Voyage Log: The Kimberley Solar Eclipse | Darwin to Broome
15 April 2023 – 28 April 2023
Author: Guest Lecturer Ian Morris
Day 1: Darwin & Bonaparte Gulf
15 April 2023
Once the complications of getting aboard Coral Adventurer were over, we were able to depart mainland Australia & enter ‘our own world’. Our calm trip across Joseph Bonaparte Gulf was as smooth as any the Expedition team could remember. We all appreciated the fact that its “Joseph Blown-apart” reputation was not an issue this trip. In Nicholas Baudin’s voyage of exploration in 1801-03 he honoured Napoleon’s brother, Joseph (Councillor of State & King of Spain 1803), by naming this wide, shallow gulf after him. Baudin’s expedition comprised two ships initially, the Naturaliste, and the Geographe and later the Casuarina joined them. The entrance to this gulf extends for approx. 200km from Cape Rulhieres eastward to Cape Hay (N.T.). In the coming days, we were to learn much more about the activities of those pioneer navigators along our northern coastline. As the sun went down & the NT coastline disappeared behind us, we were all impressed with the stunning sunset conditions provided by Captain Miles Hammond for his generous’ welcome aboard drinks’ evening. Our first night at sea!
Day 2: King George River & Falls (Oomari)
16 April 2023
After a very pleasant night’s travel, the rugged Kimberley coastline appeared in the morning light. After rounding Cape Rulhieres we dropped anchor in a wide bay surrounded by orange cliffs & thin, white beaches. After a hearty breakfast & splendid sunrise, we were soon heading up the King George River in the Xplorers following a spectacular eroded sandstone valley with towering red sandstone walls, which wound 13 kilometres inland to the famous King George Falls-our first excursion into the ancient geological world of the Kimberley. As we cruised upstream in the Xplorers, we learned about & observed some of the unique facts of this hidden river valley. Both rainforest & mangrove plants, along with mosses ferns, clung to the orange sandstone faces, particularly where freshwater trickled down from above, but the most amazing sight was Eric the Saltwater Crocodile. He was parked on a rock ledge just above the tide level, with a cascade of freshwater falling on his head & a wide smile on his face. He allowed the Xplorers to come in close for photos & after everyone had suitable images, we continued upstream to eventually arrive at Western Australia’s highest waterfall. To our amazement, the water was thundering over the escarpment as a result of last week’s severe weather system–much more than normal. Many of the sandstone blocks within the cliffs are in precarious positions, mainly because of the more active sea level erosion. This part of the Kimberley Plateau is known as the Karundjie Plateau. It is thought to be 1,800 million years old& predates life on Earth– no fossils. It consists of Warton Sandstone, one of three types of sandstone in this Kimberley formation. The Kimberley region is today seismically stable, however regular earthquakes and tremors, common in Indonesia’s Banda Sea to the north (the Timor coast is only 525 km away from us), may cause these slopes, and other precariously lodged blocks on cliff faces, to dislodge and fall into the river. Tree root growth within joints would also contribute to such falls. We (The expedition crew) witness fresh rock falls here after each wet season. Magnificent pastel shades of pink, yellow & even purple are evident in the salt-weathered sandstones just above tide level. ‘Honeycomb’ weathered patterns called ‘Tafoni’ by geologists, also appear in caves & overhangs a few meters above tide level. We journeyed right up to the falls, stopping to enjoy the ambience of the towering cliffs & quiet embayment’s. The flow rate had dropped back to a dry season trickle, but many guests experienced the cool waters from a pure catchment splashing over their shoulders. So before heading back to the CA, all guests had the chance to jump into a zodiac & experience first-hand the refreshing power of these impressive falls.
Our anchorage in what is now called Koolama Bay was named after the tragic but heroic story of the coastal transport vessel, MV Koolama, which took place here in February 1942 at the beginning of WW2. Later in the evening, we watched a documentary with more startling details on this amazing story. We are now in the traditional lands of the Kuwini people, most of whom are now situated in the community of Kalumburu, to our west. Some of their young people form the Balangarra Ranger Service which cares for this part of the coastline. In nearby Tranquil Bay & Pangali Cove, a series of hidden plaques behind the later beach commemorate the heroic efforts of local Aboriginal men to get the stranded survivors of the disabled ship overland to the safety of the Drysdale River Mission (today’s Kalumburu), almost 100km away! They all made it safely! Amission lugger made several trips to collect the women & children & get them back to safety. The mouth of the King George River eluded detection by the early mariner explorers like Baudin, Freycinet, King and Stokes who had all sailed past Cape Rulhiers, not noticing the ‘insignificant-looking’ river mouth at the back of the bay & it remained to be discovered & given its European name as recently as 1911. Charles Price Conigrave was a passionate ornithologist(Rainsbury 2015) and keen to lead a team of four to venture overland from Wyndham through the then-unexplored territory between Cambridge Gulf and Admiralty Gulf. The party crossed this amazing deep river channel on foot above the falls on 7th December 1911 and Conigrave‘…named the river after King George V, whose coronation took place that year….’ (Epton2003). Conigrave also correctly predicted where the river would discharge into the sea but did not have the time or resources to actually follow this river to Cape Rulhieres, or ‘what we now know as’ Koolama Bay’, but was forced to continue his exploratory journey westward after crossing the river well upstream of the Falls. French hydrographer Baudin named the eastern point of the river mouth on June 12 1803 after Claude Carloman de Rulhieres, 1735-1791,historian & poet.
