Our next Six of the Best! winner will experience one of the world’s great wilderness areas in the lap of five-star luxury. By Chris Beattie
In the World According to Me, or at least the Australian bit, there would be a few new rules. And one of the most important would concern having to learn a bit about Australia. And I’m not talking about computers and blackboards. I’m thinking here that it would be a requirement for those up to a certain age to have ticked off a list of destinations and locations to have visited within our own coastline before they were allowed to venture further afield. That way they could gain a true appreciation for the country in which they are so very fortunate to be living.
It would be a points system, with spots like any part of the Great Barrier Reef, anywhere in Tasmania and practically anywhere north of the Tropic of Capricorn carrying big points. But right there at the top, geographically and points-wise, would be the area of coastline stretching between the towns of Broome and Wyndham, better known as the Kimberley. Because it is very nearly possible to experience all of Australia – and some – with a few days spent in this wilderness wonderland.
I am fortunate to have scored maximum points twice now, having completed two voyages of discovery across this vast expanse of northern coastline. And on both occasions I have come away struggling to find words worthy of use in a piece on the Kimberley.
For instance, where are the words to adequately describe the static roar of billions of litres of tidal water as it cascades off Montgomery Reef like rivers of soap suds each day? Not to mention the ‘wildlife soup’ that comprises everything from darting green turtles to marauding reef sharks, all intent on taking advantage of Montgomery Reef’s protein-rich environment.
Or the fractured, tortured grandeur of the iron ore red monolith of Raft Point, overlooking Doubtful Bay. And how does a computer keyboard begin to conjure a picture of a sunset sored and otherwordly that viewers are moved to awed silence as their day ends in colourific displays of crimsons, oranges, and yellows slowly fading into a dark blue and inky black evening sky.
A blazing bonfire on a pristine beach only adds to the sense of occasion as we embed ourselves in raw nature, bare feet in the sand and waves gently lapping while we sip fine wine and enjoy freshly caught seafood. This is the essence of the True North Kimberley experience.
HOSTILE AND WILD
Nowhere in my experience is a keyboard more useless than in this most untouched, hostile, wild and at times breathtaking part of northern Australia. Even the camera is sometimes out of its depth trying to capture the sheer ‘bigness’ of the place. A wide angle lens might let you fill a frame with a soaring canyon wall, but it won’t give you the sense of sheer imposing presence that leaves the photographer feeling like an ant on a floating twig in its shadow.
Every day aboard True North, flagship of North Star Cruises Australia that runs cruises through the Kimberley and increasingly to other parts of the northern coast and up into PNG, guests are confronted by unrelenting nature and life. It’s everywhere and in every shape and colour.
After the first couple of days, I gave up trying to document the different species of bird, fish, insect, reptilian, mammalian and plant life unique to the Kimberley that we saw, caught, almost stepped on, ate (or tried to eat us) each day. Stand in one spot for more than a few seconds, and it’s impossible not to be distracted by some form of life going about its daily business. Excited bait fish provide flashes of glitter as they flee across the surface, while the predators doing the chasing occasionally leap, jaws agape, out of the water as they play their part in the food chain. Mud guppies and bright red crabs skitter across the mangrove mud scapes, while kingfishers and blue-winged kookaburras twitter and flit from tree to tree snapping up insect snacks along the way. Soaring high above, magnificent wedge-tailed eagles survey their domain and flex their talons in search of their next victims.
But every now and then our attention is drawn by a cry or pointed arm to the unchallenged King of the Kimberley, the saltwater crocodile, also known as the estuarine or Indo-Pacific crocodile – or Crocodylus porosus to the scientifically minded. The world’s largest living reptile, it has most certainly come back from the brink after decades of commercial harvesting, to judge from the numbers we saw lazily sunning themselves on mudbanks or cruising the shadowy mangroves. On water and land they move as if they own the place, and, of course, that’s because they do. No other predator challenges their rule – especially now that they are protected from hunting – and it shows.
They project a menace and arrogance that can be a little unsettling when you’re in a boat that, in many cases, is dwarfed by their presence. Our puny RIBs were well out of their league – a little like taking a pocket knife to a gunfight – as we drifted quietly through their domain to catch a glimpse before they slipped into the murky waters with all the stealth of reptilian assassins. It’s no wonder their serrated mouths give the impression of a sly grin –they have nothing to do all day but sun bake and contemplate their next meal. And some times it’s us.
