A quaint beach with a ship in the distance

2019 Australia's Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback Field Report

Shirley Campbell|June 13, 2019|Field Report

Sunday, May 5, 2019
Broome, Australia

After flying over the magnificent expanse of the Australian continent, we were finally able to step down upon the red earth of this very remote town, Broome. It was hot, very hot; the blistering heat greeting us for the start of our expedition into the Kimberley. Settling into the luxurious Cable Beach Club Resort we began to acclimatize, rest and explore the man-made tropical landscapes created here. Some of us walked down to the renowned Cable Beach to find iconic camel trains marching nose-to-tail along the sand. They were carrying their human cargo into mirage-like vistas reminiscent of the desert despite this being only four miles from the largest town in the Kimberley with a resident population of 12,700! Cable Beach is named for the telegraph cable that was laid underwater between Java (Indonesia) and Broome in 1889. It is hard to imagine that Java, a Dutch colony, was the closest thing to western ‘civilization’ at the time!

In the evening we enjoyed welcome cocktails and dinner on the Okari Deck overlooking the Indian Ocean as the sun dropped below the horizon. The final order of the day was an early call to bed!

Monday, May 6
Broome / Embark Coral Discoverer

We enjoyed a leisurely morning, allowing plenty of time to relax over breakfast, take a morning stroll along the beach, or simply take in the quiet ambiance of the resort’s many settings. After lunch, with bags packed and collected, we left the resort for an afternoon tour of Broome. Our first stop was Gantheaume Point where we walked a short distance to see stunning color contrasts between the aqua-blue Indian Ocean and the red sandstone boulders along the coastline. On the way we could see adult osprey calling to each other, their nest perched on the lighthouse tower. We drove a little further to visit a Japanese cemetery. Walking amongst the headstones was a somber reminder of the many Japanese pearl divers who died in this foreign land.

The township of Broome is well known for its pearling history. Broome pearls are highly sought for their beauty and perfection, with prices to match their status in the pearl market. We were dropped off at Streeter’s Jetty and walked up the street visiting several retail outlets selling beautiful pearls. Some of us wandered into the Roebuck Pub for a cool pint and a bit of local culture before we boarded our bus and headed to Matso’s, a local brewery and restaurant renowned for its beers, brandishing the inspired flavors of ginger, mango, and chili.

Our tour finished dockside where we boarded the Coral Discoverer to join our pre-extension companions. Between attending the safety drill and briefing, meeting our expedition staff and dinner, we unpacked and settled into our home for the next ten days.

Tuesday, May 7
Lacepede Islands

With the ship relocated just off Cable Beach our sleep was undisturbed until the early hours of the morning when the clanking anchor was raised and we headed northbound towards the Lacepede Islands. Following breakfast Liz Hadly began our lecture series with her presentation, Going to Gondwana: Tectonics of the Southern Hemisphere. Just as Liz finished, we found we had arrived at the Lacepede Islands situated some 25 nautical miles west of Beagle Bay on the Dampier Peninsula. The ship anchored in deeper waters and, after lunch, we boarded the Xplorer and headed for the 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 land. Although we did explore closer, we likewise resisted the temptation to land for fear of disturbing the breeding seabirds. Nevertheless, from the comfort of the Xplorer together with opportunities to get into the shallows on Zodiacs, we saw eastern reef egrets, pied and sooty oystercatchers, silver gulls, and a wide variety of terns masterfully flying on the wind’s currents or resting along the shoreline. There were hundreds of mature and immature brown and masked boobies. Circling overhead, several lesser frigatebirds waited to relieve the terns of their catch. Around us green turtles bobbed up briefly and shovel-nose rays swam in the shallows. These small islands are home to the largest colony of brown boobies in the world and has the fifth-largest colony of lesser frigate birds in the world.

Returning to the ship, we found afternoon tea before enjoying an afternoon nap. Mark Brazil provided our next lecture, What it Means to be a Seabird.

