Cruising The Kimberley & Calling On East Timor On Orion Expedition Cruises

Avid Cruiser guest contributor Sue Parker takes to the sea in Australia on Orion Expedition Cruises

Orion in Darwin awaiting new passengers
Orion in Darwin awaiting new passengers.

This year I was lucky enough to join a Kimberley cruise with Orion Expedition Cruises. Before I went I had little idea of what this remote and extraordinarily beautiful part of Australia was like, nor even exactly where it was. All that has changed, and I find myself urging everyone to make the journey to this little-known but stunning part of our world.

With a stopover for a couple of days en route as part of the holiday, it’s an easy way of traveling. I joined the ship in Darwin and sailed to Broome, which I recommend, as the first two days are sea days — including a brief stop in Com, East Timor. This gives plenty of time to recover from any jetlag and the mad rush we all experience as we prepare to leave our busy lives on a break.

A welcoming smile at the night market on East Timor put on especially for Orion
A welcoming smile at the night market on East Timor put on especially for Orion.

It’s also a chance to learn about the region from the expert lecturers on board led by Cheli, as well as get the haircut you never had time for before leaving, or a massage to ease out flight limbs. A gentle morning stretch with Ewa was a wonderful start to the day.

Onboard Orion

Orion is a small but well-appointed ship. The cabins are spacious and the public spaces comfortable and welcoming, particularly after a day out in the sun. Temperatures were about 30C (86F) in August but, being dry rather than humid, it was enjoyable and the outer decks provided plenty of shade as well as sun for those of us who preferred to be outside.

The cabins are simple but tasteful
Orion’s cabins are simple but tasteful.

My fellow passengers, all 85 of them, were mostly Australians, but there were one or two Americans and also British on board. With 75 crew to look after us we were in for some serious but informal spoiling from the mostly Filipino crew.

This was a friendly bunch of people, many of whom had never cruised before and certainly not visited the Kimberley, even though it is on their  doorstep. We were a band of explorers out to visit somewhere new and remote, swap stories over cocktails and enjoy being miles from anywhere among 1,800 million year old landscapes.

Rocks that have been on quite a journey in their very long life
Rocks that have been on quite a journey in their long life.

Expedition Cruising

After two days on board we knew the ship, the crew and each other and were ready to set out on the Zodiacs. We soon became attuned to the daily routine of morning and afternoon trips accompanied by guides, all of whom had their own particular specialist knowledge whether it be birdman Adrian, geologist Harry or rock art specialist Mark.

Zodiacs returning to the mother ship
Zodiacs returning to the mother ship.

Stepping aboard the rubber boats was made easy by the deck crew. Lifejackets secure we were ready for the day’s adventure. We glided over aquamarine seas, up rivers and through mangroves, the greens and blues all contrasting with the red of the rocks. The latter came out of the sea at all angles, sharp verticals, horizontal thrusts and curved semi-circles demonstrating the geological activity that had occurred way back when.

With this color palette on hand you only have to imagine the added mix of extraordinary sunsets to guess at our evening scenes. A little later than usual one evening, we headed for mothership Orion as the sun set. Her hull was black against the reddening sky and all about us the rocks took on a deeper hue. Arriving back we were greeted as always with smiles, hand towels and freshly squeezed juice.

A palette of colours was our constant companion
A palette of colors was our constant companion.

What Orion Showed Us

So where did we go and what did we see? In 10 days we came alongside only once, in Wyndham established in 1886 and 2,000 miles northeast of Perth. What many people may not realize is that it was attacked several times during World War II by Japanese aircraft as were other places in the vicinity. This theme was carried through our trip. We visited the site of a crashed World War II Douglas DC-3, an American fixed-wing, propeller-driven aircraft, at Vansittart Bay and heard about the sinking of the SS Koolama, an Australian merchant vessel, attacked by Japanese aircraft in 1942.

