Not all Kimberley cruises are created the same, some ships have their 'secret spots' and others start and finish in different locations. But, there are seven major icons of the Kimberley Coast that you must make sure your itinerary includes. Here's our checklist of the seven unmissable icons of Australia's Kimberley Coast.
Legendary documentary-maker and naturalist Sir David Attenborough once described Horizontal Falls as ‘one of the greatest natural wonders of the world’ and it would be impossible to disagree! Located deep in Talbot Bay, massive tidal movements create a waterfall effect as water banks up against one side of the narrow cliff passage, to be repeated again on the turning tide. Over the course of six and a half hours from low tide to high tide and vice versa there is tide variation of more than ten metres! The effect of the waterfalls is created by the tide building up in front of the gaps faster than it can flow through them and there can be a four-metre high waterfall between the bays.
On most expedition cruises you will have the chance to have an adrenaline-filled inflatable zodiac ride through the falls, a real thrill and a highlight of any Kimberley cruise. True North and Great Escape also offer the opportunity for helicopter flights above the falls.
Picture yourself being anchored 20 kilometres off the Kimberley Coast, surrounded by endless blue waters, with just a speck of the far-off horizon in the distance. Then, try to imagine the sea levels dropping by ten metres to expose Australia’s largest inshore reef system, Montgomery Reef. Covering over 400 square kilometres, Montgomery Reef is located adjacent to Doubtful Bay and is truly Australia’s greatest marine spectacle.
As the tide ebbs, up to four metres of reef is exposed and thousands of cascading waterfalls are created, each with sufficient power to make it hard work for the tender boat's engines to push through. The array of marine life on display, from sea turtles to sharks, manta rays, black tipped reef sharks and dugongs, will amaze. Not to mention the thousands of migratory wading birds keeping watch for a tasty morsel as they circle overhead.
After a few hours exploring the rivers and valleys of the reef system, the tide once again turns, concealing the reef. You would hardly believe what lay beneath if you hadn’t seen it for yourself.
Just about all of the expedition cruise ships time their visits to this area to coincide with the twice-daily 'reef reveals', and after all my visits to the Kimberley, experiencing Montgomery Reef at low tide never disappoints.
Mitchell Falls is the most photographed of all of the Kimberley’s wonders. The powerful waters of the mighty Mitchell River cascade over four tiers, with a total drop of over 80 metres.
No ship can cruise directly up to the base of Mitchell Falls, as the river isn't navigable. Instead, you’re going to need to take a helicopter flight in. Two expedition ships - True North and Great Escape - offer their own private helicopters, whilst other ships call in a local helicopter operator based near the falls to provide scenic flights. A highly recommended two hour excursion, including scenic flight from the ship across the Mitchell Plateau to the falls and back, and an hour to swim in the Mitchell River (above the falls - where there are no crocs!) and take photos costs around $500 per person, but it’s well worth the expense.
Mermaid Boab Tree
Phillip Parker King is a name you hear a lot in the Kimberley and one of the highlights of the Kimberley Coast is seeing 'his' Boab tree. There's an incredible story behind this tree, starting when King careened his vessel the Mermaid for six weeks of repairs during his coastal survey in back in 1820. During those weeks spent in this remote and inhospitable location, King's carpenter carved the details of their visit into a small boab tree. His inscription read:
HMC Mermaid 1820
The beach where King successfully carried out Mermaid's repairs is known as Careening Bay, and today - almost 200 years later - the twin-trunked boab tree is now twelve metres wide, the letters huge.
Prince Regent River
Many of the bigger ships (indeed any of those carrying more than 100 passengers) don't include a visit to King Cascades as they have no way to ferry their guests the 27 kilometres up the Prince Regent River to the base of the falls. I'm sure guests travelling on board those ships would be majorly disappointed, as King Cascades is without doubt one of the most scenic locales in the Kimberley. The cascades themselves are around 40 metres tall, with the water falling down tiered rock formations. King Cascades is also fed by a natural spring, meaning water will be flowing year round, even well after the wet season rains have dried up elsewhere.
For those who are feeling energetic, it's well worth the effort to hike to the freshwater pools above the falls for a dip, but whatever you do, don’t swim in the river below the falls! You might remember back to 1987 when American model Ginger Faye Meadows famously tried to cool off in these waters and was tragically taken by a huge saltwater croc - who some say still patrols the Prince Regent today!
Contact us to find out which Kimberley cruising options include exploration of King Cascades.
The Bradshaw Paintings (Gwion Gwion)
Raft Point & East Kimberley
During your expedition cruise you're going to come face to face with lots of rock art. Because in the Kimberley it’s everywhere you look; on cliff faces, rock overhangs and in caves. You’ll quickly discover that there are two main types of art found in the Kimberley. The more modern (if you can call it that - it's around 5,000 years old) and prevalent is the Wandjina art, easily recognisable by the pale, circle spirit faces drawn without mouths. The second type of art you will see is a major drawcard for many art lovers - the mysterious Bradshaw Paintings, known as ‘Gwion Gwion’ to the locals.
Named for pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw, the first European to record these distinctive paintings back in 1891, the origin of the Bradshaw Paintings is still being debated today. Dating back at least 20,000 years, some experts opine that the paintings were drawn by the forefathers of the current local indigenous people, whilst others claim that the art has an Indonesian influence, and may have been produced by some of the first traders to reach Australian shores. Whatever you come to believe of their origin, these luminous, ochre figures - often decorated with tassels and ornate head-dresses - are a sight to behold.
Without doubt one of the best places to view both Wandjina art and the Bradshaw Paintings is at Raft Point, a spot visited by most expedition ships these days. A short hike leads up hill to a rocky overhang, where fine examples of both varieties of art can be viewed. There are also many fine examples in Vansittart Bay, and indeed right along the coast.
King George Falls
King George River
Those who managed to sit through Baz Luhrmann's epic 2008 film, Australia, will surely recognise King George Falls. Located near Wyndham in the Northern Kimberley, some of the shorter ‘Southern Kimberley’ expeditions don’t have time to visit these imposing twin falls, however if you have the time for a longer journey between Broome and Wyndham or Broome and Darwin then a cruise down the King George River is sure to be a highlight.
The best time to see King George Falls is at the start of the cruising season, between March and May, when the water is flowing at its most powerful. After cruising twelve kilometres up river, surrounded by towering sandstone escarpments on either side, the sheer volume of water crashing over the falls creates a distant roar that grows in volume as you approach. On some itineraries there's even time for the active to join a challenging walk to the top of the falls for outstanding panoramas and some great photography opportunities.
TIP: If witnessing the Kimberley’s main waterfalls at their absolute best (right after the wet season) appeals to you, each March the 14-guest Great Escape offers a nine day Waterfall Safari expedition that includes Mitchell Falls, King Cascades and King George Falls.
One more thing...
If you’ve taken the time to travel all the way to the Kimberley it would be a pity not to spend some time exploring Broome and venturing inland to discover the East Kimberley’s Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungle), Ord River and El Questro Station. Our team has created some great land packages designed to be combined with your cruise for the ultimate Kimberley expedition adventure! Ask us for more information when you book your Kimberley expedition.
Photos used in this post supplied by Coral Expeditions, True North, Kimberley Quest & Great Escape.