Australia’s most spectacular wilderness is gradually opening up and those in search of an adventure holiday need to look no further. Mike Dolan looks at a bucket list of 12 places to visit.
Formidable and breathtakingly beautiful, the Kimberley in Western Australia is a destination waiting to be discovered. Bigger than Victoria and Tasmania combined, and three times the size of England, it’s home to some of Australia’s most spectacular landscapes.
Less than 50,000 people live here and only a handful of roads penetrate the interior. The tides that sweep its shores are among the biggest in the world, ensuring that only master mariners and pearl divers can safely navigate its waters. Yet, the Kimberley – with its vast stretches of uncharted territory and coastline – is slowly being tamed.
Now visitors can see some of its incredible 2000km coastline on an expedition-style cruise, find sublime solitude at an affordable bush camp, join a select land tour, live the good life at one of the region’s new luxury eco-resorts or simply visit Broome for a long weekend and a camel safari along its world-famous beach.
The Berkeley River Lodge – a sublime escape. Photo: Berkeley River Lodge.
THE BERKELEY RIVER LODGE
Perched on sand dunes where the Berkeley River flows into the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, between Timor Sea sunrises and Berkeley River sunsets, are 20 ocean- or river-view chalets that capture the can-do spirit of the Kimberley. This is the latest luxury widerness lodge to wow Australians and international visitors alike. As one guest writes in the visitor’s book, “Sensational”. And that about sums it up.
Every nut, bolt, cyclone building anchor and solar panel has been shipped 150km to the site by barge from Wyndham and put together on site. The result is extraordinary – a fleet of villas that appear to hover above the dunes and have as little impact on the environment as a camel train. Beyond this footprint, there’s no evidence that humans exist – no telegraph poles, trucks or the blaze of city lights at night. In fact, guests ould only arrive by air (seaplane, an hour from Kununurra), or water (by yacht, if they’re lucky enough to have one), as there’s not a road in sight. Recently, the resort has built its own airstrip and guests can now fly from Darwin and Kununurra.
The chief attraction here is simply being among the natural rhythms of nature. So remote is this beautiful stretch of coast, it almost defies the imagination that all the good things in life can be found here – great food and wine and the comfort one associates with the best five-star metropolitan hotels.
There are also cruises through ancient gorges, along Berkeley River, to Casuarina Falls and hikes to secluded icing sugar beaches, swimming in croc-free rock pools beneath waterfalls, wilderness picnics under candelabra trees and nature walks with a guide. For a price, the resident helicopter pilot will take you on an unforgettable flight to some the most impressive rock art sites in Australia and up the King George River, where you have lunch above the falls – the highest in the country. Whatever you decide, don’t forget to look up at the stars before dinner -on a clear night, the Milky Way dazzles. And fishing folk will be thrilled with the sport of catching queen fish, mulloway, barramundi and threadfin salmon.
The Berkeley River cruise is a major drawcard. Photo: Berkeley River Lodge.
Despite its remoteness, chefs at the Lodge kitchen create memorable gourmet meals served in the Dunes Restaurant that overlooks the resort’s 20-metre pool. There are light lunches and multi-course degustation dinners made with the freshest produce brought in every other day. The pork belly with hazel nuts and the duck comfit were as good as anything I’ve eaten in Sydney and Melbourne.
In every villa is an open-air bathroom. Enclosed by a brush fence, it comes equipped with shower, eco-toilet, twin vanity and enormous bath. A bathroom of this quality would not be out of place in a deluxe hotel, but out here under the stars as you soak, it’s enough to make you laugh with joy.
HOW: Berkeley River Lodge, (08) 9169 1330. A three-night package costs $3990 a person, twin-share and includes a scenic seaplane transfer from Kununurra and full board.
A camel safari on Cable Beach, Broome. Photo: Mike Dolan
FRONTIER TOWN: BROOME
Camel safaris on the beach and pearls the size of marbles have brought fame and fortune to Broome, an old pearling port, built on a peninsula overlooking the milky jade waters of Roebuck Bay. Tourism is booming in this frontier town that runs on “no worries, no hurry” Kimberley time.
