Dr. Terry Done is a marine biologist and coral reef researcher formerly at James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), where he progressed through the ranks of Research Scientist until his retirement in 2007. He has been an advisor to governments in Australia, the United States, and Indonesia on coral reef science and management, and he has written over 80 scientific papers with a focus on coral reefs, including their ecology, processes of reef growth, effects of fishing and pollution, and the effects of global climate change. His first Kimberley cruise, with Zegrahm in 2000, ignited passions that he has researched and shared with guests each year since.
I would like a dollar for every time I’ve heard a guest on Zegrahm’s journey to Australia’s Kimberley say, “Yesterday was so incredible, there’s no way today could be just as great…but it was!” Multiply that by 10 for each day of the cruise, and that just about sums up Australia’s Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback.
Imagine this: you gaze up at sunlit orange cliffs towering 250 feet above you, as you cruise across their unbelievably golden reflections on mirror calm waters; and your guide informs you these cliffs are almost 2,000 million years old—almost half the age of the Earth itself! Think of the skyscrapers of a post-Apocalyptic Park Avenue in New York City, with tiny you walking along, and you get some idea of the feeling of this place. The shattered, teetering squarish blocks that make up the cliffs, like so many stacked city apartments, look ready to topple at any moment; though comforted by the talk of millions of years, you know you are safe and secure down in the Coral Discoverer’s Xplorer excursion boat or a Zodiac. As you get up close to the cliff’s ornate salt-and-sea-sculpted waterline, you see that the interiors of these orange sandstone rocks are pink-and-mauve striped, creamy in color. This single day is just a tiny vignette of a small part of the amazing geological story of Kimberley’s inspirational coastline.
On other days, a few hundred miles south, we see places where these same sandstone strata have been tilted on their sides, bent into wavelike formations with peaks and valleys separated in some places by a mile or more, others by just inches or feet. The scenery here is equally stunning, to be observed and appreciated for the sheer beauty of the juxtaposition of sea, sky, vegetation, and rock. On these days, in answer to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions that come to mind, we learn we are at a place where the Kimberley—once a separate geological block—collided with the rest of Australia, generating incredible heat and pressure, and tilted and folded these rocks ever so slowly over millions and millions of years. Mountains higher than the Rockies were pushed up, and all we see today are their truncated stumps that remain.
But it’s not just the rocks! Imagine a 40-foot tide squeezing itself through narrow passes in this rocky shore, and you get what the locals call ‘the horrors,’ short for Horizontal Waterfalls, but also an allusion to the thrilling Zodiac ride through one of the two gaps where we get to see this phenomenon. Imagine, too, a giant tropical reef just offshore that disappears beneath these tides each day, and from which the water cascades for hours and hours as the tide falls to its lowest ebb. Obligingly, Mother Nature has provided a long inlet into this reef where we get to take the Xplorer and Zodiacs to see—and feel!—up close, the force of hundreds of waterfalls and cascades coursing off the reef. But these forces of nature are not the whole story of this reef; the inlet is frequented by lots of turtles and the reef is frequented by shore birds of many types, feeding on crabs and small fishes among the corals, algae, and sponges that clothe the reef.
For us, this reef is a phenomenal spectacle and a highlight of our trip; for the local Aboriginal people of the Worrorra tribe, it is a traditional fishing and hunting area. We get to spend time with the Worrorra people, who tell us about their lives and the history and symbolism in their living art, refreshed on the rocks by esteemed tribal elders and reproduced on canvas for sale. And we learn of much older art—as old as any known rock art on Earth—which we get to see in other regions of the Kimberley.
Add to the wonder and fascination of rocks, art, and wildlife sightings a cool swim in a beautiful freshwater stream, dressing up for sunset drinks, a five-star evening meal, and voila—so ends another great day in the Kimberley.