Cruise Control

We Climb aboard the Coral Geographer and find a crew armed with science degrees and unique understanding of the natural wonders that abound in the Kimberley

IF YOUR NOTION of a cruise ship involves playing blackjack in the ‘Shane Warne Memorial Casino’ or sliding down a spiraling waterslide on the ‘

David Boon Sports Deck’ with a piña colada in hand, perhaps this cruise isn’t for you. Coral Expeditions caters to a more discerning passenger, forging a profound connection with nature in a bespoke cruising experience.

Our journey centres around Coral Expeditions’ Kimberley Cruise. Naval explorer Philip Parker King meticulously charted this coastline in 1820 aboard the Mermaid, adding the only piece missing from Matthew Flinders’ map of Australia.

Following our safety drills, we assemble for dinner – dressed nautical but nice. The sea breeze carries the alluring fragrance of the tropics, mingling with the luxurious scents of high-end perfumes on our fellow passengers. The days of cruise ship buffets are long gone due to COVID precautions, but the table service and freshly prepared dishes here are particularly worthy of any Michelin-star establishment – tiger prawns, oysters and pan-grilled snapper are all complemented by fine linens and coveted silverware.

Dining on the aft deck, we watch our departure point of Broome sink into the horizon before striking up a conversation with Nick and Sharon, a retired farming couple. Their modest property near Broken Hill is roughly the size of Singapore. They openly confess their general aversion to cruises but view this one as more a nature expedition. As if to emphasise their point, a majestic whale breaches off the stern.

No, this definitely isn’t just any cruise. Evenings commence with a captivating precap and recap, delving into past and upcoming excursions. Our expedition leader, Anita, holds a degree in the natural sciences – a trait many of her crew members share. This ensures your expedition guide isn’t the bass player from the ship’s orchestra and your bird expert isn’t the dancer from the cabaret. The entire crew, from top to bottom, is composed of smiling locals employed under fair work conditions. Their camaraderie and enthusiasm are infectious, making it evident they love their job. It’s heart-warming to witness their joy in sharing a good laugh and their eagerness to grab their cameras at the sight of a rare bird.


The smoothness of the voyage is also remarkable. Even my spouse, who tends to experience seasickness on boats, is completely fine. Indeed, there was more yawning at the Mangrove Hotel in Broome prior to our departure. Our immaculate Coral Geographer ship is a mere two years old and adorned inside with exquisite Indigenous artwork. The vessel offers three types of cabins: modest, executive and opulent. We’ve been given the royal treatment in an opulent cabin, which boasts a king-size bed, suite, balcony, and a double bathtub that overlooks the opal-green sea, complete with privacy glass that turns opaque when needed.

Yet this voyage is all about the destinations. The Lacepede Islands might well be Australia’s equivalent of the Galapagos, a captivating nature reserve home to green turtles, curlews and two resident crocs, both named Eric. It’s worth noting this atoll was once a prized location where guano (ancient bird poo) played a vital role in agriculture long before the widespread use of super-phosphates. I look up into the heavens to observe frigate birds wheeling in thermals, like drifting cinders. The following day, we approach the Buccaneer Archipelago, exploring the Iron Islands with hillsides like colossal slices of lasagne and later stopping at Silica Beach, with sands whiter than the light in Paradise.

We relish a barbecue dinner on the Vista Deck, where everyone is in high spirits and we meet Michael, a retired GP from Brisbane. He and his wife Bev, aged 89 and 87 respectively, are thoroughly enjoying their time aboard.

The following morning, we await our Zodiac transport to the Horizontal Falls, a magnificent natural wonder where mind-blowingly strong tidal currents surge through gaps in the McLarty Ranges. As a crew member calls passenger names, the list reads like characters from a Victorian novel: “Margaret, Edward, Charles, Elizabeth.” We later set off on an afternoon river cruise up Cyclone Creek, where, in keeping with Coral Expeditions’ ethos, its guides provide informative narration. Our chiselled river guide, Ben, boasts a degree in biology, while guest lecturer Brent, with 30 years’ experience with Parks and Wildlife, is a world authority on quolls, quails and quokkas. Their passion for the fauna is contagious, and the boat erupts in excitement as we witness a majestic wedge-tailed eagle swoop down and just miss capturing a rock wallaby that’s scaling the escarpment.


Like Matthew Flinders racing against time to chart Australia’s coast, we hasten to return to the mother ship. Captain Andy, ex-navy diver and ex-SAS, exudes an unwavering sense of purpose. We enjoy his amiable company for dinner, where his dry sense of humour underscores the laid-back Antipodean spirit of the crew.

