Kimberley Cruise: Australia's Last Frontier June 20th - July 2, 2019

Kimberley Cruise: Australia's Last Frontier June 20th - July 2, 2019
July 2019

Saturday, June 22: Broome

We all converged on the far-away outpost of Broome from the distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of Australia’s Kimberley region. A roadless coastline of red sandstone, waterfalls, and mangrove swamps, the Kimberley is one of the most remote parts of Australia and home of some of the most extreme tidal variation on the planet.

Following a delicious breakfast, some of us headed out to the Broome Bird Observatory to get an introduction to the birds of the region. The shorelines around Broome are of international importance for the millions of migratory waders or shorebirds that use it seasonally on migration from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. We sipped tea while watching double-barred finches making the most of the birdbaths near the main buildings and walked out to an overlook where Caspian terns loafed on a sandbar and reef egrets foraged along the rocky shoreline.

Others of us set off to visit the Japanese cemetery, which pays tribute to the many Japanese migrant workers who lost their lives during Broome’s pearling boom. Harvesting the pearls was extremely dangerous work and many sailors and divers died as a result. We also visited an exhibition to learn how the world-famous South Sea Australian Pearl is cultivated and harvested.

Some of us spent time with expedition staff member Bart Pigram, who provided us with firsthand insight into the landscape of north western Australia, and the local Yawuru people’s place within it. He introduced us to the language and cultural heritage of the area, and really set the stage for our understanding of Aboriginal heritage.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the dock and were warmly greeted aboard ‘Le Lapérouse’ by the ship’s crew. We got ourselves settled in on board, before gathering in the theatre for a safety briefing. Before dinner, Cruise Director Paul Carter gave us an overview of the ship, and the members of the expedition team told stories about themselves and their passion for this fascinating part of the world.

Following a relaxing dinner on our new home-away-from-home, some of us gathered in the main lounge for a cocktail, while others headed off to bed for a good night’s sleep.

Sunday, June 23: Lacepede Islands

The sky brightened to an intense orange at sunrise this morning, and we took it all in with a cup of coffee in hand. After a hearty breakfast, we gathered in the theatre with life-long Kimberley explorer and photographer Philip Shubert for his presentation, "The Kimberley: An ancient, rugged, timeless wilderness. Why did it happen?” Phil told stories from his time as a pilot flying throughout the area, to his expeditions to many seldom-visited locales. It was an informative look at the geology, history, and culture of this off-the-beaten-track part of Australia.

Before lunch, we joined Expedition Leader Brad Climpson for a briefing on our activities for tomorrow, and Expedition Director Suzana Machado D'Oliveira for a zodiac briefing. Once all the boats had been lowered and we were all fuelled up over lunch, we set out to explore a low-lying cluster of islands called the Lacepedes.

All lathered up with sunscreen and with sunhats donned, we boarded zodiacs to explore this magnificent weathered coralline atoll, all the while ushered in by flock after flock of brown boobies. These large birds feed on fish and squid by diving into the water from above. They were very curious about us, often soaring right above our heads with a look of intrigue in their eyes.

The outer beaches are often covered with tracks left by nesting female green turtles, which crawl up the beach to lay their leathery eggs in pits they dig in the sand. In fact, this site is the most important green turtle nesting site in all of Western Australia. As we explored the protected waters of the lagoon, green turtles were all around us, scraping algae off rocky substrates, and popping up for a breath of air right next to the zodiac.

We pulled into a protected lagoon, where splash crabs grazed algae on the exposed rock, and ruddy turnstones picked through cracks and crevices in search of small invertebrates such as worms and crustaceans. Shovelnose rays plied the shallows, combing through the sand for tasty morsels to eat. Brown boobies both loafed along the rocky shoreline and tended their enormous downy chicks up in the grass above.

