Why experiencing True North is on every luxury traveller’s bucket list

Kimberley Region
Kimberley Region

Western Australia’s extraordinary Kimberley region is full of surprises, whether viewed from sea level or hundreds of metres above sandstone escarpments in a helicopter, discovers Fiona Harper

There are only two ways to get to Quail Creek, a tributary of the Prince Regent River in Australia’s remote Kimberley region. You could walk the near 330km (as the crow flies) through the rugged wilderness of Dambimangari Country from Wyndham – though I would not recommend it. Intrepid pastoralist, Joseph Bradshaw, had no such reservations, and his boldness was rewarded in the discovery of ancient rock art forever associated with his name. In 1891 Bradshaw’s party of packhorses took six gruelling weeks to reach Prince Regent River and, presumably, Quail Creek.

It takes me less than half an hour.

Between boarding the helicopter on True North II and landing on a rocky platform at the foot of a multi-tiered waterfall, I’ve just enough time to admire the view of the sandstone escarpment gouged by the river. The moment my seatbelt is unbuckled, I slide into a pool of crystal-clear water, wallowing in a swimming hole fed by a tumbling waterfall that pummels my shoulders.

“Massaged by the hands of the Kimberley Gods” is how one passenger describes the tingle of a walloping waterfall on his back.

“What would you like to drink?” asks Adventure Director Summer Lyon-Brown, as I emerge from the rockpool and plop into a deck chair. Behind her, Chefs Luke and Jasper are tending a tantalising grill laden with tiger prawns, dukka-coated chicken thigh fillets, kangaroo steak and succulent Kimberley beef. The heady aroma of sizzling meat melds with eucalyptus smouldering on an open fire, smoky tendrils snaking high above the vertical sandstone wall that towers over our picnic spot.

Champagne and helicopters

Heli-picnics in far flung locations are just one advantage of having a five-seater Eurocopter AS350 at our disposal. True North II is a new addition to True North Adventure Cruises, with the 35m vessel a little like cruising on a private superyacht. With capacity for 22 guests in 11 cabins, and a crew compliment of 14, it’s an intimate experience where passengers and crew soon become friends.

Pilot Tom Wallace has been flying the chopper he calls ‘The Squirrel’ around the Kimberley for six years. He has amassed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the best spots, which are only accessible by helicopter.

“Having the helicopter onboard extends the reach for guests to see and do so much more,” Tom says. “At every spot we anchor there is much more than what you can access from sea level.” Besides heli-picnics, there are aerial excursions for heli-camping, heli-fishing and heli-rock-art tours.

Late one afternoon we land on a ridge 500m above the Hunter River to sip champagne and watch the sun sink below the Indian Ocean, as True North II steams to her next anchorage. “We’re probably the only people who have ever landed here in a chopper,” says Tom excitedly. Rodney from Melbourne is so enamoured with the unlikely opportunity of landing on the ledge of a far-flung escarpment he names the site ‘Rodney’s Rock’.

Another day, we arrive at the four-tiered cascade of Mitchell Falls, where we take a guided walk to a panoramic viewpoint. At Camden Sound we fly over Montgomery Reef, watching the ebbing tide cascading into waterfalls tumbling down the flanks of exposed reef. We see manta rays, dolphins, sharks and turtles hunting in shallow water, while a saltwater crocodile basks on a sandbank. Later, we board the tenders and ride the churning eddies and currents of the outgoing tide, seeing loggerhead turtles pop up beside our boat, while white-plumed Eastern Reef Egrets stalk prey in exposed tiers of reef.

Other small boat excursions take us deep into mangrove-lined creeks, where dawn casts mirror-like reflections upon still waters and the silence is broken by the soft chortling of a red-headed honeyeater.