The wreck of a DC-3 without a sign of rust

When it comes to geology, many had come to view the Bungle Bungle Ranges which involved a helicopter ride to these little heard of orange and black striped beehive domes formed from sandstone. An alternative that day was an Ord River cruise to Lake Argyle which was literally the greenest tour of the trip with an abundance of birdlife, and the odd freshwater crocodile on view.

The Bungle Bungle Ranges, a very popular tour
The Bungle Bungle Ranges, a popular tour.

Although it was the dry season we visited two waterfalls. The hardier among us hiked up to the top of the King George River twin-drop falls where we wallowed in rock pools and looked down on the Zodiacs humming below. A helicopter ride to Mitchell Falls was a less arduous experience, although it’s pretty exhilirating being in a four-man doorless chopper with only a seatbelt between you and the outside world.

King George River falls during the dry season
King George River falls during the dry season.

At Montgomery Reef we watched in wonder as low tide revealed a massive reef. We weren’t the only ones, turtles and ospreys enjoyed the spectacle but for different reasons.

The horizontal waterfalls at Talbot Bay caused by the extreme tides — 11.8m peak and 1.5m low — passing through gaps in the sandstone cliffs were another awesome sight. An optional speedboat ride to pass through them was taken by some while the rest of us looked on.

Donny and family, custodians of the Wandjina art seen here
Donny and family, custodians of the Wandjina art seen here.

Rock Art, One Of The Highlights

Of course for many the highlight was to view the rock art, both Gwion Gwion/Bradshaw and also Wandjina. For the latter we were hosted by custodian Donny Woolagoodja and his family where stories are passed down through the generations. Donny himself is a master of the craft and paintings were hung out like washing on the beach for us to purchase at remarkably reduced rates compared to city galleries.

Noone is quite sure just how old the Gwion Gwion art is as carbon dating is impossible but it could be 50,000 years or more. We were lucky enough to view some of it at Vansittart Bay with Mark as our teacher, a man who spent 15 years searching for undiscovered sites and succeeded.

Gwion Gwion art, just how old is it
Gwion Gwion art, just how old is it.

At the other end of the spectrum we passed by the Koolan Island iron ore open-face mine and saw signs of pearl farming but it was flora and fauna that took centre stage. Our companions along the way were seldom fellow humans — the odd sailboat — but more often white-breasted eagles, rock wallabies, saltwater crocodiles and flying fish to name but a few.

Dining On Orion

I should mention here that the ‘blue umbrella’ became a feature of our tours. We were never quite sure where it might turn up but we knew that beneath it there would be some welcome treat on offer, whether it be an ice-cream or a Buck’s fizz or some other delight.

A blue umbrella moment
A blue umbrella moment.

Which brings me on to the culinary side of Orion. The majority of our meals were enjoyed on deck with food ‘to die for’ at every turn. Breakfast and lunch buffets offered up delicious arrays of fruits and salads as well as made-to-measure omelettes, pastas, stir frys and more besides. The desserts were too good to walk past and the dinners downstairs in the restaurant, or for limited numbers on deck, were a complete delight.

Desserts to die for
Desserts to die for.

I am not that much of a foodie but I can say that I spent the 10-day cruise in food heaven thanks to chef Frederic Cyr and his team. The four-course evening menus are the brainchild of renowned Australian chef Serge Dansereau. Each dish appeared as a work of art but it didn’t stop there, the flavors were subtle and delicious and each evening revealed another mouthwatering menu.

A happy band of explorers at the Mitchell Falls
A happy band of explorers at the Mitchell Falls.

It was a sad day when we tied up in Broome and all had to go our separate ways. Friendships had been forged and a bond existed among us that comes from being somewhere unique and isolated. Back on dry land however meant that 24-hour communication was resumed and the familiar sound of phones ringing brought us back to reality with a jolt.

Returning to Orion as the sun went down
Returning to Orion as the sun went down.

Months later just thinking about Orion makes me smile. It is right up there in my top five holidays of a lifetime and I’ve traveled a lot. I’d love to do another cruise with Orion Expedition Cruises — whether to the Kimberley again or, perhaps, Papua New Guinea. If either of those opportunities ever came, I would be on the plane in a heartbeat.

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