An Indonesian Expedition

By Belinda Wilkinson

Grab a map, because I can assure you, this is a place most of you won’t be familiar with. From the tip of Darwin, focus your eyes 1,500 kilometres northeast and you’ll hit Raja Ampat and Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua, the Indonesian province of the island of New Guinea. This is one of the most remote and undiscovered locations in the world. Yet it’s so close to Australia.

Few charter boats have ventured here because of the distance, dangers of the seas and political hurdles. Tourist visas aren’t handed out easily. It took staff from Australia’s True North Cruises more than two years to set up an itinerary for their only ship, the 34-metre luxury yacht True North, and obtain permission from the Indonesian government to allow them to take visitors into these waters. It was granted on condition of a very short time frame to be in and out.

True North’s owners Craig Howson and Mark Stothard heard whale sharks in this region were behaving in the most peculiar way and, while the ship normally cruises Australia, this was something they couldn’t resist – to go where few have gone before. Their guests would experience a trip of a lifetime.

From our hotels in Darwin, 35 Australian passengers are escorted onto True North Cruises’ private jet where we’re served a champagne breakfast. In just over an hour we make a quick stop in the island town of Ambon where our visas are stamped. Two hours later we touch down in Sorong, West Papua. It’s an airport built for a logistics hub. Tourists are clearly a spectacle and rather amusing.

Enthusiastic chauffeurs take us in four wheel drives to a port where True North waits patiently after her three-day journey from Australia. As we approach the jetty, dilapidated wooden boats surround this lavish, state of the art yacht. It looks completely out of place. Nonetheless, we’re all secretly hoping the big white one is ours – especially those who haven’t read their travel pamphlets.

Thankfully, the termite-ridden pride and joys are left with the locals as we’re driven out in tenders toward True North, stepping onboard to a waiting cocktail and air-conditioned comfort. The service from the 24 all-Australian crew onboard is outstanding – friendly, professional and fun. We all know constant smiles go a long way and the vibe on board is just plain old school happy. Everyone is thrilled to be here and there’s never a feeling of being crowded anywhere on the boat.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the fine dining room and the two onboard chefs give a run down of every meal of the day to individual tables. Delightful crews clean the rooms daily and turn the beds in the evening. The bedrooms are roomy and modern and the ensuites are fresh. Beds are comfortable for a good nights sleep, to be able to do it all again tomorrow.

Over the next few days the basic itinerary is: get up at 6:30am, eat, adventure, eat, adventure, eat, adventure, eat, drink and sleep. After breakfast is the first dive/snorkel on the reef or a wreck, paradise island/rainforest hike, village visit, fishing trip, boat cruise, helicopter ride or island swim. It goes on like that throughout the day, every day. This is a discovery adventure – chances are no other tourist has set foot on this powdery white beach surrounded by coconuts palms and turquoise waters, snorkelled at this spot or hiked up this mountain. We’re taken into a village where tourists are seldom seen. Children are the first to spot our boats approach and run from the huts to greet us with shy but friendly smiles. This place is untouched.

The onboard helicopter is under very strict conditions not to land on any soil in West Papua. Having a chopper in this region is a big deal. So it isn’t a huge surprise when Pilot Rob spots three World War II American Bomber planes in pristine condition. They rest in two and a half metres of crystal clear water just off the shore of a beautiful island. The tenders are launched, the crew jump in for a quick safety inspection, and soon the passengers are snorkelling on undocumented historical wrecks.

The coral and fish life in this region is some of the best I have ever seen. And it’s little wonder. This area is a cauldron of evolution – West Papua contains 75 per cent of the world’s total number of coral and is home to the most reef fish of anywhere on earth (1,672 species). Over the past 15 million years it’s been completely cut off from the rest of the ocean and more than 100 species of marine life are found nowhere else in the world. Onboard marine biologist Mark Erdmann discovers new species of fish every time he visits.

On day seven, Mark gives the guests a presentation on what we’ve all been anxiously awaiting – the whale sharks of Cenderwasih Bay.

Every evening local fishermen light kerosene lamps on their temporary wooden barges, called bagans. They lower nets into the 80-metre deep water and small baitfish called Ikan Puri are attracted to the light and trapped in the nets.

We idle up to the platform and catch a glimpse of our first whale shark. This one is about five metres long and, as it gracefully swims past, it completely dwarfs our boat. Our mouths are open but we’re speechless.

But back in 2004, something extraordinary occurred. One or two whale sharks realised that these trapped bait fish are an easy feed. Why go search for plankton when you can feast on a tasty, convenient meal like this? They began sucking on the net until they found a hole. And if that didn’t work they’d blow then suck until the net ripped apart spilling the little fish right into their mouths. Quite cheeky, but rather clever.

The fishermen weren’t impressed. So they started to throw some of their catch over the side to keep the whale sharks away from their nets. Soon the whale sharks were swimming vertically up to the bagans with their mouths breaching the water, begging like puppies. The fishermen started to jump in the water with them and treat them like pets. The whale sharks couldn’t care less about these bizarre humans. They know there’s no danger. They just want food.

