It’s majestic, unforgettable, awe-inspiring and formidably remote.
Book-ended by Broome and Kununurra, the Kimberley region is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world, home to just 25,000 residents, most of whom are Aboriginal.
Over the course of eleven days, my guided holiday with AAT Kings clocked up over 3000km, traversing the Kimberley from Broome to Darwin, on remote highways and dusty tracks.
The unfolding landscape is surprisingly diverse and ever-changing, where arid tracts of flat baked-earth and its red pindan soil yield to verdant savannah woodland and tropical grassland; there’s oasis-like wetlands, aflutter with stunning birdlife, sprawling cattle stations, and towering sandstone ranges sliced and diced by gorges, where rivers rage in the wet season, flooding everything in its path.
Loosely sectioned into two sub-regions, West Kimberley unfurls its manifold glories on an eastward track from Broome to Halls Creek. After a rustic morning tea break at the Willare Roadhouse, where the rusty-red sandy soil fanned across the forecourt, and 82-tyred, 50m road trains pulled in to refuel, we soaked up the eye-popping sights of Derby.
Pinned to the edge of the Northwest Continental Shelf, at the base of King Sound, Derby has one the world’s highest tidal ranges, where water levels rise and fall by a colossal 11.5m.
We ogled this marvel of nature at the Derby jetty, a sweeping circular-shaped pier, constructed on extremely high stilts. Kimberley’s trademark tree, the boab, is an infatuating, ever-present sight.
They can live for 1500 years, making them Australia’s oldest living being. Every tree seems to assume its own quirky character and their crazily-shaped twisting branches spawn fat boab nuts, the size of duck eggs.
Seven kilometres out of Derby, we were transfixed by the boab prison tree, a monumental, super-sized specimen, dated at over 1000-years-old.
With a circumference of over 14m, it was shockingly used as a “prison cell” in the 1890s by police, as they transported Aboriginals from across the Kimberley to the main jail in Derby.
Our AAT Kings travel director, Delma, previously worked as a nurse in the Kimberley and provided some up-front, sobering insights into the appalling plight of the local Aboriginal people today.
Their communities are wracked by alcohol abuse, domestic violence and a severe diabetes epidemic – “a people lost between two cultures”, as Delma put it. But tourism is manifestly opening up more and more job opportunities.
We visited a particularly remote Aboriginal community school, home to the Yiyili people, a community of 250 people scattered across Louisa Downs who now own and operate the cattle station.
Alongside the school, we admired the local artworks in Laari Gallery, a superb place to purchase an uber-authentic piece of indigenous art. My runaway scenic highlight in the West Kimberley was encountering the blazing grandeur of Geike Gorge, at sundown.
The mighty Fitzroy River has carved a deep gorge into the remains of the ancient limestone barrier reef, which snakes across the west Kimberley.
During the wet season, the river rises over 16m, permanently staining the gorge’s vertiginous limestone walls, white. A frisson of delight regularly rippled through our group, when we spotted freshwater crocodiles sunning themselves, on the water’s edge.
The boat tours are expertly guided by Bunuba Aboriginal people, who provided fascinating insights into cultural richness of the gorge. But, nothing can compete with the blazing theatrical splendour of the lowering sun striking those cliff walls, seemingly setting them on fire – and the water, through its reflected glory. It’s a retina-burner.
Just 20min from Geike Gorge, our overnight stop was at Fitzroy Crossing, just one of two towns in the 1000km stretch of West Kimberley. In full flood, the Fitzroy River rises 13m and could fill Sydney Harbour in just six hours. At Halls Creek, don’t miss snapping a shot of the fabulously carved statue in the town square.
In 1885, Russian Jack was working in the Halls Creek goldmines and famously pushed his sick friend in a wheelbarrow 300km through the Great Sandy Desert to Wyndham, which was the nearest town with a medical centre back in those days.
His heroic, epic journey is immortalised beautifully in an elaborate bronze statue.
•Qantas can wing you from Christchurch to Broome, with seasonal direct services from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.
•For best available fares and routes to suit, head to www.qantas.com
•For more information on Western Australia, head to the official website. www.westernaustralia.com
•AAT Kings’ Wonders of the Kimberley runs between May and October. Begin with a spectacular Cable Beach sunset then enter the rugged Kimberley to cruise down rich waterways teeming with wildlife, experience remote communities, the Argyle Diamond Mine and gourmet produce in the Ord Valley. Priced from $5975 per person twin share and including accommodation, transport, sightseeing, many meals and the services of an experienced travel director. Aatkings.com, 0800 456 100 or see your travel agent.