This isolated retreat in Western Australia’s rugged Kimberley region is the catalyst for a special kind of break from routine. John Lethlean shares the magic of the Kimberley Costal Camp.
The adrenaline hits fast. One minute you’re yacking away with fellow travellers, enjoying the sun, sea breeze and solitude – lots of solitude; there’s nobody else around and all is calm – and then a reel screams. You’re on.
One of the persistent thrills of fishing offshore isn’t knowing what has your lure but that whatever it is, it’s big, powerful and cheesed off. The languor of a moment on the water with a cold beer and new friends is gone in a flash as the situation dawns. Pump and reel, pump and reel… most of what I know about fishing comes from Hemingway. Pump and reel and… suddenly, the fish is racing and it begins again. Pump and reel.
This fishing thing seemed like a doddle just minutes before: let the lure out the back of a moving boat, close the bail arm on the reel, put the rod in a holder. Have a coldie. But getting a strike and trying to land a fish can be the most electric 10 minutes of your life. Pump and reel, pump and reel until, finally, the rapid flash of silver comes into focus. It’s a northern bluefin tuna, says Tub, our chief guide, raconteur and host. It’s way more than that, Tub; it’s my 10-kilogram dream come true.
“Don’t let it go under the boat,” he says, “get your rod tip down.” Tub – real name Andrew White but I doubt he answers to “Andrew” – gaffs it, throws the tuna aboard and the excitement on Warabi, one of seven aluminium boats in the Kimberley Coastal Camp fleet (KCC), is palpable.
Another thrill of fishing – in this case, in the vast, uncharted gulf of Port Warrender (Wunambal Gaambera Country) on the far north-western tip of Western Australia – is that everybody gets a kick out of everyone else’s success. Somehow, it’s me claiming the credit this time. I need another coldie.
I'm a very long way from anywhere. Fly into Kununurra – that’s three hours from Perth – and then it’s a 90-minute hop by Cessna seaplane, west across the barren but remarkably beautiful Kimberley, to KCC’s collection of eight rustic timber-and corrugated- iron huts clustered around the main camp building, close to the water in a tidal corner of a big bay. It’s a rugged landscape of white shell shale, striking King Leopold sandstone, low-lying scrub and spinifex. Oh, and a lot of blue-green water. Did I mention no roads?
“One of the best things about this site,” says Tub on our first day as he pan-fries some fresh Spanish mackerel on the beach of an uninhabited island and a “saltie” cruises past about 200 metres from where we’ve just had a mid-winter dip, “is the crocs and the fact that it’s uncharted.”
While the brilliant fishing, both in Port Warrender and up the mangrove-lined rivers and creeks for barra and muddies, is among KCC’s chief attractions, the pivotal characteristic of the place is its isolation. The air, sky, stars, the essence of where earth meets sea, unaffected by people other than the Traditional Owners, the Wunambal Gaambera.
The camp has rugged charm in spades but it’s not luxurious in the usual sense. Here, the luxury is in your imagination: the remoteness, the ability to digitally disconnect (no phone coverage, no guest wi-fi), the purity of it all. Other than six other guests and three staff, I see no-one during my stay.
Seclusion and 35°C winter sunshine reward the effort of getting here. But my efforts pale in comparison with the trials of running a hospitality business that relies on one barge a year from Wyndham, Australia’s northernmost town, for supplies like fuel and toilet paper and payload space on the passenger planes or choppers that bring in the few lucky guests.
Tub and Jules van Duuren, his partner, bought the camp some eight years ago. Nobody could write the job description – up here, you do everything yourself. Tub is a gregarious, fish-loving, quintessential bloke. Could fix anything. Loves a yarn. Jules was a chef in her first career, a singer in her second. They’re imbued with a deep sense of hospitality, the glue that binds the KCC experience. And both love – and know – good food. (They published their own cookbook in 2020, Cooking In Thongs, a memoir of their lives at KCC.)
From Middle-Eastern-themed fish dinners to South-East-Asian-inspired banquets (with the most memorable sticky soy and black pepper mud crab), eating is a highlight here. How Jules pulls it off is a tribute to her resourcefulness and enthusiasm; it helps that Kununurra is a source of excellent fresh produce via the Ord River irrigation network. Nothing much edible grows here on the coast; it’s just spinifex, mangroves and boabs.
SEE ALSO: 3 Magical Ways to Explore The Kimberley
If my experience is typical, what does grow here is connection; the melding of the guests and hosts is thorough and immersive. We eat, drink and play together and it takes special folk to make it work, though the couple is the first to admit the KCC – typically a three-night stay and often part of a northern escape route that might take in El Questro, Berkeley River Lodge or both – is not for everyone. If your idea of a break is marble bathrooms, room service and 1000-thread-count Egyptian cotton bed linen, you’re probably better off somewhere else.
My way-too-brief three days fall in mid- August, at the tail end of the three-month dry season. I settle into my quirky little hut (like an open-air mini shearing shed with an ensuite), head off by boat for lunch on a deserted island, fish for all sorts of pelagic and demersal species (only what’s to be eaten at the camp is kept, the rest released), drink plenty of wine over exceptional dinners and sleep very soundly. The group gets up early to find tropical black lip oysters the size of a baseball cap on a distant piece of coast before lunch (oysters and fish) on another uninhabited island. And we fish some more across Warrender Bay and around the dramatic flat-topped Steep Head Island. We try our luck in the creeks for barra (the croc-spotting is thrilling) and bushwalk to see incredible First Nations rock art, a first for me. Tub’s knowledge of tradition and culture is special. As he says, “It’s just a picture on a rock until you understand something of its meaning.”
The chopper ride to Mitchell Plateau on day four leaves a lingering jealousy of those staying on. The KCC means different things to different people; for some it’s all about the fishing; for others the camaraderie of days on the water, in the bush or on the beaches. For most, it’s Jules’ food. But anyone fortunate enough to stay here will leave with an appreciation of the vast Kimberley wilderness and the pleasure of sharing it with very, very few. For me, it’s all of that – and the thrill of the chase, the pump and reel.
The wet season
“February and March is my favourite time up here,” says Andrew “Tub” White, our host, fishing guide, fixer of everything, anthropologist and goodness knows what else at Kimberley Coastal Camp (KCC).
He cites a few reasons – the drama of the thunderstorms, the way the landscape radically changes with dumping rain and the waterholes that “magically” appear. The simple, rustic nature of KCC means guests need to be able to cope with the humidity without any aircon. Principle among the wet season (November to April) attractions is fishing. It’s by far the best time of year for serious barramundi fishing, according to Tub, and serious fishing brings serious anglers. KCC is also the base for several photographic groups and workshops to capture that wet-season drama, the scenery and flora and fauna.
With 400 hectares of leased land, there’s a substantial collection of First Nations rock art within an easy walk from camp. Tub’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the outdoors is matched by his genuine passion and understanding of local First Nations culture and tradition. “I don’t know how this [rock art] ended up on our lease,” he says, “but I’m bloody glad that it did because it means a lot more people have seen it.”