In 2012, Mark Erdmann and his team tagged 30 whale sharks, between three and nine metres long. It’s believed there could be up to 100 who’ve learnt this behaviour and remain in the bay all year round.

Early the next morning the sun begins to rise and sends a golden orange and pink light that floods the horizon. The warmth burns away tropical grey clouds to reveal a blue sky. The colour spectacle creates a mirror image against the milky water. To the right, mountain silhouettes shape the border of the bay.

We idle up to the platform and catch a glimpse of our first whale shark. This one is about five metres long and, as it gracefully swims past, it completely dwarfs our boat. Our mouths are open but we’re speechless. The whale sharks splash around as the fishermen pet them with their feet and throw bait right into their mouths. After a quick brief to remind us not to get too close, we are given the thumbs up to go and make friends with these magnificent animals. A few over arm strokes toward the bagan and an eight-metre whale shark cruises up from underneath and overtakes me. I freeze and let him pass, shaking my head in disbelief.

As I float on the surface, I turn my head to watch another three whale sharks circle the bagan, check the nets and assume an upright position to feed from the fishermen. They watch the men intently and rotate between each other to share. There are times up to five whale sharks feed at once. I take a deep breath through my snorkel and dive to the next whale shark that’s rising vertically toward me. I swim down as he swims up just inches away. It’s normally the other way around.

I have swum with whale sharks off Exmouth in Western Australia, but it’s a fleeting experience. Spotter planes direct charter boats toward them, tourists quickly jump over and try to keep up with them on the surface for a minute or two before the fish dive down to escape.

But these whale sharks will hang around for hours on end, undeterred by anyone in the water. We grab baitfish and let it go right into their mouths. A whale shark uses its head to push a snorkeller out of his way and she laughs mid-ride, “I’m in whale shark soup!” At one stage I float vertically as though I am standing with a whale shark as it feeds just inches from my face.

After an incredible day with the world’s largest fish we’re back onboard True North, sipping champagne and sharing unbelievable photos and footage. And the best part is we get do it all again tomorrow, but this time some of us are going in before the sun is up. The tenders set off early for the night dive and there is an eerie feeling in the dark water. The only light is cast from the bagan or our underwater camera that only gives limited visibility into 80 metres of water.

Giant shadows suddenly appear. But panic is rapidly replaced with marvel once again, as the whale sharks go about their modern dining. I feel safe in their presence reassured by a child-like confidence they’ll somehow protect me from any nasties I can’t see. Mind you, I didn’t venture too far from the bagan this time.

As the sun begins to beam into the sea, the water becomes a familiar deep blue. As the morning light strikes the back of the whale sharks their characteristic white specks sparkle like stars. We were part of the beginning of something very special.

An Ocean Safari in Southern Australia

True North Southern Safari

Rugged, barely touched and teeming with friendly sea creatures … few places offer oceanic splendour quite like southern Australia. Susan Skelly romances the remote aboard True North.

The southern bluefin tuna is said to be the fourth fastest fish on the planet. Some call it the Ferrari of the ocean. Right now, a gang of them swims just a foot from my face. In profile, they are magnificent – each a 40-odd kilogram torpedo in slick blue-bronze and pewter, all bulging muscle with a confidence that comes from being a species that delivers the most in-demand premium-grade sashimi in the world. From above, yellow finlets give them dot-painting cachet. The tuna swish through a mob of trevally glittering in the morning sun in an undersea pen built by Yasmin and Mick Dyer of Oceanic Victor, anchored in Victor Harbor on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula.

The 50-metre adventure cruiser, True North, has anchored just off Granite Island in Victor Harbor with the tuna’s next audience. They are ready to swim with, and hand-feed, some 80 southern bluefins, or just gaze upon them from an underwater portal.

Guests have spent the previous day in the Barossa Valley checking out the wine world’s similarly prized exports. It is the start of True North’s annual eight-night ‘Southern Safari’, which dips in and out of the north, west and east coasts of Kangaroo Island, the lower Eyre Peninsula, the oyster capitals of Coffin Bay and Streaky Bay and, along the way to Ceduna, remote islands in the Great Australian Bight.

Swimming with our underwater companions is top of the agenda – with New Zealand fur seals, Australian sea lions, dolphins and, separated by a sturdy viewing cage and thick wetsuits, great white sharks. Dolphins are surely the ocean’s happiness pills; seals turn out to be hilarious in the way they mimic – you roll, they roll; white pointer sharks are surprisingly quiet and graceful – and utterly chilling.

We see an abundance of pelicans, cormorants, terns, raptors, and the odd little penguin, also known as fairy penguins. We will bounce across bays in our tender boat and wade into the blue, blue waters of dreamy, barely populated beaches.

A true adventure

Australia’s rugged, idiosyncratic southern coastline offers several perspectives. But whether it’s seen from underwater, from the shoreline, from atop a mountain, or from a helicopter cruising at about 300 metres, you hit the jackpot.

This isn’t the kind of travel that deposits you at the epicentre of your comfort zone. The philosophy here is to place you on the outer rim of comfort; to push boundaries, and feel proud you did. Espresso-drinking urbanites find themselves fishing, mud crabbing, rock climbing, hiking, learning to paddleboard. There’s an itinerary but, as captain Gavin Graham explains from the hi-tech bridge, it’s subject to change as winds, tides and unexpected opportunities dictate.