Later in the afternoon, the anchor was hoisted & we were underway around the most northerly point of the WA coast–Cape Londonderry–and on to our next excursion on the northwest portion of this coastline tomorrow. Later in the afternoon, the anchor was hoisted & we were underway around the most northerly point of the WA coast–Cape Londonderry–and on to our next excursion on the northwest portion of this coastline tomorrow.
Day 3: Vansittart Bay & Jar Island
17 April 2023
Sunrise saw us pulling into an expansive bay with a very different coastline from yesterday. Our morning activities first required us to divide into two groups again. The Brahminy Kites took a trip over to the Anjo Peninsula (believed to be named by Lieut. Commander McKenzie while aboard H.M.A.S. Geranium in 1921) to see an old but well-preserved aircraft, which lost its way in 1942 at the start of WW2. It was a C53 Sky Trooper(military version of the better-known DC3), which overshot Broome at night on its way up from Perth. There were no injuries but, as you saw, the plane was beyond repair. Many spare parts were removed during the war to repair other aircraft. It has lain in the state among the gum trees ever since. Ian led the charge over the sand dune & across the extensive tidal flat, which is occasionally inundated by a king tide, on which the aircraft was forced to land. If tides had been high around the time of the accident, the salt flat surface would have been soft & slippery & may have caused the aircraft to slide into its present resting place in the nearby woodland. We saw many colourful Fiddler Crabs as we walked across the tidal flat.
Once we reached the other side, plant life was at its best, particularly after last night’s heavy dew & the Aboriginal term for this post-wet season period is the equivalent of ‘harvest time’. The new growth glistened with dew in the morning light as we arrived & a variety of small, insectivorous plants were in flower. The native Sorghum (spear grass) had recently dropped its seed & many species of birds, including the Blue-winged Kookaburra& Pied Butcherbird, were calling around us. We passed our first Boab Tree & a fine example of a Cathedral Termite mound. Evidence of wild cattle was seen–the only feral species known in the area until now, but sadly, toxic introduced cane toads have just begun to arrive from the east. Unfortunately, they will have a major impact on the ecology. The Rock Wallabies went to the southern shore, disembarked onto a rock shelf & made their way through level bushland & tall spear grass, passing a rock outcrop with a fine example of our first Giyorn Giyorn rock art figures. These are dark red ochre stains &thought to be from somewhere between ten thousand to twenty thousand years old. The people who painted them are thought to have close connections with southern Africa. Then it was on to a large sandstone overhang. This was the Wandjina art site called Jalandal. Here on the cave roof were displayed large, well-preserved Wandjina figures representing the most recent period of human history in the Kimberley–the weather spirits. The cave was also an occupation site with layers of shellfish shells exposed to the floor by erosion. Then the two groups swapped locations.
Later in the morning, the ‘CA’ was relocated further west in the bay beside Jar Island for our next activity–an art site climb on Jar Island which is traditionally called Ngula. Jar Island got its modern name when Philip Parker King found some clay pottery on the shore there which was left by Makassan trespassers from Eastern Indonesia, who had used the island for centuries as a base to process their catch. This aspect of our country’s history took place about a thousand years ago when the large Chinese market for Beche-de-mer or Trepang (a kind of sea slug) caused these Indonesian fishermen to search further afield for the valuable product. This island was the focus of a study on the trepang industry in Australia some time back. In earlier times of low sea level, little islands like this were once only the tops of rocky hills at the beginning of a vast coastal savannah plain stretching for hundreds of kilometres away to the northern edge of our continental shelf.The steep climb was well worth it. It is always a great privilege to have access to such old examples of the world’s unique human history & to see remnants of an ancient society(perhaps African in origin?), that we know so little about, yet it is so important in the social history of our country. These graceful Giyorn Giyorn (Bradshaw) paintings are shrouded in mystery, as much of the evidence of the artist’s society & lifestyle is now below our current sea level. Unfortunately, the hard quartzite rock surface on which these valuable paintings were executed so long ago is now slowly deteriorating. Tonight’s documentary “Riddle of the Bradshaws” gives us the inside story.