Not too long ago a young American aspiring model made the mistake of swimming from a cruise boat to a waterfall in an area notorious for big croc sightings. Unlike the crocs, she was never seen again.
Those with a taste for adventure are well catered for, with the world-famous Horizontal Waterfalls in Talbot Bay providing plenty of adrenaline-inducing thrills. Experiencing the unrelenting force of nature as the waters, trapped in a small bay, drain through narrow openings in the sandstone cliffs out into the ocean was humbling. With tides varying by up to 10m, it was an exhilarating ride as we powered up and over the falls in tenders ably skippered by experienced crew. We also enjoyed an enchanting encounter with local wildlife completely uninhibited by the presence of man. Surrounded by a school of inquisitive batfish, our driver, Ben gently slipped his hand under one passing fish and deftly lifted a 3-4kg batfish into the boat. Who needs bait – or even a hook – when you’re fishing in the Kimberley!
Iconic Kimberley experiences included a deck shower courtesy of the Kings Cascades on the Prince Regent River and sitting at anchor in the natural amphitheatre that is the Twin Falls on the King George River. Being the tail end of the dry season, the Kimberley water ways weren’t flowing at their peaks, but there was certainly enough for the occasional cooling spray.
And then there was the stark geology of the area, aptly conveyed to us by seasoned guides who could point out where an angry river of lava had millions of year ago riven the surface to create canyon walls and headlands now eroded by sun, water and wind to the consistency and sheen of black marble.
Elsewhere the overwhelmingly dominant colour is red ochre, the rocky coastline tinged by the oxidising iron ore that brings wealth to our cities via huge holes dug into the ground across the Pilbara and Kimberley. As we cruised into the Kimberley from Broome, we witnessed whole islands being eaten away by giant mechanical claws to feed the ravenous factories of Asia.
To gain a fuller perspective on this vast area of deep river gorges, scattered islands, widebays and vast flood plains, we could choose to view it all from a few hundred feet through the glassed flanks of our own chopper, flown by the supremely knowledgeable Rainor. Sweeping across great parapets and escarpments following rivers as they snaked their way into the interior added another dimension to the adventure.
Every now and then we set down on a spot that could only be reached practically by air and felt like we were the only humans for hundreds of kilometres. And in many cases we were.
Even better, if Rainor spied a likely landing spot close to a point of interest, we could unbuckle and go fishing or exploring. And on one glorious morning, Rainor and his airborne taxi transported us to the top of a remote waterfall, where we alighted to be greeted by a freshly erected shade awning, under which the crew had set up a barbeque, with plates of freshly cooked seafood awaiting our palates. A nearby waterhole helped take some of the heat out of the day as the sun rose in the sky. And chilled beers and wines took care of any remaining stresses.
Other highlights of my time aboard True North on our eight-day Kimberley Snap Shot adventure cruise included pretty much every meal, all prepared to perfection and served with enthusiasm by the cheerful crew. Samples from the daily menus included such delicacies as twice cooked pork belly, black angus fillet and fresh mangrove jack, all served with a selection of fine Australian and imported wines.
One particular highlight of the Snap Shot was an impromptu sculpture class conducted by our ‘artist in residence’ for the cruise, accomplished Sydney sculptor Linda Klarfeld (www.lindaklarfeld.com). Using nothing more than a handy supply of pliable clay and a couple of volunteer crew, Linda was able to recreate the ancient likenesses of the Greek goddess of love Venus, and Rodin’s The Thinker at Ruby Falls, a hidden jewel only accessible by tender at the head of a narrow creek. Throughout the cruise, Linda also conducted sittings on the rear deck of True North for guests wanting an artistic keepsake to take back to civilisation.
But while we were exposed daily to the raw nature, savagery and majesty of the Kimberley, when we weren’t on the RIBS, it was done at a comfortable distance and in the lap of a very welcoming luxury.
True North was designed specifically to pamper its guests and provide a safe, air-conditioned haven in between the many daily adventures offered at each destination. It boasts spacious cabins, with three styles available, depending on budget. Guests congregate for meals in the lower deck dining room and evening drinks are taken in the ship’s lounge, with an alfresco bar at the stern. Typically, a total of 20 crew is on hand to cater to no more than 36 passengers on any given cruise.
Now celebrating its 25th year, North Star Cruises is pretty much an institution when it comes to the Kimberley. While there are other operators in the region, North Star has received an impressive array of tourism awards for its many themed cruises aboard True North. And after eight days as a guest on its Kimberley Snap Shot cruise in early September last year, I can say that I am only surprised that the company has not won more plaudits. Of course, when your main theatre of operations happens to be the spectacular and vast Kimberley, you already have a head-start on the opposition.