This evening we gathered for welcome cocktails on the top deck with the sky painted in sunset colors before returning downstairs to dine with Captain Gary Walsh.

Wednesday, May 8
Talbot Bay / Buccaneer Archipelago

Waking to the magnificent views of Talbot Bay, with Slug Island to one side and the ancient 1.8-billion-year-old metamorphic rock on the other, we had a quick breakfast before the first Zodiacs went out to race the Horizontal Falls at peak flow. Better than anything experienced at a fun park, the white-knuckled rides left us invigorated.

With the falling tide, water trapped behind two narrow gaps in the sandstone gorges of the McLarty Range pushes through, thus creating the horizontal falls phenomenon. Those of us awaiting our Zodiac rides were entertained by a 10-foot, octopus-eating, tawny nurse shark.

Once everyone had had their fill of wild Zodiac rides, we boarded the Xplorer for a more leisurely exploration of Cyclone Creek. Tony Baranosky provided an informative overview of the geological forces responsible for the formations we were looking at. This gave us our first up close look at the stunning geology of tilted and highly folded Pentecost sandstones and Elgee siltstone formations. Mangroves lined the water’s edge, which we scanned in vain for crocodiles. Striated herons kept a distance, hard to see as a consequence of their very effective camouflage. They wadded along the muddy shore, surely a tempting meal for smaller crocodiles. Opportunities to get closer in the Zodiacs provided a more intimate experience of the tidal creek environment.

Back on board for lunch, we took turns getting a bird’s eye view of the Horizontal Falls on tiny 4-seater helicopters; the rising tide now forcing water back through the two narrow gaps.

Once we were all back on board, Shirley Campbell gave her lecture, The Land is Our History: Indigenous Connections to Country. We had our first recap of the trip followed by dinner.

Thursday, May 9
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 gradually revealed the smoky red glow of the rising sun, and eventually a striated, red horizon. However, all around us another phenomenon was emerging as the tide fell; 154 square miles (400 square kilometers) 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 (10 meters) give way to seemingly rising reefs, leaving vast lagoons and sandy islets, once concealed by water. Water literally ‘falls’ from the emerging reef, cascading down stepped contours of the reef structure; the water shimmering in the morning sun. Green turtles, fish, and other sea creatures frantically escape with the rushing water into deeper channels. Finally, as the reef appeared, we were left sailing in a river between two ‘reef ranges.’ The hundreds of cascading falls attract migratory wading birds, feeding turtles, manta rays, and black-tipped reef sharks.

As we were leaving the reef, we were beckoned to a sand bar that had been revealed with the falling tide. Sandwiches and drinks were available for us to enjoy as we explored the little sand cay looking for interesting shells and other marine objects.

Back on board we had a lecture by Rich Pagen, The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water. During lunch, the ship repositioned for our excursion at Raft Point. We were ‘welcomed to country’ by representatives of the Worrorra people, Naila and Neil. Our faces were marked with red ochre as a sign of respect for their ancestors, and we scrambled from the beach up the escarpment, passing needle sharp spinifex and an ancient boab tree. Our destination was a magnificent rock shelter painted with fish and Wandjina ancestors. Neil told us about the site and of the people who lived here. Those wanting a more relaxed afternoon explored Steep Island from the Xplorer with Brad after being ‘welcomed to country’ on the beach. The beautiful, natural rock sculptures featured on the island captivated imaginations. Steep Island is part of the ‘Dreaming’ stories of this area. It is the culmination of the Cod storyline as she was chased by others jealous of her beauty. After being chased all along the coast from the Hunter River, she became trapped in the rock shelter, escaping only to stop just off shore, creating Steep Island.

Friday, May 10
Prince Frederick Harbour / Mitchell Falls

This morning we found ourselves anchored off Naturalist Island. The first group out were those on the Xplorer to visit the area at low tide. These were the perfect conditions for viewing mud skippers. There were sightings of crocodiles cruising along while we watched archerfish and small pufferfish alongside the Zodiacs. Brahminy kites flew overhead and reef egrets stalked the shoreline. Those waiting for their helicopter rides over the Mitchell Plateau to Mitchell Falls watched dragon-fly-like helicopters land on the nearby beach.

