Like a giant dragonfly, the helicopter hovers and whirrs above the Hunter River. The smooth, turquoise vein of water is interrupted only by the white speck of the True North. Slowly but loudly, the chopper lowers onto the vessel’s helipad – the ultimate welcome mat. Now, this is how to arrive in style!
My four fellow passengers, soon to be joined by just 26 others, include a mother and daughter and two female friends. We step out onto the boat, blinded by the blazing sunshine and deafened by the propeller; our senses overwhelmed. The crew guide us inside to the air-conditioned bar for a cold drink, allowing time to take in our surroundings.
Two hours ago we were at the Pincdata Resort in Broome, lazing under boab trees by the pool. Picked up for a flight on a six-seater light plane, we were soon flying over the Kimberley, across tiny islands, mangrove-lined rivers and rainforest. Transferring at Mitchell Plateau, the True North’s own helicopter completed the final 15 minutes of the journey. It’s not yet lunchtime and the adventure has already begun.
Other guests, who were shuttled over earlier this morning, have embarked on a four-hour hike to Jackson Falls, with an afternoon option of fishing. There’s no competition for the biggest barramundi, however, as the fish proves stubbornly elusive.
“They should call it casting, not fishing,” quips Ross, a winery owner from the Yarra Valley.
But somehow the chef manages to stretch out the catches of the day for a restaurant-worthy dinner. Afterwards, most people retire to their cabins to recharge from a busy first day.
In the morning I join another Graham, a Perth accountant on his fifth cruise with True North, on the bow for sunrise. Cups of tea in hand, we try to articulate the magical light, the supreme serenity, the contradiction of the gentleness of the rough and rocky landscape.
After breakfast and fishing (still no barra), the experience is taken to another level when Captain Brad inches the boat up against King Cascade. Advised to wear our swimming costumes, we don’t fully understand why until we’re so close to the fall that it’s raining down on top of us. Not wet enough for some, two tenders head out to – and under – the nearby Ampitheatre Waterfall for a heavier aqua-pounding. Hammered by the cooling blast, we enjoy the refreshing treat in the outback heat.
Then we’re off for a wind-in-the-hair zoom along the Prince Regent River before speeding back to the boat in time for sunset.
The next day is the trip’s highlight – a “heli-picnic” at a remote oasis accessible only by air. Rob, our designated pilot, who found the spot a few years ago, shuttles everyone to Melaleuca Falls, landing on a cliff overlooking a swimming hole. Shaded by paperbark trees, the setting seems as if it was carved out of the most rugged chunk of paradise.
After a steak and seafood barbeque, a small group walks five minutes to a larger waterfall where everyone climbs up to sit on a rock ledge behind the cascade. When the thunderous gush gets too much, we jump like children into the water below. One of the crew, James, swims over to me with a beer – just one example of the unbeatable service. We relax in the sun with a few more drinks until it’s time to fly back to base.
The next day sees more walking, swimming and mud-crabbing, while some passengers fly off to a secluded location for a night of “heli-camping” under the stars. The rest of us mingle at a fancy-dress party celebrating two of the crew’s 21st birthdays, definitely the liveliest evening of the trip.
From births to near-deaths, the next day’s adventure takes a risky twist when our onboard entertainer, guitarist Phil Celebrano, falls into croc-infested waters. Slipping on the rocks as he steps off a tender, he ends up in the splash mere metres from where we had seen a crocodile five minutes earlier. Luckily he is pulled to safety, but it’s a reminder that the region has its dangers.
Walking a little further with a lot more care, we reach Ruby Falls, which is transformed into a Kimberley-style day spa as we smear ourselves with mud. Caked in grey, we dry out on rocks like putty statues before cleansing with a freshwater dip.
Sailing on to Steep Island, a floating Uluru, I disembark on the pebbly shore for an uphill trail to see one of the world’s most accessible sites of Wandjana rock art. It seems incredible to see such ancient drawings so close to where our luxury boat is moored, but no surprise that Aborigines chose to camp somewhere so beautiful.
Too soon the last day arrives with the grand finale of the Horizontal Falls – but it takes its name too seriously and ends up completely flat. Unfortunately the phenomenon is spoiled by the neap tide and barely a whirlpool is noticeable between the sandstone cliffs.
Our disappointment is washed away with a helicopter ride over the spectacular Talbot Bay. After a breathtaking view of the Buccaneer Archipelago, we pass over the mining islands of Koolan and Cockatoo, the only sign all week that other humans have been here before us.
As the cruise nears its end, we take our chances in the poorly named Crocodile Creek and enjoy an afternoon game of barefoot cricket on the snow-white sands of Silica Beach. It couldn’t get any more Australian.
Back onboard for our last night, I sneak off alone to take up position on a lounge on the bow, gazing at the stars until I fall asleep in the sea spray, soaking up every last droplet of delight.
North Star Cruises’ Kimberley Wilderness cruise can be taken as a two-week itinerary between Wyndham and Broome or a one-week segment, embarking or disembarking in the Hunter River.