With so much to see and do, time lost all meaning and far too soon, it seemed, we had reached our ultimate destination of Wyndham, one of Australia’s most isolated towns. After an early breakfast, we were soon bidding farewell to our crewmates of the past week. Only a couple of hours later, I was boarding an Air North plane in Kununurra, full of memories and already beginning to envy the very lucky and privileged Club Marine Six of the Best! winners, who will be following in our wake later this year.
For a detailed taste of this great prize package, go to: www.northstarcruises.com.au.
Dream boat, dream job
For True North skipper, Brad Benbow, 37, the daily grind of going to the work is not quite your typical nine-to-five routine. On most mornings, Captain Brad wakes up to a vista most would (and do) pay a pretty penny for.
“Yeah, the office is pretty sensational,” he says with a smile, looking out from the bridge over the expanse of the Prince Regent River. “To be able to travel to a lot of areas that not many other people can is pretty special.”
But as a working skipper with a crew of up to 20 to manage, the average working day involves orchestrating a range of activities, including shore excursions, helicopter flights, onboard activities, keeping an eye on the weather and, in the case of the Kimberley Snap Shot cruise, steaming through the night to the next destination.
But Brad’s fundamental mission is ensuring that passengers make the most of their time aboard True North.
“Our total crew is normally around 20, which give us close to a 2 to 1 ratio of passengers to crew, which not many ships run,” he said. “Basically we like to run the ship like a five-star hotel.
“We always have a naturalist on board and fully-qualified chefs, deckhands and guides, officers and engineers, a cruise director and a helicopter pilot and cruise attendants.
“Our guests are here for one common purpose; to enjoy themselves, and we’re here to make sure they do. Mostly they want to get out and amongst it and be adventurous and we like to ensure they make the most of their time, wherever we happen to be.
“The biggest thing for us is making sure people are satisfied at the end of a cruise. Our satisfaction rating is always up in the 90 per cent area.”
Gaining repeat business is something of which Brad and the rest of the True North crew are particularly aware.
“There are a couple of single ladies who have done around 11 trips with us and a lot of our guests come back two, three, four or more times.”
Apart from running the ship, Brad says one of the most satisfying and challenging aspects of his job has been developing new cruise destinations, particularly up to Papua New Guinea.
“The best part of this job is setting up new destinations and seeing it all come together,” he said. “There’s a lot of working with governments and other organisations on the logistical side of things, so we put a lot of time and effort into it.
“My most memorable experience was setting up the PNG cruises six years ago. I helped set them up with Craig (Craig Howson, North Star Cruises MD) and over the years they’ve just evolved.
“PNG and the Louisiade Archipelago combined are my favourite areas, just for the scenery, snorkelling, diving and the interaction with the locals. We’ve also just put together a new cruise in the Bismarck Sea area, which is going to be really exciting.”
The skipper and crew obviously take a lot of pride in their work, which can be seen in the way True North is maintained and presented on a daily basis.
True North is truly a special way to see one of the world’s great wilderness areas.
The original Six of the Best
Visiting the Kimberley once is an experience in itself, but some people, it seems, just can’t get enough of the place.
Take Ellen and Wilhelm, from Dusseldorf, Germany. Their first trip with North Star Cruises was in 2000, when the lure of the Sydney Olympics drew international attention to Australia as a tourist destination. Fast forward to 2011 and the elderly couple have just notched up their sixth voyage through the Kimberley.
“We heard about True North at a tourism fair in Hanover before the Olympics,” explained Ellen. “At the time hardly anyone knew anything about Australia, but with the Olympics coming up people started to notice it a bit more.”
Following the couple’s first taste of the Kimberley, they returned each year up to 2005 and decided to come back one last time in 2011 as Wilhelm, 75, is getting a bit frail.
“For us it is all about the boat, the perfect service and the friendly staff,” said Ellen.
“It’s also about the amazing scenery and also the special light of the southern hemisphere, which is so different from Europe. Also the remoteness and the lack of people. We live in such crowded surroundings in Europe and it’s very hard to get away from the crowds.”
The people and laidback Aussie lifestyle are also a lure, said Ellen.
“The people here are so friendly, open and honest. It is much better here than in Europe and other countries we’ve visited. Plus, it is much safer here,” she said.