Kimberley coast: A coastal seduction

By Paul Rush

Dawn breaks over the broad blue expanse of Talbot Bay on the north west Kimberley coast as our aluminium dingy makes an exhilarating, white-knuckle, full-power run at a narrow gap in the cliffs.

I rip off my floppy sunhat and place it on the seat before the surge of air can carry it away. Foaming sea water pours through the 20m-wide opening ahead from a huge basin beyond. Russet-toned outcrops of weathered sandstone bathed in first light soar 250m above the boat as we nose into the current.

Gripping the handrail, I bounce on the seat several times, take a deep breath and, suddenly, we're through.

Wallowing in the calm of the basin, we high five and holler a "yee-ha" or two. We have conquered the famous Horizontal Waterfall of the Kimberley's Buccaneer Archipelago. When I reach for my hat I find it has disappeared. It's my offering to the tidal flows and rapids of Talbot Bay.

During spring high tides a million litres a second flows through the outer gap. The tidal variation can reach 11m here, the second largest in the world after Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy. The big tides are matched by formidable landscapes - spectacular red-rock gorges and amphitheatres cradle emerald freshwater pools and gushing waterfalls.

I'm cruising aboard a 26m-long catamaran called the MV Great Escape. The vessel is custom-made for coastal cruising with a maximum of 14 guests. This means the air-conditioned en suite cabins, lounge, formal dining room, alfresco dining area, spa and rooftop helicopter offer five-star luxury afloat.

My four-day cruise is known as the Quintessential Kimberley Coast Escape, involving a flight from Broome to the remote Buccaneer Archipelago, exploring Doubtful and Talbot Bays on the vessel and its three tenders and helicopter and a flight back to Broome.

Captain Chris "Trippy" Tucker is a 26-year-veteran of cruising in these waters. He has the happy knack of choosing a competent crew and trusting them to carry out their delegated duties. Outdoor activities and liquid refreshments, snacks and gourmet meals, seem to materialise at timely intervals as if the whole Great Escape itinerary is being choreographed by some unseen hand. I suspect that the hand belongs to the capable Trippy.

Trippy grew up in Africa on tea plantations and moved to Geraldton in Western Australia with his family as a teenager. Training as a shipwright, he went on to dabble in crayfishing, barramundi fishing, pearl diving and crocodile farming. He then secured a captain's post on a Kimberley charter boat.

In 2001 he felt the time was right to launch his own operation and it has thrived. He loves the Kimberley coast. "The place is becoming more accessible but still remains raw and rugged - last frontier territory," he says. "The landscape sells itself and people often come back, bringing their friends."

Over countless millennia nature has created many wondrous landscapes in the Kimberley region but one stands out - Australia's largest and least-known inshore reef system, Montgomery Reef. When I first sight this phenomenon, I can't believe what is happening as the tide recedes and exposes the reef.

I watch a black monolith rising from the depths, spilling millions of litres of water from its flanks. The flat-topped reef measures 60km by 50km and reduces to one tenth of this area at high tide as a cluster of tiny islands, so woe betide any boatie that lingers on the ebb tide.

As the tide races off the reef water races around the perimeter creating rivers of foaming sea, carrying nutrients that attract hawksbill turtles, who feed on the sea grass. Deckhand Brent is challenged to dive off the tender and grab a turtle for us to admire. This is achieved with grace and dexterity while fully clothed. Brent is a Kiwi with an adventurous spirit so he was unfazed by this act of daring.

Crewman Callum, who's working on his master's ticket, becomes noticeably animated when a fishing excursion is planned. He guides us to "spot X" in a tender and we troll for fish beside mangrove-fringed islets. We hook up on black bream, snapper, queen fish and trevally, but soon learn there are very determined predators lurking beneath us that feel they have proprietary rights over the water and its denizens.

As we haul in a silver giant trevally, it flashes in the bright sunlight, which is all the inducement a tiger shark needs to follow it and cleanly snap off its tail section.

Later, a 3m saltwater crocodile approaches the boat, regarding us with a malevolent yellow eye. We frantically reel in a good-sized trevally as the croc is menacing it. You would think a hefty whack on the head with a paddle would deter any right-thinking saurian with 200 million years of evolution. Not this fellow. He quickly chomps the fish in half and then slides silently beneath the waves with a contented grin on his face.

Spring is in the air and we see the emergence of new life all around us. An osprey is nurturing its chick, humpback whales and their calves breach and blow on the horizon. Baby turtles and clusters of fish are drawn to the channels around Montgomery Reef. The coral polyps exposed to sunlight on the draining reef plateau suffer no adverse effects. The clever little mites secrete a mucous that acts as a sunblock rated at SPF45 by scientists.

Our cruise is at once absorbing, inspiring and often challenging. I met my personal Waterloo at Ruby Falls on Crocodile Creek. Trippy named this gentle cascade back in 1985. Our group climbed the jagged face of the falls and frolicked in the upper pool.

When it was time to descend, a few diehards couldn't resist the adrenalin rush of a 7m plunge off the cliff into the lower pool. The psychology of group dynamics is not too subtle in these situations, so I steeled myself to make the leap of faith. I have done a skydive and two bungy jumps but have the habit of closing my eyes when falling through space. True to form, I leap with arms outstretched and eyes shut, so don't realise I'm in a seated position, hitting the water solidly on my bottom.

Evenings on the Great Escape are delightful. The boat rests as steady as a rock on her mooring. The air is still and warm, the sun paints the rugged Kimberley escarpments a deep red and slides quickly beneath the western horizon, laying out a golden pathway across the Indian Ocean. The landscape conveys the feeling of absolute isolation, as if we're the first people to venture here.

The relaxed atmosphere and camaraderie we enjoy in the outside dining area is an outstanding feature of the cruise. Nothing is too much trouble for the crew. Chef Mitch, aka "Fridge", assisted by stewardess Emma, surprises us with a variety of meals, from smoked salmon to honey chicken and eye fillet steak with saffron mash.

The ultimate escape on our cruise is a birthday celebration on the last night. Two couples ask Jimmy, the helicopter pilot, to fly them to a promontory high up on the vivid red escarpment to mark the occasion with a bottle of champagne while watching the sunset.

The name The Great Escape says it all - the sublime grandeur of the red rock escarpments, the onboard comfort, exciting activities, great weather, laughter and friendship.

Living in this entirely new world of sights and experiences is very seductive.

Paul Rush travelled to the Kimberley courtesy of Tourism Western Australia, Air New Zealand, Sky West and The Great Escape.

- Hamilton News

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