The northwestern tip of Australia is remote, wild and beautiful, or at least that’s what Malcolm Douglas had me believing. He traversed the Kimberley with his dog Boondie, a cameraman and his trusty ol’ alloy Trailcraft boat. The legend of the Kimberley was imprinted on me – I had to do it. So my fair-haired partner, Millie, and I headed west to the land of red dust, towering cliffs and fat barra…
But we did have a considerable obstacle in our way, namely the biggest wet season in 50 years, and our timing placed us right at the tail end of it. The Kimberley gateway town of Kununurra has an average annual rainfall of 790mm. This year it pelted down a sock-sodden 1072mm. Cripes! Would we even be able to get through? Time would tell. On the upside, waterfalls would be flowing and the gorges swollen. On the downside, it’d be a damp slog all the way. So we hatched a cunning plan to avoid all those soggy socks and trousers. It involved a highly capable 4WD, a plane that floats, a chopper and a luxury live-aboard boat – just to be on the safe side.
And so the legend unfolded – the Kimberley by land, sea and air.
It’s 4am at Darwin Airport. Squatting inside a dimly lit hangar at a corner of the runway is a Grumman G-73 Mallard amphibious aircraft. It might be named after a duck, but this twin-prop aircraft with its massive 20m wingspan and classic 1940s lines is a flying boat. Most days it transports workers to the Paspaley pearl farms, but today it will be freighting us to the west coast of the Northern Territory to rendezvous with our mothership. Millie had barely pinged off a selfie before we were soaring across the coastal fringes west of Darwin, spotting crocs in the rapidly flowing river systems. I picture big barra lying just below the surface in the eddies swirling around the mangrove-lined banks.
Less than an hour later, the Grumman loses altitude, tips a wing and circles the MV Cannon like, well, a mallard coming in to nest for the night. This is the mothership, a 75ft custom-built live-aboard – our home for the next week.
The pilot lines up a clean strip of water before lowering the belly of the behemoth on to the tannin-stained river, the bow wave soaking the rear windows. The pilot shuts down the engines and cracks open the rear exit and a wave of warm, humid air hits us in the face as a sunburnt head pops inside and says, “G’day guys, welcome to paradise!”
EGOS & ESKIES
Ah, if Malcolm could see me now. Back in the day, he slept in a dusty old swag and cooked fish on open campfire. We’re being treated to five-star dinners, three times a day and an air-conditioned bedroom – plus Aiden, our personal guide in standard NT garb of tan Columbia shirt, boardies and polarised sunnies. All up, the boat accommodates eight paying guests, six staff and a BCF store worth of tackle.
Aiden has the unenviable task of teaching Millie how to use a bait caster. We jump into the tinny, fasten our sunnies, reverse hats and snake up the river at full barramundi speed, soaring past mangroves that are choking trees into submission. Around every bend is a double-page spread out of Australian Geographic: saltwater crocs lurking, sea eagles soaring and jabirus wading peacefully before being startled by the thrum of our 40HP Honda and the wake from the aluminium hull.
Bursting through the forest canopy onto the floodplain, dense greenery gives way to grassy flatlands punctuated with tributaries feeding the main body of water. The water is clear and we sight cast to small barramundi with soft plastics, snagging a couple, Aiden sensing my relief at notching a barra on my belt. We double back to the river mouth where metre-long models were caught earlier in the week. With two gold bombers out behind the tinny we work the edges of the sandbank near the entrance where medium-sized barra and bluenose salmon fight for attention among the squadrons of salty crocs.
One big saltwater croc joins the frenzy, dragging a 5kg threadfin salmon to the muddy bank and chomping down like it was a chicken nugget.
By the day’s end Mille and I had both hooked 70cm barra, and by the time we returned to the mothership our egos and eskies were full to the brim. We’re greeted by a vast platter of mud crabs – which proves to be just the entrée…
The following days are a blur of barramundi scales – each session better than the last. The sea is a glass-off, so we hit the offshore reefs in tinnies. Fat fingermark and juicy jew are destined for the dinner table, but the conversation turns to metre-long barra. Nobody has snagged one yet. Not until fishing guide “Metre Mike” rocks up.
Mike’s from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, but spends seven months a year guiding on the Cannon. The next morning, with Mike on point, starts like most other days, casting soft plastics and hard bodies into snags and feeder creeks. Cannon Charters is a sport-fishing operation, there’s no bait, no cast nets – just lures. But I break all the rules when I foul-hook a mullet the size of my index finger. Mike laughs, until I ask him to hook up a live baiting rig. He pauses for a minute, swivels around to see if anyone is watching then mutters, “What the hell?”
Spying a good-looking snag he’d never fished before, we approach silently to see a barra tailing around the cluster of algae-covered logs. I cast a soft plastic into the honey hole and it’s immediately snuffled by a nice fish, but after less than five seconds I’m railed in the sticks. Multiple fish of different sizes follow our lures out, but won’t commit to a strike. It’s time to deploy the secret mullet directly over the honey hole.
