King George Falls

Australia's Kimberley

Shirley Campbell|June 29, 2018|Field Report

Thursday, May 17, 2018
Darwin, Australia

We all arrived safely, some a little later than expected, to a cool Darwin. The capital city of the Northern Territory was in the grip of what locals call a “deep freeze” with temperatures only 75ᵒF; usually it is 90ᵒF! Once settled into our rooms the excitement of what was ahead began to break through the fatigue of long-distance travel. A welcome drink and a shared dinner was our first encounter with fellow travelers.

Friday, May 18
Darwin / Embark Coral Discoverer

It was a cool, 50ᵒF morning that greeted early risers when about twenty boarded a coach for the drive to Corroboree Billabong, about 74 miles (120 km) to the east of Darwin on the Mary River floodplain. Local guide Karen pointed out the sights along the way as the surroundings changed from small-city-scape through suburban sprawl, hobby farms, and mango plantations before reaching the flat, scrubby countryside. On the hour-long cruise on the billabong, we saw lots of waterbirds and several crocodiles, including one freshwater crocodile and one fat monster of an estuarine crocodile hauled up on the shore! It must have been over 13 feet in length. Too soon we were back on the bus for a short trip to the Window to the Wetlands interpretative center, which has great displays about the wetland habitats, plants, and creatures, a great view over the Adelaide River, and an excellent movie about the local landscapes, customs, and ecology. Next stop was Fogg Dam for a water lilies photo-op highlights were glimpses of a kingfisher and a flock of green pygmy geese. Our appetites suitably stimulated, we stopped off at the Humpty-Doo Pub for one of the biggest lunches many of us had ever tackled. Options included water-buffalo, crocodile, and barramundi with healthy delights such as fat French-fries and white bread rolls. While we dozed, driver Tony piloted us back to Darwin.

 The rest of the group had a later departure for a tour of the city. After a drive through historic Darwin, our first stop was the splendid George Brown Botanic Gardens. An enormous carpet python decorated a huge branch overhanging the walkway. Wary to approach, we learned that it was harmless, only an imitation python. Our guide led us along a lovely path, stopping at points of interest. After a lovely lunch at the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Club, we traveled along Fannie Bay to East Point Lookout with fabulous views back to Darwin before visiting the Darwin Military Museum with a heavy emphasis on the bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942. Darwin was bombed 64 times over a two-year period in the war of the Pacific.

 Both groups visited the impressive Darwin Museum and Art Gallery. Despite being only a remote little city in the Northern Territory, this is an exceptional museum and art gallery celebrating Aboriginal art, the history of the region, as well as home to splendid displays of the natural habitat of the Top End.

Our final stop was at the Indo-Pacific Marine Centre where we spent some time looking at a coral reef exhibit before making the final ten-minute drive to the Coral Discoverer moored along Forts Hill Wharf. Unpacking, we settled into our home for the next ten days at sea. To celebrate our first night, the kitchen crew had prepared a delicious seafood buffet.

Saturday, May 19
Tiwi Islands

Our first morning on board found us waking in Apsley Bay off Bathurst and Melville Islands. After breakfast we embarked the Xplorer and headed for the little settlement of Wurrumiyanga. 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 heading 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 for 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 painting of shells. 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!

 After lunch Shirley Campbell presented her discussion of Tiwi culture in, The Tiwi. This was followed by Chris Done and his presentation, Concentrated Kimberley.

Sunday, May 20
King George River

Still sailing in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, we looked out over white caps as we enjoyed breakfast. Terry Done continued our education of the Kimberley with his presentation, Kimberley Coast: Behind the Scenery.

Once we were finally anchored in Koolama Bay, walkers set out in Zodiacs in the late morning and headed up the King George River. It was pretty windy and wet to start off with, but soon settled down once within the protection of the gorge. Seven-and-a-half miles (12 kilometers) upriver the renowned falls came into view. As a group we clambered and panted up a steep, rocky incline to the plateau above to find exquisite views back along the river. Visiting the smaller falls, we sat and had lunch on a rock ledge. Crossing the river to the larger falls we walked further up the river to find a safe swimming spot. Enthusiastically, we stripped and waded in the coolness of the river and washed away the sweat from our exertions. Returning down the gully we had scaled earlier, chilled beer welcomed us as we celebrated our first day in the Kimberley!