True North Adventure Cruises started life as North Star Cruises Australia, the brainchild of Broome-based director Craig Howson. His enterprise recently celebrated its 30th anniversary while the luxury explorer is now in its fourth incarnation. In 2016, Howson received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to tourism in Western Australia.

“We are very different from a big-ship holiday,” Howson explains. “Our itineraries are always activity-based and much more suited to travellers looking for a holiday that is also a rewarding experience. We can go where other cruise ships can’t.”

The ship has 18 cabins over three decks (top deck, top price), a spacious lounge, dining room, deck areas to find solitude on, six workhorse tenders, and usually a chopper on the roof.

Cabins are elegant minimalism with plenty of storage. Housekeeping fairies keep it ship-shape and supplied toiletries are L’Occitane. The crew of 20 is skilled, respectful, reactive and informed. On-board naturalist Natalie Hill, who can tell a fur seal from a sea lion, is a person you want on your trivia night team.

The food on board is surprising, creative and flexible, much of it sourced from the larder that surrounds the boat – King George whiting, flathead, squid, abalone, oysters, and blue swimmer crabs among the fresh flavours. Bar snacks might include pickled octopus, caught by the anglers. Toast the day’s efforts with a mango daiquiri, espresso martini or the bottle of Central Otago pinot noir.

“The ship has 18 cabins over three decks (top deck, top price), a spacious lounge, dining room, deck areas to find solitude on, six workhorse tenders, and usually a chopper on the roof. Cabins are elegant minimalism with plenty of storage. Housekeeping fairies keep it ship-shape and supplied toiletries are L’Occitane.”

After just three days, being on True North starts to feel like a school reunion. Which it often is; she has a recidivist clientele. One couple recently booked their 30th trip, and more than 100 people have embarked 10 times. The demographic is one that’s well travelled, well heeled, and keen on once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

And there is an abundance of those. After exploring Australia’s southern coastline in January, True North takes a break for a refit before cruising WA’s south-west coast in March. It’s in its Kimberley element from March to September, before heading to Broome and the coral atolls of Rowley Shoals, then onto Indonesia for Komodo dragons, volcanic history, snorkelling and whale sharks until November. The culturally fascinating Papua New Guinea and Melanesia take up December and, if you want fireworks, there’s a Sydney New Year’s Eve package.

A coastline for explorers

Matthew Flinders is the poster boy of the Eyre, Yorke and Fleurieu peninsulas, and the gulfs they sit in. The mapping the English explorer did of a then-unknown coastline while captaining the Investigator in 1801 and ‘02 has stood the test of time and technology. Landmarks Catastrophe Bay, Point Avoid, and Memory Cove (a tribute to drowned sailors) are a reminder of the degree of difficulty.

We survey a few remote islands ourselves, relishing their sealife, wildlife and birdlife. Kangaroo Island is home to a subspecies of the western grey kangaroo, except they’re a very dark brown. Sleepy koalas in the Hanson Park Wildlife Sanctuary are postcard cute. Square backsides! Who knew? The island, Australia’s third largest behind Tasmania and Melville Island, is also home to the platypus, tammar wallaby, black swan, and the truly wondrous echidna, which wakes up to bad hair every day of its life.

Artisan producers on Kangaroo Island collect Ligurian honey and lavender, make cheese and yoghurt, distil spirits and eucalyptus oil, brew beer, grow grapes for wine, and shuck oysters. In the south-west of the island, the 500-million-year-old Remarkable Rocks and the stalactite ‘mouth’ of Admirals Arch are geology at its most awesome.

The Neptune Islands, 70 kilometres south of Port Lincoln, are home to fur seals, sea lions, rock parrots, ospreys and the odd albatross. There’s nothing but ocean forever, as the True North guests prep for their shark-watch. It’s the one place in Australia where cage diving is permitted. We descend by ladder, weighted and well insulated, to a submerged cage and wait for white pointers to glide by. Underwater scenes for the 1974 blockbuster, Jaws, were filmed here.

Pearson Island, 63 kilometres off Cape Finniss, on the western side of the Eyre Peninsula, might as well be a casting session for Galapagos Down Under. Separated from the mainland for more than 10,500 years, it is a bio-control playground for rock wallabies, sea lions, fur seals, little penguins and lizards. There is also a unique stand of she-oaks.

Some call what follows our disembarkation from the tenders here a comfortable walk over granite rocks, while for others (that’s me) it’s one year’s exercise rolled into three hours. The adventurer who has trekked the Annapurna Circuit and crewed on the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race dubs it ‘a scramble’. Either way, the goal is Hill 781 (named for its height in feet), 238 metres above sea level. Pearson Island’s highest point has panoramic views to the other three islands in the Pearson Isles group.

From Flinders Island later in the day, Howson, whis on board along with general manager Chad Avenell and their families, radios the tenders to check on the fish tally. The King George whiting are all but jumping into the boat along with the odd squid. No one is going hungry tonight.