Closer to Indonesia than Perth by some 1500km, Broome is the place to buy the biggest pearls at competitive prices, or take scenic flights and tours to the Kimberley’s top spots, including Cape Leveque and the Horizontal Waterfalls (see Riding The Rapids, below).
Broome’s other headline attraction is Cable Beach, a 22km stretch of sand voted among the world’s top 10 beaches and made famous by British millionaire Lord Alistair McAlpine, who kick-started tourism here when he opened the Cable Beach Club Resort in 1988.
Natural beauty and top-notch facilities are the major drawcards of this resort town, but for such a remote spot, there’s also a rich vein of romance, thanks to its pearling history, proximity to Asia and its indigenous culture. At Broome’s centre is Chinatown with an intriguing shopping street (especially if you like pearls). There are plenty of good restaurants and cafes, a Japanese cemetery, the last resting place of many pearl divers, and in Old Broome, beautiful heritage homes of long-gone pearling masters among the scented mango trees.
The entrance to the exotic Cable Beach Club Resort, Broome.
CABLE BEACH CLUB RESORT SPA
Like Raffles hotel in Singapore, this is the place to stay when in Broome. Opened in 1988 by Britain’s Lord Alistair McAlpine and refurbished in 2012, the resort mirrors the lifestyles of the pearling masters of colonial Broome and is the only resort positioned right on Cable Beach, where the camel trains begin and end their sunset safaris.
The top terrace of the Sunset Bar Grill overlooks the Indian Ocean and is the town’s premiere place for early evening drinks. Set among tropical gardens, the property features two pools (one adults-only) and the new Chahoya Spa by L’Occitane is easily the best spa on the West coast. Chahoya is a Japanese word meaning pamper and the spa is the first in Australia to partner with L’Occitane, the legendary French producer of some of world’s purest natural beauty products. The two-hour Journey to Province treatment combines a facial and a massage and is highly recommended.
The resort has various styles of accommodation, including entry-room studios, swimming pool suites, family-friendly bungalows (styled on historic pearling masters quarters) and luxurious suites adorned with antiques and original art.
Besides the Sunset Bar Grill, it has two other restaurants. At the Thai Pearl, al fresco dining under the stars, surrounded by frangipani trees, is perfect on a balmy evening. For those who like to dress up a little, there’s the award-winning Club Restaurant, where diners can enjoy a cocktail on the terrace before the taking their linen-dressed table surrounded by wood-paneled walls, antiques and coloured glass lanterns.
The Cable Beach Club Resort Spa has been the place to stay in Broome for more than 25 years, thanks to its fabulous location, its gorgeous gardens and the fact that it captures the very essence of the old pearling port it serves.
HOW: Cable Beach Club Resort Spa, 1800 199 099. Studios, from $259; Bungalows from $400.
A boab tree in front of the Cockburn Ranges. Photo: Mike Dolan.
From Kununurra, visitors can take a scenic flight (or 2½-hour road trip) to the Argyle Diamond Mine with Slingair tours or, if they’re more into bling than dirty big holes, visit Kimberley Fine Diamonds, (08) 9169 1133, where the proprietor, Frauke Bolten-Boshammer, has been creating hand-crafted jewellery for 20 years.
The showroom is a sparkling Aladdin’s cave, where signed thank-you notes adorn the walls (including one from Nicole Kidman, who visited when making the Baz Luhrmann film, Australia), where you’ll see women trying on jewellery as their husbands try to relax on the “Man Couch”.
The other must-do in Kununurra is an air tour over the Ord River with Slingair, or a river cruise – best when the cruise takes in the sunset.
An aerial view of the Horizontal Waterfalls. Photo: Mike Dolan.
HORIZONTAL FALLS: RIDING THE RAPIDS
This is a day you’ll never forget and it’s only a 90-minute flight on a seaplane from Broome. Not only do you get a bird’s eye view of the spectacular Kimberley coastline, but a dress-circle seat on one of the region’s extraordinary natural phenomena. The half-day, six-hour tour flies over the “Thousand Island Coastline” of the Buccaneer Archipelago to Talbot Bay, where huge volumes of tidal water flow between narrow gaps in an ancient mountain range, creating a tsunami-like horizontal waterfall.
