Vast and unforgiving — yet utterly beguiling — The Kimberley is one of Australia’s last true wildernesses. Not sure how to experience the best of the west? This is our essential guide to exploring The Kimberley in three incredible ways.
It spans about 423,000 square kilometres of untamed coastline, ancient burntorange gorges and mighty rivers, covering the top of Western Australia from the Great Sandy Desert in the south to the wild Timor Sea up north. For more than 40,000 years, the Kimberley’s traditional owners have lived with the land, their history and culture etched on caves and rock faces. Since arriving in the late 1800s, Europeans have tried to tame the formidable terrain with cattle stations, agriculture, mines and dams.
The Kimberley seesaws between two distinct climatic seasons: a six-month spell of hot, dry weather between May and October (the Dry) and oppressive humidity and downpours from November to April (the Wet). The former is peak tourist season but travellers who brave the unpredictability of the latter are rewarded with dramatic lightning storms, thundering waterfalls and an explosion of flora.
There are two main access points to the region – Broome on the west coast and Kununurra near the Northern Territory border – and three ways to explore it: an expedition-style coastal cruise, epic road trip or lodge-based safari. As for the highlights, too many to count...
My bum is getting wet. To be honest, that would usually bother me but I’m distracted. You see, a massive chunk of Australia – 400 square kilometres, to be precise – is currently emerging from the ocean and it’s not something you see every day. The circling egrets knew Montgomery Reef was about to appear but the fish flapping on the algae-slimed sandstone weren’t fast enough (hence the egrets). Me and my shipmates? We have no real idea what’s going on; we’re just transfixed by the whole gobsmacking phenomenon.
Twice a day in Australia’s north-west, the tide drops as much as a whopping 11 metres, revealing this, the world’s largest inshore reef. With the sinking of the tide, the rock wall gets “higher”, sending water, stranded turtles, reef sharks and sea snakes cascading down its craggy fissures. My bum is wet because it’s perched on the side of a Zodiac inflatable and the ride out here – the reef is 20 kilometres off the Kimberley coast – was a little choppy.
And that’s what sets a cruise in Western Australia’s Kimberley region apart from many others. It’s not about supersized vessels with waterslides, a dozen restaurants and nightly ABBA tribute shows. It’s not about vast casinos and glass lifts. It’s not about 24-hour pampering. It’s about exploring and learning and taking baby steps out of your comfort zone. But make no mistake, there are ways to do those things that are very comfy indeed.
Kimberley cruising options range from 12-passenger former pearl luggers, such as Kimberley Pearl, to the purpose-built and ever-popular True North and expedition cruise ships like Silversea’s Silver Explorer. The vessel from which I boarded my Zodiac (pretty much every day involves an inflatable ride or two) is Le Laperouse, a 131-metre expedition ship operated by the French cruise line Ponant but chartered for this voyage — and a repeat next year — by renowned luxury travel outfit Abercrombie & Kent. The ship has Scandi-sleek cabins with balconies, two restaurants (one of them fine-dining) and many of the features of larger vessels, albeit downsized. Importantly, there’s a small swimming pool because it’s hot outside and as inviting as that turquoise sea is, the crocodiles got there first.
The vessels may differ in age and size but much of what you’ll see on your voyage – from Montgomery Reef to the rock walls that line the mighty King George River – started life some two billion years ago. Though some of the smaller cruise vessels can navigate the river all the way to the twin cascades of King George Falls, we zoom down on Zodiacs (my initial apprehension about the Navy SEAL-style transport turned into eager anticipation about two days in). Today, after an abnormally dry “Wet” season, there are no falls but we can see where they’ve been. Blackened by time and thunderous water, the 100-metre sandstone cliff towers above us, a sunlit sentinel as we soak up the rays and, ahem, sip Mimosas (no judgement: I said you could do this in comfort).
But it’s in the Lacepede Islands, lowlying cays where green sea turtles and seabirds go to nest, that the quiet beauty of offshore Kimberley lands like a thump on your heart. Out here, seabirds wheel in slow motion across an aquamarine canvas, hovering above us before landing on the ribbon of land that delineates a sky and sea that seem to bleed into each other.
Out here, it helps to be in the company of a bird nerd, in this case naturalist Rich Pagen, a member of A&K’s team of experts that includes a geology lecturer, marine biologist and scientist/filmmaker. The experts double as Zodiac drivers so questions about what you’re looking at (“Why are the rocks layered like that?” “Where are these birds going next?”) get an immediate response, like a human Google in the middle of nowhere. Pagen points out the red-chested frigate birds, brown boobies and crested terns and all you can hear in this wild blue yonder are squawks and whirring cameras.