We watched in awe as frigate birds soared overhead, barely moving their wings at all yet still going exactly where they wanted to go. These huge birds weigh very little, and their bones make up only 5% of their body weight. Made mostly of feathers, frigate birds both dip their long-hooked bills in the water to catch fish, as well as steal from other birds by harassing them until they drop or regurgitate their catch.

The Lacepede Islands were a magical place to visit, and we felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit this remote and wild place. Back on the ship, we watched a spectacular sunset before gathering in the Panorama Lounge for Captain David Marionneau's welcome aboard cocktail party, where we mingled over champagne and were introduced to some of the ship’s officers. This was followed by a festive dinner and a nightcap in the bar.

Monday, June 24: Talbot Bay, Horizontal Falls, and Cyclone Creek 

In the early morning light, Captain David Marionneau maneuvered 'Le Lapérouse' through the narrows and into Talbot Bay. As this was our first day in Kimberley proper, it was a stunning way to wake up, with spectacular orange sandstone bluffs beginning to illuminate in the day's first light.

After breakfast, we headed out to take a very exciting trip through Horizontal Falls. These falls are actually a fast-moving tidal flow through two narrow, closely aligned gorges of the McLarty Range. The direction of the flow reverses with each change of tide and, as tides in the Kimberley can reach 10-meters, a significant difference in the sea level on either side of each gorge is created and the water gushes through the gap.

We boarded fast boats with very powerful engines to make the trip through. It was an exhilarating ride, like riding river rapids, and the boat made numerous passes through, traveling in both directions. A real highlight was looking through the second gap and seeing that the water level behind the gap was a meter and a half higher on the other side.

We then explored Cyclone Creek, with its beautiful gorge, where we caught glimpses of white-quilled rock-pigeons flying from one rocky ledge to another. Once through the gorge, the river opened up and was much slower moving. Low, muddy areas were home to some scrubby mangrove trees, where crabs scurried about, and sacred kingfishers perched above them looking for a delicious (and crunchy) meal. A few of us spotted crocodiles, including one that caught a huge mud crab right in front of us and crunched it with its powerful jaws.

But the highlight of our exploration had to be the geology. The magnificent sandstone bluffs had been contorted by tectonic forces, resulting in tilting and bending of the rock layers. There were long ridges, outcroppings with zigzagging layers, and even flute-like spires perched precariously over the sea. It was a sight to behold, and different patterns revealed themselves around every turn.

After sharing stories back onboard over lunch, with spectacular scenery all around us, we set out again to have a look at Horizontal Falls again, this time the tidal flow flowing the opposite direction. We explored the coastline looking for juvenile needlefish hiding in among the mangrove roots, or white-bellied sea-eagles perched in tall trees, keeping an eye out for unsuspecting fish below.

Back on the ship, we mingled over afternoon tea before joining Geologist Jason Hicks in the theatre for his presentation, "Gondwana: Breaking plates to form a continent". At our first evening recap of the trip, Rich Pagen spoke about the seabirds we'd encountered at the Lacepede Islands, Bart Pigram talked about the rafts local people used to travel through the area, and Jason Hicks highlighted the geology of the area. It was an incredible and diverse first day in the Kimberley.

Tuesday, June 25: Montgomery Reef and Freshwater Cove

We sipped coffee in the early morning light as the expedition staff lowered the fleet of zodiacs in preparation for taking us out to see Montgomery Reef. With an extent of 154 square miles (400 square kilometres), Montgomery Reef is Australia's largest inshore reef. The entire reef comes out of the water at low tide.

Planning around the massive tides found in this area, Expedition Leader Brad Climpson timed it perfectly. We were out in zodiacs, surrounded by sea in all directions when all-of-a-sudden the reef began to emerge right next to us. At first, the water drained off slowly, but soon powerful cascades began to form, dumping water off the top of the reef.

As soon as there was dry reef to stand on, wading birds arrived to feed on the riches of the exposed rock. Reef egrets searched for exposed prey, while flocks of terns hovered above the deeper water right next to the reef, in search of fish stunned by the massive outflow of water. Sea turtles popped up around us in the channel, and a huge Stoke's sea snake was spotted, stretching an impressive five feet from its head to its fin-like tail tip.

