I’ve just landed in Woop Woop. I’m at the airstrip at Mitchell Falls, an X-shaped scar carved from scrub close to the north coast of Western Australia. The closest town is Kununurra, 330 kilometres away. Broome is 520 clicks distant. The chartered Cessna that brought me here just took off and I’m waiting for a ride out to True North, a vessel that will take me on a cruise along the Kimberley coastline.
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve been forgotten when a white helicopter appears above the trees and lands in a cloud of dust. On board is Craig Howson, True North’s owner, the chopper’s pilot, plus a couple of passengers already aboard who have come along for the ride. We head out to sea with a fly-by of Mitchell Falls on the way. It’s truly wondrous, a succession of four cascades with blue pools cupped in the hands of red sandstone gorges.
“Let’s take a look at some art,” says Howson. We land beside a small waterhole and climb a sandstone outcrop. Deep in the shadow of an overhang is a frieze of about a dozen superb elongated figures painted in dark red ochre on the wall, with elaborate headpieces and decorations on their arms and ankles, Giacomettis transferred to a rock wall. These are Bradshaw figures, one of the great enigmas of Australia’s Kimberley art. Scholars are still arguing fiercely over the age of the paintings – estimates put them at anything between 5000 and 50,000 years – and who painted them, which only increases their appeal.
Next stop is a bump-down landing on the top deck of True North. There are some unusual rules for the 36 passengers, including no shoes on board, and don’t hang your arms over the side when fishing in case a crocodile thinks they’re cocktail sausages.
A wild, arid region in the north of WA, the Kimberley sucks the breath from your lungs. Parched semi-desert for the most part, it is guttered by a handful of snaking river systems that swell to galloping furies in the wet season, then trickle to nothing in the dry. Its icon is the boab tree, an African immigrant that looks like a Coke bottle mated with a fibre-optic lamp. But it can be a tough slog. Road trips in the Kimberley involve heat, dust and a bed somewhere between a rock and a hard place. The view from the waterline, on the other hand, is the cool, calm way to go.
The distinctive Bradshaw rock art figures. Photo: Allamy Stock Photo
When we wake the next day at Rocky Cove in Vansittart Bay, Howson has arranged a picnic for us. As well as bathers and towels it involves a helicopter and a secret destination, a place that he has christened Eagle Falls, where a boisterous river steps down in a series of waterfalls with rock pools in between. We loll and splash like contented hippos while the crew fires up the barbecue. The next morning we’re at the mouth of the King George River, the scenic highlight of the voyage. Heading upriver we cruise along a narrowing gorge with 50-metre rock walls on either side.
Everyone’s out on deck, cooing, clicking and squinting at the grandiose scenery in the viewfinders of their cameras.
The boab tree is an icon of the Kimberley. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo
After about an hour we navigate a final bend and the river widens at the amphitheatre of King George Falls. We nose closer, then closer still. Directly off the bow the white curtain of the waterfall is pumping foam and fury, tonnes of water exploding at the base, sending spray high into the air. We’re almost touching the roaring white curtain of the falls. We can only stand and grin at one another as the spray coats us with shimmering beads of light. Then the bow is swallowed up by the falls and we hover there, water sluicing across the decking. Half the crew and a few passengers stand at the bow. The initial impact is shock, but the water pounding down on us from 80 metres above is a blast.
It’s a shower unlike any other, but then redefining experience is what cruising along the Kimberley coastline is all about – and well worth the trip to Woop Woop.