Australia's Kimberley

2017 Australia's Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback Field Report

Luc Purdy|June 28, 2017|Field Report

Sunday & Monday, April 16 & 17, 2017 - Broome, Australia / Embark Coral Discoverer

Broome was hot and humid, but a most welcome respite from the unseasonably cold and wet winters most of us have been experiencing. As we settled into the beautiful Cable Beach Club Resort, we acclimatized, rested, and met our fellow travelers. Some of us walked down to the renowned Cable Beach, while others stayed in the resort and enjoyed locally brewed beers from Broome’s very own Matso’s Brewery. In the evening, we enjoyed welcome cocktails and dinner overlooking the Indian Ocean as the sun dropped below the horizon.

The next morning, packed and luggage ready for collection, 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 through pindan vegetation to low red sandstone cliffs rising from the bay. 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’ to grow bigger pearls. The display gave us a new appreciation of the intricacies involved in cultivating luxury 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 again on a tour of an almost deserted Broome. We visited China Town, Streeter’s Jetty, Gantheaume Point, the Japanese cemetery, and enjoyed a cold brew at Matso’s Brewery before boarding the Coral Discoverer, where we unpacked and settled into our home for the next ten days.


Tuesday, April 18 - 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. From the comfort of the Xplorer we cruised the sandy spits while seeing silver gulls, 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. We were even treated to a demonstration of kleptoparasiticism when a frigatebird harassed a tern enough to convince it to regurgitate its day’s catch, not far off from the Xplorer. Around us in the water, green turtles bobbed up briefly and shovel-nosed rays flittered around in the shallows.

Returning to the ship in the late afternoon, we had time to shower and dress for our captain’s welcome drinks and dinner while we steamed toward Montgomery Reef.


Wednesday, April 19 - Montgomery Reef / Raft Point

Boarding the Xplorer just after sunrise, we made our way into the glassy waters of Camden Sound and, as we approached, the reef 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 previously-hidden reefs, leaving vast lagoons, sandstone islets, and cascading waters to stand where ocean once concealed them. As the tides sank lower, water cascaded from the emerging reef, shimmering in the morning sun. Green turtles, rays, and fish frantically escaped with the rushing water into deeper channels. As the reef appeared, the horizon shifted and we were left sailing in a tidal river amid an algae reef channel. The hundreds of cascading falls attracted migratory wading birds, feeding turtles, shovel-nosed rays, and tropical fish.

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 clambered from the beach up to the escarpment, passing needle sharp spinifex and a large ancient boab tree. Our destination was a magnificent rock shelter painted with fish and ancestral Wandjina art. Here, our Worrorra guides told us stories about this site and of the people who lived here. After dinner this evening, we were treated to a wonderful dramatization of the Kimberley ‘Freedom Fighter,’ Jandamarra’s War.


Thursday, April 20 - Talbot Bay / Cyclone Creek

We woke early this morning for breakfast before setting out on the Xplorer to get a close-up look at the stunning geology with tilted and highly folded 1.8-billion-year-old Pentecost sandstones and Elgee siltstone formations while Tom Sharpe provided us the geological context of the amazing rock edifices we were seeing. Mangroves lined the water’s edge as we scanned in vain for crocodile eyes just above the surface, though we did catch a couple glimpses of rock wallabies.

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. Tidal conditions were just right to allow us to penetrate the narrow gap via Zodiac into a majestically beautiful back bay, and some of the earlier groups were fortunate enough to spot a nine-foot crocodile waiting for them back there. Those of us awaiting our Zodiac rides were entertained by five curious nurse sharks, hugging up against the ship!

After lunch, we departed in groups of three to get a better view of the Horizontal Falls—this time via helicopter. Later, as the temperatures moderated, we explored Slug Island on the Xplorer where we heard more about the geology of the tilted rock features of Talbot Bay, whilst spotting a lone osprey in its nest at the end tip of the island.


