Kimberley & Torres Strait Cruising For Adventurers!
Ahoy Buccaneers! - Kimberley cruising for adventurers!Ahoy Buccaneers! - Kimberley cruising for adventurers!

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Australian Traveller –  Article by Fleur Bainger

The affordable, no frills Kimberley cruise

Cruising the Kimberley’s transfixing coastline is a long-held dream for most Australians, but few have the means (or the willpower!) to fund the exotic experience. Until now…

We’ve all stared at travel brochure spreads of the Kimberley’s mottled red cliffs blazing through the mist of billowing waterfalls as a luxury cruise boat coasts by.

Allowed ourselves to dream, just for a moment, about the raw magic of a northern escape. Giant boab trees; breathtaking rock art; time-bending geology; peace. Then we look at the price tag, and the soundtrack abruptly skids.

“We did some research and realised we’d have to sell the kids to do it,” jokes Doug Gould, who was gagging to explore the two-billion-year-old Kimberley coast after honeymooning on its mainland.

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The Sunday Times – London

Bunking down for my first night on a deserted Australian beach, I ignore the shooting stars. Instead, I fixate on the idea that — any minute now — a crocodile will nip up the shore for a midnight feast of freshly caught pom. Every noise makes me flinch. Sleepless hours pass. Then, finally, I realise the solution, and drag my bedding around behind my (soundly sleeping) companions. They can be the first line of defence, thank you very much.

I’m on a sleeping-under-the-stars cruise through the Buccaneer Archipelago, off Western Australia’s Kimberley coast. The landscape is rightly renowned — add luminous orange land to the classic white sand and turquoise water combo and you begin to get the idea. The best bits, however, are accessible only by boat.

Seeing this historically Aboriginal area normally means digging into the treasure chest: most boats come with helipads and five-star trimmings. But my home for the week, the 80ft Oceanic, is the budget, no-need-to-sell-your-fairest-child option.

Treasure chest: Buccaneer Archipelago

Treasure chest: Buccaneer Archipelago

Within minutes of getting on board, my sea legs buckle and I have to hang my head over the side. The first day, when we motor north from Broome, is spent popping travel-sickness pills and praying to Poseidon.

Day two, and back in the land of the living, I discover that the other 22 guests are mostly Aussies. And yes, when your head’s not in a bucket, the scenery is really rather special. Thousands of uninhabited islands, some appearing and disappearing with the tides, are sprinkled around us. Between the rusty-red boulders sprout fig trees, sappy gums and termite mounds resembling squat sumo wrestlers. Most striking, though, is the still remoteness. “Middle of nowhere” is given new meaning.

It’s also only now that I register who’s looking after us. The ladies on board are already swooning over Paul, our divorcé skipper, and deckhand Bala, a charismatic Aboriginal Australian. Then there’s “deckie” Scotty, chef Matty and 13-year-old cabin boy Moonie — each one a wannabe pirate.

Any preconceptions about a cruise (I’m a first-timer) are fast thrown overboard. Forget starched white uniforms, dressing up for dinner and oldies only. This feels as though some motley mates have kidnapped unsuspecting tourists to join their rum-soaked expedition.

This isn’t the budget boat, it’s the naughty boat, and my fellow guests — aged from 24 to 77 — happily get stuck in. First priority of the day is filling the Eskies (cool boxes) with stubbies (cans of beer). Rum is occasionally sloshed into morning coffees. The crew blast music from the captain’s deck, swear like sailors (naturally) and appear to be competing for the “dodgiest tattoo” award.

And when we travel in the tenders — those little boats at the back of big boats — Paul revs the engine full throttle, leaving us all clinging on for dear life. As inviting as the water looks, you do not want to fall in: crocodiles, sharks and other nasties lurk below. “Everything here wants either to eat you or sting you,” someone sums up.

Crocodile Rocks: Silica Beach

Crocodile Rocks: Silica Beach

Mercifully, there are some safe swimming spots to escape the relentless sunshine. Silica Beach has the whitest sand — a tough category — but the ominously named

Crocodile Creek is a more magical find. We climb up a ladder, one of the few signs of human activity, to the first pool and waterfall. It’s stunning but too croc-friendly, Bala says, so we scramble higher up the rocks to a second lagoon. There’s a huge grin on my newly freckled face as I flop in inelegantly. Suddenly, something grabs my leg under the water. I let out a piercing scream. Of course, it’s only scallywag Moonie larking about, and further cementing my crocodile phobia.