After relaxing over a delicious lunch on the deck, we re-boarded the zodiacs for a trip ashore at Freshwater Cove. There we were welcomed ashore by the traditional owners of the land, who painted ochre on our cheeks, before leading us up to a rock art gallery in a cave well inland. On the walk up to the site, we passed enormous termite mounds and flocks of feeding birds. With several trees in flower, honeyeaters of at least six species were in attendance, bickering among themselves for access to the flowers' nectar.

As we climbed higher the terrain became rockier, and soon we arrived at a high point, with a shady overhang beneath it, which housed the rock art. Two aboriginal brothers were our hosts in the cave, and they explained a bit about themselves and their family, before pointing out some of the Wadjina art painted on the cave's ceiling.

The walk back down to the beach rewarded us with spectacular views of the sea down below us. Once down, we participated in a smoke ceremony to keep evil spirits away, before wandering the beach in search of animal tracks and signs of life washed up on the beach. It was a magical experience here at Freshwater Cove, and we were very grateful to get to learn about the significance of this rock art from the traditional owners of the land themselves.

Wednesday, June 26: Hunter River and Mitchell Falls

We watched the sunrise from our anchorage just off the mouth of the Hunter River. The water around the ship was a brilliant turquoise in all directions, and the glorious white sand beaches of Naturalist Island lay just off the bow of the ship. After a leisurely breakfast, we prepared ourselves for what would prove to be an amazing day.

Some of us began our day by taking a helicopter flight from Naturalist Island 37 miles inland to an impressive four-step waterfall called Mitchell Falls. The scenery along the way was incredible, we gained such a different perspective of the Kimberley landscape from 600-ft up. The extensive mangroves along Porosus Creek were cut by meandering channels, and as the tide dropped, more and more mud banks were exposed. Once upon the Mitchell Plateau itself, the terrain became open savanna woodland, with sporadic rocky outcroppings and bluffs.

After several passes just over the falls, the helicopter landed on a wide rock platform and we set out to explore the area on foot. Some of us hiked out to an overlook over the falls, passing bushes with beautiful pink flowers along the way. Whistling kites soared overhead as we took in the impressive scene. Others set out to have a bit of a swim in the rocky pools along the river. Being spring fed, the water was brisk and just the right temperature for a hot sunny day such as this.

Back on the ship, we had the opportunity to set out by zodiac to explore the Hunter River and its mangrove-lined tributaries. We stopped at the water’s edge, where dozens of fiddler crabs were busy sifting through the sediment for organic material. The large white claw of the males stood out against the grey silt, and they were busy waving their claws around in an attempt to attract a mate.

The stars of the mudflats were most certainly the mudskippers, a type of goby that is most active when the tide is out, and the water is gone. At high tide, they hide safely in their burrows, but once the mudflats are exposed, they become active and walk around and feed. Watching them roam around and get in short-lived scuffles with neighbours was most entertaining.

When the tide was high enough and flooded the forest, we were able to meander among the trees themselves by heading into some of the narrow channels. Saltwater crocodiles (called “salties” in Australia) slept soundly along the muddy banks, some even allowing close approach. These formidable ambush predators are the largest living reptiles, the males of which can reach over 20 feet in length and weigh over 4,000 pounds.

After returning to the ship, we joined Brad Climpson for a briefing about tomorrow's activities before heading out on the deck for a sunset cocktail party. The setting here in Doubtful Bay was stunning, as was the music, canapés, and atmosphere out on the pool deck. It was a perfect end to our day of exploring the heart of the Kimberley.

