Travel and outdoors: Western Australia's magnificent Kimberley coast

Be croc wise in croc country and remember, always swim with someone slower than yourself," quipped Mick Fogg, our tour leader on board the five-star expedition ship Orion.

He was wrapping up a safety demonstration ahead of a ten-day cruise around Western Australia's remote Kimberley coastline. Crocodiles, however, were the last thing on my mind as I settled in to life on board this sleek mega yacht. In between la carte dinners and sipping cocktails on the sun deck, I seriously doubted I'd have the willpower to tear myself away from the luxury and wrestle with sea crocs.

Opulent adventure, however, is Orion's stock in trade and with a whale-loving captain on board it didn't take long for the wildlife spectacle to begin. Early the next morning he announced that he'd spotted a pod of humpback whales 2km ahead. A promise of a free champagne breakfast couldn't have emptied the cabins quicker. All 76 passengers - still in their dressing gowns - raced onto the decks and gazed in astonishment as the whales breached and waved their giant flippers at the slowly approaching ship. The sheltered bays of Kimberley are ideal calving grounds for humpbacks. In September they assemble for their annual Antarctic migrations and the waters along this rugged coastline become one of the world's best places to spot this most entertaining and photogenic of all the giant whales.

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Exhilarated at this spectacular wake-up call we were eager to see more. The Orion holds a fleet of sturdy rubber zodiac landing craft which can brave the roughest of seas. Careering over choppy waves, spray flying up into your face is a thrilling experience but our first port of call, the sinister sounding Crocodile Creek, didn't turn out to be quite the Life on Earth extravaganza we'd expected. Next to an idyllic waterfall cascading into an opalescent pool, our charming Filipino bar staff had set up a margarita bar and in yellow sombreros were strumming guitars and crooning Besame Mucho. It was vintage outback scenery of burnished red cliffs and silvery eucalypts, the type immortalized by classic Australian films such as Walkabout. It was well over 30 degrees and plunging into the cool clear water felt sublime. Floating on your back, clutching a margarita with a waterfall cascading over your face has to be the most civilized way to explore the Australian outback.

Following a couple of days cruising through the swashbuckling-named Buccaneer Archipelago we reached Raft Point, home to one of Australia's most famous indigenous rock art sites. The ghostly white, bulbous-headed Wandjinas (ancestral spirits) depicted in the caves have long been popular with alien visitation boffins.

We arrived just before dawn and as I walked out onto my balcony I could immediately appreciate Raft Point's extraterrestrial credentials. Silhouetted against a tangerine sky, the southern constellations still flickering above, a mysterious vertical bluff was rising out of the sea; as perfect a landing place for UFOs as Wyoming's iconic Devil's Tower in Close Encounters.On shore, the usual down-to-earth Aussie passengers were being surprisingly touchy feely. A cluster of giant boab trees had brought out their inner Earth mother and they were lining up to hug the pot-bellied cuties. At the entrance to the sacred caves, Harry Christensen, Orion's animated barefoot anthropologist said a prayer to the ancestral spirits and with hushed reverence we climbed up over fallen boulders into the galleries. Above us Wandjinas, dugongs and turtles swirled across the ceiling depicting The Great Fish Chase, an epic tale of thwarted love and jealous Gods. The ceremony of re-touching the ancient paintings with fresh ochre almost died out in the 20th century. However, the last shaman of the Wororra clan, Sam Woolagoodja passed the tradition on to his son Donny who later became a respected artist. He designed a spectacular giant effigy of Namarali, the chief Wandjina at Raft Point for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics and today the Wandjinas have become a much-loved symbol of resurgent indigenous culture.

The next morning our zodiac team took us into the heart of Crocodile Dundee country. It was high tide on the Hunter River and gliding through the mangrove treetops we felt distinctly ill at ease. The Australian monster croc movie Rogue was on everybody's mind. In the oppressive heat the only thing stirring was a solitary Brahminy kite circling above us. Giving up, as we turned back to the ship, a sharp-eyed passenger spotted a young croc draped over a rock, his left hind leg dangling lazily in the water. As we edged closer we could clearly see his demonic yellow eyes staring impassively at us. At our evening slide show the expedition team had photoshopped a Made in China logo on it and to this day I'm still not convinced whether it was real or not.

That afternoon we visited a more dynamic wildlife location. The Kimberley has the second highest tidal range in the world which leads to a variety of fascinating natural phenomena. At Montgomery Reef, Australia's largest inshore reef, water trapped in the lagoon can't keep up with the swiftly ebbing tide and cascades over the reef in shimmering coral waterfalls. The struggling fish form a feeding bonanza for birds and as we approached the sparkling torrents, snowy white egrets were hopping along the reef edge stabbing at the rock pools. At the base of the reef, green turtles were flitting around sargassum seaweed meadows and every so often obligingly poked their heads above water in the most fleeting of photo opportunities.

At the sleepy port of Wyndham we finally reached civilization.We'd been out of mobile reception for a week and the decks were full of passengers calling loved ones and regaling them with embellished crocodile tales. The Orion had arranged a scenic flight over the Kimberley and at Kunummara airport we jumped into a squadron of tiny GA-8 Airvans - destination The Bungle Bungles - an extraordinary range of beehive-shaped mountains that lay forgotten to the outside world until they were rediscovered in the 1980s.

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"Look, we're flying over 25,000 fresh water crocodiles," said Kylie our pilot as she handed round a family-sized pack of Coles party-mix sweets.

"Better not crash then," joked a passenger from the back.

We were flying over Lake Argyle, Australia's second largest artificial lake. It was built in the 1970s and the primeval monsters wasted little time in colonising it. An hour later we were swooping low over the breathtaking orange and grey striped Bungle range. This is the heart of Australia's legendary pink diamond territory and I wondered just how many more undiscovered gems were hiding in this savagely beautiful corner of the Australian outback.


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Audley Travel specialises in tailormade holidays and cruises to Australia and beyond. Prices for the ten night Orion Kimberley Expedition cruise including economy class flights and two people sharing an ocean view stateroom start from 6995 per person. Tel: 01993 838810, or visit For more information on Western Australia visit

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