The King George river on Australia’s Kimberley Coast, the country’s upper left corner on a standard Mercator map, cuts through an ancient slab of sediments called the Warton Sandstone. It’s rock that rusts, the iron-rich surface oxidizing to junkyard orange. But when a slab cleaves from the main body, the broken face shows interior colors like saltwater taffy, swirly mauve, and vanilla. From where I sat one morning, balanced midriver on the bouncy sidewall of an inflatable Zodiac boat, the oversaturated colors of the gorge looked like an overfiltered Instagram post. One patch of moss glowed electric green against the rusty stone.
“Kermit in a blender,” said Steve Cox, who was leading our group upriver on the first morning of a ten-day Coral Expeditions cruise from Darwin to Broome. A rugged and capable Kiwi, Cox had a pleasing way with language. The night before, over cocktails on board our ship, the 72-passenger Coral Discoverer, he told us that the morning excursion would be a chance to “pop up after brekkie and poke in there and get stuck in some nature.”
Getting stuck in some nature pretty much sums up a Kimberley cruise with Coral Expeditions, which began exploring the region 24 years ago and will launch its newest ship on the route, a state-of-the-art 120-passenger vessel called the Coral Adventurer, come April. Coral Expeditions, like its small-ship competitor, True North, sails under an Australian flag, giving the company full license to explore the rugged coast, which is restricted for foreign operators and all but inaccessible from inland. The vibe on board is also quintessentially Aussie: informal, egalitarian, and cheery. Many of the Australian passengers described the trip to me as akin to patriotic duty, the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition to witness the country’s last frontier.
Indeed, the region has little to offer except nature. Cox and his team delivered on the promise with twice-daily excursions to thunderous waterfalls, beaches patterned with sea turtle tracks, Aboriginal rock shelters painted with mysterious ocher figures, mangrove creeks patrolled by saltwater crocodiles, the offshore wonder of Montgomery Reef, and the so-called horizontal waterfall—a whitewater cataract formed as giant tides rush through narrow gaps in the stony headlands at Talbot Bay. All in all, it’s a coast barely changed since Dutchman Abel Tasman sighted it in 1644. In the centuries since, dangerous tides and a murderous climate—the monsoonal wet season alternates with sun-blasted drought—have rebuffed settlement. Even the mighty King George River and its spectacular falls were unknown to white Australia until the amazingly late date of 1911.
That said, the river’s “discovery” and naming for England’s George V surely meant little to the area’s traditional landowners, whose history encompasses nearly 50,000 years. Today dozens of languages exist between Darwin and Broome, and although by and large the Kimberley’s Aboriginal groups no longer live on their traditional lands, their cultural legacy is everywhere. “Kimberley rock art is without measure,” explained onboard lecturer Michael Hermes. “It’s one of the few places in the world where the tradition of rock art continues to the present day.”
The earliest style, known as Gwion Gwion figures, are believed to be older than 17,500 years and are typified by small ocher paintings of dancers. “They are very dynamic, very beautiful,” said Hermes. And very mysterious. Modern Aboriginal people, for whom the dancing figures are as culturally distant as Stonehenge is to a contemporary Londoner, can’t explain them. The Wanjina style, less than 4,000 years old, includes multicolor supernatural beings that are used as repositories of Dreamtime narratives. A storyteller touches the painting with a pigment-daubed finger as he talks, and the painting is thus renewed, literally touched up.
One afternoon on Bigge Island, Hermes showed us a third type of art, more recent still, painted in a figurative style. Or perhaps you would call it documentary. A panel showed pipe-smoking seamen, believed to be Dutch, and their tall sailing ship. I asked if Kimberley rock art had been extensively surveyed by scholars. Hermes shook his head: “There are tens of thousands of undiscovered sites.” One reason is plain: Getting around the Kimberley is tough. The rugged landscape is “hard country, stone country, with precious little in it,” said Hermes with evident fondness. The region is as large as California but has a population of 35,000—and one-half of those are in Broome. Year-round roads are few and far between. Even the legendary Gibb River Road—which cuts through the heart of the interior and passes El Questro Homestead, a vast cattle station turned luxury lodge—closes during the wet season. As for reaching the coast by road, the few jeep tracks that extend from inland are considered prohibitively difficult. Instead, as early visitors from Tasman to the Dutch and British seamen knew, a seaborne approach provides the only practical access to the entire coastline. Day by day, we retraced those voyages of exploration, sometimes down to the exact passages and landings made by navigators like William Dampier, who surveyed the coast in 1699, and Phillip Parker King, who made his first expedition in 1817.
Admittedly, the heroic exploits that opened Australia to science and commerce also led to a bloody legacy of violence against Aboriginal people, akin to the fraught cowboys-and-Indians history of America’s manifest destiny. But the Crown’s inability to establish permanent colonies in the Kimberley spared its coastal landscape the worst of civilization, other than one modern-day iron mine. The remote shore has also escaped the world’s worst waterborne plague. The sum total of plastic trash I saw during our cruise consisted of a hand-sized piece of fishing net and a plastic Lego, both collected by the Coral Discoverer crew and shared with us as rare artifacts.
On the last two days of our cruise, we visited natural wonders that vividly demonstrated what has remained in the Kimberley and, by extension, what could be lost. Montgomery Reef was formed when a flat-topped mountain, a mesa 50 miles long, was submerged by rising sea levels at the end of the Ice Age. What makes it unique is that the mesa top is only barely submerged. At low tide, it breaks the surface, and the sea drains off the mesa through a great channel. The effect is indescribable and nearly impossible to photograph: you navigate up the rushing “river” on a Zodiac as sea turtles swim alongside and seabirds perch on the walls of the reef, which are now above your head. It’s as if you’re exploring the reef from below sea level, a perceptual glitch that astonishes the eye and perplexes the mind.
Our final day held a rarer treat. Thanks to a lucky confluence of calm winds and favorable tides, Captain Nathan Clark was able to bring the Coral Discoverer alongside the Lacepede Islands, a cluster of white-sand spits 15 miles from land. The Kimberley’s marine wildlife, by now a familiar sight, congregated there in numbers that were hard to believe. Clouds of seabirds swarmed overhead, and dozens of sea turtles scattered ahead of our noisy Zodiac. The Bardi people once arrived here from the mainland in dugouts to hunt, but in the 19th century, the fragile habitat was decimated after European rats arrived with a colonial guano-mining operation. A laborious and expensive campaign to eradicate the rats restored the Lacepedes to the status of an island refuge. Human access is now limited by strict policies imposed by the conservation-minded government. The idea I took away from the Lacepedes on the last day of the trip turned out to be the same one introduced by Cox on our first-day excursion up the King George River.
“The saving grace of the Kimberley is it’s difficult to get to,” he had said, hand on the Zodiac’s outboard tiller as we returned to the ship and amenities, like cool showers and cold beer, that the early explorers couldn’t have imagined. “If it got to be easily accessible to mass tourism, that would be the end of it.” Seven-night cruises from $7,335; coralexpeditions.com.