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North by north-west

From The Aqua-Blue waters of West Australia’s largest coral coast to the spectacular red heart of the Kimberly, Autumn is the perfect time to ‘experience extraordinary’. Steve Freeth reports.

The Kimberley is Australia’s premier outback adventure and like most Top End holidays the best time to make the trip is in the cooler, dryer months between April and November. Great starting points are capital cities like Perth or Darwin, which both have great flight connections from the rest of the country, or by flying directly to regional towns like Broome or Kununurra. Luxury cruises to Perth or Darwin, and beyond have also grown in popularity in recent years, and most operators have perfected the art of stress free travel (www.princess.com). Driving is also a much more doable option these days and once there the options for touring by car, RV, or in comfortable coaches are all on the agenda. While many roads right in the heart of The Kimberley are red dirt, fourwheel drive only, plenty aren’t and there is a host of touring itineraries to be found on WA Tourism’s web site (www.westernaustralia.com).

The Coral Coast
What better way to test the waters for a Kimberly adventure than by starting at its doorstep along the famed Coral Coast, just two hours drive north of Perth. With the rugged Pilbara region just next door, this is the perfect place to begin a leisurely drive up the coast, stopping at pristine beaches, visiting unique marine parks, or just relaxing in quaint, seaside towns.

The Coral Coast is a classic blend of sun, surf and scenery that can range from the arid, prehistoric landscapes at the Pinnacles or Kalbarri National Park, to unlimited stretches of ocean beaches with names like Hangover Bay, Chinaman’s Beach and Little Lagoon. It also helps that from its southern most point at Cervantes to the northern tip at Exmouth it’s a compact 1000 kilometres on sealed, well-signed roads.

The area around Shark Bay, West Australia’s first World Heritage Area, definitely has to be one of your first stops. Secluded bays, crystal clear water, and some of the best chances you’ll ever get to see manta rays, marine turtles and humpback whales, making their yearly trip along the coast from June to November up close. Just as famous are the majestic dugongs, ancient mariners thought they were mermaids, and with 10 per cent of the world’s endangered population living here you can see them grazing gently in areas like the Wooramel Seagrass Bank.

Nothing draws crowds like dolphins and at nearby Monkey Mia you’ll even be able to touch the ‘smiling’ bottle nosed dolphins that swim in to shore every day to check out the humans. But Shell Beach’s snow-white, 120 kilometre long strip made up of millions of tiny shells, and the remarkable Hamelin Pool stromatolites, the oldest and largest living fossils on earth,  just add to the area’s beauty.

Keep heading north and you’ll not only get to stay in the sweet village of Coral Bay at day’s end, but get to drive through one of only 15 of Australia’s recently named National Landscapes that have been recognised for their iconic travel experience. One major reason for that are Ningaloo Marine Park and the 260 kilometre long Ningaloo Reef, one of the biggest in the world. This vast reef is home to 500 species of tropical fish, including the gentle, but enormous Whales Sharks, and 220 types of coral that provide unbelievable opportunities for swimming, diving, snorkeling or site-seeing cruises.

There’s just as much happening onshore as off too. West Australia is renowned for its wildflowers and on the Coral Coast they bloom all year round. Some of the national parks here are ideal for flower spotting, the Leseur National Park is home to some 900 different species while Kalbarri has over 800 different plants including the Kalbarri Spider Orchid, and there are a range of ‘flower trails’ for any level of fitness worth checking out at the Coral Coast tourism web site (www.australiascoralcoast.com).

This region’s varied aboriginal, settler and maritime history is well worth taking time to explore as well. Central Greenough Historic Settlement, Geraldton’s St Francis Xavier Byzantine Cathedral, Nanson and Nabawa in the Chapman Valley, Carnarvon heritage precinct or Carnamah Historical Museum should all make it on to your itinerary if you have the time. And for a real glimpse in to the past take the Monsignor Hawes Heritage Trail, architect and man of faith who built a series of beautiful churches here, that will take you through 15 of the buildings he designed while living here.

And like any truly great destination the Coral Coast does not neglect the finer things of life. Not only is the period between May and October the best time to get some of the region’s freshest seafood direct from the sealobsters are in season between Cervantes and Geradlton in autumn and early winter, but wine, olives, artisan bread, asparagus and bananas are all area specialties here. No need to cook though when great restaurants like the Boatshed in Geraldton, the Chapman Valley Winery and Whalers Restaurant in Exmouth are all along the coast.

Kimberley dreaming
If getting away from it all appeals then the wild and exquisite Kimberley Region is definitely for you. At close to 420,000 square kilometres, and with fewer people than nearly anywhere else in the world, The Kimberley is an ancient landscape that’s rapidly gaining a first-class reputation for some of the world’s best travel experiences. Fringed by gorgeous beaches, isolated islands and coral atolls, the heart of The Kimberley is also home to huge wildlife sanctuaries, spectacular gorges, wild rivers, thundering waterfalls, vast working stations and ancient aboriginal culture that’s absolutely unique. Features that the Australian Government recently acknowledged when it declared that some 19 million hectares in the region would now be national heritage listed.

