On a high in East Kimberley
Christian motifs share the chapel with Aboriginal art. Picture: Alicia Bridges

The whirr of the Cessna 210 engine is muffled as I pull the headset down over my ears and we taxi toward the runway.

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We're surrounded by grassy savannas and in the distance I can see the towering table-top ranges we are about to soar over. Set for take-off, the engine kicks into overdrive and so does my sense of adventure.

I feel like I'm on safari in Africa, exploring wild lands and new cultures, and in a sense that is true. But this savanna is on home soil, in the vast remote wilderness of the East Kimberley.

A family of four, myself and Shoal Air pilot Aaron Barry are departing Kununurra on a day-long scenic flight. Beforehand, Aaron has briefed us on the route we will follow on the Wandjina Explorer tour, named for the Mowanjum people's rain and cloud spirits.

He shows us the flight path over ranges and flood plains and along the Kimberley coast to the far-north Aboriginal community of Kalumburu. There we will land and explore the Kalumburu mission before flying back over coastal pearl farms and pastoral country.

The plane lifts off and we are looking down on crops and orchards in the Ord River Irrigation Area. Within minutes the view is entirely natural and there is no infrastructure to be seen.

King George Falls in the Kimberley, en route to Kalumburu on a scenic flight. Picture: Alicia Bridges
The ranges which were visible from the airport are below us and from the air we can see how the formations have been sculpted by water and wind. These were formed over millions of years, not overnight. As we near the coast the landscape transforms from a pastel savanna to glittering flood plains. Amid the expanses of water are spidery veins of greenery that follow the water inland.

In the water, tidal movements cut a straight line of brown water against the blue. Reaching Wyndham we see the town and its port in miniature before setting off towards the spectacular Kimberley coast. The change in the water from estuary cloudy to ocean blue is gradual.

Finally we are at the coast and the view is spectacular. Waves lapping against the rocky cliff faces form a stark contrast of red against blue. The nearby islands look to have been forcibly torn from the coast and the land atop them appears almost imprisoned by the steep escarpments that are the edges. We pass the beautiful Berkeley River and see the new resort, opened in April, perched on one side of its mouth.

Further along the coast is a turquoise cove, home to another resort called Faraway Bay. Below is a world largely devoid of structural interference. Before we descend, we circle over the King George Falls. The escarpments, over which water rushes in two separate streams, are the last obstacle for the King George River before it spills into the Timor Sea.

Heat ripples across the runway as we touch down at the remote community of Kalumburu. Aaron and another Shoal Air pilot drive us into the community, explaining how recent floods carved huge grooves into either side of the dirt road into town.

We coast through the streets, a combination of derelict and well-kept homes which make up the population of about 400. Our destination is the Kalumburu Mission, where we are introduced to missionary Josiah Clift and his partner Amy.

He and Shoal Air owner Steve Irvine, who is also in Kalumburu for the day, outline the history of the mission and how it fits in the community itself, which is separately managed by the Kalumburu Aboriginal Corporation. They explain that the mission, situated on a block of land scattered with old tin sheds and a centrepiece stone building, operates under its own by-laws. The whole community's history sits largely within the confines of the mission, where many of its residents were born.

Visitors can explore the remnants of a market garden and an old bakery, as well as a museum chronicling the history of Kalumburu, which was bombed "accidentally" by the Japanese during World War II. Inside the chapel, Christian motifs are adorned with Aboriginal art in a visible crossing of cultures. The mission now plays a role in supporting local people affected by social issues.

The Kalumburu mission runs under separate by-laws to the wider community. Picture: Alicia Bridges
Although I see signs of Kalumburu's troubles, my experience of the community is peaceful and warm-hearted.

After lunch at Kalumburu, the plane is in the air again and we fly over the Truscott air base, built by the Royal Australian Air Force to operate B24 bombers after the attack on Kalumburu. Following the coast, the water turns turquoise as we cross into Vansittart Bay, where pearl farms appear as glittering scars on the ocean surface. The other passengers spot some cruise liners on our way to the Mitchell Plateau and Mitchell Falls, another breathtaking escarpment in the path of a river.

Heading inland to cattle country we see the frontlines of controlled burns lit by the Department of Environment and Conservation. The smoke obstructs the view for a short distance but provides a spectacle of its own.

On the home stretch we pass Home Valley Station, where the Indigenous Land Corporation provides employment-based training for indigenous workers.

The skyline from there is dominated by the Cockburn Range, which are similar but more striking than those at the start of the journey.

Afternoon light falls over the formations, which rise out of the ground in giant rows, hinting at their ancient origins.

The last stop of the tour is El Questro Station, another working cattle station frequented by tourists, and our pilot takes a detour past Emma Gorge at the request of another passenger.

Back at Kununurra I step off the plane on to wobbly legs after a day in the air.

Reflecting on the journey, what stands out is not just the vastness and beauty of the Kimberley in its many forms, but the fact that such a rugged and unforgiving land is at the mercy of a bigger force, the Wandjina's water.


• The Wandjina Explorer tour departs 9am Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday or any day for a booking of four or more people.
• The cost is $795 for adults, $745 for children and $780 for seniors, including a stopover at Kalumburu for lunch and a tour.
• shoalair.com

Alicia Bridges travelled as a guest of Shoal Air.

The West Australian

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