A dramatic lightning display in northwest Australia is topped by turquoise sea, tumbling waterfalls and hi-def sunsets, writes Pamela Wade.

For 20 minutes, Max stood at the bow of the boat, holding up his cellphone as the lightning forked down around him. Those of us not thinking instant death were reminded of Benjamin Franklin but all that happened was that Jarrad captured a stunning photo. It was better than anyone else's, but we'd all had fun trying - as well as plenty of opportunity. The storm, strangely silent despite the close proximity of the lightning strikes all around us, lasted six hours.

It was compensation for being in the Kimberley at the end of the wet season. Up in the Australian northwest there are only two seasons, and the dry, from April to October, is when the tourists come for cloudless days of 30C heat. But we had come in March, to 38C, 85 per cent humidity - and the kind of lightning that ruins fireworks displays for ever after.

It was an entirely unnecessary spectacle. We'd already been blown away by the scenery: the contrast of orange rock with turquoise sea, high mesas towering above green bush, tumbling waterfalls, hi-def sunsets that were unbelievably intense.

The Aussies, naturally, called it "speccy", and the specciest bit of all were the "Horries".

Advertisement

These are the Horizontal Falls, icon of the Kimberley, and deservedly so. Whether seen from above in our seaplane from Broome to Talbot Bay to board the Kimberley Quest, our home for the next week, or up close from a motorboat bouncing and skidding over them on the swirling water, they're seriously impressive.

Water trapped in flooded valleys struggles to escape through two narrow gaps in the cliffs, as the tide rises and falls so quickly that the levels can't stabilise, creating a waterfall effect up to 4m high.

Tides rule in the Kimberley. Eleven metres is standard, 13m on a spring tide, and the effects are everywhere, from the ruler-straight stains high on the bases of the cliffs along the coast, to the shifting sandbars that make every boat trip an exercise in close attention, to the scheduling of visits up the rivers.

This is one of the small vessel's advantages: it's small enough to penetrate into the depths of this remote region and discover delights like King Cascade, a beautiful multi-cataract waterfall tumbling down a stepped cliff between tufts of grasses so perfectly placed that the whole thing looks landscaped.

The fact that they're still talking about how Ginger Meadows was taken by a croc here in 1987 just adds to the drama of the spectacle.

The waterhole at the top, fortunately, is croc-free and wonderfully refreshing after the scramble to reach it.

A haven of civilisation in this gorgeous but hostile environment, the boat has nine cabins and is eminently comfortable.

From the big dining table on the back deck to the spa pool on the top (and not forgetting the glorious air-conditioning in-between), every need is met - and then some. Two breakfasts are standard, lunch is big, dinner is bigger, all of it delicious.

The crew is friendly and efficient, and full of great stories, most of them involving crocs.

Resident naturalist Tim has all the facts: 700km of rocky coastline, 2700 islands, 2500 plants, the rocks 1800 million years old, the tides bigger than anywhere else in the tropics, human occupation dating back 40,000 years.

Callum and Kenny, indigenous people, came aboard and led us to an overhang to tell us Dreamtime stories about the mysterious Wandjina figures painted there, round-headed and mouthless.

We had other visitors: Guy landed his helicopter on the roof, providing the perfect way to appreciate the vastness of the region, the many islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago, the spectacle of Montgomery Reef, huge, raised and streaming with waterfalls as the tide fell.

Greg from AstroTours in Broome conducted a leisurely star-gazing session, pointing out constellations in both hemispheres as we sprawled on the top deck.

Shooting stars added momentary excitement, but lying in the warm dark on a comfortable mattress allowed for long, deep thoughts and random questions: the sort of thing that ordinary life doesn't have time for. There was also fishing, for barramundi, cod and salmon, all of which we caught and some of which we ate on the vessel as we waited for the next diversion: a spa bath in the sunshine, a long dinner on the deck, dolphins and turtles to spot - or an incredible lightning display to photograph.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fly on Air New Zealand's new Dreamliner non-stop to Perth (airnewzealand.co.nz) and travel onwards with their codeshare partner Virgin Australia to Broome. The Kimberley Quest offers a range of cruises lasting from six to 14 days.

For more information: Visit westernaustralia.com.au
The writer was a guest of Kimberley Quest, Air New Zealand and Tourism Western Australia.