We arise early, far too early says the clock. But we’re chasing the sweet light in the east Kimberley – a place so rich in red and ochre, that pastel hues seem out of place.
The clock is correctly set to Perth time, but the West Australian capital is literally half a continent and a 90-minute time-zone away to the south-west. The Kimberly is almost as large as Texas, so when you’re this far north and east and you want to capture that “blue hour” before civil sunrise, you forget the clock and trust Nigel, our local photographer.
And so wearily we haul ourselves and kilos of camera, tripod and backpack out of our cabins and up three flights of stairs to the bright yellow Bell Jet Ranger helicopter strapped to the top deck of our luxury 85-foot power catamaran, MV Great Escape.
For some of the 14 guests (attended by five or six crew) aboard Great Escape this is either: “the trip of a lifetime”, a “SKI holiday – spending the kids’ inheritance,” or money well spent on “experiences not material things”. It draws local and international visitors. And after discussions over dinner last night, there is genuine anticipation among this group of Aussies about seeing some of Australia’s oldest, most remote indigenous artwork, and doing so as a small group in a vast wilderness.
The cruise is billed as “Kings of the Kimberley Gorges – a photographic cruise” and we’re determined to see more than the primary colours, the Kodak moments when red dirt meets azure sea with scrubby green foliage to break up the rocky landscape.
We have permission to fly today with the chopper’s doors removed, and with an extra safety check complete, our pilot, Brad, fires up the turbine which increases in pitch from a whine to a sweet crescendo as the rotor blades start to sweep above us. The dials confirm we’re good to go and we lift off, sweep down the canyon and are soon deep into the gorge – the thwack of the helicopter rotor echoes off the steep sandstone walls. Brad, who is ex-Army, banks to the left, my body strains against the double safety harness and I am staring through the Nikon viewfinder straight down the face of a waterfall. With the next bank to the right the other half of a twin waterfall is revealed. Here the King George River tumbles from its sandstone plateau more than 300 feet down into the gorge carved from these Pre-Cambrian rocks over more than 2000 million years.
Later some fellow guests can be seen on the twin bowsprits of our vessel, taking a shower under the falls – an experience to tell the grandkids…and one unlikely to be repeated.
As we look down on the landscape from 500 feet, we’re reminded of Aboriginal paintings that invariably picture their “country” from high above the land. We non-indigenous, whose history in Australia numbers less than 300 years, are in search of clues from an ancient culture that has occupied this land for 40,000 years and mostly passed on its stories in an oral tradition, often referred to as “the Dreamtime”. Somewhere here are visual arts that few are privileged to explore and we take the responsibility seriously; “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” is our group mantra.
The helicopter sweeps across the red sandstone landscape, the rivers that were arterial are now more like thin veins etched into the red rock, the bush denser. Approaching top speed, the horizon rolls on relentlessly flat across the Kimberley Plateau. There are no roads to this secret, and probably sacred, site – eventually we descend and a rock formation rises over the horizon line, small at first.
But it looms large as we drop altitude further to circle overhead. This is to ensure the landing place is clear; clear of kangaroos and fellow travelers dropped off here earlier. We hover above a clearing surrounded by groups of ochre-coloured boulders piled 15-30 feet high one upon the other in a rough circle. The spinifex grasses flatten under the air pressure as we make a gentle landing in the clearing, an amphitheatre of standing stones. We wonder, ‘Is this Australia’s Stonehenge?’ It certainly has the appearance of ceremonial grounds, not made by man, but used by him.
We meet up with one of the Great Escape crew, Rusty. He has crewed this vessel for a number of years and as our guide is well read. He provides a layman’s interpretation of this country’s ancient rock art – the Bradshaws, originally named after the person who found and started to catalogue them. “Now known as Gwion Gwion” were variously dated by different scientific techniques at 17,500 BP (before present) to 5000 BP. Rusty leads us to the art and some younger Wanjina spirit paintings, only 4000 years old. Few get to see and photograph this ancient art and as the only journalist in the group, I agreed not to publish its exact location.
As we pick our way through a grassy track around the formations of boulders, our guide points out some bowling ball-sized rocks that lay among grassy tussocks had been gathered on the ground, “a grave – we don’t disturb or photograph”. We pause to acknowledge the site and walk on. One minute later we arrive at a rock with a large overhang, protected from the prevailing weather and the harsh Kimberley sun.
As Rusty begins to explain what we are about to see he comments: “If this was anywhere else, there’d be guards, an entrance fee and it would be roped off like a Disneyland queue.”
We put down our camera bags and crawl under the overhang.
Here is a Wanjina-style (also spelled Wandjina) painting that depicts ancestral beings. The images feature a whole body with a head painted white, surrounded by an ochre headdress, two eyes wide open and a nose, but never a mouth; and if it is a whole body, the feet will be turned out to 180 degrees like an Egyptian. There’s also a ghostly figure surrounded by boomerangs.
As I lay beneath these images a shiver runs down my spine – I realise I am occupying the exact same spot where the original artist lay…something quite spiritual exists here.
At another special site we walk into an amphitheatre, again the gallery of art has been chosen for its overhanging space and protected from the prevailing weather.
We see the more ancient Gwion rock art that’s been painted from a standing position on a ledge looking out to sea.These are elegant stick figures in black or a deep mulberry purple colour and are generally in good condition despite their age. They have long headdresses, tassels hanging from their arms, sometimes are depicted carrying spears or woomera (spear throwers)
Regarded as some of the oldest figurative rock paintings in the world, they were first discovered in the 1890s and catalogued by English pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw. There are believed to be many more sites across the Kimberley which covers more than 163,000 square miles.
Truth is there is some debate about the origin of the Kimberley figure paintings, with some suggesting they are Indonesian or Timorese, which is disputed by local Aboriginal communities and some academics. What’s not up for debate is that the rock art is simply not accessible by vehicle, so a small luxury adventure cruise, such as Great Escape with its helicopter atop is a great platform from which to launch a Kimberley adventure.
Of course the other experiences of a week aboard the ship are the quality of accommodation rooms each with ensuite, the high staff to guest ratio, and a chef on board to prepare magnificent meals, many of which we ate on the back deck at a table for 20.
The crew are a key part of such experiences and nothing was too much trouble as they were keen to further personalise the on-board experience with three tenders available to allow us to photograph the flora and fauna, to spot magnificent 14-foot plus saltwater crocodiles, to swim safely in wonderful fresh waterholes, enjoy beach barbecues or catch mud crabs.
Then there’s the chance to learn or simply brush up the angling skills on the magnificent Australian perch, similar to saratoga, but known best by its Aboriginal name, “barramundi” (fish with big scales). We landed two 60 cm barramundi, and fought off a cheeky young crocodile who tried to steal one. Barra, fresh from the water, enabled the chef to serve up the best fish meal many of us reckoned we’d ever eaten.
Great Escape plies the Kimberley in two sections over four separate weeks – north from Broome to Mitchell Falls, then from Mitchell Falls to Kununurra and then does reverse legs. Many guests who do one leg, return later to complete the trip, such is the diversity of the landscape and the experiences available on board and ashore. For more information contact The Great Escape Charter Company, Phone +61 (8) 9193 5983, Fax +61 (8) 9192 6983, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org