But back to the point of the story. None of these moments is accessible by car. Nor are the Horizontal Falls (declared “Australia’s most unusual natural wonder” by David Attenborough), yet another phenomenon created by those massive tides. Cutting through the Talbot Bay tidal surge in a jetboat is up there with drinking Mimosas in the shadow of two-billion year-old rocks – it’s something you have to do once. And the stories of the rock art, told by A&K’s Indigenous culture expert Bart Pigram and Neil “Junior” Maru from Wijingarra Tours on Bigge and Jar islands respectively, are memories I’ll have forever.
You see some phenomenal sights on a Kimberley cruise but your eyes don’t determine a life-changing voyage, your heart does. The skipped beat at the sight of your first saltie; the racing as you skim waves in a shower of sea spray; the awe that fills it gazing at a vermillion sunset or a sky full of stars; and the ache when the ship docks for the final time. One thing I do know as I head home: my heart was in the right place.
A point of luxury amid 283,000 hectares of rugged terrain, The Homestead at El Questro presents an elegant counterpart to the surrounding gorges, escarpments and thermal springs. Located 110 kilometres west of Kununurra, the property is the most comfortable and convenient way to experience the region.
From its elevated position overlooking Chamberlain Gorge, several of the retreat’s 10 rooms are cantilevered over the cliff’s edge, the landscape reflected on the surface of the Chamberlain River below. The interiors of the luxury lodge are stylish havens of timber, stone and contemporary art, the cliffside suites complete with walls of glass and freestanding alfresco tubs.
Wander to the main lodge to dine communally (you’re only ever in the company of 19 other guests) or book ahead to secure a sought-after cliffside spot. The food is gourmet, featuring produce from nearby Ord River Valley (you might try akoya oysters with finger lime caviar one night and beef tenderloin and béarnaise sauce the next) matched with premium Western Australian wines, such as a Cullen cabernet sauvignon from Margaret River.
While The Homestead’s comforts may compel you to do very little, it’s near impossible to resist the call of the Kimberley. Set out on a guided hike (including exclusive afternoon access to the thermal waters of Zebedee Springs) or go horseriding, bird-watching and stargazing. Cruise past 1.8 billion years of history in Chamberlain Gorge or catch a scenic flight over the Bungle Bungle Range.
Just hurry back for sunset. The unmissable spectacle is best appreciated from the verandah with a glass in hand.
Adam Sands, owner of RedSands Campers, has driven the Gibb River Road more than 15 times but it still gives him goosebumps. “It’s the raw, majestic beauty of the place,” he says. “It just gets in your blood.”
Created in the 1960s as a cattle-droving route, the 660-kilometre Gibb between Derby and Wyndham combines history, scenery and bragging rights as one of Australia’s seminal outback road trips.
Accessible only during the Dry season, this is the ultimate choose-yourown adventure. Those short on time can hit the main sights in a week but we recommend slowing down to savour it over two.
Plenty of water and a well-maintained 4WD (take at least two spare tyres and an air compressor) are essential. But the drive isn’t the intrepid undertaking it once was. You’ll find comfy stays and hearty meals at cattle stations along the way, plus resort-style accommodation to bookend the trip in Broome and Kununurra.
There’s no right or wrong direction but starting in Broome and flying back from Kununurra avoids scenery spoilers on the outbound flight. Once you kick up dust leaving the sealed bitumen road outside Derby, a timeless panorama of scorched sandstone ranges, fern-fringed gorges and secluded watering holes unfolds. Factor in stops at Windjana Gorge, a limestone chasm with 300-metre-high walls; Tunnel Creek, a stream in a 750-metre-long batfilled cave; and Bell Gorge, a multi-tiered waterfall and swimming hole.
After a hot and dusty day of driving, the cabins at purpose-built resorts, such as APT’s Bell Gorge Wilderness Lodge, or rustic homestead stays on former cattle stations like Mount Hart, offer rest and respite. Even if you don’t stay at El Questro, spend a day exploring the property’s spectacular gorges and cool off in a swimming hole (Emma Gorge is a highlight).
If ignoring the scenery to watch the road seems an unlikely feat, join a guided tour with experienced operators such as APT and InStyle Adventures. You won’t earn the same sort of bragging rights but you won’t have any hassles, either.
Driving the Gibb
Start: Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa in Broome – the only resort on this pristine sweep of sand.
Car hire: Specialist operator RedSands Campers has custom-designed 4WD vehicles with dedicated support and no one-way fees.
Tip: Go early in the season to see waterfalls at their peak and book vehicles and accommodation well in advance.
Finish: Freshwater East Kimberley Apartments in Kununurra – a new complex of stylish, selfcontained apartments.