Cruising the Kimberley: A Guide to Exploring the Australian Outback

Apr 17, 2019 8:00:00 AM

Northwestern Australia is home to the Kimberley region, a place of untamed beauty that feels far removed from busy coastal cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

The Kimberley became one of the first settled parts of Australia when the earliest seafarers arrived from Indonesia around 40,000 years ago. But the region remains remote and largely undeveloped today. This is a place where the rugged Australian Outback meets the Indian Ocean and the Timor Sea.

Things are a bit different here: Waterfalls flow sideways. Intriguing stories are shared, not by TV or computer screens, but through ancient rock art created by the region’s indigenous peoples.

Although the region is larger than most European countries, the Kimberly remains one of the least densely populated regions on Earth. Here, the human inhabitants are greatly outnumbered by a diverse array of wildlife. Thundering waterfalls and deep gorges meet coral atolls and reefs, allowing visitors to witness everything from dolphins to dingoes. Natural attractions reign supreme, with stellar sights such as Mitchell Falls and the Bungle Bungles putting man-made landmarks to shame.

Australia Kimberley Cruise

The Kimberley region lies between the cities of Broome and Darwin, both of which are great starting points for launching your journey to one of Australia’s last truly wild places. Broome offers up the 14-mile long Cable Beach, where camels take visitors on sunset rides as they pass over the fossilized footprints of the dinosaurs that once ruled the region. At the other end, Darwin lies as a gateway to the Tiwi Islands and the wildlife-rich Kakadu National Park.

Because it remains rugged and remote, the Kimberley region can best be explored through luxurious cruises that allow travelers easier access to the hard-to-reach gems of this remarkable landscape. Read on for our in-depth guide to the Kimberley cruise experience.

Cruising the Kimberley vs. Land-Based Journeys 

While the Kimberley can be accessed by sea or road, the latter option presents a range of challenges. The famous Gibb River Road runs over 400 miles through the heart of the region. It can be an arduous journey, with long and uncomfortable days spent on unsealed 4WD tracks.

Travel by vehicle is only possible during the dry season, and even then a lot of preparation is needed before tackling the region. You’ll need a good amount of 4WD knowledge and experience, and accommodation options, supplies, and services along the way can be sparse. While the natural attractions are definitely worth the effort, it takes a bit of work to reach them by road, and it often requires “roughing it” (a.k.a. backcountry camping with few amenities).

Cruising the Kimberley with Zegrahm Expeditions, on the other hand, allows you to see the region aboard a luxurious ship that is designed for passenger comfort. Everything including the transportation is taken care of for you, allowing you more time to enjoy this wild, wonderful region.

Kimberley cruises are usually taken aboard small ships. With Zegrahm, you’ll travel with no more than 65 passengers, which means more intimate experiences and personalized service. Your ship is equipped with expedition-style Zodiacs that allow you to go ashore in isolated areas that are difficult to access by land. You’ll have the benefit of being led by knowledgeable naturalists and historians, who have been handpicked for their expertise in the area. You may also be offered insight from indigenous guides as you explore the area’s Aboriginal rock art sites.

Cruising the Kimberley region allows you to enjoy adventurous excursions by day but with the luxury of comfort and relaxation on board the ship each night. There’s no need to drive, cook, or plan out each of your day’s activities, as the perfect itinerary has already been crafted for you.

Australia Kimberley Cruise

The Best Time to Visit the Kimberley Region 

The Kimberley region sees two distinct seasons–a dry season and a wet tropical monsoon season. Most of the area’s rainfall occurs from November to April, which severely restricts travel (both by land and sea) due to flooded roadways and the threat of cyclones.

The best time to visit the Kimberley is during the dry season, which runs from around May to September. May is especially great for catching the area’s amazing waterfalls at their most impressive, just after the end of the wet season. Available flights become more numerous during the dry season when you can fly directly to Broome or Darwin from major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

The Kimberley region is generally one of the hottest places in all of Australia, where temperatures can reach upwards of 100°F as the wet season approaches in November. During the dry season, temperatures there are much more comfortable, with highs averaging around 80°F in May.

As the dry season sets in, your days are spent under blue skies, with little chance for rain. Nights are cool and clear, which allow for great stargazing far away from any light pollution. Most of the area’s national parks are fully open during the dry season (not so during the wet season), and wildlife is easier to spot due to the fact that the animals tend to spread out more during the wet season.

Preparing & Packing for Cruising the Kimberly

Booking your Kimberley cruise early is essential to securing a spot on one of these extraordinary expeditions. The cruise season in northwest Australia is very short, and the most comprehensive and thrilling itineraries usually sell out quickly.

You may want to exercise a bit if you want to be able to enjoy all the adventurous activities that are available in the Kimberley region. Cruising isn’t as difficult as a land-based journey, but you should still prepare yourself by taking longer walks before your trip. Many hikes in the Kimberley region require you to navigate uneven terrain. Of course, there will be plenty of beauty and intrigue to motivate you along the way!

In terms of packing for the cruise, you’ll want to focus on clothing designed for warm weather. But a light jacket and pair of long pants is a good idea in case of cooler nights or an odd passing shower. Since there will be sunny skies during most days, it’s also wise to bring a good pair of sunglasses, hat, and plenty of sunscreen. Insect repellent and even a fly net for your face may also come in handy to help with midges, mosquitoes, and march flies, which can be pesky here all year round.

Voltage in Australia is 230/250V, using 3-pin slanted plugs. While this may accommodate electronics brought from European, Asian, and African countries, you will probably need a converter and plug adapter for your electronics when traveling from the United States, Canada, and Japan.