Later in the evening, our resident astronomer Fred Watson began our preparation for the coming solar eclipse by giving us a fascinating presentation “In the faces of the sun–Eclipses 101” & in his words “A total eclipse of the sun is simply the most awe-inspiring celestial event of all”.
Day 4: Winyalkan Island & Wollaston Bay
18 April 2023
We were looking at a different landscape again as we anchor beside one of the many islands of Montague Sound. Today was our chance to take a helicopter from Veranda Beach, adjacent to our anchorage, & get the ‘big perspective’ on the Mitchell Plateau. Some gueststook a walk to a lookout to photograph Mitchell Falls & had a chance to swim in the river above the Falls. For those remaining at sea level, again we divided into two groups. The first group went east in the Xplorer to a small beach in Wollaston Bay where we were able to do a short climb into the sandstone boulders, then through a spinifex-lined track toa sandstone overhang, similar to Jalandal, with a variety of large, well preserved Wandjina figures & other motifs spread across the ceiling. Amongst this artwork was an excellent portrayal of a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), which history tells us was found throughout the Australian mainland prior to the arrival of the Dingo, about four thousand years ago. Paintings of Thylacines are quite rare & this is one of the better ones. We also saw some ‘a braided groves’ as the anthropologists call them, which are cuts into the rock surface where back in the past, Aboriginal men ground & sharpened their stone tools.
The second group did a cruise south to Palm Island where basalt flows (Harts Dolerite) can be seen beneath the sandstone layers & Windmill Palms Livistona loriophyllum are seen across the hillsides & skyline. These relatives of the Cabbage Palm of southern Australia are unique to the north. Then we had the chance to take a walk on a coral sand beach & see many unique types of coral, together with many types of shells, which have been washed up by countless monsoon events over time. On a sandstone ledge above the beach is a small Giyorn Giyorn art display featuring small action figures from a bygone age. Some people had glimpses of the tiny Monjon Rock Wallabies as they darted along the rock ledges or between the spinifex. In the afternoon, the groups swapped sites. As the last helicopter groups returned from the Plateau, the crew were setting up the deckchairs on the shore beneath the Veranda Cliffs on Winyalkan Island for sunset drinks. We watched the perfect sunset at the close of another amazing day.
Day 5: Bigge Island (Wuuyuru)
19 April 2023
Overnight, the navigation crew relocated the ship to Wary Bay, at the northern end of WA’s third largest island, named after John Thomas Bigge (1780-1843), NSW Commissioner of Inquiry. Another beautiful morning on a calm ocean. After dropping anchor within sight of the beach, the Brahminy Kites slowly wended their way into the peaceful bay surrounded by sandstone. We kept a quiet lookout for those elusive Monjons (the smallest of the rock wallaby group) but these sandstone specialists did not show themselves. Stepping ashore, we were confronted with a myriad of animal tracks–Quolls, Monjons, Goannas, baby Flatback Turtles, Beach Stone-curlews, nesting female Flatback Turtles & wandering Saltwater Crocodiles. We saw the slight indentation in the sand where dozens of baby Flatbacks emerged from the nest chamber the previous night & scrambled for the ocean. Most of the other tracks were made by predators looking for baby turtles. This all points to the fact that this island is a wonderful offshore sanctuary for unique Kimberley wildlife. Our hope is that cane toads will never reach it!
The island has the water supply & natural terrestrial & marine resources necessary to sustain a healthy human population. It is well known to the Gämbirra people, now mostly situated in the far northern community of Kalumburu. After inspecting the art caves, we set about climbing a large rock shelf to peer down from a vantage point on an old ceremonial ground, then on to a mangrove creek & back to the main beach. A traditional burial site is situated in a high crevice near the artwork. This beach is famous for the imposing Father Kiara Sea Wandjina figures, painted in the nearby caves & overhangs. The Kiara Wandjina spirits are said to be responsible for abnormal weather events such as cyclones & waterspouts, etc. Another aspect of this gallery depicts a beautiful freeze of four humans with hats & pipes & a dog, carrying what appears to be water buckets. A large snake is painted above one of the figures. This scene is thought by anthropologists to represent the visit in1641 of the Dutch navigator, Abel Janzoon Tasman & his crew, when they came ashore for water. Possibly the first Europeans these coastal people had ever encountered & sailed to the shore in a typical Dutch skiff along with the ship’s dog, looking for freshwater, these Dutchmen with their big hats, long trousers & pipes would have made a significant impression on these local inhabitants! This would be one of Australia’s first examples of European ‘contact art’.
