In most parts of the world, if you want to see a coral reef you have to strap on a mask and tank and dive below the waves. Not off Australia’s Kimberley Coast. There, if you get the timing right, you can watch from a Zodiac as the Montgomery Reef rises out of the water in front of your eyes.
OK, it’s an optical illusion, and in fact the tide is falling. But it goes down so far and so fast (the tidal range in the Kimberley is up to 12 metres) that it creates gushing waterfalls and leaves sea turtles and other marine life scrambling for cover as reef sharks come looking for lunch.
That’s just one of the many highlights on a thrilling Australian voyage between Broome and Darwin that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Forget relaxing on the top deck of a ship while sipping a cocktail; this is an action-packed adventure filled with “Only in the Kimberley” experiences that vary each day. You’ll be climbing waterfalls, exploring by helicopter, marvelling at ancient Aboriginal rock art, and seeking out “salties”, the Aussie term for the mean saltwater crocodiles that lurk beneath the waves and on the shoreline in this region.
Needless to say, a good degree of mobility is needed for this cruise.
The Kimberley is remote, even by Australian standards. It covers an area almost twice the size of the UK but has a population of only 40,000 people (and probably at least as many beef cattle). There are very few roads, and even these become impassable in the “wet”, between November and April, when up to 50 inches of rain falls.
As much of the coast is still uncharted, only intrepid cruise lines venture into these waters. Silversea’s expedition ship, Silver Muse, will be continuing different sailings to the Australian Kimberley Coast next year.
Whichever Silversea sailing you choose, you won’t miss out on any of the exciting activities that are exclusive to this part of the world (all of them will take you to Montgomery Reef, for example).
Another treat to look forward to is a fast boat ride on the Horizontal Falls in Talbot Bay. Dubbed one of the greatest natural wonders in the world by no less an authority than Sir David Attenborough, the falls are at their raging best when the region’s 12-metre tide starts to drop, forcing millions of gallons of water through narrow gaps in the sandstone cliffs. Get the timing right and you are guaranteed a white-water thrill that is second to none.
Even bird-watching gets a unique twist in the Kimberley. Take a Zodiac along the Hunter River and you’ll find the mangroves thick with sea eagles, herons, goshawks… and salties. These reptiles are so fearsome that you are not even allowed to put your hands in the water in case you attract unwanted attention.
Once you’ve got a taste for white water, check out the Mitchell Falls, a sequence of four cascades that tumble down from the Mitchell Plateau. Getting there is an adventure in itself, via a 20-minute ride in a helicopter that has no doors. Never mind Crocodile Dundee – your adventure cruise has suddenly turned into a James Bond movie.
The twin King George Falls are even more impressive as the waters thunder some 260 feet down the side of a red sandstone cliff. Fleet-footed guests can scramble up a rocky path to the top of the falls – a steep climb but worth every aching muscle to look down through the gorge to the ocean. Better still, this is croc-free territory (they can’t make the climb) so you can relax and cool off in the rock pools.
And still the experiences keep coming, this time adding a cultural and historical angle to the trip. From Raft Point, a 45-minute walk uphill brings you to an Aboriginal rock-art gallery that depicts ghostlike “Wandjina” figures with white faces, no mouths and huge staring eyes.
There is more rock art on Jar Island – this time “Gwion Gwion” figures believed to be some 50,000 years old. The wreck of a Second World War US transport plane is another unexpected find hidden in the wilderness.
As there are few settlements on the coast between Broome and Darwin, most landings are made by Zodiac. The exception is at Wyndham, a port town founded in 1886 on the back of a local gold rush. In its heyday, the town played host to thousands of miners headed for the Halls Creek gold fields, but the boom lasted no more than a couple of years, and by 1888 the town’s fortunes were in decline. Today’s cruise ships would pass it by too – except that it makes the perfect dropping-off point for flights over the Bungle Bungles.
As improbable as their name suggests, these extraordinary beehive-shaped sandstone formations, in stripes of orange, grey and black, rise some 250 metres out of the grasslands in the Purnululu National Park.
An aerial view will give you some idea just how empty this land is, but if you still can’t quite get your head around its remoteness, try this: the Bungle Bungles are 350 million years old, and have been known to the Aboriginals since time immemorial. But they were only brought to the wider world’s attention when they were “discovered” in 1983 by a TV crew.
Yet another “Only in the Kimberley” experience that you miss at your peril.
Get on Board
For more information on Silversea cruises, visit silversea.com.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2017. It has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.