While the best stepping off points are either Broome in the east or Kununurra in the west, the drive from the Coral Coast up to Broome along the so-called ‘Warlu Way’, named for the Dreamtime Sea Serpent that marked his magical north west journey, is pretty special. With nearly half the drive along stunning 80 Mile Beach and Cape Keraudren Nature Reserve an easy stop this is a drive made for taking your time, either with nature walks, or fishing or swimming on the dazzling white beaches.

Broome of course is the jewel you’re heading for and you won’t be disappointed. This historic pearling town has a long history, and its mix of beach and bush with Malaysian, Chinese, European and Japanese cultures thrown in means it’s both exotic and laid back. No surprise that it keeps growing in popularity and not only have the number of hotels mushroomed in recent years, but options for high-end Top End coastal cruises on boats like True North, Orion, Matrix, Oceanic Discoverer and MV Orion, some with their own helicopters and motor boats, really let you get out to explore the incredible gorges of the Mitchell, King George, Prince Regent and Hunter rivers that dot the coastal fringe.

But there’s a lot to do here without maxing out your credit card. Some of the simplest and prettiest are days spent on Cable Beach swimming and fishing, with dinner under the stars at Cable Beach Club Resort, or catching the ‘Stairway to the Moon’ caused by the full moon’s reflection hitting the mud flats in Roebuck Bay at very low tide.

Dampier Peninsula, 200 kilometres north of Broome, is also something of a rising star. While you’ll need a fourwheel drive if you’re doing it yourself, there are plenty of local indigenous tour operators on hand to help out though, once there the options for mud-crabbing, fishing, camel riding, swimming, snorkeling and simply relaxing while staying at either simple accommodation to ecoluxury tents is well worth the effort. Back track to Derby and you’ll be within reach of the Buccaneer Archipelago, the 1000 or so islands scattered across the Timor Sea that can be explored by boat, or a helicopter or seaplane joy flight,  particularly for a thrilling glimpse of the wild tidal movements named the Horizontal Waterfalls.

Derby is also one end of the legendary Gibb River Road, the 700 kilometre, mostly red dirt, four-wheel drive road, only open between May to November and possibly best in May and June when rivers and waterfalls have not succumbed to the Big Dry, that will take you smack dab through the middle of the Kimberleys to Kununurra on the other side. The Great Northern Highway is the other sealed, 1000 kilometre option linking Kununurra with Broome, passing through such iconic pioneering towns as Halls Creek, Fitzroy Crossing and Turkey Creek, as well as direct access to Geikie Gorge.

For many people this isn’t quite adventurous enough and the Gibb River Road, which should only be attempted with some rigorous planning, is often the one many people find the most sensational. For a start it passes through a spectacular landscape of prehistoric proportions and outrageous colours, as well as getting you close to, at least by Kimberley standards, some outstanding sights along the way. Some of the region’s most iconic gorges are here, like those at the Bell, Manning, Adcock, Windjana, Galvan’s and Lennard River, to name just a few, with their sheer rocks, deep cool waters, unique blend of trees like the Boab, native fig, cadjeput and liechardt trees and pointy spinifex grasses, as well as wallabies, screeching corellas, olive pythons and colonies of fruit bats. Detour to the Mitchell River National Park, with its surrounding Plateau and majestic Mitchell Falls, and you’ll get a chance to experience a varied landscape of rainforest, gum tree forests, and watercourses lined by pandanus palms and paperbark trees, and some of the oldest rock art in the country.

Kununurra country
It may have got the Hollywood treatment in Baz Luhrman’s epic movie Australia, but the countryside around The Kimberley’s other ‘big town’, Kununurra, is as beautifully unspoiled as it’s always been. If diving in to the Top End’s deep end right from the start of your holiday appeals then this is where to come. Kicked off by work on the Ord River scheme in the 1950s and sustained ever since by the Argyle Diamond Mine, Kununurra is your stepping stone to massive Lake Argyle, or the Ord and Dunham rivers, for scenic cruises, crocodile spotting or some wild Barramundi fishing.

Better still you’re within easy reach of mammoth working cattle and buffalo stations that occupy some of the most gorgeous and remote landscapes you’ll ever see and most with a range of accommodation. El Questro (elquestro.com.au), some stars and crew stayed here while filming Australia, is a 4000 square kilometre cattle ranch only 100 kilometres down the road that delivers everything you could want in a Kimberley adventure, including the recently discovered Amaroo Falls with its 15 cascades and crystal-clear swimming pools located within a tropical oasis.

While the formidable, two billion year old rock walls of the Cockburn Ranges 200 kilometres to the east is no slouch when it comes to natural beauty, World Heritage listed Purnululu National Park further south is one of The Kimberley’s biggest hits. It’s here you’ll find the world famous Bungle Bungles, a series of orange and black, 300 metre sandstone domes, that rise mysteriously from the grass-covered plains while constantly shifting colours between dawn and dusk. You’ll also find hidden gorges, rock ampitheatres, 300 different sorts of birds, and nailtail and short-eared rock wallabies, and while camping sites and walking trails are plentiful one of the most popular ways to visit is on flying and safari tours organised out of Kununurra.