In a land far, far away

Published in Luxury Travel, Issue 51, Winter 2012

From Broome Jane O’sullivan took a two-hour flight to the Mitchell Plateau then a 15-minute helicopter transfer to reach the Kimberley Coastal Camp, the latest addition to Australia’s high-end travel experiences. The aching remoteness is of course part of the experience, the rest is all about what the camp’s expert guides showed her in this untouched, ancient part of our continent.

“We’re lucky it’s a cool day,” says Kev, striding on ahead. It was 39 degrees Celsius in the shade when we left, and it certainly isn’t any cooler in the full blast of the Kimberley sun. But Kev is one of those hardened country men with a battered akubra and sun-leathered skin, who clearly has a different definition of normal to us city slickers.

We’re bushwalking near the Lawley River, behind the Mitchell Plateau in far north Western Australia. It is without doubt the most remote place I’ve ever been. Most of the bushwalking I do is on nicely groomed trails in national parks, with tidy steps and handrails and trailmarkers, not bush-bashing through spinifex and hopping over boulders. I feel privileged to be out and about in such an untouched and breathtakingly beautiful corner of our country – but I do wish I had some gaiters. That spinifex is prickly stuff.

Kev, our guide from the Kimberley Coastal Camp, is taking us to see some ancient rock art. It includes examples of one of the oldest kinds of rock art, the gwion gwion, also known as Bradshaw panels after the explorer who first documented them. They are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Elegant, long-limbed, unearthly figures with ornate headdresses and sashes around their waist. While the rock art itself can’t be dated, Kev shows us a panel where scientists have been able to test fossilised wasps nests that are on top of the art. According to this measure, he says, the panel is 27,000 years old.

There are more recent examples of rock art here too, including immense wandjina figures with their brooding eyes and strange whistlecock men – a world away from the gwion gwions. We sit in the cool of the cave, thinking about the many thousands of years of human occupation in this very place, and wondering about what these paintings would have meant to the people who painted them and those who came after.

On the way back, we stop at a branch of the river for a dip. This is croc country, and it’s not safe to dive in just anywhere, but there’s a natural plunge pool sheltered by some fast-flowing water to one side and the temptation is just too great. It’s freshwater and blissfully cool. “I could stay here all day,” I sigh.

“Well, you can, if we miss the tides,” says Kev with his trademark cheeky humour. Out here, the tides rule the day. Plans change constantly depending on what’s possible with the tides, which can
rise as much as eight metres at certain times of the year. “The tide waits for no man,” Kev likes to say. So it’s with regret that I climb out and follow them so we don’t miss our boat back.

The Kimberley Coastal Camp is nestled snugly along a beach deep inside the Admiralty Gulf. It started life in the 1990s as a rustic fishing camp but has been steadily upping the comfort levels ever since, most recently going through a A$1 million redevelopment. It’s still achingly remote though and is only accessible by air or boat. From Broome, it’s a two-hour flight to the Mitchell Plateau, followed by a 15-minute helicopter transfer into the camp. Kununurra and Derby are other good jumping off points.

The heart of the camp is a large open-air shed which serves as lounge room, bar, dining room and kitchen. (It’s also home to the thermometer, which I check with masochistic regularity.) Scattered around it are a handful of huts, which have shade cloth windows on all sides to let the breeze in. The rooms, like the lounge area and the paths outside, are all floored with the same white shell grit found on the beach. This, more than anything, sets the tone at Kimberley Coastal Camp. It’s very much at one with its location. The lounge, too, is decorated in coral and shells that have been washed in by cyclones, and there is even a crocodile skull propped up against a post. No fake zebra skins or African safari themes here.

While the rates are relatively expensive for what’s basically still a camping experience, what you’re really paying for is the remoteness, the access to such an untouched part of the country and the expert guides to take you through it (and cook for you – coming home to a delicious almond semifreddo makes you forget how far from civilisation you really are).

There’s no doubt that the Kimberley, a region as big as Germany but with only one person per 12.5 square kilometres, has remained so unspoilt because it is hard country. The wet season over summer brings scorching temperatures, rain, cyclones and pea-soup humidity. (The camp closes over this time, only operating during the April to October dry season.) The landscape is rugged and, alongside the crocodiles, the water is home to sharks and stinging jellyfish. (As Ebony, another of our guides, laughingly puts it, “you won’t drown”.) But it’s remarkable more people don’t visit. The Kimberley is the kind of spectacular Australia does best.

The wildlife, too, is stunning. Aside from the crocs and sharks we see dingoes, sea eagles, ospreys, kites and water monitors – and then there’s the fishing.

The camp is very popular with fishermen and for good reason, I discover. I’d never fished before and had a quaint picture that it was sitting about in a tinny, doing nothing for several hours.

We’re taken out by Jimmy, who starts our education at a gentle spot where we drop a few lines for fingermark, a good eating fish, in the hope of getting something for lunch. I’m dubious, but I get a bite straight away and we quickly pull up a few good-sized contenders for the barbecue.
Then the real adventure starts. Jimmy takes us across the gulf to a rocky stretch of coast. He keeps the boat moving and we cruise up and down the rocks with lines cast out behind us. This is called trolling, and we’re on the hunt for golden trevally (or GT, if you want to sound like you really know what you’re talking about). It doesn’t take long. “Here we go!” yells Jimmy, as one line jumps suddenly, the rod bending hard and surely about to snap. “Who wants to take it?”

Before any of us can get it safely in hand, the second rod goes and it’s chaos. My partner takes one rod, I leap for the other and we start furiously dipping and winding. The fish are feisty, and the reels whirr as they duck and pull away. It’s hard work. My arms are burning and my hip is aching from where I’ve jammed the rod against the bone. I’m afraid of dropping the reel in the water but somehow, inch by inch, I pull him in. I can hear excitement behind me. “Is that a shark?” someone asks. “Yeah, there are two. Bronze whalers. They’re following the fish.”

And then there’s a snap and my line goes slack.

But the second line is still going. When it gets close to the boat, Jimmy leans over and hauls it up. It’s a massive thing, about five kilograms, but we’re told they can get much larger. They have a reputation in sportfishing circles because of the fight in them. We stop for a portrait pic and slip him back into the sea.

The rest of the morning passes in much the same fashion, with the boys pulling up impressive beasts – including a sizeable barramundi, another sportfishing trophy – and me finding various ways to lose my bait (“eco-fishing,” Jimmy calls it). But Jimmy isn’t letting us leave until I’ve caught one too. And eventually I do. I snag a fish that’s much easier to reel in than the GTs. “It’s just a little one,” I tell the others. And then there’s a splash and it doesn’t look quite so little anymore. It turns out to be the biggest catch of the day, a long queenfish, almost a metre. I feel a bit bewildered as I hold it up for the photo. Me, fishing?

Finally satisfied, Jimmy turns us round and aims the boat for a secluded beach. The others are waiting for us with a picnic lunch and a fire to barbecue the fingermark we’d caught earlier in the morning. “You know, fishing’s not normally like this,” my partner tells me. But then that’s the Kimberley for you.