Moon rise over Berkeley River
Berkeley River resort. Supplied picture

"This far north-west coast, split into a thousand fjords breathtaking in their colour and beauty, is far and away the loveliest in Australia," wrote 1930s traveler and author Ernestine Hill who predicted that one day the Kimberley would be a world-famous attraction.

SEE THE BERKELEY RIVER PICTURE GALLERY HERE

How right she was, I muse, as our runabout slips up the Berkeley River, between 80-metre high ramparts and pillars that could have belonged to a tumbled, sandstone Camelot. These silent red escarpments are, of course, far older than any notion of Camelot - by some 1800 million years - being part of one of the oldest coasts on earth.

Going ashore, we trek past ghostly boabs and Aboriginal shell middens, climbing to reach a waterfall that's sufficiently above the tidal river that no saltwater crocodiles can reach where we might swim.

After a good dunking in Amphitheatre Falls - in surely the purest water on the planet - we clamber over boulders, following our guide to a rock overhang where a curious animal has dwelled for millennia.

The ochre image of a thin-tailed, long-nosed quadruped is not of a kangaroo because its forelegs are too long, its upper body too bulky. If anything, the creature looks much like a Tasmanian tiger.

And it possibly is because, even though thylacines disappeared from mainland Australia some 2000 years ago, the painting we're looking at may be over 17,000 years old.

It is but one of thousands of "Bradshaw" or Gwion Gwion paintings that are found across the Kimberley. Distinctly unlike familiar Aboriginal art, these delicate ochre figures - executed, it is speculated, by even earlier settlers from a rainforest culture - dance across rock faces and across time, arrayed with dilly bags, weapons and headdresses. For good reason the Kimberley has been described as "steeped in history and older than imagination."

The Berkeley River flows off the Kimberley plateau into the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf near Cape St Lambert, about 170 km north-west of Kununurra.

Perhaps the last great watercourse to be discovered in Australia, its mouth lay hidden behind dunes and was invisible from the sea until explorer Charles Price Conigrave found it in 1911.

More Kimberley:
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BROOME ON A BUDGET
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BEEHIVE YOURSELF
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RICH REWARDS

Naming the river after his brother Berkeley, Conigrave declared this scenery to be "as wild as any to be seen in Australia" and predicted that, "when the Far North becomes generally known to the world at large, this great gorge will be the haunt of tourists."

I had taken a floatplane from Kununurra - there are no roads at all - to a new luxury resort, also named The Berkeley River, that overlooks the river mouth. Risking a contradiction in geographic terms, I think of this is "Outback ocean" country.

The Berkeley River's 20 ocean view chalets sit high on a dune, with each having its own private balcony that allows a 180-degree ocean or river view. The cyclone-proof chalets feature vernacular Aussie corrugated iron exteriors, while the air-conditioned interiors have plenty of creature comforts, plus a capacious, egg-shaped al fresco bathtub.

The main building's bar-restaurant area is the place to mingle and then to dip into the ever-changing degustation menu. Starlit dining on the adjoining pool deck is an unlisted special on that menu.

Broome hotelier Martin Peirson-Jones and his wife Kim spent two years living and working on the site during the construction of the property. While they prefer to not use the term "resort," it seems a closer word than "lodge" or any other approximation.

Having leased the 4,600 ha site from its traditional Aboriginal owners, they set out with a careful consideration of their environment. The residential property takes up only a small portion of the total lease and they have striven for minimal impact on the surroundings. At the same time, as Kim says, "We want our guests to enjoy the wildness and beauty of the area in total comfort and with as much luxury as we can offer."

The resort's "to-do" list includes serious fishing, dune and beach drives, river trips and helicopter sightseeing. Simply arriving and departing by a float-plane, skating across the mouth of the river, might be thrill enough for some visitors, but that is only the beginning.

The Berkeley River - both the waterway and its namesake resort - is a place of dugong, barramundi, crocodiles, those sandstone fjords, dancing rock art and true, wireless remoteness.

Back on the river again, we head up a tributary, Casuarina Creek that flows from nearby Mount Casuarina; explorer Conigrave aptly described the mesa-topped dome as "a lonely mark on that very lonely coast." Brahminy kites and red-tailed black cockatoos flit through the deep azure sky above us, causing the "twitchers" - serious birdwatchers - among us to leap for their binoculars.

The rocks look like crocodiles and the crocodiles look like driftwood. "Snapping handbags," our skipper calls them. Needless to say, the beaches here are lethal, so again we climb far up a stepped, sandstone gorge before we swim and picnic beside a flowing, crystal pool. I remind myself that, were this coast free of crocodiles and marine stingers, its endless beaches and turquoise waters would probably now be home to a Tahiti of the north or a Cancun-to-be.

For our last night at the resort, the sky turns on a 270-degree sunset, all lime, fire and brimstone vapour. Having slipped the petty gravity rings of cell phones - there is no reception out here - and the din of mandatory media, all there is to do after a brilliant day and dinner is to watch the moon rise over the river and give thanks to the Kimberley for its timeless rocks and guardian crocs.


FACT FILE

• The Berkeley River resort is open year-round, including the spectacular wet season from December to April.

• Three-night packages of $2988 per person include meals, activities and floatplane transfers from Kununurra. For other options see www.berkeleyriver.com.au or call 08 9169 1330.

• Both Airnorth ( www.airnorth.com.au ) and Skywest ( www.skywest.com.au ) service Kununurra.

The West Australian

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