The point is made right at the beginning. This is an expedition as much as a cruise. This voyage along the Kimberley coast will be an insightful journey as much as a luxurious holiday. Activity and relaxation. A gentle education on the place and its stories, its history and the environment as much as being pampered with a high-quality floating home, elegant service and fine cuisine.
The 101 guests will get a masterful blend of yin and yang.
Yang, the active male principle of the universe, dynamic and creative and associated with heaven, heat and light. It strikes me just this one afternoon as we return to the ship after a three-hour Zodiac exploration of the Hunter River and the mangroves, crocodiles and azure kingfishers of its oozy tributaries. The Orion is anchored in Prince Frederick Harbour, suspended between opaque turquoise saltwater pushed flat by drowning heat, and a cerise sky above, strafed with herringbone cloud.
And Yin, the universe's female principle, passive and connected to the earth, darkness and coolness. And I think back to the previous afternoon, and the Wandjina Aboriginal art site at Raft Point, where white, mouthless spirits mix on shady cave walls with dugong, fish and snakes. Where the bronze rock is as smooth as icing, oil-impregnated by the rub of human skin over how-many generations. Where rock and earth and shade predominate.
Yes indeed, the 10-night Kimberley Expedition from Broome to Darwin, or vice versa, on MV Orion brings yin and yang elegantly together.
From Broome, we pass the Lacepede islands on the way to Cape Leveque, where guests head off in Zodiac dinghies to walk the beach. Then the ship cruises overnight to Talbot Bay and we visit the Horizontal Waterfalls, where the tide pushes water through a bottleneck.
The next day, we see the 400sqkm of Montgomery Reef rise out of the ocean, spot green turtles and a sea snake, and see the egrets fishing as the reef drains, before being served bloody marys on a tray by a waiter up to his thighs in ocean.
And that afternoon, on to Raft Point, with its red Kimberley sandstone bluff and art site.
The ship sets sail against a dramatic sunset and cruises on to Prince Frederick Harbour and the Hunter River, where crocodiles are spotted and the teeming mangrove creek systems explored and explained. Expedition leader Darrin Bennett shares his excitement as the tide pushes in and the place comes to life.
He has already treated us, in Orion's lecture theatre, to an insight into the Bradshaw, or gwion gwion style of Aboriginal art, just as expedition team member Mark Watson previously talked about the dramatic, dark-eyed, mouthless Wandjinas. And we have been given a sense of following in the wake of Phillip Parker King, Australia's first admiral, who sailed this coast four times and published a diary of his explorations here between 1818 and 1822.
From Raft Point, the ship travels on to Vansittart Bay, where in the morning we land and hear the story of a C53 aircraft which was heading from Broome to Perth but became seriously lost, out of fuel and ditched here. Nearly 70 years later, its alloy body remains.
And in the afternoon, the ship is moved to Jar Island, where we see Bradshaw rock art - active figures, figures with tassels and headdresses, elegant figures.
At the King George River and its twin falls, we climb the path to one side and swim in cool, safe freshwater pools at the top, and drink in the high view, and the rainbow the cascades give off.
From there, the Orion voyages on to Wyndham where there are two options for guests, both of which are included in the cost of their ticket. Some will take an aircraft flight over the Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park, and some the hour's coach trip to Kununurra, where they join a boat on the Ord River.
And the voyage eastwards then concludes with two days at sea, including an operational stop at Jaco Island in East Timor, and on to Darwin. During the two days at sea, Expedition Team member Andrew Marshall gives an erudite and entertaining lecture on whales and their migration.
Just as the days are punctuated by adventures and a gentle education, so they are by exquisite food. That yin and yang of Orion. "Work" hard, "play" hard - be engaged with place and the adventure, and enjoy the quality and luxuries of the way in which you do it.
Breakfasts and lunches vary cleverly in their emphasis and all offer exquisite treats of one sort or another. Dinners in a dining room with white linen cloths and silver service are of the best quality. Chose the degustation (in sensible portions, of course) or any other course you prefer. Mix and match to your taste, but expect the best and you will not be disappointed. The wine list is good, and there are $30 options along with treats.
Then, of course, there's a hairdresser and beauty therapist, a masseuse, a boutique, and a professional entertainers - not least to run the the popular (and humorous) late-afternoon trivia competition, which gets up quite a competitive head of steam over the 11-day voyage.
Yin and yang. Ladies in zodiacs in their pink Crocs all morning, and having their toenails painted to match in the afternoon.
It is a healthy combination - it feels like a holiday but not a pointless one. On the Kimberley trip, there were many people in their 70s and quite a few in their 80s. As Darrin Bennett remarked, 80 passengers made the climb up to the Raft Point art site.
The mix of comfort, activity and education has brought success, as Orion Expedition Cruises soon present Orion II, which has a raft of interesting itineraries, largely based from Borneo, but including such places as Vietnam and the Thai Islands - all viewed in an engaged, informed, and very Orion way, of course.
Orion itself will continue to concentrate in large part on the Kimberley, Papua New Guinea, the Antarctic, and New Zealand's Fiordland and sub-Antarctic islands, with the 70-plus crew and usually little more than 100 passengers.
The 103m ship itself also has a sense of yin and yang about it. With its iceberg-proof hull, stabilisers, elevator and go-anywhere high-technology, the seven-year old, 4000-tonne, German-built ship has a rugged attitude, but luxurious rooms and many refinements.
And that goes for Captain Mike Taylor, too. He ran away to sea at 16 and started on cargo ships but is an affable, social man who enjoys the company of his guests, says of himself "hobbies include loud music, uninspired photography", and is happy to lead a singalong.
And as these thoughts come together - these two sides of the voyage and the ship and the people who give it its flavour - I head down to lunch, where there are more treats.
Perhaps the freshest sashimi or sushi. Perhaps one of a choice of a dozen homemade and extravagantly presented desserts.
Perhaps a little of the chef's Singapore noodles, being cooked before me. "Sweet and sour sauce?"
>> Stephen Scourfield joined the Orion from Broome to Darwin. See his reports on the coast in future weeks. The 10-night Kimberley Expedition visits Cape Leveque, Talbot Bay, Horizontal Waterfalls, Montgomery Reef, Raft Point, Hunter River, Vansittart Bay, King George River and Falls, Wyndham and Darwin (or vice versa). There are many other Orion itineraries, from Antarctica to New Zealand, and now extending into south-east Asia, with some exciting Borneo-based voyages on the new Orion II. No single supplement will apply to any Orion cruises between September 16 and December 21 when five cabins will be reserved for single occupancy. Fares will start from $5200 for a seven-night cruise in an ocean view stateroom.>> See www.orionexpeditions.com or call 02 9033 8777.
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