Within a few moments, the line is peeling off at right angles. A huge swirl on the surface exposes the thick shoulders and massive paddle tail of a metre barra. An epic battle ensues, a 10-minute tug-o’-war, the fish running the shock-leader over snag after snag. We finally get the 110cm beast into the net and onto the boat. This is my first metre barra, the first and only for the trip. Belt notched, and Part 1 of our Kimberley fishing mission accomplished.
Having conquered the Kimberley by sea, it was time to take to the skies again. We head down to Kununurra and meet up with the guys from HeliSpirit for a spot of heli-fishing, which involves spotting the best fishing grounds, lobbing right next to them and flicking in your lure. Millie is all fished-out after a week aboard Cannon, but the idea of exploring the gorges and waterfalls by air is enough to get her back into the sky.
Our pilot Nick fires up the gleaming Robinson 44 and moments later we’re soaring towards a secret river. Slotting into a narrow chasm between two red rock cliffs, he lowers the bird onto a convenient rock platform. It’s the prettiest gorge we’ve ever seen – even prettier than the Instagram photos we’d salivated over on the NT tourism sites.
Abandoning the joystick, Nick assembles a couple of three-piece rods rigged with choice lures. A couple of throws with the casting net later and we’re stocked with live-bait. Nick sure has the moves and Millie is looking way too impressed with his handiwork. Time for me to snag another barra, I reckon.
A TIME TO THRILL
We notch up a few mangrove jack while soaking up the serenity. After an hour or so, Nick calls it barra o’clock. We clamber aboard the chopper and fly over more rivers and pools with Nick peering out the window searching for metre barra. He spots a few, but finding somewhere to land is a challenge until he settles on a narrow flood plain west of the Cambridge Gulf. Every cast is a hook-up and there seems an endless supply of willing barra under the lily pads. Millie racks up the numbers, while Nick goes with quality, donging an 85cm donkey.
Before heading back, Nick has a treat in store. He’d tucked away a cool bag with a six-pack of icy Matso’s beer and we slurp happily. Nick detours over the Cockburn Ranges – yes, unfortunate name – swooping and buzzing through a maze of sheer cliffs that peer down into countless beautiful gorges. The cliff tops are stained black and Nick explains that in the wet season, the entire range is pretty much a huge waterfall.
This place really is the Wild West. Unless you’re partial to millipedes in your underpants, we reckon flying is the go. The bird’s-eye view showcases the rugged beauty of this remote landscape. We shudder, remembering that in a few days time we’ll be way down there, all alone in our 4WD. Time would tell if we had what it takes.
WALKING THE WALK
Having conquered the Kimberley by sea and by sky, it’s time to test our mettle like most tourists do in these parts – by 4WD. We have a bit of a problem, though. The Gibb River Road, that iconic stretch of dirt road that runs between Kununurra and Derby, is still closed after the big wet. There is worse news: a tropical low forming off the Tiwi Islands is threatening to bulk up into a cyclone as it passes over Darwin.
First item on the agenda is Kakadu National Park, a few potholes down the road from Darwin. Sadly for us, the big wet had closed the big-ticket destinations like Jim-Jim and Twin Falls Gorge so we slide into the hiking boots and check out some incredible Aboriginal rock art.
Then it’s south to Katherine and Litchfield National Park to ogle the massive Edith Falls. We also get dwarfed by the 4m-high Cathedral Termite Mounds, snorkel with sooty grunter at Katherine Gorge and soak our weary bones in the Bitter Springs thermal pools. The mask and fins also come in handy here – the water is crystal clear!
DEAD OR ALIVE
Cruising a backblocks town looking for a caramel soy milkshake for Millie, the phone crackles into life. “You in Kununurra?” comes the familiar bark of Macca, who lives on a barra farm off the coast of Derby and writes CTA’s Camp Cooking column. “You’ve gotta catch up with a South African buddy of mine called Bertie. He’s the best bushman I know, an ex-pro hunter who can kill and skin a croc with his bare hands!”
I have to meet this bloke, so I grab his number and tap it in the phone while Millie slurps away.
“Hi, erm, is this Bertie the croc-peeling bushman?” I squeak.
“Yes, who’s this”, comes the heavily accented reply.
“My name is Jack Murphy, I’m trav…”
Bertie interrupts, “Listen, I’m filleting 100kg of Spanish mackerel at the moment. Meet me at the tavern at 5pm.”
Before I could say “Yes Mr Kill-Everything-in-Sight”, he hangs up. It was yet another Wild West moment – wild enough for Millie to stop chugging her milkshake and stare at me wide-eyed, probably looking for reassurance we wouldn’t be skinned alive.
At the appointed hour, we tentatively enter the tavern, half expecting to be leaving as a decorative rug for Bert’s floor. To prove my virility I puff my chest out, strut to the bar and order the darkest beer on tap. Then I wait. A few minutes later, a bloke with a lean frame and Croc sandals sits down at the table, lemon lime and bitters in hand.