At night, the sexa- and septuagenarians gamely dance on deck (Abba, Queen, Kylie), then collapse into their cabins. I politely bow out and escape with the younger cohort to sleep “swag” on the beach. For the uninitiated, swags are a mattress/sleeping-bag contraption with a pop-up mosquito net. Pointless in rainy Blighty, perfect in baking Oz. Just beware paranoid freak-outs over hungry crocs.

Life on the ocean wave takes on a different shape: we rise at dawn, eat when ordered and head to bed when the campfire burns out. And, as we’re miles from a mobile signal, phones remain at the bottom of backpacks.

A whale of a time: humpbacks migrate along this coast

A whale of a time: humpbacks migrate along this coast

Then there’s the wildlife. We repeatedly rattle off our sightings: turtles, dolphins, sea snakes, rock wallabies, bats. Plus a tiddly croc, basking in the sun, gnashers flashing, and a wolf spider. And, best of all, whales. Several thousand humpbacks migrate along this coast and, even though we’re towards the end of the season, we spot dark slivers of hump most days. A mother and calf appear almost within touching distance. To a chorus of oohs and aahs, they blast out of the water and kindly pose until everyone has a photo to show off back home.

A rather less welcome visitor later pops up at the boat’s stern: a 5ft tawny nurse shark. Bala helps me stroke it. “Laura the Explorer’s come a long way since day one,” I overhear someone remark.

Less intimidating is the bluenose salmon we catch. Baked with lime, ginger and garlic, it’s heavenly. Fresher still are the vast black-lipped oysters Bala shucks straight off the rocks. Sublime salty sliminess.

Things become more bushtucker trial when we land at the small promontory of Raft Point and Moonie (who else?) persuades me to eat a green ant. Their fat bottoms, he says, taste like honey. I capture one and, eyes closed, quickly crunch it in my front teeth. It’s more citric than sweet, though not unpleasant. Indigenous people credit the insects with helping digestion, but I think I’ll stick with Gaviscon.

We’ve stopped at this particular place not for the green ants, but to see the rock art hidden away at the highest point. It’s halfway through the climb where those oversaturated colours shine brightest: a panoramic palette of khakis, reds and blues.

At the top of Raft Point, a sweaty 20-minute hike later, the white paintings on the bright orange rocks depict the Wandjina, the spirit ancestors of the Kimberley’s Aboriginal people. Taking anything away from this place, we’re told, will bring extremely bad luck. Tourists, after being plagued by rotten misfortune, have chartered ships solely to return pretty rocks that they had previously pocketed. Duly warned, I settle for a selfie by a fat-bellied boab tree.

Mother Nature makes herself known in these parts. Horizontal Falls — a whirling, whooshing flow between two narrow coastal gorges — is the main draw for many visitors. After a lengthy explanation from a fellow guest about the science behind the falls, I nod encouragingly, but in truth I am none the wiser. It’s something to do with tide variations. Anyhow, we pay an additional £36 to be whisked through the “Horries” in the local operator’s speedboat. This is the perfect setting for a James Bond action scene and, with the wind in my hair, I indulgently imagine Daniel Craig at the wheel.

Other explorations are more spontaneous, simply darting around sludge-green mangrove trees and up unknown creeks in the tender. Back on board, I escape the midday heat in the “spa” — a generous name for an old hot tub filled with seawater.

The only worry people seem to have is whether there’s still any ice in the Eskies. Around the evening campfires — boys are tasked with collecting driftwood — the guitar inevitably comes out with the liquor. Scotty saves us from Wonderwall with his own song. “I’m going, I’m going any which way the wind shall be blowing, I’m going, I’m going where the streams of whisky are a-flowing,” he sings wistfully. Tall tales are told of how, in a previous life, the 28-year-old Oceanic was stolen from Thai pirates by the Thai mafia, before the Australian authorities seized it. Revelling in our remoteness, we toast marshmallows and look for the Southern Cross before kipping down.

After seven days away from the rest of the world, it feels strange to be jolted back into civilisation when we reach Cygnet Bay. During a bone-rattling bus ride back to Broome, through the rusty-dusty outback, I reflect on the scenery of the past week. A sentence of Scotty’s sticks out: “Some parts around here are break-your-heart beautiful.” Too true, mate.

Laura Pullman was a guest of Etihad Airways and Tourism Australia (australia.com). The seven-day Buccaneer Archipelago Cruise starts at £1,663pp (ahoybuccaneers.com.au). Etihad flies from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh to Perth, via Abu Dhabi; from £655 return (0345 608 1225, etihad.com). Perth-Broome flights start at £240 return with Virgin Australia or Qantas

Laura on the Oceanic

Laura on the Oceanic

Laura Pullman

The Sunday Times 

News Review deputy editor