Expedition Into Remote and Wild Australia
by Chris Harter on Jul 19, 2010
The Kimberley region in Northwest Australia is to Australia what Alaska is to the United States. Both are vast territories considered the “last frontier” of their respective countries. Both are incredibly remote with little infrastructure due to their location, climate and topography. Both hold few year round modern settlements while still managing to have rich cultures and histories with their ancient indigenous populations. Both environments have prolific and varied marine and terrestrial wildlife populations, many of which are dwindling or absent entirely from their previous ranges due to disappearing habitats elsewhere. Both are on many a traveler’s must see lists, and both can be a challenge to truly see and experience in a comfortable manner. Aside from these interesting similarities, Australia’s Kimberley and the United State’s 49th state are about as different as two places can be. Recently I was privileged to see the rugged and awesome wilderness landscape of the Kimberley on an eleven day expedition voyage from the luxurious appointments of our newest small ship, the M/S Orion. And what a trip it was!
Upon boarding the 106 passenger Orion it became immediately apparent just how comfortable and luxurious this trip would be as our cabin steward Eric gave us a familiarization tour of our very large suite cabin. As a vessel with more suites than staterooms, the Orion truly has no bad cabin aboard her with all cabins having spacious marble en suite facilities, flat screen TV and DVD/CD players, 24 hour room and concierge service, internet connectivity, mini refrigerator, ample closet and storage space, and ocean views. And that is just the cabins! The short list of additional amenities include al fresco dining (used often!), two cocktail bars, large outdoor Jacuzzi, modern workout room, on board masseuse and beautician, state of the art lecture room, ample observation deck space, sauna, extensive library with games and DVDs, infirmary, elevator and perhaps the friendliest and most attentive crew I have had the pleasure of getting to know. In addition to all the creature comforts aboard this incredible vessel, the meals and wine list alone made this a remarkable journey unto itself. The variety, freshness and creativity left us in awe each and every day.
Our first night in Australia found us in the remote mining and pearling outpost of Broome, where we were able to enjoy fantastic seafood, a jog on famous 10 mile Cable Beach and brief a wander through the charming downtown for look at the aboriginal and frontier influences that made this town what it is today. Upon boarding the Orion in Broome we immediately got under way heading north for Cape Leveque, the last road accessible location we would see for the next week. Before relaxing into our new environments all the passengers acquainted themselves with the vessel and took part in a mandatory safety briefing. With unpacking done and drinks in hand we all made our way to one of the upper decks to the first of many breathtaking sunsets before heading down for an incredible dinner, a theme that carried on throughout the trip. To provide a brief glimpse of the level of gastronomy that greeted us at every meal, our entre choices that evening were: Bay Scallops with shallot and basil butter, fillet of Tasmanian ocean trout on zucchini and carrot emulsion risotto or slow cooked Australian lamb loin on minted green pea and cannellini bean puree. Every night provided similarly difficult choices. Of course vegetarian options were provided as well, and were always equally enticing.
After a gorgeous al fresco breakfast start to our first morning aboard, we boarded the Orion’s small fleet of inflatable zodiac vessels for a shuttle to the endless beach at Cape Leveque. Greeting us as we arrived were a small group of incredibly playful and inquisitive bottlenose dolphins who seemed to come nearer at the request of our naturalist guide with a whistle and gentle pat on the side of the zodiac. Once ashore we were left to simply relax on one of the whitest stretches of beach I have ever seen. Some passengers went for a jog, some swam in the calm azure waters, some listened to naturalist guide discourse, some snorkeled along a disappearing rocky outcrop, while others simply slept in the sun. As with all of our shore excursions, fresh towels, cold drinks, sunscreen and shuttles back to the vessel were available at all times. Due to the extensive range of the area’s large and abundant salt water crocodiles this was to be our last swim in the ocean. After our morning of fun in the sun, a brief sail brought us to one of the most prolific bird breeding habitats in the world, the Lacepedes Island group. There with incredible light and welcomed cloud cover we witnessed the largest resident brown booby population on the planet measured in the hundreds of thousands with abundant sightings of Australian pelicans, lesser frigate birds, sooty oyster catchers and roseate terns all in the mix as well. It was an incredible first day for a trip that continued to surprise and surpass all expectations.
The second morning of our voyage brought us into truly incredible scenery between the red sandstone mesa formations of Raft Point and Montgomery Reef just offshore. The vistas here were both new and somehow familiar. Having spent my college years in the desert southwest, this region of Australia to me looked as if the ocean flooded into the mesas, canyons and buttes of southern Utah and northern Arizona. The coast of the Kimberley offers the stark beauty of these iconic American regions, but fringed with productive mangrove, reef and tidal river ecosystems. The contrast of these two habitats directly next to each other was truly incredible to witness. Again, we boarded our zodiacs to motor out 10 miles off shore amongst a natural spectacle, Montgomery Reef. The tides here are so severe that they can rise and fall as much as 33 feet causing a virtual waterfall of ocean water cascading off this reef system at low tide. With so much water and life moving the area becomes a vibrant food chain with birds and predator fish all waiting for food to present itself. As we drifted in the fast tidal rivers amongst the reef system we lost track of all the green turtle sightings. I know that we stopped counting at 38 from notes taken that day! After lunch and some time out of the sun we made landing at Raft Point for a hike to a saddle between two rock outcrops to our first look at one of the Aboriginal rock art galleries that the Kimberley is famous for. Our group was speechless as our knowledgeable Aboriginal art expert Darren discussed the significance of this particular gallery with it’s depictions of the creation story and wildlife reverence. Another staggering day filled with stunning scenery, abundant wildlife and cultural and historical perspective that very few are fortunate enough to see.
The days aboard the Orion progressed much like this for another week with incredible sights and experiences all with the accompaniment of the Orion and her incredible crew as a back drop. We witnessed two hundred foot waterfalls, eagles catching fruit bats in mid-flight, hikes to crashed World War II era cargo planes and 40,000 year old Bradshaw rock art galleries, galloping rock wallabies, the area’s famous saltwater crocs, bumpy zodiac rides in the geologic oddity known as the “Horizontal Waterfalls”, expert lectures on geology, Australian ornithology, Aboriginal art and culture and much, much more. It truly was an “expedition” voyage into one of the most remote and unique places I have ever seen. I’d be happy to discuss all of the incredible experiences we had on our “Kimberley Expedition” and the other exotic and adventurous destinations that the M/S Orion and the new M/S Orion II sails to, just give a call!