Meanwhile, the Rock Wallabies departed to the north on a scenic cruise to view the many strange rock formations, as well as to take a walk through a giant sea cave. As we departed Bigge Island & headed out into the Indian Ocean towards tomorrow’s distant location, photographer Scott Portelli gave us a very interesting session that we were all eager to learn more about, entitled “Photographing a Solar Eclipse”.
Day 6: Scott Reef
20 April 2023
*This is the special day of the expedition
- Total solar eclipse visible (100.00% coverage of Sun) Magnitude: 1.0061
- Duration: 3 hours, 8 minutes, 2 seconds
- Duration of totality: 1 minute 15 seconds
- Partial begins: Apr 20 at 10:27:48 am
- Full begins: Apr 20 at 11:59:39 am
- Maximum: Apr 20 at 12:00:16 pm
- Full ends: Apr 20 at 12:00:54 pm
- Partial ends: Apr 20 at 1:35:50 pm
- Times are shown in local time (AWST)
Our long journey from Bigge Island beside the mainland to within sight of reefs & sandy cays of the Scott Reef complex at the far edge of the Australian Continental Shelf. At this point, we are much closer to Timor Leste than the Australian mainland. To our relief, the sky is perfectly cloudless, giving us ideal conditions to observe this unique astrological event. With our special issue ‘solar viewer’ glasses we were able to lay back & enjoy the total solar eclipse from the comfort of our deck chairs on the top deck. Drinks & nibbles were supplied throughout the process. These are the words of our astronomers Fred & Marnie:
“The Moon’s 40km wide shadow crossed a tiny portion of the Australian continent at Exmouth in WA. This was a particularly rare form of eclipse called a hybrid. At the beginning and end of the path of the Moon’s shadow (the ‘path of totality’), the Moon wasn’t near enough to Earth to completely cover the Sun, and observers saw an ‘annular’, or ‘ring of fire’ eclipse. In the central part of the path of totality, the curvature of the Earth brought observers near enough to the Moon to make the eclipse total. We saw the total eclipse from Scott Reef, with 1 min 15 seconds of totality beginning at 1:29 pm Darwin time. The total duration of the eclipse including the partial phase was 3 hrs 8 min. “Our astronomers & photographers were keen to be taken by Xplorer to a nearby sand cay to enable their specialised tripods to be anchored to ‘solid ground’ for sharper images. Rosie Leaney, one of our specialised photographers, described this experience as follows: “Leaving our “mother ship” to spend 4 hours on a tiny speck of sand felt like quite the adventure. Despite its remoteness, the island was very hospitable–clear skies, a lovely cooling breeze, gentle sea conditions, some friendly noddy terns, and a few equally friendly turtle researchers who had been surveying the island. Within 20 mins of our arrival, we had all cameras set up and began capturing the early stages of the eclipse. As the moon’s shadow advanced across the sun, we noticed subtle changes in our surroundings like the intense white glow of the sand becoming duller and a gradual temperature change. Our anticipation built as the eclipse headed towards totality. Then in the space of 1 min 15 secs, the sky darkened and brightened, the horizon glowing beautiful oranges & pinks, as the moon’s shadow cast us in and out of twilight. I don’t think any of us were prepared for how dramatic and beautiful the experience would be, made even more special by this small sandy paradise.”
After the big day’s event, Fred gave us all a summary of the entire process as it unfolded, followed by an evening of star-gazing on the Vista Deck.
*Today a small bird landed on our vessel in a very exhausted state! It turned out to be an Oriental Reed Warbler–not an Australian species! A short time later, an adult male Budgerigar, known from the arid zone of Australia, was found dead on the back deck! We are assuming that the Cat 5 cyclone system which passed this area a week or so back maybe responsible for this aberration in our birds.
Day 7: Scott Reef
21 April 2023
Once the complexities & formalities of the eclipse were behind us, we could relax & enjoy water activities in this unique location at the far edge of our continental shelf–a place very few people get to experience! Despite moderate winds, everyone was keen to get out there& learn. Both snorkelers & divers had the chance to don their equipment & check out the clear waters, corals, fish life & even sea snakes that abound in these waters. Expedition Team member Luke prepared us for this yesterday with his presentation “Sea Snakes of Australia”. This reduced our hesitancy with these reptiles & made us want to see them, so in addition to the colourful fish & corals, many guests were able to see & photograph both turtles & curious sea snakes at close range. A very laid-back day!