Approaching the rapids of the Horizontal Waterfalls. Photo: Mike Dolan.
Created by some of the planet’s greatest tides, the ride is as thrilling as any you’ll find in any theme park, in a landscape a thousand times more inspiring. The half-day tour includes a visit to spectacular Cyclone Creek gorges, where boats head for shelter during storms, while the full-day tour also visits the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm.
HOW: Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures, (08) 9192 1172. Half-day tours depart 5.30am and 11.30am daily, April-October, $745 adults (full-day $795), $645 children.
APT Touring’s camp at Bell Gorge on the Gibb River Road. Photo: APT.
THE GIBB RIVER ROAD: 4WD ADVENTURE
To travel into the heart of the Kimberley is a journey that takes you through the Dreamtime of ancient gorges, mighty seasonal rivers, craggy bluffs, remote homesteads and Aboriginal legends. And there’s nothing better after a long dusty drive than reaching the waterfalls and croc-free rock pools of Bell Gorge. Shaped like an amphitheatre, this waterfall fills a deep clear pool, ideal for swimming, and on either side are large flat rocks, perfect to picnic on.
This is just one of many spectacular oases along the Gibb River Road that runs 660km between Derby in the west and Kununurra in the east. It’s not difficult to understand why it’s one of Australia’s most popular 4WD adventures.
Other attractions along the Gibb include Windjana Gorge National Park, Tunnel Creek National Park, Adcock Gorge, Manning Gorge, Galvans Gorge, Lennard Gorge and the King Leopold Ranges. Accommodation is offered by several cattle stations in the area, including Mount Hart Wilderness Lodge, Mount Elizabeth Station, Drysdale River Station, Ellenbrae and Charnley River Station.
Not all the locals are friendly. Don’t swim unless it’s safe! Photo: Mike Dolan.
However, one of the most famous places to visit is El Questro Wilderness Park (see below), where gorges and magnificent Aboriginal rock art make it one of most visited attractions in the Kimberley.
HOW: APT’s 15-Day Kimberley Complete takes in all the major attractions along the Gibb River Road, including El Questro and Bell’s Gorge, and also visits the Bungle Bungle in the Purnululu National Park, Mitchell Falls, Kununurra and the Ord River. Begins and ends in Broome, from $8795, and includes hotel and wilderness lodge accommodation and meals.
The Homestead at El Questro Wilderness Park. Photo: Mike Dolan.
EL QUESTRO WILDERNESS PARK
The key to El Questro’s appeal is how its three accommodation hubs blend seamlessly into the immense grandeur of the Cockburn Range. There is the exclusive Homestead, where the manicured lawn is surrounded by boab and frangipani trees, an oasis in a rugged landscape. Several of its balconies are perched over the gorge and in the water below, freshwater crocodiles can be seen swimming during the day. When the full moon rises, the gorge shimmers and a more romantic spot would be hard to find.
Another hub, Emma Gorge, where tented cabins line the entrance of a beautiful canyon, is an hour’s walk away from 30-metre waterfall that tumbles from a rock face, the size of a cathedral apse. And on the Pentecost River is The Station, the third hub and the park’s centre of operations, where staff in battered akubras and boots mix with guests staying in the air-conditioned bungalows along the river.
A ranger at Chamberlain Gorge, El Questro, points out rock art. Photo: Mike Dolan.
There’s also a campsite on the river, where you can pitch your tent for $20 per person a day. Each El Questro hub has its own licensed restaurant and at Emma Gorge, there’s a wrap-around veranda overlooking a landscaped park.
Tours to gorges, look-outs, waterfalls and rivers are available daily. Don’t miss the Wandijina and Bradshaw rock art figures in Chamberlain Gorge or a good soak in the naturally heated rock pools at Zebedee Springs, located in a luxuriant palm grove.