“You must be Jack. I’m Bertie,” he says with a huge friendly smile. Fears abate and we share tales and sweet drinks for an hour or so before he offers a run in his tinny. Hell yeah!
When I arrive at the boat ramp, Bertie is already on the water with a crew of three dogs raring to go. His platey console is well worn, hinting at epic battles with crocs, barra and wild boar. Cruising up the Upper Ord River, Bertie announces, “We’re going catfishing today. They’re massive in here – tasty and damn fun to catch.”
Not knowing if he’s joking or not, I smile and nod, only glancing at the bone-handled knife hanging from his belt for a few seconds.
Upriver, the Ord scenery becomes more dramatic. The river narrows, then twists and turns beneath huge orange cliffs, their reflection mirrored perfectly on the still water before being shattered by our wake. We arrive at Jump Rock and tie the boat to a tree before hurling a cast net at a couple of unsuspecting giant glassfish. “Excellent cattie bait,” Bertie remarks. The fish look like they’d be more at home in an aquarium than pinned to a rusty 6/0 hook, but Bertie has other things in mind. He places the rod in a makeshift rod holder fashioned from rocks and trees. Five minutes later, it’s wrenched by a solid cattie. After a sporting fight with long, fast runs, the ugliest fish I’ve ever seen bobs to the surface, gut protruding like an overinflated balloon. “Oh, what a beauty!” Bertie shouts before scooping the black-and-white blob from the water and hoisting it up for a photo. The bloke’s enthusiasm is infectious.
As we leave Bertie with a firm handshake, he suggests we visit the Purnululu National Park, home of the Bungle Bungle range and only a half-day’s drive from Kununurra. The mountains look like giant beehives on Nat Geo documentaries, but seeing them in the raw is way more impressive. The Bungle Bungle region has serious cultural significance to the Aboriginal people, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the rest of the world fully appreciated its beauty when a plane strayed off course and spotted the geological wonder from the air.
Getting to the Bungle Bungles is a fun challenge – a bunch of river crossings and a rocky 4WD section with a few thousand corrugations thrown in. We pick a campsite then kit up for some cool walks. Over two days we hike to the Domes, Cathedral Gorge, the Window, Whip Snake Gorge, Mini Palms Gorge and Echidna Chasm.
We depart the Bungle Bungles heading for the Gibb, which had only just opened. First stop is El Questro Wilderness Park, where we visit Emma Gorge, Zebedee Springs, Saddleback Ridge and one of the most spectacular, El Questro Gorge – where I hike for three hours with heavy underwater camera gear only to discover the battery is flat. Dang!
Continuing along the Gibb, we hit the Pentecost River – a crossing I’d been dreading for weeks. It is 60m wide with strong currents and can’t be walked to check the depth as there are too many salties lurking. We get there at low tide as planned, it doesn’t look too bad, so we plough through – a cinch for our kitted out rental Hilux.
Next stop is Mount Barnett Roadhouse in the ancient King Leopold Range. Our campsite is at Manning Gorge, which has a massive waterfall that caresses the shoulders of weary travellers while filling up their souls.
We also visit the nearby Galvans and Adcock gorges – both are spectacular.
Soaked to the bone in freshwater, we opt for a salty alternative, motoring on to Broome to reacquaint ourselves with electricity and fresh veggies, fill our bellies and charge the camera batteries. Next stop is the Dampier Peninsula, destination Cape Leveque.
The road is tedious, seriously dusty and heavily corrugated, but totally worth it once we arrive at Kooljaman, a remote wilderness camp owned by the indigenous Bardi Jawi communities. Vivid blue water laps white sandy beaches bordered by red rock cliffs. And it doesn’t just look good – you can swim here without fear of stingers or salties.
There is no Bertie, Metre Mike or Tricky Nick to put me onto the barra in these parts so I’m left to my own fishing devices. Grabbing a bag of pilchards, I trundle down to the beach and lob bait into the blue. The Hail Mary session is a winner. Little golden trevally, GTs, sharks and a nuggety cobia are stars in my mini fishing festival. We spend the next few days exploring underwater and ticking off some bucket-list fish, even snagging my first bluebone (Venus tuskfish). It’s one of the prettiest fish I’ve ever seen and the perfect exclamation mark for our Kimberley expedition.
The Kimberley is remote, hot, dusty and unforgiving, but that’s part of the attraction. Once you get past its raw and rugged exterior, you’ll discover an amazing ecosystem made up of rock formations, powerful waterfalls, crystal-clear gorges and fascinating Aboriginal history. Oh, did I mention the damn good fishing. Malcolm Douglas certainly did. As I polish off one last brew while watching the sun sink into the Indian Ocean for the last time this trip, I tip my glass to that great adventurer, our inspiration for this epic Kimberley mission.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Editor of Outdoor, content creator for The Captain, Jack has been a passionate fisherman, writer, photographer and blogger. He’s always been a bit of an outdoor entrepreneur and storyteller with hunger for adventure.