Day 8: Ashmore Island & Reef
22 April 2023
We are now well north of yesterday’s position, with only about 111 kilometres of ocean trench separating us from West Timor & the little island of Roti. It was via this island that many of the Indonesian fishing fleets, including Makassans, passed on their way to gather marine resources along the north Australian coastline in pre-European times. The three little islands making up the Ashmore Region are all part of a Marine Park within Australian Territorial Waters. These islands are critical breeding sites for Green Turtles as well as many species of seabirds. They are also resting points for large numbers of migrating shorebirds between northern Europe & Australia. In the afternoon, we were able to take a closer look at West Island & its abundant birdlife. Large flocks of Lesser Frigatebirds were circling above the island while below, many species of terns like Black-naped Terns, Red-tailed Tropicbirds & Red-footed Boobies were visible nesting on the ground &in the surrounding Argusia trees. Common Noddies &Ruddy Turnstones were abundant around the shoreline.
Day 9: Prince Fredrick Harbour & Porosus Creek
23 April 2023
Overnight we cruised the long track back to mainland Australia. Today we are literally on the western edge of the Kimberley escarpment. The rising sun revealed the ‘CA’ at anchor in a beautiful natural harbour of orange sandstone cliffs & dark volcanic layers. The huge plateau beside the ship to the east, now referred to as the main Mitchell Plateau, extends east to the Lawley and King Edward Rivers and north to the Timo Sea. The Derby Tourism Centre website has the Wunambal Aboriginal people’s name for the Mitchell Plateau as Ngauwudu. The Wunambal people have lived in the vicinity of Ngauwudu for many thousands of years. The plateau is 350 kilometres northeast of Derby and 270 kilometres northwest of Wyndham by air. Named by Captain Phillip Parker King on 12th Sept 1820 “The harbour was called Prince Frederic’s …… in honour of his Royal Highness the Duke of York” Sheet 17 of P. P. King’s chart of the NW Coast of Aust.
While we were waiting for the right tidal conditions, our resident astronomer Fred gave us a presentation called “Welcome to Mars”, which gave us a better understanding of why there was so much international interest in getting people onto that distant planet.
After a hearty lunch, we were in the Xplorers & off in beautiful calm conditions to investigate the mangrove system which forms Porosus Creek, a branch of the Hunter River. The Kimberley coast has the second most diverse tidal forests on our planet. These forests were ‘supermarkets’ in traditional times & which explains the huge shell middens around our present shoreline. Some anthropologists say that these massive remains of human habitation were the result of rapid sea level rise at the end of the last ice age when many thousands of people were forced by the rapidly rising ocean onto other people’s countries, where they weren’t permitted to hunt & had to survive for quite a long period on the ocean’s resources behind them. Some of us remained on the Xplorers to experience an ecosystem rarely enjoyed by modern humans. Others were given the opportunity to climb into a zodiac & get even closer to the mangroves. The calls of Brown & Red-headed Honeyeaters, Mangrove Gerygones, Shining Flycatchers & Mangrove Golden Whistlers were heard constantly amongst the flowering trees as we cruised silently along the mangrove-lined channels, with a rising tide lifting us along. We enjoyed watching the antics of the Mud Skippers feeding on the water’s edge. The normally common Saltwater Crocodiles were being a bit elusive today as the tide was still quite high, covering the mudflats & creek banks– their normal resting places. We did, however, encounter some ‘happy snappies’ floating around in the creeks, giving us more photo opportunities with Eric’s relatives!
Day 10: Montgomery Reef & Red Cone Creek
24 April 2023
We are now in Worrorra country. Overnight we entered the story place of the great Wandjina warrior Namurrali. It is said by local residents that much of the coastal landscape here was shaped by his ancient activities.
Our early morning exercise was to take the Xplorers across to the world’s largest platform reef, which was named in August 1821 after surgeon Andrew Montgomery of Phillip Parker King’s ship, HMS Bathurst. This reef system was the territory of the Yawjabaya people who were based on High Cliffy Island, one of the four islands on Monty Reef. We could see these islands in the distance from our anchor point. The people living here were closely related to the Worrorra people of the nearby mainland, who traded marine resources with this reef-based clan. Early navigators like John Lort Stokes called these people the ‘Tide Riders’ as they were seen using sturdy, mangrove wood rafts to travel out to the reef. It appears that there was quite a trade of marine resources from this giant reef between the Yawjabaya resident hunters & the mainland peoples. Strangely, back in 1929 the entire Yawjabaya clan, men, women & children, vanished off the face of the earth. No human remains were ever found from these very tall people. Anthropologists have recently tried to unravel this mystery with no success to date.