Throughout the day these ‘dragonflies’ transported us over the Mitchell Plateau to one of the most iconic and remote sites in Australia—Mitchell Falls—Punamii-Unpuu to the local Aboriginal people. Small groups had the opportunity to sit next to the open helicopter door, allowing for stunning views and photographs of the Mitchell Plateau. The Mitchell River snakes its way towards the mouth of Prince Frederick Harbour, cutting through the open scrub terrain featuring generous outpourings of basalt ridges and dolerite intrusions. 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 to dip one’s feet into one of the fresh water pools above the falls, framed by flowering water lilies and patrolled by scarlet dragonflies before our helicopter ride back to Naturalist Island.

In the afternoon the Xplorer took another group out to explore the mangrove ecosystem. Maneuvering through narrow channels, the Xplorer and Zodiacs were able to get us up close to see crocodiles, tawny nurse sharks, and snub-nose dolphins while white-bellied sea eagles perched on tree tops. One crocodile was curious enough to come close to the Zodiac, checking if it was competition for its territory or a late lunch! Finally, many of us got great photos of a crocodile-on-a-rock, mouth agape!

After a spectacular day we enjoyed an early recap and drinks on top deck before dinner.

Saturday, May 11
Vansittart Bay

Anchored in Vansittart Bay, the Xplorer transferred us to Jar Island, so named by Phillip Parker King because of pottery shards he found there; the remnants of Macassan visits. The island’s rock overhangs were once painted by Aboriginal caretakers some 18,000 years ago and more. Once known as Bradshaw figures, the paintings are now more generally known as gwion gwion (or gion gion, depending upon the language group). We visited three galleries, each unique in the breadth and content of the art, some probably much older than the gwion gwion! These were the infilled figures of animals—fish, echidnas, and wombats. Each of the galleries are located in quiet, sheltered spots leaving the art relatively fresh for all these years.

The Coral Discoverer relocated to Anjo Peninsula over lunch and dropped anchor. Again, boarding the Xplorer, we arrived on a sandy beach and walked up the dune and down into estuarine mudflats. As we walked along the crusty mudflat, we could see evidence of fiddler crabs, their little holes scattered everywhere. On the far side of the flats we entered savanna country to find an American DC3 that had crash landed here in 1942. The wreck was in remarkably good condition and we were relieved to know that all passengers and pilots had survived. Green ant nests hung from the branches of trees overhead and we spent some time watching the array of little birds. We saw yellow-tinted honeyeaters, banded honeyeaters, and striking red-headed honeyeaters. Peaceful doves entertained us on low branches as well an amongst the leaf litter. Some saw the mistletoe bird and white-breasted wood swallows. The highlight was four red-tail black cockatoos that flew over the mudflat, landing on bare branches and for great views of these beautiful birds. Returning to the beach, we looked back to where we had walked to see the sea encroaching once again over the flats.

The Coral Discoverer once again relocated to an anchorage off Woku Woku Island, near the Bougainville Peninsula. 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 mid-16th century looking for the prized trepang to supply a lucrative Chinese market. The weather had different plans for us this evening, however. The normally calm seas were ‘angry’ and the wind blustery. The Xplorer surfed its way towards the island, hoping for calmer weather. Perhaps we had offended a Wandjina at some stage? Reaching our destination, we went ashore and enjoyed a little walk amongst the boabs and a site where Macassans had once camped. Although the wind was somewhat calm in the lee of the island, the rain was not going to let us off lightly. Sprinkles turned into drops and with glasses of wine and champagne in our hands we reembarked the Xplorer for a wet and adventurous ride back to the Coral Discoverer. Back onboard, a warm shower readied us for dinner and an early night.

