Weathered by eons of rain, wind and sea spray, Australia’s untouched Kimberley is almost as old as the Earth itself
The walls of the cave are emblazoned with graffiti so old that no-one can really date these creations with certainty. Some researchers believe the exquisite rock art depictions we’re looking at in The Kimberley could be at least 50,000 years old. Staring at them, we try to imagine the ancient people who came here and painted these intricate murals.
Prehistoric animals, ornately attired hunter figures and mysterious deities of unknown origin all adorn the bare rock face; standing testimony to the tribes who once lived among these rough canyons.
“The Kimberley is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world,” says former Chief Scientist of Western Australia, Professor Lyn Beazley AO. “Its biodiversity and marine ecosystem are among the world’s most pristine. The tropical savannahs of the region are the only near-untouched such landscapes left on the planet.”
Travel companies often use the term ‘pristine wilderness’ to describe somewhere away from the souvenir sellers and taxi touts of the world’s overcrowded tourist traps. But in the remote Kimberley region of Australia’s North West, you can be assured that its pristine wilderness is exactly that.
The Kimberley has been voted the top adventure cruise destination for Australians and is quickly establishing itself as a ‘must-do’. A secret well-kept by fishers, prospectors and cattle ranchers for decades, it’s a relatively new region for adventure cruising, explored only by more intrepid travellers over the past 30 years.
While overland travel is also popular, it can be a rough and uncomfortable experience and it’s not without its dangers. This is where the new breed of luxurious small ships come to the fore, offering comfort and sanctuary in a harsh environment. No other cruise line exemplifies this genre of modern, responsible travel better than Ponant.
Away from the crowded, commercialised ports, Ponant vessels are designed to reach remote, otherwise inaccessible locations with ease. They’re large enough to provide space and privacy for those onboard yet, each state-of-the-art vessel is also small enough to venture where mega-ships can never sail.
Excursions take place aboard sturdy Zodiac runabouts, with just a handful of passengers in each boat and an expert interpreter to guide your experience. With 30 years of maritime experience, Ponant is at the forefront of small ship cruising – it’s gleaming, futuristic vessels are equipped with the most advanced technological and environmentally sensitive tools. Guests can expect to receive a supremely comfortable voyage in luxurious surroundings akin to a 5-star hotel.
In 2018, Ponant responded to the urging of its many repeat guests and launched the first of its new Explorer-class ships, which are designed for adventurous voyages to remote or challenging destinations – including the sought-after Polar regions. These new vessels, of which a total of six are planned, are slightly smaller and more agile than the current fleet and have a raft of adventure-specific features such as an innovative underwater viewing lounge (the ‘Blue Eye’), as well as kayaks and paddleboards.
Ponant is also well known for its gastronomy, with menus devised by world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse. There’s also a comprehensive wine cellar aboard every ship, overseen by a knowledgeable sommelier. To bolster the luxury, indulgent spa treatments can be enjoyed after a conscience-cleansing workout in the gym.
Another clever feature of these new Explorer-class vessels is the hydraulically retractable marina at the stern, where Zodiac tenders are embarked and disembarked. Climbing in and out of tenders can be a nerve-wracking process for less mobile guests, even in the relatively calm waters of the Kimberley.
But this versatile accessory simplifies the procedure considerably, making the overall experience more stress-free and enjoyable. Another thing worth noting is that the vessel dedicated by Ponant to cruising the Kimberley, Le Lapérouse, has a reasonable-sized swimming pool on board. This is much appreciated when you’re craving a relaxing dip in the sun because swimming in the waters off the Kimberley coast is not possible due to the abundance of saltwater crocodiles (a fact that will soon become clear as your expedition guide points out the big reptiles populating the riverbanks).
Ponant’s Iconic Kimberley itinerary is one of the most comprehensive offered by any major cruise operator. In 2020, 11 back-to-back 11-day voyages will take place between May and September, with a different set of excursions every day. The Hunter River, for example, is one of the most picturesque landscapes in the Kimberley, where wild mangrove forests are home to abundant bird species.
“The high point of this voyage,” says veteran expedition leader Mick Fogg, “will undoubtedly be our exploration of the King George River and its majestic twin falls, the highest in Western Australia. “We also visit Collier Bay, the site of the mysterious Montgomery Reef, where the entire marine ecosystem appears to rise from the sea with the falling tide like a reappearing Atlantis.”
Throughout each journey, Le Lapérouse will traverse one of Australia’s most ancient and awe-inspiring coastlines. The Kimberley’s spectacular waterfalls, stark gorges, vast savannah and desolate mountain ranges are all waiting to be explored by one of the world’s most modern, luxurious expedition cruise ships. A visit to the Kimberley is, in every sense, a giant step back in time to a land almost unchanged since dinosaurs roamed these parts. In fact, with a keen eye, you might just spot one.
Click here to find out more about our life-changing journey in 2020 with Ponant and National Geographic.
WORDS: RODERICK EIME