Even their mainland countrymen are mystified by their disappearance. How did the traditional inhabitants of this stone country view their role as custodians? The following statement, written from a Worrorra perspective & taken from their Wandjina Tours website, presents an outline of Lalai (creation time) as believed by themselves and associated clan groups, the Wunambal, Gämbirra & the Ngarinyin clans:
‘We, along with the Ngarinyin and Wunambal tribes are part of the shared Wandjina culture and belief system. The Wandjina is our supreme spiritual being who created this country during Lalai (creation/Dreamtime). Wallungunder [Walanganda], the Boss Wandjina, came from the Milky Way to create the earth and the people. The first people were the Gyorn Gyorn (Bradshaws figures). They had no laws or kinship and were a lost people. He thought that these people could be good, so he went back up to the Milky Way and asked other Wandjinas with the power of the Dreamtime Snake to help bring laws and kinship to the Gyorn Gyorn people. The Dreamtime Snake represents Mother Earth and is called Ungud. Each of our people has their own Ungud birthplace or dreaming place. The Wandjinas went on to create the animals, and the baby spirits that live in the rock pools or sacred Ungud places throughout the Kimberley, and they continue to control everything that happens on the land, sea and sky today.’
Once we were in the shelter of the large drainage channel on the eastern side of the reef, we could make out the emerging coral ‘levee banks’ as the tide dropped. From a distance, the reef looks like it is made out of concrete & is lifeless, but because these levees are exposed to the air, swirling currents & strong sunlight each day at low tide, the reef-building organisms here are tough & often colourless, but among them are also softer corals & sponges, etc. The colourful corals from the lagoons above & the sea bed below, tend to avoid places exposed at low tide & therefore are not generally visible to us along the channel wall. Again, we had the opportunity to hop into a zodiac & get right next to the coral formations, where it became apparent that this whole giant reef was an enormous interlocked organism–almost 400 square kilometres! The whole structure was sitting on top of a submerged sandstone mesa. The reef was exposed by many metres at low tide & is the largest platform reef in the world! We saw many turtle heads & jumping fish, as well as Reef Egrets, hunting along the channel.
In the afternoon, guests were given the opportunity for a freshwater swim in a lovely upstream section of the Red Cone Creek system. Red Cone Hill, where today’s anchorage gets its name, was bestowed by early navigator John Lort Stokes as he explored Doubtful Bay. Rainwater from the plateau in the distance is channelled down rocky creeks & over the edge into the ocean. Ruby Falls is one such structure. The creek system allows our Xplorers to go right to the falls, above which is not crocodile habitat. It required a short but strenuous climb above the falls to some deep, paperbark & pandanus-lined pools of clear, running water. The cheerful calls of Bar-breasted Honeyeaters were heard constantly as the swimmers enjoyed the cool, clear water flowing around them. For those not wishing to climb & swim, there was the option of doing a river cruise through the extensive tidal forests in the hope of seeing a Saltwater Crocodile. Several were seen during a very pleasant journey back to the main anchorage, including one which hauled itself out onto a rock ledge, not unlike Eric back at the King George River! Later in the afternoon, the CA was again on the move to a distant anchorage in the giant folds of the King Leopold Range. On our way past the scenic Raft Point outcrops, we were invited up to the evening’s BBQ on the Vista Deck & to toast another spectacular sunset. How could tomorrow possibly be better than this?
Day 11: Horizontal Falls & Raptor’s Reach
25 April 2023
Geomorphologists tell us that the Kimberley Formation was separated from the Australian mainland for a period of the earth’s history. It became an island in its own right! It later slowly reconnected with the mainland under great heat, pressure & uplift, which has left a visible impact on the landscape. Today, we will see the spectacular formations resulting from that huge tectonic episode. This morning the CA cruised into one of the drowned valleys that resulted from this ancient impact zone. This ‘buckle zone’ between the mainland & the ‘Kimberley Island’ coming together is now called the King Leopold Range. Sedimentary layered rocks were superheated from deep within the earth, then subject to tremendous sideways pressure, pushing up giant vertical folds. We are anchored today between some of these folds, which have been uplifted & weathered into amazing shapes. The last sea level rise has flooded the lower valleys & now forces seawater into new places. The Horizontal Waterfalls are one such place. The tides here are the second highest in the world, so every six & a half hours, water pours through what we call ‘tidal gaps’ between the long mountain ridges. The coloured layers & folds above the surging waters made spectacular photos. Today, in our zodiacs, we had the chance to experience the awesome power of nature as saltwater gushed out from the back valleys through the towering vertical sandstone gaps, giving us the ‘waterfall effect’. Some guests opted for a second &even a third ride through the turbulence & whirlpools created by a large volume of water trying to get through a small gap in a short time. In a British newspaper, Sir David Attenborough is quoted describing the Horizontal Falls of WA as “one of the world’s great natural wonders because of the way massive tidal movements create a waterfall that moves horizontally.”