Sunday, May 12
King George River

Today, an early morning group of keen trekkers left the ship via Zodiacs and motored up the King George River towards the falls. The goal was a ‘survival of the fittest’ climb to the top of the escarpment above the waterfalls. Rewarded with fabulous views down the river, a very pleasant exploration ensued while birdsong provided the soundscape. We saw Merten’s water monitors and several of honeyeater species.

The remaining group made their way up the river on the Xplorer, marveling at the vertical, Lego-like sandstone cliffs rising 263 feet (80 m) above us. The fractured, orange cliffs and the fantastic sculptured erosion near the water level revealed the rocks' creamy pink interior together with amazing honeycomb patterns of fine purple lines, as if painted by a master artist. However, in this instance it was 1.8 billion-year-old sandstone, weathered through time, that had mastered this vision.

It was a cool, overcast morning, making the temperature tolerable, but not quite warm enough to entice us into a dunking under the falls. Despite the relatively small flow of water over the falls due to a particularly poor wet season from November to April, the force of the water in free fall over the ledge was enough to take your breath away! Nevertheless, we all cruised in Zodiacs around the falls, a family of tiny gray teal just tolerating our intrusion into their habitat.

After lunch on board, we visited Cape Rulhieres to explore the dunes. The sun was beginning to dominate the sky by the afternoon, warming the air temperature considerably. Some chose to beachcomb while others looked for birds.

Returning to the ship we joined Liz for her presentation, Weird and Wonderful: The Faunal Assembly of Australia while the ship set a course for our next destination.

Monday, May 13
Sterna Island / Bigge Island

A beautiful morning beckoned as we woke up in the Montesquieu Islands, at the mouth of the Admiralty Gulf. After breakfast we boarded the Xplorer and headed towards Sterna Island to look for nesting terns. Although there were terns on the wing, they did not seem inclined to land and did not appear ready to nest. However, we turned towards distant basaltic islands and found not only interesting geological basalt columns, but cormorants flying, or drying their wings around these rocky outposts.

Returning towards Sterna Island, we landed those who wanted onto a beach on a nearby island, while others got into Zodiacs for an exploration from the water. We watched a white-bellied sea eagle attempting to evade attacking osprey who were protecting their nest. Finally, the osprey won, seeing off a frustrated sea eagle. We also saw red-necked stints, red-cap plovers and ruddy turnstones.

Back on board, Merel Dalebout gave her lecture, An Introduction to the Plants of the Kimberley. After relocating to Bigge Island, we went ashore at Wary Bay. Some chose to clamber up the beach towards sandstone platforms, passing turtle nests dug into the sand. Towards the top we found a site formed by carefully placed stones in the shape of an oval. Here a wooden platform had once been placed, a corpse on top destined for decomposition. The elements quickly dealt with the flesh, leaving the bones to be collected, often painted with ochre and placed in secret crevices. A little further on we looked down onto an ancient ceremonial ground, once used by the traditional custodians of the island, the Uunguu people. From here we walked along the back of the dune, mangroves forming a barrier to the tidal bay. We all took our time looking at rock art painted onto sandstone walls at the back of the beach. We could make out fading Kariera heads, some looking out to sea. The Kariera look very similar to the Wandjina heads we had seen at Raft Point. But their story is different. These creator spirits had come from the northwest and brought with them monsoonal rains according to the Uunguu.

Our day finished with delightful cocktails after recap while we watched yet another beautiful Kimberley sunset. A few night owls stayed up past dinner to watch the screening of Jandamarra’s War, a movie-documentary depicting the real-life legend of one of the northwest’s resistance fighters.

