On the ship Orion, Jane Archer heads to Australia's Kimberley region to scale waterfalls, sample helicopter tours and spot man-eating beasts (from the safety of a rubber dinghy).
I'm in an inflatable Zodiac, circling off the beach of Naturalists Island in Kimberley, Australia, chatting excitedly as I wait for the helicopter. It will whisk me and my daughter to Mitchell Falls, 20 minutes inland, when Noelle, our Filipino pilot, drops a bombshell. The "log" at the edge of the water is a crocodile.
I have spent three days of this cruise from Broome to Darwin on the National Geographic Orion looking out for a croc -- beasts that are supposed to be omnipresent in this part of the world -- from the safety of a Zodiac (we have been allowed ashore twice only and trailing our hands in the water is verboten in case one of these walking handbags is lurking). Now there is one on the beach where we will go ashore. This must be the Aussie version of Murphy's Law.
"What do we do?" I ask the driver, trying to sound worried for the passengers who will be returning on the helicopter but actually concerned that it means the end of our excursion to the falls. They have been operating all morning; two helicopters, four people at a time -- except we are the last and there's just three of us.
"He'll run when he hears the helicopter," our driver replies, cool as you like. He is right. The beast scarpers at the sound of the whirling blades, but I am still looking left and right as I clamber out of the Zodiac into the water and run up the beach.
Then comes the other bombshell. The helicopter has no doors; we learn later from other passengers that the other one didn't even have safety harnesses, just a lap seat belt. Scary stuff. Never mind Crocodile Dundee, this cruise is turning into a James Bond movie.
Our Orion cruise promised to be real once-in-a-lifetime stuff. We would be sailing around Kimberley -- a remote area in northwestern Australia which is nearly four times the size of New Zealand's North Island with a population of just over 50,000 people and a couple of roads that become almost impassable in the wet season, between November and April, when up to 127cm of rain falls.
It's so remote that much of this stretch of coast is still uncharted. Captain Vincent Taillard, master of Orion (the name of the ship and the cruise line), had to moor far off several of the places we visited, necessitating long, sometimes uncomfortable rides in the Zodiac to get to land.
As Orion is small, with capacity for only 106 people, within an hour of boarding my daughter and I had settled into our suite -- a lovely room stylishly decorated, with a separate bedroom and sitting area -- and tucked into a welcoming glass or two of champagne. We explored the ship and made friends with barmen Benjie, Eric and Ray.
They were surprised to meet people who were further from home than they were and looked after us like royalty. Actually, so did the rest of the crew, led by Gabor, the maitre d'.
Life on board was fun, from the deck barbecues (three in 10 nights) to the daily trivia quizzes hosted by Fran, one half of the entertainment duo.
The friendly Aussie passengers moaned about the cost of the drinks but indulged in plenty of the amber nectar. The cost of drinks was my biggest gripe. Given Orion sells itself as five-star luxury and we were in the middle of nowhere -- not even able to go and have a drink ashore during the day -- I reckon soft drinks at least and wine with dinner should have been included in the price. At least -- given the extreme heat -- the bottled water was covered.
We took a fast boat ride through white-water rapids with Adrian at the helm, a lad in his early 20s who lives in a hut in the middle of Talbot Bay during winter.
We watched close up from Zodiacs as Montgomery Reef loomed out of the ocean. Kimberley has enormous tides of up to 12m and, as the water ebbs, the reef appears, with gushing waterfalls cascading off it.
We walked to a DC-3 aircraft that crashed during World War II, saw green turtles, whales and Aboriginal rock art believed to be as much as 50,000 years old, flew over the Bungle Bungles (a range of beehive-looking sandstone rock formations), scrambled to the top of the 79m-high King George Falls and had a cooling shower under the pouring water -- rather like being pummelled by a ruthless masseur -- while seated in the Zodiacs when we got back down.
We drank Bloody Marys that the crew had mixed on a sandbar by the reef, supped champagne that Gabor and his gang were handing out from a Zodiac at the bottom of King George Falls, and swam in a waterhole, ominously called Crocodile Creek ("We throw a crew member in and if he comes out we know it's safe," joked Ian, the cruise director), while Gus played Stranger on the Shore on his sax. Truly sublime.
Trips were guided by a four-man expedition team, who piloted the Zodiacs and talked about the region's history, geology, flora and fauna.
Darrin ran the daily fishing expeditions, Harry was tireless in his quest for great photographs, Steve was cautious, and clearly unhappy, when we came face to snout with a huge crocodile basking beside the Hunter river. He was even less happy when his Zodiac became stuck in the mud as the inscrutable crocodile watched.
"Does he know we are here?" I asked.
"You could get out and see but I don't recommend it," he replied, a little embarrassed as a Filipino crewman driving one of the other Zodiacs came to our rescue.
I think that meant yes.
Getting there: The Kimberley Expedition: Australia's Wild Northwest journey on the National Geographic Orion departs from Darwin or Broome during June, July and August.
Further information: See expeditions.com for more details.