Non-walkers had lunch on board before embarking the Xplorer and heading up the river. An osprey’s nest was pointed out just as we entered the river’s mouth.

As we traveled up the river, the breathtaking beauty of the gorge, carved by the King George River, unfolded. 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. Close to the water we were looking at rock that was 1.8 billion years old! As we neared the falls, we took in the spectacular golden-orange vista of the cliffs and their reflected glory on the bright blue of the river. Closer to the falls the vertical, Lego-like sandstone rose 263 feet (80 meters) into the sky. It was time for an up-close experience with the falls. Zodiacs took the willing for a wet encounter, the water pelting down to take your breath away!

 Back on board, it was time to get the glad rags on and join Captain Nathan Clark for cocktails and dinner.

Monday, May 21
Jar Island, Anjo Peninsula / Woku Woku Island

Anchored in Vansittart Bay, the Xplorer carried us to Jar Island, named by Phillip Parker King because of pottery shards he found there; the remnants of Macassan sailors’ visits. The island’s rock overhangs were once painted by Aboriginal caretakers some 17,000 years ago. The paintings, once known as Bradshaw figures, are now more generally known as gwion gwion art (or gion gion, depending upon the language group). We visited three galleries, each unique in the breadth and content of the art, some possibly older than the gwion gwion! These were the infilled figures of animals; fish, echidnas, and wombats. Each of the galleries is located in a quiet, sheltered spot leaving the art relatively fresh even after 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 flats. As we walked along the crusty flats little fiddler crabs, some with ‘ginormous’ claws, scuttled back into little holes as we approached. 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 the pilot survived. Green ant nests hung from the branches of trees while termite mounds littered the savanna itself. Returning to the beach, we looked back to where we had walked to see the ocean encroaching once again over the flats. We saw osprey flying overhead and an Australian white ibis, together with eastern reef egrets, feeding near the rising tide. Beachcombing along the white sand, many of us found treasures before heading back to the ship.

The Coral Discoverer once again relocated to 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-17th century, looking for the prized trepang to supply a lucrative Chinese market. Combing through the sand dunes and spinifex grasses 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 lighting on the surrounding islands and a stand of boab trees to one side of the beach. We toasted the sunset and Macassan remains with a glass of champagne before returning to the ship.

Tuesday, May 22
Sterna Island / Bigge Island

Another cool morning greeted us as we boarded the Xplorer for a relatively windy ride to Sterna Island. An important site for breeding seabirds, Sterna is part of the Montesquieu 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 eagerness to breed. A sea eagle flushed the breeding birds from their nests, affording breathtaking views of a sky filled with silver and white wings beating furiously. As the winds picked up we were prevented from landing on a nearby island, instead returning to the ship as our Xplorer captain, Brian, tried to maneuver the tender onto the ship.

Back early, we enjoyed a lecture by Luke Preece, Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science for Northern Australian Conservation Impact before lunch.

In the afternoon we went to Wary Bay on Bigge Island. Once ashore some chose to clamber up the beach towards sandstone platforms, passing turtle nests dug into the sand. Towards the top we found a burial site made up of a line of carefully placed stones in the shape of an oval. Here a wooden platform would be placed on top with the deceased. 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 Uunguu people. We walked along the back of the dune and along the mangroves to the far side of the bay where we looked into sandstone erosions. We all took our time looking at Wandjina rock art painted onto sandstone walls at the back of the beach. We could make out fading Kariera/Wandjina heads, some looking out to sea. This is also an important site for post-contact art depicting European cutters, Macassan vessels, and portraits of people smoking pipes. We returned to the ship via magnificent sandstone formations, naturally carved into a variety of shapes, our imaginations conjuring up all manner of creatures. Our day finished with delightful cocktails on the top deck while watching yet another Kimberley sunset.