Tuesday, May 14
Red Cone Creek / Nares Point

Today, the Coral Discoverer anchored off Red Cone Inlet. The steep sandstone structure for which the inlet is named stood silently behind a wall of mangroves, its imposing ‘red cone’ just visible as the morning gradually lit up with the rising sun. The sky was cloudless as we boarded the Xplorer and set out to get up close and personal with this mangrove-hugging estuarine environment. A classic intertidal saltwater system, the mudflats of the upper reaches are completely exposed at low tide. Those who wanted were able to sneak up smaller creeks by Zodiac. We saw sacred, azure and collared kingfishers, as well as Brahminy kites. There were huge mudskippers—bigger than anyone had ever seen—and we had several crocodile sightings. Throughout the morning people caught glimpses of the chestnut teal, one of the ‘big-ticket’ birds to see in the Kimberley! Perhaps the most memorable sights were the pensive reflections of ‘forests in the water,’ the mirror-like water reflecting the mangrove forest back at itself.

After lunch on board, Shirley gave her presentation, We Fought Back: Aboriginal Resistance and Activism, before we anchored at the southern end of Koolan Island.

In the late afternoon we set off again to explore the stunning geology of Yampi Sound. Here the collision between the Kimberley Plate and the Australian Plate is clearly displayed; the enormous forces of the earth bending, buckling, tilting, and uplifting the ancient iron ore-rich bedrock. Passing through the channel separating Koolan Island from the mainland, we saw the new sea wall built by Mount Gibson Iron so that they can recommence the extraction of high-grade iron ore from the island. In 2006 the company signed a co-existence agreement with the Dambimangari, the traditional custodians of the island. It is projected that within the month, operations at the mine will begin.

We then visited two of the western islands, Usborne and Cockatoo, to see the stunning geology, reflecting on both its prehistoric construction and its aesthetic beauty. We visited an archaeological site known as Koolan Caves 1 and 2 where human habitation dates back at least 30,000 years. The sun now low enough to draw the colors of this 1.8 billion-year-old stone out, we spent some time photographing Yampi Point before landing on a nearby beach, Nares Point, where spectacular bending and folding loomed nearby while we sipped drinks and watched the sun set.

Back on board we enjoyed a BBQ dinner on the top deck. As the evening transitioned into night we could see the Southern Cross directly above, the tip of the ‘kite’s’ tail pointing due south.

Wednesday, May 15
Hidden Island

Another beautiful morning greeted us as the ship anchored just off Hidden Island, a unique sandy beach made up of fine silica grains. It sounded like we were walking on fresh snow as we made our way up the beach to explore this new environment. Beachcombing or searching for birds, the location was perfect, the weather warm, and the sky a rich blue above the strikingly white sand. We saw striated pardalotes, a rainbow honeyeater, and willie wagtails. As we left the beach to explore more of the other islands, a very accommodating white-face heron perched on a rock ledge before flying off—photo shoot over! Touring the surrounding islands in the Xplorer one noticed how very different these rock formations were to what we had seen on the King George River. Instead of the Lego-like building blocks rising high into the sky, these were assembled in a mish-mash of jumbled sandstones, all different shapes and sizes jammed together in a seemingly haphazard way. Just before heading back to the Coral Discoverer a pod of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins graced us with a visit, feeding contently in the micro-currents all around us. It was a fitting farewell to the Kimberley.

Back on board, Merel gave her lecture, Europeans in the Kimberley, before lunch. Liz finished off our lecture series with her presentation, Australia in the Anthropocene. We had tours of the engine room and the galley together with another screening of Jandamara’s War. In the evening we enjoyed Captain Gary Walsh’s farewell cocktails and dinner.

Thursday, May 16
Broome

This morning was our last breakfast together. Shortly afterwards we split into two groups—one heading straight to the airport for onward flights, the other having the morning in Broome for a short tour and excursion to view pearl production. Finishing the tour, this group also arrived at the Broome airport for their onward flights. Many of our group continued to explore other parts of Australia while half the group met in Sydney at the Rydges Sydney Airport Hotel. We had a seamless check-in before gathering on the top floor for a light meal and refreshments. It was here that we said our final goodbyes, exchanged addresses, and promises of traveling together again.

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