The wilderness park, which is also billed as “a million-acre cattle station” (not that you see many cattle), is a 90-minute drive west from Kununurra.
HOW: El Questro Wilderness Park, 1300 863 248, is open from April 1 to the end of October. Camping, $20 per person, a day; Emma Gorge Tented Cabins, from $289 twin-share; Station Bungalows, from $374; Homestead suites from $1949 a night (minimum two-night stay).
The “mini Bungle Bungles” at the Eco Beach Resort. Photo: Mike Dolan.
ECO BEACH RESORT
An hour-and-a-half drive south of Broome is Eco Beach, one of the most accessible wilderness resorts in the Kimberley. It’s also the best value. Twenty-five solar-powered villas make this a civilised escape, perfect for Robinson Crusoe types in search of comfort. Located on dunes overlooking the Indian Ocean, it’s a retreat in every sense of the word.
The villas have solar air-conditioning, king-sized beds and luxury fittings with beach-facing verandas and out-door showers. An adventage of booking a villa is that it allows guests to be self-catering, but everyone is advised to eat at least once in the restaurant as the meals are superb. The Duck Three Ways is a must. The 30 safari-style eco-tents are simple, but comfortable, and have their own en-suite bathroom (they are about half the price of the villas). All the accommodation is connected by a kilometre of wooden boardwalks. The centre of the resort is the restaurant, which has lovely views over the ocean and the impressive pool, where guests can swim lengths to their heart’s content. There’s also a spa and a yoga room that overlooks the sea.
A 20-minute walk away is a spectacular rock formation, a miniature version of the famous Bungle Bungles and, anchored in the bay, is the resort catamaran that goes on whale-watching trips. The staff obviously love what they do and their enthusiasm is infectious. Try a morning yoga class before breakfast, then take a bush tucker walk or go mud crabbing at Jack’s Creek.
The swimming pool at the Eco Beach Resort. Photo: Mike Dolan.
HOW: Eco Beach Resort, (08) 9193 8015, is 130km south west of Broome via the Great Northern Highway and approximately 2200km north east of Perth. The retreat is an easy 10km off the highway, along an unsealed road that is suitable for 2WD vehicles. It’s a 12-minute flight in a light airplane from Broome. Eco Tent, from $165; Eco Villa, from $250; Beach House, from $750.
Cruising the Kimberley coast. Photo: Mike Dolan.
CRUISE THE KIMBERLEY COAST
You could find yourself on a beach with hundreds of manta rays swimming in the shallows or in an inflatable surrounded by a vast amphitheatre of rock in front of Australia’s highest waterfall on the King George River. Half another later, back on ship, you could be swapping stories at the bar, as you sip wine and nibble canapés.
That’s how the days can unfold on a Kimberley cruise: a morning or afternoon adventure; an evening of fine dining and a good night’s sleep in a well-appointed stateroom.
The best cruises take you on daily adventures in inflatables as the ship sits at anchor in a beautiful bay. The journey often starts in Broome and finishes in Darwin or vice versa. You’ll visit places such as the Buccaneer Archipelago, Lacepede Islands, Montgomery Reef and King George River Twin Falls. The scenery never disappoints and if you choose the right cruise, the on-board experience will match.
HOW: APT Kimberley Cruising, 1300 336 392. APT’s new deluxe small, but perfectly appointed cruise ship, Caledonian Sky, offers an 11-day Kimberley Coast Cruise from Broome to Darwin, visiting the Lacepede islands, Talbot Bay, Horizontal Falls, Buccaneer Archipelago, Montgomery Reef, Doubtful Bay, Raft Point and much more, from $9995 per person.
Alternatively, join a luxury expedition cruise with Linblad – National Georgraphic on the Orion (see photo above), 1300 361 012.
King George Twin Falls. Photo: Mike Dolan.
KING GEORGE RIVER TWIN FALLS
Seen in Baz Luhrmann’s movie Australia, the waterall on the King George River is the country highest with a drop of more than 50 metres. In a word, it’s monumental. Just after the wet, the roar of this vast volume of falling water can be heard kilometres away, but as the dry season progresses, it thins until the falls become as diaphanous as a bridal veil.
