View Comments
A boab tree, Kimberley sandstone, dramatic geology and the great, tidal ocean. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

Horizontal Falls, Hunter River, the King George twin falls with their 50m drop, Montgomery Reef, Raft Point.

In the cruising world, they've become the stuff of legend - iconic landmarks of the West Australian landscape and, more particularly, of the 13,000km Kimberley coast.

And, on a number of occasions, I have heard expedition cruising professionals compare the Kimberley coast only with voyaging in Antarctica as a wilderness cruising experience.

As more people have heard about the Kimberley coast and sought to cruise it, the industry has developed, and now there is a range of options, from short, inexpensive cruises, perhaps camping on a beach, to smaller vessels, mid-range in comforts, which can nose into the coast's nooks and crannies, to full-on, luxury, high-end cruises.

The vessels include True North, Kimberley Quest II, Kimberley Explorer, K20, MV Great Escape, Lady M, Odyssey, Oceanic Discoverer Coral Princess, National Geographic Orion, MV Diversity II, Red Sky, Silver Discoverer and Kimberley King Tide. From more open-style expedition boats to yachts and catamarans to medium-sized cruise ships.

Itineraries commonly range from five to 14 nights. Many of the smaller vessels accommodate between 10 and 18 people, then there's the 20-36 range and then the bigger ships with 72 to more than 100 people.

It depends what travellers want - to be part of one small group, to get friends together and make a group themselves, or to feel rather more comfortably in a bigger crowd rather than being locked into one group.

It also depends what they want to, or can, pay. From about $3500 each for five nights on a beach- camping vessel to an ultimate two- week trip at perhaps $15,000 each in a good stateroom, or more than $25,000 each in a suite-style room. There's plenty to choose from in the middle, at about $8000 to $10,000 each.

They mostly have some things in common - that they are fully inclusive, that there's a seaworthy and appropriate vessel, good food, and an experienced and knowledgeable crew.

And most will visit the celebrated hotspots I have mentioned.

And memorable they are. Let me take you first to Montgomery Reef, and to the sound of tiny glass beads being poured across the ridges of a sheet of corrugated iron. For that's what it sounds like, out here, in Camden Sound, perhaps 20km off the mainland, surrounded by deep, inky- turquoise salt water.

As the tide falls, the 80km-long hard shell of Montgomery Reef seems to appear from the water - up to 400sqkm of it.

And as that happens, water pours from it, making this tinkling sound.

The big rhythm of the tides drives Kimberley coastal voyages. It is the pulse that dominates the sea and landscapes, and itineraries and schedules.

These tides are among the biggest in the world, with ranges of up to 12m in some places, and close behind the world's highest tides of 15m in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia.

Over on the mainland - on this lip of the continent itself - is Raft Point, which was so named after, in 1838, John Lort Stokes found tribal rafts at a camp here.

These traditional mangrove timber rafts often were made of two parts, which separated when a dugong was speared - one part trailing behind the dugong on a rope, tiring it, the fisher left on the other half, following.

The great, red sandstone bluff of Raft Point is a massive landmark, and its Indigenous art site well visited and insightful, depicting the wandjina story of the fish chase across the Kimberley.

At Talbot Bay, in the Buccaneer Archipelago, travellers usually visit the Horizontal Waterfalls. The tide pushes through a bottleneck, pushing water between massive red sandstone rock faces into a bowl behind. In effect, literally creating a horizontal waterfall.

Most itineraries also include Prince Frederick's Harbour and the Hunter River.

Let me turn back to the list I wrote in a notebook on one visit there . . .

"smooth, serpentine river . . . mangroves and muddy tributaries . . . tide pushing in . . . crocodiles and azure kingfishers, a sea eagle calling overhead . . ."

The Kimberley coast is an area of significant biodiversity and is recognised as one of the most intact tropical marine ecosystems on Earth

Experiencing it is both a privilege and a joy.