This blog originally appeared on The Nature Conservancy.
James Fitzsimons is Director of Conservation for the Australia Program of the world’s largest global conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy. He oversees the organization’s conservation planning, science and policy functions for all of Australia. He was thrilled to develop his sea legs and travel with his wife Janelle and new friends and fellow adventurers as part of Zegrahm’s Australia’s Kimberley expedition team. Safely back on dry land, here James shares some thoughts on the trip.
The Kimberley coast of northwest Australia is such an amazing place.
The scenery—and the constancy of that scenery—is the thing that never ceases to surprise or amaze me. The rocky cliffs, escarpments, and outcrops result from sediments laid down over many millennia which have been spectacularly raised, tilted, and contorted. These are some of the oldest rocks on Earth. The rich ochres, creams, and pinks of the outcrops contrast against the unspoilt aqua-coloured waters of the Indian Ocean. The intense green fringe separating the two represents extensive mangrove forests. Then there are the beaches and islands …
Exploring this part of the world is only possible by boat. There are few roads in the Kimberley and even fewer to the coast. While I travel to the Kimberley region semi-regularly, it is usually inland. Traveling with Zegrahm Expeditions Australia’s Kimberley on the Coral Discoverer, and the associated Coral Explorer and Zodiacs, allowed access to pristine wild places most Australians would never have been.
Although at times elusive, wildlife was plentiful. Five disturbingly large but relatively harmless tawny nurse sharks, lounging around at the end of the Coral Discoverer wanting an easy feed of mussels and barnacles off the ship was a highlight. At Montgomery Reef, green turtles in all directions popped their heads up, and just as quickly down, like a game of Whac-a-mole. Seabirds were a plenty at the Lacepede Islands, Montgomery Reef, and Montesquieu group of islands. On the escarpments, monjons and short-eared rock-wallabies scuttled precariously along rockfaces, well-camouflaged white-quilled rock-pigeons were best seen when taking flight with their exaggerated flapping and striking white wing patch, while sandstone shrike-thrushes were heard far more often than they were seen.
Taking the chopper flight from the coast to Mitchell Falls brought home the vastness of the Kimberley and, indeed, tropical savannas of northern Australia. Natural landscapes as far as the eye can see.
Traveling in such a remote and beautiful part of the world, one might not anticipate how important people are in the landscape. Aboriginal people have been in the Kimberley for at least 50,000 years and have helped shaped it through practices such as the deliberate application of fire for hunting and cultural purposes. Traditional fire management, applied early in the dry season, helps prevent large, damaging late season wildfires. The greenhouse gas emissions abated by traditional burning enables Aboriginal groups to earn ‘carbon credits’ and receive payment for selling these credits, paying for critical land management.
We met Robyn, a Wororra woman, who, after applying ochre to our faces and overseeing a smoking ceremony to welcome us to her country, took us to a cave near Freshwater Cove. There, paintings of Wandjinas—supreme beings that created the country and distinctive to this section of the Kimberley—adorned the overhang along with paintings of fish and a whirlpool. There are thousands of these rock art sites in the Kimberley, each with their own long history.
In preparing for the trip and while traveling, I felt proud of the decade of assistance The Nature Conservancy has been able to bring to transform the conservation landscape of the Kimberley. From new private protected areas on former pastoral stations, to new marine parks, to the development of Healthy Country Plans and the declaration of six large Indigenous Protected Areas. There are still many challenges, such as the ongoing decline of northern Australia’s mammal species, but with new models of sustainable financing, such as carbon farming through savanna burning, which we have helped establish, I am confident for the future. This is why I consider the Kimberley in many ways to be a conservation beacon in Australia.
I felt privileged to be able to see this spectacular country again, and to be able to share my knowledge and the work that The Nature Conservancy is doing to help conserve it, for both people and nature.