Thursday, June 27: Bigge Island and Sterna Island 

After watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee in hand, we relaxed over breakfast before zipping ashore by zodiac to a beautiful small beach on Bigge Island. Above the high tide line, we found numerous body pits left by nesting sea turtles. Many were ringed with the tracks of northern quolls, nocturnal marsupial carnivores that would like nothing more than the opportunity to snack on newly hatched sea turtles.

The beachcombing was excellent, with such finds as dried up brittle stars, sponges, and tiny giant clam shells. From the beach, we climbed up on the King Leopold Sandstone itself, amidst huge boulders put in place by a tsunami that hit here long ago. We arrived at a natural viewpoint that looked over the surrounding ridges, as well as a narrow bay that stretched well inland behind us. Two carefully placed lines of stones in a flat area below belied the importance of this place to the Aboriginal people as either a meeting place or a ceremonial site.

After spending several moments respecting the importance of this place, we meandered down to the dry, mangrove-lined creek bed below us. Our wanderings were happily interrupted however by a call over the radio that three turtle hatchlings had just climbed out of their nest and were making their way to the sea! We watched in awe as these tiny creatures struggled downhill to the surf, and we wished them well on their journey. It was hard to imagine that the females among them would not return to this beach for several decades and that the males would never return.

We then explored the overhangs and caves along the beach to admire the numerous Wandjina rock art paintings found there. Brad Climpson and Bart Pigram interpreted the site for us, giving us an appreciation and understanding of the cultural importance of this site.

Back on the ship, we joined Rich Pagen in the theatre for his presentation, "The tropical marine ecological fringe: A transect from the coast to the blue water". Over lunch, the ship repositioned to the Montesquieu Islands, where we set off for a zodiac cruise of the area.

A very young crocodile was spotted on a sandy beach on Sterna Island, very far away from the mainland where surely it was hatched. Red-capped plovers ran along the shoreline just up from the waves, keeping a careful eye for invertebrates that would make a tasty meal. A white-bellied sea eagle and a peregrine falcon had a tense interaction right over our heads.

After admiring the columnar basalt along the shore of Oliver Island, we landed on Gabriel Island where we fanned out to explore its vast beaches and sloping central plateau. A massive osprey nest was perched on a high bluff above us, and flocks of yellow white-eyes foraged in the low bushes just up from the beach. Every shape and size of coral rubble was present on the beach, including the bright red remains of organ pipe coral, a soft coral that secretes the hard, latticed skeleton we encountered in abundance around the island.

Back on 'Le Lepérouse', we gathered for recap and briefing, followed by a delicious dinner. Some of us ventured out on deck after dinner to admire the incredible night sky. So remote and far from the light pollution of human population centres, the Kimberley is a fantastic place to stargaze.

Friday, June 28: Jar Island and Anjo Peninsula

A brilliant orange horizon greeted us as we walked out on the back deck in preparation for our short zodiac ride ashore to Jar Island this morning. We landed in a secluded cove with beautiful white sand and rocky sandstone bluffs surrounding it. From there, we set off to explore and look for Gwion Gwion aboriginal rock art (also called Bradshaw rock art), which is strikingly different from the Wandjina art we have seen previously on the trip.

Named for Joseph Bradshaw, a pastoralist who stumbled upon it in 1891 while searching for suitable grazing land in the area, this style of art consists mostly of human forms, thin and elongated, and with varying numbers of fingers and toes. Many of the forms have tassels hanging from them, while others resemble laundry clothespins in their shape and design.

We hiked back behind the beach a short distance to visit three different rock art galleries, each of which was located in a quiet, sheltered spot in and among the jumble of weathered sandstone. The more we sat and looked, the more we saw. One painting pictured a boomerang, while another an echidna, one of the unique egg-laying mammals. Carbon dating of mud wasp nests on the rock face provides most of our understanding of the age of these paintings, and we now know that some of this art is at least 17,000 years old.

Back on the ship, we gathered for lunch out on deck under brilliant blue skies. The wind was nearly nonexistent, and we leaned over the railing scanning for dolphins and other wildlife as the Captain took the ship over to our afternoon anchorage just off the Anjo Peninsula.

