Expedition cruising in the Kimberley is an experience featuring ever more frequently on bucket lists. To call a ship voyage in the Kimberley a 'cruise' is not particularly accurate. Venturing into this genuine wilderness region is a true expedition and not every 'cruise' company is equipped to do it properly.
This remote tropical desert in Australia's North West covers more than 423,000 sq. km. It really is the vision of the late, great Australian fiction writer and poet Dorothea Mackellar, who famously wrote about "a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains".
Add to that thundering waterfalls and dramatic tidal flows full of stealthy saltwater crocodiles and you'll never be at a loss for stunning scenery and amazing photo opportunities.
Indigenous heritage stretches back tens of thousands of years, leaving a land of great cultural significance and replete with mysterious and bewitching Aboriginal rock art that some scholars believe could be the oldest on the planet.
Unfortunately, the other thing that is incredible about cruising the Kimberley is the price: to do it properly you won't get much change from $10,000 per person, with the more luxurious trips costing even more. But for those who can afford it, a Kimberley expedition will not disappoint.
Kimberley cruises only operate during the dry season, which runs from April to September, although some special interest cruises do operate in March (for waterfalls) and October (for scuba diving and fishing). In the wet season, it's just too uncomfortable to travel. When it rains in the Kimberley -- it really rains! Then there are the bugs. That said, early in the season (aka 'waterfall time') is the best time to see the mighty falls in full force and late in the season is the time to go fishing for the mighty barramundi.
Boutique ships and dedicated expedition vessels offer itineraries typically ranging from seven to 14 nights during the Kimberley cruise season. The locally based operators such as True North, Great Escape and Kimberley Quest have the advantage of local knowledge -- a big plus in The Kimberley -- as well as onboard helicopters for superior sightseeing and excursion opportunities. Australian-flagged Coral Expeditions also has extensive experience in the Kimberley, but they will use local, shore-based helicopters for the flightseeing.
Otherwise, there are the larger international operators such as Ponant, Silversea and APT who frequently run several back-to-back voyages throughout the season between Broome and Darwin. Due to a curious maritime law called 'cabotage', foreign-flagged vessels must detour to an international port mid-cruise. That said, no matter which cruise line you ultimately choose, you are certain of a memorable experience.
Excursion formats are similar with the use of either rubber Zodiac or aluminium 'tinny' runabouts for shore trips. Local operators prefer 'tinnies' as they are more durable in the rocky rivers -- and faster.
Most Kimberley cruises travel from Darwin (or, occasionally, Kununurra in Western Australia) to Broome and vice versa. Local operators have the choice and can operate Broome-to-Broome or any combination they like as they are not subject to the aforementioned 'cabotage'.
Most cruise lines will visit the most popular locations including Talbot Bay, which has the massive 12m tides which produce the famous Horizontal Falls, Atlantis-like Montgomery Reef, as well as the soaring red cliffs of the Hunter and Prince Regent Rivers. Other highlights include the Mitchel Falls, Kings Cascade and King George Falls, which thunder over an 80m drop. Then there's the ancient rock art at Jar Island, Bigge Island and Raft Point, some of which dates back more than 20,000 years.
King Cascades: This terraced waterfall located in Prince Regent National Park can only be reached by either tender or one of the smaller local ships. Make sure you change into your swimmers on the way as your skipper will aim to put the bow under the tumbling water so you can enjoy a 'shower' surrounded by the wild beauty of the national park. Selfie time! Early in the season is even more dramatic.
Talbot Bay: Sir David Attenborough described the mighty 12m tides at Talbot Bay as "one of the greatest natural wonders of the world". While you can view the phenomenon from the expedition ship, you'll really want to get aboard one of the high-speed runabouts for a proper thrill ride to get a feeling for the sheer power of the water that churns through the two gaps.
Although these are called waterfalls, the flow actually consists of intense tidal currents pouring through two gaps in the McLarty Ranges, the narrowest of which is just 10m wide.
Raft Point: The soaring red ochre cliffs will have you reaching for your camera. But it's the Aboriginal rock art that draws an even bigger gasp. The secluded Aboriginal rock art gallery at Raft Point features iconic Wandjina multi-layered murals of the Wororra and Ngarinyin people, depicting the ancient mouth-less spirits who were believed to renew the land during the annual big wet.
Mitchell Falls: Located in Mitchell National Park, these four-tiered falls are one of the most famous sights in the entire Kimberley region. They were created by the Mitchell River and its tributaries, which created spectacular gorges and waterfalls throughout the sandstone plateau. Mitchell Falls can only be viewed from the air, meaning a helicopter flight from either the onboard helicopter on your cruise or the land-based operator is required.
King George Falls: These massive twin falls plummet 80m into the river of the same name below and your cruise ship will either anchor at the base (if it is one of the smaller ships) or send tenders in for a spectacular, up-close view of this stunning phenomenon often described as the Kimberley's 'Jewel in the Crown'.
Montgomery Reef: This reef is an incredible natural phenomenon, which actually appears to rise out of the sea as the enormous tides abate around Yawajaba Island offshore from the Prince Regent River. Tender tours through the swirling channels reveal schooling fish and many hungry turtles feeding as the water pours off the reef. An aerial view of the reef, at the southwestern end of Camden Sound, is even more spectacular.
Fishing: Several operators, usually those of locally based smaller vessels, will offer fishing excursions with an experienced guide who will do pretty much everything for you except catch the fish. And the fishing is pretty special in the Kimberley, especially if you land a big barramundi.
Book Your Cruise Early: The Kimberley cruise season is short and the most popular ships and itineraries often sell out far in advance. Book early to get your preferred ship and preferred dates, especially if you're travelling on one of the more affordable cruise lines.
Fitness Counts: While the Kimberley can be a challenging destination for unfit travellers and those with mobility problems, it's not impossible. Some ships, in particular those of the Coral Expeditions' fleet, have tenders (called Xplorers) where you can walk directly on and off in comfort. Some shore excursions (eg Raft Point) require walking uphill on uneven terrain, so be prepared. That said, the Kimberley remains very popular with older, less mobile passengers who can still enjoy the experience, albeit without the energetic hiking. Seeing Mitchell Falls Is Expensive: Mitchell Falls is one of Australia's most famous, and most photographed, waterfalls. Unfortunately, it's also difficult to reach. You've got two options when it comes to seeing Mitchell Falls: a challenging six-hour return hike over difficult terrain; or a helicopter flight. Your only option as a cruise passenger is the helicopter flight (which isn't usually included in the cost of your cruise).
Extend Your Pre- and Post-Cruise Stay: Darwin and Broome are more than simply a jumping-on-or-off point for your Kimberley cruise. Spend a few extra days exploring the attractions and colourful, multicultural history of these two cities. Don't miss the sunset at Cable Beach in Broome and Darwin's Mindil Beach, which also has a lively market on Thursday and Sunday nights.