Thursday, October 23, 2014


There is only one American I know who has heard of The Kimberly, so when I told friends we were going there, they asked where it was.  "It's a huge area of Northwestern Australia, bigger than the size of Texas," I answered, "And it's considered one of the most ecologically diverse and pristine wilderness areas on our planet."

Visiting Australia has never been high on my priority list because I used to say that when I get off a plane, I want to feel like I'm in a foreign country.  To me Australia seemed too similar to America, but exploring the rugged Kimberly Coast on a small ship sounded more like taking a walkabout with the Aborigines in the Outback.  In other words, this trip seemed appealing.  Although I was not ready to make cruising our style, I thought that this would give me a preview of what it will be like to travel in my eighties.


Upon our arrival in Australia, we had the same reaction we did when we visited Canada this sumer.  How come we know so little about this country -- its geography its history (other than it was a place that England sent its criminals), its politics, or any details about how the government is run.  It was kind of embarrassing not to know the name of the Prime Minister.  Despite our ignorance about a lot of things Australian, we patted ourselves on the back for knowing that Nicole Kidman and Olivia Newton John were Australian, but what we didn't know was that they were victims of what Aussies call the "tall poppy syndrome."  This means that, unlike America, it is difficult for an Australian to make a name for himself or herself or to gain fame in their homeland.  Usually, they must leave the country to become successful.  The reasons for this are not exactly clear, although one passenger said that there has always been a tendency for Aussies to want equality for everyone and dislike countrymen (or countrywomen) who flaunt their success.

Let's face it, as Americans, we pay little attention to what goes on in Australia.  In a book I read, it said that in 1997, there were only 20 articles in The New York Times about Australia, whereas in the same year, there were 120 articles on Peru, 150 on Albania, and 500 on Israel.  Most Americans don't even know that in 1967 the Prime Minister of Australia plunged into the surf while strolling on the beach one day and was never heard from again.  All of this might be acceptable if this country was like Belarus or Benin, but the fact is Australia is one of the largest countries in the world by landmass.


Our need to get a visa to enter Australia completely escaped us.  "Where is your Australian visa?" the young agent at the airport in Bali asked, as we were checking in for our flight to Perth.  "Americans don't need visas for Australia,"  Bruce  replied with conviction.  "I'm afraid you do, Sir," the female agent behind the counter said in a polite voice, not authoritative like the bellowing voice from the man standing behind him who repeated, "Yes, you do."  We shook our heads.  "No, we don't," we repeated.  "Look, I don't know where you got this information, but you do need a visa and that's simply the way it is," the man answered back.  "Who are you?" I asked, assuming he was another passenger who wanted to butt in.  "I'm from Immigration," he answered brusquely, "and I'm in the middle of something important, so let's just get on with it and try to get you a visa on line, if we can."  He turned to the agent behind the desk and whispered something that sounded like keep an eye out for fake passports from Jakarta, will you?

After finally connecting through a maze of networks, it took about fifteen minutes to fill out the forms and pay for the visas online.  But once we received them electronically, we were on our way, expressing gratitude to the patient agent.  You would think that after our visa debacle in Argentina, where we thought we could obtain visas at the border, but couldn't, we would have researched this visa issue more thoroughly.

A few days later, we boarded the Coral Princess ship with 46 other passengers, mostly Australians, near the frontier town of Broome on the West Coast.  The Coral Princess is a handsome, twin-hulled boutique catamaran, designed for maximum stability and comfort.  Most of the time you feel like you are cruising on a private yacht.  We were guided by their highly professional staff to our comfortable stateroom, where we eagerly unpacked for the highly anticipated ten day trip.


After successfully donning our life jackets and going through the required emergency drill, we went down to the bar and dining room for cocktails and dinner with a fixed menu that sounded absolutely delicious.  Except for the purser handing out anti-nausea pills to all passengers when we boarded, there was no significant warning of what was to come.  Just as we were sitting down for dinner, the ship began to heave a little and then more rocking and rolling.  I don't usually suffer from motion sickness so I wasn't worried initially, but after a few minutes, this type of turbulence began to affect me.  

Pretty soon the dining room was almost completely empty, as people ran or crawled to their staterooms to lie down, except for a few brave souls, like Bruce and me.  I thought I'd be ok if I ate a little something since I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast.  My stomach was a little queasy and my head was spinning too, which reminded me of the only time when I came really close to losing it -- throwing up, I mean, because of motion sickness.    I was in the spinning teacups ride at Disneyland, and forgot to keep my head up and my eyes focused on the horizon as I had been told by the man collecting tickets.  If the ride hadn't ended when it did, I might have done something awful to upset my six-year old niece who was having a grand time spinning round in the teacup and sitting beside me.   So here on the ship I kept a smile on my face, ate a small dinner role and a couple of bites of chicken, all the time watching Bruce consume the entire meal, including dessert, and not feeling a thing.   Fortunately in the middle of the night the boat stopped heaving and apparently, so did everyone else.  