Friday, April 21 - Fresh Water Cove / Langgi Beach

We awoke to a beautiful sunrise and clear skies for our late morning trek to Cyclone Cave to see more Wandjina rock art. After we disembarked the Xplorer onto the rocky shore to again meet our Worrorra guides—Robyn, Jackie, Graham, and Derrick—we were formally ‘welcomed to country,’ our cheeks painted with ochre. The morning was already hot and humid, but we forged onward to Cyclone Cave, traversing sandstone country, that had been overgrown with fresh vegetation from the recent wet season. At the top of the trek, we dropped down into the rock cyclone shelter to bear witness to beautiful ochre paintings and listened to aboriginal 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 tales.

After lunch on board, we disembarked to Langgi Beach, where we were greeted by the hundreds of petrified sandstone shapes of Wandjina warriors exposed on the beach. Our Worrorra guides 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 felt the weight of this consecrated land.

This evening after dinner, Terry Done gave a fascinating yet haunting lecture on Montgomery Reef, Corals, and Climate Change followed by Shirley Campbell’s distillation of Kimberley Rock Art.


Saturday, April 22 - Naturalist Island / Mitchell Falls / Hunter River

This morning we found ourselves anchored off Naturalist Island. As most of us were enjoying breakfast, brilliant blue-and-white helicopters gently set down on the nearby beach, waiting to whisk us off to Mitchell Falls—one of the most iconic and remote sites in Australia. As we lifted off on our second heli tour of the trip, we were treated to expansive plateau views with yet more astonishing rock formations, stretching out on all sides to the horizon. We observed from altitude the Mitchell River cut through the open scrub terrain of basalt ridges and dolerite intrusions as it snaked its way towards the falls. Landing just upstream from the Falls, we had an hour to wander out to various vantage points with good views of the famed four-tiered falls, as well as take a dip in the sun-warmed pool that formed just above the cascading waters.

As we enjoyed our day, the ship’s hotel staff were busy setting up a barbecue on the beach at Naturalist 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 and the relaxing beach atmosphere was a fitting end to yet another memorable day. Returning to the ship for an array of delicious cakes and pies, we satisfied our sweet tooth before retiring for the night.


Sunday, April 23 - Bigge Island / Montesquieu Islands

It was an early, but gorgeous Kimberley morning as the Coral Discoverer made its way to Wary Bay and Bigge Island. The traditional owners of the island are the Uunguu people of the Wunambal language group, 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, Europeans in hats, and perhaps Macassans smoking pipes.

Cathedral Cave is only accessible when the tides are low and this morning we could 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.

Back on board, we enjoyed another lecture from Tom, The Kimberley: Ancient Rocks, Ancient Land, and a talk from The Nature Conservancy’s James Fitzsimons entitled, Fighting Fire of Fire: How Indigenous Knowledge and Modern Science are Uniting to Keep People and Nature Healthy, while we sailed for the Montesquieu Islands in hopes of catching colonies of roosting birds.

We disembarked in the Xplorer, surveying a few islands in the Montesquieu Island group. These islands varied in composition from spits of basalt rock jutting up from the sea to low-lying, gradually-sloping sand islands that played host to various land and sea birds. During this outing, we saw numerous different birds: the greater, lesser, and rosiette terns; cormorants; red-necked stints; white-bellied sea eagles; and even a few brown boobies and an osprey.


Monday, April 24 - Jar Island / Anjo Peninsula / Woku Island

Anchoring off the Bougainville Peninsula, we headed ashore in the Xplorer, past a huge pearl oyster lease. Here, we hoped to find evidence of Macassan trepang (sea cucumber) processing ‘factories.’ These sea-faring peoples from southern Sulawesi had been visiting the northern shores of Australia, arguably since the 17th century, looking for the prized trepang to supply the lucrative Chinese market. 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, April 25 - 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. A group of 17 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. Expedition Leader Brad Climpson 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 down time, 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, April 26 - Tiwi Islands

Waking to a rainy, humid morning we continued towards the Tiwi Islands. Thankfully, all of our morning activities were on board, with a scrumptious breakfast and lectures, including one from Shirley on, 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 place mats 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 captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner, followed by a marvelous slideshow prepared by Brent.


Thursday, April 27 - 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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