Wednesday, May 23
Prince Fredericks Harbour / Winyalkan (Naturalist) Island / Mitchell Plateau

Today was helicopter day! In small groups we flew over the Hunter River and then the Mitchell Plateau in open-door helicopters affording uninterrupted views across the savanna. 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. Helicopters landed us at Mitchell Falls where a short walk over water-worn sandstone led to fabulous views of the iconic three-tiered falls. The more adventurous walked further to get the view of the four falls. For those wanting to cool off there was an opportunity to swim in the lovely water of the Mitchell River. Flying over this country we had an enhanced feeling of its remoteness and the beauty of this ancient land. There were excellent views of Little Mitchell Falls on the way to the major falls and Great Merton Falls.

Morning and afternoon cruises in the Xplorer kept those waiting for their helicopter rides busy. The Xplorer took us around the back of Winyalkan Island up the Hunter River and into a little creek where we poked among the mangroves. Lots of fiddler crabs scuttled in the wet mud amongst many mudskippers. We could hear the brown honey-eaters singing in the mangroves. Various spottings of crocodiles thrilled onlookers and snub-fin dolphins entertained some. Reef egrets, striated herons, and an osprey’s nest were highlights.

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

Thursday, May 24
Careening Bay / Raft Point

The tides were right this morning 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, for careening. An important exploration duty was to mark each of his landings to ensure that foreign interests would be dissuaded from claiming parts of this British colony. He dutifully 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 and the historic inscriptions still visible on its trunk. Long may it survive the rigors of its environment! At the top of the beach was a lovely stand of purple mulla mulla (Ptilotus exultata). Along the wet sand we could see spotted quoll and hermit crab tracks.

Returning to the ship, we joined Shirley for her lecture, The Land is our History: Indigenous Relations to Country. After lunch we watched the dramatized documentary, Jandamara’s War.

Later in the afternoon the ship dropped us adjacent to Langgi, a sacred site for the Worrorra people. As the Xplorer nudged into the site we could see eroded limestone pillars jutting out of the sand. These are the petrified shapes of the Wandjina warriors. Shirley told us the story of Namarali and his battle with the other two Wandjina of the area. Together with their warriors, these three Wandjina fought a fierce battle here, evidenced by the now silent warriors. We continued along the coastline traveling west towards Freshwater Cove. Eroded sandstone gave way to spinifex and savanna land as we neared the cove, an ancient campsite for the Worrora and now a place to bring troubled youth and reunite them with their culture.

As we continued, we could see a huge smoke bank ahead, clear evidence of a burning that had got out of control. We slightly diverted to Lizard Island and saw boabs and Caspian terns before continuing to Steep Island, or Umbri as the Worrorra know it. By now smoke choked the skies, a blood red sun was trying to warm the end of the day but instead cast a deep red glow over Umbri Island and Raft Point. We just got to the ship just in time to rush to the top deck for drinks and a view of the landscape turning to ‘flame’ in the sunset.

Friday, May 25
Red Cone Creek / Montgomery Reef

The Coral Discoverer anchored off Red Cone Inlet. The steep sandstone structure for which the inlet is named stood silently, imposing its ‘red cone’ over the still waters of the Timor Sea. Walking out from breakfast we boarded the Xplorer and set out to explore this mangrove-hugging estuarine environment. Those who wanted were able to get closer on Zodiacs. We saw sacred and collared kingfishers, striated herons, brahminy kites, mudskippers, a great bowerbird flitting in some upper branches. Perhaps the most memorable sights were the pensive reflections of ‘forests in the water.’ The morning was cool but still, leaving the water mirror-like. It was hard to distinguish what was real and what was an illusion. As we returned to the ship a huge estuarine crocodile was spotted sunning in a little creek. We all had good, close-up views of this descendant of an ancient species.

On returning to the ship we had a lecture from Luke, Developing Northern Australia’s Ecosystem Services Markets.

Later in the afternoon we were back on the Xplorer heading out to observe a very unusual phenomenon at Montgomery Reef. A receding tide at the south-western end of Camden Sound reveals a submerged reef covering an area of approximately 154 square miles (400 square kilometers). The reef seemingly ‘rises’ from the surface of the sea with torrents of 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. We saw a plethora of reef egrets, both white and gray morphs, green turtles, a sea eagle, and corals clinging to life in this challenging environment. Many saw a crocodile close to the ‘mouth’ of one of the hundreds of cascades. It sat on the bottom, unafraid as our Zodiacs continually repositioned to get good views.

