The rock making up the cliffs is old, so old, it predates life on earth. Let that sink in for a moment.
“I can’t see any fossils in any these rocks,” I ask my guide Carly.
“These rocks were formed before there was anything to fossilise,” she replies plainly.
Quite apart from its fame as one of the oldest environments on the planet, the rugged and foreboding Kimberley region of Australia's North West has a fearsome reputation for its unforgiving and hostile nature and ability to draw adventure travellers from all over the world.
The sheer cliffs, raging tides, carnivorous wildlife and inhospitable landscape effectively deterred the early Dutch mariners from further exploration, but the region also holds what are possibly the world’s oldest known cave paintings – the Gwion Gwion or Bradshaws.
These exquisite paintings are believed by some researchers to be as old as 50,000 years. Scientists have attempted to date the ochres used in the murals with carbon analysis, but the material is so old, it has become part of the rock. The intricate and detailed portraits depict a group of people long forgotten in the Kimberley. They contrast in style and design to the better known and much younger Wandjina paintings and have sparked many great debates among experts.
Overland travel in the Kimberley region between Broome and Wyndham via the coastal route can be tough and should only be attempted by experienced drivers in properly equipped vehicles. These factors have very effectively isolated the monumental rock formations and glorious ancient stone vistas from modern human interference, but thanks to the latest wave of sophisticated luxury expedition vessels, the Kimberley is rated one of Australia’s “must see” travel destinations.
A secret well kept by expert fishermen, pearl divers and missionaries for most of the 20th century, the Kimberley is finally revealing its true wonder to the outside world.
Between May and September every year, a small fleet of expedition and adventure vessels conduct enriching, naturalist-escorted tours throughout the labyrinth of estuaries, waterways and coves. Teeming birdlife, mysterious archaeological sites, awe inspiring landscapes and natural phenomenon witnessed by very few Europeans are just part of the seemingly irresistible allure of the Kimberley.
At Talbot Bay, the Horizontal Waterfalls were described by David Attenborough as "one of the greatest natural wonders of the world". This highly unusual phenomenon occurs as the huge, ten metre tides ebb and flow between a tiny gap in the ridge within the bay in the Buccaneer Archipelago. It’s possible to fly in by seaplane to do this experience, or else any of the small adventure vessels regularly conduct adrenaline rides through the rapids using high-speed tenders.
The more conventional Mitchell Falls are superb cascades, named after the marvellous plateau, are perhaps the crowning glory of the scenic attractions of the Kimberley. Scenic flights, either fixed-wing or helicopter, are the best way to view these falls and are at their most impressive early in the season before the deluge of ‘the wet’ is fully drained.
The unofficial ‘capital’ of the region is the historic town of Broome. This isolated and remote township has come back to life as a bustling tourist centre and gateway to the great Kimberley region. From the iconic Cable Beach camel rides to pearl tours, the town is developing a world class tourism profile, but still retains its rugged, end-of-the-world character.
Apart from this new influx of tourists, not a lot has changed in the Kimberley. The pearls still shine like newly polished gems, the mighty barramundi still challenge the best fishers and the Gwion Gwion still survey the land as they have done for thousands of years.