphitheater of high sandstone cliffs so typical of this part of the Kimberley. It was a perfect place for lovely croissant sandwiches washed down with champagne, beer, and soft drinks.

Sunday, May 1 - Hunter River / Mitchell Falls

This morning we found ourselves anchored off Winyalkan Island. As most of us were enjoying breakfast, brilliant blue and bright orange helicopters gently set down on the nearby beach like giant dragonflies. Throughout the day we were transported over the Mitchell Plateau to one of the most iconic and remote sites in Australia—Mitchell Falls. Small groups had the opportunity to sit next to the open helicopter door, allowing for stunning views and photographs of the Mitchell Plateau. Landing at the Falls, we had an hour to scramble to various vantage points with good views of the famed four-tiered falls. There was time for a refreshing dip into one of the pools above the falls, framed by blue flowering water lilies and patrolled by scarlet dragonflies before our helicopter ride back to Winyalkan Island.

The Xplorer took those who were not at the Falls to Hathways Hideaway, where we found a maze of sandstone caves and linking tunnels. Opposite the caves, a massive shell midden was evidence of past centuries of Aboriginal occupation. A huge sea eagle nest in a monsoon forest patch and a regal wedge-tailed eagle observed us from the cliff top. We explored a remote beach and saw the beautiful and mysterious little Gwion Gwion images, painted by unknown Aboriginal people from the distant past.

In the afternoon, the Xplorer took others to see the ancient paintings and to explore the greatly eroding sandstone of the area. Gravity-defying leaps by a munjun amused those lucky enough to see the little creature. A massive osprey’s nest was sighted on top of a rock outcrop, while two ospreys observed suspiciously from a nearby cliff ledge.

Meanwhile, the hotel staff were busy setting up a barbecue on the beach at Winyalkan Island. With the sun low in the sky, we were transported to the beach where we enjoyed drinks and a magnificent dinner featuring lean kangaroo, together with other more traditional barbecued meats and salads. A group photograph in the setting sun was a fitting end to a memorable day.

Monday, May 2 - Bigge Island / Woku-Woku Island

It was another gorgeous Kimberley morning as the Coral Discoverer made its way to Wary Bay and Bigge Island. We split into two, half making the landing at Bigge Island while the other half continued on to another beach to explore Cathedral Cave. The traditional owners of Bigge Island are the Uunguu people, who have many sacred and culturally significant sites on the island. We looked down to a ceremonial ground tucked into the escarpment, as well as a grave mound facing out to the open sea. Closer to the beach there were beautiful Wandjina figures, as well as paintings from the contact period representing ships and Europeans in hats.

Cathedral Cave is only accessible when the tides are low and this morning we were able to walk into this magnificent, water-eroded cavern. A huge sandstone ‘slice’ had fallen to create a yawning gap through which we walked to enter the inner chamber. Exiting out the other side, we had to slide through a narrow gap with only a splinter of sunlight to guide us. One group watched a white-bellied sea eagle tear into an osprey for its morning meal!

Back on board, we enjoyed another lecture from Terry, Phillip Parker King: Legendary Explorer of the Australian Coast, while we sailed for Sterna Island. The expected 30,000 pairs of breeding birds had not yet arrived at either Sterna Island or Low Rocks so we continued to Woku-Woku Island, while Chris presented, Bush Tucker, Burning, and Boabs.

Anchoring off the Bougainville Peninsula, we headed ashore past a huge pearl oyster lease. Here, we hoped to find evidence of Macassan trepang, or sea cucumber, processing ‘factories.’Combing through the sand dunes, we found remnant trepang boiling hearths lined up regularly along the dune ridge, evidence of a foreign people interacting with Aboriginal people in the past. As the sun was setting, the golden hour delivered beautiful evening lighting on the surrounding islands and a stand of boab trees to one side of the beach.