It’s not just the falls that impress, but the ride in an inflatable along the steep-sided gorge from the mouth of the river. These towering walls of red rock dwarf everything on the water. Fit visitors can climb up a trail to the top of the falls and swim in croc-free rock pools high on the escarpment.
Faraway Bay Eagle Lodge is small, remote and very special. Photo: Mike Dolan.
FARAWAY BAY BUSH CAMP
Located on the Diamond Coast, 280km north west of Kununurra, the name of this bush hideaway says it all. So cut off from all other human activity is the camp, guests often feel that time stands still. When it does move, it’s measured in tides and sunsets.
Perched high above the bay, the camp has eight comfortable, secluded bush-style cabins, with 180-degree views of the ocean. Eagle Lodge – a stone and wood eyrie with a tin roof – serves as lounge and dining room and is the heart and soul of the place. It is here guests enjoy hearty breakfasts and lighter lunches, while watching sea eagles wheel in the sky or the 3.5-metre saltie cruise the bay. Evenings are spent wining and dining under the stars. The barra fishing is exceptional, as are the local rock art sites, but the main attraction is the cruise to the King George Falls and a side trip to Shell Beach, where millions of shells make an ethereal tinkling with the pull of every wave.
HOW: Stay at Faraway Bay. Two-day/two night package in en-suite villa that includes pick-up in Kununurra, scenic flight transfers, most activities and full board, from $3995.
Montgomery Reef witnesses some the world’s greatest tides. Photo: Mike Dolan.
An hour away from Talbot Bay, where the tides can reach 12.8 metres, is Montgomery Reef, another extraordinary Kimberley phenomenon. As the tide rapidly falls, the reef appears to rise out of ocean like a huge stage, as torrents of water pour off its sides. Of course, it’s an optical illusion. It’s not the reef rising from the sea, but the sea falling away from the reef. So rapidly does this occur, it fools the brain into seeing the opposite. As more water gushes off the reef, fish jump for their lives, corals become exposed, until a reef the size of several football fields is left basking under the sun.
HOW: APT Kimberley Cruising (see Cruise the Kimberley Coast).
APT’s tented cabins on the Mitchell Plateau, near the famous waterfalls.
MITCHELL PLATEAU FALLS
Lying at the north-west tip of the Kimberley, Mitchell Falls mark the end of the “road” … almost. In fact, the 4WD track doesn’t quite make it to the famous four-tiered waterfall. It’s a couple hour’s walk over rugged terrain, only for the fit and sure-footed.
Yet, there’s plenty more to see, including a vast ancient palm forest that covers most of 400sq km plateau. There are gorges, other waterfalls (Little Merten and Big Merten Falls) and a plethora of rock art, including Gwion (Bradshaw) and Wandjina sites. The Plateau is accessible via the Kalumburu road. The turn-off for the Kulumburu road is located 411km from Derby or 294km from Kununurra, along the Gibb River Road. If you can’t make the drive up onto the plateau, you can make your way to Drysdale Station, the last refuelling stop. The station also has a provisions store, accommodation and offers scenic flights over the plateau to the Falls. For those who like to be driven, APT include the Mitchell Plateau in one of their tours (see below).
HOW: APT’s 15-Day Kimberley Complete takes in all the major attractions along the Gibb River Road, including El Questro and Bell’s Gorge, and also visits the Bungle Bungle in the Purnululu National Park, Mitchell Plateau and Falls, Kununurra and the Ord River. Begins and ends in Broome, from $8795, and includes hotel and wilderness lodge accommodation and meals.
Two of the four tiers of Mitchell Falls. Photo: Tourism Western Australia.
MOST REMOTE LODGES ARE ONLY OPEN BETWEEN APRIL AND OCTOBER, CHECK BEFORE BOOKING. PRICES ARE APPROXIMATE: CHECK WITH THE PROPERTY.
Kimberley calling: The bucket list