We can’t go ashore on the Franklin Islands. Part of the Nuyts Archipelago Conservation Park, it is the last habitat of the greater stick-nest rat, and until Great Australian Bight park rangers can ascertain how its numbers are faring, it’s a prohibited area. But it’s a seductive place from the sea – all granite boulders, limestone, sand bars and aquamarine waters. Bobbing about in a sensuous afternoon sun, we watch fur seals down fish in one gulp and clap pods of dolphins to the surface for their photo shoot.

During the voyage, several silky beaches are road-tested. On Red House Bay beach, at the eastern end of Kangaroo Island, it’s just True North beachcombers, three sheep, and a party of tuna wranglers on their day off, plus delicate chattering wrens with electric-blue heads. On the beach at Memory Cove, the deck chairs are lined up, cricket is in play, the paddleboards are out and pelicans are posing. Cocktails and tempura prawns are handed around. Now that’s Southern style.

From Farm Beach one afternoon, after a morning spent learning about the trials and triumphs of the oyster industry and sampling Coffin Bay’s bounty, it’s time for the bird’s-eye view.

Henry Riggs pilots his Helivista helicopter south-west from Farm Beach over a lime green sea hosting schools of salmon, a grid of oyster leases, the odd stingray, and a lone abalone runabout.

A half hour reconnaissance takes in Point Sir Isaac to the north, Point Whidbey to the south, and a frothy line of speedboat wake down the middle. Below is Coffin Bay town and old rock fences that indicate yesteryear’s farming. Two bays around from our landing spot is the beach where the 1981 film, Gallipoli, was shot.

And that’s the thing about this part of the world. It’s endlessly photogenic, practised in nuance, and with a cast of thousands forever ready for their close-up.

True North Southern Safari

Prices for True North’s eight-night Southern Safari in 2019 start from A$9495 per person, including the return flight from Ceduna to Adelaide.

For a longer trip, why not top or tail your voyage with an indulgent couple of days in the Barossa Valley?

The Giant’s Playground: North Star Cruises

Grab a map, because I can assure you, this is a place most of you won’t be familiar with. From the tip of Darwin, focus your eyes 1,500 kilometres northeast and you’ll hit Raja Ampat and Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua, the Indonesian province of the island of New Guinea. This is one of the most remote and undiscovered locations in the world. Yet it’s so close to Australia.

Few charter boats have ventured here because of the distance, dangers of the seas and political hurdles. Tourist visas aren’t handed out easily. It took staff from Australia’s North Star Cruises more than two years to set up an itinerary for their only ship, the 34-metre luxury yacht True North, and obtain permission from the Indonesian government to allow them to take visitors into these waters. It was granted on condition of a very short time frame to be in and out.

True North’s owners Craig Howson and Mark Stothard heard whale sharks in this region were behaving in the most peculiar way and, while the ship normally cruises Australia, this was something they couldn’t resist – to go where few have gone before. Their guests would experience a trip of a lifetime.

From our hotels in Darwin, 35 Australian passengers are escorted onto North Star Cruises’ private jet where we’re served a champagne breakfast. In just over an hour we make a quick stop in the island town of Ambon where our visas are stamped. Two hours later we touch down in Sorong, West Papua. It’s an airport built for a logistics hub. Tourists are clearly a spectacle and rather amusing.

Enthusiastic chauffeurs take us in four wheel drives to a port where True North waits patiently after her three-day journey from Australia. As we approach the jetty dilapidated wooden boats surround this lavish, state of the art yacht. It looks completely out of place. Nonetheless, we’re all secretly hoping the big white one is ours – especially those who haven’t read their travel pamphlets.

Thankfully, the termite-ridden pride and joys are left with the locals as we’re driven out in tenders toward True North, stepping onboard to a waiting cocktail and air-conditioned comfort. The service from the 24 all-Australian crew onboard is outstanding – friendly, professional and fun. We all know constant smiles go a long way and the vibe on board is just plain old school happy. Everyone is thrilled to be here and there’s never a feeling of being crowded anywhere on the boat.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the fine dining room and the two onboard chefs give a run down of every meal of the day to individual ta- bles. Delightful crews clean the rooms daily and turn the beds in the evening. The bedrooms are roomy and modern and the ensuites are fresh. Beds are com- fortable for a good night’s sleep, to be able to do it all again tomorrow.

A huge whale shark feeds on a school of tiny fish beneath the True North

 

Over the next few days the basic itin- erary is; get up at 6:30am, eat, adventure, eat, adventure, eat, adventure, eat, drink and sleep. After breakfast is the first dive/snorkel on the reef or a wreck, paradise island/rainforest hike, village visit, fishing trip, boat cruise, helicopter ride or island swim. It goes on like that throughout the day, every day. This is a discovery adventure – chances are no other tourist has set foot on this powdery white beach surrounded by coconuts palms and turquoise waters, snorkelled at this spot or hiked up this mountain. We’re taken into a village where tourists are seldom seen. Children are the first to spot our boats approach and run from the huts to greet us with shy but friendly smiles. This place is untouched.