There, we landed below some sand dunes on a remote beach and embarked on a hike inland, which arrived at the wreck site of a DC3 aircraft that crash landed here in February 1942. The plane was in remarkably good shape, and the sight of it was a powerful reminder of how this northern part of Australia was involved in World War II.

We wandered trails left by wild cattle, whose tracks and scat were obvious in the area. Red-winged parrots called while circling overhead, the green and red of their plumage illuminated brilliantly by the sun. We also passed termite mounds, which dotted the open areas between the trees, and watched an osprey hunting fish over the shallows.

Some of us took advantage of the low tide to explore the exposed rocky shoreline for animal life. We fanned out among the rocky tidepools, discovering everything from black sea cucumbers hiding along the rock edges, to tiny ghost shrimp that approached submerged fingers to attempt to “clean” them.

Back on the ship, we cleaned up before meeting for cocktails in the theatre, followed by a recap and briefing. Many of us went to bed early after dinner to rest up for our early morning arrival tomorrow at the mouth of the King George River.

Saturday, June 29: King George River & Falls

This morning 'Le Lapérouse' arrived at the mouth of the King George River which, over the course of many thousands of years, has cut a steep gorge through beautiful orange sandstone rock. Following breakfast, we boarded zodiacs for one of several options to tour this spectacular part of the Kimberley.

Some of us motored quickly up the gorge where we disembarked the zodiacs near the base of King George Falls, a three-hundred-foot drop into the canyon below, which was nearly waterless due to the very light rainy season this year. From there, we embarked on a steep scrambling hike up to the canyon rim, where the view back down into the river was spectacular.

Others of us explored the river system by zodiac for varying amounts of time. The diversity of raptors in the area was remarkable, with huge wedge-tailed eagles soaring along the cliff face, and Brahminy kites perched in the mangroves that lined some of the small side canyons. A few rock wallabies were spotted loafing the day light hours away, waiting until things cooled down before venturing out to feed on grasses. We admired rainbow bee-eaters preening themselves in the beautiful morning light, and a few of us even came across a dugong sticking its nose up above the surface every few minutes for a breath.

At the falls themselves, we admired the shaded box canyon we found ourselves in, with erosion evidence on the rock revealing the extent of flow that would be present during the rainy season. This time of year, it was a quiet and peaceful place, and we pulled up to one of several small spring-fed seeps dripping down the canyon walls, where we watched small crabs graze on the algal growth. Some of us reached up for a handful of water careening down the cliff, which was very cool and refreshing.

We returned to the ship for lunch and, later in the afternoon, many of us came ashore to a beautiful white sand beach near the mouth of the King George River. Some of us explored the rocks at the edge of the beach where hermit crabs wandered about, and the bones of a sea turtle could be found. Others wandered inland across a grassy swale where trillers and honeyeaters flitted from bush to bush. Soon we arrived at an overlook of the spectacular exposed coastline on the opposite side of the ridge.

After returning to the ship, we grabbed a cup of tea and joined Bart Pigram in the theatre for his talk, "Indigenous cultural contrasts: Two women, one story". After a festive Recap and delicious dinner, some of us went up on the top deck to do some stargazing, while others ventured down to the Blue Eye lounge for a glass of champagne. We went off to bed excited for our day of exploration out of the tiny town of Wyndam.

Sunday, June 30: Wyndham 

We stepped out on deck with a cup of coffee to watch as the ship made her way through Cambridge Gulf under a brightening sky, en route to the small port town of Wyndham. There, we experienced a dry landing by gangway onto a pier for the first time since our trip began in Broome. We lingered over breakfast, enjoying a somewhat more leisurely start than what has been the usual for our exploration of the Kimberley. From Wyndam, we set off for one of two fantastic day trips through the region.

Some of us set off for a fly-over of the spectacular Bungle Bungles, one of northern Australia's geological wonders. As the plane rose over the Ord River, it banked to give us views of one of the most efficient dam systems in the world, the Ord River Irrigation Scheme. The rock and clay dam of Lake Argyle holds back enough water to cover tens of thousands of hectares of land, and the hydroelectric plant provides energy for the towns of Kununurra and Wyndam, as well as the nearby Argyle diamond mine.

As we travelled further inland, the cone-karst topography of the Bungle Bungles became apparent. Millenia of freeze-thaw weathering had enlarged fractures in the rock, creating the beautiful beehive rock patterns we see today. The unusual orange and dark grey banding on the conical rock formations is caused by differences in the layers of sandstone. The darker bands are on the layers of rock which hold more moisture and are a dark algal or cyanobacteria growth.

The rest of us drove out to the town of Kununurra to board small boats to explore the Ord River Floodplain, a protected area which contains freshwater mangrove forests, lagoons, creeks and the surrounding floodplain forest. As soon as we hit the water, the wildlife sightings began. Archerfish and catfish fed just next to the boat, while four species of cormorants roosted on snags or fished in the open water. Australasian darters held their wings out to dry in the sun, while osprey picked apart the fish they had recently plucked from the water.

In the narrow side creeks, we all got into crocodile-spotting mode, scanning the shoreline for freshwater crocodiles ("freshies"), the smaller inland cousins of the massive saltwater crocodiles ("salties") we'd seen along the coast. Pelicans in trees, white-bellied sea eagles on nests, and azure kingfishers darting across the waterways were just a few other incredible sightings made throughout the day. Lunch was along the riverbank in a quiet, shady spot; and a stop at the Durack homestead site from 1895 set the stage in our minds for what life on the early cattle stations would have been like.

Back onboard the ship, we all donned our Sunday best for Captain David Marionneau-Châtel’s Farewell Cocktail Party. We shared stories from the day over cocktails, and soon the Captain stepped up on stage to welcome us to the party. Then, Cruise Director Paul Carter introduced us to so many of the ship’s crew that the stage was overflowing. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see many of the faces that have contributed so much to our enjoyable experience onboard 'Le Lapérouse'.

Monday, July 1: At Sea/Pulau Meatimiarang, Indonesia

We awoke to calm sea conditions, with the blue water of the open ocean all the way out to the horizon in every direction. There were some huge cumulus clouds on the horizon, which came as quite a shock as we had barely seen a cloud in almost two weeks. Some of us took advantage of this day at-sea to sleep in a little longer, while others had a quiet moment out on deck watching yet another gorgeous sunrise.

After breakfast, we joined Richard Harker in the theatre for his presentation, "Easy & fun tips for better smartphone photographs". This was followed by a briefing from Expedition Leader Brad Climpson about our arrival in Darwin later today, and a disembarkation briefing from Cruise Director Paul Carter, during which we learned about our travel details once we leave the ship tomorrow morning. This was followed by a showing of the trailer from the trip DVD, produced by the 'Le Lapérouse' photo team. Many of us then began the task of packing or put it off a little longer and substituted in a nap or some time out on deck watching our passage through the southern Timor Sea.

We relaxed over lunch, before joining the Expedition Team in the theatre for an overview of our trip through the Kimberley. We then watched a wonderful retrospective slide show, made up of photos taken by the Expedition Staff and compiled by Naturalist Blackjack Escanilla. The photos and video were amazing, and our experiences here seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time. As the ship pulled up to the pier in Darwin, it was quite a shock to see so many people in one place, after being away in the wilderness for so long.

Once alongside, many of us wandered into town to explore, or to grab a drink at one of the restaurants along the waterfront. After dinner, a spectacular fireworks display took place right next to the ship as part of Territory Day, a celebration of the anniversary of self-governance in Australia's Northern Territory.

We have reached the end of our exploration of the Kimberley. The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection, and celebration of the new friends we have shared this fantastic adventure with.