The Kimberley region of Western Australia is the stuff of outback dreams.
By Fleur Bainger
One of the most sparsely populated areas on earth, the Kimberley is the size of Germany but home to only about 40,000 people, nearly half of whom are Aboriginal. Just about everything here is rare and remote, from rock formations that are two billion years old to luxury outback retreats. The Kimberley also contains thousands of tropical forest-topped islands, towering ochre cliffs, flat waterfalls and rock art galleries that scientists believe may be the oldest in the world.
There are few sights more spellbinding than the Buccaneer Archipelago’s 1,000 rocky islands emerging from a cornflour blue ocean. A tie-dye colour scheme of grey, white and faded orange is topped with tufts of tropical growth, showing that where there is extreme age, there is also youth. A scenic trip with Buccaneer Explorer flies you over the islands, but to truly fall in love, take a four-day discovery cruise aboard a luxury houseboat, equipped with a helicopter and speedboat, to reach those unreachable places.
The extremes of Mother Nature are revealed in absolute clarity at the Horizontal Falls, a phenomenon in which tonnes of water squeeze through a gap in twin mountain ranges. The Kimberley's tropical tides are some of the biggest in the world – rising and falling by up to 13 metres (43 feet) – and result in remote, flat whitewater rapids that can be experienced from above on a scenic flight, or, if you’re game, from the surface. The jet boat ride through the churning falls is one heck of a thrill.
The towering, tiger-striped rock formations of the Bungle Bungles, eroded into beehive-like domes, emerge from an otherwise flat landscape like sunflowers leaning skyward to the light. They're part of the 360-million-year-old Bungle Bungle Range in World Heritage Purnululu National Park. This grand expanse, which also harbours sacred Aboriginal rock art, was only "discovered" by Europeans in the 1980s. Tour the Bungle Bungles on foot, or from the air. Better still, do it both ways for the ultimate experience, and stay nearby at eco-wilderness retreat Bungle Bungle Savannah Lodge.
The Kimberley's boab trees come in so many shapes and sizes they almost take on individual personalities. Related to Africa's baobab, the boab resembles a bottle, with a wide base and thin neck that leads to a tangle of branches, like a messy hair-do. Aboriginal lore has many dreaming stories to explain their unusual look. Boabs dot the outback along the Gibb River Road, but can also be seen in the grounds of Broome's Cable Beach Club Resort and Spa, out the front of Kununurra's Kimberley Grande Resort and lining the main street of Derby. You can eat the nutritious boab tuber (root) at some cafés, in season.
In the afternoon sun, a flaming red wall of rock seems to rise with every metre of the three-kilometre (1.9-mile) boat journey along Chamberlain Gorge's pancake flat waters. The escarpment can be found at an outback station, El Questro Wilderness Park, and the guided cruise is an essential part of any stay. El Questro has several different types of accommodation dotted around the property, including the exclusive, private Homestead. Peer over the boat's edge to see cheeky archer fish that spit water at your fingertips. They're aiming at what they think is prey.
The Kimberley is home to some of Australia's most spectacular rock art, believed to be the oldest in the world. With Ocean Dream Charters, you can customise a cruise that will take you to rock art galleries in spectacular landscapes. The galleries provide clues into the past, depicting ancient Aboriginal dreamtime stories. Some of the best locations for rock art in the Kimberley include Doubtful Bay, Mitchell Falls and Vansittart Bay.
Located a the tip of the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome, is Cape Leveque. Here, you'll find ochre cliffs, white beaches and highlighter blue ocean; for many, this is a special place to retreat from the busy everyday world and get back in touch with nature. Aboriginal communities cluster between tropical bush and curling estuaries. The Bardi Jawi people run Kooljaman, a wilderness camp that combines real-bed safari tents with simple cabins and campsites, cultural tours, equipment hire and a restaurant.