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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. 

Cruising the Kimberley Coast aboard an expedition ship is a vivid experience. During the day, the cliffs bake bright-red in the piercing sun and the deep-green bushland shimmers in the heat, while at night, storms punctuate inky-purple skies. Near the shore, the waters are calm and bright blue, but beneath the surface lurk fearsome sharks and saltwater crocodiles. Sparkling coastal waterfalls and vibrant coral reefs abound.
Discover the striking colours of the Kimberley by small ship expedition cruise on the MS Caledonian Sky
Overhead view of Vansittart Bay on the Kimberley Coast

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 beach at Vansittart Bay, it feels like no human has ever set foot on the sand.

Vansittart Bay

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.

View of DC3 plane at Vansittart Bay, Kimberley

Jar Island

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 Macassan 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. 

Discover the ancient Gwion rock art on Jar Island on a small ship expedition cruise

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’sIt’s considered by many to be Western Australia’s most impressive cache of the stick-figure drawings known as “Bradshaws”, 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.

View the sights Prince Frederick Harbour while on a Kimberley coast small ship expedition cruise

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 Wandjina people. Their style is distinctive: unlike the Bradshaws, the Wandjina figures have huge mouthless heads and tiny bodies, not dissimilar to modern-day depictions of extra-terrestrials. Did aliens visit the Wandjina in millennia gone by? 

Appreciate the history of the Kimberley region through Aboriginal rock art

Lacepede Islands

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 Lacepede 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 Lacepede 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.

View of brown footed boobie over Lacepede Island, Kimberley

A visit to the Lacepedes makes clear what the Aboriginal people have known for aeons: that the waters of the Kimberley are amongst the most bounteous in the world, brimming with enough marine life to sustain humble birds, apex predators and everything in between. One of the purest pleasures of cruising along the Kimberley Coast is simply watching the water – depending on when you visit, you could spot humpback whales breaching, snubfin dolphins frolicking or tiger sharks stalking their prey.

Back near the shoreline there’s plenty more to see, including the famous Horizontal Falls and the legendary Montgomery Reef, which rises out of the sea at low tide. But to truly connect with the ancient Kimberley, nothing beats charting a course for a little-visited island or an undisturbed cove.