The afternoon activity was a more sedate cruise through another section of this heavily folded landscape in the Talbot Bay area of the King Leopolds. After a ‘live drop’ from the CA, we headed for Raptors Reach, which is where wet season water flows down from the plateau over several impressive waterfalls & down into mangrove-lined creeks (similar to Ruby Falls) & finally out into the ocean. We were able to get the Xplorers right to the foot of the falls. Brahminy Kites, Wedge-tailed & White-bellied Sea Eagles are frequently sighted in the area. We were fortunate to sighting several more crocodiles in the vicinity of the mangroves. We re-boarded the mother ship again near the Iron Islands & as we enjoyed sunset drinks on the Vista Deck, we cruised past Koolan & Cockatoo Islands, where several decades back, BHP established iron ore mines. This whole region has iron-rich veins of high-grade ore & is still mined by other companies today. The ore is then exported by ship directly from the mine sites. Tomorrow we will get the chance to view the Koolan operation from the Xplorers as we learn more about the Yampie Sound region.
Day 12: Whirlpool Pass & Crocodile Creek
26 April 2023
We are still in the land of the big tides. Here we were about to see where the ancient King Leopold Range, coming from the Halls Creek area, coming from away south near the Hall’s Creek area, disappears past us north – west into the Indian Ocean, in over a hundred islands (the Buccaneer Group). We can now see the true impact of that renegade island of the Kimberley as it reconnected with mainland Australia so long ago – vertical layers, buckles, folds and extreme colours – all on a gigantic scale! We marvelled at the unseen tectonic forces that had bent & twisted these hard rocks and turned horizontal beds of sediment into towering cliffs with vertical strata! In the early morning light, it was all stunning & it didn’t seem to matter which way you pointed the camera! We took the Xplorers up into a large tidal channel separating Chambers & Hidden Islands. Again, we could feel the strong tidal power of a large volume of water squeezing through a narrow, uneven passage, pushing our vessels in all directions. Fortunately, our drivers are experienced in these conditions, allowing us to relax & enjoy the stunning geology surrounding the channel. Our next objective was to get the Xplorers close to a beautiful example of Kimberley’s softest sedimentary rock–Elgee Siltstone. Many big caves along the Kimberley Coast are the result of this type of rock weathering away much faster than the surrounding rocks. Where it has been exposed to saltwater on the shoreline, it develops a unique 3D weathering pattern of circles & shapes. This deposit was on a small island in the Sound & as our drivers spun the Xplorers around, we were able to capture this natural artwork in the island’s vertical layering.
After a nice lunch back onboard CA, we set out east down Yampi Sound for a fresh water swim at a rocky fresh water inlet called Crocodile Creek. While it may sound a bit risky, the upstream section of the creek, where our waterfall & pool are situated, is not normal crocodile habitat & can be easily checked first as the water is quite clear. As a result, we only had a few paces to walk away from the Xplorer & we were swimming in a perfect natural pool with our own waterfall backdrop! But the main reason for this cruise was to see an iconic geological feature at a place called Nares Point. Here we had an opportunity for a nice beach walk, to see a Great Bowerbird’s bower & to explore a cave formed by the erosion of an Elgee Siltstone layer. In this cave live several species of microbats which can be seen flying around at the back of the cave. On the beach, we saw the tracks of Bandicoots, Water Rats & Northern Quolls. All this was in front of a geological backdrop of the most incredible folding & buckling of different coloured sedimentary rock layers to be seen anywhere along the Kimberley coast! Text book sync lines & anticlines dominated the scene as graphic examples of the turbulent geological past in this region. Just around the corner in the channel between the mainland & Koolan Island, we saw our first example of modern human impact on this otherwise pristine coastline –the Koolan Iron Ore Mine. Because of the vertical tilting of the original layering in these ranges, the iron ore body was also standing almost vertically from well below sea level to almost one hundred meters above. The bottom of the deposit required a lot of work to dam the ocean from invading the very deep pit. From the Xplorer, we could see the big trucks transporting the ore up the hill to be loaded on to a long conveyor belt which took it straight into the holds of the waiting ships. After seeing that big operation, we were happy to head back into the natural world to look for our distant ship.