Since Bruce and I are not used to cruising, we forgot that the view outside our cabin window constantly changes, which in The Kimberly means you either see white sandy beaches, massive red and black sandstone cliffs or major outcroppings of rock which are usually exposed only at low tide.  But there are other things that never change:  bright blue sky, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and oppressive heat and humidity.  Fortunately, the Coral Princess was well air-conditioned, but when you went outside, it felt like you just opened the door of a 400 degree oven.  I used to say that the hottest place I ever traveled was Papua New Guinea, so no wonder we sweated like pigs.  We were about a thousand miles from those shores.

Sharing daily details about exploring The Kimberly would take too many pages.  It can be summed up best by saying our twice daily excursions in a smaller, zippy boat called the Explorer offered the opportunity to explore the incredible scenery on foot.   We experienced natural surroundings that are far different from what we have seen in other parts of the world.  Geologically, the Kimberly was created almost two thousand million years ago and transformed into its present landmass by major geological upheaval also, over a period of millions of years.  We were struck by the brilliant colors of the sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rock.  There was a sampling of marine life, like dangerous saltwater crocs, sea snakes, and one day we came across a small-scale bearded dragon that even our guest lecturers had never seen before.  

One of the crew discovered an olive python sleeping on the Explorer excursion boat, which was a little creepy, especially since he seemed to think it had been on the boat for several days.  In the water, we saw an occasional whale and several pods of dolphins.  One day a large, but friendly tawny nurse shark came to our boat to be hand fed small fish, a mid-morning snack that the shark remembered from previous Coral Princess visits. 

On Montgomery Reef, Australia's largest inshore reef, we experienced one of the lowest tides ever and enjoyed a spectacle of spectacles as we watched cascades of white water pouring off its ragged edge.  The best way to see the reef, exotic coral and unusual marine life was on a zodiac.


We had wet landings and occasional dry ones.  Some of our walks were rocky and quite steep, under a blazing sun with almost no shade.  Others were flat on hard sand and soft, through mud flats and sharp spinifex grass.  

We climbed over boulders and took cool dips in several natural plunge pools.  



Binoculars weren't required to spot the large osprey nests built on top of uniquely carved rocks, and although we never saw a bower bird, we did see its cleverly camouflaged nest under a tree and in the sand.  The hundred-year-old family grave sites were an indication that a few had tried to build a community here, but failed due to the harsh climate and the inhospitable land.  One day we explored the site of a well preserved DC3 plane wreck that crashed in the bush during the war in 1942, but amazingly, all the crew survived.




As we walked on the beach, hundreds of fiddler crabs ran for cover in their well protected sand holes, but I was still able to get a photo.  


One of the highlights for many was an exciting zodiac raft trip down the famous Horizontal Falls, an unusual water phenomenon made possible by a fast rising tide.  

Fortunately, we had several opportunities to see the famous Wandjina figures, the Aboriginal name for ancient rock art, created by tribes thousands of years ago.  Some paintings required us to lay on our backs and look up at the low ceiling in order to see the details.

When we weren't exploring by foot, we were cruising down mangrove-lined rivers, narrow gorges or deep canyons.  On the ship, experts lectured on topics like Australia's original settlers, rock art, and the mysteries of sharks and crocs.  

Food was never a problem. In fact, that's an understatement because we had an amazing gourmet chef named Travis.   There was morning and afternoon tea, where you could enjoy freshly baked scones, served with berry jam and real whipped cream.  The staff on the ship were extremely professional and yet at the same time they loved cracking jokes and making good fun with all the guests.



One morning some of us paid dearly to get a bird's eye view of The Kimberly with a helicopter excursion over the famous Mitchell Falls, but we were so late in the dry season that the falls were pretty skimpy and could almost be called non-existent.  It didn't really matter to me because what I wanted was an overall perspective of the rugged landscape below.   Here we were thousands of miles from anywhere and in the middle of nowhere.

Very early on the trip, I knew the passengers would be as interesting and colorful as the scenery, because Aussies are so much fun.  


Whether you consider Aussies gifted communicators or not, I have to admit that they certainly have an unusual vernacular.  It took a while for us to understand what they were saying because they often shorten words that have more than two syllables, even calling themselves Aussies instead of Australians,  Sunglasses are sunnies.  Universities are unis.  The word temporary becomes tempy, and my favorite is pressies for chrissy.  Figure that one out?  A bloke is a man, and a sheila's a girl.  Bob's your uncle and Fanny's your aunt means don't worry mate, everything is going to be ok.  Some expressions need no translation like, pushing shit up the hill with a pointed stick,  point percy at the porcelain, and my other favorite is If your auntie had balls, she'd be your uncle.

For more than a decade now I've been very fortunate to visit many places of extraordinary beauty, and The Kimberly ranks pretty high on the list.  But making friends with a wonderful bunch of Aussies is what made this trip really special and worthwhile for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment