Yawning gorges, indigenous art, and fire-cooked oysters await on a small-boat cruise along one of the world’s most pristine tropical shorelines.
Never mind the crocodiles: what you should be wary of up here in the Kimberley region is Bradshaw fever. This curious ailment can affect travelers almost instantly. If you’re like me, it might even settle in your heart and attach you to this rare and exotic land forever.
The “fever” is named for Joseph Bradshaw, an explorer and pioneering rancher from Melbourne whose 1891 expedition brought him to this wondrous and remote northern stretch of Western Australia. What enthralled him even more than the coastline’s great bronze-red walls of sandstone, extreme tidal flow, and pristine turquoise waters was the rock art of a style now referred to as Gwion Gwion. Bradshaw became, unwittingly, the first European to set eyes on this form of ancient indigenous painting, and he was mesmerized.
Gwion Gwion art, known to previous gener-ations of Australians as “Bradshaw paintings,” dates back between 17,000 and 24,000 years, long before the early Egyptians invented hieroglyphs. Hidden away in caves and crevices, the images portray striking details of a prehistoric world with elongated, elegant human forms wearing ceremonial headdresses and sashes, their bent arms holding digging sticks and boomerangs, alongside kangaroos and crocodiles. The details are more finely depicted than other Aboriginal rock art, and the colors are the maroon of dried blood, rich earthy-red ochers, deep oranges, and browns—a palette borrowed directly from the surrounding landscape.
Tim Willing, the man who jokingly informed me about Bradshaw fever, has a serious bout of it himself. The naturalist and unofficial host on board our boat, the Kimberley Quest II, he has worked in the Kimberley for over three decades, splitting his passions equally between botany and rock art. Indeed, it was Tim who discovered our trip’s first Gwion site, which we reach after a steep climb to a rock shelter overlooking the Prince Regent River. He spotted it, he says, while bird-watching from the deck of the newly launched Quest II back in 2006. After that encounter, I’m not the only passenger aboard who begins to scan the passing terrain in hopes of spotting another example of this ancient art. The fever is contagious. Every curlicue of ocher hints at an outline of an animal, every red-stained streak has the makings of those gracious figures. I scrutinize each rock face and crevice, and I know that I’ll never look at the landscape in quite the same way again.
Three decks high and cutting a fine figure against the cobalt-blue sky, the nine-cabin Kimberley Quest II was custom-built for exploring the region’s wild and unfathomably beautiful coastline. Thirteen other passengers and myself are on the cruise boat’s Southern Quest itinerary, which begins on the Hunter River—a chopper ride from the palm-spiked Mitchell Plateau—and ends eight days later in the pearling town of Broome.
Most Australians would tell you Broome is remote. The Kimberley Coast is something else again. But with the Quest II as our luxuriously appointed base—plus a jet boat and three smaller tenders that follow along behind like a row of ducklings—we are able to navigate rivers, creeks, and estuaries governed by some of the biggest tides in the world.
Each day brings not one adventure, but many. Our mornings begin at 6 a.m. with a beach visit, fishing jaunt, or birding excursion (with croc-spotting thrown in), followed by a walk to a freshwater swimming hole, a hike to a rock-art cave, or a scenic geological exploration. In the afternoons, when the boat gets underway again, the sundeck at the bow of the Quest II is the perfect spot for whale watching or taking in the passing landscapes. It’s also where passengers congregate for sundowners as we wait for the stars to appear in the night sky.
On a cool morning in Port Nelson, we set out in the tenders for a sheltered beach on Careening Bay, where a magnificent boab tree, its girth stretched and bulged with age, has HMC MERMAID 1820 writ large across its trunk. Tim explains that the Mermaid was a Royal Navy survey cutter that beached here for repairs in 1820 after springing a leak. The crew holed up in this fantastically remote bay for 19 days while the boat was being fixed and carved their vessel’s name into the bark of the young boab. Almost two centuries later, we’re standing here too—barefoot, far less brave, but completely awed.