The onboard helicopter is under very strict conditions not to land on any soil in West Papua. Having a chopper in this region is a big deal. So it isn’t a huge sur- prise when Pilot Rob spots three World War II American Bomber planes in pristine condition. They rest in two and a half metres of crystal clear water just off the shore of a beautiful island. The tenders are launched, the crew jump in for a quick safety inspection, and soon the passengers are snorkelling on undocumented historical wrecks.

The coral and fish life in this region is some of the best I have ever seen. And it’s little wonder. This area is a cauldron of evolution – West Papua contains 75 per cent of the world’s total number of coral and is home to the most reef fish of anywhere on earth (1,672 species). Over the past 15 million years it’s been completely cut off from the rest of the ocean and more than 100 species of ma- rine life are found nowhere else in the world. Onboard marine biologist Mark Erdmann discovers new species of fish every time he visits.

On day seven, Mark gives the guests a presentation on what we’ve all been anxiously awaiting – the whale sharks of Cenderwasih Bay.

Every evening local fishermen light kerosene lamps on their temporary wooden barges, called bagans. They lower nets into the 80-metre deep water and small baitfish called Ikan Puri are attract- ed to the light and trapped in the nets.

But back in 2004, something extraordinary occurred. One or two whale sharks realised that these trapped bait fish are an easy feed. Why go search for plankton when you can feast on a tasty, convenient meal like this? They began sucking on the net until they found a hole. And if that didn’t work they’d blow then suck until the net ripped apart spilling the little fish right into their mouths. Quite cheeky, but rather clever.

The fishermen weren’t impressed. So they started to throw some of their catch over the side to keep the whale sharks away from their nets. Soon the whale sharks were swimming vertically up to the bagans with their mouths breaching the water, begging like puppies. The fishermen started to jump in the water with them and treat them like pets. The whale sharks couldn’t care less about these bizarre humans. They know there’s no danger. They just want food.

In 2012, Mark Erdmann and his team tagged 30 whale sharks, between three and nine metres long. It’s believed there could be up to 100 who’ve learnt this behaviour and remain in the bay all year round.

Snorkelling with whale sharks

 

Early the next morning the sun begins to rise and sends a golden orange and pink light that floods the horizon. The warmth burns away tropical grey clouds to reveal a blue sky. The colour spectacle creates a mirror image against the milky water. To the right, mountain silhouettes shape the border of the bay.

We idle up to the platform and catch a glimpse of our first whale shark. This one is about five metres long and, as it gracefully swims past, it completely dwarfs our boat. Our mouths are open but we’re speechless. The whale sharks splash around as the fishermen pet them with their feet and throw bait right into their mouths. After a quick brief to remind us not to get too close, we are given the thumbs up to go and make friends with these magnificent animals. A few over arm strokes toward the bagan and an eight-metre whale shark cruises up from underneath and overtakes me. I freeze and let him pass, shaking my head in disbelief.

As I float on the surface, I turn my head to watch another three whale sharks circle the bagan, check the nets and assume an upright position to feed from the fishermen. They watch the men intently and rotate between each other to share. There are times up to five whale sharks feed at once. I take a deep breath through my snorkel and dive to the next whale shark that’s rising vertically to- ward me. I swim down as he swims up just inches away. It’s normally the other way around.

I have swum with whale sharks off Exmouth in Western Australia, but it’s a fleeting experience. Spotter planes direct charter boats toward them, tourists quickly jump over and try to keep up with them on the surface for a minute or two before the fish dive down to escape.

But these whale sharks will hang around for hours on end, undeterred by anyone in the water. We grab baitfish and let it go right into their mouths. A whale shark uses its head to push a snorkeller out of his way and she laughs mid-ride, “I’m in whale shark soup!” At one stage I float vertically as though I am standing with a whale shark as it feeds just inches from my face.

After an incredible day with the world’s largest fish we’re back onboard True North, sipping champagne and sharing unbelievable photos and footage. And the best part is we get do it all again tomorrow, but this time some of us are going in before the sun is up. The tenders set off early for the night dive and there is an eerie feeling in the dark water. The only light is cast from the bagan or our underwater camera that only gives lim- ited visibility into 80 metres of water.

Giant shadows suddenly appear. But panic is rapidly replaced with marvel once again, as the whale sharks go about their modern dining. I feel safe in their presence reassured by a child-like confi- dence they’ll somehow protect me from any nasties I can’t see. Mind you, I didn’t venture too far from the bagan this time.

As the sun begins to beam into the sea, the water becomes a familiar deep blue. As the morning light strikes the back of the whale sharks their characteristic white specks sparkle like stars. We were part of the beginning of something very special.