On a mud crabbing expedition in Porosus Creek, pots are baited with fish frames, which lure both crabs and the creek’s namesake, Crocodylus porosus. In a real-life battle of reptile versus crustacean, fishing guide and boatman Liam is equally cognisant of our safety, while imploring us to pull the crab pots up swiftly before crocodiles snatch the bait. By the time we turn for home, we’re one crab pot short (Liam says a croc has probably dragged it into the mangroves), we’ve sacrificed all our bait and landed just two mud crabs of sufficient size for the cooking pot. The subsequent messy, yet delicious, mud crab feast, shared during sundowners the next evening, is ample reward for our thrilling, if slightly terrifying, efforts.

Other passengers cast a fishing line whenever the opportunity presents, landing tantalising hauls of coral trout, mangrove jack and barramundi, which end up in the galley for the Chefs to poach, bake and grill. With just 18 guests, dining is the social hub which brings everyone together, whether indoors around the large oval dining table or alfresco on the top deck where Nicole’s cocktail-making skills are put to good use. One or two crew join us at mealtimes, allowing guests to get to know the multi-tasking crew who bait our fishing lines, service our cabins, make our coffees and take us on guided walks, all while sharing their knowledge and passion for this extraordinary country.

Indigenous culture

Most days there is an opportunity to swim in a freshwater swimming hole or walk to a rock art site. Oftentimes we do both on the one excursion. Upon learning of my keen interest in rock art, Chief Officer Glen shows me photos on his phone of a new rock art site they’d just found.

“At every chance we get, we go exploring, looking for new locations to share with guests,” Glen tells me, his eyes alight with excitement. Later that same day he says there’s a chance for me view this rock art before everyone gathers for sundowners and a beach bonfire. “Do you want to have a look?” he asks. You better believe I do, and we jump in a tender and roar across the bay to view Gwion Gwion artworks.

Along with overhangs, walls and caves adorned with rock art, shell middens and burial sites are signposts of traditional custodians who occupied this rugged country long before Joseph Bradshaw focused world attention on the Kimberley. As I poke around these virtual living museums, admiring artworks thousands of years old, I feel a palpable connection to those who once lived here. I can’t help thinking about Bradshaw, so too the people who came tens of thousands of years before him.

“Massaged by the hands of Kimberley Gods” is how one passenger describes the tingle of a walloping waterfall on his back.

After tethering their horses and clambering upstream at what was presumed to be the Prince Regent River, Bradshaw came upon a waterhole fed by a cascade of water tumbling through a narrow gorge of fractured sandstone. His attention was caught by elegant rock art figures adorning this boulder-strewn basin. The art he saw was unlike the familiar Wandjina spirit figures with their halo-like headpieces and mouthless faces.

“Some of the human figures were life-size … having numerous tassel-shaped ornaments appended to the hair, neck, waist, arms and legs … one might think himself viewing the painted walls of an Egyptian temple,” Bradshaw noted in his journal.

The pastoralist eventually returned to Melbourne, his sketches and detailed notes presented in a paper to the Royal Geographical Society, which ensured the artworks were subsequently known as Bradshaw Figures. These ancient artworks are now recognised as being created by ancestors of the Balanggarra people and are known as Gwion Gwion. Archaeologists with the Australian Research Council published a paper in 2020 dating rock art between 12,000 and 17,000 years old. It’s assumed there are countless galleries and art sites which remain undocumented, making a Kimberley voyage every bit as potentially ground-breaking as Bradshaw’s 19th century expedition.

Cruising with True North II however, it’s unlikely you’ll face similar hardships to that which Bradshaw’s party encountered. Your biggest decisions will be whether to buckle yourself into a helicopter or step into a tender to view the landscapes of which Bradshaw enthused. If you want my advice – and I assume you do if you’re still reading – take every single opportunity to savour the tantalising spirit of this extraordinary country. I promise you will not regret a moment.

Journey Notes

The 10-day Kimberley Explorer Cruise aboard True North II embarks at Wyndham and Disembarks in Broome (this voyage may be done in either direction).

Share this article