Tim regales us with another intriguing story on a morning trip to Sheep Island. In this forlorn place, the tombstone of Mary Jane Pascoe, believed to be the first white woman to die in the Kimberley, is all that remains of an attempted settlement. In 1864, three boatloads of would-be settlers set sail from Melbourne equipped with 4,000 purebred merino sheep and the promise of good pastoral country, a laughable notion given that this red sandstone terrain barely produces enough spinifex for the resident rock wallabies. After a shipwreck, deaths by sunstroke, childbirth, and septicemia, and failed attempts to tame the savage land, the story ended nine months later back in Melbourne with one less ship, 10 less passengers, and but a single remaining sheep.
With little knowledge of the Kimberley’s wet and dry seasons and huge tides, it’s little wonder the expedition failed. Even today, with all its high-tech navigational systems, the Quest is at the mercy of the weather and tides. On this cruise, we are fortunate to encounter high tides and an extended wet season, which gives us access—above the crocodile-prone mangroves—to trails that lead to freshwater swimming holes.
At Camp Creek, we follow a gurgling stream along a tricky rock ledge, past spindly eucalyptus, and up over boulders to a natural plateau where a seemingly bottomless black circular pool has been carved into the surrounding amphitheater of dark, water-hewn rock. It’s a blissful still-water, a lull between two white foaming waterfalls, one tumbling in on us at one end, the other disappearing over the rock ledge next to the trail we’ve just climbed.
Another day at King Cascade, a steep climb turns into a pleasant walk along a waterway that is more lagoon than creek, with tiered ponds overflowing into one another. The swimming hole is like a desert oasis, edged in lush green screw pines and young leafy eucalyptus, with emerald lily pads floating in wait for itinerant frogs. We lie like nymphs on flat submerged rocks as the water flows around us.
One night, we light a bonfire on a wide white beach, sitting in deckchairs as the tide and the sun slip away and leave us gazing upon a star-washed sky. Tim finds a giant nautilus shell among the mangroves, the kind you only see in luxury bathrooms. In the embers of the fire, the Quest’s chef, Toby Price, cooks fresh-plucked rock oysters in their gnarly black shells. When they’re hot, the steam forces the shell open enough to be shucked. We slurp them down warm, with a squeeze of lime, the salt of the sea still lingering.
Horizontal Falls—a fast-moving tidal flow through two narrow gorges—is one of the most popular attractions in the Kimberley, and rightly so. But I prefer the crowd-free drama of Montgomery Reef, whose remote coral-capped limestone appears to rise from the water as the tide drops. It’s a natural phenomenon whereby the water atop the reef never fully empties as the tide goes down. When you’re in a tender next to it, the effect is of a lunar landscape emerging from the ocean, its crevices and creases streaming with water that pummels the sea in a meringue-white wash. Stay around long enough and you’ll see greenback turtles jettisoned along in the currents. It’s David Attenborough stuff.
And then there’s other rock art, too. As is common with Aboriginal painting, the older Gwion Gwion have often been overlaid by later styles like the brilliant Wanjina, painted in the past 3,500 years and still practiced by indigenous artists today. At Raft Point, we take an uphill walk to Ngumbrui Wanjina Cave. Sitting under the rock shelf, we’re surrounded by these more abstract Wanjina spirits, white-faced, big-eyed, and mouthless with decorative rainbow-shaped headdresses. And they’re letting us share this magical view with them.
Back on land in Broome, I’m still feeling the effects of Bradshaw fever. Or perhaps it’s another strain. Wanjina fever? Kimberley fever? The only remedy, I’m certain, is to return.
Kimberley Quest offers eight different cruise itineraries from May through October, the region’s dry season. Prices for the eight-day Southern Quest cruise from Hunter River to Broome (or vice versa) start at about US$8,370 per person for a double cabin.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Cruising the Kimberley Coast”).