Wi-Fi will be available aboard the Coral Discoverer, but much of the region may force you to be offline. So it’s a good idea to bring along a few good novels to read. Should you forget to pack reading material, the cruise ship is equipped with well-stocked reference libraries.

Remember to pack more than enough of any prescription medications you require, along with over-the-counter medications for minor ailments that may arise during your trip. If you’re traveling from a country (or have recently visited a country) where yellow fever is present, be sure to get your vaccination before traveling and have your certificate available to show upon arrival into Australia.

Should you have any special dietary requirements or allergies, discuss this with your Expedition Advisor well in advance so that they can better cater to your specific needs.

Australia Kimberley Cruise

Land and Sea Activities

Activities begin before you even board the ship for your Kimberley cruise. Broome offers up the world’s oldest outdoor cinema, pearl farm tours, and camel rides along the beach to watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean.

Onboard your ship you’ll enjoy educational lectures on what experiences you can expect to have each day, along with more information on wildlife sightings you may have had during the day. Depending on the cruise, watching giant saltwater crocodiles being fed, and even getting a wedge-tailed eagle’s view of the area’s grand waterfalls and gorges by taking a thrilling helicopter ride.

You’ll have a chance to spot sharks and sea turtles in the reef when on the water, and set foot on deserted beaches during shore excursions. You’ll visit islands that are rich with wildlife and hike to sites loaded with ancient indigenous art. After working up a bit of a sweat, you can take a dip in refreshing waterholes set amongst spectacular waterfalls. Your days will be packed with excitement, but you are also free to opt out of any activities should you wish to take it easy.

Experiencing the Kimberley

Natural Landmarks

Unlike the natural landmarks located near Australia’s large cities, you won’t have to share your Kimberley adventures with hoards of other tourists. And because many of the region’s most notable landmarks are really remote, they’ll provide you with much more personal and rewarding experiences.

Mitchell Falls is one of the area’s most impressive waterfalls, but it involves an arduous 5-mile hike via the Punamii-unpuu Trail if you plan on reaching them on foot. Zegrahm’s Kimberley cruises include a much easier and more enjoyable helicopter flight, allowing you to take in impressive aerial views of the falls and explore the area around the Mitchell Plateau.

But these multi-tiered falls aren’t the only remarkable ones in the Kimberley region to witness. Talbot Bay is home to the famous Horizontal Falls, which are created by the natural compression of the world's highest tidal shifts. Described by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the greatest natural wonders of the world,” the falls flow sideways and in both directions, depending on whether the tide is coming in or going out. Between low and high tide, the difference can be as much as 33 feet! These fantastic falls can be experienced via a scenic flight or adventurous speed boat ride.

You may also want to explore the Bungle Bungle Range, which is located within Purnululu National Park. The famous beehive-shaped sandstone formations were known only to the local Karjaganujaru Aboriginal people until fairly recently. They are definitely one of the Kimberley’s more unique natural attractions.

Australia Kimberley Cruise

Wildlife

A Kimberley cruise allows you to experience both the marine and terrestrial wildlife of the region.

On land you’ll encounter sand goannas, Mitchell's water monitor lizards, and the comical (yet beautiful) frilled-neck lizards. There’s the possibility of seeing Australia’s wild dogs, which are commonly known as dingoes. And with a bit of luck, you might have a chance to spot nocturnal species such as bilbies, bandicoots, and quolls.

Rock and agile wallabies bound through the landscape, while red-tailed black cockatoos, kookaburras, and sea eagles fly overhead. A visit to the Prince Regent Nature Reserve puts you in the company of more than half of the Kimberley region’s animal species, which can be found in varied habitats that range from tropical rainforests to sandstone plains.

Apart from the fossilized dinosaur prints of Broome, you can see some living dinosaurs as well. You’re likely to see both the smaller freshwater crocodiles as well as the giant saltwater crocs, the true kings of the Australian Outback.

Offshore, you can visit Montgomery Reef to see Australian snubfin dolphins, dugongs, and several species of sea turtles. There are important bird areas, including Sterna Island and the Lacepede Islands, which are home to large seabird colonies. You can also witness one of the world’s largest colonies of brown boobies, as well as enjoy frequent sightings of frigate birds, oystercatchers, pelicans, ospreys, terns, and other birds.

Australia Kimberley Cruise

Indigenous Culture

Apart from the breathtaking landscapes and rich wildlife found in the Kimberley, a large portion of the region has been added to Australia’s National Heritage List, largely due to its significant indigenous sites. Nearly half of the Kimberley’s population is of Aboriginal descent. The stories of their ancestors are scattered throughout the wilderness on natural rock art galleries.

Guests on Zegrahm’s Kimberley cruise have to a chance to see famous rock art sites such as those found on Bigge Island, Jar Island, and Raft Point. Many of these sites are found in remote caves that are only accessible by boat.

Early Aboriginal culture was depicted through elaborate paintings of human figures that were created during the Gwion period (around 20,000 years ago). You’ll also see unusual anthropomorphic figures created during the Wanjina period (around 3800-4000 years ago). Other rock art found in the Kimberley region includes paintings of local wildlife that may date back as far as the Pleistocene epoch, as well as creative hand motifs.

Many of these incredible works of art were completely unknown to the outside world until the latter part of the 19th century, when they were discovered and recorded by pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw. Seeing these remote, open-air galleries is utterly unlike any other art experience you’ll ever have.

The opportunity to see these ancient indigenous art exhibitions is just one more reason to cruise Australia’s Kimberley region, which offers a rare chance to explore this untamed land without having to sacrifice on comfort. It’s a primal place that few travelers ever get to see, providing unforgettable memories for those who make the exceptional journey.

Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.

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