The Cruise Critique

True North

Guests: 36

Crew: 20

Passenger Decks: 3

Length: 164 feet

The smallest ship in the region might lack the facilities of mega liners, but it more than makes up for it with the places it can go. With a shallow draft it can reach stunning waterfalls in the Kimberleys or cruise down jungle rivers in Papua New Guinea. There’s also a helicopter onboard if you want to venture further afield. This is the ship for adventurous cruisers, so expect to be snorkelling, diving, fishing or exploring rather than flopped by the pool. 

northstarcruises.com.au

 

MS Caledonian Sky (APT)

Guests: 110

Crew: 75

Passenger decks: 5

Length: 297 feet

This all-suite ship has been through a few incarnations and was branded the Caledonian Sky in 2012. Suites are spacious and around half have balconies. While entertainments are limited, there are a couple of sun decks for lounging (though no swimming pool), a lounge and bar, a small gym and a salon/massage room. Expect super fresh seafood in the dining room – the crew will either catch it themselves or buy it from local fishermen. 

aptouring.com.au

 

Silver Discoverer

Guests: 120

Crew: 96

Passenger decks: 5

Length: 338 feet

Silversea’s newest ship joined the fleet in April this year. Accommodations are all suites and come with extras like butler service, mini bar stocked to your preference and evening turn down service. This is a vessel built for adventure with a fleet of 12 zodiacs and a glass bottom boat for excursions, and a diving programme for experienced divers. There are three dining options onboard and all operate on an open seating policy, meaning you can dine where and when you want. 

silversea.com

 

National Geographic Orion

Guests: 102

Crew: 75

Passenger decks: 6

Length: 338 feet

The Orion joined the National Geographic fleet in March this year and has recently undergone a refurbishment of the public areas. Toys onboard include tandem kayaks, a glass bottom boat and an underwater remotely operated vehicle that can go hundreds of metres below the surface. Education makes up a big part of journeys on the Orion, so there’s a large lecture theatre and well stocked library, and a photography instructor accompanies every voyage.

nationalgeographicexpeditions.com

 

Wind Spirit

Guests: 148

Crew: 90

Passenger decks: 4

Length: 360 feet

This four-masted sailing ship is designed to feel like your own private yacht. The atmosphere onboard is casual with no formal or theme nights and no scheduled activities. None of the staterooms have balconies and outdoor space is limited because of the complex sail machinery, but there are plenty of water sports on offer to keep you entertained including a banana boat, kayaks, sunfish sailboat, windsurfing boards, scuba and snorkelling equipment, and four Zodiacs.

windstarcruises.com

 

Aranui III

Guests: 200

Crew: 65

Passenger decks: 6

Length: 386 feet

This is not your average cruise ship. Part passenger ship and part cargo freighter, the Aranui III plies the waters between Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, delivering food and fuel to remote islands without an airport on a two week journey. There are plenty of creature comforts onboard, including a swimming pool, sun deck, two bars, restaurant and a small shop. The rooms are fairly basic, but most of the suites have balconies where you can watch the palm trees glide by. 

aranui.com

 

L’Austral

Guests: 264

Crew: 139

Passenger decks: 6

Length: 466 feet

There’s a distinct French atmosphere onboard L’Austral, from the deck names to the interior design. It’s one of five ships operated by Compagnie du Ponant and feels like a sleek super yacht. Rooms are quite small compared to other ships in the class, but most have balconies and the transparent glass walls (with a sliding privacy panel) in the bathroom mean you never lose sight of the view.

en.ponant.com

 

m/s Paul Gauguin

Guests: 332

Crew: 217

Passenger decks: 7

Length: 517 feet

This ship was specially designed to sail the shallow waters around French Polynesia and is one of the most spacious on the market with a passenger space ratio of 58 (classified as excellent). Most of the staterooms and suites have balconies, and there’s an onboard retractable watersports marina for a host of activities. The staff are local Tahitians, meaning that the Polynesian experience permeates throughout the whole ship from the butlers to the wait staff and entertainers.

pgcruises.com

 

Seven Seas Mariner

Guests: 490

Crew: 345

Passenger decks: 8

Length: 566 feet

This ship was the first all-suite, all-balcony ship in the world when it was launched in 2001. The spacious suites are seriously plush with king size beds, walk in wardrobes, marble bathrooms and L’Occitane amenities. The Mariner and its sister ship the Voyager are both home to Signatures, the only permanent Le Cordon Bleu restaurants at sea, and on some cruises gourmet workshops themed around the ports of call are run by Le Cordon Bleu chefs.

rssc.com.au

 

Seabourn Odyssey

Guests: 450

Crew: 330

Passenger decks: 8

Length: 650 feet

The largest ship in the Seabourn fleet (at triple the size of its sister ships), the Odyssey came into service in 2009. More than 90 per cent of the staterooms have balconies and the ship has the second highest passenger space ratio in the industry. With all that space you can expect more features including two swimming pools, four restaurants, casino, theatre for performances, nightclub and a large spa. All suites have a large bathroom with separate shower and bathtub, a separate living area, nightly turndown service and champagne on arrival.

seabourn.com

 

ms Volendam

Guests: 1,432

Crew: 615

Passenger decks: 10

Length: 781 feet

There’s a garden theme onboard the ms Volendam and you’ll be surrounded by fresh flowers as well as floral motifs on the walls and furnishings throughout the ship. It’s also known for its art collection with paintings, sculptures and even Renaissance-era Italian fountains in the public areas. Passengers staying in the top two suite categories have access to the private Neptune Lounge, which has refreshments, a personal concierge, lounges and a library.

hollandamerica.com

 

