The wild west

It’s time to go back—to the Kimberley.

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The wild northwest corner of Australia will take you back. Back in time with ochre-stained rock and ancient tales. Back to the wide-open ocean freedom of our intrepid seafaring ancestors. Back to nature in her rawest form.

Australia’s last wilderness frontier, the rugged Kimberley coastline, stretches between Broome and Darwin. It encompasses more than 2600 islands (some unnamed), countless gorges carved from ancient red rock, and scores of stories to be told.

The remote region is best accessed by sea, tracing the routes of pearl divers, pirates and pioneering explorers for 1001 nautical miles. To immerse yourself fully in the wild wonder, you’ll want the company of guides with intimate knowledge of the history, wildlife and culture, on a small-ship expedition that encounters whales and waterfalls alike along the length of the broken coastline and maze of channels.

The Kimberley coast is a realm ruled by the tides. In Talbot Bay, rushing currents squeeze through a chasm creating the Horizontal Falls—a phenomenon Sir David Attenborough has called “Australia’s most unusual natural wonder”. A zodiac ride will get you up close with the turbulent waters and whirlpools that long ago claimed the lives of unwary pearlers.

Tidal law also reigns over Montgomery Reef, 400 square kilometres that rise spectacularly from the ocean as the tide recedes. Seawater cascades in waterfalls, revealing great slabs of sandstone and attracting wildlife such as sea turtles and manta rays. For 7000 years, the reef was also home to the Yawijibaya people, who mysteriously disappeared in the 1920s.

Montgomery Reef was named by Philip Parker King, an explorer who charted the Kimberley’s coastal curves over three voyages between 1818 and 1823. In 1820, King’s ship began to take on water, and he was forced to take shelter in an inlet now known as Careening Bay. It took 10 days for the crew to repair the HMS Mermaid before they inscribed the ship’s name and the year 1820 into a boab tree nearby.

Before King came other travellers from faraway lands. Abel Tasman traversed these waters in 1644. The pirate William Dampier documented flora and fauna in 1688. In the 18th century, Maccasan traders from Indonesia sailed here in search of sea cucumbers.

Along this remote coastline, other ships and people are few and far between, but saltwater crocodiles cruise among the mangroves. In August and September, the Kimberley’s population soars as 40,000 humpback whales migrate north. They come to mate and raise their calves in the warmth and safety of Camden Sound. It’s the largest pod of humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere—and rivals the human population of the entire Kimberley region.

Beyond the showy spectacle of breaching whales, it is the interminable human history of the Kimberley that brings the land and seascape alive. Aboriginal people are thought to have arrived here between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. Over this long occupation, Indigenous peoples have adorned rock-faces and crags with art. Along the Kimberley coast are galleries to rival the Met, featuring Dreamtime figures called Wandjina and Gwion, with some depictions as old as 17,000 years.

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But to fully appreciate the world’s longest continuing culture, it’s a matter of getting to know the locals. Visiting the communities where these artistic and cultural traditions are sustained is only possible on an intimate expedition with a smaller number of guests.

Those seeking to rewild their soul have options from cut-price to glitz and glamour, but finding a balance of comfort and authenticity is best. In a country rich with stories and ruled by ocean power and wildlife, fewer people means the land speaks louder. And you’ll want to hear what the wild west has to say.

Coral Expeditions explores the Kimberley region with expert interpretation of the landscape, nature, wildlife, culture and history. There are many opportunities for thrilling experiences and wildlife spotting aboard our tender vessels and on shore.

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