 As we headed out of the system, little terns fed in shallow waters. An exposed sandbar made a perfect setting for a bar serving chilled drinks. Returning to the ship we enjoyed yet another spectacular sunset on the top deck before descending for dinner. 

Saturday, May 26
Talbot Bay / Yampi Sound

The Xplorer set out early this morning for an exploratory cruise to see the unique and world-renowned Horizontal Falls during slack water. While we waited for the outgoing tide, we headed up Cyclone Creek to marvel at the fabulously old geology exposed on the rising slopes. This gave us our first close up look at the stunning geology of 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. Striated herons kept a distance, hard to see with their very effective camouflage as they waded along the muddy shore, surely a tempting meal for smaller crocodiles. Some of us were lucky enough to spot a short-eared rock wallaby as it scampered along the rocks to escape our gaze.

Returning to the ship, several crustacean-eating tawny nurse sharks were cruising off the back deck waiting for easy handouts. Other visitors to the area feed these gentle giants, however, it is of no benefit to the sharks as it disturbs their natural foraging habits. Groups boarded Zodiacs for the opportunity to experience hair-raising rides through the Horizontal Falls. The falling tide forces water out of the two inner ‘lakes’ through narrow passages creating the phenomenon of horizontal waterfalls. What a difference a few hours make in this land of massive tidal range!

As we sailed further west towards Yampi Sound we enjoyed lunch on the top deck past Slug Island. Later, Terry Done presented us with his lecture, Phillip Parker King: Legendary Explorer of the Kimberley Coast.

In the later 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. We visited two of the western islands, Usborne and Cockatoo Islands, to see the stunning geology up close, reflecting on both its prehistorical construction and its aesthetic beauty. Crystal-clear waters enabled views of a beautiful coral reef under us. We saw a ‘soup’ of medusas, tiny juvenile jellyfish. We visited an archaeological site known as Koolan Caves 1 and 2 where human habitation dates back at least 30,000 years. We also saw the Koolan Mine site from the Xplorer where iron ore had been extracted in recent times. It was decommissioned a few years ago because of dropping prices for iron ore. We finished our cruise at Nares Point where spectacular bending and folding loomed nearby as we sipped drinks and watched our last sunset in the Kimberley proper.

Sunday, May 27
Lacepede Islands

The ship was surrounded by curious brown boobies as we awoke this morning. They continued to investigate as we set off for the Lacepede Islands. After spending a few minutes on the outside of these low sandy cays the Xplorer worked its way through a narrow channel separating two of the cays. 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. Nevertheless, from the comfort of the Xplorer and with opportunities to get up closer on Zodiacs, we saw many brown boobies flying overhead and others resting on the island with fluffy white chicks nestled close to their parent. Common noddies, silver gulls, and pied oystercathers also jostled with each other for beachfront real estate. A variety of terns masterfully flew on the wind’s currents while hundreds more settled on the soft sand. Caspian, lesser-crested, and little terns seemed more delicate against the larger boobies. Lesser frigatebirds, waiting to relieve the terns of their catch, flew in the upper air column. Around us green turtles bobbed up briefly and tiny black-tip sharks swam in the shallows together with shovel-nose rays. These small islands are home to the largest colony of brown boobies in the world and the fifth or sixth largest colony of lesser frigatebirds in the world.

Returning to the ship for lunch we set sail for Broome. After lunch, Chris gave his presentation, Kimberley Wildlife after lunch, followed soon after with a screening of Rabbit-Proof Fence.

This evening we enjoyed cocktails on the top deck before returning to the dining room for the captain’s dinner. After dinner Terry thrilled us with his slide show depicting memorable images of our trip. We had traveled from Darwin to Broome, covering 1018.6 nautical miles and saw nine Kimberley sunsets.

Monday, May 28
Broome / Disembark

This morning was the 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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