Crystal Symphony

Guests: 922

Crew: 545

Passenger decks: 12

Length: 781 feet

Amulti-million dollar refurb of the Symphony was completed in 2012, so everything onboard feels brand new. It’s one of the few luxury lines in this region to offer a dedicated space for children and teens, and youth staff are onboard during school holiday and summer sailings. Menus at the Japanese-Pervuian Silk Road restaurant and the Sushi Bar are designed by celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, and Nobu-trained chefs are in the kitchen.

crystalcruises.com

 

Oceania Marina

Guests: 1,250

Crew: 800

Passenger decks: 11

Length: 785 feet

The largest ship cruising in the region, the Marina has a few ultra luxe touches like a grand staircase designed by French jewellery and crystal house Lalique, and three Owner’s Suites furnished with Ralph Lauren Home products. There’s a Canyon Ranch Spa onboard from the famed American health retreat and Jacques restaurant, the first restaurant from French celebrity chef Jacques Pépin anywhere in the world.

oceaniacruises.com

Papua New Guinea

The ten days I spent on True North last summer was not like that. I loved it at the time, and have thought about it many times since, for it really is an experience like no other.

The guts of the idea was to cruise around the islands that lie to the east and north of Papua New Guinea, to do everything from going on hikes, to diving on the submerged wrecks of Japanese planes, to serious fishing and getting in the helicopter and flying over the volcano at Isurava.

Look, I could be more detailed on it, I suppose, but it was one of those things . . .

As two refugees from two very brutal work years in Sydney neither my wife – a television anchor –  nor I, really had time to focus on what the whole thing was about. We caught a flight to Cairns, spent the night, and then flew for about 90 minutes to an airstrip in eastern Papua New Guinea where the True North awaited us.  A luxury cruiser just like mother used to make, it has three decks, 20 or so cabins and at least as many very professional staff, plus a helicopter on the roof and a dining room serving five star cuisine. We never went through any major storms but it had the air about it of a ship that would easily cruise through one. I don’t have the technical lingo, and nor do I care – the point was it is more of a ship than cruiser. It was solid, very comfortable and it felt safe. The special joy of this kind of holiday of course is that instead of packing up and going to a different hotel room every second or third night, in this case it is the hotel room that keeps moving with you!

Though it took us a little while to get to know them, our fellow passengers proved to be mostly wealthy retirees with an enduring sense of adventure – meaning they had come to the right place.

For awhile – still exhausted from the work year – we kept ourselves to ourselves for the first day or two, though we became progressively more aware over dinner that the others were going snorkelling and diving, visiting remote villages, fishing, and choppering on and off to exotic locations. There was no particular pressure to do likewise – I am writing a book on Fromelles and don’t feel right unless I get at least six hours a day writing in – but one thing led to another.

Next thing we knew, we were in the hands of a master diving instructor, descending to the depths and . . . and . . .

And, oh . . . GAWD . . . what the HELL IS THAT?

It is a shark, coming our way, a hammer-head shark. Personally, I was glad I was wearing the brown underpants that day, but our diving instructor, Matt, was beside himself with excitement. In 14 years of doing this, he’d never been that close to a hammerhead. For me, it was something I was glad to have seen once, but never again.

Diving on a Japanese Zero, in shallow water, was much more my speed and it was an extraordinary thing to actually sit in the cockpit of a plane that had been brought down – maybe by my own father I fancied, as he served with the Australian armed forces in these parts – some seven decades before.

Visit the main battle site of the Kokoda campaign? Why not? The last time I had done so it had taken six days of brutal trekking to get to Isurava. This time it was a one hour chopper ride from the back of the boat, over some of the most stupendous country on earth. Last time, coming from the tight jungle, Isurava had seemed massive. This time, coming from the air, it was a tiny pocket of a village in the otherwise impenetrable vastness.

All up I loved the whole trip, and, as I say, have thought of it often since.

One thing that troubles me though. While I was stunned by the pristine beauty of the many islands we visited, we heard many stories told by villagers, most particularly of Malaysian timber companies and Taiwanese fishing vessels coming in to ravage their natural resources. A lot of them – friendly folk with oft haunted eyes – whispered of environmental devastation wrought by these firms and complained bitterly of receiving no protection from their own government.

I had some worries that our own visit to these remote villages might be adding to their woes, but I am happy to say the True North was superbly environmentally aware.

Do it again? No. I think, by definition, you don’t go on unique holidays twice. But I would like to do the True North trip to The Kimberleys that they all rave about.

Cruising (Wild Style) Aboard True North

There are many places in the world where the natural beauty is unique to those countries and regions. In Australia, we are blessed to have an abundance of these jewels. The Kimberley Coast is one of them. With more than 2,600 islands and 13,000 kilometres of coastline with its untamed and remote biodiversity, it is truly one the world’s last great wilderness areas.

To truly grasp the scale and absorb the natural beauty of the Kimberley coast, you must get “up close and personal”. North Star Cruises Australia is now providing the opportunity to experience this very special environment in stress-free luxury and style through its True North Kimberley Wilderness Cruises. North Star offers “luxury adventure-cruising” on the Australian, West Papuan, and Papua New Guinea coasts aboard the Australian-registered passenger ship True North.