The new day takes us to the awe-inspiring Montgomery Reef. Often referred to as Australia’s Atlantis, this submerged reef dramatically emerges during tide falls, creating a cascade of mesmerising beauty. The sheer abundance of green turtles here prompts the crew to offer a “turtle money-back guarantee”.

At a pre-dinner wine-tasting session, Aaron, the chief purser, exudes an infectious passion for wines, and must have grape juice flowing through his veins. But the bottle of premium wine with dinner is more than enough for our tastes. We appreciate the fact there’s no attempt to upsell to passengers and no preferential treatment in the style of Disneyland queue-jumping based on your cabin choice.

The morning sees us embark on a shaded tender to explore the depths of the Prince Regent River. As we navigate the batscented mangroves, I’m reminded of Kurtz’s journey in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, albeit I’m clad in a floppy hat and thongs. We arrive at Kings Cascade (Mambulbada) for our ‘Kimberley Shower’. Here, passengers immerse themselves in the falls, an experience that leaves them open-mouthed and gasping from the shock of the cascading water, resembling those clowns you feed ping-pong balls into at a carnival.

At the iconic Mermaid Tree, where Phillip King’s ship was careened (cleaned below the waterline), a Mermaid crewman left his initials as a mark of his passage. Seeing this 200-year-old graffiti evokes a sense of connection, particularly upon reading King’s journals. Indeed, the boab tree itself could be a creation straight out of Lewis Carroll’s imagination – an upside-down giant with its roots suspended in the air.

The ensuing morning transports us to the breathtaking Mitchell Falls (Punamii-uunpuu) via helicopter. The pilot narrates the scenic vistas below through our aviation headsets and we land at the falls, where we relish a refreshing dip in a natural spring – a true highlight of our tour. I’ve forgotten my togs, though, so I find myself floating on my back in my sagging underwear. It’s not my proudest moment.

The next day, we embark on a little journey to Bigge Island, a place adorned with extraordinary Wandjina art. The captivating eyes in the painted figures have been worn down over millennia by Indigenous fingers. In the background, an owl finch punctuates our guide’s narrative with a call akin to a squeaky toy. We encounter more fabulous Indigenous cave art at Wollaston Bay, including a depiction of a Kimberley thylacine, underscoring the ancient heritage of these remarkable paintings.


Our return to the Coral Geographer sees us joining an engaging lecture on the history of the Kimberley before the late afternoon sun transforms the Indian Ocean to the colour of sangria and we’re transported for drinks and canapés to a special location. There’s just something magical about being handed a glass of bubbles as you step onto a secluded beach surrounded by a sandstone amphitheatre painted in terracotta.

It’s impossible not to be in awe of the landscape, even in the pursuit of something that’s man-made and completely out of place here: a World War II plane wreck. As we meander through the lush tropical bush, the air is filled with the rustle of honeyeaters in the paperbark trees, their cheerful notes punctuated by the distinctive calls of rainbow bee-eaters, which sound like the blast from a ref’s whistle. This ‘trek to the wreck’, like most on this cruise, is easily navigable in thongs, but my encounter with some green ants soon makes me reconsider my choice of footwear. Suddenly, a glimmer of silver catches our eyes as we move amidst the pandanus shrubs. Remarkably preserved, this stray C-53 aircraft crash-landed here in 1942 while ferrying Dutch citizens from Indonesia to Broome. Even more astonishing, every soul on board survived, and they were rescued by a flying boat a week later.

Other relics and signs of previous generations are integral to the story of our next destination but are much older. Philip Parker King named Jar Island (Njula) after the peculiar masonry left behind by Makassar (Indonesian) seafarers. Here we uncover the enigmatic Gwion Gwion rock art, which recent research has indicated dates back 12,000 years. The intricate figures are akin to depictions of otherworldly beings and have fascinated modern-day onlookers ever since pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw brought them to the world’s attention in 1891.

The final morning, before cruising up the majestic King George River in a tender, we pause to admire a pod of curious snubfin dolphins. The river is flanked by towering cliffs, resembling slices of toast that have been vertically dropped into the placid waters. Our destination is King George Falls (Oomari), where the river is cleaved into branches and twin 100-metre-high waterfalls provide a spectacular end to our expedition. On the overnight voyage to Darwin, we can’t help feeling slightly downcast that it’s all over. Maybe a piña colada would cheer us up?