Kimberley Coast - Under the Radar
All along this coastline are unexpected attractions that will wow even the most seasoned traveller. Dan F. Stapleton goes exploring.
No trip to the Kimberley is complete without stops at its most iconic sights: the towering Mitchell Falls; dramatic, multi-coloured Geikie Gorge; and the serene, biodiverse Ord River. But for every blockbuster attraction here, there’s an under-the-radar counterpart that’s just as captivating. And reaching these lesser-known destinations is an adventure in itself: many are accessible only by boat.
From Darwin, nautical adventurers sail west across the Cambridge Gulf, crossing from Northern Territory waters into Western Australia during their first day at sea. This is Kimberley country: an endless succession of secluded bays, resplendent rock formations and pristine beaches. The Aboriginal people who have inhabited this corner of Australia for millennia have trodden exceedingly lightly: at one of their main camping grounds, the Vansittart Bay, it feels like no human has ever set foot on the sand.
Vansittart Bay might be the prettiest spot in all of the Kimberley, with its pure aquamarine waters, secluded coves, powdery beach and hulking boulders studded with ochre. But there’s drama to be discovered here, too. In the scrub along the bay’s eastern edge lies a DC3 aircraft from WWII, abandoned after an emergency landing and still more-or-less intact more than 75 years later. The plane had been en route from Perth to Darwin and was scheduled to make a pit stop in Broome – but the pilot became disorientated and overshot his destination. By the time he reached Vansittart Bay, he had run out of fuel and was forced down. Happily, all aboard the DC3 were rescued three days later.
In the waters near the wreck is Jar Island, a postcard-perfect hideaway ringed by golden sand. Noted surveyor Phillip Parker King chose the name due to the fragments of pottery he found here: evidence, it is believed, of people from Indonesia, who likely traded with Indigenous Australians for centuries. Jar Island is a haven for some of the Kimberley’s more unusual creatures, including echidnas and the golden-backed tree rat. But the most compelling reason to wade ashore is to marvel at the island’s rich array of Aboriginal rock art, which can be found in its numerous caves.
There’s rock art all across the Kimberley, some of which is thought to be over 40,000 years old; however, few collections are as well-preserved as Jar Island’s. It’s considered by many to be Western Australia’s most impressive cache of the stick-figure drawings known as “”, named after the settler who documented them in the 1800s.
Prince Frederick Harbour
Not far from tranquil Vansittart Bay is a very different waterscape: the mangrove-fringed Prince Frederick Harbour, at the mouth of the Roe and Hunter Rivers, where enormous crocodiles lurk and white-bellied sea eagles keep watch from above. The bay and its rivers are in a constant state of flux: at high tide, water almost completely submerges the mangrove trees, while at low tide, vast mudflats are revealed and colourful crabs and prehistoric mudskippers come out to play. Whatever time of day you visit, you’re sure to see an exotic creature or two – perhaps a rough-scaled python wrapped around a tree trunk or a golden bandicoot cavorting along a cliff top.
In this part of the world, varied terrain is the norm – and, because the Kimberley experiences distinct wet and dry seasons, locations can look very different depending on which time of year you visit them. Further along the coast from Prince Frederick Harbour is yet another type of vista: an angular, rubble-strewn escarpment known as Raft Point, which is ringed by a pebbly beach and dotted with shrubbery that bursts to life in the wake of ‘the wet’.
Passengers alighting here can follow a steep path up into the cliffs to view another gallery of Indigenous art, some of it drawn in the distant past by the people. Their style is distinctive: unlike the , the figures have huge mouthless heads and tiny bodies, not dissimilar to modern-day depictions of extra-terrestrials. Did aliens visit the in millennia gone by?
Wherever you go in the Kimberley, there’s a sense of the past stretching endlessly back. Those places that were altered by the European settlement of Australia are, thankfully, being returned to their original condition. On the Islands, some 120km north of Broome and 30km offshore, the rat population that was introduced by European explorers was finally eradicated during the 1980s, allowing native fauna to flourish once again. The four islands that make up the Group are little more than specks in the ocean, but between them they support some of the most cherished bird and animal populations in WA. They are the Kimberley’s primary breeding ground for endangered green turtles, and are also home to pelicans, egrets and gulls. Most significantly, they’re visited by over one per cent of the world’s population of brown boobies and roseate terns: tens of thousands of pairs build their nests here.