After relocating the ship, our final activity for the day was to take a short trip over to Silica Beach on Hidden Island & enjoy yet another stunning Kimberley sunset in our favourite deck chairs. There was also the chance to swim in the ocean as this cove is quite safe & comes equipped with lifesavers on the lookout! Most guests were eager to take the opportunity!
Day 13: Lacepede Islands
27 April 2023
Overnight we departed the islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago & down towards the Dampier Peninsula & the technical end of the Kimberley proper. After a quiet trip across King Sound (mouth of the Fitzroy River) with very little wind, things got even quieter as we spent the morning cruising out away from the coastline to the Lacepede Islands, our last anchorage before Broome.
Once aboard the Xplorers, stories of guano and pearling operations were related as we motored to the heart of West Lacepede Island. The tales relating the fascinating history of this place including a diplomatic stoush with the US over its ownership back in the 1860s,Uncle Sam had made laws allowing its citizens to claim phosphate islands just about anywhere so that the valuable fertilizer could be exploited. Fortunately, the dispute over these islands was sorted out without the use of any gun-boat diplomacy.
Named by the French on an expedition to Australia between 1801 and 1804, under the command of Thomas Baudin of the “Geographe”. Bernard Germain Etienne Lacepede 1756-1825, Member of the Academy of Sciences and Medicine, Natural Historian, and one-time member of the Paris Council General. Presumably named by either Louis Freycinet (Cartographer) or Francis Peron (Naturalist) on 5th August 1801, on that expedition. The Lacepede Islands is a group of four low islets, composed of sand and coral, lying together on a coral reef; this reef dries, and at high water, its southern edge is marked by heavy breakers. Turtles are numerous in the season, and the islets form a breeding place for many species of seabirds. The islands’ previous uses: phosphate rock lease, lease for precis of history of guano works, and several guano leases (in 1948 a guano lease included the Middle, West, Sandy and East Islands, and Danger Rocks) up until 1948. In 1970 the Middle and West Islands were changed from “Public Utility” to “Conservation of Fishery and Fauna”, vested in 1971 with the W.A. Wildlife Authority East Island is vested with the Commonwealth of Australia where the Department of Shipping and Transport established a lighthouse.
Once the Xplorers were in the shelter of the West Island lagoon system, we could sit back &begin bird-watching. Curious Brown Boobies had followed us all the way from the ship! Arising tide was just about to turn & birds were everywhere–along the beach and overhead–especially the dominant Brown Boobies and Lesser Frigatebirds soaring high above. From the Xplorers we boarded to zodiacs in groups and were rewarded with a sighting of many different birds, young Green Turtles, mud crabs, various stingrays and Shovel-nosed Rays. From the zodiacs in small groups, we were able to get even closer views of not only nesting boobies and frigate birds but also mud crabs, sharks and rays along the water’s edge. Some of the other bird species included Sooty & Pied Oystercatchers, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Wimberels, Ruddy Turnstones, Stints & Red-capped Plovers, Crested & Lesser-crested Terns (with lots of fledglings), Caspian, Black-naped, Bridled & Roseate Terns, Greater &Lesser Sand Plovers, Buff-banded Rail, Pied Cormorants, Silver Gulls(the bad guys),Common & Black Noddies & our constant companions, the Eastern Reef Egrets. A couple of Pelicans stood peacefully at the back. We haven’t seen this many birds since Ashmore Reef! Even a small Saltwater Crocodile was spotted floating near the shoreline! This is about the southern limit in WA for the species & very occasionally one turns up at Cable Beach, to be quickly moved off for the sake of the tourist industry! It was a great morning & everyone seemed to enjoy our last excursion to what has proved over the last two weeks to be a very different & wonderful part of our national coastline.
Our cruise from the Lacepedes towards our final destination, Broome (named after Sir Fredrick Napier Broome 1842-1896 who was the then Governor of Western Australia), was highlighted by the generosity of Captain Matthew at farewell drinks. Now we had to begin packing & getting our minds back into ‘terrestrial mode’ again.
All I can say is “Bring on the next eclipse!”
Thank you for journeying with us, enjoy all that Broome has to offer & wishing you all the best for your future travels.
* These views & opinions have been compiled as a reference to those finer details of your voyage by: Ian Morris (spelling mistakes, grammatical errors–the lot!), with encouragement from the rest of the Expedition Team.
Email: Ian Morris [email protected]
Please note: We, the Expedition team, have enjoyed sharing our knowledge & welcome any future enquiries you may have about any aspect of our voyage or the Kimberley in general and look forward to meeting up with you again.