Cruises are often regarded as relaxing affairs where eating, drinking and napping is the order of the day – with perhaps a show at night. The True North experience is nothing like that. Accommodating just 36 passengers, True North is a floating boutique luxury hotel On this intimate luxury cruiser, no expense has been spared in terms of facilities, service, and catering to provide passengers with the ultimate travel experience with an edge.


Exploring the rugged Kimberley | Oliver Oldroyd / North Star Cruises Australia

North Star Cruises is an award-winning Australian travel company and has been running luxury adventure cruises in the Kimberley for more than 25 years. Their shortest cruise, the Kimberley Snapshot, condenses all the highlights of the region into a week-long voyage. Embarking at Wyndham, the region’s oldest and northernmost town, the cruise takes in the spectacular King George Falls, the Hunter and Prince Regent Rivers, the incredible Montgomery Reef, and the famous Horizontal Waterfalls, before the run home to Broome.

On board there are several vantage points to best take in the sights: a sundeck, forward observation lounge, the ship’s lounge and an alfresco bar. Sustainable, organic Australian cuisine is freshly prepared (often after being freshly caught!) and served in the dining room. There’s nothing like washing down the chef’s legendary oysters Kilpatrick (made with corn-fed black pig pancetta) with a glass of champagne while savouring a spectacular Kimberley sunset from the observation deck.

Each day aboard the True North is filled with activities from the moment you wake. Of course, you can do as much or as little as you like, but the schedule is packed with excursions that allow you to venture off the boat. The activities are as diverse as the changing environment. The ship has six tenders that it uses to take guests on tours to see the local surroundings, as well as for fishing trips in the pristine waters.

If you’re into fishing, then you will have plenty of opportunities to snag a prized barramundi. Even if you don’t get a “barra”, there are so many different edible varieties to hook in these bountiful waters. No luck with the barras for me, but I caught many others including a big barracuda, which was incredible fun to reel in. Most of our group fished at one point or another, prompting a convivial atmosphere each night when the crew would announce the best efforts of the day. Sadly, the coveted “Best Fish of the Day” hat never graced my head.


Catch of the day | Kelly Gabriel

Aside from fishing, there is a wide range of excursions available. Taking the tenders out to explore at sea level, absorbing all the sights, sounds and sensations is fantastic.

Being a small ship, True North can get into bays, lagoons, estuaries and rivers that most cruise ships cannot, making the trip even more exotic. In many places, we were the only boat around, making the locations seem that much more remote.

The crew organise hikes and other activities ashore to ensure there is always an opportunity to walk on dry land.

More excitement comes with the onboard helicopter. Being able to see the country from a spacious and comfortable five-seater helicopter, with a guide, gives it an extra dimension of fascination.

One of the my favourite excursions is a picnic next to an incredible billabong with two huge swimming lakes and a couple of waterfalls for good measure. A swim in a billabong is something everyone should do in their lifetime – it feels really special to be swimming in fresh water in a part of the country where fresh water is so scarce. No crocodiles allowed!

The only way to get there is by helicopter so everyone is escorted in groups. The crew rope up the tarps in the trees, fold out the chairs and tables, and set about preparing a delicious barbecue picnic to make it a real Aussie lunch. There are eskies filled with beer, wine and soft drinks, tasty salads and, on the barbie, meat and fresh-caught fish turned into succulent culinary creations by our chefs. What a fantastic day as the crew take a well-earned break to enjoy the oasis with us.

Our crew director joins us at dinner each night to relay all the news of that day and plans for the next – where we are headed and what we might see and do. I really love that every day our surroundings transform. The landscape, the seascape and the colours seem to change daily, often dramatically, as if with each day we are entering a new world. And going up on deck to check out our current location never fails to be exciting. On one occasion, at King Cascades, the crew deftly steer True North right under the falls. On another, I watch astounded as the 362 square kilometres of coral that comprise Montgomery Reef rise out of the ocean as the tide subsides.

The photo opportunities are simply endless and often I can’t help but snap off a million shots. However, I try to stay in the moment, as such amazing sights are best seen with your eyes and taken in with your mind.

We go to bed exhausted each and every night because the days are so full. The crew makes sure we are always comfortable, always at hand with refreshments and that essential beer or wine at the end of the day. The True North crew is well-trained, experienced and always ready to go that extra mile to please. More than this, they love their work and the pristine locations they take us to. Fun to be around, they add to the enjoyment of the trip. In my case, they even offer a welcome shoulder to cry on when I lose that elusive barramundi I had on the hook for only a few precious seconds!

My experience on the Kimberley Coast has encompassed wild rivers, cascading waterfalls, rugged gorges and rock formations, seagrass meadows, mangrove forests and coral reefs – all teeming with life. I have seen some of the world’s largest population of humpback whales and several major seabird breeding colonies.

My experience has been a mix of expectation, excitement and exhilaration – all wrapped up in a luxury cruise liner package. This has been an experience so confronting, and yet so beautiful, that I will not soon forget it. 


The Kimberley from above | Kelly Gabriel