Tuesday, May 3 - King George River / King George Falls

An early morning group of keen trekkers left the ship via Zodiacs and motored up the King George River toward the falls. While we leisurely made our way up the gorge, marveling at the vertical, Lego-like sandstone cliffs rising 263 feet high into the sky, our goal was a ‘survival of the fittest walk’ to the top of the escarpment above the waterfalls. Seventeen climbers clambered and panted up the steep rocky ascent to the top, and were rewarded with fabulous views down the river. The remaining group made their way on the Xplorer, likewise experiencing high walls towering above and seeming to enclose us mere mortals the further we went. The fractured orange cliffs and the fantastic sculptured erosion near the water level revealed the rocks' creamy pink interior and amazing honeycomb patterns of fine purple stripes as if painted by a master artist. All had a very good encounter with an 11-foot crocodile sunning itself on a 1.8-billion-year-old sandstone ledge, translucent purple jellyfish, and an osprey’s nest on a high cliff ledge. As we neared the falls, the full sun came out and provided us with a spectacular golden vista of the cliffs and their reflected glory on the bright blue of the river. Merten’s water monitors were abundant, with both groups getting good views of these on the river and above the falls. Zodiacs took the willing for a wet experience under the falls; despite the relatively small flow of water due to a series of poor wet seasons, the force of the water in free fall was enough to take your breath away!

Back on board we set sail across the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf (sometimes known as the ‘blown apart’ Gulf) to the Tiwi Islands. Brad presented, Reptiles of the Northern Territory, and we all enjoyed an Ice Cream Social. It was a perfect afternoon to be sailing and enjoying some downtime, as outside black clouds unloaded their cargo all afternoon. We had our last recap of the voyage before a lovely cocktail evening provided by Zegrahm Expeditions and Stanford Travel/Study.

Wednesday, May 4 - Tiwi Islands

Waking to a rainy, humid morning we continued to sail northeast towards the Tiwi Islands. Thankfully all our morning activities were on board, with a scrumptious breakfast and lectures. Hunter started the morning with, The Awesome Power of Natural Selection, followed by Shirley’s timely lecture, The Tiwi.

As we anchored off Bathurst Island for lunch, we could see dark clouds shrouding the islands. However, when it was time to disembark for the little settlement of Wurrumiyanga (once Nguiu) the downpour had passed. We split into three groups and rotated through three locations of interest. The Nguiu Mission was established in 1911 by Father Gsell. We heard the story of how the mission’s radio was used to warn Darwin of Japanese Zero fighter planes en route to the mainland on February 19, 1942. Alas, the warning went unheeded by authorities in Darwin and the small town was leveled by the same fighters which had earlier attacked Pearl Harbor. The excellent museum displaying Tiwi culture and history was a short walk from the Mission. A bus had to transport us to the third site, Ngaruwanajirri Inc, or The Keeping House. This is a special art center supporting Tiwi artists needing mental and emotional support. From here, we recombined at the community’s meeting place to enjoy billy tea and damper, while women demonstrated the skillful plaiting of placemats and baskets. We watched men paint their faces in preparation for dances and with humor and informative commentary, we were ‘smoked’ to cleanse us of unwanted spirits. Both men and women energetically danced various clan dances to our delight. Finally, the performances over, we either returned to the ship or walked a short distance to Tiwi Designs where many of us contributed extensively to the Tiwi economy!

Back on board, we readied for the Captains’ Farewell Cocktails and dinner, followed by a marvelous slideshow prepared by Brent.

Thursday, May 5 - Darwin / Disembark / Sydney

Packed and ready to depart, we said goodbye to the crew of the Coral Discoverer and boarded buses for a city tour. We traveled along Fannie Bay to East Point Lookout and fabulous views back to Darwin. Many had good sightings of wallabies grazing the fields, as we returned to visit the impressive Darwin Museum and Art Gallery. Despite Darwin being only a remote little city in the Northern Territory, it has a rather fine museum and art gallery. We wandered through the displays before spending our last Aussie dollars at the bookshop and enjoyed delicious sandwiches and drinks on the outside deck. Some of our group were going different ways so we bid them farewell before traveling to the airport where we boarded our flight to Sydney.

Arriving in the evening, we had a short ride to Rydges Sydney Airport Hotel and a seamless check-in, before gathering on the top floor for refreshments. It was here that we said our final goodbyes, and exchanged addresses and promises of traveling together again.


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